Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 22-23 ( Chapter 11 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Sic Semper Morituri

Chapter 22: Noblesse Oblige
      When Darkness Screams
      A London Particular in Tokyo
      Blood Bulwark
      Timor Mortis Conturbat me
      From Where the Blade Fell
      Spit Defiance in Their Eye
      Lliogor Attack
      To the German Commander: Nuts

Chapter 23: But Dr. Freud, That Isn't Even a Cigar
      Dancing At the Volcano
      To Travel Hopefully
      Dreams
      Conciliation with Dignity
      Honest Friendship With All, Entangling Alliances With None
      Rescuing Hikari
      Between Eternity and Darkness

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 22: Noblesse Oblige

Disclaimer:

I do not own any of the characters from Ranma 1 / 2, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ah My Goddess, or the Lovecraft Cycle involved in these stories.

C&C, MSTs are welcome

E-mail: dan_s.comments@comcast.net

Stories are available in Plain ASCII at:

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ftp://ftp .cs.ubc.ca/pub/archive/anime-fan-works/Ranma/Sic-Semper-Morituri/

ht tp://www.cs.ubc.ca/cgi-bin/ftp/archive/anime-fan-works/Ranma/type/Sic-Sempe r-Morituri

(these are the original versions)

What has gone before:

      About Book 11, Akane and Soun Tendo throw Ranma out of the house.  Nabiki, in the guise of a wish, follows him.  They meet EVA pilots Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, Asuka Soryu Langley and Jeffrey Davis.

      Asuka and Jeff begin deriving the equations to manipulate the AT field.  Asuka suddenly solves the equations, tries to explain them to the others, they don't understand.

      Search and Rescue training continues.  The fogs and mass absences from school also continue.

      SEELE summons the Crawling Chaos, sending it to `investigate` NERV, Nyarlathotep taunts Mara, who rushes off to warn Belldandy and her sisters.  Gendo leaves the defeat of the Outer God to the pilots, they make a mockery of it's mission and drive it off.

      Ranko completes her nightmare, rescued by Asuka, Rei, Jeff and espically Shinji, who massacres the mental impressions of the Nerimaniacs.

      Maya has a dream entangling Ritsuko, who reacts badly to this.

      Nabiki and Jeff encounter an unusual girl who looks like Rei, they rescue her from odd attackers and enable her to escape Japan.

      Asuka and Misato argue, Misato slaps her and that decided it for Asuka, she's moving out.  Shinji also leaves for the night.

      While searching for Asuka, Ritsuko and Jeff argue, Ranko keeps the fight verbal, Jeff walks off into the night.

No one who saw them fighting against the inevitable, could help but be moved to tears by their courage, their stubborn nobility.

When they ran out of ships, they used guns. When they ran out of guns, they used knives and sticks, and bare hands.

B5: In The Beginning  Peter Jurasik . . . Emperor Londo Mollari  written by J. Michael Straczynski

When Darkness Screams

May 28, 1947

      Dark things made their way through the realms of nightmares.  Huge, an uneasy hybrid of dragon, octopus, and humanoid.  Vast wings beat against the ether, thousands and thousands, no rank or row in their vast formation, thousands of individuals set on a single goal.  A unison of targeting, an object in the distance.

      Another, darker nightmare flew along on its own dragon wings.  The Scholarly Dragon knew the creatures, the Spawn of Cthulhu himself.  Ages ago, billions had descended on Earth with their lord and master, but billions of others had remained behind on other outposts, where their suzerain had landed, and left them behind.  The Dragon didn't know how close the communication between the groups was.  These things were headed away from Earth and the Human Dreamlands, and as chaotic as their formation was, they were clearly winging their way to war.

      They ignored him, Logical, nothing he'd ever seen could match the power massed here, the EVAs would be overwhelmed completely, even the Dragon's Council would be a child's toy against them.

      The only saving grace, was they were headed away from the places he would fight and die to protect.  They ignored him as he closed in, a few of the flankers changed their position, but nothing beyond that.  He could just make out, in the center of their formation a tight knot of a few larger Cthulhi, If the big guy is only 50% larger than those things . . . he thought, He'd be able to juggle the EVAs like they were clubs.

      He'd been following them for some time, when their target appeared, a red brown spot, growing larger with each passing moment.  He quickly realized, the clash was approaching.  The formation tightened up, spells of protection and detection came up.  The entire formation, loose and chaotic as it seemed, took on an air of purpose it hadn't had before.  The innermost cluster moved forward, face-centered on the target.  There was no telltale glow, no rising horns heralding a sea change, no clue at all that they had attacked, except a spirit of expectation that suffused their countenances.

      The Dragon hadn't sensed any spell or projectile, that alone was worrisome.  As their expectation gave way to curiosity, and no harm befell their target, now clearly a planet-sized quarry, told the Dragon all he needed to know.  He turned tail and raced away from the formation, he'd scarcely managed such a speed before.  Slowly, the army he'd pursued all this way, lost its assumption of INVINCIBILITY, and came to the same conclusion he had.  The Dragon glanced back at the rust-brown planet's response, great seas, revealed as continent sized parts of the landmass moved away.

      Eyes! the Dragon fearfully realized, I don't care who overhears this, Langley and the boy need to know this, need to see it, "And I need advice!"  As the Cthulhi prepared to receive the counterstroke force-on-force.


      Toji's dreams were troubled again.  They'd been surreal since the pilots had come.  This dream was all the more terrible, because he could understand it.  Monsters, thousands, millions of them, twisted, distorted things that should not be, were being slaughtered.

      He could hear their voices, cries of pain, commands, pleas to blasphemous gods.  All piled or heaped on each other, until it was almost impossible to determine what was what.

      One thing was clear, they were afraid.  The leaders hid it, but they issued too many orders, desperately trying to rescue a situation too far gone.  The `soldiers` screamed their defiance, agony and death as something unseen and incomprehensible smashed into their formations.

      He contorted in his bed, trying to banish the images from his mind and dreams, to no avail.  The screams and cries reduced, as mounting casualties slashed their numbers.

      A voice, deep, gravelly, but clear, cut through the cacophony.  Two immense, glowing yellow eyes bored into his, no pupil or iris, all else was blackness, Thank the kamis, Toji thought, then saw the battle, the carnage reflected in those eyes.  "They're maintaining their assault, to little effect.  Sixty-two percent casualties to this point.  I haven't spotted the attack mode, or any targeting priorities, but I admit, I'm too far out for a proper examination."

      "Are you in any danger?" it almost sounded like Asuka.

      "No, they're drawing most of the fire," the gravelly voice replied, "They are continuing the attack."

      There was a feeling of floating free in space, perspective swinging towards the besieged attackers.

      Now Toji could clearly see what had been attacking them, slaughtering them.  A tight swarm of eye-watering shapes, all oozing, undulating or pulsing towards their targets.  In his belly, a fire grew.  A bolt of uttermost hatred, corrosive in its intensity.  As he closed the distance, he vomited forth the black bile into the onrushing horde.


      Shinji was glad to see Rei-chan waiting for them as they left the `bolt-hole`.  The fog was still out, thick as ever.  Shinji wondered if they were ever going to see the sun again.

      "I heard you went to the orphanage," Raccoon said.

      Shinji and Rei-chan exchanged worried looks, Raccoon sounds a little too pleased about that.

      "Seeing all those bright young faces," Raccoon told them as they headed to the mess hall, "All those eager young visages."

      Shinji was sure Raccoon was a mind-reader, the entire gathering yesterday, he'd been going over it, again and again in his mind.

      "You want to know what the scariest thing in the world is?"

      NO!! Shinji thought.

      "Yes," Rei-chan said, ignored his disapproving look.

      "Those eager faces, the absolute certainty, that you can do something, you have some special wisdom or knowledge that they, as lesser mortals, don't have.  You look at them, and they look back at their salvation.  Nothing you say can really shake their belief, it's almost a religious faith.  If you talk about your failings, they think you're being modest, or assigning them to look out for that.  'I'm a coward!', 'Oh, he gets scared just like the rest of us.'  'I'm a drunk,' and they hide any liquor you could possibly encounter.  They want you to be perfect, they need you to be perfect, and they want to love you."

      Shinji writhed inwardly, he realized that the complimentary affection he'd always wanted, and had gotten, had a price he hadn't even considered.  He'd unknowingly sensed it, and it was one of the reasons he was so uncomfortable about it.  He glanced at Rei-chan, she nodded slightly, he knew that she had known, but hadn't brought it up.

      But where did he learn that, Shinji wondered, It doesn't sound like something you'd pick up out of books.

      "At the same time, you know what a fraud you are, you guessed right more than someone else, you knew something your opponents didn't, or you knew better how to avoid disaster or take advantage of an opportunity.  You aren't better, just luckier, a little better prepared."

      "The scariest thing," Raccoon said as they entered the mess hall.

      I don't want to hear anymore! Shinji thought, but he did, he had suspicions about how he was changing, about what he'd become.  He wanted to know what to expect, and how to prepare for it.

      "Is when you call for volunteers, for a suicide mission.  You know it, they know it, and they know you wouldn't ask, if it wasn't really important, and that you have faith in them.  Or you wouldn't be giving them this opportunity to do this.  As long as you keep winning, more often than not, or more often than others, they'll keep looking at you the same way."

      "Raccoon," Shinji shuddered at these revelations.

      "Yes?"

      "Congratulations," Shinji told the other boy, "You scared me more than the Inspector did."

      "Glad to do my part," Raccoon told them as they stepped into line with their trays.

      Shinji wondered if `transferring` Raccoon to Misato's apartment, permanently, would be possible, It would serve both of them right! he thought.


      Misato walked wearily out of her room.  At least they're being quiet for once, she headed into the bathroom to wash some of the yuck out of her mouth, and get halfway presentable.  She was glad she didn't have to shoo Asuka or Shinji out, that was becoming a nuisance, she had to be suitable for work.  She finished quickly, something began intruding on her thoughts.

      As she stepped out of the bathroom, she realized the place didn't smell or sound right.  She walked into the dining room and looked into the kitchen.  Nobody had prepared breakfast, and Shinji and Asuka weren't arguing.

      She headed to Shinji's room, "Shinji!"  The bed hadn't been slept in?

      Going to Asuka's room, she found it the same, empty, no evidence that the bed had been used last night.

      Or they got up early and left, but the would have taken their school stuff, she thought, "I'll have to drive it in," she sighed, she wished they could be a little more sensitive to her feelings and needs, especially considering her hangover.

      Last night is a blur, I wonder if I talked to Asuka about what Ramsey said, about her moving out, she thought as she assembled her breakfast and Pen Pen's.  He seemed very quiet this morning as well.

      Then it all came back, the argument, the slap, Asuka walking out, then Shinji doing the same.

      "DAMN!" she shouted, regretted it immediately, Why do kids have to be so immature? she wondered.


      "Foggy again," Ranma said as he looked out the window, "It's been this way for a week."

      "It's just an Angel attack," Nabiki said as she put the breakfast on the table.

      Ranma frowned at the two large cat statues, that stared at him, but at least with them there, at his place at the table, he wasn't stealing other people's food.  He'd learned to control himself better, and control was the one thing Ranma strove for in his life.

      "It is not," Ritsuko dug into the food, "It might be, but it isn't.  Sometimes the weather changes suddenly, and we get fog for a few days.  Would you prefer if it were pouring rain?"

      "No, not at all!"  Ranma knew that the fog wouldn't cause his transformation, so he was content.

      "Ranma fixed the lunches, so good trading again today," Nabiki dug into breakfast.  She smiled at Ranma's uncomfortable look.

      He was deeply embarrassed that his cooking brought as high a price as Raccoon's, cooking was a girl's skill.  Nab-chan told everyone it was Raccoon's, and no one noticed the difference.  He'd never figured out how he was so naturally good at it.

      "Good news no sync or harmonics tests today.  We're still correlating the data from the last set of examinations," Rit-chan told them.

      Ranma wondered why she seemed so out of sorts, Raccoon had only been gone one night.

      "Then there's no chance of slipping Raccoon and me some training time?" Nab-chan asked.

      "Sorry, I need all the people I have to run the data," Rit-chan paused, smiled like a wolf, "Unless you'd like Misato to supervise?"

      "I withdraw the request, Honored Sensei," Nab-chan bowed formally, "Considering what a snit she's been in, I don't want to see if the eject works."

      "We'd better get going," Nab-chan reminded them, "Special business this morning."

      "Why do I have to go in early?" he asked, and got two sighs as an answer.


      "I still don't know why I have to go in early," Ranma said from his perch on the fence.

      Nab-chan walked behind him on the fence, at least he'd gotten her that serious about their training.  He wondered if this was part of Raccoon's plan to let him be alone with Nab-chan, he couldn't figure out how the fight with Rit-chan figured in, As if you'd ever figure out the corkscrews he twists his plots into, Ranma admitted.  At least we've got one thing to talk about, he thought as they walked through the fog, "What's up with Rit-chan and Raccoon?"

      He had to turn suddenly, and catch Nab-chan before she fell off the fence, "It was just a simple question."

      "Saotome," Nab-chan said in an exasperated tone, "Would you want Raccoon to tie you down, or me to trap your male form and . . . well," Nab-chan fumbled with the idea, "Well, force ourselves on you."

      "And don't say they couldn't," Nab-chan added sharply, "All kinds of things can happen in dreams, you well know."

      "Yeah," he noticed she hadn't pushed him away, or broken his grip, as wobbly as she still was, she'd fall if she did.

      He'd had plenty of those dreams, usually once he was tied down or intimidated into submission, the violence stopped, of course sometimes they got silly instead.  Like Nab-chan tearing all his clothes off with her teeth, while he was hanging upside down, then tickling him with these huge feathers, until he bought one of those gizmos that made chopping vegetables easy.  Still, he'd a few of the kind that Nab-chan described too.  "But nothing happened, I think," Ranma said.

      "It doesn't matter," Nab-chan pulled away slightly, a bit unsteadily, but wanting to stand on her own, "I don't think Ritsuko likes surprises.  How people feel is often a BIG surprise."

      Don't I know that! Ranma considered about how he felt about Nab-chan and Raccoon, and how Ranko felt about them.  Then he realized Nab-chan may have told him something about herself, something she didn't mean to.  "Maybe you could help me teach them Martial Arts.  Get them used to it.  It's also good for balance," he tapped her shoulder, forcing her to lean back and forth, windmilling her arms desperately to stay atop the fence.

      He tapped her other shoulder, settling her solidly on the fence, "Spiritual balance," he told her, "You might fall, but you won't mind, and you'll be ready."

      He saw the change in her expression, and took off down the fence with Nab-chan in hot pursuit.


A London Particular in Tokyo

      Shinji walked along with Rei-chan and Raccoon.  He still hadn't figured out what, if anything, he should do.  He doubted Asuka would return to Misato's.  He didn't know whether he should or not.  He hadn't wanted to go there initially, but he was too afraid to oppose her, and his father.  Now . . . .

      Now I realize I have other people I can talk to, they won't laugh at me.  They will even listen and take action, actions I can't take, he considered, The problem is: where would I go? he wondered.

      "Do you smell that?" Raccoon's question brought him out of his own thoughts.

      "Yes," Rei told him, "Ozone and . . . " she wrinkled her nose, "Bad meat."  They headed off towards the smells.

      Shinji couldn't smell anything, until they got close to the restaurant cluster marked by the 'Mast'.

      He stopped at the base of the 'Mast', the trademark and hook for a number of restaurants in a cluster.  The smell was even stronger now.  Corruption and a sharp smell, like after a lightning strike.  Shinji didn't like it, he wondered why they had gone towards it.

      "I smell it now," Shinji told them.  The fog was still thick, visibility was bad.

      "Is somebody up there?" Raccoon stared into the fog over them.

      "I don't know," Shinji peered up through the fog.  "Is it our problem?"

      "Rock-paper-scissors," Rei-chan told them, "Since both want the other to go."

      "So the loser has to go," Raccoon made a fist, ready to play.

      Shinji had paper, Raccoon rock.  Shinji suspected that Raccoon cheated, but was glad to let the other boy go.

      Raccoon unstrapped his belt, then wrapped it around the pole, lineman-style, and started climbing the old cruiser mast, grumbling as he headed for the huddled figure at the yardarm.

      "You suppose this will get him dirty?" Shinji asked as they watched Raccoon climb.

      "I do not believe so," Rei stared up at the fog, "But I do wonder how he manages it."

      Considering how scrupulous Rei was at cleaning herself, he could believe she might have been jealous.

      'Oh CHRIST!' came from above, followed by Raccoon descending as fast as he could, far faster than was wise.  "Call NERV!  CALL NERV!  CALL NERV NOW!!" He landed badly.  "Call NERV!  Call NERV!  Call NERV!" he fumbled at his belt which was the only thing that kept him from running away.

      Rei pushed his hands away from the buckle and said something to him quietly, almost musically, then repeated it when it didn't register.  She repeated it again as the belt came loose, Raccoon gulped and nodded.

      "Just call NERV," he said clearly, "Do it now."

      "What's up there?" Shinji asked, and was glared at by both the others.


      Dr. Ritsuko Akagi had seen a lot of things in her life, what was left of the man, was one of the more unpleasant.  Shinji recoiled, as did several of the police officers.  Rei, Jeff and the coroners looked at it unemotionally.

      "What killed him?" Jeff asked.

      "Dehydration," she told them.  She watched the coroners carefully remove the rifle from the dead man's hands.  A quick check verified it was loaded, and ready to use.  His identification was from the owner of the restaurant, a war veteran.  The rifle was his issue weapon, and he knew how to use it.  NERV did a thorough investigation of anyone who came in regular contact with the pilots.

      "We'll need to do an autopsy, to determine the exact cause," she assured them.

      Rei stepped away from the policemen who were questioning her, "Sensei, that makes no sense.  That requires days, you could obtain water from condensation.  The fogs."

      "That's right," Ritsuko said, "How'd you know that?"

      Rei stared, "I know."  She returned to the police.

      Misato waited by her car for the police to finish with the pilots.  Finally settling on Shinji and Rei, since Jeff found the body, they needed to ask him more questions.


      "So, what do you think happened?" Misato asked her two passengers.  She was worried, but wanted to cover it.

      "He said, he was a good shot," Rei said, "He said he was ranked expert.  Expert is above marksman."

      "It means he was very good," Misato told them, searched through the fog as she drove.  She didn't dare drive at her normal speed with visibility down to less than a hundred meters.  Although anyone else would have considered the speed she was driving, reckless.

      "Someone must have chased him up there," Misato said, trying to draw the other two into a conversation.

      Misato couldn't get either of them to rise to any bait, they seemed as adamant in their silence as Shinji was at his worst.  Misato soon adopted their grim visage, staring into the fog.


      The police lieutenant saluted her, "Dr. Akagi, our investigation indicates he served the lunch crowd.  So the earliest he could have been chased up there, was the evening."

      "That's impossible," she assured the officer, "No one could have died that way, in a few hours.  The decay and condition of the body would have required several days.  In my opinion, he had to have been chased up there last week at the earliest."  Ritsuko looked around.  No one had an answer, not her, not the others.

      "Are you through with Pilot Davis?" she asked.

      The officer nodded, "We have his address if we have further questions."

      "So, doc, do we head back to NERV, to get the EVAs to find this thing?  Search for the killer who ages people a week, and doesn't fear rifles?"

      It struck her as funny, four EVAs chasing down a murderer.  Anyone remotely sane would surrender instantly, "No," she laughed, "You don't get out of school that easily.  I'll drive you."

      "Doctor," he spoke to her in French, the one language where her fluency was better than his, "I would walk.  I need my sang-froid.  Murder, disturbs."

      She chuckled, most people considered him unflappable, It is good to see there are limits to that.  "I'm still going to drive," she told him in French, "In case you need to talk."

      It took him a few moments to parse the sentence, "Thank you."

      As they headed off, she realized he was walking about as fast as she would want to drive in this soup.  They were side by side, her driving the left-drive jeep, him walking beside it.

      "Killing in war I can understand," he told her, "Assassinating a political enemy, I can understand.  Who'd want to murder a harmless old man like that?  And why in such a heinous way?"

      "I don't know," she admitted.

      "So," she asked, trying to change the subject, "Are you coming back?"

      "I'm not sure, it isn't your fault," he told her, "My mind too filled with Asuka and Shinji's fate."

      Ritsuko listened to the heavy accent and stilted French, she couldn't really say what she wanted to say, she had the vocabulary, she doubted he did.

      Besides, you're trying to talk about it to a 14-year-old boy, she considered, And his is a very different culture and attitude.  She admired his ability to ignore genders, it was extremely rare in her experience.  She and Misato had fought 'you're only women' all their lives, she suspected Gendo didn't take her as seriously as Fuyutsuki, as much because she was a woman, as she was not part of the original `inner circle`.  It was ironic that the problem was now his inability to differentiate between roles within a gender: mother/wife and son/husband.  She wondered how much he knew, how accurate the dream had been.  Since the dream, he'd been able to say and do things, a glance, morning coffee just right, a look, a smile, that melted her heart, without even intending to do them, almost a reflex.  That bothered both of them.

      He stopped.  "Do you smell that?" He sniffed at the air, "That was what we smelled at the first body."  He walked off, following his nose.

      She turned the jeep and followed him.  He stopped in front of an herb store she sometimes bought supplies from.  She parked the jeep, and they circled the building, it was locked up tight.

      He should be open at this time in the morning, she thought.  The smell was noticeable, decay and ozone.  Sweet and sickly, yet sharp at the same time.


      Ramsey awaited the autopsy results.  Simson had declared that he had no intention of 'supervising', he was becoming too much of a ghoul.  'Besides,' he told Ramsey as he left, 'I am going to have to argue a new security policy, and our `experts` aren't going to like it one bit.'

      "Considering Fuyutsuki's attitude, that we must let bad things happen to the pilots," Ramsey considered, "I wish you well Admiral."

      The medical examiner entered, looking flushed.  Ramsey sympathized, these five `corpses` bothered him.  The security team had cooperated with the pilots to kill them, but when the Marine reinforcements arrived, the `corpses` were lively enough that they had to park a 6x6 truck on the chest of each one to keep them from leaving.  Chopping them to pieces, with chainsaws, didn't keep them from continuing to attack.  Back home, Ramsey thought, I would chop them into one inch cubes, and sent them to the steel mills.  "I'd like to see them regenerate out of a couple hundred Buicks, Studebakers, Fords and Hudsons," Ramsey commented, "How do we kill them, how do we keep them dead, and what are they?"

      "In reverse order," the M.E. told him, "Nyarlathotep's Million Favored Ones, enhanced members of many different species.  These aren't human, despite their appearance.  They are some kind of plant, disguised as humans.  Burning them in molten steel and scattering the parts is one way, extreme cold would be another: leaving them in Antarctica should work, although it might take a couple of years.  Killing them," he shrugged, "Fire, cold, dismemberment all would work.  We could also chop them into slivers and sprinkle them over the food in the mess for a few days, being digested should also kill them once and for all."

      "You're suggesting we eat them?" Ramsey asked with a smile, the idea revolted him on one level, and seemed like poetic justice on another.

      "We, and a few thousand others."

      "I'll stick with the steel mill idea - "

      "They're actually quite tasty, with the appropriate sauce and wine," the M.E. teased.

      "I'll tell Captain Katsuragi that, no we want them actually eaten.  Steel mills."

      "I won't object."

      "There were five of them, Doctor, and six pilots," Ramsey said, "Did we miss one?"

      "No," the M.E. said, "I think they were sent to attack the pilots, as a group."

      Ramsey knew he shouldn't be glad having his assumption affirmed, rather than confirmed, "The two SEELE teams, we encountered them, and captured them.  So far, we haven't been able to crack them.  My worry is they might have had plans to attack the pilots.  Maybe, in coordination with these other things?"

      The M.E. shrugged, "I have no idea, I'm not an interrogator.  And these creatures, are laconic in the extreme."

      "If they don't want to talk, they don't, and there's no way to compel compliance?"

      "No truth serum or physical discomfort would work.  If there are other methods, I don't know them.  How do you interrogate a plant?"

      "Go back and threaten to eat it?" Ramsey joked.  He stood, "Thank you, Doctor.  I'll inform the Admiral."

      "Where is he?"

      "Feeling lonely?  He found someone who may solve some of our security problems, or rather, they found us."

      "Suspicious," the M.E. said, leaving.

      "Not that suspicious," Ramsey commented to himself.


      Shinji watched Misato race away into the fog.

      Shinji said, "Someone chased him 50 meters into the air, out of his own restaurant?  Someone not afraid of a rifle?  NERV's expert marksman, can hit anything they can see.  Besides, if he'd shot at something, or yelled for help, someone would have heard him.  That place does a brisk trade, someone would have heard something."  Shinji fell silent, stared at the fog and at Rei-chan.  She was also thinking.

      "Yes," Rei agreed, "There is more here," she considered, "I do not know what."

      Rei stopped, stared at Shinji, "The Second no longer wishes to live with Captain Katsuragi . . . and you."

      "I don't know about me," Shinji said, "But I think she's had it with Misato-san," Shinji sighed, "I don't blame her she's, Asuka's, been trying so hard."

      "Too hard," Rei agreed.

      "Maybe that's her problem.  Misato treats her like a little kid.  I know we're kids, but not little kids."

      "Does the Captain fear her?" Rei asked him as she took his hand, leading him through the opaque fog to the school building.

      "Why would she be afraid of Asuka?  She's Asuka's superior officer."

      Rei stared at the ground, deep in thought, "All wear masks.  There is the Fourth, there is Ranko, there is Ranko with Raccoon, there is the Fourth as he first was.  The Second will not give up, no matter the odds against her.  If she believes, she will never surrender.  Roku-kun is the same, striking unhesitatingly from the darkness."

      "Okay."

      "The Second and Roku-kun insist on the mask of Captain Katsuragi, tactical commander of NERV.  The Captain demands to randomly change her mask, and others must know and act appropriately.  It is an impossible standard."

      Shinji thought he understood, "So she wants what she wants, and gets angry when she doesn't get it?"

      "Yes, both of them," Rei agreed.

      Shinji smiled at that, "Asuka just yells, and does it, 'for our good,' Misato-san just does it."

      "Correct." They approached the school.

      "Oh, are you gossiping about me?" Shinji heard Asuka's voice.

      "We compared you to Captain Katsuragi," Rei told her.  Shinji thought Rei was setting off Asuka on purpose, as Asuka followed her, demanding an explanation, an apology, or whatever.  Nabiki and Ranma finally had to separate them.


      Ritsuko and Jeff waited uneasily outside the herb shop.  Jeff would occasionally glance at Ritsuko, both would quickly look away.  He could feel her eyes on him, and she would look away when he reacted.

      We're going to drive each other crazy acting like this, Jeff turned and walked towards where Ritsuko sat on the hood of the jeep.  She tensed at his approach, but he didn't let that deter him.  "There is one thing I have to tell you."

      She drew back fearfully, "What is it?"

      "I'm sorry for what I said," he told her, "In Gendo's office.  Sometimes, I let my anger cloud my judgment.  He's just playing with you, like the rest of us, he's a classic psychopath.  If I walked in there, with the answer to all his problems, he might not implement it for months, because he likes his tournament: 'Gendo against the world' too much, 'gaming the system' we called it.  People who'll cheat, when they'd get better results playing it straight, because it makes them feel smart, smarter than the rest of us."

      "That doesn't make up for the fact that you said it, you're better than that," Ritsuko countered angrily, then added sadly, "I expect better from you."

      "It seems both of us forget, I'm only 14 years old," he admitted, "Sometimes kids are stupid, in the heat of the moment."

      "Well, I accept your apology," she relaxed somewhat.

      "And Maya, wasn't trying to betray you either."

      Ritsuko tightened up again at that, "I do not want to talk about that!" she snapped.

      "Fine," Jeff stepped up next to her, "You can hit me to shut me up, that seems the common currency around here."  He waited for her to blush.

      "You and Nabiki are very similar, for your chief assistant, you both instinctively picked a pretty girl who's highly intelligent and thoughtful, a little too mousy to be considered really beautiful, and is on the outs with the power elite in school and in her own family.  So she's passed over by the boys and everybody else.  And when you show this girl kindness, devotion, and give her the chance to prove herself that she's always dreamed of, you're both amazed that she falls in love with you."

      He stepped closer, "You're as blind and frightened as she is, as Maya is," he told Ritsuko, "She's a kid, why are you so afraid?"

      Ritsuko shied back fearfully from his approach and comments, "She and I aren't alike.  Why are you talking about this?"

      "You are alike, Nabiki is interested in business and politics, you in science, but it's still all about power, and solving the puzzle.  Both trying to avoid intimacy with people.  Trying to reduce them to logical, controllable numbers and equations.  It doesn't work, and you both know that too."

      "And you both can't bring yourself to believe, that anyone loves you," he took her face in his hands.

      "Stop this!"

      "Then push me away, we both know you're stronger than I am.  Is that why Maya's reaction -?"

      "I said stop this!" Ritsuko tried to sound angry, but was growing terrified, she closed her eyes and bowed her head.  Jeff knew he had her, he just had to lead, rather than push.

      "Or what?  You'll go on hurting yourself this way?  I - love - you.  Maybe it was only a dream, but I remember it, all of it.  It may have started with Nabiki's personality in your teen-aged body, but she grew up a lot like you, in all the ways that matter.  You're both terrified that someone will get under your shell, and what . . . ?  Care about the person they find there?"

      "You don't know what you're talking about!  You're just a kid!" Ritsuko said defensively.

      "Then why are you trembling?" he asked warmly.

      "It was a dream, it was all fake, like you said," Ritsuko tried to regain control of herself.

      "Then why did you react to Maya's dream that way?  It wasn't being under the control of someone else," he leaned close, he still cradled her face in his hands, "It was not being able to control how you felt about it.  Like right now, you look like you'd prefer me to punch you in the stomach than kiss you."

      She turned away, Jeff gave her a very delicate, chaste kiss on her cheek, caressing her other with his finger.  She blushed furiously at both spots.  "I know this isn't 'proper', I know how uncomfortable this makes you feel.  I'm not completely comfortable with it either."

      "Then why do it?" Ritsuko looked near to tears, "Why torture . . . ?"

      "Me . . . or you?  Because I'll never press the issue like I am now, it confuses me, too.  I can deny what I feel, put it aside and never act on it, but it will always be there.  You and I built a home and a family, we argued and fought, we struggled and cried, and sometimes, we lost.  But we never regretted that we took the journey together.  You and Maya have a chance to be happy, both of you deserve it."

      "I would think you'd understand.  Besides, aren't Christians supposed to be opposed to that sort of thing?  Two girls, I mean," she said bitterly.

      "I think Maya and I know more than you think," Jeff replied in a fatherly tone, "How much do you weigh, Doctor?"

      "What's that got to do -?" she jerked her head out of his hands.

      "A hundred kilos?  150?  200?" Jeff asked, "I'm not saying it isn't delightfully arranged, and lusciously packaged.  The door to the bathroom is 1-1/2 inch thick solid core, live oak, the fittings and hardware are more appropriate to an outside security door, than an interior door.  The owner wanted a serious door, Doctor Akagi."

      Ritsuko blushed at that, "I wanted privacy."

      "From yourself?  There was at least a ton of force against that door, from all of Ranma's hair.  You didn't spring the door latch when you barreled into it, you split the door and tore it out of the door jamb.  I'd be hard pressed to duplicate that trick, with this jeep."

      "I got buried, if you remember," Ritsuko replied, trying to evade.

      "You were surprised, what I'm saying is that I know, and Maya might also, we - don't - care.  Tendo is stronger than any single human I've ever met, and her reflexes are as fast as any person I've ever seen, Saotome is stronger than five men and his reflexes are faster than any animal I've ever seen.  I'm not that fast, but I can run circles around him at his fastest pace, and Rei could lap both of us.  Are we monsters?"

      "In the dream last night, where we supported Saotome, Shinji, by himself, defeated 30 martial artists, any one of which could have given Ranma a run for his money.  Langley and I, working together, couldn't do that.  Where do we sign up for our 'I am a monster' I.D. Card?  There are monsters at NERV, Doctor, but you have to get to know them, to find them."

      Jeff simply held her as she cried.

      He considered how easy it was, And what separates you from Gendo?  As you push people around, to get them going in the direction you need them to go?


Blood Bulwark

      Simson watched the new security officer.  What bothered him, was that only Doctor Akagi could vouch for her.  There were no official records.  Logical, for the daughter of a Korean/Russian prostitute.  Medical tests had shown she was healthy, and she'd admitted she had never taken up her mother's vocation.

      He was watching the woman take down one, two, then three hand-to-hand experts with an almost inhuman adroitness.  That struck him as unusual, considering how ungainly she was under normal circumstances.  Only Saotome, and the late Captain Everett, could have matched the grace of her movements.  Tendo might have been more skillful, but she lacked the grace.  She gave the last man of the four a quick hip throw out of the ring, and the match was over.  The young woman beamed at the Admiral.  He looked her over, she appeared fairly unusual, long mahogany hair with a few very red streaks in it.  Arms and legs followed European physiognomy, a slightly stocky build.  From a distance it gave the impression of her being shorter than average.  When she smiled, which she did quite a lot, she could be called pleasant to look at, but only her husband, Unlikely considering her heritage and age of 26, Simson thought, or her deceased mother, would ever call her beautiful.

      "Sammi, please proceed to the target range, we need to check you out on sidearms, rifles and shotguns," the Admiral told her in German.

      "Does that mean I've passed so far?" she asked in the same language, as she walked towards him.  She walked with a sense of exaggerated care, as if she might move or step wrong, and break something.  Now with something familiar to compare to, a sense of scale, her most striking feature became obvious.

      She admitted to 190+ cm., he would have guessed 6'5" or 6'6", a 'willow woman' Miss Samantha (Sammi) Kraznyzamok wasn't.  An oak or a sequoia, would have been a better description.

      "Doctor Akagi says you also speak a little Russian."

      "Very little," she told the Admiral, he could see why she hadn't followed her mother's profession.  Up close, she was rather intimidating, despite, or perhaps because of, her overly friendly manner.

      "So far you seem to be everything Dr. Akagi promised."

      "I'm glad.  With my background," she smiled, shrugged, "I couldn't expect much work . . . or other prospects."

      "I'm sorry."

      "Don't be," she smiled brightly, "I'm glad I can help, might be able to help.  After you clear me."

      "Well, it may take a while, but I do have one job that needs doing, sort of a trial run, it comes with a good-sized apartment, and believe me, you'll earn your money."


      "Don't look," Jeff told Ritsuko, as they stood at the door to the herb shop, she looked away for a moment, the click of a lock came next.  They'd gotten tired of waiting, and decided to investigate.

      "I won't ask how you did that," she told him, wondering all the same.

      "Magic."  He opened the door, then held it for her.

      I expected that, she thought.  Inside was only the smell of herbs, and the odd smell overlaying everything else.  The stock was all there, no tables overturned, no signs of a struggle.  No signs of the shopkeeper or his wife either.  "Shima-san?"  No answer.

      "I don't like this."  Jeff sounded nervous, looking around, as if the shadows themselves were planning to attack, and were only waiting for an unguarded moment.

      "Well here's something," Ritsuko spotted Mr. Shima's hat on the floor, "I never saw him without this hat.  He was almost as fanatical about that as you are."

      "Crazy you mean."  Something on the ground seemed to have caught his attention.

      "No, he probably just has a bald spot."

      "Had, I should think."  Jeff had stood up suddenly, after brushing through a strange mound of dirt on the floor.  "Why is the floor dirt?  Concrete or wood are better, and they aren't that expensive," he said in an odd tone of voice.

      "He would have to go through the bureaucracy, the permit is probably still pending," Ritsuko lifted the hat, a moment later she started screaming, old Mr. Shima's eyeless face had been under his hat, his expression twisted in a rictus of pain and terror, but that was all there was.

      "What's going on here?!" Ritsuko heard herself shouting, as both of them retreated out of the shop.  "Where was the rest of him?  What is going on?"


      "You actually found a dead body, Shinji?" Kensuke asked him, in 'fully enthusiastic' mode, "How cool!"

      "How come the interesting stuff always happens to pilots?" Toji asked.

      Shinji wished they had found it, instead of him.  He glanced around, to see the other's reactions.  Asuka looked disgusted, exactly like Rei-chan, although most people wouldn't have picked that up.  Ranma looked worried, Probably wondering what would have happened if he found it.

      Nabiki looked distinctly sickened by their callousness, I don't blame her, Shinji thought, I'd never seen a dead body up close before.  Maybe seeing someone he cared about die, is what blotted out Ranma's memory.  If that was the case, does he want to remember? Shinji asked himself.

      Nabiki looked at Shinji, and made a winding motion next to her head.

      Yeah, Shinji thought, Crazy Kensuke.

      Nabiki's 'eyes and ears' had reported nothing about the strange goings on, no word on the murder, or anything else.  That seemed to worry her more than anything else.  The only suspicious thing, was the number of people reporting to the school nurse complaining of severe headaches, instead of not showing up at all as had been the cast the rest of the week.

      Hiroko and Nabiki agreed that it hardly constituted a nefarious plot.  But it did increase their level of worry.

      "Well, I'll clobber any murderer who comes near me!" Asuka announced.

      Who didn't expect that? Shinji wondered.

      "Shinji," she shouted at him.

      "Hai?"

      "Remember, it is our duty as pilots, to protect those weaker than us."

      "Hai."

      Who protects us from you, Asuka? he thought, but didn't say.  He felt like crawling into a hole, when Asuka was around and pontificating.

      "As much as I don't like Raccoon," Ranma whispered, "I prefer him to her."

      "Where is that lazy Raccoon anyway?  Too shook up to come to school?" Asuka asked, overhearing only part of Ranma's comment.

      "The police were still questioning him when Rei and I left," Shinji told her.

      "Then they probably think he did it," Asuka's joke got some laughter, Shinji saw Rei and Nabiki were equally irritated by it.  I've never figured out why people think Rei is hard to read, I just watch her eyes,  Shinji thought.

      Rei, Nabiki and Hiroko wandered over to a corner, trying to figure out what happened, and getting nowhere from their expressions, Shinji stood close, hoping for answers.

      "So who would know?" Nabiki asked Rei quietly.

      "After the Commanders," Rei replied, "Dr. Akagi and Roku-kun, are the real experts."


      Pacing and chain smoking didn't speed the minutes for Ritsuko.  "Where are the police?  They are only a few blocks away.  What could be taking them so long?"

      Jeff hopped off the hood of the jeep, "I don't know.  I'm going for a little walk around the building.  Maybe they're at the back waiting for us to let them in."  He started back, "And to steady my nerves," he said, almost too quietly for her to pick up.  He stopped near the rear corner of the building.

      "Doctor!"

      She ran to where he stood so rigidly.  Two bloody police caps lay on the ground.

      "And we didn't hear the murder of two policemen?" he asked in a flat voice.  "And no one on the rest of a busy street heard it either?"

      Ritsuko glanced back at the bustling street, it wasn't so noisy they couldn't have heard the screams of two dying men.

      With unspoken assent, they turned and ran from the sight.  Jeff jumped in the driver's seat and had the jeep running before Ritsuko made it to the car.

      "I should drive," she told him.

      He stabbed it into gear - and they didn't move.

      "Use the gears and clutch," she told him.  He gave her a dirty look and hunted around for another gear.  Finally, the car roared away with a lurch.  The jeep jerked a bit from the heavy-handed driving.

      "The repairs are coming out of your salary," she teased him.

      "Doctor, with all due respect, please - shut - up.  All I've got is a pistol, and whatever is doing this, isn't afraid of rifles."

      "What do you think it is?" she hadn't the faintest idea, It isn't like anything I've ever heard of, and I thought I knew most of those things, she thought.

      "I don't have the faintest idea," he admitted, "I figure there are about 60 possibilities, and all have a principle characteristic contraindicated."

      "All that means, is one of them is muddying the waters," she told him, "It could be worse, they could be working together."

      "That makes me feel so much better," he replied, as they drove through the thinning fog.


      Misato drove back to her apartment, she wasn't happy with the kids finding a body.  She didn't know what all the army trucks in the apartment building's parking lot were for.  Then she spotted the two trucks and ten men unloading Asuka's boxes out of her garage.

      "What are you doing?" Misato demanded.

      "Orders," the Marine sergeant overseeing the operation told her.

      "Who's?" Misato asked.

      "Admiral Simson's," the Marine told her.

      Misato rushed up the stairs to her apartment, expecting the worst.

      The smell of cleaning materials, and the furniture cleared away from the center of the living and dining room, leading towards the bedrooms, warned her something was terribly wrong.  She dashed to Shinji's room, afraid of what she'd find.  They had stripped it to the walls, people were washing the walls, even the ceiling, erasing any traces that Shinji had ever lived there.  Asuka's room had already gotten the same treatment.

      Why are they doing this?! Misato was shocked, "Where are you taking their things?" she wanted to sound forceful, instead it sounded like a plaintive cry.

      "They're being assigned new quarters."

      Somehow, that made it worse.

      Misato glanced at Pen Pen, they'd evidently left him behind.  Ramsey's comment about Asuka moving out came back, she vaguely remembered the details of the argument she'd had with Asuka about it last night, but they were still hazy, "Do you know where?"

      "Sorry, ma'am.  I haven't been briefed.  Excuse me, I have a job at Dr. Akagi's."

      Ritsuko too?!  Misato rushed to the phone, dialing the lab's number, "Pick up, pick up, pick up!"

      "NERV Labs," Maya's voice came over the line.

      "Maya, put Ritsuko on the line."

      "She isn't back from the crime scene yet."

      "Thanks," Misato hung up, then called Tokyo PD.  She asked for a radio link to the investigation team.

      "I'm sorry, Captain, they stopped somewhere, I radioed for some officers, we haven't heard anything since.  I'm about to take the investigation units to their last location now," the officer in charge told her, "I'm sure they're all right."

      Misato thanked him and hung up.  The last of the cleaners had left while she was on the phone.  The place reminded her of when she moved in, but that was an illusion.  The three of them had lived here, she'd thought they'd enjoyed it.  Now . . . ?

      "What am I going to do?" she asked.  She felt they were punishing her, But for what?  If they had complaints, why didn't they come to me first?  And whatever problems they had, what did Ritsuko do?  She considered if going to NERV or going to the school was more worthwhile.  She grabbed her jacket and car keys, and headed out the door.


      Pen Pen watched Misato leave, she'd steadfastly ignored all his attempts to get her attention.  He was furious that she'd allowed this to occur, if the Children were moved out of this protected space, they would be vastly more vulnerable to all manner of attacks.

      The penguin hung his head, there was little to nothing he could do, except wait.  He had patience in abundance, but they didn't have the time.


      The teacher droned on, Ranma was bored, I could be using my time a hundred better ways, some actually don't even involve martial arts.  He tensed each muscle group and relaxed it, doing something to appear to be paying attention, rather than goofing off.  Nab-chan was sitting back, going over the receipts and reports, Shinji was listening to Kensuke's and Toji's whispered comments.  Rei stared out the window, ignoring the sights, but absorbing the sounds.  Asuka was smirking at the foolishness of the others, including his, for seeming to pay attention to the teacher.  I agree with her, Ranma didn't want to get in trouble, But a glass of cold water and an hour with my roommates, and I'll be a month ahead of where the teacher is.

      A scream interrupted even the moron at the front.  Rei instantly stood when her eyes locked on what was happening.  The people in the P.E. class were running in all directions.  Ranma was at the window in an instant, so were all the pilots.

      "What, are they stupid?" Asuka asked, "What are they doing?"

      Ranma felt Nab-chan's gaze on him, they exchanged a nod and were out the door, cries of 'Saotome-san', 'Tendo-san' from the teacher and Hikari followed them, and were ignored.  There are times to follow rules, Ranma thought as they ran, And times to ignore them.

      On the playing field, people were running in panic, but one group was calm and determined, despite their screams.  Ranma and Nab-chan headed towards them.  There is where the problem will be, Ranma watched them as they approached, saw Kenta and Seisuke leading by example.

      Something had buried the P.E. coach up to his hips in the ground, a dozen students had a grip on him and were desperately trying to drag him back up.  All of them were shouting and screaming.  Most of these wimps should have some trouble alone, but a dozen of them could have carried him over their heads, Ranma added his strength to theirs.

      Nab-chan or Asuka might call it inexorable, Ranma thought as the force dragged the coach down, and the kids forward, I call it impossible.  Something dragged the man down under the ground, the dirt closed around him as if it was water.  I hate losing!  I hate not understanding how to fight something even more, Ranma thought.

      Nab-chan was yelling for the others to get into the school, she was shoving them in that direction.  Ranma ran after those who'd gone farther afield to point them in the right direction, and kept them moving in the correct direction to the entrance.  Asuka and Shinji were at the doorway, grabbing people and getting them inside.  Ranma could see the pallor on the other pilots' faces.  Again, we're fighting an enemy, and we don't know what to do either, he would never admit it, But I'm afraid.  If the ground is our enemy, what can be done? he asked the universe in general.

      Rei appeared as they got the last of the kids inside the school, "The phones are not working."  She walked past them and closed the school's doors.

      "So much for calling for help," Shinji lamented.

      "We could always run out there, and find a phone," Ranma told him.

      "Nobody's that brave, Saotome," Nab-chan replied, "Not even you, are that foolish."

      "What's going on?" Asuka shouted, "Wondergirl, you know everything, what's happening?"

      "Someone's coming."  Rei pointed to the jeep dropping someone off at the gate.


      Jeff slid out of the seat, Ritsuko slipped into the driver's seat.

      "I'll get the pilots, and head back to NERV," he told her, "That should give you time to solve the riddle, and give the EVAs a target."

      "Your faith in me is overwhelming," Ritsuko told him sourly as she drove away.

      He walked onto the grounds.  There was no one on the playing field.

      "They're swimming inside," he told himself, looking at the thinning fog, "Not enough visibility for soccer or track and field.  Calm down."

      The odd mound in the parking lot drew his attention, it looked just like a big version of what they found in the herb store.

      "I almost don't want to know what that is."


      In the school's atrium, Shinji and Hiroko were trying to get a picture of what happened, at Nabiki's request.  While she had Asuka and Ranma, 'the two loud-mouths', yelling at whoever was walking out there.

      "He just started screaming and sinking," a student told Nabiki, "Not like he was scared, but like he was hurt, like sinking hurt somehow."

      "Is this an Angel's work?" Kensuke asked her, everyone seemed to be milling around.  A murder on campus, broke through all discipline for the moment.

      Asuka turned back, "Baka!  If it were an Angel, NERV would have sounded the alarms, and we'd be fighting it."

      "Unless everybody at NERV is dead already," Kensuke mumbled.

      "Go back to your classroom," Asuka told him.  Then shouted at the shaken students, "That goes for the rest of you!  Get back to your classrooms!  Go back to `learning`, let the experts handle this."

      Nabiki and Shinji glared at her.

      "Typical German empathy," Nabiki told her in German, "Why don't you go out there, and tell whoever that is, they're in danger and to go get NERV."

      Asuka bit back her reply, and returned to shouting at the distant figure.

      The distant figure seemed to be steadfastly ignoring them.  Set down a school bag and squatted down near something in the distant parking lot.

      "Are you stupid?" Asuka shouted at him, "You're in danger!"

      Rei watched the man brush at the dirt while leaning on his walking stick, "It is Roku-kun."

      Toji and Shinji joined the screaming brigade.  'Raccoon get out of here.'  'There's a killer on the loose!'

      "Do you smell that?" Ranma asked, "Like after a thunderstorm," he wrinkled his nose, "And a slaughterhouse!"

      Shinji sniffed, "Corruption and - ozone, electricity!  Like at the MAST!  We've got to get him out of there."

      "Go out there?" Asuka pointed across no-man's land, "How crazy are you?  Because I'm not that crazy!"

      Ranma answered her by charging out the door at a dead run, Nabiki shook her head as she followed.

      "Come on Asuka," Shinji jogged after them, followed by Rei.

      "You're all crazy!" Asuka shouted after them.

      Kensuke adjusted his glasses, "It seems you, are something else."

      "Are you calling me a coward?" Asuka grabbed the smaller boy's collar.

      "Shinji's a coward," Toji said, "And he's out there."

      "Schiesse!" Asuka dropped Kensuke and ran out, "Raccoon you are SO stupid!"

      "That went rather well," Kensuke stood to watch.


Timor Mortis Conturbat me [Fear of Death Disturbs me]

      Normally I can think, no matter what.  I analyze when feeling, or simply doing nothing, might be a wiser endeavor, Jeff stared at the ground, lost in thought.  He'd just uncovered the grill of an army 6x6 truck, an inch down, perfectly parallel to the surface of the dirt.

      It is a practical joke, he thought trying to deny the reality, A dozen students with shovels working all night.  But the dirt was in every crevice and opening, as if the dirt had fluidized as the truck sank, so it flowed over everything.

      He managed to stand up, at that point his mind shut down.  The string of answers, explanations, even critiques on the subject, vanished.  I can't even decide whether I should run away or stand here, perfectly still, he thought, I mean, if they can bury a truck, could they bury a building, an EVA, all of NERV headquarters?  Is there any place safe?  He waited for the answers, analysis, wild guesses, that would normally follow any such questions - nothing.


      Dr. Akagi pulled the jeep into her assigned parking space.  Paused to collect her thoughts.

      "Doctor," one of the Marine guards approached, "If you're going off-road, maybe next time you'd better take another vehicle, like a tank."

      "What are you talking about?" she asked crossly.

      "Well, ma'am, if you tore up the suspension like that, I'm surprised you made it back here."

      Dr. Akagi got out of the jeep, then on her knees, and looked at the torn and twisted undercarriage.  She glanced at the Marine kneeling next to her.

      "My uncle tore up his old truck that way once," he told her, "Trying to pull out an old stump with a chain.  Chain came back, smashed up everything."

      Dr. Akagi stood, "Please have it taken to the motor pool for repairs."

      The Marine nodded.

      She headed inside to report, she was growing worried.


      Ranma stared down at what arrested Raccoon's attention, "How could somebody bury a whole truck?"

      I can see the fear in his voice, and the others who had come charging out, evidently to my rescue.  Now they are uncertain, Jeff thought, he was glad he could manage that again, it seemed all he could do, he couldn't make himself walk away, to the relative safety of the school, or run back through the gate, all the way to NERV.

      "Why, would they?" Asuka replied as she looked down, more confused and aggravated than frightened.

      Jeff was remembering the layout he couldn't see, because of the fog, The trees planted all along the perimeter, to give the impression of the school being in a forest.  It also cuts off almost all view from the outside.  He realized that anything could be happening in the school grounds, and nearly no one outside could look in and see.  Even if the fog finally lifts, he thought, We are still highly obscured from the outside.

      "We must go," Rei urged.

      Even she's frightened, Jeff thought, I would have bet money no enemy could cause that, she's as much of a berserker as Shinji.

      Jeff tried to move, It's like being in solid concrete.  "Something's wrong."  Is that an understatement? Jeff thought, I can move neither my arms nor legs.

      Nabiki took the direct approach, she grabbed his sleeve and pulled.  Ranma saw her confusion, put both hands on Jeff's shoulders and pushed.

      Jeff felt his bones groan under the strain of the force they're applying, but they couldn't budge him.

      "If he were faking, he'd fall over!" Ranma said.

      He's getting worried, and he's not alone.  "Get out of here!  Before they get you too," Jeff told them.

      "Shut up Raccoon," Asuka put her shoulder to his back and pushed for all she was worth.

      I can hear her and Saotome's feet slipping on the loose earth, Jeff realized he couldn't even turn his head now.

      Rei and Shinji dragged on one arm while Nabiki pulled on the other.

      It feels like their almost pulling my hands off, Jeff grimaced in pain, I can't sense what's holding me.

      Toji and Hikari ran out, and started helping Nabiki.

      "This is ridiculous!" Jeff wanted to scream, This much force could push a railcar.  Why am I not moving?  "There," he wanted to gesture, but nothing moved.

      Hiroko had thrown a rope out the door of the school.  None of the group of 50 or more students holding the knotted end wanted to step out, but they were willing to help.

      "Tie it off," Asuka shouted, "Move it Horseface!"  The harness she quickly created, was crude but effective, distributing the load as evenly as possible.

      "Pull!" Nabiki signaled to her friend, "Everybody push!"

      They put a hand or shoulder wherever they could and shoved as hard as they could.

      "Nabiki, you're incorrigible!" Jeff told her.

      "It's not me!" she replied defensively.

      As they neared the school, the grip faded, and Jeff was able to stagger the last few feet himself.  "This isn't meant as a complaint.  I appreciate your efforts on my behalf, I'd rather be hurt than dead," he gasped in pain, "But can I go to the nurse?  I want to make sure everything is still attached."

      "Come on.  The nurse is on the first floor, inside," Nabiki led him inside, "Where are the rest of you supposed to be?"

      "You're welcome," Hiroko told Nabiki, as she opened a path for the pilots.  The other pilots dispersed the crowd, leaving the three alone.

      God!  Do I hurt, he moved slowly with pain, "My arms and legs feel like they are dislocated, my chest crushed."

      "You're lucky to be alive," Nabiki countered, "What are those things?"

      "I don't know," Jeff gasped as Hiroko and Nabiki helped him out of his boots, and on with his `inside` shoes, Stupid ritual, he thought, But they need it to settle down too, "There's a lot of things that can do what we've seen.  If it were winds holding me, I'd say it was the Wendingo, why didn't it drag me under, like the truck?"

      "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," Hiroko warned.  Nabiki and Jeff agreed.

      "I just had a terrible thought," Jeff told Nabiki, "Do you suppose they're trying to make the school a safe zone, so they can blast us all at once?"

      "That is a terrible thought," she replied as she took a place under his arm, so he could lean on her and Hiroko.

      The nurse told them that nothing was broken or out of place, although she suggested he didn't do anything like this again.

      Even Nabiki feels the edge of hysteria on the woman, Jeff realized, We EVA pilots are used to weird things, but the students and others only experience them second hand.  "Thank you ma'am," Jeff tipped his hat to her, hid the pain that simple gesture caused him.  The yellow-green tinge of fear was coloring everything, the sound of fear.  He picked up the phone in the school office, and got no dial tone, no sound at all.

      "It's broken," Nabiki told him.

      "I gathered that," he replied.

      "So what are they, how do we defend ourselves, how do we kill them, when is NERV going to get come us?" the questions from Nabiki were rapid fire.

      Nabiki is slipping too, Jeff was worried, Hiroko saw it too.  No one had the real answers, yet.  "I don't know, altitude, I don't know yet, and I said I'd bring the pilots to NERV.  I don't know when they'll realize we aren't coming and send help.  I don't know if they even realize we need help."

      Nabiki let out a long sigh, he patted her shoulder.

      "They haven't gotten us yet, Boss," Hiroko said, trying to sound confident, Jeff could see how frightened she really was.

      "Yet," Nabiki muttered, as they walked back to class.


      In the pilots' homeroom, everyone was asking questions, and no one seemed to have any answers.  'What are they?'  'Where do they come from?'  'What do they want?'  'How do you fight them?'

      Shinji felt like his head would explode from the noise. 

      When Jeff and Nabiki walked in, Ranma immediately turned to them.  "Hey!  Raccoon, you're so smart!  How come you aren't doing something useful, like calling for help."

      "The phones are out, it's impossible to see outside, so semaphores and flags won't work."

      "Well," Ranma replied, "Just tell us what are those things and how do we fight them?"

      "Oh, heck, Ranma.  Everybody knows about them," Jeff replied testily, "We all just decided not to tell you.  Saotome-san, if I knew how to beat them, don't you think I would have tried it by now?"

      "Calm down," Nabiki urged Jeff, then turned to include Ranma in the admonition.

      "Well," Ranma told him, "If you can't help, why don't you do something useful, like fire off some flares or something."

      Jeff stepped forward to confront Ranma, Nabiki grabbed his arm.  Ranma braced for the attack as Jeff shook off Nabiki's grip, then Jeff turned and stormed out of the room.

      Asuka broke the tension between Ranma and Nabiki, "The minders, will see or hear something unusual, and they'll make a report, then NERV will send all the help they need.  All we have to do is wait for them to do their job."  Asuka frowned, "Of course that may take a couple of days."

      The other students in the class groaned, but everyone relaxed a bit.

      Now, they only have to wait for help, Shinji thought.


      Ritsuko strode into the Security office, she hadn't expected to find Kaji here, it was only his job.  "Do you have any unusual reports about the kids?  Anything unusual?"

      The security officer who was taking Kaji's place looked at her, "They've reported nothing.  Not even the usual scuffles the kids get into, Doctor," the man smiled, "Events this morning seemed to have settled them all down."

      "Inform me the moment you hear anything untoward.  Otherwise, I have other work to do."

      "Yes, Doctor, I understand."

      Ritsuko headed for her office.  She found Maya waiting for her.  Ritsuko's fists tightened, Maya glanced down at the floor.

      "Captain Katsuragi called, she needed to talk to you.  She was very agitated," Maya stood fidgeting.

      Ritsuko frowned, "Was there anything else?"

      "No, se - nsei," Maya turned, bowed and left the office.

      Ritsuko put the other woman out of her mind.  Then she called Misato's home, then her office, got no answer either place.  Ritsuko shook her head, she set to work, she'd have to wait for Misato to call again.


      Jeff chuckled, then put on his best 'threatening calm' demeanor.  Saotome, every so often . . . he stepped into the other classroom, swept the students with his gaze.  The conversations quieted, which was more than the teacher had been able to manage.

      "Matsuda Natsumi, Yuko Aiko, please come with me," he intoned.

      The two girls exchanged frightened glances and stood up, glanced at the class president who was pinned under Jeff's gaze.  They bowed to the teacher and began threading there way to the door.

      "We are having class," the teacher spoke up, finally, although it was a lie, no one had really been doing anything.

      Jeff switched the target of his gaze to the teacher, who quailed.  "Sensei, this is NERV and U.S. Government business, to interfere would be treasonous," Jeff told him quietly, "Your protests will be taken down now, and properly dealt with, at a more appropriate time," Jeff pulled a small note pad and pencil from his pocket.

      The frightened man shook his head 'no'.

      "Good, keep the class under control," Jeff returned the pad and pencil to his pocket, "Await further orders and advisories."

      The man nodded, "The students will behave," the teacher looked over the students, none wanted to meet his gaze.

      Well, I scared them enough, "We'll get control of the situation, just give us your patience, and be ready to act as directed."

      Conversations started up again as Jeff left with the two girls.

      "Raccoon-sensei, what are we supposed to do?" Natsumi asked.

      "Assemble the Chemistry and Jewelry clubs, in the Chem lab.  I never said only the pilots, would be the ones who got the situation under control."


      "They can bury an entire truck," Kensuke said, "Do you think they're worms, like Shinji fought?"

      "I hope not," Shinji admitted, "I don't think I'd do as well as the EVA, if I get eaten."

      "You let the EVA get eaten?" Toji demanded.

      "It got out!" Shinji retorted.

      Asuka sat with her cadre, minus Hikari, "We're in the most populous city in Asia.  One of the most in the world.  Somebody must have noticed something!"

      One of the girl's replies was cut off by Toji's outraged comment, "Then what is it?  It creates fog and eats people, don't they train you to recognize these things?  In the war, they made my dad memorize plane silhouettes to recognize them!"

      "Well, we don't," Shinji admitted.

      "Well, who would know?" Kensuke demanded.

      "Wondergirl would," Asuka replied, "But without Commander Ikari's orders, she can't tell us.  There she is, 'She Who Knows All,'" Asuka said.

      "I do not know what these are," Rei replied.

      "Can't you at least guess?" Asuka asked.

      Rei considered, "No.  It would not help."

      Asuka threw up her hands in frustration and walked away, "So all we can do is wait for them to remember were here, and rescue us."

      "Unless everybody's dead outside," Kensuke said morosely, then saw the pilots glaring at him.  He tried to imitate a turtle, pulling his head into his shirt collar.

      "Okay," Asuka continued, "We don't know what they are, what are they doing?"

      "That depends," Hiroko piped up, "Do we include the fog, the people getting sick, the murder, the burials, all in one package?"

      Asuka considered, "Let's take them individually, then combine them."

      "The fog's easy," Ranma said, "Blind us, and everybody else."

      "Isolation," Rei said.

      "Spineless," Asuka pointed at the board.

      Shinji started forward, the teacher wasn't going to protest.  Shinji wrote the four elements on the board with chalk, then added Ranma and Rei's discussion.

      "Good," Asuka considered, "The murder . . . horrible as it sounds, that may have been a test."

      That appalled everyone.

      "It was my favorite restaurant too," Ranma complained, "Big portions, good selection."

      Asuka rolled her eyes at that, missed Ranma's wink at the others.  Asuka turned back to the laughter, which was quickly stifled.  "Okay, the burials, I think, are the real attack.  The truck must have been additional security, the coach got us all in the school building.  Raccoon was a real attack to scare us more, or to eliminate someone who wandered in."

      "Can you repeat that?" Shinji asked, "I can't write that fast."

      "Argh!  ISOLATION, REAL ATTACK, TERRORIZE," Asuka told Shinji, "And write it in Romanji!"

      "Making people sick," Nabiki offered, "Might be a side-effect of their presence.  Just being around them makes you sick."

      Asuka considered.

      "No," Rei said, "They would not return in good health.  Vampirism.  Energy to survive, or the targets resisted."

      Asuka took a moment to consider, Rei had befuddled everyone except her and Shinji.

      Shinji wrote FUEL, FOOD, TRAINING for the sickness.

      "How did you get that?" Asuka asked.

      Shinji seemed amazed it wasn't obvious to everyone.

      "Okay, so they arrived . . . "

      "The first major loss was about a week ago," Hikari offered.

      Toji agreed.

      "So they predated the inspector," Asuka told Nabiki quietly in German, Nabiki nodded.

      "So, they've been building to this, the fogs were to lull us, so we didn't notice them."

      "Or put us in the mood," Shinji offered, then turned away.

      "That might be," Asuka considered.

      "Then they're really after you!" one of the students stood up.  Hikari tried to calm him.

      "They're after you, they're hurting and killing us to get at you!" he shouted.

      Two more students stood up, "So we're all going to die because they want you.  They attack us first - "

      "They attack us first," Toji stood and shouted at the others, "Because the pilots would tear them to pieces.  If they could kill the pilots first, they would have, just like the Angels.  Once the pilots are gone, they can do what they want to us.  Nobody else can pilot the EVAs."

      "You're just standing up for them, because your friend's a pilot!" the instigator shouted at Toji.

      "Oh yeah," Toji cracked his knuckles, "Come over here and say that."

      Asuka ignored the argument, and headed for Hikari, who had been hugging herself as if cold.  "You okay?" Asuka asked.

      "I hate this," Hikari wiped her hands on her sleeves, "These idiots fighting because they're scared."  She stood up and shouted, "Stop this, all of you!  The first student attacked was a pilot.  We saved him and the attacks have stopped."

      Toji and the other boy moved away from each other.

      Hikari sat down, "Asuka, I'm really scared," she said quietly.

      "They haven't tried anything against anyone in the buildings," Asuka said soothingly, "Maybe they can't."


      Raccoon walked in with a shit-eating grin on his face.

      "Where the Hell have you been?" Asuka shouted at him.

      "Oh, most beauteous and incendiary maiden, whose voice pierces all eardrums," He bowed, "I was following the too too parsley sage commandment of his most warlike density, Saotome Ranma-saamaa."

      Ranma nudged Nabiki, "That reminds me, I have to talk to you about a new hair style."

      Nabiki stared at him in confusion.  Asuka was about to reply, when three loud explosions were heard, a pause, then three more.

      The students rushed to the windows.

      "There's a red cloud up there!" Kensuke pointed out.

      "Three shots indicate trouble," Raccoon told them, "That ought to get some people looking."

      "Flares," Kensuke realized, "Just like Ranma told you."

      "Exactly.  I put the Chemistry Club to work," Raccoon told them, he walked over to the board, considered the four elements and their explanations.  He added 'REPRODUCTION' and 'MISCEGENATION' to the reasons.

      "They're trying to mate . . . " Hikari said in horror, "With us?"

      Raccoon shrugged, "Maybe."


From Where the Blade Fell

      Misato made it into her office at NERV HQ, found Ritsuko's note, that she needed to see her.  Misato stormed through the corridors.

      And the people fled from the Wrath of Misato, she thought bitterly, as people cleared the way for her, conversations stopped as she headed through the white-painted concrete passageways of the Technical section.

      Arriving at Ritsuko's office, she noted that Maya was still acting as if Ritsuko was going to hit her or yell at her.

      "You called."

      "Actually," Ritsuko looked up from the chart recorder strips she was examining, "You called, then you disappeared."

      "They are moving Asuka and Shinji out.  Army movers said they had a job at your apartment."

      Ritsuko blanched.

      "So what did you do?" Misato asked, "Molest one of them?"

      Ritsuko got angry at that, but kept her brittle reserve, "I think we need to discuss this with the Military."

      "Agreed, do you drive or do I?" Misato asked.

      "First we call," Ritsuko said, "Then we storm the gates of the castle.  Let's make sure this isn't just a mistake, before we make a huge case of this."

      "Admiral Simson's office," Maya timidly offered Ritsuko the phone.

      "Thank you," Ritsuko said flatly.  Maya retreated.

      "I take it you two haven't come up with a solution yet."

      Ritsuko ignored Misato's question, "Admiral.  What's going on?"  She listened with an increasing look of despair.  "Why couldn't you tell me . . . yes, I understand."  Ritsuko hung up the phone, "Shinji is being `transferred` to my home.  They are `transferring` Pilot Davis out.  It seems that the situation requires a `reassessment`."

      "What the Hell does that mean?!" Misato asked.

      "It seems they didn't appreciate, that the three of them didn't report rescuing you from your late night bouts of alcohol poisoning.  They are in trouble, not you, they are in serious trouble, for not reporting it," Ritsuko said quietly, "You are merely under observation, with 'reduced responsibilities'.  These reduced responsibilities, will allow you to better control your problem."

      "Who needs kids any way?" Misato stormed out.


      Ritsuko turned to Maya after Misato left.  "I do, and their 'misplaced loyalty'," she looked at Maya, "The pilots should have been here by now.  Go to Security, tell them I want an immediate status report on the Children, all of them, NOW!"

      "Yes, Doctor," Maya squeaked and headed away.

      Ritsuko kept thinking about what she'd discussed on the drive to the herb shop, she touched her cheek where Jeff had kissed her, she had no idea how he knew exactly how to excite her that way.  The words and the touch, He's only a boy.  They couldn't know how he made you feel, I'd never do anything.  He couldn't know!  She shuffled the papers she had been working on before Misato had come crashing in.

      She knew what she wanted to do, she knew what the culture required her to do, she also knew what her nature required her to do.  None of the alternatives was the least bit satisfying, and none answered the longing within her, the longing that had brought her here, in the first place.


      Ranma was worried, even the teacher, hadn't tried to start the lessons.  The arguments about what they wanted, and how they intended to get it, had concluded nothing, except they didn't know.  The sound of Hikari's fidgeting in the corner, shielded from view by Asuka and the others, was making him nervous.  He was sick of problems he couldn't see and couldn't fix.  He was sick of waiting for those things to attack or go away.

      We don't know if they have given up, "Hey, somebody should check if these things are still out there."

      Ranma thought it was hilarious, how Raccoon looked up from the book he was reading, with a stricken expression, as it dawned on him that everybody was staring at him expectantly.

      "Hey, I sent for help," he said, "I did my part."

      "You are the best qualified," Ranma told him.

      "How do you figure that?"

      "Well, they didn't eat you all at once, like the coach," Ranma told him, "Maybe you taste bad or something."

      Jeff grumbled something in a language Ranma didn't even recognize, Asuka did, she laughed and said something back, which only deepened Raccoon's scowl, as he got his hat and marched out of the room.

      "What did you tell him?" Hiroko asked Asuka.

      "Only the truth, that Horseface is finally growing up."

      Ranma could practically smell the insult coming.

      "As the Sixth Children, Raccoon is the most expendable," Asuka smiled at Ranma, "If he gets bloodily torn to shreds, it causes the minimum disturbance of NERV's effectiveness.  Even the funeral will be cheap, an envelope and a sponge, to mail him to Arlington."

      "That is true," Rei agreed.

      "Oh shut up," Ranma stood to follow him, I should have known I'd wind up following him.  He stopped off to get some cold water before completing the journey.


      The school building looked like a capital 'I' from above, stairways and supply closets formed the serifs.  Jeff got a pair of broomsticks from the janitors' supply, before he headed down the stairs.

      "When am I going to learn?" he asked no one in particular, because no one was around.  The bottom floor was offices, school store, cafeteria, etc.  Everyone who worked there, had found other business, on the higher floors.

      There wasn't a soul on the ground floor.  Jeff pulled off the slippers the school required for inside wear.

      "If I'm going to die, I'm gonna die with my boots on.  I shouldn't have gone back to the classroom," he wondered if Saotome actually knew about his talent, or if he was guessing.

      Jeff relaxed, extended his senses, spread his spirit, he could feel 11 of them, and something out by the perimeter wall, something that was either very large, or there were a lot of them packed together.

      He also felt Ranko coming up behind him.  "They already sent me, no need to endanger someone else, especially someone more valuable."

      "They were just joking," Ranko told him.

      "All good humor has a grain of truth," Jeff replied, "They're out there, waiting."

      "Waiting for what?" Ranko asked.

      "Hanged if I know."


      Asuka had watched Ranma follow Raccoon, she'd been half-tempted to go herself, What's taking them so long? she wondered, Somebody out there must have noticed something, those flares were loud enough, even if they couldn't see anything.

      Hiroko's twitching was beginning to worry her. She kept wiping her hands on her arms and looking around.  Asuka knew the waiting was getting to her too.  She almost wished the stupid teacher, would just start the lecture to make the time go faster, but the feeling of gloom had settled over everyone, so even the normal conversations were muted.  Wondergirl was staring out the window at the fog, the sun had all but burned it away, around the school.

      Are they sending her semaphore signals, or can Wondergirl receive radio frequency too?

      "Auugh! They're burning me!" Hikari yelled, scaring Asuka half-to-death, Hikari stood and started frantically slapping at her hair and clothes, "Get'em off, get'em off, GET'EM OFF!"  She dashed from the room, performing her odd tarantella, trying to extinguish flames and foes, that weren't there.  Asuka was in pursuit.

      Asuka listened to her friend's screams of 'They're burning me!  'They're eating me!' as she sprinted along, down the stairs.  "I wanted some change," Asuka cursed in German, "This is not what I meant."


      Ranko had watched Raccoon edge out the doorway, but he hadn't left the 'porch', the concrete slab that marked the entry to the school.  Ranko had put on her outside shoes, but hadn't gone outside, The Great Ranma Saotome is scared again, she cursed, Just because Raccoon knows better how to deal with those things, that doesn't mean I should leave him out there alone.

      She watched him wave the two strapped together broomsticks and sometimes tap them on the ground, he clearly wasn't getting the response he expected.  He turned around and headed back inside.

      "Thanks for staying inside here for support, that horse's ass Ranma probably would have dashed out there and gotten us both killed."

      Ranko grimaced at that.

      "Don't make a face, yes, they're still out there, at least 11, with something else at the perimeter.  They aren't interested in one target, and they don't seem eager to take on the entire school.  So we wait, as long as it's not a small . . . OH NUTS!"

      Hikari was charging straight at them.  Raccoon blocked the doorway, then wound up against the shoe covey.

      Asuka, shouting Hikari's name, followed, closely pursued by Rei, then Nabiki, Hiroko and Shinji.  Toji and Kensuke paused to look at Raccoon, who was pulling himself up on his cane.

      "There was a time, I could defeat three even five opponents, not anymore.  What am I?  A mechanic, and a clown," Jeff stared out at the events on the grounds.

      Outside, Hikari was rolling in the dirt screaming about burning and being eaten.

      "We've got to get them back in here!" Raccoon said, and charged out.

      "Why - oh, small group!" Ranko was running after Raccoon a moment later.

      Asuka and Nabiki were holding Hikari, as she struggled to get free.  Rei took advantage, and knocked her out, Asuka and Nabiki stared at the girl as she urged them inside.


      The creature that exploded out of the ground between the girls and the entrance, looked like a wingless dragon, except for the weirdly distorted limbs and head, and the cancerous, tentacular growths at the shoulders.  Ranko had never encountered such a hideous monster.  The creature that had rescued him and Rei, had a terrible beauty, this thing was just gruesomely wrong.

      "Scatter!" Asuka yelled.

      Rei slung Hikari over her shoulder and sprinted to the entrance, leaving a shocked Asuka and Nab-chan in the dust.  Hiroko went running for the main entrance, at the center of the building.

      Ranko saw Shinji disappearing among the few cars in the parking lot.  Ranko decided to take care of the creature, although her first priority was to divert it, while the others ran for safety.

      "Here!  Right here!" she waved her arms as she shouted, Raccoon get out of there! she thought as he walked up and began poking at it with his walking stick.  The creature was now distracted, Ranko took the opening, she didn't want to touch the creature, But I have to.  She rushed forward silently, and kicked it as hard as she could.

      That's like kicking a wall! she hopped away, dodging it's counterstroke.

      Raccoon kept poking it, suddenly it screamed and began thrashing around, fading as it did.

      Ranko was ecstatic, until two others appeared, running to the entrance after the others seemed like a good idea, I wonder if these things are afraid of coming inside.  She couldn't see Shinji among the cars, nor could she see where Raccoon had fled to.

      "How is she?" Ranko asked Nab-chan about Hikari.

      "She'll wake up with a nasty headache," Nab-chan stared her accusation at Rei, who was exempt, "Asuka took her to the nurse's office - "

      "OZONE!" Rei looked around, "Run!"

      None of the three needed more warning.  A moment later, the slab floor exploded, filling the entryway with whirring shards of concrete.

      As they ran down the corridor, Nab-chan spotted Hiroko coming in through the main entrance, "Second floor!  Second floor!"

      Hiroko turned around and ran for the nearest stairway at the center of the building.

      "Hold it!" Ranko shouted, "We have to get Asuka and Hikari!"

      Hiroko yelled back, "I'll get more stretcher bearers," then she disappeared up the stirs.

      "We must evacuate this entire floor," Rei told them.

      "Shit!" Nab-chan shouted as they turned around.

      Maybe the second floor too! Ranko thought.


      "What do you mean they missed their last radio check?" Misato glowered down at the security man, terrifying him in his own office, "All of the observation posts, and you don't think that's unusual?"

      "We've been having communication problems lately.  So we sent out another team to investigate.  They'll report back what they found.  I mean, Captain, if there was something to report, someone would have reported something."

      That didn't settle Misato's mind.  She turned and left, returning to her own office.  The first thing she did was dial the military, If I have been `lax` in my duty, then I'd better take up the slack, Misato thought as she waited for the connection.  "Yes, Captain Ramsey, I haven't been able to contact the Children's Security teams.  I request you dispatch troops to investigate and secure them if necessary."

      "Yes, Captain," Ramsey answered, "What does Security say?"

      "Wait and see," Misato said disgustedly.

      "That sounds about right.  We'll send a recon force, followed by a heavy armored infantry force."

      "Quickly," Misato told him.

      "Agreed," Ramsey hung up his phone, cutting the connection.

      Misato called Ritsuko's lab.

      "NERV labs."

      "Ritsuko, what have you found?" Misato asked.

      "Nothing that makes any sense," Ritsuko replied.

      "Very well, I want your team to check the detection systems.  It could be an Angel that slipped under our defenses."

      "'Very well', who are you and what have you done with Katsuragi Misato?  We'll get right on it.  The kids mentioned that this fog was an Angel attack, I thought they were joking.  I treated it, as a joke."

      Misato didn't want to hear about Ritsuko's mothering problems.  "Get the sensors checked.  That's all we can do," Misato hung up.  She couldn't believe what was happening was a coincidence.

      She called the command deck, "Lieutenant Baker, status of the sensors."

      "Captain, the initial checks show no failure in the systems, and no traces of Angel activity."

      "Thank you," Misato looked around her office, feeling trapped within the walls.  She was torn between her desire to rush out and go to the school herself, and her responsibility to remain here and monitor.  I'm second-guessing myself because they accused me of being lax in my duties.


      Jeff watched Shinji, trying to keep the cars between him, and the two creatures who'd appeared within moments of the death of the first.  He isn't going to be able to dodge them forever, he sighed, took a small black object from his pocket, and affixed it to the tip of his cane.  He had been hoping to use his best weapons later, but without Ranko distracting them, he'd never be able to drain another one, like he did the first.

      The only thing he could do, was kill one of these two, and hope Shinji could make a break for the building.

      He rushed the creature, with his cane couched under his arm like a lance, driving it into the creature's flank.  The reptile-thing turned and roared at him.

      "Shinji!  Run!" Jeff turned and ran for the perimeter wall, as Shinji bolted for the entrance to the school.  He needed to see what was at the perimeter anyway.


      Shinji glanced at the creature running after Raccoon, and the other one writhing on the ground screaming, "Well, he can get that one too," Shinji ran into the school building.  He saw the wrecked atrium, and the damaged stairs, he needed no further prompting to start climbing.

      On the second floor, his classmates and some of the pilots' coteries, were herding people, to the upper floors.  He fell in with the people trying to keep the stragglers moving.  Nabiki was shouting commands, trying to keep everyone coordinated.

      Shinji spotted Ranma, back as a boy, "Raccoon got another one, but he's alone out there."

      "You left him?" Ranma asked.

      "Well, so did you," Shinji recoiled at the other boy's anger.

      "CRAP!" Ranma began pushing his way through the crowd up the stairs.

      Probably headed to the roof, Shinji thought, then heard Hiroko hail him.

      "Just keep them moving," she told him, "We think the third and fourth floors will be safe."  She took him aside and lowered her voice, "So will the roof, but we don't want to lead anybody up there just yet, it will make people think there's a bigger problem than there is."

      "Right," Shinji continued herding, Like there might be monsters out there trying to kill us, he thought as he tried to round up stragglers, We need a cowboy, he rushed to keep a few more people from wandering away from the crowd.


      Ranma reached the edge of the roof, and looked down over the short wall that formed a parapet.  One dragon was smoldering through its death throes, the second was patrolling a short distance from a tree at the edge of the campus.  Ranma spotted Raccoon near the top of the tree, out of easy reach of the creature.

      "Raccoon!  Can't you get that one too?" Ranma smiled at the glare from Raccoon.

      "I got my two!" Raccoon shouted back, "If I get all of the other nine, you'll all say I'm being greedy!" Raccoon angrily yelled back.

      "Well, keep them occupied, we're trying to keep people safe."

      "I'm glad you don't think I'm a people then.  Besides, I thought I'd go for a stroll," Raccoon yelled back, "There's something you need to tell the others."  Raccoon tore a small branch loose, then tossed it over the perimeter wall, it hit something and bounced back.

      "It's there," Raccoon's gesture encompassed the entire campus, "An invisible wall."

      Ranma glanced around.  The fog was fading, they'd replaced the fog with a real wall.

      "We're trapped," Ranma shouted.

      "Why don't you yell louder?  I don't think all the students heard you!" Raccoon shouted back.

      Ranma turned away grumbling, Nine more of those things, and we're cut off, Ranma thought, We'll need the Army to get us out of here.  Ranma needed to tell Nab-chan what Raccoon had found out.


Spit Defiance in Their Eye

      Rei was making her sweep through the second floor.  The others had taken the homerooms, Rei wanted to be thorough, so she checked the storage lockers, the Home Ec. kitchens, now she entered the Chem lab.  Several dozen people were here, diligently cleaning up.  She recognized most of the Chemistry club.

      "You must evacuate," she told them, "Immediately."

      Matsuda Natsumi-san, one of the 'eyes and ears', who was also a member of the club, approached, "Is Raccoon-san ready to use the bombs?"

      "Bombs?" Rei was amazed.

      Natsumi nodded, "We have steel-shelled and cardboard-shelled," she held up a standard pipe-bomb and an oversized firecracker, "Raccoon-san gave us the instructions and the proportions.  They're much easier than the flares."

      Rei merely stared at them, she was uncertain what to do next.

      "We should collect them and go?" Natsumi asked.

      Rei nodded, "How are they to be used?"

      "Fuse them and throw, I guess."

      Rei nodded, "Head to the roof, that will give the widest field of fire."

      "Yes, Rei-san."  Natsumi and the others carefully carried their parcels up the flights of stairs with Rei leading them past the staring students.

      They arrived at the roof.  Rei advanced to the edge and stared over.  Raccoon was in a tree at the wall, with one of the beasts pacing near its base.

      "Do you need help?" Rei called.

      "No, I'm oaky."

      Rei stared at him.

      "It's an oak tree, and I'm stuck as part of it," Roku-kun explained.

      "Would one of Matsuda-san's - devices - be of use?" Rei asked.

      "No, there are eight more.  With luck, they'll manifest."

      "They are Lliogor, sentient energy matrices."

      "They're too powerful for that."

      "They drained the school children to enhance themselves," she watched Roku-kun tap his forehead on the tree trunk.

      "You're right!  I should have known.  When I arrived, Dr. Akagi was headed to NERV, I told her I was going to get the pilots and return.  When can we expect help, since we'll be overdue?"

      Rei considered, the fog would slow events, "Assuming Dr. Akagi arrived safely, the first help is late now."

      "Yeah, that's what I was afraid of.  They're late, soon we'll be late."

      Rei nodded.  The creature seemed to have noticed her for the first time, and seemed to be gauging the chance of a leap getting to her.

      "Matsuda-san, steel-cased, now."

      "How long a fuse?" Matsuda headed over with a length of pipe and some cord.

      "Shortest possible," Rei told her as she stared at the monster, willing it to try its leap, so it would come into range.

      "Kamis!" Matsuda whispered after she glanced at the monster, she handed over the fused bomb and a zippo lighter.

      "Yes," Rei said, "They believe they are."

      It leapt up three stories, its claws catching in the woodwork of the school.  Rei waited for it to roar, lit the fuse and hurled the bomb down its gullet.  The creature scrambled up the wall towards them.  Rei noted that Matsuda kept staring at the monster.  It stopped, hung on the wall for several moments, and fell back to the ground.

      Rei turned to Matsuda, "They function, remain here," Rei headed back down, Nabiki-kun and the Second may have use for these.  The sound of another explosion drew her attention back, she raced to the wall and looked over.  The lower 10 meters of the tree Roku-kun was hiding in was gone.  Rei could see no trace of him in the fallen crown.


      Ranma was at the window, as soon as he heard the explosion.  He saw the falling tree fall on Raccoon, "We've got to get him."

      Ranma threw open the window and jumped the three stories to the ground.

      He felt the heaviness encompass him, Just like what got him.

      He ran fast, dodging and bounding into the air, to make himself as difficult a target as possible.  Before he'd been shot at by Raccoon and Dr. Akagi, he'd never considered having to fight an enemy he both couldn't see and couldn't fight back against.  Now he did, the movements and evasions came easily.  Random changes never falling into a pattern.

      Ranma spotted Asuka running across the field in a serpentine path, she picked up Jeff's walking stick, then began running in a search pattern around the tree, as he was.

      Suddenly Ranma smelled, "OZONE!" instead of running away, he ran forward to locate Raccoon, near the epicenter of the smell.

      Ranma located the other boy, "I can't pull him loose!" he glanced around.  Rei picked her way through the fallen tree's branches.  Ranma crouched down near Raccoon's bleeding body, Rei crouched near.

      An instant later, an explosion shattered the tree.  Fragments bounced off an unseen barrier.  Ranma managed to shift the limbs off Raccoon.  Rei stood, tossed a cardboard tube.  A moment later, it exploded.  The smell of ozone faded.

      Asuka arrived to help them carry their bloodied friend back to the building.

      "You didn't tell us you could blow them up!" Asuka accused.

      "I only learned recently," Rei replied.


      The Security troops looked over the observation post that was supposed to overlook the school grounds.  The two guards were nowhere to be found, but considering the general destruction, they probably would never be found.

      "Call this in," the senior agent said.

      "Do you smell that?" the radio man paused, "It smells like ozone."


      Ranma, Rei and Asuka dropped off the wounded Raccoon at the new nurse's station, on the fourth floor, and returned to their third floor homeroom, it was a lot more crowded.  Kids from other classes filled the desks and the floor.

      "What do we do?" Ranma demanded, he wanted to do something, these invisible enemies irritated him.

      "No physical weapon can harm them, in their energy form," Rei commented.

      "Then why did the bomb drive them off?" Ranma asked.

      Rei and Asuka gave him matching blank looks, he remembered the cane.

      Of course, the cane, and a few other tricks, Ranma remembered the arsenal Jeff had stashed in the Harvard apartment he'd seen in the dream.  "Then how do we get them in range?"

      Now Asuka smiled, "We need someone brave, and bold."

      Ranma wanted to run away from that smile, "No!  Asuka!"

      "Damn," she snapped her fingers, "Spineless?" she smiled sweetly at him.

      "I'm not being bait," Shinji told her.

      "Well, Ice Princess, bribery is your forte."

      Nab-chan glared at her, "Why don't we just wait until the military shows up?"

      "We're surrounded by some kind of wall," Ranma said.

      "Could a tank drive through?" Kensuke asked from the window, "Because there's one out there."

      They rushed to the windows.  At the school gates, an M5 light tank was trying to drive through the unseen barrier.  Ranma heard the excited chatter in this room and the other nearby classrooms.  Then the tank pulled back a bit.

      "They're going to use their main gun!" Kensuke said enthusiastically, he was wrong.

      The crew disembarked from the tank, and tried to find the edges of the barrier.

      "No!  Run!"  "Don't get out of the tank!" these and other shouted warnings.  The crew either couldn't hear them, or didn't heed them.  Suddenly the crew started looking around.  The shouting and gestures from the students doubled and redoubled, trying to warn the men of their danger.

      The implosion killed all of them, and damaged the tank.

      The students slumped.  Even the army is helpless against these things, Ranma slid to the floor.

      "Eighteen seconds," Rei said, "Between detection and detonation, it is confirmed, eighteen seconds."

      "Those men got killed," Ranma stood and shouted at her, "And you were timing it?!"

      "Yes," Rei was unperturbed, "Their deaths served a purpose.  We could not save them, perhaps now we can save ourselves."

      "I don't believe you're so cold."

      "Would it be better if she broke down and cried?" Asuka shouted at him, "You just saw, we're going to have to save ourselves, all the knowledge we can get, helps us."

      "So it's all right they died, just so long - "

      Asuka's slap interrupted Ranma, "How DARE you!" Asuka hissed, "I didn't want them to die, anymore than you do.  But I don't want us to die a lot more.  So Wondergirl decided to gather intelligence, instead of WHINNYING about DISHONORABLE behavior.  Grow UP Saotome.  We're in a war.  People die.  That was four, we've got 100 times that many in here, and a million times that in the city.  Think about them, instead of yourself!"

      Ranma hated that anyone could be so callous, he let Nab-chan and Toji lead him away, while Shinji and Rei kept Asuka from following.

      "I know," Toji said quietly, "She think she knows everything."

      "She's scared," Nab-chan added, "Just like the rest of us.  Two hundred meters of open ground separating us from the rest of civilization.  NERV and the military might as well be on the moon."


      Nabiki looked around the classroom, she was out of ideas, unusual enough.  Both Ranma and Asuka were coming unglued, that was terrifying.  She had thought only cats disturbed Ranma, and Asuka stood up to the inspector without flinching.

      Face it, you need more information, she thought, Before you can even make intelligent suggestions.  Her only instinct, was to get to the EVAs, but first they had to get past the creatures out there, Easy enough, stampede everybody out across the field, she thought, Maybe loose a quarter to half of them.  Then how to get through the wall.  So it won't work, she thought.

      She wished Hiroko was here, but her factor was watching over Raccoon and Hikari o the fourth floor.  The school nurse was nearly in hysterics, with all that was happening, and Hiroko was studying medicine, a psychiatrist was a full medical doctor first.

      It was heading on to noon, and NERV seemed to be taking its own sweet time rescuing them.

      Either they don't know about the problem, or they aren't there to make the rescue.  Funny, all these huge monsters, and a bunch of little ones working to a plan got us.

      Nabiki looked at the listless students, no one seemed ready to leap up and confront the pilots over getting them into the mess they were in, it would have been better if they were arguing, then at least someone would be coming up with ideas.

      She overheard Shinji talking with Toji and Kensuke, about how much time had passed with no further explosions.

      "Nabiki-san," Shinji spoke up, "We need to locate the lunches.  Food might take everybody's mind off . . . things."

      Nabiki nodded, glad someone was taking some initiative, but disturbed because he seemed to need her permission to act, "Take who you need, take Ranma with you, to spy out the empty rooms.  Ranma, don't be a hero, we're only after food.  I don't think they can get to the upper floors, but we're all guessing about that."

      Ranma nodded, Shinji collected about seven other people, along with Toji and Kensuke, and followed Ranma out.

      Nabiki wondered how she had become the war leader, "Asuka, collect who you need, I want options and answers how do we fight those things."

      "I don't know that," Asuka admitted.

      "Find out who does, take them and figure something out."

      Asuka glanced around, signaled for Rei to follow her.

      Nabiki walked to the window, stared at the destroyed tank, If they're going to treat me as the leader, I'd better act the part . . . even if I haven't the faintest idea what I'm doing.  She gave the people in the class a sharp glance, but once she looked away, she heard an increase in the murmurs.  The pilots are going to act, she interpreted the voices, then turned to `survey her dominion`, let them know that someone was doing something.

      "Ma'am," one of the students asked her as she headed out.

      "If Misato-san made the lunches, that would give us a last-ditch weapon.  Wouldn't it?" Nabiki glanced at the boy, "That would be a violation of the Geneva Convention, besides, eating it might kill us all."  She swept out of the room, and was glad to hear a few chuckles behind her.


      Ranma slipped down the stairway.  He'd checked the classrooms and the halls of the second floor.  The stairwells to the first floor were all destroyed.  They wouldn't cause him any problems getting to the ground, but the wounded, or the less fit students, would have serious difficulties, Not good, Ranma wondered, Why destroy just the stairways?  Why not the whole building instead?

      It didn't make any sense to him.  He spotted Asuka coming towards him, "They exploded all the stairs."

      "Imploded," Asuka said automatically, "We could have heard an explosion this loud."  Asuka looked at the ruined stairs, "We need more medical supplies, from the nurse's office."  She smirked at him, "You think you could get the entire medicine cabinet up here, without getting killed?"

      Ranma considered, "Not without someone else helping.  Feel like getting killed?" Ranma considered dragging the entire floor-to-ceiling cabinet all the way to the stairwell.  He knew he didn't know enough about the medical supplies and equipment to grab just the critical stuff.

      "Raccoon's getting shocky," Asuka misinterpreted his pause, "The alternative, is a glass of cold water and let Ranko keep him warm and his blood pressure elevated."

      Ranma frowned at her, then weighed the alternatives, "If you get Rei, the three of us should be able to get the necessary equipment.  You two know what we need, I can get the stuff, and break into the locked cabinet."

      "Who are you, and what have you done with Ranma Saotome?" Asuka asked, "I really don't want him back, I just don't want him to escape."

      Ranma frowned at Asuka as she headed off to get Rei.  Ranma noted Shinji and company were carrying the lunches to the people upstairs.  Several other groups were added to these, stripping the floor of lunches and personal possessions.  Somebody decided nobody should have a reason to come down here, Ranma thought, waiting for Rei and Asuka to return.  The two girls returned with several empty satchels and a filled one.

      "Bombs.  Raccoon had them building bombs," Asuka handed him one of the large empty satchels.

      "If we have to use one, we get out of there, use the others only if we need to, to escape, agreed?" Asuka looked at him and Rei.  Both nodded.

      Ranma simply dropped to the 1st floor, while Rei and Asuka used the exposed timbers and the twisted handrails to climb down after him.  The trio spaced out, making their advance to the nurse's station.

      Ranma thought Asuka's method of having only the rearmost person advance, while the other two watched, was kind of silly, but against a human or human-like opponent, it might have some utility.  They reached the nurse's office without incident.  Ranma, as quietly as he could, sprung the lock holding the equipment locker closed.  Ranma took the blankets from the locker and carefully packed whatever Asuka or Rei handed him in the blankets, then packed the packages in the satchels.  The two girls seemed to be taking things at random.  Well, they seem to know what they're doing, he decided he didn't need to know what they were doing.

      None of the trio made a noise.  Ranma kept glancing around, sniffing for ozone or corruption, listening for the sounds of any reptiles.

      Nothing bothered them as they carefully reversed their advance to the central stairwell.  Ranma thought he could feel the creatures out there, he knew it was an illusion.  None of them were close, but he would accept the creepy feeling that made him more alert.

      As they approached the stairway, the `Three Stooges` let down a knotted fire hose as a makeshift ladder.  As soon as Asuka and Rei were on the ladder, Shinji, Toji and Kensuke hauled it up.  Ranma waited until they were most of the way up, he scrambled up the stairwell using the few hand and toe holds provided.

      "He's scary," Toji commented as he took one of the satchels.


      Hiroko looked at Hikari, as the other girl struggled at her bonds and whimpered.  She wished she could do more, there seemed to be nothing that she could say or do to ease the girl's terror.  She glanced at the nurse, who seemed to be almost as disturbed.

      Hiroko couldn't, in good conscience, sedate the girl.  Even though she knew the procedure and the recommended dosage.  But I can't do that, she thought morosely, Besides, I'd rather dose the nurse, what were they thinking?  Didn't they expect the pilots would be attacked?

      Hiroko looked around the room at the various wounded, she headed back to her main patient.


Lliogor Attack

      Misato had arrived a few moments before the armored company, that was the first of the forces sent to investigate.  Misato saw the damaged tank, and remembered what Ritsuko had mentioned about something holding the jeep.

      "Stay aboard the vehicles, and keep them moving!" Misato ordered.  Misato ignored her own advice and parked her car, then climbed aboard the company commander's T26 Pershing.

      "There aren't enough of us to rescue the entire student population," the Major told her, "Not until the rest of the battalion arrives."

      One of the Shermans ground to a halt, trying to pass through the gate.  It backed up and tried again, the treads churning uselessly, as it tried to penetrate.  One of the other tank commanders fired a few shots from his M2 .50 and discovered the barrier continued beyond any chance to climb over it.

      "Captain," the Major told her, "I think we're a bit screwed."

      Misato tended to agree, "Try your main gun."

      The commander disappeared into the turret.  Misato climbed to the rear deck and covered her ears.  The 90 mm. shell hit the invisible barrier and exploded.

      "That was AP.  If we can't get through, we aren't of any use," the Major said, "We'll have to pull back, and await events."

      Misato wanted to scream at him, but it wouldn't help, "Agreed."

      The tank column turned and moved away.  They would have to try something else.


      Hiroko had managed to pull all the wood splinters out of Raccoon, then cleaned the wounds and began bandaging.  His skin had been cold and clammy.  She knew enough medicine to know that shock, all too often, was fatal.  She'd had help from two others of Nabiki's team, then she's shooed them away, after they'd set up a barrier.  Then she had to complete the job by herself, but considering where she was pulling the splinters from, and where she was sewing up and bandaging, she thought Raccoon deserved a little privacy.

      Hiroko noted that the flesh warmed and reddened while she was working, "So you're awake."

      "Yes," Raccoon was still too rocky to sit up.

      She was glad he was conscious again, "Relax, I've got three brothers, it's nothing I haven't seen before.  This is strictly medical."

      "I'm just waiting for the inevitable questions," Raccoon said, trying to hide how mortified he was.

      "Okay, where did you get all those scars?"

      "In July of 1945, a horse turned over on me, it didn't die instantly.  After it fell into a ravine, it ground me into the rock first," he glanced around at the blankets strung from the ceiling, forming a barrier around them.

      "I thought you might want some privacy," Hiroko told him, "You're safe, the fourth floor seems out of their range.  The boss had a few people who got hysterical, we isolated those."

      "Good planning and leadership."

      "Thank you, I - " the Boss entered.

      Hiroko pulled his coat down to cover him, "Even odds she was staring at the scars.  Boss, the barrier applied to you too."

      The Boss gulped, "Sorry.  No one had a pair of pants that would fit you," she held out a plaid skirt.

      "Well, it isn't Davidson tartan, but beggars can't be choosers."

      "What about, the lack of . . . " the Boss was extremely embarrassed.

      "It's called regimental," Raccoon stood facing away and put on the skirt, adjusting it to hang just below his knees, "Not perfect, but it will serve."

      "You'd better watch your back, I doubt the Boss's interest was medical."

      "Hiroko!" the Boss complained.

      "I don't object to you collecting your harem, Boss.  But you aren't leaving any good ones for the rest of us," Hiroko smiled at the Boss's blush.

      "You'll have to teach her to share," Raccoon pulled on his boots, then the entire room, perhaps the entire building lurched.  Heaving up, then coming down with a crash.  "They've started blowing out the main supports," Raccoon told the Boss.

      "Get everyone up on the roof!" the Boss ordered.  She saw Asuka, Rei and Ranma returning.

      "Get all that to the roof!" the Boss ordered, "Shinji, Toji, get the people moving up to the roof.  It may be farther to fall, but up there, nothing can drop on them from above."

      The Boss turned to her, "Get a team, pack up everyone and everything from here, get them topside, now."

      Then she was gone.

      "I think they made her mad," Raccoon commented.

      "Are you okay?" she asked Raccoon.

      "Blood loss, shock, what is that compared to honor and duty?" he left.

      "Great," Hiroko lamented, "Now he's doing Saotome impersonations, a little too well at that."


      Shinji was herding people again, this time Raccoon was dealing with the stragglers.  Shinji could believe he was a cowboy, as he turned them around, pushing them in the right direction.  Shinji saw Matsuda-san on the roof, she and some of her friends moved to get the people organized, get them away from the stairwells where more people were pushing their way up from below.

      Shinji couldn't imagine how they'd pack so many people up on the flat roof, or if it would handle the weight.  He abandoned those thoughts as he headed back down the stairs, through the mob, to pick up another load.

      "You!" Shinji turned at Raccoon's voice.

      "Just push them up the stairs, rather than getting them in batches."

      Shinji nodded, he was glad somebody else was giving orders, telling him what to do.  He'd been in charge of getting all those lunches.  He hated every second of people, his friends, looking at him instead of using their common sense.  Even Toji, who knew he could knock Shinji down, still looked to him for orders.

      This morning, I thought Raccoon was just trying to scare me with that story, Shinji thought, Something to take my mind off what happened with Misato-san, and that I have to go back there, and apologize or confront her.  Now I know the truth, he was underplaying it.  Even Asuka was glad it was Nabiki giving orders.  Asuka might want to decide how to do a job, but she seemed glad someone else was handing out the jobs.

      The building lurched, again, but none of it buckled.  He shoved the people nearest him up the stairs, "Keep moving."  It broke the spell of terror that had gripped his fellow students, they were moving again of their own accord, looking at him with the same confidence: 'The Pilots will get us out of this.'

      Shinji didn't know whether to laugh or cry, he knew enough not to do either where they could see him.


      Admiral Ramsey strode onto the bridge of the South Dakota, someone called everyone to attention.  "As you were," Ramsey removed his hat, 'uncovered' he didn't have to be saluted, he wanted people's mind on their jobs right now, "Have you checked your calculations?"

      "Yes, Admiral.  Aft turret is all dialed in," the Lieutenant Commander told him, "One High Capacity, with an Armor Piercing and a balanced Practice round ready to fire."

      Ramsey nodded, another Asuka/Jeff idea, `slugs` for the battleship guns, practice rounds were as heavier than live rounds, but carried no explosive.  They wouldn't kill an Angel, but it wouldn't like getting hit.

      "Stand by to fire," Ramsey was glad the fog was lifting.  He wanted to see the effect of the gunfire.


      Ranma watched as the last of the students and teachers walked onto the roof.  Most slouched or sat in groups, as if no one had the strength to stand up.  Ranma watched Raccoon, in a skirt, consulting with Natsumi and a few others of the 'bomb squad'.

      "HA!  A skirt, and it looks good on you, you've got the knees for it," Ranma taunted.

      "It's a kilt, do you know why it's called that?" Raccoon asked, then leaned close, "Because that's what happened to those who called it a skirt."

      "It still looks like a skirt," Ranma rallied weakly.

      Raccoon pointed his walking stick at the sky and his free hand at Ranma, then uttered a string of incomprehensible gibberish.

      "What was that?" Ranma demanded.

      "It's Gaelic, I just laid a terrible curse on you, a bane I wouldn't wish on anyone except you."

      Ranma quickly checked that he had all the parts he was supposed to, and none he wasn't, "What curse is that?" Ranma was ashen, he could imagine a hundred curses Raccoon might use on him, and was terrified that Raccoon had managed something worse.

      "I made sure your children, would turn out just like you," Raccoon intoned, "Even the girls!"

      "Raccoon is just too evil and cruel!" Hiroko shrieked, before mock fainting in Nab-chan's arms.  There was general laughter.

      Ranma stalked to the parapet, and sat down, watched the others creeping around, staying low as they passed out lunches, making sure everyone was somewhat comfortable.  Even Nab-chan and Raccoon were staying low.  The whole group was hiding, after the military pulled back, no one felt like peering over the parapet at nothing, for fear of attracting attention.

      The explosion, 'Implosion!'  Asuka would insist, Ranma thought, as he tried to stabilize himself, as one end of the roof heaved upwards some 3 meters, then crashed down 2 meters below its original position.

      The lift and drop had hurt some students, there were also cries of alarm from others: 'We didn't do anything!'  'Somebody's got to do something!'  'Why are they doing this?'  And so on, Ranma knew that this kind of terror would spread, as it had earlier in the classroom.  But what to do?

      Raccoon marched over to the parapet with a furious expression, he tossed his hat aside and raised his walking stick, "By God!  THAT'S ENOUGH!"

      Ranma glanced up at him, he'd only seen him that mad once before, and had hoped never to see it again.

      His tone and manner gave Ranma shivers, scaring him worse than the creatures had, "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes, be it live or be it dead, I'll grind its bones to make my bread."

      Raccoon dropped to the floor, "Get down!" he shouted to the others, most of the students covered their heads.

      Ranma felt his heart sink, they'd lost Raccoon, of all the pilots, Ranma figured he'd be the last to go mad, on the idea that you can't fall off the floor.

      The tremendous explosion and the dirt that showered everyone had Ranma flinching and covering his head.  He watched as the `rain` subsided and Raccoon knelt to peer over the parapet, to view his handiwork.

      "Okay," he told Ranma, "I admit it and apologize, that was a little excessive."

      "EXCESSIVE!" normally it took boiling water for Ranma to hit that note.

      "Look!  Tanks dragging trailers, and trucks."

      Ranma and others scrambled to their feet, to watch the three armored columns moving in, one through each gate, the main, east and west.  The students started cheering wildly, hooraying the advance.


      Hiroko wasn't cheering, she was watching the others, who kept glancing at the tanks, then fearfully at Raccoon, standing there smug and self-satisfied.  It worried her that one of those watchers was the Boss.

      "Say, Boss, odd he cast his spell just as the South Dakota fired," Hiroko whispered to Nabiki, "Incredible coincidence, I'd say."  She smirked as the Boss threw Raccoon a sour look.

      "Why does he take credit on one hand, and deny everything on the other?" the Boss complained quietly.

      Hiroko had no answer, At least now the depression has left most of the students and faculty, she thought, "So," she said loudly enough to be easily overheard, "That's why you always make him wear pants?"

      "Put him in a kilt, and he starts running around killing all the 'Bloodthirsty Supralapsarians!'" the Boss commented.  Others took up the story.


      Misato stood atop the lead tank, she heard the kids cheering.  She waved to them.  She was confident that they could pack all the students into the trailers and trucks that were following.

      When the tank suddenly ditched down, throwing her into the dirt, after flipping her end-over-end, three other tanks dropped into the wide tank trap that surrounded the school.

      Some of the tank crews made it out of the tanks before they disappeared completely underground.  Misato caught a whiff of ozone, before one of the trucks exploded as the fuel tanks detonated, spraying flaming gasoline everywhere.  The unprotected infantry ran back, some were on fire.  The tanks that hadn't fallen, halted.  Misato wondered why the enemy did not detonate them as well.

      The tanks that hadn't committed to the approach, turned away.  Misato shook her head again, trying to clear it, after her impromptu gymnastics recital.


      "Come on!" Nabiki grabbed Hiroko's arm, "20 people only!" Nabiki saw Asuka and Raccoon collecting small teams of their own, While Ranma was accompanying Shinji, Toji and Kensuke.  They rushed down the stairs, through the damaged school.

      There was the fire hose `ladder` that Shinji and company had made.  Nabiki started climbing down, Hiroko and several of her factors followed.

      "Get them into the building and onto the roof!" Nabiki looked around worriedly, Why aren't they attacking?  We're completely vulnerable here!  "GET up!" she shouted, "Move, move!"  Nabiki was practically picking up and shoving the stunned troops, her factors would lead the men to the building.  Asuka's team was collecting the walking wounded.  Shinji and Ranma were collecting the immobilized.  Nabiki glanced up, Rei and the 'bomb squad' were standing by to support them.  There were more rescuers than victims, they collected the handful and retreated.  Nabiki looked despondently at the other military, some less than 30 meters away.

      Maybe Ranma could jump over that pit, but no one else could, she thought, We'd have to bunch up, use the half-sunken tanks as stepping stones, they'd get us for sure, she turned away, and trotted back to the school, looking for anyone they missed.  She knew they were going to have to think of something else.


      Misato had managed to recover a pack radio, then got stuck next to the wall of the school building.  I don't know where the nearest entrance is, she glanced around, trying to decide what to do next, I know I should have paid more attention to the blueprints.

      "Grab hold."  Jeff's cane dropped almost on top of her, at the end of a long cord she recognized as the unwound handgrip.  She grabbed hold, and let the students pull her up.  Daimatsu and Ayanami were waiting at the top, Ayanami took the radio while he grabbed her by the collar of her jacket and the waistband of her skirt, and hauled her over the parapet onto the roof.

      "Figures," she heard him tell Ayanami as he recovered his walking stick.  She didn't want to ask why he was wearing a plaid skirt and no one else seemed concerned by it either.

      She took the pack radio from Ayanami and tried to reach NERV HQ.

      "Captain," she heard Commander Ikari's voice, "What is the situation?"

      "We knocked down the wall, but they had a tank trap ready for us."

      "Bridging teams."

      "They'd blow up the building, the bridge or both before we could rescue the students."

      "What about the pilots?" Ikari asked.

      "I doubt we could get them out before they destroyed everyone."

      "Understood.  We're working on the problem, Ikari out."

      Misato handed the radio to one of the arriving soldiers.  She stared over the parapet at the wrecked armored assault.  She hadn't expected the simple tactic they'd used.  These things never used tactics, she thought, They blasted their way in, by superior firepower, not by cleverness.


      Rei watched Roku-kun, Shinji-kun and the Fourth join her and the Second.  Nabiki, Toji and Natsumi soon joined the group.

      "Captain K is all out of ideas," Roku-kun began.

      "Well those things can outwait us," Nabiki said, "Now we've got more wounded.  Some are going to need surgery and real doctors, if they are going to survive."

      "Well good and bad news," the Second added, "Why didn't they swarm all over us?"

      "The truck exploded," Rei told them.

      "That's right," Shinji-kun said, "There was no reaction when that big explosion went off."

      The Second nodded, "And they ran away when you tossed that bomb while we were getting Raccoon out of the tree."

      "So what's the problem?" the Fourth asked, "Let ole' crazy here light off a few more of those things."

      The Fourth seemed confused by the laughter.

      "Saotome," Roku-kun told him, "It's getting the timing just right that's the problem.  That's a Mark 6, I've never mastered a Mark 7."

      "So do a Mark 3 or something!" the Fourth insisted.

      "Saotome," Roku-kun explained patiently, drawing out the joke, "You can read about a Mark 2, in the first chapters of Genesis."

      "Oh," the Fourth deflated, missing the half-hidden smiles on the faces of the others.

      "Then why the bombs' construction?" Rei asked.

      "I thought we'd be facing humans, or more normal monsters," Roku-kun replied, "The explosives would have full effect on them."

      "They had a serious effect on the Lliogor," Rei corrected.

      "Energy creatures," Roku-kun remembered, "What, the heat had an effect."

      "That's why they ran when the truck exploded," the Second took up the idea.

      "Maybe sodium, magnesium, phosphorus," Roku-kun continued the thought, "Would give more bang for the buck."

      "We can do that," Natsumi said, "We can even make crude thermite."

      Everyone suddenly stared at Nabiki, who was instantly unhappy with being in the leadership role.  "Look, do what you have to, to make or upgrade your bombs.  How are we going to deploy them, and how many enhanced bombs can you make?  We can't exactly stand out in the field, and call 'Here Kitty, Kitty.'"

      "Twenty?" Roku-kun asked Natsumi.

      She considered, "If you aren't picky about mixing and matching.  We should have enough for twenty big bombs."

      The Second had walked over the parapet and looked down, "That may be exactly what we do."

      "Okay, you and Ranma stay here to help plan strategy," Nabiki said.

      "Tactics," Roku-kun corrected.

      "All right," Nabiki replied, "Tactics, the rest of you get what you need to make it work.  Don't spare the lab, I doubt they'll get anything out of it, when and if the building collapses."

      Shinji remained with Nabiki, Rei decided to remain also, as the others moved off to raid the chemistry lab, for the needed supplies.

      "We should ask if the bombs will penetrate tank armor," Rei told her.

      Nabiki nodded, "Shinji, go get one of the older sergeants, not a young officer."  Shinji nodded and headed off.

      "We're going to be the bait?" the Fourth complained.

      "I don't have a better idea.  Lure them in and blow them up," Nabiki shrugged.

      "I will go," Rei said.

      "You'd better, it was your idea," Nabiki told her.

      That confused Rei, she hadn't been considering what this idea became.

      Shinji-kun returned with an older American soldier.

      "Will this go through the armor of a tank?" Nabiki handed him one of the pipe bombs.

      "Guncotton," Rei said as the man opened it and looked at the explosive inside.

      "We need as big and hot an explosion as possible, to kill those things," Nabiki added.

      The sergeant stared at the `kids`, Rei could see the open disbelief change to resignation.  The soldier looked over the parapet at the trapped tanks.  "It shouldn't, but the turret side has two cans of gasoline, that will add to the blast.  But you have to get out of there fast, tanks don't like fire."

      "How do we get the bombs out there?" the Fourth asked.

      "Simple," the Second said, "We run out there, place the bomb, dive in the tank, then get the Hell out, once the bomb goes off."

      "So who's going to do it?" Nabiki asked, looking at the Fourth.

      "Hey, Horseface, how much cash have you got on you?" the Second smiled as Nabiki stuck out her tongue at her.

      The building heaved again.  Everyone stood still, awaiting the result, the result was nothing.

      "I think they have returned," Rei told them, they stared at her.

      "If this works?" Nabiki asked, "What about flame-throwing tanks?"

      The tanker considered, "I'll put my lieutenant on that," he walked away.

      "This may be a dumb question - " the Fourth began.

      "A dumb question from you," the Second sighed, "Perish the thought!  Speak, Horseface!"

      The Fourth frowned, "How do we set these things off, how do we know when these things are close enough?"

      "Let Raccoon do that," the Second was very serious now, "If you can set it off with a bullet, he and Wondergirl are our best shots."

      "How's he supposed to know when to hit it, when he can't see the real targets?" the Fourth pressed.

      "That won't be a problem," the Second told him quietly, "And no, don't ask.  You really don't want to know."  The Second's tone stifled conversation.


      Ritsuko was working in her lab, when Gendo entered, "From the descriptions, our enemy must be backed by a cult or a powerful sorcerer."

      "They aren't native to Japan," Ritsuko extracted an ancient book, and the reference manual she had been making with it.  "Iraq, Rhode Island, Wales, but not Japan."

      "International travel, Doctor," Gendo reminded her.

      "No ship would take them," Ritsuko said, "Why do I bother?  You seem to have all these memorized."  Ritsuko opened the relevant page, confirmed all the previous reports with a glance.

      "I have, had, access to other source material."

      "Your dream, with Pilot Davis," Ritsuko considered bringing up her recent . . . problems, "Anything else I should know?"

      "He's a very . . . passionate, young man," Gendo said as he left.

      That's the second time I've seen him smile, Ritsuko thought, It's creepy.  He almost looks human when he does that.  Ritsuko returned to the reference work, trying to find some better way to fight these things.


To the German Commander: Nuts

      Misato watched the other pilots return, from wherever they'd gone, she'd overheard what they were planning, Kids playing games.  "I forbid this."

      "Your opinion was not solicited," Daimatsu told her, "If you want to wait - "

      The building heaved again, one end of the building sagged three meters.

      "I'm sure you can discuss it with them eye-to-eye," Daimatsu continued, "We're almost on the ground as it is."

      "The flame tanks will be here soon."

      "Why weren't they with the first wave?" Asuka asked.

      Misato ignored her question, "You will wait for them to arrive."

      "Hiroko!" Nabiki said, "Escort the Captain to a place of safety.  She's obviously under their influence, just like Hikari."

      "I agree," the girl took her arm, "This way."

      Misato shook her off, "I'm in complete control of myself."

      Shinji stared at her, "She isn't acting as she normally does."

      Misato wished they'd kicked her in the guts instead, she glanced at Rei.

      "I defer to the others," Rei told her, "It is not your fault."

      Misato was stunned, allowing the other girl to lead her away.  She saw the pilots dismiss her from their minds and continue discussing their plans, "I can help."

      The girl smiled indulgently, glanced at several of the school boys, "I'm sure you can.  Now, just wait here quietly."

      "I am not crazy!" Misato shouted, the girl didn't back down.

      "Delusions of persecution, violent outbursts.  You are acting exactly like Miss Hokari Hikari did, just before she ran out into the middle of the field, and started rolling around.  You want to prove you're sane, act like it . . . or you'll be sedated," the girl waved six of the boys over, "Keep her here, keep her from hurting herself.  You take advantage of her, you'll answer to me, then the Boss, what's left will answer to Ayanami-san.  Got it?"

      The boys nodded and stood in a semicircle, as the girl walked away.  She smiled at them, she could charm a bunch of schoolboys, "I'm sure - "

      "None of that, ma'am," the leader interrupted her, "Just stay quiet, the pilots will see to it you'll be safe."  Misato couldn't believe her ears.


      "You enjoyed that," Nabiki accused Hiroko as she returned.

      "I didn't think she enjoyed being called crazy, but . . . " Hiroko shrugged, "After what she did to you two," she nodded to Shinji and Asuka, "I'd be willing to testify that she's crazy at this time."

      "No need," Raccoon commented, "NERV is a civilian agency, while one of the tankers could give us orders, the Captain," he spat the word, "Can no more order us when we're off-duty, than a fire chief can.  I've heard no alert sound, we're off-duty."

      "What about the casualties?" Nabiki asked Hiroko.

      "We need to get some of them to a hospital now!"

      Nabiki nodded, returned to the argument they'd been having, "It's too risky.  You think you can really hit a bullet set into the end of one of these bombs?"

      "Yes," Raccoon answered, "I'd feel better using a rifle, instead of my pistol, but either way.  Ayanami's as good with a rifle as I am."

      "No," Asuka said, "I may be willing to send Horseface out there, but not alone.  With you wounded, they're our fastest runners."

      "So I have to depend on his . . . " Ranma's objection ran out of steam, "His shooting, huh?"

      "I'm almost as good with a rifle, as I am with a pistol.  At that range, I'm better with a rifle."

      Nabiki was amused, seeing Ranma caught in such a dilemma, he didn't like guns, or any other weapons.  Nevertheless, he had a real fear, he'd insist it was respect, of Raccoon's gunnery.

      "Okay," Ranma relented.

      The tank sergeant spoke up, "The side of the turret is well armored, but just to be safe, set the bomb, go through the comm . . . the big top hatch, close it, and head for the front of the tank's main compartment, where the driver sits.  The driver's hatch on two of the tanks is clear."

      "Wait a few seconds after the explosion, then run for it, out the driver's hatch," Asuka added.

      "Uhm, you're sending out two, right?" Hiroko asked, "So you really need two shooters, right?"

      "That would be better," Nabiki said, "What are you suggesting?"

      "Well," Hiroko twisted her skirt in her hands in embarrassment, "Me . . . my dad taught me how to shoot a rifle a couple . . . "

      "When the U.S. Invasion seemed imminent," Raccoon finished, "There's nothing to be ashamed of."

      "That's when I got my real training," Asuka added, "Except for me, it was the Russians."

      "I'll get a couple of rifles, most of us haven't fired a rifle since Basic," the tanker glanced around, "No offense, but I'd feel better with a couple of Marine snipers."

      "Call them forward," Nabiki said, "We aren't proud."

      "There aren't any here," the tanker admitted, "I'll get those rifles."

      "Ever fired an American rifle?" Nabiki asked, "I'm told it's a Garand experience."

      The pilots groaned.

      "Anyone telling jokes like that," Raccoon commented, "Should be drawn and quoted."

      More groans.

      "Yes, Ranma-chan, we do need him," Nabiki said, "We can bury him alive when this is all over."


      Ranma glanced around the ruined atrium, then at Rei.  Both were nervous, he also knew neither would admit it.  "You wish you were somewhere else?" he asked.

      "Wishing, will not change anything."

      "I mean . . . I don't know what I mean," Ranma gave up trying to explain how he felt to Rei, she either understood perfectly the first time, or you'd never get her to understand.

      "We will succeed, or we will die," Rei told him, "In either case, our concerns will end."  Rei took off running out of the atrium, Ranma was a few steps behind her, and was quickly outdistanced.

      Ranma placed the five wired together bombs on the two racked gas cans, then dove through the hatch, slamming it shut after he was through.

      "Driver's seat," he squirmed into the chair with the hatch over it, made sure that was sealed too.

      The seconds dragged on.  He could smell only oil and something acrid, that wasn't ozone.  All he could hear was creaks and groans of the sun-warmed metal.

      "Hot in here," he sat, and waited.


      "Come on!" Nabiki whispered fiercely.

      "This will only work once, or twice," Asuka told her, as she dragged her away from their two snipers, "So they have to get several at once."

      Nabiki stared at the two figures with their rifles.  Neither seemed to move.  Nabiki hated and distrusted guns, part of her culture.  She'd expected Kensuke to be the expert, but he'd admitted he wasn't very good.  She never expected a Japanese girl to be a good shot.  She also had to admit, that part of it was the old Nerima conditioning: Ranma was in danger, and she could trust nobody to help him.

      "I guess the stories you two told about Ranma's and my future have me jumpy."

      "Believe me, Davis gave his word, and he'd never abandon an ally," Asuka sniffed disdainfully, "It just isn't done."

      Nabiki smiled at that, "So I'm worrying unnecessarily."

      "If you have to worry, worry about what we do next.  There were 11, we killed three, this might get as many as six, that still leaves two," Asuka reminded her, "What do we do about them?"

      Nabiki frowned at Asuka, got a shrug in reply.


      "Still ready," Hiroko told Raccoon.  She fervently wished this were the rifle her father and brother had taught her with.  She could hit a similar target, they'd already tested that.  So she was pretty sure she could hit the target, but she wanted to be certain.  By random chance, her target was Rei's tank, Raccoon's was Ranma's.  She wondered if the pilots would appreciate the humor of the coincidence.  Here she was, protecting Ayanami-san again, while Raccoon was protecting his `archenemy` Ranma.

      "Not yet," Raccoon was still hunched over his rifle, peering through the gunsight, at something she couldn't see.

      "Those wavy lines," Hiroko spotted a shimmering disturbance in the air near the tanks.

      "A few more seconds," Raccoon cautioned, "Get in there," he urged their enemy.

      She concentrated on that little bit of brass, on the bombs Rei had put under the gasoline cans.

      "Fire!"

      The two rifles went off at once, they ducked back as the area around the tanks was filled with a yellow-white cloud of flame.

      Hiroko glanced over the parapet, a moment later, Rei climbed out of the tank and ran for the entrance, followed shortly by Ranma.  She glanced at Raccoon, as everyone crowded close.

      "Four definite," he told Nabiki, Hiroko thought the Boss would tear the answer from him bodily, until he spoke.  "With two more possibles, they may just be playing possum.  You know, 'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain', I really am dead."

      "Can we get them?" Nabiki peered over the parapet, small fires dotted the tanks and the grounds.

      "Get who?" Ranma asked, as he and Rei arrived.

      "Can you put a lit bomb about 2.3 meters to the right and about 1.4 meters in front of the tank Rei was in?" Raccoon asked.

      "Sure," Ranma stared over the parapet, "But is it fair, well, to bomb them while they're helpless?"

      "Of course not," Raccoon handed him a pipe bomb, with a lit fuse.

      Ranma disposed of it, right on target.  Everyone ducked before it went off.

      Ranma glared at Raccoon, "You forced me!"

      "You didn't have to throw it, nor did you have to throw it on target," Raccoon offered.  Ranma continued to glower at him.

      "Ayanami-san, 3 meters directly behind the centerline of Ranma's tank."

      Rei took the bomb, lit the fuse herself, and lobbed it in a high arc, landing it right on target.

      "That's six!" Asuka yelled happily.

      "There's still two out there," Shinji put a damper on things.

      "Anyone else have any brilliant ideas?" Raccoon asked.

      "You, of course, have one!" Ranma said angrily.

      "That is my job," Raccoon replied smoothly.

      "How about we wait for the flame tanks to take care of things," Kensuke pointed at the two Shermans driving onto the school grounds.

      "I don't want to know how you can tell what those are by sight," Toji complained.

      "That was you - " the huge explosion that rocked the building, interrupted Ranma.  The building sank, twisting slightly, before stopping.  No one moved, no one spoke, while everyone waited, glancing at everyone else, trying not to move anything except their eyes.

      Despite their efforts, the building lurched again.

      "I think they got the supports this time!" Asuka shouted.

      "And the gas lines," Rei added.

      The building twisted and dropped another meter, followed by a deafening explosion.


      Asuka spat out a mouthful of dirt.  The last thing she remembered, was the roof opening in a fireball and flinging her off like a catapult.  She heard the groan, and turned to watch the school building continue to collapse in on itself.  At the heart, a tremendous fire burned, "I'm not going back in there to get my 'outside' shoes."

      She looked around, the only person she could see nearby was Raccoon.  He sat up, adjusted his skir - kilt, and looked at her, then at something else, something she couldn't see.

      "We appear to have attracted their attention.  Undividedly, it seems," he started scrambling backwards.

      Asuka looked around for anything to use as a weapon, she saw two of the pipe bombs and a firecracker, "I'm not going to ask why these didn't go off with the building," she scooped them up and ran towards Raccoon.

      "I've got some of your party favors!" she yelled at him, "Where do we celebrate?!"

      "Vault the tanks, run for the wall near those drums, and over.  Leave the presents, and let the flame tanks deal with them!"

      "Our tax dollars at work," Asuka jumped onto the hull of the tank, and clambered over the edge to flat ground.

      Raccoon closed on her a moment later, "Gimme, I'll set them as we go over.  You first."

      "You're hurt," Asuka argued as they took off running again.

      "You'll have to pull me over," Raccoon replied as he twisted the fuses together.

      Great, well that's it for this dress, Asuka thought, This will be a great letter to Anna though, I finally blew up that damned school.

      The drums didn't seem to be getting close as fast as the smell of ozone was.  With the evasive pattern we're running, Asuka analyzed, Maybe the things can't reach out and grab us.  They'd just have to calculate our base course to catch us, though, she hoped they wouldn't, as the pair zigzagged towards the wall.

      The tanks were obviously tracking them, although they held their fire.

      I'm glad of that, Asuka thought as they neared the wall, How precise is the aim of those flamethrowers?  She jumped without breaking stride, landed on the drums, glad they all had lids, then swung herself up on the wall, extended her hand, "COME ON!"

      Raccoon had paused to set the bombs, "Okay."

      The instant he set his foot on the drums, they shivered and started to sink.

      "Take my hand!" she tried to grab her friend's flailing arm, before the bombs went off, she only caught the edge of his sleeve, as he and the drums were pulled underground in a cloud of dust.

      "KILL'EM ALL!" she yelled at the flame tanks, as she flipped herself off the wall into the crowded street.  The bombs went off on the far side of the wall.

      She ran for the main gate, as she heard the two flame guns firing, she hoped they were covering the entire area with fire.  She only paused long enough to grab a shovel off the side of one of the tanks.  She ran through the gate and up on the top of one of the flame tanks, pounded on the hatch with the shovel.

      "Cease fire, you got'em, get some people out here to dig!" she jumped down as the tanks ceased firing, she ran for the odd mound, and started digging frantically, ignoring the small fires that still burned, covering them with dirt.

      She kept digging, "Come on!  Come on!  Jeff hang on!" ignoring the others as they arrived to help with shovels, helmets or bare hands.

      Her shovel hit metal, she tossed it aside and joined the others digging with their hands.  They uncovered a drum with a lid shoved down into by the force of the explosion.

      Wondergirl physically pushed her aside, and wrenched loose the lid Asuka had been straining at.

      "Good of you to dig me out," Wondergirl and Horseface dragged Raccoon out of the drum, "I was a little concerned."

      "Only you," Horseface carried him to a stretcher, "Could jump into a garbage can, get buried alive, AND STILL BE CLEAN!"

      "Close the lid before you submerge, I - " Raccoon quipped, until Asuka grabbed him.

      "Don't you ever do that again!" she shouted at him.

      "Agreed."

      "We got them all," Wondergirl told them.

      "How do you know?" Ice Princess looked winded from wherever she'd run from, and after elbowing her way through the crowd.

      "I know," Wondergirl told her.  Ice Princess was breathing too hard to argue.

      "I say we take the rest of the day off, " Spineless joked, as the school building gave up the ghost, and collapsed in on itself.

      "I don't know if all of you deserve a medal," Asuka told the others, "Or electroconvulsive therapy!"

      "I'd settle for a pair of pants, a bath and a nap," he replied, "Not necessarily in that order."

      "I just want to go home," Horseface complained.


[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 23 - But Dr. Freud, That Isn't Even a Cigar

What has gone before:

      About Book 11, Akane and Soun Tendo throw Ranma out of the house.  Nabiki, in the guise of a wish, follows him.  They meet EVA pilots Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, Asuka Soryu Langley and Jeffrey Davis.

      Asuka and Jeff begin deriving the equations to manipulate the AT field.  Asuka solves the equations, but is unable to explain them to the others.

      The Scholarly Dragon sees a battle between mythos creatures, he reports this to Jeff and Asuka, Toji `overhears`.

      Search and Rescue training continues.  The fogs and mass absences from school are explained by an attack by the Lliogor, sentient energy.  The pilots and their schoolmates fight them.

      Meanwhile, Misato learns ASuka and Shinji are being moved out of her apartment, and that one of Ritsuko's kids is also going to leave.

      Jeff admits his attraction to Ritsuko.  New security guards are recruited.

Korah Matah, Korah Rahtahmah, . . . Korah matah korah matah, nyohah keelah korah rahtahmah.  Syadho keelah, korah rahtahmah.  Korah, korah matah, korah rahtahmah.

John Williams, Duel of the Fates

May 28, 1947

Chapter 23 - But Dr. Freud, That Isn't Even a Cigar

      Misato had wandered over, once she was thrown clear of the building, her `guards` lost interest in her.  Ranma's 'I just want to go home' comment cut her to the quick.  Neither Shinji nor Asuka would be 'returning home' to her apartment.  Something she'd managed to forget in the past hours.


      Nabiki watched the ambulance take her roommate to the medcenter, rescue workers were collecting the rest of her classmates.  Some were just shaken up, but others were being carried.  A cordon of soldiers kept almost everyone away from the pilots.  And keeps the pilots from checking on our friends, Nabiki thought angrily, while she, Ranma, Shinji, Asuka and Rei waited for the truck to take them to be debriefed on the day's events.

      "I'm not looking forward to talking about this," Nabiki commented.  She was glad Ranma's and Asuka's usual boastfulness seemed subdued.  "Asuka, any word on Hikari?"

      Asuka shook her head, "No, I thought if it was what those things were doing, killing them all would free her."

      "She will recover," Rei said.

      Nabiki had no idea why she had interjected herself in the conversation.

      "It's not that easy Wondergirl," Asuka said, "Not like in the dreams."

      "She will recover," Rei said, and walked to the newly arrived truck that would take them back to headquarters.

      Nabiki watched all the pilots tense as Misato headed over, if Misato noticed, she gave no sign.  Rei had reversed course, and was now at Shinji's side, looking more inscrutable than usual.  Nabiki knew that meant trouble.  She noticed Hiroko and Natsumi were now guarding her flanks, Natsumi was locked onto Misato and looked like she wished she still had a bomb to throw.

      Who told them about Asuka's blow up? Nabiki wondered as she braced for the dressing down.  "Stay calm," she quietly told the pair, "We might get out of this without bloodshed."  She was glad they chuckled at that.  Asuka and Ranma were both doing Rei impressions, watching without revealing anything.

      "Considering my orders on the subject," Misato began, "I'm amazed that Daifitsu brings a gun to school."

      "He takes a gun everywhere," Rei said, "For obvious reasons."  Rei stared at Misato until the older woman looked away.  "We should go," Rei told the pilots.

      The pilots headed for the truck, Rei dropped back to stand near Nabiki.

      "The Commander authorized my pistol, the Second goes armed.  General MacArthur left the matter in Admiral Simson's hands, you should also."  Rei advanced to hop into the truck.  Ranma, duplicated the feat and they helped pull Shinji, and Asuka into the truck.

      I should leave it in the Admiral's hands? Nabiki wondered, Or I should go armed?  Or I should ask the Admiral about going armed?  This time, Nabiki couldn't decipher exactly what Rei meant.

      "There's enough of me to go around," Nabiki told them as they glared at each other over both extending their hands to her.

      Hiroko scooped her up in her arms and tossed her into the truck, "Go on, get out of here.  I've had enough excitement for one day, and no desire to get killed when those two fight."  Rei and Ranma were almost as embarrassed as Nabiki, as the truck pulled away.


From the Journal of Jeffrey Kevin Davis

      The foolish talk about a god's power, as if a dragon, an archmage, or a heavy cruiser couldn't come close to matching it.  But the mages' proverb says, 'Any fool can start an avalanche, a clever man can start it with a pebble, and a mage can place the pebble so it will go where he wants it to.'  More so with a god.

      If whoever sent that dream had searched for an eon, it couldn't have found a better way to drive me mad.  Like a cocklebur boring through my flesh, and nothing I do can dislodge it as it worms and prickles its way deeper.

      Today I watched Rit-ch . . . Rits . . . DR. AKAGI!  pacing.  I knew the words to say to ease her discord.  I also knew the places she loved to be touched, the ways she longed to be held while she cried, or screamed, or simply griped about the inherent unfairness and perversity of the world.  I knew this, and so much more.

      I smirked at that at the time, remembering an argument between the Dean and Harvard's Chaplin, that the Commandments didn't forbid lusting after your own wife.  The Chaplin had been scandalized when the Dean and Abigail had been caught in 'Lover's Lane' together.  I fully understand now, as I watched Ritsu - Dr. Akagi walking, moving, how beautiful and troubled she was.

      The solutions I could have used would have worked, they always had in the `past`, and I suspect they'd be just as effective here.  Those creatures didn't need to understand humans to manipulate us like this.  A diamond cutter doesn't need to know about carbon chemistry to split a diamond along existing fault lines.  A Roman engineer didn't need Newton, physics and Calculus to build wonders that still awed the modern mind.

      The Great Old Ones need no such intimate understanding of humans, to find and strike the flaws in a human soul, and they'd found mine.  Gave me what I'd always longed for, snatched it away, then put me back in a mad parody of it.


      Ritsuko set the journal aside for the moment and looked around her office.  Only yesterday, she'd dismissed as ridiculous her concern that she didn't have any pictures of the kids in her office.  As embarrassing as it was to read the Children's thoughts, it was necessary.  We have to know what they are thinking and feeling, Ritsuko reminded herself as she picked up the book again, looked at the tiny, refined, handwriting that filled the pages, With what they might become, it is important we know early on.
From the Journal of Jeffrey Kevin Davis

      Except the parody was the dream and madness was reality.  I want to comfort and be comforted by my wife, but I was, I am . . . more her son than her husband.  And while what I want, and believe she needs, isn't illegal under Japanese law, it is by American law, and the customs and mores of both societies: an underage boy does not have a love affair with a `Christmas Cake`, that cruel term for any woman over 25, discounted and forgotten, except by the desperate.

      It isn't fair, not the characterization of Rit-ch -

      Why can't I just think of her as Doctor Akagi?  Saotome and his rotten, and appropriate, 'Rit-chan', he means it as being friendly, and all girls are `cute`.  However, it means a lot more to me.

      I am lonely, maybe that's why I adjusted to the Japanese better than Langley.  Because I'm an 'other' everywhere: a cowboy at Harvard, a college-boy in Wyoming, some other mother's son with the rest of my family.

      Rank, respect and fear drove divisions around me here, normally it shouldn't matter, people by and large don't matter.  Watching them with apathy, with my and their enforced distances swallowing any insult they could possibly throw.  They are unnecessary to contemptible, as is their ignorance of battles fought and prices paid for their continued complacency and contempt.

      But I'd had something, after so long, after Jenny and Samuel.  Now I could have it for real, if I walked that road, one step into corruption.  I know the paths into her heart, so many of her secret hopes and fears, her loves and longings.  I should, I spent almost 20 years soothing her hurts, trying to live up to her dreams and desires.  The mere thought of it makes me feel unclean, it is worse than reading her diary, I've read her mind and soul, and become entranced by what I found.  Now it would be a simple exercise to manipulate her with my knowledge, to catch her completely.

      But the love I feel is very real, I want what is best for her.  I'm `man` enough to know that I am not it.  And won't be, for at least a decade.  A decade maybe neither of us have.

      Maya, for all the troubles that will involve, is a far better alternative for the short term.  I intend to let the long term look after itself.  It was like Ranko's affections, I suspect part of it was the disruption of her link with Ranma, and she'd sought male companionship to make up for that lost communion.  Ranma evidently sought out Nabiki for the same type of succor, then both pulled back when they were whole, fear and embarrassment, as well as a need to reassess things.

      This, perhaps, will be what I will have to do.  It wouldn't be fair to Ritsuko to do otherwise, I have no right to play those games of manipulation.  Gendo played and plays them as a matter of course, as does Misato without Gendo's subtlety.  I despise them for that, for all their stupid, little games.  And I'll be damned in time and in Eternity if I cavalierly walked the same road, for nothing more than my own gratification, a homey bed, a lover's embrace.  As badly as I want them, they aren't worth my soul.  Or hers.


      Ritsuko closed the journal, gave it back to the courier who would return it, before Jeff missed it.  Since they were moving Jeff's possessions, she had an excellent opportunity to go over the entries in detail.  It's part of the job, she thought as she looked down at the pages of notes she'd taken while she read.

      Maya usually handled reading the journals from `Ritsuko's` kids, while she monitored Asuka's, Shinji's and Rei's accounts.  Sometimes it just hurt too much to pry into the kids thoughts and worries, then go home and look at them.

      "What a mess," Ritsuko drained her coffee, she'd already worked out what she was going to tell the kids about the events of today.  From the Lliogor attack to the new housing arrangements.  "Of course it's my job to tell Asuka and Jeff they are to report Misato's medical problems in the future," she sighed at that.  She knew that despite the treatment that Misato had given her, Asuka would never betray Misato's weaknesses like that, nor would Jeff.  'It just isn't done', not by a lady or a gentleman anyway.

      She headed towards the conference room, the kids wouldn't be the only ones having to give tough answers to tough questions.


      Nabiki watched Ritsuko go through the descriptions.  She glanced around the conference room at her fellow pilots and some of the senior staff.  She felt she could concentrate on concerns other than what Ritsuko was telling them.  After all, Nabiki thought, We came up with the same conclusions already.  She isn't adding or leaving out anything.

      "What about the rest of them?" Misato asked.

      "I don't expect to see any more of them from this group," Ritsuko told them, "We either killed or drove them all off."

      "Are there upgrades to the sensors, to detect these things, planned for the future?" Misato asked.

      "We have some systems than may enhance our coverage," Ritsuko told them, displayed another map of the Tokyo area.

      Nabiki had no idea what the colored wedges and bands really meant, and Ritsuko covered the chart before any of the pilots got a good look at it.  Nabiki glanced at Misato and Kaji, they obviously understood what these `enhancements` were and would do.

      "More powerful and permanent improvements are in the works," Ritsuko said, "This is the second time minor mythos powers have created such a problem."

      "What about the physical security?" Kaji asked, "There are some rumors that someone is changing the procedures."

      "That's not a rumor," Admiral Simson said, "We're going to make very different arrangements.  With the near annihilation of the NERV distant covering force, we believed the change was appropriate and timely."

      "We recommended against that," Commander Fuyutsuki pointed out.

      Nabiki noted that Gendo was silent on that subject.

      "I took your recommendations under advisement," Simson replied.

      "I must protest this," Fuyutsuki pointed out forcefully, "As well as the relocation of the pilots."

      Relocation? Nabiki looked at her fellow pilots as they glanced around in confusion, none of them had heard about this either.  From the way Ritsuko and Misato are grimacing, Nabiki looked at their two guardians, They didn't want to drop it on us this way.

      "Shinji will be moving in with us," Ritsuko said, "We will relocate Asuka and Jeff elsewhere."

      "Where?" Ranma complained from his seat next to Nabiki.

      "An apartment a few miles from where you are," Simson said, "One of the new security detail will be keeping an eye on them."

      Nabiki looked across the table at Asuka, she looked apologetically at Shinji, then took on a stoic cast.  Misato looked like she had eaten something sour, Ritsuko's expression was completely interpretable.  Whatever it is.  She is about ready to explode, Nabiki thought, She knows something, something she doesn't want the pilots to hear.  Nabiki looked more carefully at where Ritsuko was looking, and not looking, No, she doesn't want the NERV staff to know either.  But Admiral Simson seems to know.  Nabiki put that on the list of things to do.  First on that list is to actually get the pilots' biographies, she thought, My own included, and read them.

      "I don't think Raccoon will object too much to that," she whispered to Ranma.

      "You're just trying to stir things up," Ranma whispered back.

      She noted the hurt tone he used.

      "You'll be meeting the new security staff tomorrow," Simson told them, "I am more concerned about the school.  There's hardly anything left of it, except a few out buildings."

      "That is being taken care of," Gendo piped up, "The end of the term is coming.  Then we'll have six weeks to complete the rebuilding."

      Nabiki couldn't imagine them rebuilding the entire structure, in just six weeks.  She spent the rest of the meeting watching the power dynamics of the room.  It was clear Kaji didn't like being cut out of being in charge of the physical security of the pilots.

      And where is Captain Ramsey? Nabiki noted that Ritsuko seemed to be siding with Simson, as was Gendo.  Leaving Misato, Kaji and Fuyutsuki completely outmatched and unsupported.


      Nabiki and Ranma were walking through the corridors of NERV, they had time before they had to go home.

      "I don't understand why you think he won't fight leaving," Ranma commented.

      "Maybe if you'd been friendlier, he might have wanted to stay," Nabiki commented.  It amazed her he could see chi, and all that implied, and not see the tension both Asuka and Raccoon were constantly under.

      Ranma grimaced at that.

      "I'm not talking about Ranko practically throwing herself at him," Nabiki amended, "Imagine being surrounded by honorless barbarians, you might want to be rid of them as well."  Nabiki knew she was exaggerating, but she needed Ranma to understand, predictably he got mad.

      "I'm not honorless!"

      "Maybe not to yourself, but to him?  How many times as Ranma or Ranko did you try to walk in on him in the bathroom, here or at home?  How often did you subtly tell him to do things the Japanese/'honorable' way, rather than let him do it his more comfortable way?  Japan attacked his country, murdered his family members.  Now he has to live here, by our rules."

      "I never did that!" Ranma insisted as they walked.

      "Oh," Nabiki stopped, raised an eyebrow, "Breakfast: miso soup, rice, hard-boiled egg, occasionally some pickled vegetables.  Sound familiar?"

      "Yeah, so what?" Ranma looked confused, "I like those kinds of breakfasts.  You know that, isn't that why Raccoon makes them?"

      "Where's the scrambled eggs?  Where's the oatmeal?  The orange juice?  The pancakes?" Nabiki watched Ranma frown, then looked nauseated as they stood there, "Look at your face, with that expression on it.  Then tell me we aren't forcing him to live as we choose."

      "He could have fixed anything he liked."

      "No, he couldn't," Nabiki explained, "Sometimes I think you don't believe there's any honor code except yours, and people follow it or none at all.  He was a guest in Ritsuko's house.  The three times he suggested a more Western-style breakfast, his host, and one of those he was serving both emphatically refused his offer.  Honor wouldn't allow him to do anything else."

      Ranma shook his head in amazement, "He could have said something!"

      Nabiki threw up her hands and started walking again, "And insulted you and Ritsuko?  No, he couldn't, he wouldn't," Nabiki told him, "It would be dishonorable.  I'm not saying he wouldn't get sick of it, which is why he might not disagree with the orders.  He might have also decided that Shinji needs the environment there, a lot more than he does.  That also would be an 'honorable' thing to do."

      Ranma stopped, blinked, got a 'deer in the headlights' look on his face.

      Nabiki felt like turning around and shaking him until his teeth came loose, "There's no one definition of honor, Saotome.  A gentleman's code of Honor is different from a samurai's or any other Martial Artist's.  But it's just as real and important.  Insulting the hostess in her own home 'is not done', any more than you could back down from a challenge to fight, it's totally dishonorable.  If someone put an okonomiyaki in front of him, he'd at least sample it."

      Ranma chuckled, remembering Raccoon's first taste of his favorite food.

      Nabiki remembered too, she thought Raccoon was going to throw up when he tasted it, instead he offered it to Ranma, who devoured it eagerly.  "He'd never tell the chef how nauseous the food was to him.  So that's just one way.  There were probably hundreds of others.  He wasn't an American living in Japan.  He was having to live as a Japanese.  Could you live in that alien a culture, say one that didn't permit the practice of Martial Arts?"

      Ranma shook his head 'no', started walking again.

      "That's what I'm talking about.  He and Asuka at least can have a place where they don't have to conform to our ways," Nabiki explained, "They're still treated as outsiders, even by their friends.  Her circle practically worships Asuka.  The school kids universally fear Raccoon, people don't follow him out of honor and love, they respect, and dread him.  If you bothered to listen, you'd hear the comments."  They're almost as afraid of him as they are of you, she didn't add out loud, she fervently hoped Ranma never learned how much most of the school feared him, feared him as much as the monsters they fought.  For much the same reasons, unmatchable, unlimited power and they didn't understand him.

      "That doesn't make any sense," Ranma sighed, turned to face her, "They always have people around them, so do I.  Rei and Shinji are the loners."

      "People often flock to the things they fear, out of fascination, out of the thrill of taking a risk, and knowing they got away, again," Nabiki watched Ranma closely, she suspected that was Ranko's fascination with Raccoon.  Davis had as much as told Ranma, when the need for him was over, he'd kill him.  Yet Ranko could tell him her most embarrassing and intimate secrets, and face at most 'Why did you do that?'

      "I think you're being negative," Ranma told her, "Just to stir things up.  That's what I think."

      "I can remember a time when you wouldn't do even that much analysis," Nabiki enjoyed his shocked look, "Don't assume that because you've matched me a few times, that you've mastered the art.  Half the time, you don't even understand yourself, let alone anybody else."  Nabiki stepped around him and kept walking.  He fell in beside her.

      "Maybe I should talk to him," Ranma admitted.

      "There's a drinking fountain," Nabiki pointed to the fixture on the wall.  As she thought, Ranma headed to it, "Ah HA!"

      Ranma started, looked around.

      "You aren't going to talk to him, Ranko is going to go talk to him!"

      "I am Ranko," Ranma said firmly.

      "Then why did you make a beeline for the cold water, when you decided you had to talk to Raccoon?" Nabiki stepped up to him, "I'll tell you why, because around me, or Ritsuko, or Misato, Ranma is Ranko and vice versa.  Except around him, and I bet you don't even know why!"

      Ranma fidgeted, looked for some escape, physically or verbally, "That's just crazy."

      "Have you ever hugged Shinji?  Or Kaji?  Or even Ritsuko when he wasn't around?" Nabiki advanced, pushing Ranma back against the wall, "You're afraid Saotome, afraid of what people will say about you if you act with any tenderness, you're afraid people will call you unmanly, or girly.  Except around him, Ranko - acts - like - a - girl.  Because you know it's safe, that's what's got you so agitated about this transfer and his implied rejection, you liked the way you felt, you want to be able to continue without being ridiculed for it."

      Ranma's back was literally against the wall, and still Nabiki closed in, she knew she had him.  She remembered that he wasn't an enemy, this was not the time to close for the kill.  She could, easily, she knew he knew it, and she knew, he knew, she knew it.  Instead, she took his hand, held it against her cheek.

      "When have I ever done that?  I've gotten mad when you endangered or hurt yourself, when you denied your feelings.  Not when you expressed them," she pushed forward, resting her head against his chest, released his hand and encircled his waist with her arms, "I got mad when you didn't treat those things, or my feelings, seriously.  Now you have those feelings, a girl's feelings about someone you care about, maybe even love.  They don't have to make sense, like Zen, they just are, and you have to deal with them that way.  You can't just wish them away."  She snuggled against him, he stood there stock still, waiting for the attack that would never come.  That would be an important lesson for him.

      She was content to just keep him there several minutes, saying nothing, letting him work the problem out, doggedly, step by step.  He was new to thinking, as practically its sole practitioner back in Nerima, she knew how difficult it was.  Especially, when all around you, people simply acted.  Finally she broke the stalemate.

      "Hey," Ranko complained at the handful of cold water dumped on her head, "I thought you said - "

      "I said you were doing something automatically.  I never said it was right or wrong," Nabiki told her, rubbing her cheek on Ranko's breasts.  She knew that would keep Ranko immobile and listening while she talked, "For the record, it is a good tactic.  Also for the record, you weren't even aware you were doing it.  You want control, don't let habits form unobserved, that's why you were stealing food, it was a habit."

      "Thanks," Ranko said sardonically.

      "One last thing," Nabiki said, stepping away, "Something I learned from Ranma."

      That raised Ranko's suspicions.

      "Men, real men, don't like to feel vulnerable or incapable.  They'll do a lot of foolish things to avoid it," Nabiki strove to keep from sounding like she was lecturing, "He's badly hurt, and whatever whiz-bang he's hiding from us, I'd guess the account's empty or overdrawn right now.  Remember how Ranma felt when he first lost Everett: bereft, vulnerable and trapped.  Don't attack when he gets defensive, and don't take away what manhood he has left by trying to protect him.  Slow, gentle, T'ai Chi Chaun or AikiDO, not Kempo.  There is no victory if you don't at least stay friends."

      Ranko nodded and jogged on down the corridor.

      Nabiki sighed, This place has a whole series of other dangers.  She smiled at the happily running Martial Artist, Maybe we should plan a double wedding, she laughed at that and started her own walk to Maya's office, and the long overdue look at her current self and her fellow pilots.

      Again she dreaded the possibility of Nerima trying to reach out and drag Ranma `back home`, and start hurting him again.  She also dreaded what she'd do to protect him.  Simply denying any family connection, she knew that would effectively sign the death warrants for any of the other Tendos or the Saotomes.  Could I do that? she stared at her hands, Considering how angry I am at losing Raccoon, just maybe I could.  She didn't like that realization one bit.


Dancing At the Volcano

      Ranko entered Raccoon's hospital room, she was glad he was wearing pants, rather than the kilt.  At least that's what they'd told her, several 'U.S. NAVY' blankets covered him up to his chin.  His face was terribly pale, except the livid yellow slap mark from where Nab-chan had hit him last Sunday.  Ranma had put it out of his mind, Because Raccoon concealed it, Ranko thought, Because it was an insult to Nab-chan's honor, and a gentleman wouldn't insult a lady that way.

      She crept soundlessly across the floor, the tile over concrete made it easy.  Watching for any indication he heard her, especially opening his eyes, as he lay on his side, facing towards the door.  The room was the one they always put Raccoon in when he got hurt.  Gray everything, walls, floor, all the metal fixtures, only the bedding tried to give the room some color.  As if white and tan could do that.  Raccoon seemed to be trying to blend in, his face was very gray.  She extended her chi, and could find none of the cold that indicated he was using magic or holding mana.  That worried her.

      Ranko put a chair next to the bed, so she could look at his face.  She put her head on the pillow a few inches from his face and just watched him.

      What Nab-chan had told her made sense, and was very disturbing.  She had two powerful, conflicting impulses.  The first/Ranma was to race out, find the things that did this and the people who helped them, and hurt them.  Give way to righteous anger and take retribution.  The second/Ranko impulse was to crawl into bed and just hold him, make him know he was safe and warm, as he made her feel so often.  Her rational mind grudgingly admitted both were the wrong thing to do.  The military would find the people and punish them, and Raccoon would be mortified by finding even a fully-clothed Ranko in bed with him.

      Just like the feelings he'd had about Nab-chan, sometimes he was terrified of her.  When she was on the attack, he knew there was little Ranma or Ranko could do to deflect her.  Weather the storm and survive was the only course of action.  Then there were the times she was soft and vulnerable, crying or like when Rei tricked and embarrassed both of them in the bathroom.  Then he wanted to hurt or drive away whatever had caused her to feel that way, or let her hold him, which always made her feel better.  Ranma didn't understand why that was, but Ranko understood perfectly, without being able to explain it.  It was embarrassing he felt that way about a guy, almost as awkward as knowing the `Ice Princess` felt that way, that strongly about Ranma and Ranko.

      The battle earlier had been, had felt, very strange.  None of the pilots had been willing to give an inch, not him, not Asuka, not even 'Spineless'.  Ranma had been confident during most of the battle, if Nab-chan didn't have a plan of action, then Raccoon or Asuka did.  All he had to do was carry them out, and following their orders didn't bother him at all.  Even momentary despair was blown away in an instant, like when Raccoon blew the unseen wall down.

      Now, neither of them were dying, they just wouldn't be living under the same roof, and she was in turmoil.  The weird feelings Ranko had for Raccoon wouldn't confuse Ranma anymore.  Maybe he could finally understand Nab-chan without being distracted by other things.  Ranma should have been glad it was happening.

      "Then why do I hate the thought of you moving out?" Ranko asked.

      "Ah, first I'd heard of it," he opened his eyes and paused as he saw her expression, "What happened?"

      "They're moving you out, why?" she accused, she felt terrible about this, more angry at whoever planned this than she was at the monsters.  She desperately wanted to hurt whoever was hurting her, and she wanted to be comforted.  Again, her rational mind told her she couldn't do either of those, she'd have to settle for an explanation.

      "They told me.  Ranko, I have to follow orders, it wasn't my choice," Raccoon told her.

      "Then if you . . . ," she only barely remembered Nab-chan's advice, before she blurted out her first anguished demand, she took a different tack, I haven't done any of the things I wanted since I walked in here, she thought as she very carefully stretched across the pillow to kiss his forehead, "And how do you feel about it?"  Feelings, even her own, weren't something she could understand or get comfortable with, not when they were as powerful as these.  But Nab-chan made her understand that honor had different meanings for different people, even if they denied its existence.  When Raccoon said 'something isn't done', that effectively translated into saying it wasn't honorable, that was something Ranko could deal with easily and understand perfectly.

      What she wanted to know, was what Raccoon would do without the confines of honor.

      "Shinji needs it, I'll survive whatever happens, and no," he headed off the tears or explosion he plainly expected from Ranko, "I don't like it.  But like I told you, I need some time to put things together in my head.  This will give me the time.  I need that time, Ranko, Nabiki once told me I can't blame myself for what happens to the people around me.  It's a piece of advice I've never been able to take.  There were three American pilots, and six British ones at the beginning of the program in October of 1946, out of 15 each at the start of the previous commission.  Five months later, I was the last one of the thirty.  Losing people is something," he rolled on his back, stared at the ceiling, "I can't say I'm used to it, but it's something I've come to expect.  Maybe I don't feel hurt the way you do, because I always imagined it would happen, inevitably."

      "That's awful," Ranko said, climbing onto the bed to sit next to his head, so she could look down and see his expression.  She saw resignation.

      "At least you're still alive.  Rita and Henry Lincoln aren't," he paused, "Ask Ranma.  Sharon might as well be.  And before you say, 'it's coincidence', fifteen, now sixteen times, is directed action.  Today we lost almost two dozen soldiers, eight students and three teachers.  Not counting the wounded, somehow just saying 'it's war, people die', while true . . . it doesn't help."

      He paused, they sat there a long time.  Ranko was torn what to do, if he was breaking off the relationship to protect them, she could almost understand that, but she kept thinking it was irrational.

      "In an odd way I'm kind of glad," Raccoon told her, Ranko was so stunned she didn't hear Ritsuko enter, "Being gone is better than messing things up by being there."


      "Why?!" Ritsuko demanded.

      Jeff saw the shock on Ranko's face, as she'd been totally lost in her own thoughts.  "I have orders," Jeff tried to explain, as Ritsuko marched over with her angry, hurt expression.

      He could see how deep her hurt was.  Again he knew there were words to soothe that hurt, in the back of his mind, he was tempted to use them.  He knew they would eliminate her questions without answering them.  Unfortunately, when she raised the questions again, and she would, it would be with greater acrimony.  Fine, how do you explain that, he wondered, Not using them didn't work too well earlier today.  She just got more hurt and confused.  Saotome might call it honor, but whatever, I can't take advantage of someone that way.

      "It's because you're in love with her, isn't it?" Ranko asked with downcast eyes.

      For once, the Saotome indelicacy serves.

      "Yes."  There, it's out in the open, the prepositioned arguments won't serve, Jeff thought, I'm only pretty sure of how Ritsuko will react, shock, yes, but then what else?

      "First Maya, then you?!  What's gotten into you?" Ritsuko shouted down at him in disbelief as she towered over the hospital bed.

      "You have," Jeff said.

      Ritsuko stopped, stared.

      Jeff considered taking her someplace more private, but while Ranko was a little bewildered by this, she wasn't willing to contradict it.  Right now he was in no condition to walk any great distance anyway.

      Ritsuko shook her head trying to deny what her senses were telling her.  Ranko looked embarrassed, she looked like she expected a fist fight any second, and wasn't sure whether it would be her or him against Ritsuko.

      "Nobody did anything wrong," Jeff managed after what seemed like several minutes of uncomfortable silence, "Not you, not me."

      "Then why?" Ritsuko asked quietly as she rigidly stood there.

      "Because when I look at you, I don't see my guardian, or my mother," Jeff paused when Ritsuko flinched, "I remember my wife.  I try and ignore it."

      "But you can't," Ranko said, "Or your kids, yours together.  Can you?"

      "No, not completely, not all the time.  So it's better I don't live under the same roof," Jeff said, praying he sounded more reasonable than strained, "You don't need the added distraction."

      "And you don't think we could have discussed this?" Ritsuko asked.

      "What would we have discussed, Doctor?" Jeff sat up, Ranko had to hold him steady for a moment, "About how we should rise above this?  Your reaction to Maya is proof that would be difficult or impossible," he held up his hands, "Let me finish, the first question is: Why do you mistrust anyone who loves you, because you're unworthy, so their motives must be questionable?  That's an insult to us, that we're somehow stupid or evil because we care about you."

      "I never said that!" Ritsuko angrily countered.

      Jeff felt Ranko trembling as she held him upright, he wished he could call a halt, explain his feelings, as he understood them, to both of them.  But there's no time for that, he angrily realized, There isn't an easy way out of this.  "You imply it from your behavior.  If I'm wrong, please explain what other hypothesis fits the facts.  I don't want to hurt or misunderstand you."

      "They're fine," Ritsuko sighed, "That does not address why you went along with this decision, you aren't shy about confronting anyone, even Commander Ikari."

      "Not when I agree with it.  I don't want to stay here and feel like I'm living a lie.  When I know that this is the truth, and as pleasurable as the illusion is, it is still the mirage."

      "So you're going to run away?" Ranko crossed her arms, releasing him and forcing him to turn to see her grimace.

      "I know that if you can't win, retreat is an option.  Nothing positive can result in 'toughing this out', Ranko."

      "Besides, neither of you is dying, I thought earlier," Ranko added lamely, she was clearly out of her depth with all the talk, "Why are you fighting about this?  I don't understand, I don't think either of you understand it either."

      "I'm sorry," Jeff turned away from Ritsuko and Ranko.

      Ranko hopped off the bed, and led Ritsuko out by the hand.  Jeff didn't see Ritsuko's expression or her hand extended towards him as she left.


      "He isn't trying to hurt you.  He isn't trying to hurt anyone," Ranma told Ritsuko, still in his female form.

      Even you? Ritsuko thought, Then he's failing completely.  "How do you know?" Ritsuko said miserably, unknowingly echoing Nabiki's earlier question as she glanced at the walls of the medcenter.  Science was so much easier, it made sense, or you redid the experiment with tighter controls.  She had no idea why she was reacting this way.

      "Because if he wanted to hurt you, you'd be writhing on the floor, or dead," Ranma said coldly, "I've seen it."  Ranma looked at the other people around, "So did a lot of others today.  I think he's tired of being hurt too."

      "You make it sound like it's my fault," Ritsuko said quietly.

      "That you didn't love him the way he loves you?" Ranma asked, blushed and looked away, "I don't know if that's why I'm so mad about this either.  I'm a guy, why do I feel that way about another guy?" Ranma paused, smiled, "And those feelings dissolve almost completely in hot water."

      Ritsuko smiled, "Soluble and heat labile.  When they precipitate, that is reform, out of cold water, how do you deal with them?"

      Ranma blushed again, looked down, "I don't, I guess.  None of it makes any sense.  Nab-chan said they just are, but that doesn't make any sense either."

      Ritsuko looked at her young charge, felt pity at Ranma's confusion, hoping it didn't mirror the depths of her own, "Look, I don't understand all this dream premises, but . . . I don't know.  If you felt something, maybe you should have said something.  I think he was trying to leave it to you."

      "What should I have done, what should you have done?" Ranma asked miserably, "Taken an underaged boy to your bed?  Held and cuddled him until he felt safe again?  Ignored it as it tore you apart?  Neither is a solution, none at all.  Even I can figure that out," Ranma concluded sarcastically.

      And are you voicing your own feelings? Ritsuko asked silently, Or trying to advise me on mine.  She patted Ranma's shoulder, wished she better understood all of what was happening.  Confusion rules the day, she thought bitterly.

      Ranma stopped at the nurses' station, regained his male form with some hot coffee, "If you really want answers, ask Admiral Simson.  We're all playthings to the higher powers," Ranma's expression told Ritsuko he knew exactly why Ritsuko grimaced so fiercely at that.


      Asuka looked through the small window into the padded cell.  The straitjacket Hikari still wore shouldn't have been necessary, after they'd sedated her.  Asuka looked at the doctor.  She'd seen that expression before, on the doctors who'd treated her mother.  The thing that my mother became, Asuka savagely corrected herself, That isn't going to happen this time!  She felt the anger boiling up within her.

      The rearrangement was a trivial disturbance, the others were acting like it was the end of the world.  She knew a few things about moving around.  She'd been forced to abandon Berlin, woke up in British custody, then got shipped off to America and Japan.  Nobody asked her how she felt about it, nobody cared how she felt about it.

      "Spineless is worried about Misato," she smiled at that, Spineless wants to keep looking after her, she laughed silently at that thought, He'd die of embarrassment if anybody ever mentioned it though.

      She set her feet on a path to where she could get some help locally.  If she couldn't get the help there, then in dreams, she could ask the Scholarly Dragon.  Hang on Hikari, she let her anger drive her forward, I can help you!


      Asuka found Raccoon in the hospital room, right where Spineless had told her he'd be.  Maybe the others believe he's invulnerable, she entered, stared at the figure sitting up in the bed, But I know better.  She sat on the bed next to him.  She saw his pallor and the expression of frustration and despair as he stared at the wall, "You okay?"

      He glanced at her, "You know me better than that," he replied flatly.

      Her anger built up for a moment.  She knocked him back down and hit him with the pillow, "Do you enjoy hurting yourself?  You're just as dumb as Horseface, if you think only you get hurt on these exchanges."

      He looked up at her, "I agreed with the decision.  I just couldn't . . . I cared about her, but it's wrong.  She doesn't feel that way about me."  He lay back, not resisting in any way.

      "Did you bother to ask?  Or did you decide to love chastely from afar?" Asuka shouted at him, she dragged him back up to a sitting position, "Do you really think anyone would care?"

      "I would, and it's not all like that.  I could make her love me.  I can't take advantage that way, it goes against everything I stand for."

      "Unless they're the enemy," Asuka corrected sarcastically.

      "Oh, if they're the enemy, I can do whatever I want," he added with a haughty air, "And how are you?"

      Asuka slumped, "Miserable.  I'm sick of this place, the people, the stench, the noise, the phony smiles on everyone's faces.  And when your back is turned, then you finally find out how they feel, with a knife in the back.  I'm sick of it."

      "I think you're projecting Misato and Gendo on the entire country.  There are some honestly nice people here."

      "I don't WANT nice.  I despise all the phony courtesy, they all act like I'm going to chop off their heads if they say the wrong thing, and then they say the most awful things when they think you can't understand."

      "Considering the samurai had that right: kirisutogomen, up until a short time ago.  The Kempetai was as bad as the Gestapo.  I think the fear is well-ingrained and legitimate."

      "Why, if I'm making a mistake can't they just say something?" Asuka asked.

      "That isn't their way.  Don't forget, they outnumber us here," Raccoon told her, "So we conform to their rules.  Isn't all this just your worry about Hikari?"

      Asuka relaxed, leaning against him, "You, my General, could always see right through me.  That was one of the things I always despised about you.  I am worried about that, and I'm worried about Spineless, heck, I'm even worried about Misato and Pen Pen."

      "You can't drag them out of their holes and into the warmth and light."

      Asuka laughed, "I'm just remembering the argument we had in Leng," she turned to face him, touching her nose to his, "Us tromping through the snow, finally you admitting you had to rest.  Then realizing we had one blanket, and our winter coats, total."

      "And no way of starting a fire," Raccoon remembered the desperate retreat across the Dreamlands, running from the spiders and their slaver/servants, "As I remember it, you laid out the argument of utilizing the two available heat sources, 600 watts apiece."

      "Then I practically had to lay you out cold, to get you to agree to share body heat," Asuka chuckled, the events still embarrassed him.

      "Well . . . I remember another such event," he said with a faraway look, "My knife slicing smoothly through your riding leathers, then your silk undergarments."

      Asuka frowned at that.

      "Then rubbing hot soapy water all over your firm flesh and soft, silky hair, so gently and thoroughly cleaning."

      Asuka shivered as he spoke.

      "Anointing your naked body with special oils and situating you in robes of softest cotton in my bed."

      "You're never going to forgive me for defecating all over your bed!?" Asuka asked, "Are you?"

      "You're just lucky I had a cold, or the stench of that paralytic crap all over you would have driven me away too, and I forgave you for the first time.  Four days of it started to test my patience.  I should have put a diaper on you!  How did you fail to smell that stink anyway?"

      "The spider was using that giant pitcher plant as a hiding place, I never expected it to drag me in, and I had to cut my way out before the poison got to me."

      "The smell?"

      "I guess it was for attracting carrion eaters," Asuka considered hitting him with a pillow again, for bringing up such an embarrassing memory.

      "Well, you certainly smelled a week dead.  Even after I washed you," he told her.

      She frowned at him, but she was laughing too, "When I finally could talk, I suggested the lemons and tomatoes.  Not the chemical genius, me, the mathematician!  It worked.  Finally I quit smelling like that."  She laughed some more at his sour expression.  "I guess that's what I missed, you never showed me the respect I deserved, when we were alone, face-to-face.  But in public, it was 'yes ma'am', 'thank you Dame Langley'.  The difference was, there was never any pretense to it."

      "So, where are you staying?" Raccoon asked, "I understand they've assigned us to a new guardian."

      "As if we needed one," Asuka snorted, "Can I stay here, I'm not ready to deal with another guardian, not tonight.  I expect they want you to stay here overnight, considering how chewed up you got."

      "You know me, I hate hospitals.  They'll be bricking up the door a few minutes after dinner."

      "We'll have to go after Hikari," Asuka told him, "And soon, you know that."

      "Any suggestions?"

      "As crazy as it sounds, Spineless and Wondergirl, there's a lot more to them than meets the eye," Asuka suggested.

      "Anyone else?"

      "Horseface, Ice Princess, no, no chance," Asuka paused in thought, "Maybe for perimeter security, but they'd be useless otherwise."

      "You did a good job with Shinji."

      Asuka blushed, "He's a natural, evidently he's been escaping into dreams for years.  He just needed some control, and some confidence.  Well, you saw him, you know those people he wiped out.  Saotome . . . I just can't figure him out."

      "What about her?  They aren't the same person," he held up his hands, "I know, you all say differently.  But for a moment treat them as different, but linked, and that makes them a lot easier to understand.  Can you imagine being a girl having to live with all the 'girls are weak', 'girls are icky', ahem, stuff, that Ranma spews out by reflex?  It's a wonder she's not a full-blown neurotic, instead of just highly confused by who and what she is."

      "The other reason you left," Asuka accused, "She scares you, doesn't she?  More that you consider her your daughter, then she's acting as a possible lover.  She's going after you."

      "I don't think she even realizes what she's doing, it seems as automatic as Ranma's behaviors.  It could be just as destructive to her.  She's a decent kid, and desperately wants someone to care about her.  She doesn't really want a lover, she wants someone to love her.  You met Genma, why would he do something like that?"

      "If you have to ask, you'll never understand.  So now you're being `noble` again," Asuka hit him with the pillow again in disgust, "How much of that is your fear?  Since we're walking down Dreamlands memory lane, how about you wailing like a wounded animal when Samuel died.  I haven't forgotten all the hours of you sobbing in my arms after his death."

      "I remember I wasn't the only one crying.  You know me a little too well, Miss Langley," Raccoon hung his head.

      "Considering how badly my old friend was hurt, I don't think a few tears were out of place.  My point is, I'm still here.  Maybe it won't happen with her either."

      "Show me I might live long enough to see my kids grow up, prove that the world isn't going into a screaming abyss in the next few years.  Then I'll start thinking about home and family.  But not before, that's not `noble`, that's just my selfishness.  I don't want to start something I know I can't finish," he admitted.

      "The rest of us would look after your kids."

      Raccoon laid back in the bed, Asuka laid down with her chin on his chest.

      "I don't want to have to have you do that.  Yes, I'm being selfish, maybe even stupid, but we aren't who we are in the Dreamlands.  Here we are children.  A certain amount of immaturity is biological at this point of our development.  What's real feelings, and what's just raging hormones and combat stress?"

      Raccoon considered, then continued, "There's one other thing," Raccoon told her, "Ranko used the Staff of Kavon when she rescued Rei."

      "That's impossible," Asuka whispered, "Then you are just trying to avoid the inevitable."

      "Or there's something about them I don't know."

      "You," Asuka said in mock horror, "Not know something," she snickered, "Perish the thought."  She chuckled some more at her friend's dilemma.  Then sighed, "You aren't the only one," she buried her face in his chest.

      "I don't think Kaji set out to hurt you," he stroked her hair, "I just think he didn't care."

      "I'm all right.  I have a right to be stupid too.  I guess I understand, how you feel, I mean," she sighed, lifted her head to stare at him, "It never gets any easier, does it?"

      "Not in my experience, Langley."

      "You heard about our new housing arrangements?" Asuka asked, sitting up.

      "Yes, I'm not ready to go back under somebody else's roof and rules either, not just yet.  Why are you so nervous about that?  That's the second time you've brought it up."

      "I, I guess I'm going to miss Spineless, stupid, huh?" Asuka admitted, "I mean he's so aggravating."

      "You used to say the same thing about Anna.  She was an irritating tag-along, until she started proving her worth," Raccoon told her, "The other reason I don't want to go tonight is, I found out how this morning's entertainment got here, and were directed."

      "So, your assassination bureau is in place?  I thought I was joking."

      "They're called the U.S. Marine Corps, I'm not crazy enough to take on almost a hundred people all by myself.  But I do want to soften up the target a little.  I never heard the line 'We will fight 'gainst Sorcer-y' in the Marine Corps Hymn."

      Asuka chuckled, "The first people military types kill, are those most like themselves."

      "Is that Rommel or Guderian?"

      "Graziani, actually," Asuka replied, "If he'd had the fuel, he could have taken Suez away from Wavell in '41."

      The two of them were silent for a while, staring at each other.  Each lost in their own memories of their long and sometimes stormy association.  Asuka broke the silence, "I guess I'm asking to stay here for tonight.  After what happened to Hikari today, I really don't want to be alone, or around strange people tonight."  She hopped off the bed and began pacing, "I stopped by her parents, told them she'd be fine and back with them soon."

      "You have a lot of faith in my abilities."

      "I know Hikari," Asuka said firmly, "It's mostly a spell.  You and I can deal with that, while Spineless and Wondergirl get her back."

      "I think I've got someone else who might be useful."

      "Who?"

      "I want you to be surprised," Raccoon told her.

      Asuka considered beating the information out of him, and decided against it.


To Travel Hopefully

      Ranma stood in the living room looking over his new roommate, Shinji seemed very nervous at the attention, This kid is nervous about everything, Ranma thought with disgust.  "In the morning, do you want to practice with us?" Ranma tried to sound friendly.

      "Practice?" Shinji asked.

      Ranma hated the suspicious look Shinji gave him, "Kempo.  Nab-chan, Rit-chan will be helping, they'll see I behave," Ranma saw only resignation on Shinji's face.

      "Yeah, okay," Shinji turned and headed for the bedroom with a small satchel.

      Ranma had been hoping for more enthusiasm, either in acceptance or in a refusal, but it had taken weeks of Ranko's efforts to make Raccoon less distrustful, Yeah, Ranko had to threaten Ranma to behave or else.  Ranma turned away, looked around the room.  He didn't know what to do with Shinji, he couldn't use those tricks on him.  He didn't know how he was going to deal with the Ranma/Ranko situation.  He wished Nab-chan and Rit-chan were here, but they were still at NERV.

      Ranma followed Shinji into the bedroom.  Raccoon had left behind the bunk bed, but all his other stuff had been cleared out, the crew had cleaned the walls and ceiling.  That was the weird thing.  Shinji opened the two closets, found the empty one and started putting his stuff away.

      "Do you need any help?" Ranma asked, wished Shinji would quit cringing every time he spoke, he wondered if Shinji even knew he was doing it.

      "No thank you," Shinji said quietly.

      "I'll leave you to it," Ranma left the room, once he'd closed the door behind him, he untensed.  He's making ME nervous, Ranma thought, he wanted to talk to Nab-chan about this.  Something, anything that would get Shinji to calm down.

      "She's - not - here," he said to the empty living room.  He headed for the kitchen to start dinner.  Ironically it was Raccoon's turn, But Raccoon never followed the list anyway, Ranma griped as he started getting out the pots and utensils.


      Nabiki sat in Maya's tiny office, going over the biographies of the pilots.  She was paying special attention to her own.

      "They are very thorough," Maya entered, carrying the last of the thick binders, "They found out things even I didn't know about myself and my family."

      "There's a lot here I didn't know," Nabiki admitted, "Why is Rei's so thin.  Even Ranma's is thicker."

      "I've never asked that."

      "No need to know, huh?" Nabiki smiled, "I should have figured.  Her grades, address, a few physical details, no medical details at all.  No blood type, no list of injuries.  Good grief, you've got the fractured foot I had when I was five.  I know I never told anyone about that.  Nothing for Rei though."

      "The Commander has all those records," Maya admitted.

      Nabiki found something else disturbing, "When did you have a chance to give Ranma an I.Q. test?" Nabiki asked, turned to Maya who was standing silently.  She then pulled her own file and found the same data, "Now I know I never took one . . . that can't be right!"  She looked at the numbers, then the composite score.  "Ranma's got an . . . that can't be, 165!"

      "The tests include spatial relationships and . . . " Maya said lamely, withering under Nabiki's stare, "The tests don't depend on educational knowledge, but mental acuity and agility."

      "Not knowledge, eh.  I notice Asuka's still off the charts, 200+," Nabiki paged through the other charts, Rei's was there.  Evidently some of the U.S. military's tests were included.  "A bunch of geniuses, or near-geniuses," Nabiki concluded, "Does Raccoon know he's got the lowest of all of us, only 154."

      "These records are available to all the pilots," Maya admitted, "Only you, Rei and Jeffrey have looked through them."

      "Oh, Ranko isn't going to like that, their blood types are completely incompatible.  This will just break her heart."  Nabiki enjoyed Maya's giggle.  Nabiki wasn't sure how this separation and rearrangement was going to affect things between her and Ranma, and among all the pilots.  She had a sudden thought, going back to Ranma's bio.  She saw the data for Ranma was side-by-side with the same data for Ranko.  "Maya, you said you have to supervise any pilot's access of these records."

      "Or Sem - Sensei, or one of the Commanders," Maya told her.

      "Were you here when Raccoon last went over these?"

      "Yes," Maya said, not seeing where Nabiki was going.

      "Then how can he not see that Ranma and Ranko are one person?" Nabiki asked in frustration.  Kuno and Kodachi didn't see it because they were nuts! she raged inwardly, So why can't he see it.

      "Take a close look at the data," Maya pointed out, "There are as many differences as there are similarities.  From reflex speed, to blood chemistry.  Blood type remains the same, but Ranko's I.Q. and speed are higher.  Ranma is stronger and his range of motion is greater.  There's as much evidence for his point of view as against it."

      Nabiki shook her head in frustration, "There should be a law that makes the world make sense."


      The quietness of dinner amazed Ranma.  The silence was oppressive.  No one had wanted to speak, as if there would be an explosion the instant anyone broke the silence.  Ritsuko thanked him for the delicious meal, and left for her room.  Then Nabiki said virtually the same thing, and headed from the room for evening practice.  Shinji collected the dishes, automatically washing them.  He only stopped when he realized he didn't know where to put them away.

      "I'll take care of that later," Ranma told him, "I'm going to practice with Nab-chan.  Do you want to watch?"  He tried to sound friendly.  Shinji merely acquiesced as if he had demanded it.

      This is going to take a lot of getting used to! Ranma angrily thought as he headed up stairs with Shinji following.


      Ranma thought the whole day had gotten progressively worse, since they won against the Lliogor.  His practice was poor, Nab-chan's was worse.  Neither wanted to talk about it, or anything else.

      Shinji preceded them down the stairs.  When Ranma and Nab-chan arrived at the apartment, they heard Shinji showering.  Ranma was surprised at how long it took, then realized he was used to Raccoon only taking five minutes.  Shinji wasn't taking much longer than Ranma usually did.

      He and Nab-chan stood there in their sweaty clothes.  "So are you up to helping me teach tomorrow?" he asked.

      Nab-chan acted as if she were waking up, "Huh, oh sure.  I'm sorry, I was thinking about Hikari.  I keep wondering why they picked her, instead of one of us."

      "Maybe there's something we can do," Ranma sighed, he had no idea what they could so, "Maybe she'll recover.  She's luckier than some others.  Evidently they killed 35 people, people we couldn't save."

      Nab-chan stared at him, "I knew we had some hurt," her voice trembled, "But killed, I . . . I thought we saved everybody after that blast.  Then I saw Asuka and that crew digging, I. . . ."

      "I ran over too.  Pilots first."

      "FRIENDS, first," Nab-chan angrily corrected, "We aren't wrong to want to save the people we care about first.  Just human."

      Ranma stared at Nab-chan, he wondered why it bothered her so much.


Dreams

      Ritsuko looked at the featureless white room, it was so bright she had to squint.  She knew this wasn't her bedroom, a moment later, Jeff appeared, she could barely see him, as her eyes adjusted to the glare.

      He glanced around, "Yes, I brought you here."

      "I should have known," Ritsuko looked away from him.

      "I was planning on explaining how you can create and manipulate dreams, but it seems you already know, at least instinctively."

      "How do you know that?" Ritsuko said angrily, giving her former ward the cold shoulder.

      "Well, when I materialized us it wasn't so bright in here, and I thought we'd arrive with different clothes."

      Ritsuko glanced down, realized all she had on was her lab coat, and then over her shoulder, Jeff was wearing his coat, and medical smock.  She embarrassedly looked away and checked to make sure the lab coat completely covered her.  Her anger increased, she wanted this over with.  She was tired of people thinking they could play games with her, without consequences.  She was going to put an end to part of it at least.

      She abandoned her human semblance, returning to her natural state.  She also suspected that alone wasn't nightmarish enough.  She enveloped him, but he just stood there seemingly unperturbed.  It was very easy, she made sure she was oxygenating his blood, as the L.C.L. did, and she crushed down on him from all sides.  She could smell his sweat full of the adrenaline byproducts and other fatigue poisons of the fight-or-flight reaction, his breath came in gasps, as his muscles clenched and unclenched.  She wouldn't hurt him, but she knew he was terrified.

      She was completely wrong, "That is DISGUSTING!" she shouted as she retook her human form, after violently expelling him.

      "Let's keep straight who attacked whom, Doctor," Jeff rolled to a sitting position from where she'd thrown him, he was again in his three-piece suit and fedora.

      "Do you always react that way to being eaten?" Ritsuko couldn't believe it.

      "My sincerest apologies for my misunderstanding," Jeff replied sarcastically, "At least now you understand why I can't live under the same roof as you, and a bit of advice.  For all your efforts to frighten me, first you shouldn't make a fuss about preventing suffocation, the fear of drowning would have had me in a more appropriate state of mind.  Second, you really should alter your internal temperature, at least in dreams, to an uncomfortable level."

      "Is that all," Ritsuko pulled her lab coat tighter, she was embarrassed at seeing what she expected, as a scientist she should have considered other interpretations.  As a biophysicist, she should have absolutely read the signs correctly, and realized how her actions could be `misinterpreted`.

      "The third is the pressure gradient you used," Jeff's comment brought her back, "A terror technique should have used one of two approaches."

      "Oh, so now you're an expert on terrorism?"

      "Interrogations, yes.  One, use a much steadier pressure, or a very flat ramping up.  Or two, use severe fluctuations in pressure applied.  Your pattern of random, and worse, rhythmic small fluctuations, almost fluttering, were very easy to misinterpret."

      That does it, she marched over.  Before she arrived he fell down, he just lay there, his hands at his sides, making no threatening or defensive moves.  She knew a dozen ways to kill him as he lay there, and a hundred that would just hurt him.  She couldn't bring herself to use any of them, even if this was all an illusion.

      "You aren't used to someone who trusts you enough to use helplessness as a weapon."

      "You think you're so smart," she sat down next to him, "Why are you doing this to me?"

      "To show you Maya wasn't trying to hurt you, and neither am I.  As well as make you understand the dilemma all three of us faced.  All this is occurring in our minds, it has no objective reality.  Except the memories, thoughts, feelings we take with us, what happens here seems real, and is just as impossible to ignore."

      "So what does that have to do with anything?  You said you loved me in a dream, married me.  We raised children," she grabbed his collar, dragged him to a sitting position, "But you know, you saw what I really am!"  She released him, hung her head, "How can you say that . . . now that you know?"

      His kiss on her lips shocked her, "So that's what's bothering you about Maya's dream.  You were human.  Completely, subject to all of our weaknesses and emotions, and responses.  Not a safe subject to study from a distance, but wholly human, for the first time."

      She stood up, walked a short distance away, "So what of it?" she asked angrily, "And no games!"

      "Or what?  You'll eat me?  I wasn't afraid of you before, because I've never been afraid of you.  Captain Katsuragi - now that's a different story."

      Ritsuko smiled, despite her best efforts to stay mad, Misato was the be-all and end-all of femininity, according to a lot of men.  Jeff's reaction to both of them made no sense, "So why should I be afraid of being human?"

      "Of Maya making you human," he stood up, "People don't concentrate on every little detail in dreams.  What's important is what they concentrate on, that's why things change and alter.  On our arrival, you already established dominance, so your rules and desires, what was important to you prevailed.  It wasn't until I pointed it out that you realized which clothes were your high priority, and the lighting has changed.  It's a lot easier to see now."

      "All that proves is I wasn't thinking about clothes or light, I didn't care.  Besides, I've seen you, and all the pilots without clothes."

      "Maya set you being human as one of the core elements.  She knows or at least suspects, and she doesn't care either."

      Ritsuko turned to face him, "That's impossible, I - " she was ashen.

      "You've been careful." he reassured her, "But you and Gendo do share one truly disgusting habit, you underestimate everyone."

      "Would it be better to play your game?" she marched over, got face-to-face with him, "Lies by omission, letting people think things that aren't true, and for what?  'There own good', or is it 'for Humanity'?"

      "Humanity will muddle along without either of us quite nicely.  I'm helping you because I want to - "

      "Don't talk to me about loneliness.  I've been alone most of my life, and that's - a long - time," she shouted at him.

      "Yet here you are, among humans, trying to fit in, and doing a better job than people born to the species and the culture," he told her, "Have you considered the possibility that it doesn't matter as much as you think.  Or that you're not the only one trying it?"

      Ritsuko clenched her fists, considered punching him, "Is there anyone you've ever met who wasn't merely an interesting puzzle to be solved?  An experiment whose outcome you wanted to manipulate?  Is there even one person in all the world who you really care about?" she paused, "I'm sorry.  I wouldn't be here if there wasn't, would I?"

      "There are more than you.  Don't worry about it.  I could ask you the same question, and get the same answer from you.  Yes.  Both of us are alike in that regard.  Both of us are cowards.  You hide behind rank and intellectualism.  I do it by. . . . "

      "By being strange," Ritsuko said, sat down next to him, "So what are we supposed to do?"

      "Accept that we aren't in charge of everyone around us," Jeff knelt next to her, stared down at his hands, "So I'm suggesting you understand why Maya and I are doing what we're doing.  I'm keep saying it until you believe it, we aren't trying to hurt you."

      "You are succeeding," she replied.

      "It is - it isn't necessary, but I don't want to be hurt by you, and you wouldn't mean to.  Now would you even know you were doing it?"

      "I'm sorry, I don't have your feelings."

      "I know.  So we go our own ways.  We can work together, but not live together.  You want me to be your child, Shinji and Ranma need that, but I want something else.  Our visions are incompatible.  I can accept that, can you?"

      "It isn't the same," Ritsuko lamented, she put her arms around his shoulders, "I hope you don't mind that I resent you being taken away like this.  I really hate people playing games with me."

      "Then why do you still want me around?"

      She tightened her grip slightly and growled at him, as she'd seen Ranko do.


      Asuka saw the train running down the track, "Spineless and his stupid train," she ran alongside and pulled herself aboard the caboose.  She climbed to the roof, and was amazed Spineless wasn't there with Wondergirl.  She walked forward through the train, towards the locomotive.  She found Wondergirl there.

      "Where's Spineless?" she asked Wondergirl over the noise of the engine.

      Wondergirl pointed forward.

      Asuka's stomach sank, as she swung out of the cab and started walking forward on the tiny maintenance catwalk, Only Spineless could be cowardly, yet sit unprotected on the front of a speeding locomotive!

      She managed to reach the front of the steamer, and found Spineless sitting on the cowcatcher.  She grabbed his shirt first, to prevent him from falling to the tracks when she announced herself.

      "Asuka?" the wind whipped most of his shout away, as it whipped at his clothes and hair.

      "Is it working?" she asked, mindful of how precariously balanced they were, and irritated that the guy afraid of his own shadow took no mind of it.

      Instead he smiled at her, "Perfectly," he frowned, "It's kind of mean though."

      "Do you want to spend all your time arguing with him and fighting?" she asked, shouting at the top of her lungs to be heard over the wind and the locomotive.

      He shook his head 'no'.

      "Then keep it up," she counseled, "He expects you to be scared.  Being scared of him prevents Saotome from attacking."

      Spineless nodded.

      Satisfied, Asuka vanished, she wanted to be somewhere safer and quieter than the nose of a racing locomotive.

      Shinji watched her go, he still thought it was a mean thing to do.


      The approaching thunder head was the first of the summer storms that would lash Japan for the next few months.  The thunder and lightning were more than adequate cover for what he needed to do.

      Jeff knew he didn't have to be out here in the woods outside Tokyo doing this.  The Marines and Army troops could easily handle these cultists.  But he knew that any magic they brought against the troops would cause horrific damage.  So he'd sanitize the target before they got here.  The Springfield rifle was an older model, but it used the same ammunition as the Garand, so that wasn't a worry.  With the scope, he could hit virtually anything he could see.

      But first scope out the opposition, he reminded himself.  Peeking over the stones and fallen logs that concealed him.  The man standing at the center, surrounded by torches, gesticulating and haranguing, caught his eye, but so did the pair who were walking around the perimeter.  So, he set the rifle on a fallen log, and waited for a thunderclap to cover the rifle's report, The real priests are smart enough not to expose themselves.  Unless you know what you're looking for.  He waited, he'd set wards to warn him of anything getting close, and his hunting blind was set so he couldn't be seen by anyone around him.

      Then at the 90-yard point, something broke one of the wards.

      Nuts!  Why can't I catch a break? he wondered, he knew the next `tripwire` was at 60 yards, he could wait for that one to be broken, before he really started worrying.  Why can't I just get a couple of decent thunderclaps and get out of here?  The storm was not cooperating.  He had to wait.

      Then one came, he almost missed it, but he fired.  No one noticed the man walking around the crowd in the darkness go down.  Their attention was riveted to the man at the lighted center.  The other priest didn't notice his counterpart fall.  Jeff silently worked the bolt, chambering another shell. He gingerly placed the hot, spent casing in his pocket.  Like the gesture earlier today, convincing people of the illusion was important.  If something killed someone, and you couldn't find a cause, 'Maybe it was magic!'

      The storm cooperated this time, Jeff got off his second shot, eliminating the magical support for the enemy.  A few moments later, the cultists realized the Marines were storming in from all sides.  They gave up quickly, when they realized there would be no summoned monster nor any of their patrons to save them.

      But something had broken the 60-yard line, and soon after, the 40.  Jeff stayed in the hunting blind, he had picked this spot because engaging what was behind him would be just as easy, as what was ahead.  At first he thought it was someone's trained bear, the size and the coloring seemed to invite that, but it was too intelligent in its movements, keeping cover between him and itself, and remaining concealed from most observers.  He wasn't about to use one of his special tricks, as tired as he was, the effort would probably knock him unconscious.  Besides, I can see well enough in the moonlight, he thought as he tried to get a clear shot at whatever it was.  He considered calling for help from the Marines, but decided they wouldn't be happy with a hospital case out there shooting cultists.  Captain Ramsey acted as if he knew I'd be out here, when we talked, he suspected the punishment wouldn't be severe, and if his quarry remained as elusive as it was, he would gladly take that option.

      Twenty yards, he felt the ward break, That's way too close.  He knew firing his rifle now would attract the enemy to his location, before he could get help.  He considered simply apporting a short distance, but gave up the idea, As tired as I am now, I might not be able to control it, and missing means getting real close to a tree, for the rest of your life, all 2-3 minutes of it.

      The bayonet on the end of the rifle gave another option, a quieter one.  He slipped out, crossing through the area that his elusive `playmate` hadn't penetrated yet.  He moved quietly.  Reminding himself of the rules of concealment, that the point was not to be recognizably human in sight or sound.  That was the purpose of the tweed jacket, and the fedora and headband, to break up the human silhouette.  Eliminating the human sounds he'd have to do himself.  As he sidestepped, he couldn't see where his opponent had gone.

      He kept his eyes and ears open, Great, someone who knows this business as well as I do.  Why can't it ever be easy?

      He couldn't find the target, Hell with this, he fired one round from the rifle, immediately worked the bolt, to have another shot immediately available.  He glanced around, listening intently, Where ARE you?

      The flash of brown caught his eye, behind a tree, he moved in.  The tree was thick enough, a shot from the rifle might not penetrate.  He glanced to either side of the tree, mindful that another opponent might be setting him up for an ambush.

      A hank of hair from behind the tree, instantly withdrawn, tempted him to fire.  Jeff closed in carefully, step by step.  The awareness of how alone he was, weighed on him more heavily every moment, with every step he took.

      I should turn back, this is a sucker play, Jeff glanced around again, trying to see or hear what was really around him, instead of what he thought should be around him.  Another brief appearance from whatever was behind the tree.  He refused to rise to the bait, withdrawing slowly through the area with the remaining wards, so he could detect any other intruders, and stopped when he detected a ward he hadn't set himself.  He hadn't broken it, so he didn't know if it was merely a tripwire, like his, or the trigger for a sorcerous trap.

      He gritted his teeth and adjusted his grip on the rifle, So, the only way out, is past my new friend.  I really am slipping, he thought as he silently picked his way forward.  Moving without rhythm, a step forward, then two, one to the right, pause - wait - listen, then another forward.  His weight remaining on his back leg, until he was sure whatever was under his forward foot would make no noise.

      His quarry hadn't reappeared, or otherwise taken advantage of the delay.  Where are those Marines? he wondered, there had been plenty of time for a jeep to get to where he was, foot infantry would at least be audible if they were coming.  What have I gotten myself into? he paused to loosen his .45 auto in its holster.  He continued his sidestep around the tree, willing his opponent to make a break for it in either direction, but even as he circled, his opponent circled.  This is like one of those cartoons where the boss is chasing his secretary around a desk, he thought angrily as he backed away to safety.  He had a grudging respect for whom or whatever this was, they had patience, and a calm head.  He hated when an opponent neutralized his main advantages so easily.

      Suddenly an arm came around from each side of him, grabbing the rifle and nearly wrenched it out of his grip.  Damn!  Damn my stupidity and damn my impatience!! Jeff cursed as he dove under the encircling arms after firing again, to attract some attention, then abandoned the rifle.

      He never expected whoever it was to come out of nowhere at that speed, she, he was fairly sure it was a she, had also cast away the rifle.  She caught the pistol and the knife as he drew them, twisting his hands up and out of the way.  Her grip on his wrists was tight enough to force him to drop both the knife and the gun.

      This fight makes absolutely no sense! he still had a few tricks, his walking stick for one, and a few others.  But to set the stage properly, he kneed her as hard as he could in the groin.  He knew, contrary to popular legend, this strike would have a serious effect on either gender.


Conciliation with Dignity

May 29, 1947

      Ranma sat in the lower bunk, Shinji hadn't argued, he'd simply taken the top bunk.  Ranma was a little disappointed about that.

      The others wouldn't have heard the noise at the window.  Ranma silently slipped out of bed, crept across the floor to the window.  Then jerked the shade away, found himself staring at Rei, still in her school uniform, perched on the outside windowsill.  He scrambled back in shock.

      He stifled the cry he was about to make and crept back to the window.  Rei was still there, still staring at him.  He noted the faint red glow of her eyes, wondered whether anyone else noticed it, or was it a side-effect of his enhanced vision?

      "Patio," he said quietly.

      She nodded and he slipped out of the room, down the hall and he silently opened the patio door.

      Rei was already waiting for him.

      How the heck did she beat me here?! he wondered.  He could practically feel the hate radiating from her as she stood and stared at him.  "I won't hurt him," Ranma promised.

      Rei's expression didn't change, but Ranma could feel a slight reduction in tension, her chi patterns changed slightly.  He had no `baseline` to compare it to, in fact her patterns were completely different from anyone else he'd ever seen.  Of course I only have a few examples, he considered Rei staring at him, So I guess I can't really draw any conclusions.  So he didn't know what the change he'd just witnessed, really meant.

      "I'd like you to be here at 6:30 tomorrow.  Nab-chan and I will be doing Martial Arts practice, I think you might want to be there, to keep an eye on Shinji," he smiled, "Make sure I don't misbehave."

      Nobody does a stone-face like Rei, Ranma thought, "He might appreciate you being there.  It will give you an excuse to hold him."

      Ranma took a step back, as Rei looked absolutely furious, but she was also blushing.  She turned and jumped to the wall surrounding the patio, then jumped to the roof.

      Ranma walked to the patio railing and looked up, glad he'd survived that confrontation.  He just wished she'd said yes or no.  Just plan for her to be here, he thought, But don't get anyone's hopes up.  Ranma sighed, then crept past the girls' room back to bed.


      Ranma watched Nab-chan, Rit-chan, and Shinji assemble in the living room.  He was glad it was clear skies, he expected this room was going to get crowded when the rains started.  The door bell rang.

      "I'll get it," Rit-chan said, pulling a robe over the shirt and pants she was going to wear for the practice.

      I've got to get Shinji and Rit-chan some proper gis, Ranma looked at Shinji in a set of old pajamas.

      "Rei?" Rit-chan sounded confused, "And friends?"

      "Good morning, Doctor," a very tall, stocky brunette walked into the apartment with Rei, followed by a tall Japanese man, and a short fireplug of a Japanese woman.  "A little bird told me you all got up early, and were going to do martial arts in the morning.  So I thought they'd like to practice with their new security officers."

      "I thought Kaji-san was in charge of security?" Shinji asked, intimidated by the newcomers, but shyly smiling at Rei.

      Ranma looked at all the newcomers, gauging them, from the way they all moved, each one was a fairly decent Martial Artist, the tall woman and the man were the best of the three.  Maybe I can finally find someone to give me a decent workout, Ranma thought as he watched them move in.

      The tall man stepped up to Shinji, "I think you'll enjoy learning martial arts, it changed my life.  Maybe I can teach you a little aikijutsu and Chin Na, your friend Miss Ayanami professed an interest in Kyudo, I heard you both already have an interest in the bow.  I've always loved music, maybe you can teach me that."

      Shinji bowed nervously.

      "Oh, I'm sorry," the tall woman said, "I should have introduced them, I'm Samantha Kraznyzamok, don't try, just call me Sammi, I'll be your guard, Mr. Saotome.  Shinji's guard has a few things in common with you Miss Tendo, besides an interest in Kempo, he's Tomiyo Tendo.  Same Kanji and everything."

      Ranma stepped over to Nab-chan as she paled, he was afraid she'd fall over in a faint.  "You okay?" he asked quietly.

      She looked around, "I didn't think I'd ever meet any family, even distant family," she looked at Ranma, straightened up and looked at Tomiyo, "Kempo, Ninjitsu, Karate as well?"

      He nodded, "Although I really need to find a master, I'm just a journeyman really."

      "Easy, Nab-chan, remember to breathe," Ranma told her, when she didn't glare at him, he got worried.

      "I've heard you don't hit girls," Sammi said as she approached.

      "That's right," Ranma straightened up to face her.  He thought of all the reasons for it, and quietly decided none of them applied to this woman.  She looked like across between an Oni and a heavy tank, and with the exaggerated delicacy she moved, she probably knew she'd break either of them she ran into.

      "That's just adorable," she rested her hands on his shoulders as she smiled broadly, "Such a gentleman, and at such a young age.  It's just sooo cute."

      Ranma's protest was cut short, by being held firmly against the ceiling, She's a lot better that I thought.  And a lot sneakier.  I would have sensed an attack, but this isn't one, really.  I could easily kick her in the face to get away, so I guess I didn't really lose.

      "It's good I'll be around to protect you, don't you agree?" she set him back on the ground, smiling broadly at him and the others, "You said something about practice."

      "Do you happen to know Jeffrey Davis?" Ranma asked.

      "Why yes, he and Asuka Langley are going to be staying with me," Sammi smiled again.

      A lot sneakier, Ranma looked at the rest of the crew.  The short woman, Nab-chan's new bodyguard, was introduced as Juri Kon.  Ranma was a lot more interested in Nab-chan's reaction to Shinji's guard.

      "Isn't it good to know you still have family?" Ranma asked quietly as the group trooped up to the roof.  Rit-chan had remained behind to find some more appropriate clothes for Rei, her school dress was not the best choice for Martial Arts.

      "Yeah, I," Nab-chan gulped, "I thought I was the only one.  I didn't even know there were other parts of the family, we just never talked about them."

      "Well, I think he'll forgive you," Ranma arrived at the roof top, and began spacing everybody out for warming up exercises.  He'd taken most of his free time in and out of school to come up with his plan, he was going to stick to it fairly rigidly.

      For the first day, Ranma centered himself, This is ridiculous, he examined his fear, It's simply a loss of pride, he told himself, Just start slow and easy.  The only one expecting miracles this morning is you.  That isn't reasonable, not that I'd turn one down.

      Rit-chan and Rei arrived, with Rit-chan's help he started into a simple stretching and warm up regimen, he'd planned on teaching falling, building on what Nab-chan had already started, the hard roof would give them a little added incentive to fall correctly.


      Admiral Simson sat at his desk and glanced over at an agitated Jeffrey Davis, Hoist by your own petard, eh? he kept his face composed, listening intently.

      "And after I kicked her."

      "In the groin," Simson reminded him, "Even if you suspected she was wearing a cup, that seems a little out of character for you."

      Davis grew more exasperated as he paced, "She'd just taken my rifle, my pistol and my knife away from me!"

      "So you were afraid for your life, that makes sense.  What doesn't make sense is if you were out of options, why are you here?"

      "After I kicked her, and she didn't react, she said I was as devious and underhanded as she'd been told, and that 'Was just too charming for words!'"

      "I'd say you got off lightly.  How did you escape?" Simson watched Davis pace, the Admiral had Sammi's complete report on the confrontation, he wanted to know how accurate Davis's description would be.

      'Admiral,' Samantha had told him during their interview the day before, 'In Western culture, someone who looks like me . . . well, people could think I should be wearing a winged helmet, some chain mail and a couple of saucepan lids, while I yodeled Wagner and escorted the dead to Valhalla.  The only thing here is the Oni, I don't want children screaming when they see me.  So I've learned to act really silly around them, but it's just an act.  Then I'm just the funny lady.  I'd rather be a joke than a monster.'

      "She, she kissed me, then picked me up like a baby and delivered me to the Marines," the incident dreadfully embarrassed Davis.

      Which is all to the good, Admiral Simson thought, Yesterday proved that plenty of trouble will find the pilots anyway.  I'd rather they didn't go looking for it.  He swivelled back and forth in his chair.  "So you weren't hurt?"

      "Only my pride."

      Simson hid his smile at the boy's downcast expression.  "She's one of the new security guards, we're switching over to a new `close escort` system.  Each pilot will have a specific guard."

      "Captain Ramsey explained that yesterday," Davis was finally calming down.

      "You aren't supposed to be doing this, you know.  We do have resources for dealing with such problems," Simson took the tone of the `Dutch Uncle`, "While we appreciate whatever intelligence you've given us.  Frankly I don't want to interfere with it, no matter how jealous it makes our spooks.  Nevertheless, you aren't to be field personnel.  Remember that."


      Asuka looked over the collection of tents and pavilions that dotted the school grounds, "In civilized countries, they don't hold classes outdoors."

      "When did you ever go to school in the U.S. or Canada?" Raccoon asked.

      She sputtered furiously at him.

      "Where is the class room?" Wondergirl seemed extremely put out.

      "Somewhere in that heap of charcoal," Asuka told her.  Wondergirl stared at her, "Where's the new classroom, I don't know.  Let's go find out."

      Horseface finally spoke up, "At least the others finally got to see what we've had to deal with."

      "As least Kensuke won't comment on wanting to be a pilot," Spineless said, "For at least a week."

      Asuka looked at the new guards, orbiting like electrons around a pilot nucleus.  She wasn't sure how this would work out, but it felt better having communications, and maybe heavy weapons, close at hand.

      Toji approached, he looked terrible, worrying about Hikari she guessed.  Asuka knew he'd never admit his feelings, she actually felt sorry for him.  She wished she could tell him that help was available.  Her dreams last night had included a long talk with the Scholarly Dragon, he had laid out the optimum attack plan against the spell holding Hikari.  He hadn't been confident in giving his assistance, they really needed a shaman and spiritwalker.  Asuka had been downcast, until he'd told her where she could easily find one.

      Asuka had never wanted to punch the dragon out so bad!  A common danger when dealing with dragons.

      "I'll lead you to the class," Toji said quietly, "There's a few problems, though."

      "Are you okay?" Asuka asked, trying to keep her tone concerned.

      "There was no change with the class rep," Toji admitted.

      She burned to reassure him, she didn't like him.  She had no idea why Hikari put up with him.  But it wasn't in her nature to hurt someone who hadn't hurt her first, he desired reassurances, he also deserved them.

      Until it worked, she wouldn't get his hopes up.

      They arrived at the large Army green tent, chairs and a portable blackboard set up underneath it.  Less than half the class was assembled around or under it.

      "Where's everybody else?" Horseface asked, looking over the familiar faces.

      "A bunch of the parents pulled their kids out," Toji told them, "Out of the class, and out of the school."

      "Where's the class V.P.?" Ice Princess asked as she greeted Hiroko.

      "Pulled out, the treasurer and secretary too," Kensuke told them, "I guess we need a new one."

      "Nab-chan," Hiroko announced.  Ice Princess blushed.  "Opposed?" Hiroko added.  Everybody looked around at each other.

      "Only until Hikari returns," Asuka insisted forcefully.  Again, no one commented.

      "Madam President," Raccoon knelt before Ice Princess, "I offer my life, my blood and my sacred honor to the furtherance of this, our Holy cause."

      Ice Princess put her hands on his head, from her expression, his head was too hard for her to crush with her bare hands.  "I would expect and accept no less.  Now, go fall on your slide rule."

      That broke some of the tension.  As Ice Princess got everyone in their seats.

      "Uh," Toji spoke up, "There's one other problem.  None of the teachers . . . well, none of them want this class anymore.  After our Lit teacher got killed, they don't want to teach us, not any more."

      "No problem," Horseface spoke up, "Our two big brains cover all the subjects.  If Raccoon doesn't know it, Sour Kraut does."  There was a look of challenge in his eye.

      "Who takes care of P.E.?" Raccoon answered the challenge.

      "Ranma of course," Spineless spoke up, earning a glare from his new roommate.

      "Let it be done," Ice Princess said, forestalling any more arguing.

      Raccoon trooped up to the front.  The first class was history, they pulled out their books and started going over the Battle of Tsushima and the rise of Japan as a world power.

      I bet he puts a spin on it the teacher never did, Asuka thought, as she worried if she or Raccoon was going to teach algebra, Algebra is so tedious! she lamented.


Honest Friendship With All, Entangling Alliances With None

      Captain Ramsey was sitting at his desk, quietly wondering how the week could get any worse, there was still Friday and Saturday to go.

      "Captain," one of his lieutenants entered, "There's a man I think you need to talk to.  He claims to have detailed knowledge of the pilots' cults, and a serious problem brewing having to deal with them."

      Well, that's how, Ramsey thought, "Send him in," Ramsey said.

      The cults that considered the pilots divine and worthy of worship had sprung up recently.  They were something that would have to be looked into and dealt with.  When a source of that information simply walked into his office, Ramsey was more than a little suspicious.  No, I'm paranoid, he thought, I know the universe is out to get me.

      He also knew that there was little he could do, except hear the man out.  Maybe he'd get some decent information, information he could use to further the official investigation.

      The man who entered was hardly Ramsey's idea of an investigator.  He was of average height, and slightly built.  He was definitely European or American.  His sad expression and overall appearance gave Ramsey the impression of a bloodhound crossed with an accountant, right down to the sad eyes and battered brown leather briefcase that matched his brown suit and brown tie.

      "I am pleased to finally meet you, Captain."  Before he shook Ramsey's offered hand, he made a slight gesture, twisting has hand, as if snatching something out of the air.

      Ramsey suspected he was dealing with a dabbler, a dilettante who sampled various new `levels of consciousness raising`, who'd gone seeking `enlightenment` and had stumbled across these cults.  There were a lot of hopeless, frightened people trying to muddle through in the wake of the war.

      That might be very valuable, Ramsey thought, trying to keep an open-mind.

      "The cults, they are six in number, they are gaining recruits, converts, influence . . . and weapons, every day," the man told him without preamble, "If I may?" he gestured to his briefcase.

      Ramsey had no reservations, "Yes, please continue."

      The man opened the rundown, old case, and extracted six file folders of various thicknesses, "Some of the groups have extensive writings: manifestos, cosmologies, translated and in-house prophesies.  Others muddle through without any coherence at all."

      Ramsey heard the disdain in the man's voice about the latter.

      The man opened one of the folders, it was marked 'Gistehla #5', in the serpentine letters of Aklo.

      Ramsey couldn't speak the language, but he could read a little.  Gistehla, the table of contents explained, meant 'Acquisition', it implied the noun and the verb.  Ramsey skimmed the rest of the table of contents, the cult called themselves the Accrued, and they worshiped the Fifth Children.  No where in the table of contents was she mentioned by name, just a complicated sigil.  Ramsey found that highly disturbing.  The cult's goals, relations with the other cults, and the senior membership were all detailed.  Ramsey had always wondered what kind of a person joined such an organization.

      He went directly to the senior membership, At least we'll know who to pick up and interrogate, providing the information is accurate.  The photo of the cult's high priest in full regalia at a `worship` service caught his eye, then he glanced at his visitor.  "You are the cult's high priest!?"

      "But, of course.  How could I entrust such a vital task to someone else?"

      Ramsey was glad of the sinking feeling, because his stomach was dropping too fast to let him throw up.

      "But why would you come here, to me?" Ramsey nonchalantly pulled his right hand off the desk top.

      "You see, we, to use your word, cultists, are very much aware of events surrounding us, perhaps more than most others.  We have the prophesies.  While they can be difficult to interpret precisely, they do show overall trends."

      Ramsey had managed to get his desk drawer open without making a noise, or a telltale movement of his hand or eyes.

      "This gives us a tranquility some of the others lack," the man continued.

      Ramsey nodded, his hand closed on the loaded, cocked and locked .45 in his drawer.

      "The concern we have, is that the other cults do not act with this equanimity."

      "I can see that might be a concern," Ramsey managed to get the safety off without making a noise.

      "You see," the man continued to sit calmly in the chair, "Our god demands we collect information, as well as other things.  Information is power.  We investigated the other . . . sects, examined their beliefs.  Their plans for violence horrified my agents."

      That got Ramsey's full attention, "Against whom?"

      "Against each other," the man's face took on an even greater sadness and intensity, "They, the Children, fight each other constantly.  However, they are entering both godhood and adulthood, the stresses are beyond anything any mortal could fathom, such trials.  They spit and snarl at each other, play childish games, because they are children, they are the Children.  Some of those fools believe they must emulate that, war against each other, ignoring the fact that a strike against any of the six brings all to the battle in support of their colleague.  They do not fight out of hate or malice, merely to define themselves against the artificial limits placed around them, and to find the real limits.  Miss Katsuragi is learning that.  My senior brothers and I spent many thoughtful, and many prayerful hours, seeking a solution."  The man glanced at Ramsey, seeking his approval, unaware of the pistol aimed at his head.

      "I'm eager to hear it," Ramsey said truthfully.

      The man leaned forward, was almost shot for his rashness.  "There are members of the pantheons of all these faiths who retain a position of authority and respect, in others.  In our faith," he made the complicated hand gesture again, "He is called the Holy Protector, in the . . . faith, of the Chaos Horse, he is 'Sword and Shield'.  Whether he is more sword or shield, his position never changes.  He is the guardian, like the Norse Heimdall, or St. Peter of Christian mythology, he is the gatekeeper, the first and most faithful line of defense," the man sat back, "It is obvious only he could bring all the cults to the table, to negotiate an end to the planned conflict.  To convince the hot heads that the Children would never approve of killing each other in their name.  Don't you agree?"

      "In principle, yes," Ramsey watched the man relax, while Ramsey hadn't relaxed an iota, Admiral Simson is going to keelhaul me when I drop this on him, Ramsey thought.

      "Then you'll do it?"

      "Make contact, of course.  The information you've provided me should be very helpful."

      "I knew my faith in the Holy Protector's wisdom would be justified," the man bowed.

      "Me?" Ramsey felt as if he'd been dipped in liquid nitrogen.

      "Of course, why go to a subordinate when I could go to the Holy Protector himself?" the man smiled indulgently.

      Ramsey's mind was racing in a thousand directions.  He idly watched the man collect papers from each of the file folders.  Then set them in front for Ramsey to see.

      Ramsey looked at the nearly typed and mimeographed sheets.  The 'High Priest' seemed to know not to say anything to disturb him.  The chart made from two pieces of 8" x 14" legal paper caught his attention, drew his attention back from his shock.

      'Keeper of the Mysteries' Rei Ayanami, 'The Fiery Knight' Asuka Soryu Langley, 'Dream Builder' Shinji Ikari, 'The Chaos Horse' Ranma Saotome, 'Kernel Sustains' Nabiki Tendo, 'Pathfinder' Jeffrey Kevin Davis.  A photo of each of the Children, a note of the others' significance in the cosmology.  Some notes on the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods they had each killed.  It was like an oversized cheat sheet for a comparative religion class.

      "As you can see Captain Ramsey," the man's voice snapped him back to reality, "Only you are of sufficient rank across the pantheons to do this."

      Ramsey saw his name moved up and down in the rankings, as his eyes moved across the `faiths`, but it always remained in the top third, neither Admiral Simson, nor Misato Katsuragi did that.  Gendo Ikari and Ritsuko Akagi weren't even in some of the listings.

      "I understand this is all difficult for you to accept," the man shrugged, "Accepting was difficult for me, initially.  Then it becomes so . . . right, that I just couldn't ignore it anymore.  I had lost faith in the Adonai of the Jewish and Christian faiths, now I had another to serve, someone I could serve faithfully, someone to whom I could truly belong."

      The fading hope that this was some kind of elaborate practical joke vanished, the near glow that appeared in the man's eyes confirmed that he was a true believer.  "This is hard for me to accept, to me, they're just kids."

      "And it is your job to believe that and protect them, until they're ready, protect them from people like me, frankly.  That I completely understand, it is why I came directly to you."

      "How many . . . " Ramsey almost said cultists, "Believers, do you estimate are in Japan."

      "Oh, about 15 to 20 thousand, mostly in Tokyo proper and the surrounding districts."

      We can handle that, Ramsey thought.

      "Each, most are ex-soldiers of various nations, and many have weapons and the training to use them.  They lack the brigade and battalion level support weapons, but they believe.  Even I cannot fault them for that.  Why they follow the lesser light," he shrugged, "It is not for me to understand.  I must have faith.  But I estimate the combined force would require no less than four complete divisions to put down.  If they are allowed to war on each other."

      Ramsey felt the icy hand of death around his heart, Four divisions, against at least 90,000 cultists, Ramsey thought, All or most of them true believers.  That could get real ugly real quick.

      "Now I assume you want some proof, some indication all of this isn't an elaborate joke played on you, or the ravings of a maniac."

      Ramsey nodded numbly.


      "How can you say the defeat of Japan in the Pacific War was rooted in the victory at Tsushima!?" Kensuke complained to Raccoon as they broke for lunch.

      Asuka had already had this argument, near the ramparts of El Nureenen's fortress.  She didn't need to hear it again.  The day wasn't going too badly.  Teaching wasn't as difficult as she thought.  Besides, her and Raccoon's activities had convinced the principal and the other teachers to take over.  The students were having too much fun, and were learning something, Asuka thought smugly, Can't have that, might set a bad example.

      She looked at the security guards scattered around, her own guard was a hawk-faced woman, called Erin Carter, who was fluent in German and English.  Although she didn't know much Japanese, Math or Physics, so there wasn't much Asuka really could talk to her about.  She was dreading living with Miss Kraznyzamok, she seemed a little too bouncy to be real, Although, Horseface deserves her.  Asuka also realized that she was the defacto leader of the detachment.

      "Miss - " Asuka approached her.

      "Sammi, please."

      "Very well, Sammi.  We are going to get together, the pilots, tonight.  Frankly we're going to defeat the last vestiges of what they did to our friends."

      "I think I understand," Sammi got serious, the first time Asuka had seen it.  It made an immense change in the woman's demeanor.  "What exactly do you want from us?  Not that you'll get it," she warned.

      "Perimeter defense, we'll also have a camp fire," Asuka said.

      Sammi stared at her cagily, "I think I can approve, but I need more information than that."

      Asuka sighed, she didn't know how much she could safely reveal.  The last thing she needed was Gendo to learn about this.  He'd never approve of taking the risk to rescue a mere junior high school student, or worse he'd demand they reveal everything they knew.  Not unless he gives us all the information he's hiding, Asuka kept her frown from her face.


      "So, Nab-chan, again the lord of all you survey?" Ranma sat down next to her.  He looked at Nab-chan talking with her factors, she hadn't lost a single one, although one wore a bandage on her arm.

      "He is not showing proper deference, milord," Hiroko said with mock horror, "Should we have him shot?"

      "No, lock him in Misato's kitchen," Nab-chan said fiercely, "What's up, Ranma?"

      "It's kind of creepy, having people follow us around all the time," Ranma admitted.

      "Well, they interviewed all of us last night," Hiroko admitted, "About your usual behavior and yesterday's activities."

      Natsumi raised her hand.

      "Just speak," Nab-chan told her.

      "Why is Ranma's a girl, and everybody else's is the same gender they are?"

      Ranma could see Nab-chan was as terrified of the question as he was.

      "And where's Ranko's guard?" Natsumi tightened the screws on them.

      "Ranma is Ranko," Hiroko told the other girl, "Haven't you ever read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Poor Ranko took this weird potion, now she turns into Ranma, to raven, slobber and destroy."

      "Really?" Nab-chan asked in an amazed tone, "I never realized!  It explains everything!!"

      Ranma got up and walked away, the girls were all laughing as he left.  That was close, he thought as Shinji approached him.

      "Raccoon needs our help for something tonight," Shinji told him quietly, "Something about going to rescue Hikari.  Do you know what that means?  Are we going into dreams?"

      Ranma didn't know for sure.  "Let's ask Raccoon, then we can take him around the building . . . and ask again."  He was glad Shinji chuckled at that.


      Captain Ramsey walked into Admiral Simson's office.  "With all due respect, sir.  You set me up."

      "Of course," Admiral Simson told his subordinate, indicated he seat himself.

      Ramsey closed the door, then did so, "He came to you first?"

      "With a full explanation," Simson replied, "I agreed with it."  He sat forward, "Look, Captain, we both know why we're here.  To irritate MacArthur, and to fail.  I had my choice of a lot of flag Captains.  They were all screw-ups, including you.  Fortunately, I had a chief who was with your sub tender in the Indian Ocean.  So I knew the truth, but you hadn't learned to keep your mouth shut.  Since then?"

      "Since then, I have," Ramsey admitted, "Do you have any ideas about the force structure they are offering us?"

      "Considering the militants who are still walking around, considering other cults that are becoming more active, use your own judgment.  I wouldn't turn down the command of six light infantry divisions.  You should also remember that you are an officer of the United States Navy, this does not supersede your oath of allegiance."

      "So take command, unofficially," Ramsey said, "Investigation, distant security, a few other things."

      "Don't commit until you know they aren't crazies.  Go investigate yourself.  Report back, consider means to ends," Simson counseled, "Maybe they will have to be destroyed.  Gather your intelligence with that in mind as well.  Frankly, there are too many unanswered questions around here.  Having an outside source of troops and information, may not be a bad thing.  Besides, if we tell them about SEELE's attempts to kill the Children, I don't think we'll have to do anything except give them a map, and see their ship off at the port.  That may be an option, even if we decide to destroy them."

      "You know, I liked it better when all the cultists were degenerate, inbred maniacs," Ramsey admitted, "The idea of them being calm, thoughtful, and on the surface, rational people worries me."

      "You and me both, Captain," Simson admitted.

      "Screw ups huh?" Ramsey smiled.


Rescuing Hikari

      Toji watched the groups assemble: the pilots, and their security guards.  Night was falling, Raccoon and Asuka were kindling a fire in a clearing's fire pit.  Toji was glad they were close to the hospital they were keeping Hikari in.  He really wanted to know what they were going to do.  Even if they broke into the place, how would that help her? he wondered.

      "So if you're going into this dream, what are Nab-chan and I here for?" Ranma asked as he stood over Raccoon.

      "There may be a fight," Raccoon told him.

      Ranma smiled and cracked his joints and stretched.

      "So how will this help the class rep?" Toji asked.  He couldn't guess what the preparations were all about, but both Asuka and Raccoon seemed to be taking them very seriously.  Bunches of dried plants bound together with string, a short metal tube and a screwdriver, jars of different colored powders and oils.

      "We go into the heart of darkness," Raccoon told them.

      "Don't worry, we'll protect you," Asuka told him as she picked up one of the jars and began pouring the contents to form a circle around the fire.

      He was about to tell her what she could do with that, when he saw the last weird thing Raccoon had brought.  A fringed rawhide jacket, with something tied in almost every length of fringe, and the fringe itself tied in a knot in the rest.  The knots were eye watering to look at, the whole thing looked like something out of an Ainu medicine man's kit.  He could only stare at the strange getup, "Raccoon, what are you made up as?"

      "I am a spiritwalker and shaman, this is a dream quest," he answered coldly, putting on the jacket.

      "Like what happened to me?" Saotome asked.

      "You weren't ready, it does you credit that you survived," Raccoon said in a voice that sounded faraway, and very old, "Hikari is definitely not ready.  So, we'll go to take her from where she's held."

      "You really aren't talking about that building over there," Toji pointed at the hospital, "Are you?"

      Asuka sat down in front of him, with several of the other jars.  "No, hold still."  She daubed what felt like grease under his eyes, on his face.  When she put it on his hands, he could see it was some kind of paint.

      "Now you Spineless, and you Wondergirl," Asuka beckoned them forward.

      "Toji, enter the circle, opposite me," Raccoon told him, "Ranma, Nabiki, your job is as important.  Let no one break the circle.  Ignore what you see inside it.  If anyone breaks the circle, we all die."

      Toji saw how serious Ranma and Nabiki got.  The security guards gave up any pretense of just standing around.  The leader, Sammi, pulled a B.A.R. from the large bag she had brought with her.  The others armed themselves similarly.

      As Shinji, with a wild series of spirals and whorls on his face, and Rei, marked with a pattern of wavy and straight lines, took their places on either side of him in the circle.  Asuka made a second circle of powder outside the first.

      Toji and the others crowded around the fire, it was suddenly very cold.  Toji looked at the assembly, as Asuka took her place, neither she nor Raccoon had any markings.  A gap, Rei, Toji, Shinji, another gap, Asuka, Raccoon.

      Raccoon took the screwdriver and drew blood with it, putting a drop of his blood on the first batch of plants.  He handed the screwdriver to Asuka, who did the same, dropping her blood on the plants.  Raccoon tossed it into the fire.

      Dry! Toji leaned back as the bundle of plants nearly exploded.  He glanced around.  Shinji and Rei simply sat, stared straight ahead.

      "Just relax, your soul knows the way," Rei told him.

      Toji decided he'd heard worse advice.  Asuka might play a joke like this, but not involving Hikari.  Rei wouldn't be part of any practical joke, and Shinji wouldn't give him a hard time over Hikari this way either.

      I'm really in for it now, he realized, These pilots aren't just strange, they're down right weird.

      Raccoon picked up the metal tube lightly and tapped on it with the handle of the screwdriver, making an oddly unearthly ring.  "In the beginning, all things and no thing.  All things in potential, no things in form, and the Creator saw this, and set about to change it."

      Toji listened to the words and the rhythmic tapping, the sound of the fire crackling, inhaled the sweet smell of the burning plants.  His eyelids grew heavy, he tried to keep himself awake.  Even the flares when Asuka tossed in more plants couldn't really keep him awake.  Raccoon always tells good stories, Toji's mind wandered, remembering bits and pieces he'd long forgotten, This one seems taken from Christian, Buddhist and even Shinto sources.  There was talk of winds and waters, stone and ice as if they were the gods and spirits he was used to, but at the same time, servants of the Creator's court.  But the tone was monotonous and Toji's eyes grew heavier.

      Shinji was already dozing, and Toji thought he heard a train in the distance.  Asuka and Rei sat up straight, eyes closed, breathing steadily, he didn't know whether they were asleep or awake.  A distant throb added to the sounds and smells lulling him to sleep.  It wasn't his heartbeat, the rhythm was wrong.  He blinked, shook off the fatigue.  Raccoon continued tapping to make the uncanny ring, telling his tale, now of monsters warring on monsters, They almost sound like the things in my dream, Toji thought, Could that have been real?  Was I seeing actual creatures?

      Raccoon's tale wove around Toji, as the aromatic smoke did, tales of the hero descending into the `chthonian?` depths to retrieve knowledge, of fire, of his people's fate, of many things.  Toji couldn't keep track, he remembered each story perfectly for a moment, then they all ran together, but he couldn't remember Raccoon or anyone else actually telling him the tales.

      Hikari's scream broke the spell, Toji jumped to his feet.

      "Stop!" Raccoon commanded.  Toji felt a compulsion coil around his mind, forcing him to stand stock still.

      "We have arrived."  Something big and sandy-gray uncoiled out of the shadows of the fire and Raccoon, who remained seated at the fire.  Asuka stood, except her body also remained sitting at the fire.  A knight in scarlet-enameled armor stood behind his classmate.  Asuka taller, older, in medieval armor, perhaps 30 years old.  The nagitana she carried had an axeblade affixed below the normal blade, an odd weapon.  Maybe Kensuke would know what it was, he thought.

      Rei carefully pulled Shinji to his feet.  They didn't seem to change, except there were two pairs, one pair still sitting around the fire, the other pair standing behind them.  Rei was either wearing a skin-tight glowing white costume, or she was naked and no - particulars - were visible, no nipples, no pubic hair, no navel.  Toji yanked his eyes away.  Shinji looked almost normal, except he stood straighter, filled with more confidence, he looked like Saotome, without the martial artist's arrogance.

      "We are here, we will find Hikari Hokari, return her to this circle by any means.  Then extinguish the fire," the barely recognizable shape behind Raccoon ordered.

      "What if we aren't all back?" Toji asked.  He glanced at the knight Asuka, expecting an insult.  None of the `normal` bodies had moved, they just sat there.  Even the fire seemed to move in slow motion.  Toji was too confused to really get scared, he did not want to look down and see his own body there at his feet.

      "Any left behind, will either find their own way back, or will be trapped here.  So, stay near Raccoon, myself or Wondergirl.  That goes for you too, Spineless," Asuka's insults were almost affectionate.

      "You heard the scream?" the sand-colored thing resolved itself into a winged rattlesnake, "Which way?"

      Toji pointed numbly in the direction of the scream.  This was the weirdest situation he'd ever been in.  Even fever-dreams weren't this bizarre.  "Where are we?  What happened to you guys?!"

      "Mind and soul, hers, ours," Rei told him, her dim but brightening illumination seemed to light the area, then as they moved away from the fire, he saw, Shinji and Asuka were glowing too, different colors, different intensity, but both were glowing.  Raccoon wasn't.  A field of darkness that seemed to clarify the area as well as Rei's white light did, but left only darkness where it overlapped the light of the others.  Even with the light, or undarkness, all around him was sandy level ground that stretched out as far as he could see.

      Toji was too busy listening for Hikari's voice to consider the changes in his companions.  He glanced around, he couldn't tell if he was glowing, the light from the others overshadowed whatever glow he might have had.  Rei's white light and Asuka's grim red were the brightest, nearly washing out Shinji's blue.  Raccoon, who darted ahead on his wings, seemed to suck the obscuring effect of the darkness out of the area around him.  Looking directly at it hurt his eyes, almost as much as staring at Rei's brilliance.  He concentrated on finding Hikari, he could make out her screams now, suppressed his desire to run into the darkness to her.

      "Here I am!  Please come find me!  Daddy!  Mommy!  Asuka!  Toji!"

      The last tore at his heart.  She was okay for a girl, but he'd never seriously considered what she felt about him.  Raccoon saw it, and called me an idiot that very first day.  He was right.  "Hang on, I'm on my way," he vowed.


      Rei had been closely watching the Second and Toji.  They seemed to hear something she could barely make out.  She sped up to catch up with Roku-kun, she needed to discuss something.  "Toji can hear her."

      "Yes," Roku-kun was as taciturn as she usually was.

      "He is - "

      "Yes," Roku-kun cut her off, "So is she.  I pray we don't need them. They won't have to know."

      Rei nodded and dropped back to the others.  It was quiet and blank here, but she could feel what was swirling outside her vision and hearing.  They would fight soon enough, at the moment it was content to watch, measure, and wait.

      The Second/Meliorist analog was nervous about her, she could tell by the apprehensive glances and grip on her sabre-halberd.  Shinji-kun seemed to sense this, and took a position directly between them.  Toji seemed to concentrate on listening.  Rei couldn't discern where the faint sounds were coming from.

      She looked back, the fire was clearly visible, the five of them clustered around it.  She idly wondered why Roku-kun had insisted she and Shinji-kun accompany the group.  The Second didn't trust her, and Shinji-kun was a novice.  Was this all a test, if so, of what?  If the test included Shinji-kun, what was she to do?  Which way was she to act when the rescue force came under attack?  She concentrated on Shinji-kun, calmed her thoughts, forced herself to remember that she would do as they told her.  She would only have to follow orders, not act on her instincts.  She felt her anxiety decreasing, satisfied that she had discovered a simple answer.  She was actually looking forward to the fight.  Her physical skills had increased considerably, she was better able to defend herself, and the others.  She was eager to find out how much she had improved, and where she needed further improvement.


      Hikari's screams tore at Toji, they had a hopeless tone to them.  He'd always thought Hikari was more of a fighter than that.  She'd stood up, in small ways, to the `school mafia`.  It made him anxious not to be allowed to shout support or comfort to her.

      'She is doing this to herself,' Asuka had warned him, 'We sneak in and rescue her.  We will have to fight our way out.  Better than fighting in and out.'

      He considered Asuka a cold-blooded bitch, for talking about her friend that way, But she's right, Hikari's the reason we're here, Toji grudgingly admitted, If we don't rescue her, we fail.

      "Should we try to discover where she is, like Radio Direction?" Shinji asked.

      "Triangulation won't work," Asuka said.

      "And we'll be hitting the first barriers soon," Raccoon added, "Once we do, we should let her know we're here, while you three swing around and head in from another direction."

      Toji was lost, military strategy was Kensuke's specialty.  That, and Asuka had just told him to be quiet.

      Rei led him and Shinji off on a tangent, while Asuka and Raccoon circled the other way.

      "What do we do?" he asked Shinji, who shrugged.

      "Wait," Rei supplied, crouching down in a sprinter's start, "You can move as fast as you believe you can."

      Frankly that didn't reassure Toji in the least.  He heard Hikari scream again.  Shinji and Rei almost had to physically restrain him.  Rei was more composed than usual.  Shinji was as lost as he was.

      A voice seemed to come from everywhere, a curious blend of Raccoon's voice and Asuka's, gentle yet commanding.  He couldn't make out any words, more like sound composed of feelings and information.  A command to turn inward to find the way out, that help is there, ready to sustain her.

      In response, Hikari shrieked for Asuka, for mommy, for Toji, for Daddy, for anyone to help her.

      Rei looked at him, nodded, all three rushed into the darkness.  He immediately lost sight of the others.  Cold, damp, slithery covered him, hands grabbed at him, whispering things about her, things he couldn't quite make out.  He punched, and kicked, and cursed as these things closed over and covered him.  He could hear the odd duet, suddenly he realized that the advice was for him too.  He stopped fighting the darkness that had closed over him.

      Calm, he told himself.  He ignored the feeling of the touches of the foul things, the vicious whispers.  He let the terror flow over and around him as the voices urged.


Between Eternity and Darkness

      Rei watched Shinji and Toji stop their advance, then relax, as she had.  The darkness faded slightly, more from Toji's efforts then hers or Shinji's.  She could feel the force of the terror turned against Roku-kun and the Second Children.  Hikari, for all the centrality of her personality here, was not strong enough to overcome one of the Children, and definitely not two, linked as they were.  She spared a moment to wonder about that.  The pair fought each other more ferociously than even they fought the Angels, yet they could cooperate in combat or on intellectual projects as well, and the sum was always vastly greater than the parts.

      Toji suddenly stood up and advanced at a steady walk, a very focused expression on his face.

      Fixed on a target only he can see, she thought.  She glanced at Shinji, he nodded and they advanced to support.  Hikari stood in the middle of an empty area, shrieking and flailing away.

      "Class rep!  It's us, we're here," Toji told her.

      She looked at him, eyes filled with terror, "You can't be here it's impossible!"  She charged him, he caught her easily.  She didn't know how to fight, and Toji simply restrained her until she went limp with exhaustion and resignation.  She continued to sob that he couldn't be here, neither could Shinji-kun.

      "Am I a more acceptable nightmare?" Rei asked.

      She looked at her with incomprehension.

      "You must lead us out," Rei told her.  The others suddenly saw that the path they entered by was gone.  A desert landscape extended in all directions instead.  The darkness, the fire circle, the Second Children's and Roku-kun's assault were gone.

      This is a parched and barren land.  Nothing can live or grow here, Rei looked around and thought, It is an odd source of terror, but it is not my terror.

      "I can't!  I've been here for months, there's no end to this place," Hikari told them.

      Rei twisted the place to her will, creating a canteen, she offered it to Hikari.  Perhaps a drink of water will calm and reassure her that there is a power here, beside the fear, Rei thought.

      Hikari drained the entire canteen dry, embarrassedly handed it back.  She looked at her three rescuers.

      She is contemplating her responsibility to us, Rei analyzed Hikari's expression, Before her responsibilities were abstractions, now they are concrete realities standing before her.  A good plan.

      Hikari was quiet a long while, considering.  The voices returned, again the advice to look within to find the way out.

      "I can't, I can't, I can't," she insisted in a hysterical tone.

      Toji glanced nervously at Shinji and Rei.  He made his decision, he picked Hikari up in his arms, "I'll take you out, just tell us the way."

      "I can't," Hikari replied.

      "You can," Shinji told her.

      She looked from one boy to the other.  She clung to Toji, buried her face in his shoulder, Toji's uncertainty was manifest.

      He whispered that they believed in her, "So do Asuka and Raccoon, who are waiting for us."

      Shinji and Toji quietly refute her denials of ability.

      I remember the words used to convince Shinji of his duty, Rei thought, The pilots roundly criticized Doctor Akagi and the Commander, although privately they admitted that it was necessary.  "If you want to die, we will leave you and find our own way out," Rei told her.

      Toji and Hikari were wide-eyed.  Rei suspected she had horrified them.

      "We will tell her family she selected death.  Perhaps the Second will take her place as Class President.  This is a wasted effort, we should go," Rei continued.  Even I know this is cruel, hurtful, Rei thought, Like teasing, but worse.

      "Ayanami," Shinji said softly, fear or disappointment.  Rei couldn't tell.

      I will apologize later.  But she needs to be shaken from the fear that has gripped her, perhaps I have gone too far, Rei realized by the look of fury on Hikari's face, she had not.

      "That is better," she told her, "Which way do we go?"

      The three were confused.  Hikari looked as if she had eaten something bitter.  She sighed, closed her eyes, tried to relax.

      Rei stepped closer to Toji, so did Shinji.  The aura of light the Children exuded kept the fear down to a rational level.

      "There," Hikari pointed in an apparently random direction.

      Toji didn't ask, he simply marched in that direction.

      Shinji was uncomfortable.

      His discomfort with this place and our methods weighs more heavily on him than on Toji or myself, Rei didn't know what to do about it.

      As they marched along, Hikari halted them several times, changed direction, sometimes a trivial change.  Rei understood that Hikari was literally setting the path as we they traveled.

      Although I doubt she knows that, Rei considered.  Barren terrain continued in all directions, no plants, no animals, the `ground` seemed to be flint with small piles of dust of indeterminate origin.  It would be impossible, short of extremely violent action, Rei examined her surroundings, To mark this place in any way.

      While they walked, Rei considered Hikari's fear, emptiness and barrenness as its source.  Our presence shattered her fears almost immediately.  Is loneliness what concerns her? Rei wondered, Is it a loss of family, friends, contact with others?  I have been without these things most of my life, they hold no terrors.  Is it possible fear is an entirely personal thing?  The Fourth fears cats, cats fear me.  So again, I do not understand such a fear.  Yet Toji and Shinji-kun are disturbed by this place.  She'd seen they needed no prompting to 'close ranks', they sought the closeness of others as a shield against the environment.

      What do I fear?  Do I fear anything, besides failure?  Besides failing the Commander and his plan? Rei wondered, But I do not fear this.  I merely seek to do all that I can to assure victory.  Rei found herself back to her first questions, What do I fear?  Do I fear anything outside myself?  Have I ever felt fear not forced on me by an outside source?  Can I even be afraid as they are?

      The wall of fire that sprang up in their path brought Rei and the other's concerns up short.  Hikari shrieked, Toji and Shinji-kun stepped back in concern.

      Rei recognized it as an act of desperation.  "Listen," she told them.

      There was a sound like thunder, a long way off.


      Hikari was trying to burrow into Toji's shoulder, the heat of the flames pained him, even at a distance.  Toji looked at Shinji, who kept glancing around.  This place is getting on my nerves too.  Ayanami seems unaffected, and I thought Asuka was a cold bitch, she doesn't even come close, Toji thought as he tried to shield Hikari from the heat of the flames as best he could, But Ayanami was right, we wouldn't have gotten this far without her `cruelty`.  Somehow, I know she'll get us out.  It's weird, I guess to be a good leader, you have to make hard choices without worrying about the feelings of others.  Toji looked at Rei, saw her staring at the flames.  He wondered how she could stay so completely detached from the weirdness and the threats to them.

      "We continue," Ayanami told them.

      "We can't!" Hikari shouted as she struggled in his arms.

      "We have other means," Ayanami said quietly, "Means that have no counter."  She started walking towards the flames.

      Shinji shrugged and pushed Toji forward.

      "Ayanami's never lied, has she?" Toji asked.

      "Not that I know of," Shinji assured him, "If she says it, it's true."

      Hikari shifted uncomfortably in his arms, they were all feeling the heat.  Toji wished there was some better way to protect her.  Then Ayanami started making sounds.  Toji didn't really think it was a tune, It's musical, the sound entranced Toji, But no instrument I've ever heard sounds like that.  He watched Ayanami walk singing into the flames.

      "So beautiful," Hikari said mistily.

      Toji remembered she had told them, 'We can move as fast as we think we can.'  Shinji and Toji exchanged glances.  Toji nodded to Shinji, they both sprinted through the flames.

      "We're through!" Toji shouted.  He looked around, the darkness they had headed for originally was behind them, their entry fire was clearly visible now.

      "We made it!" Shinji shouted.

      Ayanami stepped up behind the two boys, pushed them forward, "We must move, a battle will be fought.  Do not run, it will attract attention," she warned sternly.

      Toji and Shinji steadily marched to the fire and the figures in a circle around it.

      "What about Raccoon and Sour Kraut?" Toji asked.

      "Toji-san, don't call Asuka that," Hikari told him.

      "Just trying to get a reaction," he lied and was glad she accepted it as they marched along.

      "The fighters will remain," Ayanami warned them.

      Is she afraid? Toji wondered, he'd never seen Rei rush anything.  Now she was steadily pushing them for more speed.  Not a run, but a very fast walk.

      The flash of red nearly blinded all of them, their shadows grew immensely long and sharp-edged.  Hikari screamed in terror.  Toji didn't need any further urging to pick up the pace.

      "Do not look, run!" Rei shouted to them.

      Ayanami definitely sounds worried now, Toji realized as he broke into a run.  He focused on the fire in the distance, he willed himself to move as fast as he could.

      The next flash was dark, their shadows seemed bright spots on the ground ahead of them as they ran.  Toji felt bitter that he couldn't go faster.  More flashes, the red shifts to orange then through yellow.  The dark flashes grew weaker and weaker.  The fire seemed a huge distance away to Toji.  He ignored his parched throat, the ache in his arms and the stitch in his side.  He'd never run so far, so fast in his life.  Still he detested that he couldn't increase his speed.  We aren't getting closer as fast as we should be, Toji was irate about that, but nothing had been real and understandable since they got here.  The next flash was a brilliant sky blue.

      "They LIVE!" Ayanami shouted, "We must be gone before they prevail."

      Or WHAT? Toji wasn't going to waste breath shouting at her, he channeled the growing wrath within him to energy to drive him on to greater efforts, an exhilarating fury.

      He realized he wasn't mad at anyone or anything, it only made him able to run faster, a brighter, hotter furnace to power him forward.  He saw Shinji and Hikari were affected too.  He noted the fierce determination in Shinji he'd never seen before, a berserker fury as if they were racing each other to the goal.  Perhaps we are, Toji thought as he tried to keep ahead of Shinji, while Shinji strove to beat him.


      I shouldn't have wondered, Rei realized as she ran behind the others, I never expected such a tactic.  We have Hokari Hikari's core personality, the Second and Roku-kun are not constrained by anything except victory.  She let Shinji-kun and Toji pull slightly ahead of her as she deployed her AT field to defend them all.

      I had not believed such rage was possible.  I assumed it would kill whoever held it, she thought as it crashed over them in waves, hot fury and cold determination.  Rei forced herself not to race ahead of her charges.

      She held her AT field at as strong a level as she could.  She wished she better understood the math that the Second had told them about, to better shield herself and the others.

      Still, she was desperately worried, Whatever they are doing, is impossible.  The nexus required should be beyond their ability, they shouldn't even know it is possible.  And they aren't done yet!

      "We must be gone before the conflagration," Rei urged Toji and Shinji-kun.  The flashes had remained blue-white, A purity and refining of soul, she knew, Scourging the darkness.

      The distance to their goal reduced.  Rei worried whether they would reach it in time, and what might happen to them if they didn't.

      This is fear.  Run: I do not like it, I wish it to be over, she thought.  She felt her uncertainty about new places and new people spinning out of control.  Only the fire is now real, she told herself to concentrate on that.  She didn't have to urge Shinji-kun or Toji to greater exertions.

      The distance appeared to have shrunk to about 100 meters, then 50, then 20.  Then they were finally within the circle.  Shinji-kun and Rei remembered the instructions to extinguish the fire.  They frantically kicked it to pieces, buried it in sand.

      Rei grabbed Shinji-kun, held his face against her shoulder to shield his eyes as the brightest flash of all shattered the world.


      Nabiki circumnavigated the outer circle.  She alternately looked at the guard patrolling farther out and those within the inner circle.  The guards were clearly not pleased with what was going on.

      Better they understand what the Children really are and have to do, than discover it accidentally later, Nabiki thought to herself.

      She watched Toji nod off, Raccoon's tone and bell-ringing had her eyelids drooping too.  Ranma was alternately sneering and watching the area `outside.`  She doubted he would have left unless dragged away.  She also suspected part of his sneer was cover for how uneasy he was about magic.

      Considering his curse, Nabiki thought, I don't blame him one bit.

      The arrangements and the progress satisfied her.  She doubted anyone could get close, but she was pleased that the pilots were still willing to trust each other.  Especially after the last few days, she laughed inwardly, wondered what else could happen, short of the monsters showing up.

      "Shiiiit!" Toji yelled as the fire winked out like a birthday candle.  He rolled on the ground for a moment as if he were on fire or crushing bugs.  Shinji and Rei looked around, blinking.  When their eyes met, both blushed and looked away.

      What could have embarrassed Rei? Nabiki wondered, They were just sitting there!  With Toji between them.  And where did their face paint go? Nabiki could see no trace of the markings Asuka had made only minutes before.

      "Where's Hikari?" Toji demanded.  He and the other two looked like they'd just run a marathon.

      "Asuka!" Shinji shouted, turning to the redhead.  He tried to stand to go to her, instead he stumbled and fell, as if exhausted.

      Raccoon had fallen silent.

      "I'm here," Asuka fell on her back and groaned.

      Raccoon slowly stripped off his odd jacket and began packing away all his odd gear.  Both he and Asuka moved at half-speed, as if each move was painful, or unfamiliar.

      "Too bad you have to start over," Ranma told him as he stepped close.  Ranma stopped stock-still at the edge of the outer barrier.

      "We're done," Raccoon replied, "You can help erase the barriers, if you don't mind," he added in a weary tone.

      "So do we break into the hospital?" Nabiki asked.

      Weakly, Raccoon held up a NERV SAR arm band, "NERV business," he said, "Funny thing, people fear, but don't really respect most NERV branches.  NERV SAR is always 'hello there, have a seat, first rounds on us,' and so on.  I don't think I want to speculate why that is."

      "So we just march in there?" Ranma sounded shocked.

      "Don't worry," Sammi had come close, the other guards seemed afraid of the taint of lingering magic, "I'll protect you."

      "Whatsa matter?" Toji asked, "Too chicken?"

      Ranma clenched his fists, "I can do anything you can."

      "Try standing up," Nabiki joked, None of them seem steady enough to stand, let alone walk the distance to the hospital.  Even Rei seem unable to stand.  Nabiki saw that Asuka and Raccoon weren't even trying yet.

      "Get a stretcher," Nabiki suggested, "I think we'll have to carry them.  That will certainly get us in the hospital."

      Toji defiantly tried to prove her wrong, shooting to his feet.

      I haven't seen someone with that expression, Nabiki watched Toji in horrified fascination, Since Ranma ate one of Akane's `special treats`.

      Toji crashed back to the ground, and laid there unmoving.

      Ranma walked over to laugh at him, then instead, stuck his hand in the fire pit.  Nabiki noted the look of interest in Ranma's activity on Raccoon's face.

      Ranma obviously didn't understand what he found in the fire pit.  Nabiki judged from the time he left his hand in there, that it couldn't have been very hot.  She decided to blackmail the answers out of Ranma later.  For the moment, she could wait.

      Ranma stood and walked over to her, "It was cold," Ranma whispered to her, "Really cold."

      Real magic, Nabiki thought, wondered what price Raccoon would demand for such power.  Then wondered if he would find her wanting again, and refuse to even consider the idea.  She put such melancholy thoughts out of her mind.  She glanced at Toji, she doubted he would blab, he seemed too happy to be seeing Hikari.

      Ironically, Nabiki thought, So am I.  I won't press our shaman tonight, but I will have to figure out how to get him to open up.

      She considered means to ends, wondered if she could get Ranko's help with this, I can't go too fast, that was Shampoo's and my earlier mistake, too slow was Akane's.  Ukyo had the right of it.  Get him to trust me, show I'm not dangerous, that I can learn to use the power I already have wisely.  I doubt it will be easy.

      When the group could stand, and more importantly walk, they headed across the park to the hospital.

      The armband and the guards got them entry, even this late in the evening.  The night nurse's protest died at a glance from Sammi and the others.  She seemed to understand she could assist, or be removed.

      "What do you think of all of this?" Nabiki asked Sammi.

      "Either you pilots were playing an elaborate practical joke on the rest of us," Sammi replied, "Which I don't discount for an instant.  Or there really was something going on around that fire pit.  I mean to find out which, and I'll tan your hides, if it was a joke."

      Nabiki nodded.  She had seen more than the older woman, she suspected what they'd seen was real.  She also knew for certain that Raccoon would deny doing anything outre or supernatural.  She knew the Martial Artists back `home` would consider it sacrilege, but she didn't believe burning incense and prayers had all that much effect.  They hadn't saved her mother, of course Western medicine hadn't done the job either.  Nabiki wasn't sure what she believed anymore, if she'd ever believed in anything.

      Hikari was sitting up in her straitjacket.  "Toji!" she was overjoyed to see him.

      "That's impossible," the nurse consulted the chart that hung on the door before she opened it, "She shouldn't even be conscious."

      Nabiki had read the notes on Hikari's chart, they showed an increasing dementia and violent outbursts, requiring more and stronger sedation.  This was totally at odds with the girl leaning on Toji's shoulder, chatting animatedly with the others, while Rei released the straps and restraints.

      "I . . . apologize, it was necessary," Rei told her as she released the last of the straps.

      Nabiki could see how nonplused Hikari was by this, `creepy` Rei trying to be a person.  Hikari suddenly stopped trying to get out of the straitjacket.  Nabiki suspected she'd just discovered how little she was wearing underneath it.

      "There is nothing to forgive.  You did what had to be done, and - I am very grateful," Hikari bowed to her.

      Rei withdrew, so she wouldn't be a damper on Toji, Asuka and Shinji fussing over Hikari.  She stepped out into the hall to stand with the others.  Ranma, Raccoon, Nabiki and the guards stayed out of it as well.

      We aren't part of her circle, Nabiki thought as she glanced at Rei and the others.  She found the grouping a strange metaphor of their relationships, Asuka and Shinji trying to be kids.  Ranma, Raccoon and Rei with their `hidden depths`, stand outside to guard them.  Then which am I?  Do I want to be where I am, without deserving to?

      After some time, the nurse shooed them out.

      "We promise to bring a few others by tomorrow," Toji promised.

      "I intend to be at school tomorrow," Hikari replied, "There's no telling what happened without me there."

      "Well Na - YOW!"

      Eight feet descending on Ranma's two, kept him from giving anything away.  He glared at all of his fellow pilots.  They all trooped out, Hikari needed to rest, so did they.

      "Hikari talked about the horrible nightmare," Asuka told the others, "She's already trying to act as if it never happened, or a dream.  I wish I knew if that was a good idea."

      "Yes," Rei replied.

      "I have to agree," Raccoon said, "Put it behind you."

      "Can we offer you a ride home, Mr. Suzuhara?" Tomiyo asked.

      "Nah, thanks though.  I've got some things to think about," Toji replied.

      "No one will ever believe you," Shinji told him, "You don't believe it."

      "Don't I know it," Toji waved and headed off.

      Ranma, Nabiki and Shinji separated themselves, Sammi would drive them home.  Then she'd show her two new charges around their apartment.

      When they arrived back at Dr. Akagi's apartment, Shinji clearly wanted to go directly to bed, he commented he could take a shower tomorrow.

      "Don't forget morning practice," Ranma reminded him.  Shinji merely groaned in response.

      "What do you think happened out there?" Nabiki asked Ranma, "You have those chi powers you've been working on, you've been in dreams."

      "It was over before I could sense anything," Ranma replied, "The fire went out, and it was over.  I haven't the faintest idea what they were doing."

      "Terrific," Nabiki commented, "You want to bet none of them will talk about it?"

      "Can I bet that they won't?" Ranma asked, agreeing with her, "What, you want to learn what they did?"

      "Don't you?" Nabiki asked.

      "NO!"  Ranma left to get a shower, leaving Nabiki to consider.


      Asuka just wanted to sleep, she hated being dropped off on the threshold with a pack of `babysitters`.

      "Sorry it took so long," Sammi told Asuka and Raccoon as they waited.

      "The way I feel," Asuka admitted, "I don't care if it's blankets and dirt floors.  As long as I can get some sleep."

      "What were you doing anyway?" Sammi asked as she stepped aside to let them in, the other guards were dismissed.

      The main hallway entered onto the living/dining room, instead of the kitchen like Dr. Akagi's and Misato's apartments.  Four doors set in the walls, two on each side.  A spiral staircase was at the far end.  No patio or balcony was in evidence, just a picture window, another difference from what they'd had before.

      "You two can take either of the inner bedrooms.  Each pair shares a bathroom.  My room's upstairs," Sammi told them.

      "I hope the kitchen's up there too," Raccoon said.

      "You aren't going to try to cook all the meals?" Asuka asked angrily, "Like at Dr. Akagi's?"

      "Nobody complained," Raccoon replied, a touch defensively.

      Asuka knew she had him, decided she could finish him off in the morning, "Left.  Where's all our stuff?"

      "Yours is all hung up in the left bedroom, Jeff's in the right," Sammi smiled at them.

      Asuka was too tired to wonder how they'd guessed, decided they had a 50-50 chance, so whoever guessed right.  "What else is upstairs?"

      "Drawing room, the balcony," Sammi told them, "The armory, fire control station to the 8-inch gun on the roof, a few things like that."

      Asuka frowned, "Does this place have hot water, the paint smells new."

      "Yes, the toilets even flush, a real 20th Century house," Sammi told them.

      "No offense," Asuka yawned, "Unless the cook's tour can't wait until tomorrow, I want a shower and bed."

      "No, it can wait."  Sammi left them and headed upstairs, giving them the illusion they were alone.

      "Something is not right," Asuka made a hand-sign that signified somebody was watching them.

      "Oh, it's not too bad," Raccoon gave the sign he agreed.

      "Well, I'll see you tomorrow.  I hope you don't snore or talk in your sleep," she headed for her room, and the attached bathroom.  Something kept worrying her.  Despite the name, Sammi wasn't Russian, but she didn't act like a Japanese either.  Who does she act like? Asuka wondered as she stripped and stepped into the hot water of the shower, Only the Baby Wondergirl acted like that.  She was part of Wondergirl's dreamscape, not real.


Chapter 10
Chapter 12
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