Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 24-26 ( Chapter 12 )

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

Chapter 24 - Explain the Tameness of Wolves
      Wash daily from nose-tip to tail-tip
      Night is for hunting, the day is for sleep.
      Cub-Right is the right of the Yearling. From all of his Pack he may claim
      When ye fight with a Wolf of the Pack, ye must fight him alone and afar
      If ye kill before midnight, be silent, and wake not the woods with your bay
      But kill not for pleasure of killing, and SEVEN TIMES NEVER KILL MAN
      When Pack meets with Pack in the Jungle, and neither will go from the trail
      Lie down till the leaders have spoken--it may be fair words shall prevail
      Keep peace with the Lords of the Jungle
      The Kill of the Wolf is the meat of the Wolf. He may do what he will
      In all that the Law leaveth open, the word of the Head Wolf is Law.

Chapter 25 - The Cooking Contest

Chapter 26 - Lady or Tiger?  Both!
      Lessons in Grammar and Math
      Confessions in the Dark
      Exposed and Susceptible
      Resolve Dissolve Clarify
      Tiger Tiger Burning Bright
      Fire that Warms and Burns
      Counter Revolution
      In the Darkness

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 24 - Explain the Tameness of Wolves


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


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ht tp:// 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 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.

      The pilots react to the rearrangement, none like it.

      Nabiki finally goes over the pilots bios, including her own.  She is shocked by some of the things she finds there.

      Ritsuko and Jeff finally have it out over their feelings, they agree the separation is probably necessary.

      The meetings between the pilots and their new guards goes well.  Ranma gives Shinji, Rei, Nabiki and Ritsuko the first lessons in Martial Arts.

      Captain Ramsey encounters the cults of the pilots, when Nabiki's High Priest walks into his office.

      The pilots, and Toji go into the realm of spirits to rescue Hikari from the legacy of the Lloigor's spell.  Rei leads the rescue, while Asuka and Jeff destroy the spell.

Now this is the Law of the Jungle--as old and as true as the sky;

And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back--

For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

The Law of the Jungle - Rudyard Kipling

May 30, 1947

Chapter 24 - Explain the Tameness of Wolves

Wash daily from nose-tip to tail-tip

      Asuka walked out of her room, angrily wondering who had snuck in and rearranged all the furniture.  What was worse, they'd also hidden the bathroom.

      "Toilet!" she demanded of the two figures who had invaded Misato's apartment.  She recognized Raccoon, but her mind wasn't reporting anything on the large brunette woman.

      The pair pointed back into the bedroom she'd just barely managed to find her way out of.

      "Door next to the closets," Raccoon yelled with a voice too loud to be truly human.  Asuka covered her ears and headed back in.

      Gendo wasn't often surprised when he entered his office, but his wife had been gone a long time.  Besides, she hated sitting behind a desk, as this woman was doing.

      "You can't be here," his hand found the pistol he always kept in his pocket.  His fingers brushed the other weapon he kept there, he hoped that one wouldn't be necessary.

      "I'm not," his wife, or what appeared to be his wife, even to wearing her favorite lab coat, came out from behind his desk.

      Hairstyle, shoes, hands in the pockets carriage, it was a picture perfect image of his beloved wife.  Gendo had been there when she was destroyed, body and soul destroyed by an accident in Unit 01.

      "Something is searching, searching very hard, when its eyes fell on this planet . . . who knows what effect that could have on receptive or sensitive minds?"

      Gendo wasn't inclined to let whatever it was get too close, ironically, it was as good as his former wife at detecting his moods.

      "You always were suspicious," she smiled at him, as she leaned against his desk, "I told you, you'd be perfect for this job.  The plan is going well I take it?"

      "Who are you?"

      "A bit of your own fear, made manifest," she cocked her head as Yui always had when some new discovery amused her, gave the same smile, "Only you never were afraid of very much, always too wrapped up in plans and detailing contingencies to actually worry about things.  Unlike the rest of us mortals.  You were right, Naoko did kill me.  I always wondered who hated her more for that, Rei or Ritsuko, not that it matters."

      "It still affects both of them," Gendo nodded, but didn't release the pistol or relax.

      "Shinji, I take it, is progressing as we planned?"

      "He is competent."

      "High praise from you," she, the image of Yui told him, "But don't let him hear you say that.  We need them for now.  I doubt they'd understand what we'll need them for later.  Children by their very nature can't comprehend the greater mysteries and more complex needs of society.  You have to be a parent for that."

      Gendo agreed, "You haven't asked about Kozo," Gendo ventured.

      "Dear Professor Fuyutsuki, still ferreting out secrets, eh.  I often wondered why we kept him around, he was always much too squeamish.  On too high an ethical plane.  As if morality could actually save us."

      "He has changed, since your accident," Gendo felt an irrational need to stick up for his old friend.  Even if he was effectively arguing with himself.

      "Has he now?" the image vanished.

      Gendo took the warnings for what they were worth, the rest of the conversation he could discard.  "Perhaps I did need to talk to someone, now I have."

      Asuka returned, feeling more human after her morning ablutions, "I hate mornings," she told them.  She felt especially tired this morning.

      "Oh," Sammi said in a singsong voice, "Someone is a grumpy bear before she's had her breakfast."

      Asuka focused on Raccoon, offensively wide-awake and chipper at this UNGODLY hour.  She was trying to verify what her ears had reported, "Grumpy bear?" Asuka asked, then hid her face in her hands at Raccoon's nod.

      "God," she said in German, "Just shoot me now!"

      "Oh, you speak German," Sammi chirped as she set a plate of food in front of Asuka, "Mine's a little rusty, but I'll get plenty of practice."

      Asuka looked at Raccoon, hoping he'd take mercy on her and shoot her, if he was feeling particularly humane, he'd use a silencer.  Only focusing on the breakfast made her feel any better.  Sausages, pancakes, orange juice.  "I've died and gone back to Germany," she said happily.  She did feel better, although she was a little irritated that Raccoon had already made breakfast, and lunches, for all three of them.

      "I'm making dinner," she threatened him.  She was glad he had the good sense to surrender on that point, "So how do we get to school," she glanced out the window and saw only partially cloudy skies, no cloying fog.

      "There's a tank being sent," Sammi told them, "I have to get to Saotome's practice, keep him from hurting himself or anyone else," she smiled, "Why don't you come with?"

      Asuka's glower was matched by Raccoon's, "No, thank you, I'd rather tap dance in a minefield."

      "I don't trust him," Raccoon added, "Certainly not enough to get into a fight with him.  Not even in practice."

      Sammi stared disappointedly at both of them, "Very well."  The cutesy act dropped away, "Stay in the apartment until the guards arrive.  Understand?"

      "Understood," Asuka and Raccoon replied.  Sammi headed off.

      "I'm not that stupid," Asuka said, "Besides, I remember a savateur and pankratiast who I can practice with, later.  All that 'Eastern Mystery' crap, the West has arts too, and they're a lot older than Saotome's stuff."

      "I'm no where near Saotome's skill levels," Raccoon admitted.

      "You, sir, are a superior teacher.  That counts for a lot more."

Night is for hunting, the day is for sleep.

      Nabiki held out her hand, Raccoon handed over the book of differential equations, then pulled two more from his left coat pocket and another his right:  Chemistry, Child Psychology, Metallurgy.  He pulled a fifth from an inside coat pocket, Kipling, that one he didn't hand to her.

      "I could take that," Ranma said, "Any time I want to."  He smiled at the other boy.

      Raccoon returned the smile, "You could.  But you have to sleep sometime."

      Nabiki felt teeth pressing on her hand, not breaking the skin, but making their presence, as part of the book on differential equations, known.

      "Knowledge is power," the book said, opening and closing in a disturbing parody of a living mouth.  "Both power to hurt and heal have their responsibilities."

      Nabiki looked up, anything not to look at that book.  She was in the classroom-tent at school, with no memory of how she'd gotten there.  She remembered practice, breakfast and . . . nothing else after that.  Asuka and Shinji were skeletonized corpses at their seats, Ranma was burning away, skin and muscle turning to ash as she watched.  Raccoon was melting like a candle, running down his sides and pooling on the floor.  She glanced at Rei, who stared intently back at her.

      "How can you save them?  If you do not want to save yourself?" Rei stood, stepped away from her desk, and walked to the front of the tent they were holding the class in.  Growing with each step, becoming immense as she approached the front of the `class room`, yet still contained within it.  As if the front of the tent was miles from floor to ceiling, while the back rows Nabiki was seated in, were still human-sized.

      "You want to shed your body, your worries, your cares."  The huge Rei spoke, "We offer you power.  Power to achieve all you must do, all you want to do.  None could prevent you from taking what is rightfully yours.  No one will ever be able to stop you again.  Think of all the good you could do.  Think of the suffering you could end!  To allow all to be secure in their role, to know their place and be happy."

      "Hey, Boss," Hiroko got her attention, Ranma was only a skeleton now, Raccoon had melted away completely.  Hiroko seemed to be shrinking, or her desk grew larger.  "Do you need someone to show you around?"  She shrank to the size of a mouse, then a microbe.

      Nabiki knew when Hiroko was small enough, she'd slip between the molecules of the chair, and fall to her death.

      "You can save her."  The huge Rei was melting too.  Building-sized pieces of molten flesh fell for miles to land with a thunderous crash.  "You can save me.  You can rescue the others."

      The pile of molten matter that had been Raccoon was now making a sound that was both screams of agony and hysterical, insane laughter, as it writhed on the floor.

      "You can save us," Rei said as she finally collapsed.  The resulting wall of molten material surged through the class, burning and drowning the other students.  They seemed oblivious to it, until it touched them, then they screamed and struggled for life.

      The book bit her again, "Don't forget what I said."

      Nabiki opened her eyes, the teacher was staring at her.  "Well Tendo-san, do you have the answer or not?"

      English class, translation, she remembered.  "Yes, I apologize.  I was trying to remember where I put it."  She rummaged through her folder to cover her uncertainty.  Was it real?  Was this another illusion? she asked herself.

      "Ode to A Grecian Urn," Nabiki managed to finish the passage, her English flawless, better than the teacher's, thanks to the goddesses and their gifts.

      Nabiki also noticed Rei staring at her, weighing if she should speak or not.  Rei's obvious uncertainty was as alien and surreal an experience as the toothed book and the offer.  She knew that it wasn't an ordinary dream.  Someone or something had tried to contact her, or she was going mad.  But which, and how would she find out?  The experience was entirely in her mind.  Then she looked at her hand.  On the meaty part of the heel of her hand, just below the thumb, were the deep bruises where the math book had bitten her twice.  She touched them, they were tender, but the skin wasn't broken.

      "It wasn't a dream," she whispered, noticing Rei's stare had focused on her hand.

      The quiet girl gave away nothing, other than her absolute interest in those bruises, and the corresponding set on the back of Nabiki's hand.

      Nabiki shuddered.  She'd never blacked out before, never hallucinated. But this wasn't a hallucination, she chided herself, Hallucinations don't leave marks, and . . .

  "Raccoon?  Do you have a math book on you?"

      Raccoon nodded, and handed her a pocket book on Linear Algebra and Matrices.  It didn't look or feel like the other book.

      She frowned, and handed it back.  She leaned back in her desk.  Whom should she ask?  Who would believe her?  When I don't believe it myself, she thought, Does Rei's stare indicate she knows something, or that she is simply aware of the spontaneous injury?

Cub-Right is the right of the Yearling. From all of his Pack he may claim

      Nabiki waited for the door to Akagi-sensei's apartment to close completely before she spoke.  "You insufferable, self-centered jerk!"  She stopped, the logical `Ice Princess` reasserted herself. "No, that's not fair.  He cares about the Art, he cares about honor, not himself."

      Inhaling the food at their candle-lit dinner, then going out to do his evening practice still hurt, even if Ranma didn't mean anything by it.

      She marched over to the refrigerator and yanked the note off it, and crumbled it in her fist.  Then she set it on the counter and smoothed it out.

'Don't' rush, take a deep breath,

open the icebox

and proceed as you think best.


      She read it aloud, smiled and considered the day, after her odd vision.

      "Please!" Nabiki asked, batting her eyelashes and smiling more cutely than even Ranko could.  She would have had better luck charming his walking stick.

      "I'm sorry, no," Raccoon replied, as he put his books away, "I warned you that Asuka had a compatibility test.  You should have guessed Shinji would go along as moral support.  Rei and I are working on our project, and I don't know my way around Sammi's well-enough.  What about Hikari?"

      Nabiki frowned at him, even after the rescue, she wouldn't ask the class president for anything, if she had any alternative.  "Her?  Clean the classroom instead of me?  She'd assign me a week of cleaning all alone to make up for it.  Sweeping all the grounds."

      "You're exaggerating.  You told me to be out of your apartment by the evening, it's not my fault you made a mistake.  Maybe I could help you, if you'd tell me what your deep, dark secret is."

      "If I tell you, you'd take my place?" she asked hopefully.

      "I didn't say that.  I said I'd help."

      "That isn't good enough," she grumped.  She had to admit she'd gotten so wrapped up in her plan, she'd missed a few vital clues.  Asuka was having a compatibility test with the other EVAs, that meant no Ritsuko until late.  She'd been overjoyed that Shinji had decided to make himself scarce, so it was just her and Ranma, all afternoon and evening.  Maybe she'd finally make some progress on what originally brought her here all those months ago.

      But she'd owed Asuka a cleaning day, and Asuka had told Hikari that Nabiki was taking her duty, and they had only told her at the end of lunch.

      All her plans were collapsing, and everyone else either couldn't or wouldn't help, even Hiroko, even Ole` Reliable.

      "Well, I'd better catch up with Rei, she'll be quite cross if I make her wait.  I think she'll enjoy these little lessons."

      "How can you tell?" Nabiki said glumly and watched him go.  She also knew Hikari would critique every little bit of her work, so she couldn't just rush through and be done.

      "Why does the thought count?" Rei asked as she chopped vegetables in Dr. Akagi's kitchen.

      Roku-kun stood by, watching her, letting her do everything, but ready to give suggestions, advice, or avert disaster.  "It's a shorthand phrase for the idea that any gift is a symbol of one person considering the likes, dislikes and needs of another person.  The closeness of the intent to the actual needs and desires of the recipient indicates how much thought about the other person went into the gift."

      "We make so much extra because Ikari-kun would want the Second fed as well?" she asked.

      "Exactly, he won't have to cook and Langley can't complain 'Wondergirl only made enough for Spineless!'  She'll simply gobble down the food and Shinji won't have to listen to her say how hungry she is, while he's just as hungry."

      "Yes, long testing makes me hungry."  She selected a daikon and considered which of the various slicing/chopping methods would best preserve the flavor.

      "Thanks a lot you two," Nabiki said, as she jogged past the pair leaving Dr. Akagi's apartment with the trays of food.

      "You are welcome," Rei replied.  Raccoon just held the door for both girls.

      "I was being sarcastic," Nabiki frantically removed her outside shoes.

      "Ooo, she's mad.  Let's run," Raccoon told Rei.

      Nabiki considered yelling at them, as the pair beat a hasty retreat.

      "Ranma will be here any minute, what am I going to do?" She slipped on her inside shoes and headed to the kitchen.

      Nabiki smiled at the memory.  "I didn't tell you anything, and you still rode to my rescue.  Ranko saw it, and I didn't.  How blind have I been?"  She put the note and the recipe in her room, and headed back to wash the dishes.

      Ranma had returned, "Hey, Nab-chan."  He brushed the back of his head, "Would you, I dunno, like to practice with me?  Some katas, maybe some sparring for you?"

      Nabiki thought he sounded hopeful, "Sure, you can put the dishes in to soak while I change.  After all, a girl should keep her options open."

      He smiled, slightly confused.  He was cute when he was slightly confused.

      The image of another grin intruded for a moment, "Okay, Raccoon," she whispered, "I owe you and Rei one too."  She changed into her exercise clothes.

May 31, 1947

When ye fight with a Wolf of the Pack, ye must fight him alone and afar

      The Admiral had called Sammi and the other guards into his office, for the end-of-week debriefing on the pilots, and the progress of the relationship between the pilots and their guards.

      "What is this I heard about a fight between Davis and Langley?" Simson asked.

      "Just an argument that's been brewing for a few days," Sammi explained, "They almost had a fist fight, two hours later, they're as thick as thieves."  She shook her head in amazement.

      "Keep an eye on them," Simson warned, "How are the martial arts lessons going?"

      "Saotome hasn't killed anyone," Tomiyo joked, "And Ayanami hasn't seen any reason to kill him.  I'd call that a rousing success."

      Simson chuckled at that, "Two days, and even the pilots aren't trying to kill the pilots.  I think it's working."

      "Why are we really doing this?" Asuka asked as she unlocked the door to Misato's apartment.

      "Are you claiming I have an ulterior motive for this?" Raccoon asked with an offended tone and posture.

      "I'm convinced you have an ulterior motive for breathing," she replied as she entered.  She'd never let on, but the sight of Misato passed out at the dining room table, horrified her, a pile of beer cans surrounding her like some kind of fortification.  The Maginot Line didn't work to keep out the world either, Asuka thought, and she bent to her task of helping Raccoon inventory what Misato actually had in her cupboards and refrigerator.  "This is disgusting," she commented, "You want to have a real contest now?  Leave her with some leftovers so she won't starve to death?"

      "I'm up for it," Raccoon said, "Won't we wake her up?"

      "You have got to be kidding," Asuka said.

      "We have to do something!" Asuka stared as the snoring woman, while Raccoon packed away what they had made in the refrigerator and the freezer.

      "Of course," Raccoon agreed, "We have to know who won."

      "HEY!" Raccoon reacted to the splash of cold water.

      "I was just curious if you turn into an idiot with cold or hot water," Asuka said angrily, "Don't twit me about this."

      "Okay," Raccoon accepted the towel from Asuka, "What exactly?"

      "Stick your finger down her throat, and then clean her up, and get her to bed?" Asuka suggested.

      "Langley," Raccoon said quietly, "You can't save her, not from herself."

      Asuka thought that was an unacceptable situation, she sighed, "Does that mean we don't try?"

      Raccoon shrugged.

      Asuka considered, she saw the well-concealed look of bitterness on her friend's face.  "Look Raccoon - Jeff, I don't know what's betwee - "

      "You don't want to," Raccoon coldly insisted, "You really don't."


      "So what do we do?" Raccoon asked.

      She could see he wasn't that interested in helping Misato, he was only doing this because she asked.  She worried about that, "Let's get her face off the table first.  Then get her to the bathroom.  Isn't there something - more effective?"

      "Not really, a temporary respite, but nothing permanent," Raccoon admitted, "With a few extremely unpleasant side effects.  Simple chemistry, they had similar treatments in the future, counter conditioning."

      "Without dealing with the underlying problem," Asuka said, "Something else would take its place.  Until then," Asuka sat down at the table, stared at the woman before her, "We do what we can."

      "Let's get her up," Raccoon slung Misato's arm over his shoulders.  Asuka stood to help him.

      "You!" Misato slurred as she started moving, "Damn you," she piled into Raccoon, surprise and her greater weight gave her the advantage.  Both wound up on the floor, "Waz wron wit'ya?  Ya st'pid, er blin'?"

      Asuka wasn't certain what to do, once Raccoon was face down on the floor, Misato quit moving.

      "Don' care 'bout me!" Misato shouted, raised her fist to start pummeling Raccoon, "Kaji, why'dnt ya care?!"

      Asuka caught Misato's fist, before it could descend, she remembered Kaji's betrayal and abandonment of her in the dreams.  She could sympathize with Misato's pain, she still thought it funny that the 'honorable samurai'/clueless lunatic had been the only one to see and reach out to her when she was so hurt.  She wondered whose fault this was, Misato's, Kaji's, or some combination.  "Kaji's not here.  It's just us, Misato.  We want to help you."

      Misato suddenly focused on her, "You?  Who cares 'bout you!?  Jus' trouble!  Jus' noise!  Yer reason Shinj's gon!  I hate you!  I hate ya, the whiny little snoop!  Who car's 'bout you! Us'l'ss lil' g'rl!"

      'Langley, NO!' she heard Raccoon's voice, it penetrated the curtain of hurt and fury that had blinded her for a moment, she stared at her own fist.  She'd been ready to smash Misato for what she'd said, wished she'd had a knife instead.  As an alternative, she turned and ran.  She didn't want anyone, even Raccoon, to see her like that, weak, teary-eyed.  She told herself it didn't matter, Just words in a drunken rampage, she tried to remind herself, that Kaji had hurt her almost as badly.  But it didn't stop.  She didn't stop, until she was back at Sammi's apartment, locked in her room, her face buried in her bed.

      She pulled a pillow over her head, so no one would hear her screaming, screams of righteous rage she told herself.

      After a long while, she heard the bedroom door open.  Someone pulled the pillow aside.  She whirled to face him, as Raccoon pulled her to a sitting position.

      She punched him in the chest, a weak, ineffectual blow, typical of a 'useless little girl'.  Hitting him and his coat was like punching a brick wall.  He held her shoulders while she delivered the blows, mechanically, too weak to be an attack.  He just weathered them, staring at her saying nothing.  She knew he was waiting, abiding until she wore herself out.  A stoic look of resignation as he took her rage away from her.

      Exhaustion finally came, I won't cry, not over what she said.  Not over what she meant!  I can't let her hurt me!  She slumped forward, unable to raise her arms anymore, grateful for Raccoon's silence, his understanding at a time like this.  "I tried.  I HATE her so much!"

      "Yes, you hate her.  Because you see her running down the same road your mother took, and you can't save her either.  She won't even let you.  Even if now you are The GREAT ASUKA SORYU LANGLEY, ELITE PILOT OF UNIT 02, let the incontinent pigeons fly and the languorous oboes throb."

      "You're a rotten bastard," she said, smiling, "You know that?"

      "Well, I flunked the compulsories, so I never got my certificate, but I made it up on the essay and work experience portion.  I think I do rather a good job, considering."

      She shook her head, "I wanted to help her, I . . . "

      "She wants to destroy herself, there's nothing we can do - except remind her there are alternatives, and make sure she doesn't take us down when she goes."

      "That's no answer," she hung her head, then let Raccoon put her head on his shoulder.  She wouldn't cry, even though he'd never breathe a word of it to anyone.

      Ranma wasn't sure whether it was him or Shinji that Rei kept visiting at night.  'Come' was all she said, in a tone that implied dire consequences if he didn't comply.

      Now they were standing on a building, well into the night, looking at the lighted roof of another building.  The two figures were moving as if doing katas, he finally recognized them as Raccoon and Asuka.  Raccoon would do a move, then if Asuka didn't duplicate it perfectly, he'd stop, and help her through it.  He'd support her weight with one arm while he literally moved her through the move with his arm.  She rarely needed to be shown twice.

      "They have no need of you," Rei told him.

      That rankled.  "We'll see who's the real - " slamming into an invisible wall stopped his mouth and his leap.

      "They do not need you!" Rei insisted, hauling him to his tiptoes by his pigtail, then tightening her grip until he thought she'd tear it right out of his head, "If you will not hear, does this focus you?"

      "Owowowowowowow!  Yesyesyesyes!  Just let go!"

      Rei tightened her grip and tried to lift him off the ground.


      She dropped him.

      "Okay," he rubbed the pain at the back of his head, "They don't need me," he said carefully, he knew the wrong word would get him booted right off the building.  "Not, I don't need them?"  When the pavement didn't rush up six floors to hit him, he considered.  The Art, or was it Arts, there seemed to be two styles, were like nothing he'd seen before.

      No, that's not right, he rubbed the back of his head in thought, winced at the contact, Rei, you are a sorehead!  "Sa -, Sav - and Pan . . . the Arts Raccoon mentioned in the dream."


      Ranma cringed, expecting an impromptu flight any second.  Except Rei kept staring at the pair on the other building.  She looks hungry, Ranma thought, Or jealous.  He stared at the distant pair, he was thunderstruck, Asuka was laughing!  That was impossible!  She'd really blown a move, Raccoon demonstrated the move and gestured wildly, obviously shouting at her.  Instead of getting mad, Asuka started laughing so hard she could barely stand.  A few minutes later Asuka wiped her face, then they started inside.

      "GYAH!" Ranma reeled back when Rei stuck her face in his.

      "What did you see?" she asked impatiently.

      "I don't know," Ranma admitted.

      "You are hopeless," Rei turned and walked away, leaping off the building.

      "What was I supposed to see?" he shouted at the departed girl, he turned and watched the two go inside.  Asuka had her head on Raccoon's shoulder, she was acting like a real girl.  Ranma turned away, it wasn't that he didn't see, he saw a lot, he just didn't know which of the things was the one Rei wanted him to see.

June 1, 1947

If ye kill before midnight, be silent, and wake not the woods with your bay

      "This is impossible!" Asuka was sick of trying to explain the simplified math system to Jeff.  "You know if you don't get it, there is exactly zero chance that Spineless, Ice Princess or Horseface will."

      "All right," Jeff said, "Let's attack the problem from another angle.  All math is, is a convenient way to describe something, there are other ways to represent it."

      "How are we supposed to 'describe' something, with 15 dimensions?" Asuka asked disgustedly.

      "In pieces, then see how they interact.  Also, it isn't 15 dimensions.  It's actually a mixture of lines and rays, or more accurately, lines, pairs of rays that simulate lines, and some entities that can be either."

      Asuka was staring at him slack jawed, "You're making that up!"

      "Honestly, I'm not."

      She frowned, "That certainly simplifies things, now it's impossible, we can give up."

      "No, we can test your theories and equations on a practical target," Jeff gestured, forming his AT field as a square about a meter on a side, at knee height off the ground.

      Asuka stared at the invisible object Jeff was touching, she reached out carefully, laying her palm on the surface.  As far as he knew, it was the first time she'd actually touched an A.T. field.  She stood, so she could press down with both hands, putting her full weight on the field.

      Jeff was glad of all the practice he'd gotten in `Ranma's future`, his field was immensely stronger now than it had been only a month and a half ago.  It hardly seems that short a time, he thought.  What dragged his attention back to the present, was Asuka climbing onto the invisible square and laying down on it.

      "Ooo, nice," Asuka said as she laid her cheek on the field, then rolled up her sleeves so her bare arms were resting on it also.

      "Langley?" Jeff asked, watching his friend curl up on top of the field.

      "Uh huh?" Asuka told him, with her eyes half-lidded, "Soooo niiiiice," she cooed.

      Jeff released the field and caught her before she hit the floor.

      He glanced down at the girl in his arms, she seemed to be waking up.  "Would you like to tell me what that was all about?"

      Asuka glanced around worriedly, pulled away from Jeff before she answered, "Nothing!  It never happened.  Agreed?" she asked plaintively.

      "I can live with that," Jeff half-suspected Langley was setting him up for a practical joke of some kind.

      "Do you think Spineless and Wondergirl . . . " Asuka began, "You know?"

      "What?" Asuka's behavior still mystified him, "Get naked and lie on top of each other's AT fields?"

      "It's not like that!" Asuka insisted, "It's . . . "

      "If you say 'nice' I'm having a full psych work up done on you."

      "Okay," Asuka reluctantly admitted, "It was wonderful.  I haven't felt that good since the last time my whole family was together, before mama's accident.  I, I . . . it was wonderful.  Warm and safe.  I can't believe we've only been using these for combat."

      "I don't think I want Misato and Gendo running experiments on this new effect."

      "What about Rit-chan?" Asuka leered at him, then laughed as he blushed.

      "If you say one word about Ranko, I'll reform the field, plop you down on it and charge admission!" Jeff threatened.

      "Not one word," Asuka agreed, she sighed.

      The pair stared at each other for several moments.

      "I think we'd better get back to the math," Jeff finally broke the stalemate.

      "Yeah, okay," Asuka returned to the desk, shuffled the papers, "Do you know what might cause a reaction like that?"

      "I wasn't the one doing the reacting, so I can't judge," Jeff admitted, The way you were acting, I'm not sure I want to know just yet, Jeff thought, Although I don't think it was carnal, the only time I've seen anything look that happy, was a cat that discovered a warm radio top, with a sunbeam on it.

      They ground through the various mathematical permutations and variations.  Checking dependency of the variables against dimensional, paired half-dimension, and mutable possibilities.

      "I'm ready for a break!" Asuka said, "We've been at this for hours."

      "I think we're getting close," Jeff admitted that he too was nearly exhausted, he lacked Asuka's inherent understanding of mathematics, and he was having difficulty translating the changes in the formulae to affect the AT field.  It seemed that the physical orientation in normal four dimensional space-time was scattered across at least 16 variables of the matrix of equations, as a 15-x-15 matrix gave them 225 'entries' that could be three effective sets of values: dimensional; the sum of two paired, opposing half-dimensional values; or dimensional value and the percent of the time it was dimensional, and the paired, opposing half-dimensional values and the percent of the time they were in that state.  He was developing a severe headache.  Both of them were tired and wrung out after all the hours of the effort.

      "Why do you think we're getting any closer?" Asuka grumbled as they headed upstairs to the kitchen.

      Sammi was in the `drawing` room, she looked up from her security reports.  "I thought you two were - GAHH!" she saw the time, "I should have set a timer!  I'm sorry, I should have started dinner hours ago."

      "Relax," Jeff told her, "I'll whip up some - "

      "We'll!" Asuka shook her finger under his nose, "'Oh, I'll be noble and cook'.  Anybody can cook."

      "Misato," Jeff and Sammi chorused.

      "I didn't say well!" Asuka replied huffily, "Besides," she turned to Sammi, "How do you know?"

      "I tried some of her coffee.  It must have been developed by or for Unit 731 at Harbin.  I think Ritsuko uses it to burn stubborn material off her lab glassware.  How she makes it?" Sammi shrugged, "There are some things man was not meant to know."

      "Okay.  So what do we fix?" Jeff asked.

      "Eggs, omelets, I haven't had a decent plate of scrambled eggs since the Coral Sea."

      "You want a full Denver Omelet with everything?"

      "Yes," Asuka said, "Anything except more math and thinking," Asuka paused, "I never thought I'd hear myself say that."

      "What were you two doing in there?  I looked in a couple of times, because you were so quiet, and all I could see was you two hunched over reams of paper filled with, I don't know."

      "We'd prefer not to discuss it, until it works," Jeff said as he entered the kitchen.

      Asuka followed him to the refrigerator, and took the ingredients he handed her.  She laid them out on the counter, got the kitchen knives, and once the vegetables were washed, started slicing and chopping.

      Asuka noted how closely Sammi was watching them, her fascination, "Is my head on backwards or something?" Asuka asked.

      "You two were fighting, or so I thought."

      "I'll beat him," Asuka said, "And we both know it."

      "I'm not going to argue with her, when she's got a knife," Jeff said.

      Asuka glared at him, dumping the diced ham in the pan as Jeff poured the egg mixture.

      Asuka admitted to herself that Sammi's delighted attention disturbed her a little.  She didn't know why they, and the other Children, fascinated her so.  She wasn't worried, It's as if she's never seen kids before, or . . . Asuka considered, Or she's gone 'Oh, Sempai' on us or something.

      Asuka stood and watched Raccoon, while watching their guardian out of the corner of her eye.  Sammi's behavior was something she'd never gotten a handle on, of all the people at NERV, only Maya and some of the new security guards weren't completely morose.  None of them were as ebullient as Sammi, Asuka knew she was being paranoid.  Considering what's been going on around here, she thought, It's not a bad idea to be a little paranoid.

      She ate dinner, asking a few questions about Sammi's background, education, family.  The huge woman seemed unconcerned about answering these questions.  It still rankled Asuka that someone conveniently had someone waiting in the wings, when Misato had her blow up.  She disliked felicitous serendipity, it always told her somebody was working to a plan.

But kill not for pleasure of killing, and SEVEN TIMES NEVER KILL MAN

June 2, 1947

      Ranko desperately wished the girl would quit screaming.  She also wished it wasn't raining.  She could have used Ranma's extra inches and the leverage they'd give.

      "Don't drop me!" the girl in the sinkhole yelled as she held on desperately to Ranko's leg.

      Ranko's other toes and finger tips rested on the folded folding chairs someone had placed on either side of the sinkhole that had suddenly opened up in the middle of the school grounds, and started swallowing the girl.  Ranko had been the first on the scene.  She was aware of the scramble around her.  She just hoped the others had something in mind, she felt like a stork, one leg down the hole, everything else was trying to keep her and her rescuee from sliding in the hole.

      "OKAY, and STEP, and STEP, and STEP," she heard Nab-chan yelling, "KNEEL!"

      Ranko felt a pair of thin arms encircling her waist.

      "STAND!" Nab-chan ordered.

      Whoever had looped her, pulled her into the air, but not enough.  Raccoon was sliding across the ground on his belly, a lot quicker than Ranko would have thought possible.

      He's going to get his shirt filthy on this wet grass, Ranko chuckled at the absurdity of that thought.

      Raccoon reached into the hole and grabbed the girl's arms, "More height!" he demanded.

      "CHAIRS!" Nab-chan ordered.  They lifted Ranko and the girl farther up.

      Ranko took a look around.  Rei was hanging from a long cord, like a wire walker gone wrong.  Tomiyo and Sammi were the piers of Rei's suspension bridge with dozens of students holding the lone cable in tension.  They knelt to lower Rei, and are standing on chairs to get more height.  Some of the punier students were steadying the chairs for the burly students holding the cable.

      Raccoon finally got his arms completely around the girl, she wasn't going anywhere.  "Saotome, withdraw your leg."

      Ranko did as ordered, wondered why the girl had let go and wasn't screaming anymore.

      "Off chairs!" Nab-chan ordered.  They dropped Ranko down.  Raccoon couldn't pull the silently sobbing girl loose.  "KNEEL!" Nab-chan's voice carried.

      Now Ranko could grab Raccoon by the belt and collar.  'Stand!'  She was pulled up, felt Raccoon's and the girl's weight.

      "Okay, step, and step!" Nab-chan commanded.

      They pulled the entire groups sideways, pulling the girl the rest of the way out of the hole.

      Other students took the sobbing girl to the medics.  Rei dropped Ranko on Raccoon, then let go of the cable herself.

      "Oh, thank you," Raccoon said from under the pile.

      "Okay!" this time it was Sammi shouting, as she pulled the cable off her shoulder, "Everybody clear out!  Leave everything!  We'll sent trucks and tanks in to recover your belongings.  I want everyone off the grounds now!"

      Hands pulled Rei and Ranko off Raccoon, who was also pulled to his feet.  They, the students, the guards and teachers trooped off the grounds.  No one wanted to argue with the woman, or risk other sinkholes.  Their guards assembled the pilots, none were hurt.

      "How are you still clean?" Ranko noted the total lack of grass stains on Raccoon's shirt, as he reclaimed his jacket.  Sammi had used it as a pad on her shoulder.

      "I think you know.  Langley and I have made some progress."

      Ranko stared at him, "You . . . !" she shouted, then abruptly lowered her voice, "You figured it out?"

      "Not completely," Raccoon admitted, "But we've managed to create a few shapes other than a flat plane.  An immovable torus, or doughnut has its uses."

      "When do you think we can do some other things with it?" Ranko had no idea why Raccoon and Asuka paled at that.

      "We've had some side effects, it's not safe to release to the rest of you.  Nobody got hurt," he reassured her, "But until we work things out, we're keeping quiet."

      Ranko sighed.  Looked around at the other frightened kids and wondered what they were going to do.  Especially until the term ended.

      "What happened?" Admiral Simson was not in a good mood.  His irritation hovered around his office like a cloud.

      Sammi was glad Ranko and the others had agreed to wait for her and the other guards, while security got the dressing down they honestly deserved.  "The Lloigor left sinkholes all over the school grounds," she admitted, "Before the incident today, we'd only probed down 4 feet.  With the rains, the soil loosened and one collapsed.  While the trucks were picking up the students' belongings, we discovered two more.  Evidently they dug them some 2 meters or more down.  With the rainy season, there would have been more collapses, more days of some kid screaming in terror."

      "Considering those things live on despair, it would have provided them an ample food source," Admiral Simson concluded, "If we would be stupid enough to keep using the school."  He turned, stared out his office window.  None of the guards wanted to say anything.

      "They were planning on staying here for the long-term.  To do what . . . I'm not speaking rhetorically people," Simson said, "I want some answers, guesses, wild hunches."

      "Call the kids in," Tomiyo suggested, "Then ask the same questions."

      Simson nodded.

      "Are they in trouble?" Ranko asked worriedly, glancing at the other pilots waiting outside the Admiral's office.

      "What?" Asuka smiled, "Getting a crush on her?  Do you like powerful women?"

      "It's not like that!" Ranko insisted, blushed at the laughter of the others.

      "How'd you coordinate all that?" Ranko desperately tried to change the subject.

      "Asuka and Shinji on one line, Hiroko and Toji on the other," Nab-chan said, "Everybody had to be coordinated.  It worked pretty good."

      Ranko turned to Rei, "Why didn't you just pull me out?"

      Rei stared back at her.

      "It's not possible, Saotome," Asuka said in disgust, "Hanging ropes form a catenary - "

      "Say no more," Ranko said desperately, glad she hadn't come into contact with it, and that they hadn't told her while they were working.

      "That's the name of the drooping arc the line forms!  You - !"

      "Asuka!" Raccoon cautioned her.

      "You ailurophobe!" Asuka shouted at him, "Increasing the weight makes them droop.  You can't pull on the ends hard enough to have pulled you up."

      "It worked," Rei added.

      The door opened, Juri Kon stepped out, "The Admiral wants to speak with all of you."

      "Now see what you did!" Asuka accused Ranko, then headed in before Ranko could reply.

      Sammi watched the kids troop in, none of them objected to having to stand in the now crowded office.  She also saw they stood near their assigned guards, that made her less uneasy.

      "I asked why the Lloigor were setting up what appeared to be a permanent base.  The floor is open for discussion, I want to hear some sound, people."

      "Forward observers, spies, assassins, fifth columnists, terrorists, colonists, because they could," Rei said.

      Sammi had read the reports about the Children and the roles they had played fighting Nyarlathotep, Rei evidently had decided her role had some additional usefulness.

      "Yeah," Asuka said, "What she said."  Asuka kept staring at Rei in disbelief, Rei evidently had said her piece and fell silent again.

      "That certainly covers all the bases," Simson seemed as nonplused as Asuka.

      "Or it could be a combination of any or all of those things," Jeff added, "I think it's more dangerous they were actually working to a coherent plan.  If they'd wanted to kill us, they would have."

      "Or at least tried," Shinji said.

      "The pathfinders or perhaps the beachmasters?" Simson asked, "Not the assault troops?"

      Sammi saw the concern flicker across the Admiral's face, she wondered what was troubling him, besides the obvious.

      "I think we should expect our enemies aren't going to be the pushovers we've come to expect," Asuka offered, "Coordinated, well-thought out battle plans may be the wave of the future."

      None of them liked the sound of that.

When Pack meets with Pack in the Jungle, and neither will go from the trail,

      Ramsey watched literally dozens of martial artists practicing with staves.  He was no martial artist, but he recognized the moves were a synthesis of bayonet drill with Karate or some other armed art.  He also had no illusions about the effectiveness of such training in close combat, this was no `art` it was practical, not pretty.

      The bearded man who approached wore a red gi with black trim and black pants.  On the gi jacket was a patch depicting a horse's head in 3/4 profile.  The horse was red, the mane black, and the background was an odd moire pattern.

      The man bowed, "Those are some of our advanced students," he explained, "We have beginner classes, and special classes for self-defense techniques.  Including classes with all female staff, if you are here in regards to your wife or your daughter."

      Ramsey was glad he was in civilian clothes, and he also had to admire the man's salesmanship, a little roughness to show another man he meant business, and a hint of delicacy for a husband or father who worried about his wife or daughter.  It was an excellent cover for their other activities, aside from the instructors' and senior students' uniforms, there was no evidence of their `god`.

      "Thank you.  I was more interested in the - spiritual side.  After my friend Captain Walters died . . . "

      "Yes, a great loss," the man said sympathetically, then caught himself.

      Why would they even know who Everett Walters was? Ramsey wondered, And why would he not want others to know he knows?  Besides the obvious?

      "If you would come with me?" the man gestured, "I'm afraid I am a martial arts instructor.  The philosophical and spiritual elements, I leave to others."

      "Of course," Ramsey followed him around the edges of the practice floor.  He felt a little naked without his uniform or a weapon, then he reminded himself, If these guys are even a tenth as good as Saotome, I wouldn't stand a chance.

      The office he entered was small, a harried, younger man was contending with mountains of paperwork.  Ramsey knew about the endlessness of such battles himself.  No amount of training ever made them easier.  The symbol on the wall behind the desk was an odd modification of the one on the now-departed instructor's jacket.  Two horses heads face to face, the one on the left was red with a black mane, on the right was black with a red mane.  Opposite the direction of the instructor's patch.  The background was brilliant blue, almost the color of Saotome's eyes.

      Ramsey glanced around, Considering the sale of pictures of the pilots, I would have expected to see at least one in here.  Ramsey waited to be noticed.

      "My apologies," the man stood, bowed, "My work seems to expand to . . . fill . . . the day . . . "  The look the man gave him as he came around the desk made Ramsey want to bolt for the door.

      Instead, the man did a complete kowtow, "I humbly apologize, sir.  If I had known it was you, I would have never allowed petty paperwork to distract me."

      "Stand up," Ramsey said mildly, to cover his own unease.  This was the sixth such `temple` he'd visited.  Each had a very different spin on what they considered worship, from simple meditation to active community service, to things in between.  What they all had in common, was the upper hierarchy recognized him almost immediately.  He'd made no special effort to disguise himself, beyond eschewing his uniform in favor of civilian clothes, and no bodyguards.  But he knew he wasn't a spectacularly memorable person either.  So how did they always recognize me? he wondered, "If I had wanted ceremonies, I would have called ahead," he reassured the man, once he was standing.  He got a nod of acknowledgment.

      "Will you take tea, I could send for coffee if you like - I'm handling this badly."

      "You're doing fine," Ramsey told him, "I do need to talk, with you and some of your senior priests and military personnel," then Ramsey stepped towards the man, his demeanor serious, "It's very important."

      The man nodded and practically ran from the room.

      Ramsey wasn't sure whether he should be happy or terrified that things were going so well.  So far, none of the cults seemed a threat to the Children, although the deference they paid him put him off.  So far, all had agreed to the meeting.  If he could get all the leaders together, and talking, he could either drop a net on all of them and bag the whole crowd, or find out how much he and the Navy could actually trust them.

      Ramsey entered the Admiral's office.  It had been a grueling couple of days.

      "The sun's above the yardarm," Simson poured two glasses of Scotch, Ramsey's was noticeably larger, "What have you learned."

      "More than I wanted to, sir," Ramsey accepted the drink, sipped and stared at the bustling Naval Base outside the office.  "I learned that if we need to hide the kids, we've got ready-made places, although I'd avoid sending them any of their patrons."

      The Admiral nodded for him to continue.

      "I learned what you were doing up in Kyoto."

      The Admiral frowned at that.

      "And that they have a total of 25 people guarding them, Langley's and Davis's.  You could have told me Admiral."

      "The information would have come to you in the event of my death or incapacitation.  Go on, Captain."

      "I learned that we should call the monster we saw flying around, the Scholarly Dragon.  I learned that Langley, Davis, Ikari and Ayanami live out an entirely different life in their dreams.  I also learned that the cult leadership are all willing to meet, it's scheduled for the morning of the 8th."

      "Are they a threat?" Simson asked.

      "To the Children?  I'd say a conditional absolutely not.  The Children could wind them up to act against the others, but nothing less.  To us . . . " Ramsey drained the glass, "Were the first Century Christians the threat to Rome the politicians said that they were?  That's something we can't really answer.  I think the estimate of four divisions to quell their rioting is optimistic, unless they were all full strength Armored, with full naval gunfire and close-air support.  Less than that, and it's Iwo Jima all over again."

      Simson nodded, "So, can we use them?"

      "Carefully at first, sir.  They're already blanketing the city, every wall has eyes and ears on it.  Frankly, they hate the other cultists more than we do."

      "Of course, it's a personal affront to them," Simson said.

      "There is one other thing, someone has been leaking some seemingly trivial information about NERV to someone, none of the groups know who.  I set them to look into it.  It's all junk, consumption of paperclips and coffee, expense vouchers for gasoline, spare parts for typewriters, that kind of ridiculous stuff."

      "Unless it isn't ridiculous," Simson agreed.  The IJN had filled the airwaves with false transmissions before Pearl Harbor and Midway.  It had been a distraction and a warning.  They fooled the Americans the first time and cautioned them for Midway.  Also, critical information could be slipping out with the mess, and only the recipient might know which was which, until it was too late.

June 4, 1947

Lie down till the leaders have spoken--it may be fair words shall prevail

      Ranko sat with Raccoon, both of them seated at a table in Ritsuko's lab, her palm rested on the table with the heel of her hand on the edge.  Her eyes were closed.  She thought Raccoon's `experiment` was kind of stupid.  But since she hadn't seen him since they closed the school after the sink hole, she was glad to spend time with him.  That made her even more worried, Ranma Saotome, man-among-men wants to hang around as a girl with another guy.  But Raccoon and Nab-chan had been doing Search-and-Rescue stuff from morning to late at night since the school closed.  Nab-chan would inhale her food and go immediately to sleep.  Ranma still didn't know what they were doing with all their work.  Frankly, he was a little bored.

      "Just relax, concentrate on stretching your fingers.  Feel them getting longer," he told her in a dulcet voice as he stroked her fingers.

      She extended them as far as she could, she was stretching them as far as they would go.

      Raccoon had been concerned that 'her links with Ranma might have effects she might not be ready to deal with.'  So she had agreed to work with Raccoon after hours of harmonics tests, and Raccoon and Nab-chan's Search-and-rescue training.  But Ranko really wanted to spend some time with Raccoon, Ranko thought with embarrassment as he stroked her finger, And he doesn't do things like this for no reason.

      "Okay, relax your fingers, just let them return.  DON'T open your eyes," he snapped.

      "What are you hiding?" Ranko asked.

      "I've actually anesthetized you, and Rei's been fondling you," Raccoon told her, "Would you believe Gendo?  Would you believe anyone off the street who could pay the 10,000 yen asking price?"

      Ranko frowned at that, aside from the fact she would have detected anyone else by their chi, her hands had felt very strange, she wondered what he had been doing.

      "Okay, open your eyes."

      She did.  The saki-cup-sized crucibles on the table, which had been practically touching her fingertips before she started stretching, had moved out 4 cm.

      "I don't envy you telling Ranma about this," Raccoon said.

      "What?" Ranko dreaded what he was going to say.

      "Your fingers pushed those crucibles forward."

      Ranko felt all the blood drain out of her face, she'd felt them the whole time.

      "Part of what you gained when Ranma destroyed Nyogtha, is an almost fluid flexibility.  It's minor, and your natural control over your body, should make it completely controllable," Raccoon's voice was getting farther and farther away.

      I'm a monster, Ranko thought as everything went gray, I've become a monster.

      She barely heard Raccoon, "I think you can completely master these abilities, and there's zero chance of you flowing away like water, or any other nonsense like that."

      The world narrowed to a gray tunnel, He calls them `abilities`, she thought desperately, I'm not even human anymore, and he calls them `abilities`.  When will I lose control?  Do something terrible?  Lash out with my body when I just think about it?

      "Ranko, you should breathe," Raccoon was far away now, "You really should keep breathing, purple clashes with your eyes."

      Ranma was drifting, floating, in a sea of despair.  He'd lost his humanity completely.  Rei had warned Ranma that all he was, was a body, now that body wasn't even human, he'd lost that, it was gone.  The body was an alien thing that circumstances had trapped him within, more so even than Ranma being in Ranko.  When would it take over?  When would he be lost and helpless inside it?

      Ranma became aware that `his` body was still in female form, Ranko, as he floated along in a tide of sorrow and self-loathing.  At least being Ranko, he was still human.  Not anymore, Ranko lamented.

      Voices now he, or rather she, could hear.  Raccoon's voice, his comforting tone.

      He just doesn't understand, Ranko thought, He must be repulsed -

      The touch of warm lips on her ice-cold ones shocked her out of her own thoughts, warmth suffused her.

      She wanted to laugh, he still cared for her; she wanted to cry, He's just pitying me!

      The kiss broke off.

      No!  Please!  Don't abandon me!  Don't throw me away! she silently pleaded as she tried to fight her way back through the darkness.  The contact came again, offering warmth and hope, even if she despaired, Raccoon wouldn't abandon her.  Even in this, he would stand by her.

      She managed to get her arms to obey her, reaching out and holding that marvelous warmth, that reassurance to her, Maybe there is a chance! Ranko thought, Maybe with Rit-chan and the others . . . maybe we can think of something, somehow I can stay human.

      "Ranko," Raccoon told her, "I think you're squashing Rit-chan."

      Ranko opened her eyes, releasing her grip at the same time.  Rit-chan sat up from where she'd been leaning over Ranko, she inhaled desperately, trying to get air to replace what Ranko had squeezed out of her.


      "Here, I - gently!" he squeaked.

      "Please!  I don't want to be a monster!  Tell me I'm not a monster!" Ranko pleaded and demanded.

      "What's this?" Rit-chan took Ranko's arms, loosening her grip slightly, so Raccoon could breathe.

      "Lets just say Ranko is ready to join our earlier discussion," Raccoon gasped, "Without much preamble."

      "You talked about this," Ranko was unwilling to let go completely.

      "Dr. Akagi has been involved with the EVAs for a long time.  I've noticed a number of changes in myself, we've discussed them," Raccoon twisted slightly to stage whisper to Ranko, "Dr. Akagi thinks she's a monster."

      Rit-chan's and Ranko's eyes widened.

      "You aren't a monster Rit-chan!" Ranko insisted as she released Raccoon, and took Rit-chan's hands, "You could never be a monster."  She glanced at Raccoon, "Tell her!"

      "I've told her until I'm blue in the face," Raccoon said, "She doesn't believe me."

      "What could you have ever done to think you were a monster?  You aren't turning into something inhuman," Ranko lost her enthusiasm, "Like we are."

      "I don't think we're 'losing our humanity'," Raccoon told her, "That's the basis of the argument."

      "How can you say that?" Ranko asked quietly, "You saw, you expected, YOU KNOW!" Ranko was in near hysterics.

      Raccoon put his arms around Ranko as Rit-chan closed in from the other side, they both looked down into the frightened girl's eyes.  "Because I've met too many `humans` who have lost their humanity, some got it back, but only those who wanted to.  I don't believe 'humanity' is biological, it's a psychological or sociological trait."

      "You're right," Ranko said firmly, "You aren't human, you're a lecture waiting for somebody to land on."

      Rit-chan laughed at the two frowning at each other.

      "My point is!" Raccoon said with a haughty air, "Humanity isn't something you lose, it's something you give up, or fail to practice."

      "What about . . . ," Ranko wondered about what had happened, then she remembered her enhanced vision.

      "What about it?" Raccoon asked, "Ranko, six months ago, I couldn't walk 10 miles in a day, because of what happened to my legs.  Now I can run 10 miles, in less than 18 minutes, without breaking a sweat.  That's a sustained 55+ kilometers per hour.  No human can do that.  I told you, I go looking through those memories.  How do you think I found out about all this stuff?  As you said, 'Yuck.'"

      "Yeah," Ranko was calming down after the initial revelation, "So that's how you knew.  Knew I might have changed?"

      Raccoon nodded, "Chaugnar Faugn was an expert in genetic engineering, from selective breeding to surgery on the genes themselves.  So I had some idea that there might be some changes."

      "You know about these . . . alterations?" Rit-chan asked.

      "Considering what came out of the plug simulator after Sharon's accident, I knew there would be changes to the pilots.  I never really expected to live through mine."

      "What happened to her, that would make you think that?" Ranko asked, "Did she fight one of those monsters?"

      "No," Raccoon told her, "First contact with an EVA simulator.  The most dangerous part of it.  She went in sane and human, and came out . . . not."

      Ranko remembered the argument about what happened to pilots on their first contact with L.C.L. and the EVA's harmonics.  That scream that paralyzed many of the staff and all three pilots on the first day.  Ranko relaxed a bit.  "So, I shouldn't be worried?"

      "You're a martial artist," Raccoon shouted with outrage, "You should be mastering this new technique!  Now get to work!"

      Ranko smiled at that, somehow it reminded her a how a father should act.

      "Ready to go home?" Rit-chan asked Ranko.

      "Yeah, I guess."

      She felt a little guilty about Raccoon's expression when he left at that point.

      Ranma stared at his hand, trying to extend his fingers as he had when he was Ranko.  It wasn't happening.  Unfortunately Rit-chan had found out exactly what Raccoon had been testing, and Ranma, and Ranko, were facing a whole new range of motion experiment/measurement.

      Ranma sighed, Raccoon, I think I may just kill you for that.

      Ranma lay back in his bunk and wondered what Raccoon had done to cause the changes.  He said the one he ate by himself was a master of genetic manipulation, was he unconsciously accelerating the process while he was testing it? Ranma wondered.  He could analyze it in the morning, so he closed his eyes, wondering what other surprises awaited him tonight.

June 5, 1947

Keep peace with the Lords of the Jungle

      The dream dojo seemed strange, everything was so much taller.  Ranko tried to stand up, tottered and crashed down again, her dozens of feet waving in the air.

      "RACCOON!!" she shouted, even her mouth felt weird, "What did you do to me!?" she shouted in fright and rage.

      "You haven't been using Unit 04 to its best advantage."

      The voice she heard was nothing like Raccoon's smooth tenor, a gravelly basso-profundo, "Raccoon isn't here.  I'm more an interested bystander."

      Ranko recognized the voice, it was the huge creature she'd been rescued by, when she had been rescuing Rei.  The claw that came through the wall was as immense as she remembered it, as it closed around her.  She screamed, a moment later she was out, amid the blackness.  She could barely make out the shadowy figure of the huge creature.

      "There are martial arts styles based on animals?  Correct?" the creature asked.

      "Yes," Ranko was feeling a little more secure.

      "This is the reverse.  You are in the form of Unit 04, use that form.  Don't fight it as a human, learn to fight it as it is."

      Ranko grimaced.

      "Analyze the form: 37 pairs of legs, heavy crushing jaws, a striker tail, as well as the ability to constrict.  You need to master them all."

      "What are you?!  What right have you to do this?"

      "Your life, and Rei Ayanami's," the creature thundered, "Or don't you honor your debts?"

      Ranko twisted inwardly, "Okay, what do I do?"

      "Analyze, learn, improvise," the creature chuckled, "And you'll lose," the creature's laughter was galling.

      Ranko tried to charge the creature, got her legs slightly tangled and veered off target.  The kick she landed was pathetic, especially considering the immense size of the creature.  It could have carried an EVA under each arm.  She opened her jaws and snapped, the creature barely got its fingers out of the way.

      "Very good.  Instead of one strike, consider multiple sequential strikes," the creature maneuvered to receive the blow on a non-vital, well-protected area.

      Ranma woke slowly, he felt terrible.  He had learned a lot of new techniques to use with Unit 04, but that monster had treated him with undisguised contempt.  Justified contempt, Ranma had to admit, I wouldn't have done much better if I was actually in Unit 04.  It was just playing with me.

      He wished he knew why the creature was doing this.  It had saved his life, and now it had dragged him into lessons, kept belittling and insulting him.  "Why?" Ranma remembered the creature kept calling him, actually Ranko, 'Ladyfinger-chan', he didn't think it was referring to a body part.

      "I shouldn't ask questions I don't want the answers to," Ranma sat up, decided as bad as he felt, he had made promises to the others, to teach them.  "Ranma Saotome keeps his promises."  Ranma rolled out of bed, and got dressed for his morning teaching.

      "How about you?  Were you able to duplicate what I showed you?  Was your other half?" Raccoon asked Ranko as she met him leaving the Search and Rescue testing.  She had also finished the exhaustive and exhausting range-of-motion experiments Rit-chan and Maya had subjected Ranma and Ranko to.

      "No," Ranko said despondently.

      "Don't push, you're already doing some of it subconsciously, increasing your flexibility and resistance to injury."

      "I guess I'm not going to turn in . . . to . . . "

      "A puddle of orange goo?" Raccoon asked, "No.  Nabiki should be along in a little while.  Take it easy on her, we were on helium-oxygen all day.  We're both a little tipsy."

      "How does that work?" Ranko asked.

      Raccoon opened his mouth to answer, then looked confused, "I don't believe I can remember."

      Now Ranko was really worried.

June 6, 1947

The Kill of the Wolf is the meat of the Wolf. He may do what he will

      Ritsuko peered into the diving tank at Nabiki and Jeff, who were in the `new` breathing units: face masks and a long supply tether.  A throat mike and a waterproof earphone had been tried, and failed to operate as promised, she would help them work on that.  Nabiki had suggested chalk and chalkboards as a temporary substitute.

      Their abbreviated training had come to this, open a heavy piece of machinery, rewire it, clear some blockages and reassemble the thing.  The pressure simulated 300 feet, and both were on a helium-oxygen mixture.

      From their gestures and movements she could tell both were feeling slightly giddy from the helium, the pressure, and the fatigue.  The piece weighed over a ton and several of the assemblies took both of them to move.  Misato and the pilots were also watching their progress.  Oblivious to this, Nabiki and Jeff labored at their `final exam.`

      'Gasket in place.' Read Jeff's board.  Ritsuko moved around the window to better view what they were doing.  Nabiki nodded and grasped her end of the iron plate, which had nearly squashed the two of them the first time they'd tried to move it.  They lifted it into place, careful not to pinch the gasket, which had been their bane on their previous attempts.  With an exchange of glances and a nod, they shoved it in place and bolted down three locations where it slipped most often.  Then came the other 15 bolts, of a half dozen different sizes, some backward threaded to make this test a true `bitch` as the divers referred to it.

      Captain Madison, the Dive Master, checked his stopwatches as he approached her, "Their best time yet," he commented, "They have fifteen minutes to finish the job, and then if they don't screw up the decompression, and they have in fact done the rewiring and cleared all the jams . . . "

      They'll be fully qualified as far as he, his team and NERV are concerned, Ritsuko nervously completed the thought.

      The two pilot/divers had marked the reverse bolts and the holes they went in with chalk when they removed them.  The job went swiftly.  They moved to the return rope, simulating their first assent and first decompression halt.

      The chief of SAR, Akira Kuroda, was growing concerned, he called over Ritsuko and Captain Madison, "They're both showing signs of extreme fatigue.  If they come up too fast, we'll have to get both of them in the decompression chamber fast."

      Both nodded.  Captain Madison left to get a team together.

      "What are the dangers?" Ritsuko asked, she was certain she knew, she was hoping she was wrong.

      "The bends, at that depth they could simply explode.  My main worry is the first two decompression stops are done by decompressing the tank.  If they don't hold position for long enough, then the entire decompression routine will be fouled up.  Helium mixtures are like that."

      Ritsuko paced nervously, she didn't like taking unnecessary risks, and this training was completely unnecessary.  Neither has anything to prove, she thought, In a few months, we'll have enough EVAs for all six pilots, and an extra, then Davis and Tendo will be fully trained.  She also knew it was completely out of character for the pair, if there was something to do, they'd want to do it.  She couldn't force Misato to rotate the pilots, but she thought it would be a good idea, to both rest pilots whom they overworked, and to keep the morale of the alternates up.

      "Two eighty," the chief at the pump reported.  Neither of the kids advanced up the line for nearly two minutes beyond the required time.  Captain Madison approved, they could come up as slowly as they needed to.  'Don't let pride compel you to make a stupid mistake.'  They ascended to the marker that indicated the `250 foot` mark.  "Take'em up to two fifty," the Captain told them.

      "Depressurizing to two fifty."

      "As soon as the tank's at atmospheric pressure, put a couple of divers in the tank," Kuroda ordered.

      She could see that now he was worried, at each decompression stop the pair waited longer than was strictly necessary.  The tank wasn't heated, neither were their suits, and hypothermia would soon get to be a problem on top of the fatigue.

      "I was so angry with those two pilots," Kuroda quietly admitted to Ritsuko, "Staring at my team and talking, then the punks had the guts to actually challenge me in front of my men.  Now, they're part of the team."  Then louder, "Come on."

      "They need to speed up.  Davis's lips are blue and Tendo isn't far behind," Ritsuko said, her own nervousness making standing still more difficult.

      "Hypothermia?  We'll have blankets and Coffee Royale waiting for them," the Master Chief in charge of the decompression team assured her.

      "Aren't they a bit young?" Misato asked the rescue team's most rabid barracks-room lawyer.

      "Navy regs," the chief replied.

      Both made it to the surface.  Neither one could make it up the ladder out of the tank, even with the weight belts and tool kits removed.  The dive team hauled both out of the water and wrapped them in blankets, then they removed the masks.

      "This cooffee has alcohol in it," Nabiki managed through her chattering teeth.

      "Just a drop, administered by a navy corpsman."

      "Trying to be heroes?" Misato teased.

      Ritsuko saw the flash of anger from the two blanket-wrapped pilots, Search-and-Rescue members, Ritsuko thought.

      "I proved my bona fides on that score last time I was in an EVA," Jeff said grimly, "Trying to prove something more important: that we're useful."

      "What was our time?" Nabiki asked, deflecting Misato's angry counter.

      "Ten minutes to spare, with the class work and the rest, if the repairs were done properly, well you're too young and civilians, so there can't be anything official," Captain Madison explained, "You can dive with us any time."

      Nabiki nodded, drank more of the doctored coffee, "I'm gonna sleep in the furo tonight, I'll never be warm."

      "At least you won't have a problem going to the bathroom," Jeff joked.  Nabiki blushed.

      Ritsuko glanced over at Sammi, she nodded, they would look after their charges carefully tonight.

      Rei was traveling through dreams.  She had been worried ever since she and Roku-kun had prevented the death of the Fourth in his dreamscape.  The wounds had been beyond her ability to repair.  Even with her help, Roku-kun shouldn't have been able to prevent the demise of the Fourth from wounds and the attendant shock.  Yet when they left, the Fourth was whole.  She had been too tired to analyze it, now she had.  She needed to find him, soon.

      Since here she could use her full abilities to find him, her search was dreadfully short.

      The Scholarly Dragon, intimidating, forbidding, as she'd seen in the Dreamlands and in Shinji-kun's dreamscape, was there with Roku-kun.  She saw the magic circle Roku-kun lay within, the circle the Dragon was clearly monitoring.

      "Do not disturb the lines," the creature's voice sounded listless, as if it were too weary or too saddened for more effort, "Too much, he will need time, Little One."

      "To heal," Rei approached carefully.  She was still terrified of the creature, its horrid aura still set her one step from fleeing, while at the same time, she knew he would not move against her here.

      "I can," she made her decision, but she was still dreadfully worried, "He cannot see how."  She couldn't think of how to retain her veil of secrecy, yet bring her true, full might to bear.

      "A blindfold, or proper timing will suffice.  Also, I doubt anything you can do, would restore him to absolute health instantly," the creature was trying to reassure her.

      She nodded and headed towards her dreamscape.  She didn't think the Dragon was lying to her, merely underestimating her.  She found that oddly reassuring.

      She arrived, and was surprised to find all her counterparts waiting.  She would not need to assemble them.  Two in particular stood out from the others: the littlest, who the Second had called 'Baby Wondergirl', she wondered if the Second had made the connection, the answer to why Rei had followed her and her `career` so closely; the other was black-haired and brown-eyed.

      That confused Rei, so did the pleased greeting.

      "I couldn't stay away.  Especially considering what happened and what you had planned," #29, `Sarah`, told her.

      Rei nodded, then enjoyed the look of horror on #29's face, as the Dragon arrived with the subject of their gathering.  Rei hoped the Dragon's assurances would serve, she did not know how Roku-kun would react to the revelation of their earlier `relationships`.

      The littlest one had already begun, standing beside Roku-kun and making a song like the howl of a grieving wolf.  Others reached out to touch him and picked up the song, weaving their contributions in and out, the Dragon withdrew to allow them to do their work.  Rei took her place in the song and circle, as did `Sarah`.

      They felt the extent of the damage, the wounds he'd transferred to his dreamself, when he lacked the power to heal them.

      All of them, us, are failures, to a greater or lesser extent, even #29, she considered, But not here.  Here, we are strong.  Their voices, their power, wove in and out, and they all felt the changes.  Rei wasn't worried that the Dragon would discover the whole truth, he seemed to have already figured out most of it.

      They finished, remarkably quickly.  The Dragon collected 'the boy' before he regained consciousness.  "Thank you," he intoned before he vanished with his charge.

      Rei turned to `Sarah`, "How?"

      "There's really not too much for me to do, so when I felt what you had in mind," Sarah shrugged, "I had to help."

      Rei felt a twinge of jealousy at the other girl's easy use of language and its nuances, further proof that she was an inferior element in the chain.  What was equally confusing was the other's easy acceptance of the separation from Shinji-kun, and the others.  Rei knew she'd kill anyone who took Shinji-kun away from her, yet this `Sarah` had easily accepted it.  She lacked the enforced distance of Roku-kun, or the callousness, feigned or real of the Second and Fourth, respectively.  However she did it, she controlled her emotions, what to Rei was a volcano she could neither control, express, nor understand.

      More proof, as if any were needed, Rei thought with considerable self-loathing, That I am inferior.

      "I am curious if Roku-kun got my letter.  I'm going to get some training, then off to a boarding school in England.  I think I've had enough running and hiding for one life," Sarah told her, as if oblivious to the turmoil, and even fear, Rei was feeling.  "Well, give Shinji a kiss for me," she turned and vanished.

      The others had dispersed while she and Sarah had been talking.  Even a `perfected` copy could not hold the attention of the others, while any of the other pilots seemed utterly and completely compelling.  She wondered about that.

June 7, 1947

In all that the Law leaveth open, the word of the Head Wolf is Law.

      As the alert sounded, Ritsuko sat at a console on the command deck, and narrowed the scan arc, trying to get a better idea of where, and what the Angel was.

      "I'm here," Maya took her usual seat that happened to be beside Ritsuko, "The pilots are their way, Commander," she reported.

      "We're still trying to classify it," Ritsuko leaned over and told her.  The sensor systems were now showing an immense spider to those who could link with the Magi.  Otherwise, the map table put an icon where the target was.

      Ritsuko thought the creature looked and moved like an actual spider, a wolf spider to be exact: eight legs, two pedipalps, except for the scale, That can't be right! she thought.  It didn't look like any of the spider-like Great Old Ones.

      "The pilots are aboard their EVAs, Pilot Tendo is on standby," Lt. Baker reported.

      Ritsuko stepped away from the console, trailing the wire to the headset that allowed her to access the data from the Magi, Misato and the other `bridge bunnies` wore similar headsets.  Like what the pilots wore in the EVAs.  Admiral Simson didn't.  Ritsuko smiled at that, they had tested the man, and he could easily have doubled for any of the regular bridge crew except Maya.  But he still hates interfacing with the Magi, Ritsuko thought.  She didn't have to remain seated at the console to manage the battle, the virtual keyboard would appear in front of her wherever she stood, if she needed it.  She could analyze the enemy's and the pilots' condition while she stood back and watched.  I'm just avoiding Maya, again, she chided herself, Considering what a disaster my attempt at manipulating a dream was, I shouldn't continue to hold it against her.

      "Launch them," Gendo ordered.

      The four EVAs moved out.  The creature moved steadily, angling away from the EVAs.

      "Commander, it's moving exactly like a spider," she said.

      "I agree," Gendo confirmed her suspicions that this was not Atlach-Nacha, the Great Old One.  She wasn't sure what it was either.  Nothing normally that size should have been able to move that way.  Yet it was, headed towards a cluster of tall buildings, giving cover to the creature, and limited the approach vectors for the EVAs.

      Admiral Simson stepped to the console.  He had been eagerly awaiting the outcome of Asuka and Jeff's contest.

      As were we all, Ritsuko admitted.

      "Captain," he told Misato, "With your permission."

      Misato nodded uncertainly.

      "Saotome, Ikari, approach from the northwest; Ayanami, Langley stay together and approach from the south.  Hit and Run, don't commit, we're trying something new, stay on tether power.  Let's see if we can take down some other way than strictly force-to-force."

      "Acknowledged," Shinji said from the entry plug of Unit 01.  He was glad to let Saotome take the point on this.  He had a bad feeling about all of this.

      Saotome suddenly dropped down, no longer imitating a badly misproportioned human, Unit 04 dashed forward on all its legs.  Before the creature was even aware of him, he opened Unit 04's jaws and bit its hindmost leg, nearly biting through it.

      The creature turned rapidly, facing Shinji in Unit 01.  It raised both its two foremost legs and the shorter ones, and charged with its fangs and mouth parts moving furiously.

      The creature horrified Shinji, but he stood his ground, acting as bait.

      "HA!" a red EVA leapt out between the buildings and stabbed the creature with a prog knife, it whirled to face Asuka and Unit 02.  Unit 04 raced in and walloped its wounded leg with its tail on the way out.

      The creature leapt to the side.  This time placing itself between Shinji in Unit 01 and Ayanami in Unit 00, each grabbed a leg and pulled back on it.  Asuka rushed up to support them as they held the confused creature immobile.  As strong as it was, it couldn't pull its legs back.  Ranma dashed under the creature, throwing a body check into the legs opposite Asuka.  She grabbed two flailing legs and heaved, flipping the creature on its back.  All four EVAs pulled back as the legs twitched a few times, then stopped.

      "That's it?" Asuka asked.

      Shinji couldn't believe it either, it had been too easy.

      "Do we dismantle it?" Rei asked.

      "We're getting some odd readings," Ritsuko's voice and image appeared off to the side in their cockpits.

      "Stay wary," Admiral Simson's voice added, "Stand by."

      The creature vanished.

      "Where - ?" Asuka shouted, "Ayeah!"  The spider had leapt down on her.  Something unseen smashed the creature in the face, before it could sink its fangs in Unit 02.  The ends of its two forward arms had transformed into the heads of huge vipers, one managed to sink its fangs into Unit 02.

      Meanwhile, Ayanami in Unit 00 collided with the creature, throwing off the aim of the other head.  It twisted and snapped at her.  Asuka wrenched the viper head loose and took a solid grip on its `neck`.

      "Wondergirl!  Have you ever had a wishbone?" Asuka shouted, "Grab it like this and PULL!"

      Ayanami managed to trap the snake's neck under her unit's arm.  The two EVAs backed away from the huge spider.  Ranma's Unit 04 dashed in like a centipede, he caught a burst of webbing, entangling almost half the legs on one side.  Unit 04 simply raised the fouled sections off the ground, not slowing a bit as he moved in to leap and land atop the creature.

      "OW!" Asuka shouted as the leg she'd been pulling came loose, and her Unit fell on its behind.

      "Ayanami-san won," Shinji teased as he moved in to distract the creature from Asuka's fallen Unit 02.  The fight still worried him, the creature itself had made no sound, and Ranma had been equally quiet.  He was sure he wasn't seeing something in this fight.  He closed on the creature, slashing to cut the fangs away from the spider, gaining its undivided attention.  With Unit 04 on its back, and Unit 00 still dragging one leg, it's leap was thrown off target.  Shinji dropped back to get Asuka on her feet.

      Ayanami `climbed` up the leg, hand over hand, until she could kick the creature in the face, destroying one of its huge dark eyes.

      Ranma in Unit 04 delivered the rippling pattern of punches, executing them at maximum speed, for several seconds, then pulled back.

      Ayanami released the wounded leg after breaking the snake head's `neck`.

      "Come on Asuka!" Shinji called as he readied his prog knife again, and charged to knife the creature repeatedly wherever he could hit, leg, body, anywhere.

      "Back!" Asuka shouted as they jumped back, then Ranma and Ayanami leapt forward to duplicate their move.  The creature vanished again.  The EVAs scattered, to await its reappearance.

      "North of Rei!" Simson warned them.

      Shinji yelled a wordless battle cry as he leapt at it.  Rei ducked Unit 00 and rolled out of the way.  Shinji had gathered the spider's head alongside his unit's hip and hung on with both arms.  He tried to crush the creature's head.

      "While he distracts it," Admiral Simson told them, "Cut off all its other legs.  Then slit it open throat to crot - to tail!"

      "Hurry!" Shinji wasn't about to let go, but he hated carnival rides like this.  The spider was bucking up and down, shaking violently from side to side.  He was standing in the one place none of the spider's attacks could land effectively.  The others cut the legs off, in one piece, like Ranma biting clean through one, or in pieces as Rei slashed at one.  They hurled the pieces away from the main body.  Shinji watched Asuka pick up his fallen prog knife, to replace the one she'd lost.  She stabbed the creature less than a foot from where his Unit held the creature, and she slowly drew the blade back.  Foul ichor poured from the wound, enticing the spider to more frantic movement.  Shinji's grip didn't waver, reducing the desperate turmoil to mere twitching.  Ayanami had started at the abdomen and worked backward.  Ranma was starting just forward of the spinnerets and slicing forward, he occasionally had to dodge a gout of webbing.

      "Next time we should do what Shinji did," Ranma teased as the creature's fluids all poured out of the gaping wounds.

      "Naw," Asuka corrected, "Let our cowboy break it, like a bronc rider.  What a silk factory!  Just keep it in cows.  Imagine that Admiral, no more jute or hemp lines, all silk."

      "How's the bite?" Ritsuko asked.

      "Nothing, it doesn't even hurt."

      "Well, the venom could be a hemotoxin.  I don't see any problems here, but you'll have to undergo complete decontamination."


      Everyone on the command deck flinched from Asuka's shriek of outrage.

      "I have to get naked in front of those men again?!"

      "We'll have a female officer see to it," Ritsuko said, then covered the mike, "I hadn't realized the advantage of Nabiki being in Search and Rescue."

      Maya nodded, "Pilot Tendo, report to Search and Rescue, immediately."

      "Wait until the Technical team can get out there," Admiral Simson told the pilots as Ritsuko and Maya left the command deck, then he cut the connection, "I think two things.  One, I need more practice and two, the pilots need to learn to coordinate better."

      "Yes, sir," Misato said nervously.

      Asuka stepped into the partitioned alcove in her plugsuit.  Nabiki noticed her relief when she saw her.

      "They've got you on decontamination duty?" Asuka asked.

      "I need the practice," Nabiki admitted, "We're also testing some new procedures and equipment."  That got Asuka more agitated.  "It should speed things up," Nabiki reassured her.

      Standing there in an 'isolation suit', a primitive spacesuit with higher pressure inside and it's own internal air supply, Nabiki was already uneasy enough.  She didn't want to make Asuka more wound up than she already was.

      "Lung flush first," Nabiki sat Asuka down and affixed a gas mask-like appliance to her face.

      "No more sticking my head in a bucket?" Asuka asked.

      "Side benefit of pilots as part of Search and Rescue," Nabiki opened the valve to the five-gallon reservoir.

      Asuka braced to inhale the cold, oxygenated liquid, and was confused.  She couldn't speak with her lungs and throat filled with L.C.L.

      "We had them warm it up," Nabiki smiled as she started removing Asuka's plugsuit.

      "Jeff," she called as she put the plugsuit in a bucket and handed it over the partition.  Then she started rinsing down Asuka as she sat breathing the special L.C.L..

      "Rinse," Nabiki helped Asuka take off the mask and purge the L.C.L. from her lungs.

      Asuka stood and bent over at the waist, letting the last of the L.C.L. pour out, while Nabiki held her steady.  Then Nabiki attached the mask and reservoir of 'rinse' L.C.L. once Asuka was seated again.

      "I'm glad these suits are liquid tight," Asuka admitted, "Can you imagine all the other places you'd have to wash?"

      "I'd rather not," Nabiki started the flow, cutting off further conversation.  She couldn't imagine how agitated or worried Asuka had to be to be talking about such things to her.

      As soon as the job was done, Nabiki pulled off the mask and wiped down Asuka's face and cleaned the fluid out of her ears with water and swabs, while Asuka donned a sterile robe.

      "There's lemon juice in the showers," Nabiki told her as she hurried away.  She walked out to where Raccoon was, to help decontaminate him after he'd exited his isolation suit.

      "Weird," she told him, "You've really got her shook up."

      "That was not my intention, shaken up, but not that shaken up," Raccoon sent Rei ahead to check on the progress of events.

      "Why do I think you planned all of this?" Nabiki accused.

      "Well, there are spells to summon Angels, but what they fought, wasn't an Angel."

      "Then what was it?" Ranma wandered in, "You two better hurry, everybody has already started digging in."

      "Oh MY WORD!" Raccoon spoke in a terrified and terrifying tone, shrank back.

      "WHAT?" Nabiki glanced around.

      "Saotome doesn't have his face in a plate slurping down food!" Raccoon wailed, "It must be terrible!  WAAAHH!"

      Nabiki shook her head as she was helped out of her suit, told the frowning Ranma, "Remind me to drown him later.  Meanwhile, let's go eat."

      Ranma agreed, "So what was that thing?"

      "Spider of Leng, they aren't normally that big," Raccoon said.

      "How big were they?" Ranma asked again, "Normally."

      Nabiki wondered why Ranma was so interested.

      "About the size of a horse, ton to a ton-and-a-half.  Although I've seen some that were five to 10 tons, eight to 10 meters body length," Raccoon told him, "I hope Ranko gets a look at it.  She wonders why I won't take her to the Dreamlands, I doubt even you could deal with the Cats of Saturn, let alone walking through Ulthar."

      "Cats!" Ranma stood stock still.

      "Creatures vaguely catlike.  In Ulthar it is against the law to harm a cat, so they're all over the place," Raccoon said, "Even I stay clear of Ulthar."

      The sound of people eating and talking drew their attention.  Ranma rushed forward before everyone ate everything.

      "You'd better go keep an eye on him, maybe stop him long enough to find out if he prefers what I cooked or what Asuka did."

      Nabiki smiled and hurried ahead, she stopped at the door to the command deck to savor the smell, Asuka and Raccoon had outdone themselves.

      Sammi glanced down as Davis carried an exhausted Asuka through the door into the apartment.

      "One word about 'over the threshold' and you're sleeping outside," he warned quietly.

      Sammi only smiled, "I was going to say how gallant you're being, considering how things turned out."

      "I know I'm the best," Davis carried Asuka into her bedroom, "A contest doesn't change anything."  He placed her on her bed and tucked her in.

      "Rei seemed very happy.  She even participated in the festivities," Sammi said, "That is new, from what I've heard."

      `Raccoon` smiled at her, "Maybe that's what I was after all along.  Good evening, I want to turn in, ma'am."

      Sammi nodded, once he'd left, she made a few changes to make Asuka more comfortable, a gentleman would never remove a sleeping lady's clothes.  Then Sammi headed to her room to consider.

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 25 - The Cooking Contest


      Thanks to Sniper for help with the German translation.

      A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse - Aesop

Chapter 25 - The Cooking Contest

May 31, 1947

      I stare out across the school yard, the clouds and birds hold a greater interest than the activities of my fellow students.  Greater is a subjective term, in truth I am waiting for the Commander's call again, to do what they created me to do.  To fight and, if necessary, die for the mission.  To destroy our enemies.  Eye, weapon, trigger, that is what I am, that is all I am.

      "This isn't a school.  It's a warehouse," one of the students laments, oddly mirroring my own thoughts.

      "You take that back!  RIGHT NOW!" Roku-kun's voice silences the others.  I turn back, Nabiki-kun is trying to placate him, but he is too angry.

      "Langley!" he advances on the cause of his anger, "You can insult my piloting skills, you can insult my intelligence, you can cast aspersions on my parents.  Because you can't top anything I've ever thought about them."  He is advancing, a storm front, fists clenching and unclenching.  Every eye in the tent-classroom follow him, the Second's are wide with terror.  Roku-kun doesn't fight with the Second, he never lets himself be drawn in.  Now it looks like this could only end with bloodshed.  The Fourth is standing, I stand too, it will take both of us and more to separate those two, without injury.  The guards glance around warily, uncertain at what point to intervene.  The rest of the class just clears out of their way, both combatants are arguably larger than the Japanese students in the class, and are absolutely the most aggressive.

      "You never, never insult my cooking," Roku-kun says right in her face, "You haven't the skill or the right."

      The Second has been backing up during his approach, now she rallies, "Fine!  You want a contest, let's have a contest!"

      "Is that a challenge?" Roku-kun smiles.  He always smiles.

      "Yes, I challenge you!"

      "Very well," he pulls his handkerchief from his coat pocket, and slaps her across the face with it.  The traditional European response to a duel.  "Accepted.  As challenged I demand choice of weapons.  The judges will be the NERV command and senior research staff, acceptable?"

      The Second nods, I retake my seat, so does the Fourth.  The guards relax.  Shinji-kun looks at me, shrugs.  He does not understand either.  Nabiki-kun is already calculating odds and considering the possible bets to be placed.

      "The weapons: Captain K's instant heartburn collection."

      The Second blanches, "Are you crazy?  How can we make decent food from that swill?"

      Captain Katsuragi's ability to select and mix inedible instant food had become legend among the class.

      "As I thought, Second Children, you're all mouth and no guts, when it comes to a real contest."

      Her color returns and then some, her face and hair are briefly the same red hue.  "Anything you set up I can do!  We have to be able to use more ingredients."

      Roku-kun considers, "Okay, we prepare menus and lists of ingredients for the competition exactly a week from right now.  Rei-san?"

      I am startled to hear my name, Roku-kun is addressing me, "Would you be willing to act as tiebreaker?  All you'd have to decide is if a quantity of something is more than reasonable, using Captain K's `stuff` as a base."  He seems to be asking, imploring my agreement.

      "Wondergirl?  What does she have to do with this?"

      "Can you name anyone else in this room who can be impartial?  Really impartial?"

      " . . . Hai."  Every eye in the class room is on me now.  I am not comfortable with the attention.  I wonder what I have accepted.

      Roku-kun turns back to the Second, "As for our dueling seconds.  Three each, you pick your first, I pick my first, then your second, then me mine," he smiles malevolently, "Then you pick my third, and I pick yours."

      The Second is sweating, "That's insane."

      "Bist du aus Berlin oder bist du ein Berliner?" he asks the Second politely: Are you from Berlin, or are you a jelly doughnut?

      The Second goes red again, "We'll pick at lunch!"



      Roku-kun and the Second return to their seats.  The teacher makes his presence known, he'd wisely stayed out of the fight between these two, now he reasserts his authority.  The class President almost forgets her 'Stand, bow, sit' command, the traditional beginning of our class day.  She and everyone else are buzzing about the contest and that they'd survived a confrontation between the two gaijin.

      Are they stupid? I wonder, The Fourth, Nabiki-kun and I could have separated them before anyone was seriously hurt.  The guards wouldn't even have had to intervene.

      Nabiki-kun soon finishes her calculations and is taking bets on who the seconds will be.

      Roku-kun and the Second periodically turn and glare at each other, even I am curious about this odd contest between the two, and the convoluted rules.  Why the Second agreed to them so easily.  Does she desire an answer to the supremacy question so badly she can be that easily manipulated? I wonder.  The Captain's lack of cooking skills is well known by all the class, and the staff at NERV.  Her onetime wards, Shinji-kun and the Second have lamented it time and again.  Likewise, both the Second and Roku-kun have great pride in their cooking skills, and both have repeatedly proven it.

      I find the contest actually interests me.  I am hoping for the Second's defeat, but Roku-kun has asked me to be impartial.  The level of whispering and note passing disturbs the teacher, yet everyone seems so intense.  Perhaps he considers the lesson, his most often repeated, holds their attention again.  A warehouse indeed.

      The breaks between classes are times of intense lobbying.  Many girls want to be on the Second's team, others want to be on Roku-kun's.  Or for the Second or Roku-kun to pick them as the third for the other.  The Fourth, Shinji-kun and the boys in the class are amazed that Roku-kun picked such a contest, and that he would actually challenge the Second.  I find I have a question for him as well.

      "Why?" the other girls retreat at my approach.

      "Why what, `Moses`?" Roku-kun asks, a joke about my `parting` the crowd.

      "This contest."

      "I've never done this before, and why cooking?"

      I nod.

      Roku-kun smiles evilly, "Langley doesn't have a prayer.  I cooked for thirty people regularly, never had anything except compliments.  She thinks cooking for a large group is the same as cooking for a few.  Industrial kitchens don't work that way.  By the way, are you willing to convince Commander Ikari to participate?"

      I am taken aback, "Why?"

      "He deserves a home-cooked meal as much as anyone else."  Roku-kun's antipathy for the Commander is nearly equal to my devotion, his statement rings false, my expression must betray that.

      "Okay, it will bend his mind, that's why I am doing it.  After everything lately, the others deserve a good meal, a little camaraderie, maybe he does too.  I don't want to not-invite him just because of my feelings, that would be petty."

      I consider this, it is more in character with `Raccoon`, the Second's failed attempt to insult the Sixth, "You need industrial kitchens.  NERV has them.  For the staff, isn't it better to have it there?"  I manage to surprise Roku-kun.

      "Excellent, Ayanami-sama.  If you can arrange it, that would be wonderful," he bows, not the mocking bow he often gives, but real admiration.

      "I will do it."

      "My thanks."

      I head back to my seat, then consider.  I approach Nabiki-kun, "Two hundred on Pilot Langley."  I set the sum in yen on her desk.

      She is shocked, "Okay, do you need a receipt?" she stammers as I walk away.

      I think I've seen his plan within a plan, playing out my part will not be easy.  Roku-kun will throw the contest, but in a way that will throw a deep shadow on the Second's victory, in the interim he has ample time to plumb and pick at her insecurities.  Perhaps that is the root of his antipathy to the Commander, they are too much alike.  And Pilot Davis is one of the Commander's `tools` rather than the one who is manipulating.

      Lunch is chaos.  Lobbying, betting, demands, pleas made and countered.  News of the contest has spread throughout the school.  The Second is very popular, but Roku-kun has a certain following as well.  Many students have consulted the other pilots.  One of the student teachers from the Home Economics department has tried to get one of the coveted six positions.  I choose a place where I can watch without being inside the crowd.  I find myself critiquing the choices.

      "Hikari is my first choice."  That is obvious, the Second picking her best friend.

      "Matsuda Natsumi."  Roku-kun picks the girl from the Chemistry Club who helped make the bombs, she whoops at her good fortune, I am curious at the strange choice.

      "Suzuki Neri."  The Second picks another of her inner circle.  Hikari and Matsuda are good cooks, one of food, the other explosives, and both are imperturbable people, Suzuki is merely the Second's friend.

      "Ibuki Maya."

      "Hey!  That's not fair," the Second loudly protests, "She's not in the school and she'll be one of the judges!"

      "Neither of us stipulated they had to be from school and not judges."

      "But that's . . . Wondergirl!  What's your judgment?"

      Having over three hundred people suddenly staring at you, waiting for your words, your judgment, is disconcerting beyond words.  I understand why Shinji-kun always wants to run away.  I am supposed to be unbiased counsel, and Roku-kun is correct.  "Ibuki Maya," I say.

      Roku-kun smiles, the Second fumes, her mistake I believe.

      "Saotome Ranma!" she shouts, then realizes what she has done.

      "Hey!  I don't want no part a this!" he protests.

      "Not manly enough to be a chef?  All the great chefs are men," Roku-kun tells him.  They catch the Fourth, challenged by his own ego as much as by Roku-kun and the Second.

      "Hai," he murmurs, "I'll do it."

      Roku-kun gives the Fourth a warm smile, and a cold one to the Second, who is sweating.  Actually, the Fourth is an excellent choice, neither Roku-kun nor Nabiki-kun has ever complained about their once and current roommate's cooking, in fact both prefer it to their own.  But the Second doesn't see it that way, now she awaits Roku-kun's `revenge`.

      "I didn't mean it, please don't say Misato!" then she clamps a hand over her mouth.

      "Misato," Roku-kun cleans his glasses, slowly, "Misato would ensure that I won, wouldn't she?"  He puts a hand on the desperate Second's shoulder, "I will be merciful.  Suzuhara Toji."  Whether the Second or Toji squawked louder will remain a subject of contention.  The Second's cry was definitely shriller, and they seemed the same, so I assume Toji was louder.  Only the class president seems pleased at the selection of her would-be boyfriend.

      "I can't do it!  I won't do it."

      "Very well," Roku-kun sighs, "Katsuragi . . . "

      "Wait!" Hikari shouts, she and the Second drag Toji away from the rest of the crowd.  Roku-kun, the Fourth, Shinji-kun and Kensuke prevent anyone from following.  From her expression, the Second is pleading with Toji to accept.  I doubt Captain Katsuragi's cooking skills would doom the Second's chances, but if the Second believes, then they would.

      The Second returns, Hikari taking Toji's arm, she looks very happy.  Toji looks as if he had received a sentence of death, for a crime he hadn't committed.

      "We'll survey Misato's cupboard tonight, together," the Second says in a subdued voice, her chances of success severely reduced in her mind.

      As an impartial observer, I don't feel she has done badly.  All in all, Roku-kun believed himself the Second's superior, Hikari and Matsuda would be about equal, both clever, capable subordinates.  Hikari the better cook, for Matsuda: Roku-kun said 'industrial cooking', a chemist should have the advantage there.  Ibuki Maya put Roku-kun's team farther ahead, if she could serve at all, or even serve all the way through, that is a risk, typical of Roku-kun.  The Fourth isn't as inept in the kitchen as the Second thinks, he just isn't as good as Roku-kun, or their now and former guardian Akagi-sensei, and Toji is quite skilled.  I find it amusing, I had smelled the food they all had for lunches, listened to their commentary about who had prepared it and why, even watched the trading that often went on. But I never before correlated the data together.  Now that I have, I feel a bit of pride at my own discernment.  The `meeting` breaks up, Nabiki and her bookies paying out the few winners.  The Fourth and Toji hadn't even been in the running for the third spot.

      I look up as the shadow falls across me.

      "King's rook to King's bishop six."  Roku-kun hands me the paper as he sits down.  "Check I believe."

      I nod, we play chess `by mail` as Roku-kun calls it.  He is correct, that move put me in check, I had several counter moves already prepared, but the rules do not require me to give him my counter until tomorrow.

      "You like the game?" Roku-kun asks.

      I nod, then decide he is playing another of his games of messages with many meanings.  "Please explain it."

      Roku-kun smiles again, "Some of the important moves were at the beginning, with less bearing on the ostensible contest.  See if you can puzzle them out."

      I remember the look on Hikari's face as she led Toji back.  "Toji and Hikari, that's one."  I consider, shake my head.  I am no good at this game.

      "Maya and . . . "


      Roku-kun nods, "To try to heal the rift that has grown up between them.  The last one.  Drag them apart, so they snap back together of their own accord."

      "The Second and Fourth."

      Roku-kun nods again, I don't see the pattern.  "Those two can only exchange emotions when one must lift up the other.  They can only be nice, as pity.  Either way, it happens."

      I wonder if Roku-kun realizes that I am perhaps the only one who fully understands both his plans, and Commander Ikari's, and that I am their confidant because I will never divulge their secrets to anyone else.  If either does, I wonder if either appreciates the irony.

June 2, 1947

From the Journal of Ayanami Rei

      The weekend came and went.  The menus were presented, and the arguing began.  The Second had less than 15% according to Roku-kun, 60% by her own accounting, of Misato-type ingredients.  They wrangled and arrived at 75% as the minimum acceptable amount.  I was glad they had achieved the agreement without directly involving me, the Second had to go back, rethink, and return tomorrow.  Roku-kun was already winning the psychological game.  He nearly lost an important aspect when he had to talk to Maya.  The coincidence was, that was the day I went to present my request to Commander Ikari.

      "Commander, Pilot Davis and Pilot Langley have proposed a cooking contest, with the NERV command staff and senior researchers as judges.  Pilot Davis confided in me, that it was an excuse to let the proposed judges enjoy a home cooked meal together, he seemed to set a great deal of importance in it.  This Saturday," I tell the Commander as we stand in his office.

      The Commander considers my words.  "Rei, what is your assessment of this idea?"

      "I believe he is sincere.  He specifically asked me to ask you to participate as well."

      "He did?" the Commander smiles, my world brightens.  "I suspect he wanted something."

      "No, I suggested that using the banquet hall kitchens would allow them to reduce the disruption of proper operations."  I remove the paper from my pocket, "These are the names of the team members in the contest.  All are at the school, NERV, or both."

      The Commander smiles again, enjoying a private joke.  I know he will approve, but he must settle the matter with himself.  "Has he appointed himself morale officer now?"

      "I suspect that he is 'Trying to be useful', as he mentioned when he and Pilot Tendo began training for Search and Rescue."

      "And all the changes to procedure he's suggested," he smiles again at the joke, "Perhaps I should let him take over for a while."

      "No Commander!" the suggestion horrifies me, "He could never take your place."  Then I realize he is joking, I smile too.

      "Make it clear I am agreeing only so long as their `contest`, doesn't interfere with the responsibilities of NERV personnel, pilots included."

      "Yes, sir."

      "Do you approve of his using you to communicate with me, rather than doing it himself?"

      I consider, remembering Roku-kun's feelings to and about the Commander.  "I believe he couldn't have done it, he thought it important, and I was glad he asked my help to make sure they included you, Commander."

      "Thank you, Rei."  It is a dismissal, I leave.

      I am happy.  I do wish I could remove whatever kept these two apart.  The Commander's glorious vision should be shared with those who could understand.  But the Commander hasn't taken any of the other pilots or most of the staff into his confidence.  It is not my place to suggest it.

      'No.  It would be embarrassing.'  I hear Ibuki Maya's voice.

      "Maya," Roku-kun soothes, "Can you think of a better excuse to let her try your cooking?  To pour oil on the waters?"

      "But, I, what happens if there's an alert?"

      "The whole thing gets canceled.  I can't think of an alert that wouldn't call the bridge crew, the pilots and SAR.  That takes out the two contestants, my numbers two and three, and all the rest go to the shelters."

      "I don't know."

      I believe I can help, so I enter the lab.

      "Rei-san, can I help you?" Analyst Ibuki asks, eager for the diversion.

      "Ibuki-san, Roku-kun.  The Commander has approved your request.  There is a banquet hall kitchen that should fulfill your requirements."

      "There you have it," Roku-kun says to Maya, "Even our fearless leader approves, how can you disappoint all these people?"

      Maya sighs, "Oh all right, but it can't interfere with my duties."

      "The Commander has also stipulated that, for all participants," I tell them.

      "Just don't go looking for extra duty, remember who I used to live with, and I'll tell on you."

      "You wouldn't!" Maya is shocked.

      "He would," I assure her, for some reason, both stare at me.

      "You're getting good at that," Roku-kun says.

      Now I am confused, I know Roku-kun well enough, that he would have already cleared this with his previous guardian, Dr. Akagi.

      "Okay, I surrender," Maya manages.

      Roku-kun smiles, "Thank you, Ayanami-sama, you said there was a kitchen we could use."

      "Hai."  I take him to the place I remember from the plans for the headquarters.

      "It's perfect," Roku-kun beams.  The kitchen is huge with stoves and ovens forming a U shape at the far end.  "Two equal preparation areas and plenty of space."  He examines the utensils, pots and pans.  I cannot understand what he is looking for, but he is obviously satisfied with what he finds.

      "Completely stocked as well.  Excellent.  Thank you again for this."

      I nod.

      "And thank you for talking with the Commander.  If I tried, we'd just have gotten into another fight."

      "I do not understand why."

      Roku-kun sighs, "The way he treats people.  His own offspring, you, Captain K, all the others.  Where I'm from, you don't treat people like property.  We killed 600,000 of our own people about eighty-two years ago, affirming people aren't property.  We're still coming to grips with that.  I know you don't mind, but you're his - his sidearm, I guess.  His trusted weapon of last resort."  Roku-kun rolls up his pants' leg, exposing the .22 revolver he always carries in his boot.  "For the Commander, that's you, he trusts you, depends on you.  However, you and everybody else is a tool to be used.  If it breaks, you get another.  I was taught, and I believe, you can't replace people that easily, once they're gone, you've lost something precious and unique forever."

      "If we could replace them?" I ask, Is this the whole cause of the dispute?  Something so basic?

      "It can't be done with current technology.  There are supposedly ways of returning life to the dead, but only in legends, and those are fraught with peril."  He relaxes, "Well, Ayanami-sama, I am in your debt.  Name your reward, anything your heart desires.  You'd be surprised what I can arrange."

      I don't understand, I have my heart's desire, don't I?

      After my long pause he smiles again, "Don't worry, you'll think of something."

June 7, 1947

      The day of the actual contest is far more hectic than anyone expects.  Roku-kun had evidently drilled his crew at some point before.  Everything is going swiftly and smoothly.  Roku-kun drifts from person to person, making small suggestions.

      The Second's team is very different.  Hikari and Toji seem to work well, Neri is not as skilled.  The Second is already working herself into a frenzy, falling further and further behind Roku-kun's team, making her more nervous.

      I wait in the kitchen, despite the repulsive smell of simmering meat.  In case they fall into dispute, and need the tiebreaker.  The Fourth is Roku-kun's edge, he moves with a speed that is almost inhuman, with equivalent precision.  Only his concern for the Second's perturbed state hinders perfection on his part.  His sensitivity to the Second's distress is something I would not have predicted.

      "All personnel, Yellow Alert!  Yellow Alert!" the loudspeakers blare.  Maya looks around.

      "Maya, go," Roku-kun tells her, "Better you find out if this is a false alarm or real, then we can continue, or run for our stations."

      Maya leaves.

      "Lost a member of your team," the Second teases.

      "Figures they'd hit us now.  They couldn't wait three hours, or have come in yesterday," Roku-kun laments, "I want to file a grievance with their union."  Roku-kun walks over to me.  "Are you all right with the meat we're cooking?  I know you don't like it."

      "I am needed here," I tell him.

      Roku-kun nods, lifts the phone handset, "Pilot Davis calling SAR, if we scramble you can reach me at 3322.  I'm going to hang up, please call back to verify the number."  He hangs up, the phone rings.  "Davis.  Good."  He hangs up.  "Well, SAR knows where I am.  I'm praying this is a false alarm."

      It wasn't.

      "Pilots Saotome, Ikari, Ayanami, and Langley to your EVAs, pilot Tendo to standby."  Captain Katsuragi's voice comes over the loudspeakers.

      "Left out again," Roku-kun mourns as the Second dithers.

      "It isn't fair, you're nearly done, I'm not even half finished."

      "I can sync with Unit 02," Roku-kun offers.

      "No chance!" the Second runs from the room.  The Fourth and I follow immediately after.  Save Roku-kun, the others are terrified.

      'Hey!' I hear Roku-kun yell, 'Who told you to stop working?' as I walk down the hall.  As we leave him alone with both teams, Roku-kun's plan becomes more clear.

From the Journal of Ayanami Rei

      The Angel, if it were to be classified as one, hardly required one of our EVAs, let alone all four.  Admiral Simson finally had an opportunity to use the 'fire team' concept, that had been proposed repeatedly.  The Second and I attacked from one side, the Fourth and Shinji-kun from the other.  Hit and fade, wearing it down, before it could effectively attack.  Then Shinji-kun held it while the rest of us closed in and killed it.

      Once we had destroyed it, we waited for the clean up and technical crews to arrive and verify it was really dead.  All that time on tether power, waiting, the Second bemoaned her chances at beating Roku-kun.  She prophesied all manner of disasters overtaking her cooking, while he was still there to supervise his.  The Fourth and Shinji-kun tried to reassure her that her friends would never allow that to happen.  She was inconsolable.

      When the order to return finally came, the Second practically ran back to the bays.  Unfortunately, the creature had managed to inflict a minor injury on her EVA, so she had to go through complete decontamination.  That Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun had the duty, did nothing for her mood.

      "I lost," the Second wails as Roku-kun, in an isolation suit, tilts her head back.  They stand in an empty shallow pool, near the EVA bays.

      "I don't see your problem," he puts in the eyedrops.  "Hikari and Toji had everything under control when I left.  It smelled good to me."

      "You're just saying that."

      "Close your mouth."  Roku-kun thoroughly irrigates her eyes and face.  "You either trust your friends, or you don't.  I wasn't completely done when I left, I trust Matsuda-san."

      "What's Wondergirl waiting for?" the Second grimaces as Roku-kun changes to a stronger decontamination solution for her suit and hair.

      "If you disagree about rescheduling the contest."

      "Langley won't do that."  Roku-kun combs the decontamination wash through her long hair, "That would be admitting defeat."

      "You won't defeat me," she reiterates, without her full conviction.

      It strikes me how they act here, the Second would never have let the Fourth or Shinji-kun do what Roku-kun is doing, wash and comb her hair.  Yet he seems to do it with a professional and detached demeanor, and the Second thinks nothing of it.

      "You stand there staring at my body, thinking perverted thoughts."

      So much for my analysis, I think, I need more practice.

      "About the closest I come to that, is wishing this was Con Sulfuric and Aqua Regia, dissolve your suit all right, and your flesh and bones.  Much quieter universe.  Step one foot up."

      She raises one leg, Roku-kun rinses it thoroughly.  She steps out of the pool and down on the plastic sheeting leading to Nabiki-kun and the body wash station.  The other foot done, the Second hurries into the partitioned alcove.

      "Jeff."  Nabiki-kun calls, Roku-kun takes the bucket containing the contaminated plugsuit from her over the partition.  Then Roku-kun returns to have his isolation suit decontaminated by another isolation suited SAR team member.  The Second leaves in a sterilized robe for the showers, Roku-kun goes through second stage decontamination with Nabiki-kun's help, as the others help him out of the suit and it's enclosed airpack.

      "Rei-san, would you mind checking if the food's been served and the vote's been taken?"

      "I do not mind."  I head off as Nabiki-kun teases Roku-kun about never being able to `properly` decontaminate him.

      Roku-kun is wearing issue coveralls, so despite the delay for decontamination, he is not far behind the Second when she enters the command deck.

      "Congratulations, Asuka," Maya tells her, "You won, 15 to 12."  The others salute her, plates of food on carts or desks, everyone obviously enjoying the efforts of both pilots.

      Roku-kun comes in behind her, "Well, let me be the second to congratulate you."  He offers his hand, the Second shakes it, looking smug.  He pulls away, "I have to pay my respects on high."

      The Second opens her mouth to launch a scathing remark, when Hikari suddenly drags the Second away from the congratulations, whispering something fiercely to her.  The Second's composure vanishes.  She looks at Roku-kun, who blows her a kiss, she shakes her head, Hikari nods back.  Toji takes an intense interest in the wall and it's paint.  Roku-kun smiles broadly, and waves to the Second before he leaves.

      I quickly decide to follow Roku-kun, he proceeds to the Commander's balcony of the command deck.  'I wish to thank you for your indulgence in this matter, Commander.' Roku-kun even sounds as if he is bowing.  I position myself so I can see Roku-kun, but the Commanders cannot see me through the door.

      "Did you achieve your desired objective?" the Commander's question startles Roku-kun.

      "I think you might be a better judge than I am.  I arrived rather late."

      "Don't make a habit of this," the Commander warns.

      "That was never my intention, Commander.  I might acquiesce to Pilot Langley's demands for a rematch, in six to eight months."

      "Rematch?" Commander Fuyutsuki asks, "She won."

      "By three out of 27 votes, 11% is not enough to declare a definitive victory.  If you will excuse me, I promised the SAR crews they could help finish off the leftovers, and we should return the kitchens to status quo ante.  I should see to that also."  A nod and he leaves the command balcony.

      I wait until he's closed the door behind him, before I confront him.  "It was a fraud.  The whole contest.  Unless you took over completely, which you did.  The Second's team could never have caught up or even finished, in the time available to them.  Unless you intervened.  They told her."

      Roku-kun shrugs.

      I continue, "This should be made known, the contest was between what you intended and what the Second did.  Instead it was you against you."

      "Sensei," Matsuda hurries up, a guard trails behind, "We're done cleaning, and the cart is on the observation deck.  How did that plate stay hot?"

      Roku-kun looks around theatrically, "Magic," he confides, she laughs.  I wonder why no one believes him.

      "Tell the Search and Rescue crews that the leftovers are ready, and get some for yourself."

      "We lost, sensei, I'm sorry."  Matsuda bows, she seems ashamed.

      "Nothing for it.  As long as you learned how to organize a process, you won."

      "Hai, sensei," she runs off.

      "Sensei?" I ask, "Teacher or Master?"

      "Follow me."  Roku-kun takes the stairs to the observation level three at a time.

      I walk up them more sedately, I suspect he is going to do something else theatrical, and will need a moment or two to deliver it properly.

      They built the observation deck when the military still believed they could have an effect on the Angels with conventional forces.  It allowed observers to see the entire multilevel command deck at once.

      I walk up to him, as he stands next to a serving cart with a single, large, covered dish on it.  He removes the cover with a flourish.

      "Garlic noodles with mushrooms, in wine and pesto sauce," he twirls a fork through the noodles, raising the filled fork.  "None of Misato's stuff in this."  He offers it to me, holding a hand under to catch any dripping.

      I carefully take the noodles off the fork.  The smell is intoxicating.  It had also been on the command deck, only the smell of meat kept me from partaking.

      "Look here," he points down to the stacked levels of the command deck.  The Commander is patting his stomach as Commander Fuyutsuki chuckles as he leaves that level.  Staff and pilots surround the Second, enjoying being the center of attention, then Hikari spots us and points up.  The Second has the same vaguely stricken look she had when Hikari had talked to her.  Roku-kun gives her the odd two-fingered salute Nabiki taught him.  She returns it, and returns to being the life of the party.  Roku-kun is offering me another forkful of those delicious noodles.

      "Think about what you're seeing," he says.

      I take the noodles, then the fork.  Roku-kun picks up the plate, so it is easier to get at.  I savor and think.  "A bribe," I take another forkful.

      "Langley knows who won, so do I, so does her crew and more.  Hikari won't say anything.  I told Toji if he said anything, he'd be eating cream of sister soup for the next year.  Why is it ridiculous threats are so much more effective?"

      I watch the SAR people arrive and help themselves.  Commander Fuyutsuki returns to Commander Ikari with two heavily laden plates.

      "We are all here," I realize.

      "For a moment, it's just us.  No duty, no responsibilities, just us together, a community.  Tell me I lost.  If that isn't worth some teasing from Langley, then the Great Old Ones have cost us our humanity, and they've already won.  If we forget what it means to be human, how can we fight for it for all those others outside these walls?"

      I take another forkful of noodles to answer him, "I shouldn't tell."

      "The guy who cared enough about his teammates to let `Victory or Death` Langley not lose, and let Rei the Loner be an important part of it, is asking you to file this as 'undecided' or 'experimental error'.  If Maya and Ranma hadn't left, if I hadn't left, maybe a different outcome."

      "It is dishonest," I express my disturbance with this.

      "Do you tell anyone what you and the Commander privately talk about?  Do you tell him what you and I have talked about?"


      "You don't want to burden him.  Don't burden them.  No acrimony tonight.  Hikari will keep her honest, and in a few months, I may give her a rematch.  If I think everybody needs it."

      "You picked this fight, intending to lose."

      "No, I won," he smiles.

      A secondary goal that only he sees.

      "Victory or defeat, not important.  'Cause I always get what I really want."

      I think I understand the difference, what separates Roku-kun and the Commander, the Commander can't lose, he doesn't dare, or the world will die.

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 26 - Lady or Tiger?  Both!

And when the cuttin' were done The only part that wasn't bloody

Was the soles of the big man's feet Yea he were cut in in 'bout a hundred places

And he were shot in a couple more

You Don't Mess Around With Jim - Jim Croce

Chapter 26 - Lady or Tiger?  Both!

June 8, 1947

Letter from Sarah ggreg


      It's Sarah, Sarah ggreg.  I am officially Sarah ggreg, the adoption was a mere formality.  I've got a lot to learn, over the summer I'll be going through Chicago.  It should be interesting, I'd be interested in your experiences.

      The San Francisco operations will be closing down, they have some deep secrets that you'll find out about, I don't know exactly what.  I think I don't want to know.

      I'll be going to a boarding school, so I'm getting commando training before I go.  Somehow, I'm not happy about that.  I don't know how you cured me of wandering, I guess getting shot at helps.

      Hope to see you and the others, have Shinji give Rei a hug for me.


      Ramsey glanced around the empty warehouse, then at the cult leaders.  I've got to stop thinking of them that way, he reminded himself.  He recognized all six of them: Nabiki's accountant, Ranma's young martial artist, the black-suited man from Davis, Shinji's housewife, Rei's WAC lieutenant, Asuka's Tokyo police officer.  Ironically, only the last was Japanese.  None of them were happy about seeing the others.  Farther back, their staffs waited.  Only the leaders would sit at the conference table.

      "You're here because I asked, not for each other," Ramsey told them as he sat.

      There was grumbling, but all took their seats.

      Ramsey watched the dynamics of the group.  Negative, even downright hostile feelings, were often not reciprocated.  Asuka's 'high priest' was hostile to Ayanami's, but not the reverse.  Davis - Saotome interactions were complicated.  The entire group was a powder keg.

      "Any reports on the leaks?" Ramsey asked, to forestall the building arguments.

      "No," Nabiki's 'high priest' acknowledged.

      "What many of you don't know, is the attack on the pilots on May 4th wasn't a random action, it took place as part of a coordinated operation against the pilots.  We captured one of the conspirators," Ramsey handed out the folders, "The descriptions and artists' sketches of the major members of the group who took part in these attacks."

      The murmurs became very ugly.

      "Assuming you can trust someone who would betray, twice," the black suited man said.

      "We want them alive," Ramsey said flatly, "We need to know who their bosses are, who is funding them and ultimately are their operations political or religious, or something else."  He gave them his iciest stare.  All six of the cult leaders gave minor signs of agreement.

      "What limits do you put on their capture?" Saotome's representative asked, "Aside from not killing them."

      "If they're U.S. Military or Japanese nationals, their behavior is treason.  Judicial niceties of arrest don't apply.  However, any one of you who turn that into a hunting license will pay the price.  I doubt any of you will be eager to face a couple of armored divisions backed up by four EVAs, and I'll make sure your divinity is leading the attack."  The shock on their faces pleased Ramsey, but he didn't show it.  They all knew or suspected how their patron would react to their name being used for that kind of activity.

      "We will make sure legitimate authorities are on hand for the actual arrest," Davis's black-suited man said.

      Asuka's policemen nodded immediately.

      "There is a question that needs to be addressed, Captain," Rei's WAC spoke quietly.

      Like Ayanami herself, Ramsey thought, And the same iron under the seeming deference.  Ramsey nodded, "Go on, Lieutenant."

      "The preparation of Units 05 through 09.  There may be some trouble getting them here and operational.  We don't have anything definite, but we do know there is a greater interest by some powers."

      Ramsey knew that the plan as it stood, was to bring Units 05 through 09, the production models, to Japan then upgrade Units 00, 01, 02, and 04 to production standard protection, power systems, etc.  The idea they were in danger worried him, a lot.

      "The other major reason I wanted to talk to you was the plans you've been drawing up against each other.  I want it stopped, now, by all of you," Ramsey braced himself for the explosion he saw building, and was glad he had the reinforcements available.  He just hoped they'd arrive in time to prevent any homicides, his own included.

Lessons in Grammar and Math

      "Why are we doing this?" Asuka asked, she looked at the pilots and their guards, who were assembled in Dr. Akagi's dining room.

      "Because we didn't finish the last weeks of school," Ice Princess said, "Besides after spending most of last week underwater, I'd like to spend some time with people."  Ice Princess looked out the window at the rain coming down in buckets outside, "Also I don't want to be stuck testing whatever Raccoon and Ritsuko are testing."

      Wondergirl stood up and headed for the door.

      "Wondergirl, you're leaving?" Asuka asked.

      Wondergirl jerked the door open just before Hiroko could knock, "Boo?"

      Asuka shook her head, "You can't scare people that way, Wondergirl."

      "That's what you think," Hiroko replied in a shaken voice as she took off her shoes to change into the slippers provided, she kept glancing at Wondergirl.

      "Let me take your coat, I'll get a towel," Ice Princess took Hiroko's raincoat to the bathroom, keeping it from dripping on Horseface.

      "How'd your hair get so wet?" Horseface asked, "Forget to use the hood?"

      Hiroko frowned, picked up a water glass, "No, like - "

      "NO!" everyone in the room shouted, except Wondergirl.  It couldn't stop the flight of water.

      The empty glass slipped from Hiroko's limp fingers and shattered on the floor.  She stared at `Ranko` looking around worriedly.

      "There's an explanation," Ice Princess said carefully as she walked back from the bathroom with the towel.

      The knock on the door interrupted any further talking.

      Wondergirl headed for the door.

      "If I made a run for it," Hiroko sagged into the chair, glanced at the guards, "They'd chase me down," she looked at Ice Princess, tried to smile, "Wouldn't they?"

      Ice Princess nodded and draped the towel over Hiroko's shoulders as Hikari and Toji entered, followed by Kensuke.

      "Do they - ?" Hiroko asked as she dried her hair.

      Ice Princess nodded, "All the pilots, but - "

      "You can guess which," Asuka told her, enjoying the look of disgust shared by Ice Princess and Horseface.

      "How did you get wet?" Hikari asked, irritated by the way Horseface's damp shirt was clinging to her chest, and Toji's failed attempts not to stare.

      "Come Ranko," Wondergirl told her.

      "Yeah," Asuka added, "You don't want to distract the Stooges."

      Horseface got up to follow her.

      "Some people have to see them to believe them," Asuka told her, "If they never see them, they don't believe in them."

      "What are you talking about?" Toji took a seat at the table.

      "How, uh, fast Ranma left," Hiroko said desperately.

      Hikari and Toji exchanged looks as everyone else around them looked very nervous.

      Now Hiroko knows, and Raccoon still doesn't!  I don't believe this! Asuka wanted to scream, the `invincible` martial artist could supposedly dodge anything, except water.  If someone wanted to blast him, all they'd have to do is electrify a stream of water, or mix poison into it.

      "You violated security," Rei told Ranko, once she'd verified the bathroom door was closed, "You must inform Dr. Akagi."

      "No problem," Ranko tried to reassure her, as Rei angrily backed her against the other door.

      "Do not worry about Hiroko," Rei told him, "She is discreet, Nabiki-kun would not trust her if she were not."

      Ranko relaxed a bit, "Okay, I'll meet you out there."

      "Use the phone in Dr. Akagi's room, I will not let anyone use the other extension until you have returned."

      "Right," she headed out.

      Ritsuko was getting sick of the noise.  The recording of the jet engine blared through the EVA plug simulator bay could be heard clearly in the `soundproofed` control room.  She could just imagine how Jeff was reacting to it, locked in a plug for the duration of the test.

      "Sempai, call from Ranko," Maya said from her console.

      Ritsuko restrained her first impulse about the familiarity, but they were alone, she took the phone without comment.

      "Rit-chan!" Ranko's panic temporarily washed out the jet noise, "Hiroko splashed me and saw it!"

      Ritsuko nearly dropped the phone, "Did anyone else see it.  Anyone who isn't authorized?"

      "No," Ranko said desperately.

      Ritsuko sighed, "I'll contact Security, they'll have to talk with her," What did you do to get her to splash you? Ritsuko didn't add.

      "Okay, what do we do in the meantime?  Rei's really mad."

      "Nothing," Rei is mad? Ritsuko shook her head, wondering now if Ranko was playing a trick on her, "Don't draw attention to it, don't discuss it.  You keep secrets by not mentioning them to anyone, even to people who know."  Ritsuko heard Ranko hang up the phone.  She shook her head, "Another disaster," Ritsuko told Maya, who nodded.

      "We could just go public," Maya suggested.

      "And have the world think the pilots are some kind of monster?" Ritsuko asked, "Not a good idea.  They'll be doing strange things soon enough, no point in having it occur early."

      Maya nodded again.  Ritsuko checked the strips from the chart recorders, she wished she could muffle more of the sound, it was beginning to get to her.

      "Math, math and all day more math," Toji complained as he got ready to leave Dr. Akagi's place, late in the afternoon.

      "That was the plan," Asuka retorted, hoping that Horseface had picked up enough of the math to understand at least part of the AT field manipulations.

      "Tomorrow will be no different," Wondergirl told him, "You are still inadequate, that will have to be remedied."

      "Why?" Toji asked defensively.

      "Toji-san," Hikari tried to pacify him.

      "No, he must know," Wondergirl told him, "With your increasing expertise, the Fourth must advance."

      "So you only need me to convince Ranko to study?" Toji said sarcastically, "Thanks."

      "You are very effective," Wondergirl told him, "It is valuable."

      "Why couldn't I be useful that way?" Kensuke complained.

      Spineless covered his face and shook his head.  Telling whether he was laughing or embarrassed was impossible.

      Ice Princess and Hiroko were waiting for the other three non-pilots to leave.

      "So, you all know about this?" she asked when she was alone with the pilots and the guards.

      "You may not speak of it," Wondergirl told her, staring at her, "To us or anyone else."

      "I understand," Hiroko nodded, swallowed.

      Asuka rarely saw Wondergirl intentionally intimidate someone, she was very good at it without trying.  Even Horseface moved away from Wondergirl as she stared Hiroko down.

      "To have the knowledge is a threat.  To yourself, to us.  There is a simple solution," Wondergirl told her.

      "You aren't going to kill her!" Ice Princess interposed herself.  Hiroko blanched.

      Rei turned her attention to Ice Princess, attempting to intimidate her.  "You once suggested eating the Second's brain.  We will apply the technique here.  We have enough ketchup," Wondergirl said, "Anything can be eaten with enough ketchup."

      "SHE'S TRYING TO TELL A JOKE!" Asuka suddenly realized.

      "I was successful," Wondergirl told them.

      Asuka shouted in disbelief at her.  Hiroko looked like she was ready to faint.

      Hiroko and the guards actually looked grateful when Security arrived to take her away.

      "I believe nothing Security will do, will frighten her more than what happened here," Wondergirl explained.

      "Rei-chan," Spineless began, "You did that on purpose?"

      "Yes," Wondergirl told them.  Asuka thought she looked very proud of herself.

      Asuka wanted to throttle her, Ice Princess looked like she'd help, instead she assured Hiroko that everything was going to be all right.  She kept glancing over her shoulder to glare at Wondergirl.

      Hiroko shook her head, "I guess I'll be meeting with NERV Security interrogators, again," Hiroko sighed, "I'm beginning to think I should just get a clearance."

      "Well, maybe you can join Search and Rescue," Ice Princess suggested.

      "I think you people need a psychologist more than you need anything else," Hiroko countered.

      "Are you saying we're all crazy?" Asuka asked sweetly.

      Hiroko stared pointedly at Wondergirl, "Do I really have to answer that?" Hiroko asked innocently.

Confessions in the Dark

June 9, 1947

      Gendo looked at the pieces of the creature the pilots had killed.  "I can't imagine why they sent this," he told Fuyutsuki, "There are no records of any applied hypergeometric forms that would allow it to cross the void."

      "If spells didn't bring it here?  How?" Fuyutsuki asked.

      Gendo thought his friend enjoyed bringing up such superstitions.  "A portal to the Dreamlands, all manner of nightmares could be dragged forth," Gendo considered.

      "Since Mr. Ryoji has been relieved of the duty of protecting the pilots," Fuyutsuki suggested, "We could assign him to locate this gateway."

      "No, he is currently pursuing other projects," Gendo told his old mentor, both knew it was code for Gendo's special project, that only the two of them really understood.

      "His staff then," Fuyutsuki added, "You said nightmares, they may literally bring those across."

      Gendo nodded, watched Fuyutsuki leave the room where they stored the pieces.  He had little doubt the activities would be useless, but it would give the all important appearance of doing something.

      When the actions failed, and the next disaster hit, it would force the others to take the actions he needed them to take.  He'd doubted they'd ever be aware how easily he manipulated them.

      Dr. Akagi's reactions were the most troubling, she knew the requirements, and seemed to be ignoring them.  Katsuragi had inadvertently overplayed her hand, but Gendo knew there were ways to rectify that situation.  Simply changing the content of her usual libation would present the picture he wanted the pilots to see.  He could imagine the pilots' reactions to her `drunken` behavior, especially Shinji's, soon they would return to the paths he'd set for them.  More drastic action could wait until later.

      Shinji had decided to walk Rei home, after the second day of math lessons ended, leaving Ranko and Nabiki alone to go over the `homework` Asuka had assigned them when she and the others left.  Nabiki suspected that Shinji was `working on them` as she and Raccoon had tried on him and Rei earlier.  Something Rei had said, gave Nabiki the impression it was Rei working at it, and Shinji was just going along.  The door opened and Raccoon dragged himself in, Dr. Akagi followed.  Nabiki thought Dr. Akagi looked almost as bedraggled as Raccoon did.

      "We got your homework for the past two days," Ranko teased him, "Where were you?"

      Nabiki headed into the entryway, she wanted to know too.

      For the past few days, Dr. Akagi had been very closed mouthed about the testing they were doing on Raccoon, during the few minutes they had actually seen her, before she went back to the lab.

      "It's all right to tell them," Ritsuko told him, "He's staying here because I need to keep an eye on him."  She smiled, "And even I'm getting tired of NERV HQ."

      Ranko joined Nabiki in the entryway, both watched how slowly and deliberately Raccoon was taking off his boots, "Long-range transport test.  No sleep, no food, just airplane noise, in the plug for 36 hours.  I'm not doing dinner, I'm gonna shower and then sleep," Raccoon told them.

      Nabiki considered, physical exhaustion and hours of sensory deprivation or overload, they could get some answers out of him in that state.  She led Ranko out of ear shot and waited, until Raccoon was in the bathroom and Ritsuko was in her bedroom, to explain her plan to Ranko.  She was a little worried how easily she convinced Ranko to go along with it.

      "'scuse me." Raccoon tried to step past Ranko, to get into the boys' room.

      "You'll never get to sleep all tensed up like that," Ranko suggested.  Ranko stood in his way wearing a pair of Nab-chan's tight shorts and one of her shirts that was very tight on Ranko in all the right places. Anything to distract him a little more, Ranko thought.  She smiled at him, remembering Nab-chan's shocked reaction at her change of outfits.  She reached up and touched the hard knot of muscle on his shoulder, "Sitting in that chair for thirty-six hours."  She stepped out of his way.  She thought he looked drugged, or drunk, he was so worn out.  Yet Nabiki was correct, she, they, needed answers from their ex-roommate, and this was a perfect time to ask the questions.

      "Solution?" he stepped into the room, opened the closet door and set his clean clothes in the closet.  He slipped out of his robe, while he stood behind the closet door, waiting for her to leave or close the bedroom door.

      He's not just shy, Ranko thought, as she remembered the scars.  "A massage, get rid of some of those knots, help you relax, get a good sleep."


      "You lie on the floor, and I give you a massage."

      He stared at her over the top of his glasses, "You're kidding."

      "Raccoon, it's me, Ranko-chan," she smiled at him, "Not Ranma, or Langley, or Nabiki.  Just me, offering.  No funny stuff."  Ranko felt very weird doing this, Raccoon hated Ranma, wouldn't trust him for anything, Ranko was a whole different person and a good friend, as far as Raccoon was concerned.

      "'Kay." He pulled something out of the closet, Ranko couldn't see through the robe.  When he stepped clear, he was wearing a T-shirt, and a baggy pair of shorts over his underpants.

      Proprieties, Ranko smirked, He's got to loosen up.

      "Supine or prone?" Raccoon asked in English, kneeling between the closets and the bunk bed.  Seeing Ranko's confusion, "Face-up or face-down?"



      Raccoon lay down on the floor.

      Ranko let her fingers carefully dig into the hard knots in Raccoon's shoulder and neck muscles.  She felt none of the cold that indicated he was holding mana.  The extent of the knots and tension amazed Ranko, it was worse than the first time he'd massaged Nab-chan. This may take more than just manipulation, she realized. She eased part of her chi into the worn and knotted muscles.  "So what did they have the tests for?"  She didn't like the extent of the chi imbalances she was detecting, Nab-chan might want to ask questions, Ranko thought, But I'm getting a lot of unpleasant answers without ever saying anything.

      "New, bigger B-49, jet flying wing as transport for EVAs," exhaustion muffled Raccoon's voice, "Faster than sea transport.  Needed to check physio - body and mind effects."

      "So they asked you, if you went crazy, they'd still have the rest of us," Ranko said, "Nice of them."

      "Yeah, expendable."

      Ranko let the silence hang for a little bit while she worked out more kinks.  She sometimes wondered where she'd learned all this stuff, it's as if her body knew how to do it, but she couldn't remember learning it, or being trained.  She glanced at Nab-chan waiting at the doorway, listening.

      "Feels good?" Ranko cooed.

      "Sleep soon."

      "Maybe I should have Nab-chan come in here and walk on your back."

      "Sure, walks over ev'body else," Raccoon slurred.

      Ranko smiled at Nab-chan who looked shocked, then she shrugged and took off her slippers and socks.  She put one hand on the rail of the top bunk and stepped down carefully.

      "Easy," Ranko urged both of them, "Easy, nice and easy."

      Nab-chan gained a little confidence, digging her toes into the knots along the spine, while Raccoon relaxed again.

      "Two pretty girls giving you a massage," Nab-chan teased, "You'd pay a lot of money for that."

      Ranko shook her finger angrily, silencing further comments.

      "Not payin'" Raccoon said.

      "We didn't ask you too," Ranko soothed, " 'Biki-chan should be glad, as first alternate, they didn't ask for her too.  If you didn't suggest that, it should be payment enough."  Ranko glared at Nab-chan, daring her to say anything, It was her plan, why's she messing it up? Ranko wondered.

      Neither of the other two said anything.

      Ranko watched Nab-chan work for a little while, Ranko wondered where Nab-chan had picked up the skill, she was obviously very good at it.  From her expression she was finding lots of `business`.

      "Racc - Jeff?  What's between you and Ranma?" Ranko watched Nab-chan scowl at her directness.

      "Hate 'im," Raccoon said.

      "I know that," Ranko continued, keeping her tone soft and playful, "Why do you hate him?  Maybe you told Nab - iki, but I never heard."

      Raccoon raised a fist in the air, "I, Saotome Ranma, beloved by all women and all gods, vow to see Ranko moldering in a unmourned grave."  He dropped his fist, "Rot'n bastard."

      "'You mus' guard 'im, has hidden depths.'  Yeah, 'n Gendo's th' Second Coming," Raccoon fell silent.

      Ranko felt Nab-chan's warning gaze before she looked up, her warning to say nothing was unnecessary.  Ranko wasn't sure she wanted to know who thought he had important hidden depths, enough to tell Raccoon to guard Ranma.

      "So you weren't kidding about guarding him?  I heard him bragging you couldn't fight him.  Not wouldn't, couldn't."

      " 'f Saotome saves the world, so wha' 'f Dav's dies.  Gets bet'r."

      Ranko felt her guts tighten at the flat statement, she put more emotion into fixing dinner, so did Raccoon.  There was no change in the patterns of his chi, odd as they were.  So he believed what he was saying, and it didn't bother or excite him in any way.  Nab-chan was having trouble keeping her balance, physical and interior.

      "You have to protect him, is that why you hate him?" Ranko asked.

      "Nah, Ranko'sa good kid," he patted her knee, "Better you than him.  Won't let him kill you, kill 'im m'self first."  He paused a long while, "Poor lil' Ranko, only a thing.  Curse to Ranma, pr'tty dolly ta ev'body else, not person.  's a person ta me."

      Ranko wasn't sure where to go from there.  Ranma's transformation was a secret from the school and public, it was an open secret at NERV, known but not discussed.  Except Raccoon had never seen it, believed it was a vast joke by everybody else, to repay him for his jokes.  He'd worked hard to dissuade the other boys from chasing Ranko, even tried to `go along with the joke`.  Still, he was adamant that they were two separate people, even producing eloquent and convincing arguments to support his position.  Most people who knew the truth, thought that was Raccoon's best joke.

      "Thank you," Ranko said at last.  She didn't have many friends.  Most of the boys wanted to date her, even Shinji.  Ranko suspected they wanted a lot more than a date.  Asuka, and most of the girls were openly hostile to Ranko, because of the boys' attention, because of she was prettier and better built.  Nab-chan and Rei seemed to take the transformation in stride, but neither of them was what she could call a confidant.  Raccoon didn't have any interest in dating her, but was always willing to stick up for her, even against Ranma.  He was also the first to tell her when she messed up.  It made Ranko very uncomfortable, but pleased her that he was around.

      "Jeff."  She got the pronunciation right, "Please don't hurt him.  Despite all he's said, all he's done, he's still my only family.  I'd feel bad if something happened to him, even if he deserved it."

      The silence dragged out, Ranko was growing worried that Raccoon was refusing.

      "Don' trust 'm.  Ya shouldn' 'ther," Raccoon said at last.

      "Please promise me," Ranko urged sweetly.

      "No.  But 'f he doesn' hurt ya . . . he'll live.  'f hurts ya, I'll let 'm 'stroy h'mself next time."

      Ranko knew that was the best she could hope for.

      "It might help if he'd quit talking about you, as if you didn't exist," Nab-chan suggested.  Grinning broadly at Ranko, who frowned back.

      Ranko wasn't sure what had gotten into Nab-chan, so she plunged ahead with her questions.  "There's a big, black, dragon, I guess.  Shiny black scales, big, glowing, pupilless yellow eyes, the rest of it's dark black, not shiny: claws, teeth, two rows of spines down its back."  Ranko noted that Nab-chan was staring at her, she knew nothing about it.  "It calls Asuka 'Langley', like you do, I guess it calls you 'the boy'.  What is it?  Is that your dreamself?"

      "No," came the answer.

      "So what is it?" Ranko asked.

      "Fought Daimorigon.  It kill me.  I kill 't, Scholarly Dragon was l'ft.  No mo' Dreamlands fer me, no mo' dreamscape all wall'd off, destroyed."

      "But it likes you."  Ranko gestured for Nab-chan to continue walking.

      "Ask Lang'y, I w's dead."

      "So who told you to protect Ranko?" Nab-chan asked.

      "Don' hav' ta, j'st wanna," Raccoon replied.

      "Who told you to protect Ranma?" Ranko asked, she hadn't detected any change in the chi patterns, Maybe Nab-chan is right about this being the time to ask.  I wonder what would have happened if we'd asked these questions before.

      "The Dragon's Council, 'He's arriv' keep safe, your life for his, can't let SEELE get'im.'"

      "Who is SEELE a- ?" Nab-chan asked.  Ranko had cut her off at her first question, evidently he only answered the last question put to him.

      "Gnomes of Zurich, B'vaaar'n 'luminati, s'rcer cult.  S'rfice world, fer immortality.  Deal with Key 'n Gate for c's'mic wisdom," Raccoon chuckled at that.  "Slaves, bound fer'ver, fools," he added with real venom.

      "What do they want Ranma for?" Nab-chan asked.  She'd paled on Raccoon's revelation.

      "S'cret.  Important."

      "Yes, but what?" Nab-chan insisted.

      "Don' kn'w."

      Ranko almost laughed at Nab-chan's frustration and disappointment.

      "Kn'w all 'bout 'm though.  All h's s'crets.  Cats, punching fast, capture alive."

      Ranko felt cold, All the attacks of the last weeks, Ranko thought, This SEELE bunch was after me!  They know my weaknesses, my abilities.  That's why I couldn't protect myself, they were ready for me!  Did Rei know that too?  Ranko paused to consider that, letting her hands and fingers continue `unattended`.  If they had gotten me, what then?  Sacrifice, make me one of them, what?  If it hadn't been for the others, Ranko gulped, I'd know by now.  But they only wanted Ranma, not Ranko.  Would they kill Ranko and keep Ranma alive, or what?

      "How do you know all this?" Ranko asked, now she detected changes, cold seeped under her fingers, she hastily amended her question, "About our enemies, those creatures?"  The surges slowed, stopped.  She glanced at Nab-chan, warning her that there were some questions they wouldn't get answered.

      Raccoon laughed, "Books. Books 'n books 'n books.  'n mor' books.  Then ask'd th' EVAs."

      "What kind of books?" Nab-chan asked.  Ranko noted the surge of cold that she'd felt had not affected her.

      Raccoon chuckled again, "Evil, nas'y books here, story books in Ramna dream."

      "ST - ory books?" Nab-chan cut her shout off, "You trust story books?"

      "Acc'rate," Raccoon replied, "Gendo said so too.  Read 'em all too."

      Ranko thought Nab-chan was going to start jumping up and down on Raccoon, Ranko desperately stifling her own laughter didn't help Nab-chan's disposition one bit.

      "Story books," Nab-chan looked helplessly at Ranko.

      "Good st'ries," Raccoon added, and nearly got himself ground into the floor.

      Ranko decided they'd had enough fun at Nab-chan's expense, Too bad Raccoon can't defend himself, Ranko thought, Nab-chan's really cute when she can't control everything, and she knows it.  Ranko knew enough to hold off with that attack, until it could do some good.

      "So do you know what's going on?" Ranko asked.


      Ranko glanced at Nabiki, who merely shook her head.  Then Ranko realized she was laughing.  Ranko had determined to get the whole mess out in the open, but could only ask one simple question at a time, Terrific, when I really need a long-winded lecture, she agreed with Nabiki's amusement, I can't get one.

      "How about at NERV?" Ranko suggested.


      Ranko glanced at Nab-chan again, "A little help?"  Ranko didn't even know enough to play twenty-questions about all the mysteries of NERV.

      "Who is the enemy?" Nab-chan asked.

      "Other people."

      That chilled Ranko and Nab-chan.

      "The creatures we fight aren't the enemy?" Nab-chan asked incredulously.


      "Why are other people the enemy?" Ranko asked.

      "Servants, slaves, pow'r hungry . . . fools."

      "What about the monsters, the things we fight?" Ranko was getting confused.

      "Hav' ta see us ta be en'mies," Raccoon told them, "They don', b'neath th'r not'ce."

      Ranko wanted to shake her head in amazement, "Then why are they fighting us?"

      "Infesstion, clean off, make nice."

      Ranko shared a look with Nab-chan, it changed everything.  Ranko hadn't considered that people would do something like this, that someone would put some little thing above the lives of hundreds to millions of others, and these people were after him, specifically.  "What about honor?"

      " 'llusion."

      "Is anyone on our side?" Nab-chan asked, Ranko noted the despair etched on her face.


      Ranko was beginning to think Raccoon was doing that to Nab-chan on purpose.

      "Can you name them?" Nab-chan asked through gritted teeth.


      "Then how do you know they're there?" Nab-chan was near the end of her rope.

      "Met with some."

      "Why would they help you, or the human race?" Ranko was horrified.

      "Nob'dy wan's ta die.  EVAs best cha'ce," Raccoon laughed once, "Less you n' h'm fight.  Humans . . . so many, exped'ble."

      The three were quiet for a while.  Ranko had already finished working all the knots out of Raccoon's shoulders and upper arms, Nab-chan seemed to be finding nothing more to work on.

      "What are the EVAs?" Nab-chan asked as she stepped aside.

      Ranko agreed it was a good start.

      But they had waited too long, Raccoon was sound asleep.  Neither wanted to be the one to rouse him.

      The two girls left Raccoon under a blanket in the boys' room, he'd fallen asleep, and after 36 hours in the plug, neither wanted to wake him.  Even to put a pillow under his head.  They were in the kitchen considering, after Ranko had changed back to her usual red and black outfit.  Nabiki had gotten some of the answers she'd wanted, after Ranko had gotten the answers she wanted, but both of them were left with more questions.  The answers had only showed them better how much further the mysteries extended.  Nabiki still wondered why Ranko had willingly dressed that way and asked the questions she had.

      "That's just weird," Ranma shut the hot water off in the sink after he changed, "I'll never figure that guy out."

      "Look at it from his point of view," Nabiki agreed, but had to play devil's advocate, "He's positive you and Ranko are different, if I didn't know better, he'd have some pretty compelling arguments.  Like would Ranma ever give someone a massage like that?  Especially another guy?" After dressing up that way, Nab-chan admitted she was jealous.  Ranma never dressed up for her, And she fills out my best outfit better than I can.

      Ranma winced at that, "That wasn't what I meant."

      "Like I said, you keep talking about Ranko as if she were a curse.  Considering what's going on around us: women getting the vote in Japan, the Nazis and supporters trying to buy absolution for their wartime actions, the Nuremberg Trials, the War Crimes trials starting here.  Your attitude towards her comes across as straight misogyny, women-hating.  When really it's just your curse, and your arrogance.  Considering that's how our real enemies work, he's got to hate that."

      "Thanks," Ranma left the kitchen to sit down at the dining room table.

      "I notice, Ranko, managed to call him off."  Nabiki followed him, she enjoyed Ranma's stricken look, "If Ranma can keep his mouth shut, or at least be civil about Ranko, he may live long enough to grow up.  You notice he didn't say he'd do something to Ranma, he'll let you destroy yourself."

      Ranma sighed, "Considering this SEELE bunch is after me, it wouldn't be too difficult," he stared at her.

      Nabiki nodded and wondered why they were after just him, wondered what other threats were out there.  The Kuno comparison doesn't apply, Nabiki thought, Kuno would never kill, even to protect 'his loves', and never at personal risk.

      Her biggest question was still unanswered, If you have met with those potential allies, Mr. Davis, who do you work for?  Where does your final loyalty lie? She wasn't sure she should ask, for the answer she'd get, Maybe being ignorant is safer in that case.

      Ranma looked at Nab-chan, "Is it wrong to be worried about that?"  He was surprised the question startled her.

      "I'm more worried about you even asking," Nab-chan told him as she sat and scooted the chair next to him, "You love him more than you love me," she crooned, "I should be so jealous."

      Maybe if you didn't try to confuse me all the time, Ranma didn't say, "But he's so adorable, so strong and noble, and yet so vulnerable."  Ranma let out a Ranko-like sigh, "You're cuter, but a girl has to know her man has a soft side too."  Ranma thought Nab-chan could chew rocks right now.  "Now, that dinner, that's how a girl should act."

      "When did you learn how a girl should act?" Nab-chan's tone would have turned the Sahara into a ski resort.

      "Oh, watching Rit-chan and Rei-chan, and of course Asuka-chan, they're all so ladylike."  He let out another Ranko sigh, "I can see why Raccoon and Maya love her so much."

      The dual clunks as Nab-chan hit her head on the table, and Rit-chan dropped her clipboard, told Ranma he'd gone too far.

      "I was just teasing Nab-chan!" Ranma said desperately.

      "Oh that's not it," Rit-chan swept him out of the chair, cradling him easily, "I only sent Raccoon away because I was jealous.  Now the four of us can live in a perfect state of love!"

      The slam of the front door indicated Shinji's silent arrival, and extremely loud and rapid departure.

      "Saotome," Nab-chan told him, without lifting her head, "If we'd dropped just you on Pearl Harbor, we would have won the damn war!"

      Asuka looked at the bugeyed cargo plane, with the decidedly unaerodynamic thing sticking out of its nose, landing at the Army's major Tokyo airfield.  "If I didn't know better, Captain," Asuka joked, "I'd think you'd brought me out here on a date."

      "Sorry, it's business," Ramsey told her, "Although the Admiral and his wife have invited us for dinner.  They thought you might feel like celebrating."

      "Because we finally taught Horse - Ranma the most elementary calculus, no.  Your mysterious act is working," Asuka told him as they boarded the jeep and drove towards the taxiing plane's destination.

      They stayed out of the hanger until the engines shut down and the ground crew had chocked the plane inside the hanger.  The side doors opened and crewmen rolled a portable stairway into place.

      "Behold," Ramsey told her as they entered the plane's cargo bay.

      For an instant she didn't recognize the two dozen long poles that, with their pallets, filled the length of the cargo bay and stuck out the nose.  "Wait!" she recognized the ends of the poles, "Are these - they're really them!"

      "Your designs," Ramsey smiled as she raced along the length of the cargo.

      "The full length versions are coming by ship.  Until the C-99 is available, we can't ship the full-sized ones by air."

      "Full-sized?" Asuka was confused, "These are nearly 35 meters long!"

      "The full-sized sonic glaives are 175 feet, about 53 meters," Ramsey told her.

      "The heads are exactly my design."  Asuka looked at the huge cutting surfaces of the sonic glaives.

      "Your design was more durable, yours didn't cut as well, but they didn't bend or shatter every eight strokes either."  Ramsey stood back and watched her as she ran her hands over the smooth metal.

      "When do we test them?" Asuka asked.

      "Soon," Ramsey said, "Although they're already cleared for combat use."

      "So we can use these against an Angel when it shows up?" Asuka asked delightedly, imagining the advantage they would have had against the giant spider with the extra reach.

      "You're scary when you look like that," Ramsey accepted Asuka's frown and gesture in the spirit it was meant, "Well, first, we have to unload them."

      Asuka raced past him and down the stairs, "Well hurry up, they've got work to do, and they could sound an alert any second!"  Asuka wondered if Unit 02 could unload the glaives faster than the crews could.

Exposed and Susceptible

June 10, 1947

      The ordinance team walked through the NERV headquarters corridors.  The mustard-colored walls didn't signify anything more important than that color paint had been available cheap in Japan, when they painted the corridor.  Some wit had speculated that the different, blandly-painted corridors were actually some huge magical protection spell over the entire complex.  Only the fact that the same wit had died of a gunshot two days later gave the story any credence.  It might have been a warning to keep such speculations to yourself, a murder as an object lesson fit Ikari's sense of subtlety.

      A bored guard checked the papers, all were in order.  Correct U.S. Army signatures and government authorizations.  The team had people who chattered together, and others who merely glared at others, all in all a completely ordinary working crew.  Security allowed them into the EVA bays to do routine maintenance on the plugs.  The guard wondered why ordinance people did the work, he guessed it had something to do with the rockets used to pull the plugs to safety after they cleared the EVA.  He also knew enough not to ask, people got disciplined for less, and his family had to eat.

      The team leader walked over to the pair who were the most mutually hostile, they stood perhaps 3 meters apart and glared at each other.

      "We have a job to do," the WAC lieutenant told them, "We do it, you two check it, then you two can do whatever you want.  You can kill each other for all I care . . . AFTER the work is done right."

      The pair headed off to the first plug the team was working on.  The lieutenant shook her head, she was only a very senior clerk, her job was to oversee the paperwork, make sure everything was in order.  That she would do.

      The devices were simplicity itself.  Five 70mm HEAT warheads from the old Japanese infantry cannon, all fixed to converge on the command chair, triggered by a radio signal.  To prevent it from occurring accidentally, the signal had to be on five very specific frequencies and transmit a very specific signal pattern, one frequency after another.  The intricacies of that mechanism were beyond her purview and that of her team.  The triply redundant fuses to fire the warheads were not.  They too were electrical, very clever, and would mean the death of anything in the way when they fired.  But battery backups ran down, L.C.L. had a habit of getting into everything, no matter how well sealed it was supposed to be.

      She personally believed the L.C.L. pried casings open and then forced them shut once it was inside wherever it had been excluded from.  No one who'd been touched by even a drop of that foul stuff laughed at her speculation, not with the dreams they had for weeks afterwards.

      The team replaced the fuses and warheads with practiced ease, she smiled at that.  She wondered if anyone had considered doing what they were doing.  She'd always thought that five warheads really was overkill, three or even one would do the job.  The thoughts of those Japanese things where a pilot could be, had gnawed at her, until she'd come up with an elegant solution.  NERV and Gendo Ikari had no more idea what and whom they were fooling around with.  If they really understood, they'd have their priorities straight.

      The teams closed covers, made their tests, the two inspectors made theirs.  Everyone who had to sign the papers did so, and they all trooped out.  She left copies for maintenance and Security, everything was in order, and would continue to appear to be.  Right until the EVAs went into battle.  Gendo Ikari and NERV might get an unpleasant surprise then, or maybe they'd be reasonable.

      Oh, we all believe that will happen, she thought as the team left NERV HQ.

      Ranma hated this, hated having to do this.  He sat naked in the bathroom, with a bucket of cold water in his hands.  "Raccoon, get in here!  NOW!"  He hoped the other boy hurried, before he lost his nerve completely.

      There was a loud thump and an 'Ouch!' before the door slid open.  Ranma couldn't meet the other boy's gaze.


      "Don't say anything, just pay attention."  Ranma sat so Raccoon could get a good look at him, all of him, then he tipped the bucket over his head.  He screwed her eyes shut, but forced herself not to move, the other boy had to see this, had to understand.

      "Ranma?" Raccoon said.

      "Yes," Ranko said, wanting desperately to cover herself, to tell him to shut the door, to run away and hide in shame.  She looked back towards Raccoon, staring at the bathroom floor.

      A single drop of blood hung at the bottom of the hand that covered his nose and mouth, then it fell, staining the floor.  Ranko hated this, the one guy who never hit on his female form, the one guy who never drooled or lusted after it like even Shinji did.  The one guy who could be trusted to be a friend and confidant to her, was the first guy to see him/her naked like this.  More blood hit the floor as Raccoon slid to his knees.

      "Now do you understand?" Ranko grabbed a towel to cover herself, her shame blushing her crimson, "Now to you see?"

      "No," Raccoon said, his voice funny, "Ah thought you were in trouble, or found mah glasses."

      Ranko looked up at his face for the first time, no glasses and tears streaming down his face.

      "Ah thought you were in trouble so ah ran here, ran into somethin' an' the door post, ah think ah broke mah nose."  Raccoon sagged against the door post, "Ah wen' ta sleep, when ah woke up, ah forgot where mah glasses were, then ya yelled.  If ah knocked over a display case, Akagah-sensah will throw me off the balcony - with ah rope around mah neck."

      "So you, you didn't, I have to . . . " Ranko hung her head, she was going to have to go through all this again.

      "Found them!" Nab-chan announced as she walked up, then looked at the pair, "Peeping would be better if you could actually see what you were looking at."  She focused on Raccoon's injured state, "She gets violent if you barge in on her."

      "It wasn't like that!" Ranko shot to her feet as Nab-chan helped Raccoon to his.

      "You dropped your towel," Nab-chan told her, "You'll give Shinji and Toji quite a show."

      Ranko scrambled for the towel.

      "I think I'll hold on to your glasses for a bit."

      "Medical," Raccoon managed as the pair staggered for the kitchen.

      Ranko hung her head, "Why do things like this keep happening?"

      Rei accepted the deck, split it into two piles and shuffled inexpertly, "Jacks or better to open, deuces and jokers wild, if no one can open, we ante again, and play the hand low ball."  Rei found everyone sitting and standing around Dr. Akagi's dining room table was staring at her, "Was the terminology incorrect?"

      "No, Wondergirl," the Second said, "We just can't figure out when you ate a copy of Hoyle's Rules."

      "I have not," Rei explained, she had wanted to test the odd of this possibility.

      "Then will someone explain to me what's going on?" the Fourth asked.

      "Don't worry," Shinji-kun told him, "It's not like we're playing for real money."  He smiled at Toji, Hiroko, Kensuke and Hikari, who were as mystified as the Fourth.  Rei could care less, she had read and memorized the rules of poker and was eager to see if her improved knowledge of the rules enhanced her percentage of games won.

      Rei wasn't good at reading expressions, but she knew that the Second, Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun were taking this as seriously as any other battle they'd ever been part of.  The others appeared as confused as Shinji-kun and the Fourth.  She dealt the cards, and watched the battle begin in earnest.  Her and the Second's mastery of the odds versus Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun playing very different manipulation games.  None of them was an easy target for any of the others.  Although again, Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun seemed to be splitting the pots between them.  Indicating odds were not the entirety of the game.

      The guards were also watching with interest, orbiting the table, watching all the hands, revealing nothing.  Kensuke, Toji, Hiroko and Hikari were doing even worse than she and Shinji-kun were.  She realized that a superior understanding of the written rules could not offset her lack of understanding of the unwritten ones.

      They redivided the pot, the deal changed hands, the results were the same.

      "You are not using any of the cheating techniques," Rei said to Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun, "Yet you still won many of the hands."

      Now everyone stared at those two.

      "You were cheating?" Kensuke was shocked.

      "Cheated by the Boss, and not even for match sticks," Hiroko said with exaggerated tone and gestures, "Money is more important than her friends."

      "When you're rich enough," Nabiki-kun assured her, "You can buy friends."

      "They would be of dubious quality," Rei assured her.

      "It was a joke, Wondergirl," the Second's tone was irritated, and irritating.

      "It did not amuse or enlighten," Rei replied.

      "Well, Raccoon had to be cheating," Nabiki-kun announced.

      "How do you figure that?" Roku-kun answered defensively.

      "Because I was cheating, and I still lost," Nabiki-kun smiled.

      Indicating it was a joke, Rei told herself, "You are unskilled."

      "When did you teach Wondergirl to tell jokes?" the Second asked.

      "He said he'd teach you next," Shinji-kun told her, then dodged the fluttering cards the Second threw at him.

      The poker game broke up in the afternoon, "What do we tell our parents?" Hikari asked, "We can't tell them we were playing poker all day."

      "Mathematics and psychology," Rei told her, wondering why she hadn't paid attention when Rei told her the first time, when they started.

      Hikari looked at her curiously.  Rei stared back.

      Hikari shrugged and headed after Toji.

      Rei stared at Raccoon, "Your plan worked," she was learning to socialize more with the others.  As frightening as it was, it was enjoyable, in retrospect.

      Raccoon nodded.

      "What plan?" Nabiki-kun asked.

      The Second was frowning, indicating she either knew or suspected.

      "The deepest, darkest mysteries," Raccoon told her.

      "With wine and pesto sauce," Rei added, He was talking about mushrooms, wasn't he? she thought.

      Nabiki-kun frowned, for her it indicated she didn't understand.  More and greater confusion, having to learn each person separately.

      Raccoon sat at the table in Akagi-sensei's apartment, tutoring Ranko on her English.

      Nabiki and Hiroko were standing near the patio, talking.  Hikari, Toji and Asuka had headed home after a long day of `studying`.  Rei had left with the the guards.

      "Ritsuko got our grades," Nabiki explained, trying to segue into the real subject Hiroko was probably bursting to talk about, "Mine and Raccoon's were acceptable, Ranma's were terrible.  So she'd tasked herself and us to get Ranma's grades back up.  We gave up in a week."

      "Yeah, I can see Ranma would be too hardheaded to accept the necessity of an education," Hiroko agreed.

      "However, when Raccoon started to work with Ranko, she actually listened to him," Nabiki looked over at them.

      "<They're>: meaning they are, and <their>: belonging to them.  <It's>: it is, and <its>: belonging to it.  If the word means something belongs to someone, it doesn't have the apostrophes.  If it is a pronoun and a verb, then it does.  They are, <they're>;  It is, <it's>; belongs to it: <its>, belongs to them, <their>."  Raccoon explained while making Ranko write the words and pronounce them in English.

      "That's easy," Ranko said brightly.

      "Okay."  He pulled out the flash cards he'd created, "Ready for the next challenge?"

      Ranko nodded eagerly.

      Nabiki shook her head, "It's pure sorcery," she laughed at that.

      "And you're jealous," Hiroko added.

      "I AM NOT JEALOUS!" Nabiki insisted.

      "We - are - working - here!" Raccoon admonished.

      "I am not jealous!" Nabiki hissed at Hiroko.

      "When was the last time Ranko, or Ranma, was like that around you?" Hiroko asked quietly as they watched the beaming girl going through the lessons.  "He doesn't know?"

      "Like I said," Nabiki turned back to stare out the window at the rain, "He's never seen it."  She frowned, " 'Ranma and Ranko aren't the same person'," she mocked Raccoon's tone.

      "That's crazy," Hiroko turned to the window and agreed, "If cold water . . . it has to happen all the time."

      "Believe me," Nabiki told her, "We were standing next to a puddle, there was a truck coming . . . "


      "With his back to the truck, locked in an argument with Asuka, she said 'truck', and he flipped his huge umbrella out and into place.  We all stayed completely dry," Nabiki said disgustedly, "If he'd been there that day, he might have prevented you from throwing that water in the first place."

      "That's crazy," Hiroko insisted.

      "Crazier than what you've already seen?" Nabiki asked.

      The events of the week frustrated Nabiki, So many unanswered and unanswerable questions.  Hiroko knows about this, but not Raccoon.  She searched the area for a simple solution for the problem.  She looked at the stove, Raccoon was cooking their dinner, again, he didn't have to, he was going home in a little while.  Making up for losing the contest, she thought.  She suspected he'd done it to drive Dr. Akagi crazy, disturbing her carefully constructed sense of order. Like it does to me, Nabiki admitted to herself.

      One pan in particular caught her attention, a small pan of water with herbs floating in it, she looked, Not boiling, hot but not too hot.  Perfect, she thought, then called, "Ranko, could you come here for a moment?"

      The redhead stepped into the kitchen, confused by Nabiki's expression.  Then blanched as Nabiki swung the pot off the stove.

      "NO!" Raccoon shouted too late to intervene.

      "HOT!  HOT!  HOT!" Ranko ran from the kitchen.  Raccoon grabbed her as she passed and rushed her into the bathroom.

      Jeff played the cold water from the shower over Ranko's head and back.  He didn't tell the girl he was also healing the second-degree burns that Nabiki had inflicted on her.

      "It hurts," she complained.

      "Easy," Jeff soothed, he could see the white color in her voice that indicated pain, "The cold water will deal with the pain, the burns don't look too bad.  Are you okay?"

      "Yeah, thanks," Ranko said in a frightened tone.

      By the dark red of her voice, he could tell she was lying, Probably trying to be brave.  "Okay," he pushed her into the shower, "Keep that running on you for at least ten minutes, as cold as you can stand.  I'll be back in a bit, with some dry clothes."

      Nabiki didn't like the expression on Raccoon's face, as he came out of the bathroom.  She wondered if running out the door was even an option, or if chasing her down would make him more angry.

      "Just what was going through your mind?" he asked in a controlled tone, stopping just out of reach, but blocking her way out of the kitchen.

      "Well I saw the pan, and I - "

      "Boiling oil was used to kill people around castles.  Did you bother to find out how hot the pan really was, or what was in it before you threw it?" Raccoon's face was a mask of controlled fury.  "This joke ends now, 'It's only funny until someone gets hurt,' well she's got some minor burns, that's enough.  So far I've gotten hurt, Ranko's gotten hurt, Misato nearly blinded Ranma with kerosene, next time I do the hurting, are we clear?"

      "Very clear," she said quietly.

      He nodded, "Since you ruined your dinner, you cook.  Once Ranko's okay, I'm leaving."

      He marched out of the kitchen and back to the boys' room.  Nabiki looked over at Shinji, he shrugged, he'd obviously decided to stay out of the way.

      Nabiki got her breathing and heartbeat under control.  Raccoon had never threatened her directly the way he had Ranma, until now, That guy is just scary.

      Ranko let the cold water play over the tender parts of her scalp.  She was glad Nab-chan hadn't seriously burned her.  She glanced over at Raccoon as he entered with a set of dry clothes.  She figured it was close to the time.  She stepped out, accepted the towel.

      "Just blot, don't rub," Raccoon told her.

      She swallowed her sarcasm, "Yes, I know."

      "Can you keep a secret, Ranma?"

      Only Raccoon's hand clamped over her mouth prevented her shout of outrage.  She stared angrily at him, she was tempted to just bite through his hand.  When she had calmed down enough not to shout, she pushed his hand away, "You called me, Ranma."

      "Yes, I did.  Can you keep a secret?"

      Ranko clamped her own hand over her mouth to keep from screaming at him.  She glared at Raccoon, prompting an explanation.

      "In the Dreamlands, I received a seat on my Order's ruling committee for my expertise in healing: physical, mental, spiritual; and enchantments: spells laid on people, and things.  I'm not a combat mage, I make and use weapons, I heal the broken minds, bodies and souls of the survivors.  That also means, in effect, I've got a double doctorate, or a 36th-degree black belt, in curses.  I'm a lot weaker here, barely more than a charlatan in the Waking World, but I do have some abilities.  And curses are my specialty."

      "But you always said - " Ranko fiercely whispered, "Yes, I can keep a secret."  She got a nod from Raccoon.  "You denied the curse exists."

      "I never said that.  Your curse," he caught some water from the shower, "Your curse is to attract this stuff, if you stayed as Ranko all the time, you'd attract hot water.  Your transformation is something else entirely, something even more powerful than the Great Old Ones.  I reduced your curse while you were pouring coffee on yourself aboard the Coral Sea.  Reduced, not eliminated, sorry that's all I could manage."

      "But I still change!" Ranko whispered fiercely, ran some hot water over her hand.  He noted Raccoon took a half-step back, Ranma could also see the subtle defensive stance.  Ranma had spied on Asuka and Raccoon fighting on the roof of Sammi's building, whatever style they were using.  Ranma could still read that Raccoon expected to get hit, and had readied himself to receive the blow.  Ranma switched to the cold water, Ranko tried to hide her reaction to Raccoon relaxing again.

      "I never said one word about your curse, I said 'Ranma and Ranko aren't the same person'."

      He really believes it, Ranko realized, "Why keep it secret?"

      "Well, after Miss Tendo parboiled you, consider it a little bit of hard-earned revenge."

      Ranko burst out laughing, Nab-chan was so sure, "What about the others?"

      "The best way to keep a secret is don't share it.  For getting you scorched, I figured I owed you an explanation," he added apologetically, "Telling you I understood, would have Gendo sticking bamboo splinters under my fingernails until he found out all I know.  I'd like to avoid that.  He knows I know a little, but I'd rather not give him a reason to suspect I know more.  Besides, it's fun watching all of you jump to the wrong conclusions and think I'm stupid."

      Ranko's mind was racing, "Then what's my - transformation, for?"

      "Balance I'd guess," Raccoon shrugged, "Ranma is just sooo serious about being a 'manly, martial artist', I mean if he smiled or laughed, his face would crack and his ears would fall off.  Suddenly Ranko can go out and have fun, discover girls aren't as weak as Ranma thought they were, live life that Ranma won't, not can't, won't."

      Ranko grimaced at that, then laughed when she realized how much she could tease Nab-chan, and even Rit-chan about this.

Resolve Dissolve Clarify

      Dr. Akagi noted the strange scene that greeted her return from work.  Ranma, in female form, was sitting between Shinji and Nabiki, and glancing at the two warily and worriedly.  The room was silent, except for the sound of chopsticks.

      "It smells good," she said pleasantly, not looking forward to defusing another situation, she sometimes envied Sammi's pair, who were either silently scheming or screaming at each other, or both.

      "Nabiki cooked," Ranma said brightly, "It's real good."  Not getting a response from either of his/her fellow pilots, Ranma dropped back into silence.

      Ritsuko sighed, after having spent several hours the day before yesterday explaining to Hiroko about Ranma/`Ranko`'s secret, with people from Navy Intelligence and NERV Security, and the transport/plug test, she was looking forward to a quiet evening at home.  Now the two who rarely caused a problem, generated the dilemma this time.  She mentally rolled up her sleeves and prepared for a battle to the death, fortunately they weren't likely to work together against her, and Ranma seemed willing to help her.

      "What happened?" Ritsuko asked, in a tone that demanded an answer.

      "Nab-chan showed Raccoon my curse doesn't work with hot oil, only water," Ranma said, smiling brightly at Nabiki.

      Nabiki seemed to collapse in on herself, ashamed of her action.

      If I didn't know better, Ritsuko watched her charges closely, I'd think Ranma was acting this way on purpose.

      "Ranko," Shinji offered, "I don't think she meant to hurt you."  If Shinji meant to help, he didn't.  Nabiki shrank even more.

      "Oh, I know that," Ranma smiled, gave Nabiki a kiss on the cheek, "She just shouldn't take things so terribly seriously.  Just let them happen, she's getting as deadly serious as Ranma is.  It's just so sad."  Nabiki looked like she'd been kicked, not kissed.

      Ritsuko thought `Ranko` was laying it on a little too thick.  Ritsuko sighed, "Do I need to ask why?"  She could speculate why Jeff hadn't ever seen a transformation, but that hardly excused Nabiki for splashing Ranko or Ranma, no matter the material.  "Ranma, you're right, Nabiki, I want you to leave Ranma alone.  It will happen eventually."

      "She's right, Nab-chan," Ranma hugged Nabiki, which caused Nabiki to wilt even more, "You just have to be patient," Ranma said with a smile.

      What is going on? Ritsuko smiled at Ranma, who smiled back brightly.

      Ritsuko walked along the walkway around the floor of the apartment building, "What's going on?  I want some answers."

      "Well," Ranma, still in female form, walked alongside her, "After Hiroko saw me change, and after the others went home today, Hiroko asked Nab-chan if she was jealous.  I don't know what she should be jealous about."

      "You and `Raccoon`," Ritsuko told Ranma.

      "We were just studying English!" Ranma retorted, "Words that sound alike, but don't have that high comma."  At Ritsuko's confused look Ranma added, "It is and belongs to it, those kinds of things.  It's not like I was practicing Martial Arts, like I do with Nab-chan."

      Ritsuko felt her headache coming back, He doesn't see it, she thought, "You were happy?  Weren't you?"

      "Sure, I finally beat it," Ranma replied, looking at her curiously.

      "A hug, a kiss, maybe a victory dance for the tutor?" Ritsuko asked neutrally, watched Ranma blush.

      "I guess," Ranma said, "Why should that make a difference?  I tell Nab-chan how well she's doing with her Martial Arts."

      "It's not the same," Ritsuko tried to figure out how to explain it to him, er her.

June 11, 1947

      "I don't want to talk about it!" Asuka told her roommate, as the tank took all of them to this morning's testing with the EVAs.  She'd practically had to beat Kensuke off with a stick to keep him from accompanying them, she wasn't happy.

      "I just wanted to know if it would hurt.  Considering the rest - "

      "YES!  It would hurt!" Asuka shouted at Raccoon, "It would hurt a lot!  NOW SHUT UP ABOUT IT!"

      "What are you two talking about?" Horseface asked.

      Asuka rolled her eyes, "What part of 'I don't want to talk about it' don't you understand?!"

      "Well, Raccoon - "

      "Is trying to make me uncomfortable!" Asuka shouted at him.

      "And succeeding," Wondergirl added.

      "You're all conspiring against me!" Asuka complained, trying to move as far from the others as possible in the vehicle.  She watched Raccoon lean close and explain what they'd been doing last night.  She and Raccoon had gone looking at Misato's dreams.

      Asuka had seen plenty of torture and mutilation in the Dreamlands, where they lacked more subtle interrogation and punishment methodologies.  Nothing she had ever seen compared with what Misato was doing to herself in her own dreams.  It was more subtle than thumbscrews, but just as effective.  In another context, she would have put it down to extreme and virulent misogyny.

      Except the perpetrator was female, and she was her own choice of victim.  The image and acts went far beyond pornography of any kind Asuka had ever heard of.  It filled Asuka with revulsion, and an odd kind of pity.  To hate yourself so violently that it thoroughly poisoned your dreams. . . .

      She could see the concerned look on Spineless's face, even Wondergirl holding his hand didn't lessen the intensity of that look.

      He should go back and live with her, Asuka remembered Misato's drunken accusation, that Spineless left Misato because of her, When in truth it was her own damn fault.  But he may be right.  It's obvious she can't be trusted to look after herself.

      Asuka wondered how anyone could let themselves go that way, even if they were filled with self-loathing, You have to have some pride in yourself, she considered.

      She finally had it in her hands.  Unit 02 took an en garde position with the sonic glaive, on the open field on the NERV campus.  My design, Asuka thought proudly.  "Finally, a real weapon."

      "Thank you!" Ritsuko said sarcastically, "Without my work, all those would be are big sticks."

      "So why didn't you design these," Asuka confronted the scientist's image in Unit 02's entry plug.

      "Well - I - um, that is . . . "

      "You can whip them out and measure them later," Ice Princess told Ritsuko.

      Asuka thought it was weird, seeing the images of Ice Princess and Raccoon in the plugs, as technicians and support staff.

      "All I'm saying is this is a big improvement," Asuka countered.

      "What was wrong with the prog knives?" Horseface asked.  The other EVAs were assembled there, to test the new weapons.

      "She cannot lose them," Wondergirl answered.

      "Hey!" Asuka protested, "I don't always lose my prog knife."

      "None of us has ever lost ours," Spineless teased.

      "Hey!  I take the risks you're afraid to!"

      "Like losing your prog knife and using an Angel's tooth instead," Raccoon piled on.

      Nevertheless, none of it was enough to disturb her good mood.  "Well, if you think you're such hot stuff, Horseface, let's try this," she advanced across the field towards Unit 04, holding the sonic glaive in the proper spear guard position, "Cut power, just to make sure I don't hurt him."

      Horseface reared Unit 04 back into a series of loops.  Too late, she realized he was coiling into a spring.  Shooting forward, Unit 04's mouth closed on the haft of the glaive just behind the blade, while the rest of Unit 04 entwined the rest of the weapon and Unit 02.  Asuka realized she could wrench herself and the weapon loose, but not without damaging the glaive, Unit 02 or Unit 04.  "Who's been teaching you?" Asuka released the glaive, indicating her surrender.

      "You wouldn't believe me," Horseface told her, unwinding Unit 04 from Unit 02.

      She didn't believe that.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

      The animal smell in the abandoned manufacturing building was overwhelming.  Tembris wasn't averse to animals.  These seemed even less `tame` than wild animals.  As if none of them had ever seen any of their own kind in the wild.  They were all acting as if all they'd learned of predators had come from bad pulp magazines and penny dreadfuls.

      The man, to used the term advisedly, was a good example: naked, steam coming off his well-oiled muscles, obviously contemptuous of the `suit` here to tell them how to do their job.  From what Tembris could see of the tigers `playing` in the enclosure that once held machine tools, and what they were playing with, these idiots needed a lion tamer and a map to find their ass.

      "They're finally ready to let us go?" the naked man asked, undoubtedly disappointed his nudity hadn't shocked Tembris.

      "I'm not here to give you orders," he told the man, the cold of the silver knives up his sleeves gave him all the equanimity he needed, "Just to remind you that Saotome is to be captured ALIVE."

      "Oh course we capture," the man laughed while frowning, "A little play never hurt anyone."  The man gestured at a few of the tigers `playing` with a man they'd grabbed off the street a few days earlier.

      Tembris figured SEELE wanted Saotome intact, not traumatized.  His own mage had practically begged him to call off this mission, then became incoherent about the dangers.  As if the possibility of Saotome being infected with these creatures' form of lycanthropy, would be like setting off an atomic bomb.  Tembris had temporized and gone to see SEELE's 'ULMITATE JENUIS PALN'.  Looking around he realized SEELE had no real talent for hiring professional operatives, or listening to those they did have.  Their brute force approached worked, if your opponent wasn't better at fighting than you were.  So he was wrong for expecting competent specialists, like the two werewolves who were the Meliorist's two guards.

      I wouldn't trust this bunch to prevent the theft of a red-hot stove, Tembris thought as he kept his face carefully neutral, I wonder if I picked the right side of this fight.  Instead, he nodded and headed for the exit.

      'Once we have Saotome, we will kill and eat 'til the grease runs down our chins,' one of the man's pride said to their leader, loud enough that Tembris heard easily.

      His own ally/bodyguard waited outside the building, staring at a tough lounging outside the temporary pen for those monsters.  "Sir?"

      "Unusual, our mage actually understated things," Tembris spoke in the Dreamlands argot, "I say we nip this in the bud, make them wait for July, when our plans will be ready.  I have Ayanami's number, you phone Davis and Langley.  Then we pack up, and move again."

      Jeff didn't know who had made the anonymous phone call, 'There's a pack of tigers after Saotome.'  There were too few people who knew about the reaction Ranko had to a stuffed cat, and Ranma's near paralysis at being meowed at.  Jeff had simply told Asuka what they'd told him, and took off.  Even if it was a hoax, no one outside NERV should have known about Saotome's vulnerability.

      The tide of panicked people he had to force his way through on the streets, included armed troops.

      Shit! Jeff thought as he picked a rifle off a mauled corpse, If even the Army's running away, these aren't ordinary tigers.

      Asuka knew how stupid she looked, running through the streets with a pair of highland claymores, one over each shoulder.  But if Raccoon was running off to save Horseface, it was logical to assume that Spineless and Ice Princess were safe at Dr. Akagi's place.  She'd called Juri Kon after Sammi left, and told her to get over to Akagi's with Mr. Tendo, and some crew-served weapons.  She'd called Erin Carter, her own guard, and told her where she was going, and made the same request.

      The only ones not otherwise guarded were Pen Pen and Wondergirl.  She doubted they'd go after the penguin, which left one target.  Wondergirl didn't have an assigned guard, for some reason that no one had cared to explain.

      The Meliorist to the rescue! she thought, she hoped either Wondergirl or Carter knew how to use a sword.  She also had her Peacemaker and 20 extra rounds.

      She hoped it would be enough, she wished she had a cavalry regiment backing her up, or that the `adults` would quit letting this happen.

      Rei had received the phone call, and had immediately called the Commander.  He'd told her to initiate full security protocols, Security would send out forces to locate Saotome.  The armored doors and shutters had sealed her in, and the world out.  Or so she thought. 

      Her front door was already bulging in from the blows it had received.

      "Come out little mouse, and play," the singsong voice from the other side of the door came again.

      Rei already had a plan for dealing with it or them, when the door failed.  The Schofield in hand and four loaded speed loaders gave her 30 bullets.  She had suspected that the Second had been teasing her about 'cold iron and silver' being the sovereign remedy for 'blasting enchanted nasties'.  But the young female Ordinance officer had been very helpful in obtaining them for her.  She suspected the woman had made them, and the speed loaders, especially for Rei's pistol.  The attention to detail had gratified Rei, and the diligent service.  Now she suspected it would save her life.

      The hammering on the door continued after another stream of meaningless threats, blandishments, and pleas.  Rei ignored them, the Cthonians had been much more effective in that regard, leaving her able to ignore such things from others.  She suspected they were lying in any case.  She had the sights on the door, which was the only site of attack, and a fresh speed loader in her hand.  That would give almost any attacker pause.

      Bling!  Jeff watched the rectangular metal band sailing through the air.  The musical ring that accompanied it might have been pleasant, except what it meant, and what it loudly announced was: 'Your Garand rifle is now empty, bad guys feel free to eat me now!'

      I would have to grab a rifle with only two shots! Jeff considered his options as he closed in.  The first shot had scared the creatures back, and yielded one dead tiger.  The second had dropped the boldest one remaining.

      The rains had started again, before he'd located Ranko.  They'd trapped her in an alley, shivering from her wet clothes and terror at the cats she couldn't even look at.  The ladder to the building's roof was a mere two meters away, but that escape was clearly beyond her at the moment.  Why the tigers had been holding back, he hadn't the faintest idea.  He had the bayonet fixed by the time he reached her side.

      "Ranko!" he took her chin, lifting it so she could see him.  Her expression horrified him, an odd hybrid of a terrified, pleading young woman, with a feral animal eager to be unleashed.  It was as if the two were flickering back and forth so quickly, they had blended.  Jeff looked over Ranko's head, and saw the tiger he'd most recently shot was getting back up.  The first tiger he'd shot was also stirring.

      Okay, these aren't regular tigers! he thought, then concentrated on Ranko, both the girl and the animal were desperate, the girl was losing her grip, and the animal was frantic to be released.  Jeff had no doubts about Ranko's martial skills, but against creatures that could recover from rifle shots to the heart, he doubted the released animal would have a chance.

      "Well, you wanted to know how I changed," he told her as he channeled the power he'd gotten from Chaugnar Faugn.  He felt the mental resistance from girl and beast, the phobia warred with the rational mind, neither would abandon their fight against each other to resist him.  He tried to overwhelm both simultaneously.  He just wasn't strong enough.

      Her features relaxed, eyelids drooping.  He felt as if he'd been poleaxed himself.  One of the tigers leapt, bounced off his AT field.  Another leapt through the weakened field, slamming him hard against the wall of the building.

      Tigers can climb trees, can they climb buildings? he wondered as he slid to the ground.  As darkness closed around him, he heard another cry, another angry feline yowl, a big, ferocious one.  Probably the pack leader, he thought, Sorry Ranko, I failed. Whatever they did, he'd recover, she wouldn't.

      Rei wished the Second and Roku-kun had had more success with their experiments.  One of the huge half-animal creatures had managed to wrench the door completely out of the jamb, and threw it aside.  It had required two precisely placed bullets to kill it, after Rei's AT field slicing it into two pieces had failed to kill it.  She reasoned cutting it into dozens would suffice when she ran out of ammunition.  The creature's blood filled the entryway of her apartment.  She was uncomfortable with the smell of it.

      She had always thought animals would invariably shy away from her, she could only reason that despite their form, they were not animals.  The runes had flared briefly, indicating that they were attempting to use magic against her.  That was a wasted effort, unless they were considerably stronger than she was.  She idly wondered what would have happened had this attack occurred when the Cthonians had attacked, but the rains would keep them away for nearly three months.  Another poked its head around the corner, Rei drilled it in the head with a snapshot.  It lay twitching at her doorstep, a second shot stilled its movements.  Two, she told herself, Each will require two.  That gave her a finite number she could engage.  She knew the Commander would send help, but if all the pilots were targets, necessity would spread the rescuers thin.  The Fourth would be their primary target, she stood in her apartment and considered, What portion of available forces would his rescue require?  What effective forces would remain available for other uses?  She killed a third with two shots, one to the heart, one to the head.  As she broke open the action and placed in six more bullets, she considered what action would be required as ammunition waned.

      Nabiki found herself in an unusual situation, she wanted Ranma NOWHERE NEAR HER!!  A rifle with a bayonet wasn't much of a weapon against a tiger, but it was all she had between her and Shinji on one side, and 400+ kilos of angry cat on the pointy end.

      "Can you shoot it?" Shinji asked her the question she'd been asking herself.  She didn't know even if she could, would the shot kill or madden it?  She'd really rather not guess wrong.

      Besides the trigger isn't working, she thought, "I don't know how it works," Nabiki admitted, "And I don't have time for a careful analysis."  The hole in the middle of the rifle is probably where the bullets go, she didn't think that boded well.  Fortunately, the tiger didn't seem eager to impale itself on the blade, but if it could bat the rifle out of the way, Nabiki knew she had no chance.  She doubted most of the Nerima Wrecking Crew would have done well, one-on-one, unarmed, against this big cat.

      If we can keep retreating, she reasoned, We'll circle around to the apartment.  Once inside, we'll have other options.

      The figure that loomed over her from behind distracted her.  The tiger charged straight into a blast of buckshot.  Tomiyo racked the action, firing the shotgun twice more into the beast.  Even smeared over the walkway, it was still moving slightly.

      "Come on," he urged them as he fed more shells into the pump shotgun, "I don't think I left enough for a decent rug, but it's still moving," he told them as the apartment door jerked open in front of Shinji.

      Juri grabbed both kids and dragged them inside.  She and Tomiyo slammed the door as all four of them began barricading the entry and the patio door.

      Asuka heard the gunfire coming from Wondergirl's building as she took the stairs two at a time.  Erin had arrived and pulled a BAR from the jeep she was driving.  Asuka wished she had something heavier, like a .50 M2, or some rifle grenades, or a flammenwerfer.  Erin hadn't said anything about the two blades, even when Asuka handed her one.

      At the doorway to the fourth floor, one `sentry` paid for its carelessness with its life.  Asuka wasn't the insane sharpshooter Wondergirl and Raccoon were, but she was a crack shot.  Shooting the target from beneath wasn't particularly nice, she was even more shocked when the half-animal half-man turned into a naked man, like something out of a horror movie.

      "I don't think we're fighting people here," she told Erin, who was having more trouble dealing with it than she was.  "Wake UP!" she shook the woman, "Wondergirl can't have infinite ammunition, if we can catch them in a crossfire, we might get them all, or get her out of there."

      "Okay," Erin told her, "Let me put the incendiary ammo in this thing."

      Asuka wasn't so certain that was going to be enough.

      The man with the rifle, on the building opposite Ayanami's apartment, knew his orders: 'Watch.  Don't be seen!'  Anything else was acceptable.  He personally disagreed with this idea of alliance with all the other groups, but some were natural friends and allies.  The rifle grenade fitted easily to the launcher, instructions told him to fire it like a mortar, he knew he could also fire it direct, so he did.  Eight to ten of whatever they were, that besieged Ayanami's apartment, had a white phosphorus grenade explode in their midst.  Fire was considered an effective weapon against most of these things.

      It appeared that hadn't changed.  He ducked down as the survivors searched for the source of the attack, he reloaded a rifle blank and another grenade.  He would be proud to give his life for the cause, but throwing it away needlessly was pure stupidity.

      Rei stood in her apartment, when she heard the explosion and saw the smoke, she wondered if the Commander had sent help to rescue her.  One of the attackers staggered in, a naked man covered with scars and burns.  He glared at her.  Rei decided to save ammunition, but she needed him to get closer.

      "The boys in my junior high class are bigger," she remembered how badly the aforementioned boys reacted to the other boys saying that.  She didn't understand the insult, people were all different sizes.  However, from the way they reacted to even a minor insult from a girl, this one should - .

      The man charged with a scream.  Rei's AT field cut him in half lengthwise, then into quarters, six pieces.  She picked up two of the more critical pieces, and flung them out of her apartment and over the walkway wall.  He or someone else would have to salvage them before he recovered.

      She waited for the others to arrive, enemy or ally, she still had ammunition.  She could wait.  For a little while longer.

      Asuka readied the sword.  She was dreadfully embarrassed she still couldn't use it properly.  The oversized grip and the additional unsharpened area in front of the hand guard would let her use it like a spear or ahlspiess.  With those, she was an expert, and she could easily do a lot of damage with them.

      "Ready," Erin told her, she had the B.A.R. ready.

      "Wondergirl!  Stay inside!  We'll come get you!" Asuka shouted.

      Erin emptied the clip into the dissipating smoke.  Asuka stabbed the first one they encountered, he shrieked in surprise at the mortal wound, she bashed another in the head.  She hated this, she'd never killed anything except animals when hunting for food, and Angels.  She wasn't sure if these were one, the other, neither or both.  Asuka stabbed another as they advanced.

      Hang on, Wondergirl, Asuka thought, I can't believe I'm rescuing her!

      Rei could hardly believe that the Second was the one who had come as her deliverer.

      "Come on Wondergirl!" the Second urged her forward.

      Rei grabbed her remaining ammunition and ran to her.

      "Asuka," the Second's guard, Erin, was worried.  "The ones I shot, are getting back up."

      "Silver bullets are required," Rei told them.

      "Listen to the Lone Ranger," the Second fired into the head of one, it stopped moving, "Where are we supposed to get silver bullets?"

      "Ordinance," Rei told them, she glanced over the edge of the balcony, "They have disassembled your jeep."

      The Second glanced over, her expression changed, "Head to the roof.  There are a lot more of them down there," the Second led them to the stairwell.

Fire that Warms and Burns

      Jeff stared up at the sky.  He couldn't sit up, not from any injuries, but because Ranko was lying, shivering, on his legs and stomach.  He was on a roof, and someone had cleaned the blood off the back of his head where he'd slammed it into the wall.  He looked up, the tigers had cut him off from any retreat.  But there were only five, The pack had been at least 14, he wondered, Where are the others?

      One of the tigers charged, building up a good head of steam, until it got within 15 feet.  Then its feet went out from under it, it did a slow spin in confusion, until it reached an unseen ramp that lifted it over the edge of the roof, and it flew off the building.  Its desperate attempts to catch hold of nothing as it hung in the air were comical.

      Important fun fact, Jeff thought, AT fields can be made ab-so-lutely frictionless.  He pushed Ranko so she was lying across his lap as he sat up.  Two more creatures climbed over the parapet to the roof.  Blood covered his clothing, but his face, hair and hands, while wet, were clean.  The blood didn't seem to be his own or Ranko's.  She was clean and didn't have a mark on her.  This doesn't make any sense, he thought as he wrapped his jacket around the shuddering girl.

      Well that's two, where's the other 12?

      The tiger he'd first shot with the rifle, positioned itself to slide straight at him and the still-comatose Ranko.  As the creature hit the slippery field, Jeff drew his .45, aimed and fired, throwing the creature off course, a second hit slid it across the AT field and clear off the building.  It yowled in pain as it left.

      Well, even if gunshots can't kill you, they still hurt, Jeff remembered learning that lesson at the hands of, then Lieutenant, Katsuragi, Although I doubt she remembers.  He'd repay her `kindness` eventually, but he'd never try to convince her to get a better gun than that pea shooter she used.

      He hoped someone heard the gunshots, hopefully someone who could actually do something.  He lined up on another one that was preparing to charge.

      "Six," Rei counted out loud as they climbed, "Seven, eight, change magazines."

      "What are you talking about Wondergirl?" the Second kicked the door to the roof open, scanned the area.

      "Roku-kun is fighting others," she told them as they closed the door behind them, took up a position some distance away from the door.

      The first of their enemy crashed through the door, she and the Second fired together, flinging the creature down.  It didn't rise again.

      "Roku-kun?" Erin asked.

      "Wondergirl can't pronounce Raccoon," the Second told Erin.

      "Nine, ten," Rei reported, "I doubt Roku-kun is helpless against these creatures.  But he only has 32 shots."

      "How many rounds do you have?" the Second asked.

      "Fourteen," Rei told her.  The stairs had deflected her fire, but firing forestalled effective pursuit, she wasn't sure if they had wasted the ammunition.

      "Twenty in the B.A.R., eight in my .45," Erin told them.

      "I've only got four left in the pistol, and 12 more loose rounds," the Second admitted.

      Rei wondered if it would be sufficient.

      Ritsuko dropped the dead feline, she leaned tiredly against the wall of Sammi's apartment building.

      "The SPCA won't be happy with you," Sammi joked.

      "They don't have to know," Ritsuko watched the corpse return to human form.  "You could have helped," she panted, "It shouldn't have been that strong."

      "That does explain why they're bulletproof," Sammi draped Ritsuko's arm over her own broad shoulders and walked away, "So what now?  Silver bullets, fire, . . . let you rip their spines out with your bare hands?"

      Ritsuko glared at her, "Normally I wouldn't worry about Ranma in a brawl, but against these things," Ritsuko stood up, "He's completely vulnerable.  Now who knows that?"

      "Let's take one alive," Sammi suggested, "Then we can ask.  At our leisure."

      Ritsuko nodded as they headed back to the jeep to get another position report.  Overhead, the sound of helicopters, two of the new R-13s, one with the stretcher compartments, the other with a man with a BAR in the passenger compartment scanning the city beneath him.

      "Follow them," Ritsuko ordered as Sammi started the jeep.

      "Twenty-nine, thirty," Rei counted as she and the Second fired, none of the creatures had tried to climb over the edge of the roof, nor had they tried to rush the defense from both stairways at once.  Rei hadn't considered the other stairway, it was always choked with debris.  Without the Second's guard, one of their attackers might have gotten them by surprise from that direction.  Rei didn't understand why the heavy rifle had little effect, and their pistols seemed to work perfectly.

      "Helicopters," Erin told them.

      Rei looked up, one helicopter had the stretcher pods, the other had a man with a rifle like Erin's.  They advanced on the helicopter, by her count the Second had only two shots left, she had four.  They jogged to the helicopter.  Erin made sure they were secured before they lifted off.

      Rei glanced down, the direction was towards the base, she approved.  They could mount an adequate defense there.  She looked around, but couldn't see any other helicopters that might be rescuing Roku-kun and the Fourth.  She lay back and awaited landing.

      Asuka was furious, "You rescue Horseface, and I'm stuck shooting it out with monsters alongside Wondergirl."  Ranko watched her angrily pace the conference room.

      "You get all the fun."

      Ranko, even tightly sandwiched between Nab-chan and Raccoon, was still shivering, "Fun she says!"  She wasn't frightened despite the continuing shivers, she was exhausted.  The reason she was between Nab-chan and Raccoon was a ferocious need.  The thing she had feared in her own mind, once she was locked in combat with it, she discovered it was very much like Ranma, primarily combat-oriented, unlike him, it had a great need to be social.  Unlike what she considered regular cats, it was a pack animal.  Rit-chan, Nab-chan and Raccoon were very definitely part of its `pack`.

      Its other drives were food, mates and kits/cubs.  The first she wholly agreed with, she wasn't too sure about it taking over to ensure the last two needs were taken care of.

      She also knew it had given up control, when the fighting was over and its pack mates were safe.  She didn't remember any of what it did, she was only aware of what was uppermost in its `mind` as the transition took place.  But what had previously terrified her, what it would do to the people she cared about when it took over, now she knew she had nothing to fear on that score.  She was half-tempted to tell Rit-chan about it, and have her bring the creature out to meet the other pilots, see if they had anything to fear from it.

      No, she thought, Rit-chan would want to see how it worked in an EVA, whether there were differences when it came from Ranma or Ranko, range of motion experiments.  Ranko knew that would be a complete disaster.  She smirked, It might be fun to see what effect it had on ole' Stoneface Ikari, Ranko considered giving NERV's commander the scare of his life, and smiled broadly.

      "They were not real cats," Rei told her, bringing her back to the moment.

      Ranko wasn't sure if `Wondergirl` was trying to be reassuring or sarcastic.

      "Then what were they?" Ranko demanded.

      "Assassins," Rei told her and sat beside Shinji, who was also shaken up by his encounter.

      "I'm going to start carrying a box of ammunition," Raccoon complained.  Ranko pressed a little more closely to him, then realized what she was doing.

      "Two," Rei said quietly.

      "Where would you carry two boxes of ammu . . . ?" Asuka started, "Don't lift your skirt!  Just tell us."

      "You might not believe me," Rei sat down again as she explained.

      "Giving Raccoon and Horseface a panty flash wouldn't explain anything!" Asuka retorted, "Save that for when you're alone with Spineless."

      "She's probably got little NERV symbols on them," Ranko joked.

      "Like the kitties on your boxers, Saotome?" Asuka asked, setting off another bout of shivers for Ranko.  Despite being all right with what the fear created, she still was terrified of cats.

      The room was nondescript, deep in the bowels of NERV, and thoroughly soundproofed.

      "Who gave you the orders?" Gendo stared at the man bound by silver wire to a chair bolted to the floor.

      "I'll escape, I'll rip your hearts out and eat them!  We will sacrifice your `Children` to the Great God!"

      The swab contained Silver Nitrate, the man could smell it.  He drew back as Ritsuko brought it close.

      "You can either behave," Ritsuko coldly warned, "Or we can use stronger methods."

      "You won't do it," the man's bravado held, "We are stronger than you weaklings!  Only one of you is strong, and that one is already one of us!"

      "You really believe that?" Ritsuko prepared to rub the swab on his lips and tongue, and braced herself for the odor of scorched flesh.

      Maya had arrived an hour before, and was sitting with the Children, the guards patrolled the room.  Maya thought they acted more like tigers than the things that had attacked the Children had.  None of the kids were interested in food, or in talking, or in returning home.

      "We're sure we got them all," she offered, her only answer was sullen silence.

      The kids were glancing at the walls and doors warily, expecting problems, more monsters, etc.  Maya didn't know what to tell them, especially Ranko, who seemed to be hanging onto Nabiki and Jeff for dear life, or more likely for sanity.  Maya couldn't imagine what would have happened if Ranko hadn't fainted, what kind of psychotic break she would have suffered.

      Sempai entered, "I think you should all go home," she said sternly, "That's what I'm doing," she smiled.

      The kids were listless, but they stood and headed for the exit.  Maya wondered how the guards were going to be distributed.

      Ranma was heading into the EVA bays.  After fencing with Asuka all day, after the battle within himself, he wanted to talk to Raccoon about what he'd revealed to Ranko, and a few other things.  What disturbed him the most was that when Ranko had been locked in the struggle with the thing in his/her head, it was fully manifested, but not fully in control.  The ca . . . things had been unaware of what they had nearly unleashed.  Then Raccoon had arrived, and used whatever trick he did, to take the edge off both `Ranko` and the thing inside.  Neither would have surrendered, but they stopped fighting each other.

      Then that tig . . . thing slammed into Raccoon, and neither `Ranko` nor the other had hesitated.  Both prepared to leap into the fight, to defend.  There was a unity of desires, and that was the last thing he even vaguely remembered, until Ranko opened her eyes, as she was licking the last of the blood off Raccoon's face and hair.  She knew it was the last, because there wasn't another speck on his exposed skin or hair.  She knew it was blood, because Ranko could still taste it, and the faint taste of the shampoo Raccoon used.

      She'd collapsed a moment later, out of sheer exhaustion.  Ranma hadn't felt that tired since he'd fought Nyogtha.  He'd also come to the conclusion that Raccoon's looney assertion was right, there were two of them, except one was Ranma/Ranko, the other was this other.  Ranma was pretty sure it wasn't the threat he'd feared it would be.  But I can't control it either, Ranma admitted, that frightened him even more.  His control and his honor were all he had, if something could so easily undermine one part, then the other was uncertain.

      "Hey, Raccoon!"  He heard Raccoon reciting poetry to the EVAs again.  Ranma thought it was nuts, then he remembered Nab-chan's unanswered question about the EVAs.  Added to what Ranma had read and studied, and today experienced, Maybe there is something to it.  Is it more nuts than having something like that wandering around in your head?  Maybe a shaman is what I need, talk to this thing's spirit, find out what it really wants.  Negotiate with it, or have Raccoon bore it into submission, he smiled at that.

      He waited until Raccoon had finished and closed his book, "I looked up shaman in Dr. Akagi's big dictionary.  Then I had to look up half the words in the definition.  Do you even know what a psychopomp is?"

      "I've been one," Raccoon told him, then muttered something in English angrily.

      Ranma could read Raccoon's guarded stance, he'd readied himself to get a beating at Ranma's hands.  He takes on things that scare me to death, and instead, he's afraid of me, the contradiction irritated Ranma.  He had to figure out some way of talking to him, without confronting him.

      "Was there something else?" Raccoon's polite tone warred with the stance that to Ranma effectively screamed 'I'm gonna get hit, and there's nothin' I can do about it.'

      Ranma searched his experience for something, anything, to say.  Everything he'd carefully planned to ask went right out the window when Raccoon took that `tone` with him, he couldn't talk to someone so afraid of him.  "I'm not going to hurt you!" he blurted out, he was tempted to douse himself with cold water, and start the entire conversation again.

      "I'm not worried about that," Raccoon replied.

      "Because you're expecting it, you're expecting me to hit you," Ranma shouted, realized he was getting completely off the subject, "What you said, to Ranko, is that true?"

      "I've said many things to Ranko, you'll have to be more specific."

      "To keep it away from . . . Nab-chan," he whispered the last, "That subject."

      "Yes, so?"

      "You're wrong about Ranma and Ranko.  But you may be right about something else," he hated this, Raccoon standing that way.  Shinji acted the same way, if Ranma even raised his voice, Shinji would cringe, apologize, and retreat.  With Shinji it was more noticeable to others, but Ranma could read both equally well, and he hated it.  "Look, can you relax?  I just want to talk."  He only got an answering nod.  "There's something else.  Something that's different from Ranma and Ranko, but it isn't, I guess."

      "How is it different but isn't?" Raccoon asked.

      Ranma was glad that once he got Raccoon working on thinking, he concentrated on that.  "It's pure animal," Ranma explained, "No thoughts, just really powerful needs, and its emotions."  Now Nab-chan and Asuka would pounce on that 'no thoughts' let's see what he does, Ranma thought.

      "Food, mates, pack members?"

      "Yeah, exactly," Typical, Ranma thought, "How'd you know?  Did you see it?"

      "Mammal and reptile behaviors.  Exactly what the things we fought bragged about being.  Men stripped of all our 'Hypocrisies and false pride, just the animal core!'  Except no animal is that cruel without some intelligence."

      Ranma shivered again, remembering the encounter.  A beautiful woman walked up to him, asked him if he 'wanted' her, before he could answer or bolt, she dropped her dress.  All of this on a crowded street.  A lot of people were staring at her, Including me, Ranma admitted silently.  He'd never seen a woman so beautiful, tall and sultry, with such a powerful and graceful way of moving.

      He blushed, remembering how he'd felt when she brushed against him to kiss him on the lips.  Then his horror as she drew back, growing fangs and fur right before his eyes.  From transfixed to running away at his best speed took about half-a-second.  Even the rain and his transformation hadn't put off his, then her, pursuers.  More of the half-men joined the chase.  With the woman calling to him in that cat voice, promising all kinds of things, if he'd just stop.  Their cruel laughter, in those voices, their very smell drove Ranko deeper and deeper into despair and closer to insanity.

      When they finally trapped her, they'd carefully assembled themselves to keep her on the edge of terror.  Maybe they could smell my fear, Ranma shivered as he remembered.

      All that happened after Raccoon arrived was unclear.  I remember collapsing on top of him, on top of the building, he remembered, The next clear memory was Maya-chan treating Raccoon's head injury.  Ranma knew enough about wounds to know head wounds bleed a lot, But the blood covering Raccoon's clothes wasn't his, or mine, then Maya said, 'This looks practically healed', and that surprised Raccoon as much as it did me.  So if he didn't heal himself . . . unless the other did it, but how?  And why?

      Except for enhancing a massage, I can't do chi healing.  If the other wasn't intelligent, how did it figure it out?  Ranma knew chi healing took years of training, training he didn't have.  Or do I, or did one of the things I `ate`? he wondered.

      "So what do you want?" Raccoon brought Ranma back from his memories and speculations.

      "I want your help.  To figure out what it is.  What it wants, how to control it, maybe use it."

      "Like everybody tries with you?  Don't you think you'd better deal with Ranko first?" Raccoon asked.

      "We are the same person!" Ranma shouted, Raccoon retreated a step.  This isn't working, Ranma lamented.

      "I see two people acting so differently," Raccoon told him, "Treating them as being different people is perfectly reasonable.  You know, I wasn't teaching Ranko all those things to hear myself talk.  What's the matter?  Is Ranko charging too much to teach you those lessons?  Or is it dishonorable to ask a girl for the help you need?" Raccoon asked angrily.

      "No, it's not like that!" Ranma protested, "This has nothing to do with Ranko and your lessons.  This is completely different."

      "How?  It sounds like you've got a personality running loose in your head.  How is that different from the situation you have with Ranko?  If it isn't a different identity, then it's a matter of self control.  So what is it?  You started out uncivilized, and you seem to be backsliding.  There has to be a reason for it, even if you can't admit it to yourself."

      "They aren't related," Ranma argued, "They are separate problems."

      "So you admit it is a problem," Raccoon said, "That's a good start.  I think they're related, and you don't realize or want to admit it."

      "They aren't alike," Ranma asserted.

      "Okay," Raccoon said, "Let's take your assumption as fact.  You claim that the transfer of data, feelings, experiences occurs instantaneously and completely, without any losses."

      "Yeah, I guess," Ranma said, This isn't what I wanted to talk about.

      "Then I have a question for you.  Why do you, Ranko and Ranma, act so differently towards me, Nabiki, and Ayanami?  This has nothing to do with you 'being a man!'  Because the difference crosses gender lines."

      Ranma considered.  He could see how he reacted differently, Ranma to Ranko, for Raccoon and Nab-chan, but Rei?!  "I think you know why."

      "Of course I know, do you?  Give some indication you understand the facts."

      Ranma searched for some way to explain it without giving Raccoon support for his argument, and to get the conversation back to more productive subjects.  He kept glancing at Raccoon, who wasn't pressuring him to answer, which infuriated Ranma, He could at least look like he was worried I could beat him, then Ranma corrected himself, But not physically.

      He couldn't find anyway to describe it, there was a slight difference, he was aware of it, now that he looked at it, he could feel it.  But he had no words to explain it.  Not to himself, and not to Raccoon.

      "Giving up?" Raccoon asked neutrally.

      "Fine, why don't you go first," Ranma threw up his hands in frustration, "Then maybe we can talk about what I asked about."

      "All in good time.  Ranko is looking for life, for companions, for friends, maybe even lovers.  She could do whatever she wanted to stop Nabiki from touching her where she didn't want to be touched, when she didn't want it to happen.  But she doesn't, which encourages Nabiki to continue, she also reacts as if she enjoys it, that's further encouragement."

      "That's not true!" Ranma insisted, "I just don't hit girls!"

      "You don't dodge them too well either," Raccoon smiled, "Are you saying you can't dodge Nabiki's advances?  Or Ranko's finding an excuse not to?"

      Ranma stared at him, I should be able to dodge her no sweat, but I don't!  Why not? Ranma was shocked he didn't have an answer.

      "Ayanami-san's the real clincher, you - are terrified of her."

      "Have you seen what she can do?" Ranma retorted.

      "She can punt you around any time she likes, which fortunately isn't often.  If Cap'n K, or Langley tried to hit you the same way, they'd be swinging at air.  But not Ayanami-sama.  She's got your number, and I'll bet - Ranma - doesn't even know why."

      Ranma had a sick feeling, the way the conversation was going, he had a bad feeling, "You think I'm sweet on the red-eyed robot?!"

      Raccoon looked disgusted, "Don't be completely ridiculous.  You've got every right to be afraid of her."

      Ranma nodded at that, Rei was just too spooky.

      "Ranko's the one with a crush on her."

      Ranma watched the wall become the ceiling.

Counter Revolution

      Shinji had come to a decision, he hadn't discussed it with anyone, hadn't sought their advice or approval.  Because he knew even talking to Rei would convince him it was a stupid idea.  It might work, he didn't really believe it would, but he had to take the chance.  Asuka and Raccoon had reported what they saw in Misato-san's dream, with great accuracy.  One thing kept bothering him, he hadn't realized what it was until those things attacked.  The two foreigners, he'd use the word, had looked on the dreams and the torture within as good versus evil, Misato-san punishing herself.  They didn't see it as he did, Misato-san was making herself unclean, impure, like those half-man/half-tigers.  Why she was doing that, he wouldn't even guess, but he wanted to stop her.  She'd been a lot happier, and drank a lot less before Asuka arrived, Before Kaji arrived, Shinji thought.

      The others had helped him, and Rei-san, they laughed at him, but he also laughed at them.  He survived, so did they.  Maybe that's the point, he thought, Let her laugh or cry, like a real person, instead of having to hide.  'I mustn't let her run away!'  He smiled at that, half the time he felt like running away, but he didn't.  Booze and nightmares were just another way of running away.

      It surprised him that as he left the conference room after Akagi-sensei's announcement, Rei fell in behind him, walking a step behind on his right.  He was even more surprised when Asuka took the same step-behind position on his left.  Neither said anything, he could almost feel Rei's curiosity, Asuka was probably the same.  Only she wanted to see `Spineless` do something entertaining.

      He didn't care, he was going to at least try to do this.

      He arrived at his father's office, he could hear Admiral Simson and Captain Ramsey were there with his father and Commander Fuyutsuki.  He quietly wondered, How could I be so stupid to think I'll be able to change anything.  Let alone just get through this.

      Asuka's quiet, 'Let's go,' shocked him, She's following me? he couldn't believe it.  He was glad the door to the office was open.  Otherwise, he would have walked right into it.

      He walked across the oddly inscribed floor, none of the four men took any notice of the trio of pilots as they walked across the room towards them.  Shinji was surprised he only heard his own footsteps mingled with the muted conversations.  Either the two girls had abandoned him, or they were in step with him.  He couldn't make them out in the corner of his eye.  Without turning his head, he wasn't sure whether he was alone or not.  If I turn now, he realized, I won't stop until I've turned around and run out of here.

      His limited English let him pick out they were talking about issuing silver bullets to the guards, and chuckling about it.

      "Excuse me," he could hardly believe it was his own voice.  It didn't sound as scared as he felt.

      The men looked at him, he almost lost his nerve, if Asuka and Rei were still there, he didn't dare turn to look at them.  He wished he knew for sure he wasn't completely alone here.

      "I'll be moving back into Captain Katsuragi's apartment, after I've discussed it with her," he said with a calm that surprised him, "I thought you should know."

      "I haven't authorized that," Admiral Simson said.  Shinji couldn't read anything in the man's tone or posture.  It could have been a reminder, or a veiled threat, or a test.

      Shinji suspected that Ranma or Asuka would have blurted out 'I wasn't asking,' or something else that would make this a confrontation.  He was having enough trouble right now just standing here.  "She is not looking after herself properly."

      "And you think a fourteen-year-old boy can look after an adult?" Ramsey asked, "Better than an adult can?"

      "Not always."  Shinji wanted to tell them to forget the whole thing, and just make a run for it.  I can't let her keep doing that stuff to herself that Asuka saw, Shinji told himself, held his ground, "In this instance, yes, I believe I can."

      "I concur," Rei said from behind him, "The Captain's behavior stabilized, then deteriorated.  I'm sorry."

      "It's the truth," Asuka replied quietly.

      Shinji looked at the faces of the four men.  He couldn't read anything on there.  Shinji wanted to yell at them, or run away, Don't they see it? he wondered, Or don't they care?

      "Admiral?" his father asked quietly, got a nod from Simson, "How do you justify your conclusions?"

      Now Shinji knew they'd caught him, he couldn't tell them about dreams.  They'd either laugh, or they would look into things he knew Raccoon and Asuka didn't want to explain.  Then he remembered what the pair had found when they went to her apartment last week, "Pilot Langley and Pilot Davis have checked up on her, they found the same things.  I believe I can help her."

      The four men stared at him.  He wasn't sure whether they were considering, or politely trying not to laugh at him.  The time seemed to crawl by, he wished he had some clue to which way they were leaning.

      "I disapprove," Commander Fuyutsuki said.

      Shinji's heart sank.

      "As do I," Admiral Simson added.

      Shinji knew that was that.

      "But I won't stand in the way, you have one week, that is all Pilot Ikari.  Please close the door behind you when you leave."

      Shinji stared, blinked.

      "You are dismissed pilots," the admiral repeated sternly.

      Rei and Asuka grabbed his arms, turned him around and frogmarched him out of the room.

      "Thank you," Asuka managed, since Shinji couldn't.

      As soon as the door closed, Asuka waved her hand in front of his face, "NERV to Spineless . . . I guess I can't call you that any more, how about Lord Iron Balls?  Hello!  You won, show some reaction!"

      Shinji turned and stared at her, No reprimand, they disapproved, but still let me do it?  How did that happen?

      "Wondergirl, you'd better give him mouth-to-mouth, I don't think his brain's getting any air," he heard Asuka say.  It didn't register until Rei put her lips against his, and pinched his nose closed.

      "He is breathing normally," Rei said as she broke the kiss.  She was blushing.

      Shinji could feel his own cheeks burning.  "It's not like that!" he insisted.

      "Good, you're back."  Asuka took his arm, and gestured for Rei to do likewise.  Rei's hold on his arm was a lot more gentle than Asuka's.

      "Let's go tell Misato," Asuka said, "Frankly, I don't want to live in her house."

      "Do you believe you can save her?" Rei asked.

      If Asuka hadn't been dragging him forward, he would have stopped.  "I have to try, don't I?"

      "Whatever happened to all this 'The tallest tree is cut first' stuff?" Asuka teased him.

      "They have cut down neither you nor the Fourth," Rei replied.

      "Well they'd be scraping lichen before they got to you two, Wondergirl!" Asuka shot back.

      Rei looked thoughtful, "Perhaps.  Are you intending on sleeping with Roku-kun again?"

      "What?" Asuka shouted.

      "Kraznyzamok-san said you slept in his lap, then in his arms."

      "When did this happen?" Asuka sounded desperate.

      Shinji hid his smile, remembering Raccoon carrying Asuka to the jeep, to ride home.

      "After you lost," Rei told her.  Asuka turned purple.  "Kraznyzamok-san said 'Asuka was so adorable'."

      "So what!  Sammi thinks a Panzerkampfwagen Königstiger is cute!"

      "She reiterated, 'She's particularly adorable snuggling with a boy like that'."

      Shinji just ignored Asuka's retort, he wondered if the pair realized they always argued this way.  He knew enough not to point it out to Asuka, but he would talk to Rei about it later.

      Ranma looked up at the ceiling of the EVA bay from the floor.  It was a restful ceiling.  It didn't say things that turned the universe upside down and shook all the loose change out of its pockets.

      Raccoon stepped into view, for a moment, Ranma was worried Raccoon was going to spit on him.  Then he remembered that spit was probably the safest thing that could come out of Raccoon's mouth.

      "That's your problem, Ranma.  Remove martial arts, and your ambition barely extends to your next meal.  You're a lump.  Ranko - on the other hand, is so used to being told by you, that she's worthless, that she is amazed she gets acceptance from anyone.  More powerful emotions are reserved for those of us who say: 'You're very good, but we expect you to be better.'  That's Ayanami, Tendo and I.  We offer no condemnation, but none of your bigotry of low expectations either.  Even she's confused by the strength of the feelings that stirs up.

      "You don't care what non-martial artists think of you, so it doesn't matter.  Ranko is a social critter, I don't know if she's looking for husband and children, or just people to knock around with.  She hates that you treat her like dirt, she hates that most of the other boys look at her as a bed-toy.  You don't care about the girls who think of you as a pretty piece of meat, because most boys don't.  But do you even understand how Ranko feels?  To want to be wanted, not for how she looks or how she fights, but for who she is, all of who she is, and what she could be?"

      Ranma stared at him in utter confusion.  He didn't feel that way.  He was pretty sure he didn't feel that way when he was Ranko, But I'm not certain, he thought, This is nuts!  If Ranko felt that way, I'd know it. "Ranko can't possibly have a crush on Rei."

      "Oh," Raccoon squatted down, stared directly at Ranma, "Then why is it that Ranko has never gotten belted when she's pissed off Miss Ayanami?  Why does Ranko use a soft tone with her, and look at her with those soft eyes, she only looks at Nabiki - "

      "And you!" Ranma accused, then closed his eyes and covered his face, as realized what he'd just said.

      "Exactly.  So you do see it, if only when someone practically beats you over the head with it."

      "How does any of this deal with what we were talking about?  What I wanted to talk about?"  Ranma was getting frustrated enough to hit Raccoon on general principle.

      "Why is Ranma acting the way he is, and Ranko is not?  The key is your third personality."

      Ranma closed his eyes, he'd wanted and expected answers, not further questions.

      "Okay, first step, do you know why you act that way?" Raccoon asked.

      Ranma could answer that easily, "No."

      "So it isn't you're acting the way someone expects you to?  Could it just be a habit?"

      "I don't know, I guess," Ranma admitted, "How can I have a habit if I don't remember, I just get feelings if something is, well, me, or it isn't."

      "That sounds like a habit to me.  Besides, you move and think so fast, the difference between acting before and after judging it is almost undetectable, it's that feeling that governs your behavior.  So why are you doing what you 'feel is me'?"

      "If you can't answer, why don't you just tell me?" Ranma said.

      "I thought you wanted a shaman?  Do you learn addition before you learn calculus, why?"

      "Okay!  Fine!" Ranma sat up and thought.

      "Frankly, I doubt anyone can get Rei as mad as you do.  Probably because she sees Ranko, then she sees you, and since the Commander told her you were the same, it's got to be confusing.  Confusion often leads to anger.  I doubt that without threatening one or both of the Ikari's, anyone else could get her as mad as you do on a routine basis.  Yet, you're still alive, I think Rei reciprocates your feelings to a certain extent."

      Ranma closed his eyes, wishing he'd never started this.  Wishing he could be anywhere else, wishing Raccoon's crazy opinions would just stop, wishing Raccoon's crazy opinions didn't fit the facts so well.

      I act that way because it's comfortable, it felt right, Ranma thought, But did that make it right?  "All right, it was habit.  I can guess your next question, I don't know why I keep doing it."

      "Actually, I wanted to know why you didn't change it."

      Ranma sighed and flopped down on the floor, "Should I even ask what the difference is?"

      "Ask yourself, because Ranko changed, Ranma didn't.  Think why a table needs three legs, but people can get by with two or even one."

      Ranma felt his eyes crossing as he stared at Raccoon, I HATE Kooans, 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?' is just stupid.  "You're enjoying this."

      "To master what Langley and I are working on, you'll have to learn how to think a lot more flexibly.  Because without your input, we'll never be able to teach you."

      Ranma stared in confusion, he didn't believe Raccoon had just admitted he was necessary.  Then he thought, I hate how easily he can manipulate me.  What does three legs have to do with people having two or one?

      "Don't think with your head, think with your whole body.  That's where your talent lies."

      Ranma stood, "Do you have to know everything?"

      "I don't have to know much to do this.  I just have to know that you know, all I'm doing is helping you find out what you already know.  Besides, you've seen me play soccer, and you can even ask that question?"

      Ranma had to laugh at that, how anyone couldn't figure out football, even getting the name wrong, was beyond his understanding.  Ranma tried various stances, two legs, one leg, two legs and an arm, to take it further he stood upside-down on one arm.

      "Okay," Ranma told Raccoon while he was still upside-down, "I get it," Raccoon's neutral expression irked him, "Three legs don't need any little moves to stay upright."

      "So if you have two of three legs moving, what does the third do?"

      "Stand still," Ranma flipped himself so he was on his feet again.

      "Are your other two personality legs really that unstable?"

      Ranma stood on one foot, then two, sweeping from one stance to another, occasionally putting all his weight on his outstretched hand.  Ranma stood up, faced Raccoon, "No, they aren't, they just aren't 'me'.  So, I've been standing on Ranma, while Ranko moves ahead and that - other thing - does whatever it does."

      "It doesn't matter what I think, but what you can do with the breakthrough.  The analysis we discussed was that there was an attempt to balance your life.  Giving you, Ranma, time and experiences to broaden your outlook, to give you some of the harmony that you need in the pursuit of true martial arts."

      "What do you mean?" that got Ranma's full attention.

      "Well, the few karate students I met over here told me, that a black belt, is the beginning of learning, not the end.  That combat is only the outward manif - outside effect of inner strength and harmony.  You're about the most unharmonious person I've ever met.  You were supposed to let your female aspects grow and prosper, you weren't supposed to turn over all the growth and learning to it."  Ranma watched Raccoon walk away a short distance.  His expression clearly indicated the conversation wasn't done.

      Just the end of round one, Ranma lamented, he was even more tired now, Thinking is hard work.  This is worse than spear fencing with Asuka,  "Why do you care?" Ranma walked towards Raccoon, trying to find something, some pattern to this conversation he could grasp.

      "I told Ranko and Nabiki, didn't they tell you?"

      "Yes," Ranma said in exasperation, "That doesn't explain things."

      "Do you really want another long-winded explanation of how your universe goes together?  I thought one was your limit for the week."

      Ranma shook his head no, Why can he talk my language better than me? Ranma wondered.  "I don't need a complete, dis - deiscer - "


      " - on everything, just a few things, hints, clues.  In short speeches would help."

      "I have to, simple as that.  Why not just ask?"

      Ranma considered if it would be more effective to just pound Raccoon, or pound his own head against the wall, That's what I'm trying to do!  "You walked up to those tiger-things, you shot at me then got clobbered by Nab-chan, you stayed out when Shinji got stuck outside the school by those Lliogor things.  Who looks after you?"

      "I know I'm vulnerable, so I take precautions.  You practically can't live unsupervised in the real world.  You think your skill with your fists makes you invulnerable, and you apply it to situations when it's completely inappropriate, you can't punch some things and make them go away.  Heck, you couldn't even take me in a life-or-death fight."

      "HA!" Ranma replied, "I could take you with one hand, with my feet nailed to the floor."

      Raccoon walked towards him, "Oh?  You reeyowryowreyowrrreyowr . . . "

      Ranma's world shrank to a pinpoint as Raccoon's cat-siren sound went on and on and on, as he struggled to remain in control, to remain dominant.  The ones who'd caught him earlier had realized his, Ranko's fear, and used it to keep him just on the edge of insanity.  Playing with him.  Again he was completely helpless, unless he wanted to surrender himself to whatever else the fear dredged up.

      As the paralyzing fear faded, he watched Raccoon half spun around and falling to the deck.  Ranma couldn't move, he could only watch the slow fall as the other boy hit the floor and curl into a ball.  He could hear Raccoon gasping in pain, his face purple.  He was horrified that he'd done exactly what Raccoon had been afraid of.  The other hadn't taken control, so he must have had lashed out in terror himself.

      "Raccoon!"  When he could finally move, he rushed to the other boy, "What happened?  What did I do?"

      "Nothing," Raccoon uncoiled, his breathing and color rapidly returning to normal, "If you had acted, you would have been defending yourself.  You act guilty, where did you learn you weren't permitted to protect yourself?"

      "You tricked me!"

      "Just like on top of the school.  The others needed hope, so I gave them a little performance.  I told you I was practically a charlatan, a fake, but I do know how to act like a master.  I just gave you a little performance, and you're acting like you committed murder."

      "What was I supposed to think?" Ranma replied angrily.

      "There's a lot you don't understand, but a lot more you need to.  Our enemies, your enemies, understand you better than you understand yourself.  You learned some today, which you previously chose not to understand.  A simple trick and I could have killed you, instead I act like you hurt me and you practically drown in your guilt.  Who made you responsible for my actions?  You have to watch out for yourself instead.  The rest of us can take care of ourselves.  Running away is more effective than fighting a battle you can't win."

      You can't protect yourself, Ranma wanted to tell him, but he could predict Raccoon's response, 'You have to protect me?!'  He'd been paralyzed by his fight to keep control against those creatures, then again just a few moments ago.  He'd had to depend on something he couldn't understand, let alone control, to protect both of them.  It was him, but it wasn't.  "So what am I supposed to do?"

      "That's for you to decide," Raccoon opened the book he'd been reading from, "Try practicing your English."

      He looked at the words on the page, then at the EVAs, "I'd feel stupid."

      "Fine!  Good!" Raccoon shouted at him, "Feel stupid, enjoy your right to be intentionally ridiculous.  Where is it written that Saotome Ranma has to be serious all the time?  Because I want to go and erase it!"

      "But we have an important job!" Ranma replied.

      "How does that preclude having fun?  I've got an urgent telegram for you Saotome, do you know what Gendo and company would do, if every Thursday, you painted yourself blue, stood in Dr. Akagi's furo and spent the entire night singing bawdy Swedish drinking songs to a football?"

      Ranma shuddered to think, "I'd get in trouble."

      "Wrong!  That doesn't even answer the question I asked," Raccoon shot back, "They'd see if it affected your sync rate and combat efficiency, if they improved, they wouldn't say a thing.  Nobody would care!  The universe isn't watching you Saotome, the vast majority of people you meet don't care about you.  Most of the rest either like the person you really are, or hate you no matter what you do.  So why waste time prostituting yourself for people who will always hate you, and antagonize the people that actually care about you.  The rest won't care if you're pink, yellow, or purple and orange plaid, as long as you don't affect them directly."

      "That doesn't make any sense, we're pilots, the whole world depends on us," Ranma protested.

      "If we succeed, people go about their lives, read about us in the paper and dismiss our existence with their morning coffee, or tea.  Read!"

      Ranma looked at the page.  Which kind of person are you? he wondered.

      "Out loud!" Raccoon told him as he walked a short distance away.

      "IF, by Rud-yard  . . . Kip-ring," Ranma saw Raccoon wince, but the other boy said nothing.  "If you can keep your head . . . when all about you, are los-ing theirs, and blaming it on you," he frowned at Raccoon, "If you can tru - st your - self when . . . all men dou - bt you.  B - ut ma-ke arr - allow - ance for their dou - bting too,"

      "If nei - ther foes nor lov - ing friends . . . can hurt you.  If all . . . men count with you, b - ut none too much, if you can f - ill the unfo - rgiving mi - nute With six - ty seconds' worth of distance run . . .. You - rs is the Earth and ever - ything that's in it, and wh - ich is mo - re . . . you'll be a Man, my son!" Ranma felt wrung out, reading English was more exhausting than a workout.  Worst was glancing up and seeing Raccoon just standing there, not critiquing, not complaining or correcting every misstep.  It's like he didn't care, Ranma thought, I'm sweating after reading one page in a book. Ranma could hardly believe it.

      He considered the advice given in the poem, wondered if that was what Raccoon wanted him to think about, how he set the measure of a man.  Ranma closed the book, considered.  Everything in the poem about being a man had been measuring yourself against yourself.  "Being a man can't be all inside."

      "That's the only place it matters, Saotome.  The real battle is and always will be the you of the present against the potential you."

      "What about all those people you and Asuka talked about?" Ranma kept wondering why it bothered him that people thought of him that way, even if it was just characters in someone else's dream.

      "Remember what I said about people who don't care about you, well none of those people cared about you, they wanted possession, a piece of paper saying you were theirs.  They were going to make you into their image of you, and the devil could take what you wanted.  Frankly, you give me the choice between most of that lot, and the things we're fighting.  I'll take the things we're fighting, they make no pretense of their real objectives, they know their real objectives."

      "Most of them wanted to marry me," Ranma countered quietly, something about that rang a bell in his mind.

      "Ha, as if that would have solved anything for them.  Maybe you should quit trying to live up to the expectations of people you don't really remember, and are no longer beholding to, and start considering the people who're actually around you.  Or, HORROR OF HORRORS, you might actually have to decide what you want.  Oh the Humanity!  Once you know that, you'll know what the other wants, because they'll be the same."

      Ranma didn't let on, but the idea did frighten him.  Once you removed being the best at martial arts, he hadn't the faintest idea what he wanted, no ideas beyond doing what others told him to do.  He piloted the EVA because he was supposed to, and he was very good at it.  He couldn't ever remember anyone asking him what he wanted to do.  It shocked him, he wouldn't have any answer when they did.

      "I'm supposed to be the best at Martial Arts!" Ranma told Raccoon.  Yet he had no other goals, plans, nor even ideas about what to do once he reached the pinnacle.

      "Congratulations, you're already there," Raccoon told him dryly, "Only Tendo-san comes anywhere close."

      "Unless there's an Angel of Martial Arts," he said, he wondered why Raccoon shaking his head at him filled him with worry.  Is he disgusted, or is he saying there isn't one, Ranma didn't like the second prospect at all.  It meant for all intents, his life had no purpose beyond being a better Martial Artist than Nab-chan.  Which he could do in his sleep.  He didn't know if he wanted to become a sensei in a dojo, or go study from other masters.  It appeared his future was as empty as his past.  The stories Asuka and Raccoon had told were disturbing, but they had one comforting theme, someone else had mapped out his path, all he had to do was decide which path and walk it.  In the real world, he had to decide what he was to do, today, tomorrow, for the rest of his life, and those decisions would direct Ranma, Ranko and the other.  He could be a man, a woman, both, or something else, something nonhuman.

      "What about you, Raccoon?" he asked, "What do you expect out of life.  You always have some kind of plan."

      Raccoon frowned, "Considering the leadership here, I took those plans, and dumped them in an ashcan in Boston.  To answer Miss Tendo's question, evangelion isn't a word, it is a corruption of evangelium from Latin or euangelion from Greek both mean good news, or evangelian which means rendering thanks for favors.  That thanks usually meant a blood sacrifice to the gods, blood sacrifice for good news?  Saving the human race would be good news wouldn't it?  Four machines, six pilot, you do the math, or maybe all ten of us.  Words mean things, Girl Chaos Horse, especially names.  Don't ask advice on how to live from the dead, Saotome, my necks on the block no matter what.  I wasn't lying in the elevator.  The last battle comes, poof, I'm gone.  I haven't got anything to look forward to."

      Raccoon turned and left, leaving Ranma shaking his head.  He'd never figured out why Raccoon hated Gendo and Misa-chan so much, and why he thought they were out to kill all the pilots, It doesn't make sense.  If he dies, why do the rest of us? "Besides, why hasn't he broken that curse?"

In the Darkness

      A lot of things were running through Ranma's mind as he got ready for bed.  Shinji was already asleep.  Despite how tired Ranma felt, he couldn't relax.  Couldn't keep his mind from running a mile a minute.  Ranko had felt betrayed Raccoon hadn't taken 'her' side in the fight, but tried to knock out both combatants.  Ranma knew if they were still surrounded by those tiger-things, it was what he had to do.  Heartless, but reasonable.  What really worried him was that Raccoon might be able to do that any time he wanted, override his, or her, desires, wants, needs, entire volition.  There seemed nothing he could do to stop or resist him.  The idea he could do something like that, maybe he'd changed as Ranma had.  He thought about what that kind of power really meant.  Ranma had already lost some control, he was worried about losing a lot more.

      Ranma wasn't sure how `honorable` someone would have to be to not use that kind of power, let alone misusing it.  Then he wondered if Raccoon had been using it all along.  Manipulating them subtly, a push here, a nudge there, nothing that wouldn't seem like he was just using words to convince them.

      He tried to convince himself otherwise, Rit-chan would be in real trouble, he realized, That's probably why he left.  Ranma also hated the need to be rescued from his own fear, by his own fear.  He didn't feel right having other people fight `his` fights.  Except Rei and Raccoon never hesitated when a pilot, any pilot, was in trouble, they took any means necessary to save them.  The other had felt exactly the same way.

      The next on his list of worries was, who was he?  From what Raccoon had forced him to see, he could be anything.  Literally.  Raccoon and Asuka might think it meant limitless vistas and possibilities, to him it was an open maw waiting to swallow him up.  He could stay exactly like he was, letting Ranko out only occasionally to satisfy the curse.  Or he could surrender himself completely to the other.  Turn his back on honor, NERV, even Humanity itself, there were large mountainous areas of Japan, he'd never have to see another human being again.

      Neither extreme was acceptable, he kind of liked being Ranko, sometimes.  It's a useful technique, he tried to justify it to himself, then quashed that thought, If I can be anything, then I could also be everything.  That thought terrified him.  Staying like he was wasn't acceptable either.  He hated how Raccoon and Shinji looked at, no, feared him.  He also hated how Shinji and the other boys looked at Ranko, 'bed-toy'.  About the only person, besides Rit-chan, who treated him all right in both his forms was Nab-chan, 'Bed-toy', he thought, Chew-toy might be a better description.  He wasn't completely comfortable with how she acted, but she acted the same with both of his forms.

      He could just marry her, but he didn't know if she wanted that, and was afraid to ask, Just as afraid if she said yes, as if she said no, he admitted.  He could, no Ranko could, get involved with Raccoon, but figure out some way to make him less afraid of Ranma.  He could just ignore all of that and concentrate on his job, which seemed to be Asuka and Raccoon's answer.  The 'other' just complicated things beyond his ability to figure out.

      The next thing that worried him was the killings.  He'd heard what had happened, that the other had killed some of them.  But then it must have dragged Raccoon to safety and cleaned him up, Homicidal weirdos to the rescue.  Now I'm one of those, or I become one.  Nobody had mentioned the other.  The pilots all figured Raccoon had done the killing, and he hadn't corrected that misinterpretation.  Ranma didn't like Raccoon getting `credit` for something, but Ranma also didn't want the others to know that he had something capable of that inside him.

      He knew he wasn't being fair, but it still stuck in his craw that Nab-chan and Rit-chan weren't his rescuers, ever.  The people who hated him, people and things he shouldn't have been able to trust, were always keeping him out of trouble.  He wasn't comfortable, he was piling up a debt of honor to them, a debt he probably could never repay.

      Not that they'd ever acknowledge the debt, especially of honor Ranma considered, which disturbed him more, rolled over and tried to sleep.

      "Admiral," Doctor Montgomery entered Simson's office.

      The Admiral lifted his head, blinked, and remembered giving orders to be awakened when he could question the soldier who witnessed Saotome and Davis engaging those creatures.  He yawned, stretched.  "How is he?"

      "He'll live," Montgomery assured him, "He was saying some crazy things as we put him under to sew up his leg."

      "Don't assume they were crazy," Simson assured the man.  They'd counted 18 corpses at Ayanami's, another 34 where Davis and Saotome had fought them.  They'd only captured three alive.  All 18 Langley and Ayanami accounted for were with pistols and grenades.  Gunfire had hit only 15 of the ones around Davis and Saotome.  Something had shredded the rest, by what, only one man knew.  Simson intended to increase that to at least two.  In fact, they were guessing it was 34, that was all the pieces they could put together.

      As they entered the recovery room, Simson thought the man looked terrible.  These creatures had a particularly cruel idea of fun.  He hoped they enjoyed the treatment his people and Ikari's would give them to get answers.

      "Admiral," the man whispered, "Saw it, saw it all, sir."  The wounded man stared at him.

      "Excellent son," Simson said, "The doc said you'll pull through, so take your time, get it straight."

      "Sir.  A tiger, saber-toothed, black, white stripes, 15 feet long nose to rump, tail nearly that long, real pretty."

      Simson glanced at Montgomery, who shook his head.  Neither had ever heard of a live saber-toothed tiger, let alone one that color, the only one Simson knew about looked like an oversized bobcat, no tail.

      "Didn't see where it came from," the man laughed once, "Was kind of busy.  But to . . . tore into the other tigers.  Never seen it before.  Teeth, claws, front and back.  Admir'l, I swear, choked one to death with tail."

      Simson glanced at Montgomery, who shook his head.  The admiral nodded his agreement, No tiger can do that.  Unless it only looked like a tiger.

      "Fang," the man in the hospital bed continued, "Foot long, top and bottom.  Right through the skull of one, tore the head off.  Mad cat."  The man chuckled again.  "All death, jumped, straight up, five stories.  Must have taken Saotome up.  Then it landed, next to Davis.  Thought he was a goner."  The man's frown creased his face, he couldn't believe what he was remembering, "It licked him, real gentle-like.  Then pick him up by the scruff of the neck, and walked up the ladder to the roof.  Saw a mama cat do that with her little ones once.  Passed out, next saw the medics.  That's all Admiral."

      "You've been very helpful."

      The Admiral and the Doctor left the room.

      "I'm sorry, Admiral," Montgomery apologized, "I thought he was more coherent than that.  He was obviously still under the effected of the anesthesia."

      "Don't be too hard on him, Doctor," the Admiral replied, "He's probably reporting exactly what he saw, or remembers he saw.  What he described is as good an explanation as any."

      "Thank you, Admiral."  Montgomery turned back to the patients' wards.

      Simson was not convinced the man was hallucinating, or drunk with anesthetic.  One of the heads had punctures through the jaw and skull.  If they'd been done postmortem, he would have bet a strong man with a pickax.  Now he wasn't so sure.  The only machine he could think of that would do that kind of damage was a railway snow blower.  Meat-packing equipment wouldn't be so random and violent. Bismarck was right about making sausage, he thought.

      The creature the fighter pilots reported, the Scholarly Dragon, was too big.  'As big as a B-36,' one man had said.  It would have grabbed Davis and Saotome, and broiled everything else in the alley to ash.  And one of the Japanese police reported that whatever did that, was real mad, Admiral Simson thought as he entered his office, 'You only mutilate victims that way, when there is a lot of rage involved' so what the heck can be that angry, then that careful with the two pilots?  Simson put away a few papers and decided to get the rest of his night's sleep at home.

      Ritsuko looked at the ceiling, thinking about what those things were.  The spells that bonded an animal form to a human should have shocked her.  Still, after Saotome's transformation, nothing really shocked her.  Not even 60 people willing to give up their humanity that way, for 'service to our god.'  She was just glad these were a one-time creation, she didn't want to think about a whole sub-race of such things wandering around.

      What she really wanted to know was how they knew about Ranma's vulnerability.  The staff had been kept in the dark about it, the pilots didn't talk about it. Creating those things must have taken weeks, she thought.

      So who told them? she wondered, It's obvious why.  She found her anger at whoever betrayed the secrets and threatened 'her kids' was beyond anything she'd ever felt before.  When the mortar attack occurred, she'd been there, in danger with the kids.  These attacks, while they could reasonably expect they were safe, infuriated her.

      If the pilots couldn't feel safe anywhere, she thought, What effect would that have on them all?  She found the silence didn't give her any answers.

      She glanced over at the lump that was Nabiki.  Technically, she shouldn't care about them the way she did.  'It might have a deleterious effect on their utilizability for the final plan,' Gendo had warned her the day she'd agreed to take Ranma and Nabiki into her home.

      Except there's no evidence of such a thing, she thought, Other than their `rebellion` against Misato, but she was never part of the final plan anyway.  She doesn't ask questions, that was her most helpful attribute for the project.  Ritsuko laughed bitterly at that, Misato our brilliant military commander refuses to look at the secrets right under her nose.  What a world.  Well, Gendo has done nothing to shake their confidence in him as a commander.  Whatever they might think of him as a human being.

      Well, what about you? she wondered, You aren't supposed to be their mother.  You're just supposed to keep them alive, chart their progress and other wise 'keep the required emotional distance'.  But I can't, can I? she lamented.  She knew what the kids were really for, what would likely happen to them in the end.  They'd hate her, and everyone else at NERV when they found out, As if it would matter at that point, she realized, she didn't know why she sought to preserve the illusion for as long and as hard as she did.  When she knew it would all turn to ashes in the end.

      Ikari isn't so stupid, she thought, Treating them as expendable assets from the beginning.  He won't feel any especial loss on the last day, maybe he'll feel some pride at their accomplishment, but he won't shed any tears at their fate.

      She had the oddest feeling, that if she told them the truth, the whole truth, what they expected of them, what would happen to them, not one of them would turn aside.  The real curse is that they'd probably figure out a way to weight the results even more heavily in the favor of humanity, she realized, But we don't dare tell them, on the minuscule chance they'd break at the wrong time.  And here I am, angry that someone would take them away, with what we're planning, it would serve me right.

      She squeezed her eyes shut, she hated crying.  It was stupid, useless and illogical.  Knowing that didn't stop her.

      Ranma stared at the bunk over him, lost in thought.  What do I want? he didn't know why he couldn't answer such a simple question, It's not like I'm happy where I am not.

      "Shinji?"  He tapped the frame of the upper bunk at rapid speed.  "What do you want?"

      There was a groan from the bunk over him, "I want to sleep."

      "I mean for the rest of your life?"

      Another groan, "Can't this wait until morning?"

      "You can't answer it now?"

      Shinji sighed, "At two-thirty in the morning, quieter roommates.  I want sleep.  Maybe later I want to be a musician, or a composer.  Does that answer your question?"

      Ranma heard the bed squeak as Shinji rolled over.

      "Maybe invent a portable music box and headphones, so I wouldn't have to listen to silly questions in the middle of the night," Shinji told him, "Good night."

      Ranma really didn't consider that much of an answer, he wondered if Nab-chan had any long-term plans.  Of course he'd choke, if he had to ask Asuka or Rei, Both of them would probably tell me to mind my own business.  He also wondered if Ranko would have gotten a different answer from Raccoon.  Since they were `different people` maybe.  But would it have been an answer I could use, he asked himself.  He shuddered to think about Raccoon suggesting marriage and kids with Ranko.  Mainly because his best defense 'I'm a guy' wouldn't affect Raccoon.

      Worse was the comment about Rei.  He remembered how mad Rei was that Hiroko had found out, but Ranko admitted fault, then tried to calm Rei down.  Rei had calmed down, then supported her.  She can't have any feelings for Ranko! Ranma thought, She didn't hit me because it would have drawn attention, Ranma didn't believe that.  Rei had hurt Ranma for some trivial things, but when she told Ranko something, she trusted Ranko to do what she was told.

      It can't be true, Ranma thought, Rei's only interested in Shinji.  Except for 'the Second', and 'Nabiki-kun', and 'Roku-kun' . . . Ranma sighed, I've got a headache!