Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 30-31 ( Chapter 14 )

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

Chapter 30 - What Faith in Immortality, Joy or Sorrow?
      Two o'clock in the Morning Courage
      Honest Self-Criticism
      Groundwork for Clouds
      Listen to the Fizz
      Carnival of the Body
      Carnival of the Mind
      Carnival of the Spirit
      Carnival of the Soul
      The Brass Ring

Chapter 31 - Sub Rosa, Just Watch the Thorns Back
      Camera Means Vault
      Truth and Ice Cream
      Snake in the Grass
      Sports Agents
      The Cry of All, the Game of Few
      Fourth of July
      Verify is an Event
      Making a Majority of One


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


Stories are available in Plain ASCII at:


ht tp:// r-Morituri

(these are the original versions)

What has gone before:

      About Book 11 of the Tankoubon Manga, 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 make the breakthrough in the equations governing the AT fields. They teach the other pilots the math to understand it. Ranma understands enough to use the AT field the way he had against Nyogtha.

      Hiroko accidentally discovered the truth about Ranma/Ranko, and is ordered to keep silent. She asks to be a pilot, both Rei and Ritsuko try to convince her not to. She is killed during the battle against Cthugha, along with her entire family, and Ranam's friends Kenta and Seisuke.

      All of the pilots react to the disaster surrounding the destruction of Cthugha and his cult in there own ways. Nabiki retreats, Asuka investigates, Jeff attacks the SEELE. supporters, Ranma seeks a decisive battle and is frustrated in this end, Rei and Shinji try to support Nabiki.

"Say this to the People of Israel, 'I Am has sent me to you.'"

      Exodus 3:14

Lucifer (Latin: Morning Star)

      Webster's Dictionary

Here I Am

Will you send me an Angel,

Here I Am

In the Land of the Morning Star

      Send Me an Angel - Klaus Meine (Scorpions)

Chapter 30 - What Faith in Immortality, Joy or Sorrow?

Two o'clock in the Morning Courage

      The man once known only as SEELE 03 had fled to these desolate woods.  In a dark clearing he had lighted the fires, now he said the words.  A man with the regal Egyptian features in the red three-piece suit appeared.  Then swiftly removed his bow tie.

      "Oh Lord!  I have done your bidding.  Your enemy is dead, no one can trace the act to you.  But now your enemies hound and hunt me.  This was not to be my reward.  Even your secret that would preserve my life has been discovered and destroyed."  The man's words tumbled out in a single breath.

      "You wish to serve Chaos, which you will do."  The Dark Man extended his hand, reducing the acolyte to a mass of orange goo.

      "Why didn't you tell him you removed the jar from SEELE HQ?" Mara stepped out of the shadows, she'd been watching the man since he escaped from the battle of Tokyo.  "Good plan though, first rule of assassinations: kill the assassins."

      "Oh, he isn't dead, merely rewarded," the Crawling Chaos told her, "I even have a gift - for you.  While pilot Tendo would have eventually fallen into your lap, I have accelerated the decline.  Suicide still automatically places the perpetrator in your sphere of influence, I believe.  Humans are so fragile, the death of a silly girl, and one pilot falls to you.  Saotome will follow soon enough, Ayanami will be taken, then it becomes a race whether Ikari or Davis goes next.  Then, whichever is left will expend himself alongside Langley, both having lost all hope."  The Crawling Chaos chuckled at her distress, "Think of all the deals your people will make, not that they'll do any good against us, our time is coming."

      "It ISN'T your time!" Mara shouted, "The Stars aren't Right!"

      "The strong make their own time," the Dark Man assured her, "Too bad you can't do anything.  To save a soul from guaranteed damnation, that would be - well it wouldn't be appropriate.  Now would it?"

      Mara turned and left at a run, the monster's laughter echoing in her ears, Damn you, Crawler!  By the Infernal One and the Adversary, I'll make you pay!  By all the Fiends and Archangels, I'll see you destroyed!  If I have to coddle every one of those pathetic wimps, if I have to spoon feed them the darkest arts, I'll see you welter in your own blood!  If I have to abase myself to Belldandy and her simpering siblings, I'll make you pay for this indignity! Mara raged as she vanished back to Tokyo, already forming a counter for Nyarlathotep's plan in her head.

      The Dark Man stood alone in the clearing, waiting without moving.  Another dark figure detached itself from the gloom of the forest.

      "I only seek wisdom, Lord," the scruffy vagabond bowed low, idly scratching at whatever vermin infested his scalp and body.

      "You have your orders?" the Dark Man asked.

      "To kill the pilots, but your plans my Lord?"

      "Carry out your orders," the Dark Man still hadn't moved.

      "Ia! Ia! Ny har rut hotep." The foul man bowed and scurried away, intent on his god's task.

      The Dark Man stood unmoving for a long time, staring at nothing.

      Then he turned, his head transforming into the head of a rattlesnake, before he vanished completely.

      Natsumi Matsuda lowered her handmade telescope, "H-he loo-look-ed-ed at ri-right me . . . ," she stammered, "Right at me!" she said with dread, "An Angel, in Osaka, and he looked right - at - me!"

      She walked carefully away, deliberately putting one foot in front of the other to keep from breaking into a run, and not stopping until she hit the ocean.  She was glad she hadn't been in Tokyo during the disaster, but she hadn't expected to find the mythos in Osaka.  Osaka wasn't Tokyo.  She had to contact . . . "Who?  Ayami-san is dead, and the 'Boss' can't be in good shape."

      She discovered she was running now.  She'd never been so scared in her life . . . just from that . . . thing . . . looking at her.  "Kensuke-san!  He's the military expert, he'll know what to do, he's in Tokyo!"

      She ran for the post office and the long-distance line there, to make the call to Tokyo.

      Rei was discovering that kowtowing did not seriously interfere with using a telephone.  She didn't know why a goddess and a demon had awakened her with orders to make a phone call.  Once she'd heard the message she was to deliver, she needed no further urging to act.

      "Roku-kun, Nabiki-kun is in danger, go to her apartment, now!"

      "Are you all right?" Roku-kun asked.

      "Please go!" Rei insisted, trying to keep her terror under control.  She had failed to protect Nabiki-kun, now the 'Higher Powers' looked down at her and her failure, looked down at her unworthiness.

      Despite the hard concrete scraping her bare skin, she dared not raise her head from the floor to look at them, to see if they were gone.  She lay there as the minutes crawled by, awaiting some sign that she was free to move again, awaiting her punishment.

      "Rei-chan?!"  Shinji-kun took her bare shoulders and raised her from the floor.

      He looked so worried, she felt so ashamed for making him worry.  She couldn't meet his eyes.  She bowed her head, he responded by settling her head in his lap.  She wrapped her arms around his waist.

      "I failed, we almost lost Nabiki-kun," she told him.

      "It's all right, you warned us, you did your best."  He stroked her hair, "You did your best.  We all did, we didn't lose."

      Someone pulled the blanket off her bed, draping it over her.  "Get a room," the Second said as she left the apartment, closing the door quietly behind her.

      Asuka walked out, sat down outside Wondergirl's apartment.  Sammi had accompanied her here, Misato had arrived with Spineless.  The two older women stared at her, expecting an explanation for the sudden flurry of activity.

      "She's fine, he's safe, for a while."  Asuka grimaced at the place.  She thought she could still smell the cleanser she and Raccoon had used, Good Lord!  Was it only the 12th? Asuka thought about the past week and a half.  She took her violin from Sammi, and leaned against the railing as she tuned it.  She still didn't know what had possessed her to bring it with her.  Once she was satisfied with the tuning, she began playing a series of her favorite sad songs.

      She distantly heard Sammi shushing an inebriated Misato.  While she was playing, Asuka would have ignored anything less than an alert or an artillery barrage, the music was all that mattered.

      She wondered how Raccoon was doing with Ice Princess.  Whether somebody, anybody, would ever explain why Wondergirl called Raccoon, then he insisted she and Spineless come here.

      Nabiki steeled herself, the razor was warm, the first bite of its edge would be the worst.  After that, it was just a matter of waiting.

      The towel that dropped over her head shocked her.  Having the razor snatched from her hand furthered her confusion, she hadn't heard or seen either door open.

      "That's not how it's done," she heard Raccoon's voice as she scrambled to get the towel off her head, then she thought she really ought to cover herself with it.  It's not like it would matter, considering the embarrassment of getting caught, doing this, she thought, expecting a stern lecture on the 'evils' of suicide.  She had a few arguments on that score herself.

      When he returned with a safety razor, a brush, and an oversized coffee cup, Nabiki remembered the cup was half-full of solid soap.  "An example of wishful thinking on my part."  He gestured with the cup, then ran his hand over the peach fuzz on his cheek.  "You had the hot water right, but that's only part of it.  If I may?" he asked as he squatted next to the furo.  When Nabiki didn't react, he dipped a little water into the cup and started stirring with the brush.  "I haven't the faintest idea why you thought this was necessary."

      I'll tell you, Nabiki fumed as she formed a scathing retort.

      "You've got even less hair there that I do," Raccoon told her as he applied lather from the cup to the leg she had out of the furo.

      Nabiki blushed as she realized what he'd said.  Then frowned at the prickly scraping as Raccoon ran the razor over her skin.  Nabiki glanced up at Ritsuko, who peered into the bathroom through the crack in the door.  Nabiki saw the look of abject fear on the older woman's face.  It was too much, she bowed her head and cried, she couldn't even do something like this, without shaming herself and everyone around her.

      "Sorry.  I didn't think it would hurt that much.  I haven't had much practice."

      She stared at him, saw he wasn't mocking her, she saw only honest concern.

      "You miss them, all of them?" he asked.

      She nodded.

      "When my parents died . . . I was actually glad, not just pleased, I mean huzzahs and handsprings, buy a dozen rounds for everybody happy."  He turned away from her and Ritsuko, leaned back against the furo.  "I hated them.  Nothing I ever did was good enough.  I was fluent in six languages by the time I was eight.  'Why didn't you learn useful languages like French and Hebrew?'  Little wonder why I haven't mastered either of them yet.  When I got on the Harvard Honor roll, 'Your father, and your uncles were on the Honor roll the entire time they were at Harvard.'"  He paused, "So I hated them, and I was glad they were dead, I hoped they suffered terribly before they died.  Twelve seconds later, I regretted it, regretted all the missed opportunities and the things left unsaid, but even hating them that long makes me a terrible person, doesn't it?"

      Nabiki didn't know what to say.

      "Even now, sometimes I get so angry at them.  However, the dead can't defend themselves, so there's nothing you can say or do.  Except be ashamed of the anger."

      As she moved through the furo to be near him, to hear him, she realized he was speaking in German, so only she and he would know what he was saying.  She was grateful for the added privacy.

      "Still, the rage, at injustice, at loneliness, at being abandoned doesn't go away.  Sometimes it rises, filling my brain, clutching at my throat, until I choke on it."  He looked over his shoulder into her face, "But I'm the only one who feels that way.  It's not like anyone else has ever done something so foul as that."  He turned away again, "I just can't imagine Langley being angry with her mother for leaving her, or Shinji . . . or even Ritsuko.  No, I'm some kind of monster, for thinking ill of the dead, for missing them so desperately, after all, I'll supposedly meet them again, after I die.  But I guess I'm the only one silly enough to think like that.  Right?"

      Nabiki smiled, laid her head on his shoulder, putting her arms around him.  He didn't seem to mind she was soaking his shirt.  "Thank you."

      "You're welcome."

      Nabiki realized she could wait, maybe she wasn't the filthy aberration she thought she was.  You might not know it, she thought of her companion, But never being good enough may be why you act the way you do.  You're still trying to win your parent's love, by being perfect, even though it's hopeless, they're dead, you'll never prove it, you still keep trying.

Honest Self-Criticism

June 22, 1947

      "So he walks out of the bathroom," Horseface complained to Asuka as they walked along, "After he's been in there, alone with Nab-chan naked, for an hour, and what does he do?  Looks at me, gives me that stupid salute Nab-chan taught him.  'Be seeing you.'  And he gets a big hug from Rit-chan as he's leaving."

      "What did he look like?" Asuka asked, "Did he look different somehow?"

      "What, besides wet?" Horseface asked as he searched his memory, "Yeah.  He looked tired, weird kind of tired."

      "Worn out?" Asuka asked.  Do I have to lead you by the hand to EVERY conclusion? Asuka wondered as she smiled at him.

      "Yeah, yeah, worn out."

      Asuka almost shouted for joy when she saw it all click for him, Finally!

      "Like Shinji, and Rei . . . and you."  Horseface stared at her.

      "Oh well, four out of five, that's still a 'B'," Asuka muttered, Maybe if I can find a mirror fir him.  "So, what?  Are you jealous?  Or were you expecting them to churn the furo into foam while they were alone in there?"  Asuka looked at the stands being set up all around the University of Tokyo, as they walked among the bustle.  "Nab-chan, yes Nab-chan, yes Nab-chan.  Oh, Raccoon.  Raccoon!  Rac-COON!"

      "That's not it!" Horseface insisted as he turned white, "They'd never do something like that!"

      Asuka smirked at that, and at him, as Horseface turned beet red.  "Oh they'd insist on you being there.  Although Ranko would probably be the better choice, for both of them . . . well, you're too young and innocent to understand what they were doing to you, and that you should just sit or lie back and enjoy it."  Asuka was pleased Horseface looked so utterly humiliated by her suggestion.

      "They wouldn't do . . . " he gulped, "I mean, not both of them, not with Ranko, together, not at the same time?  Would they?"

      "Sure," Asuka assured him, "One cuts the nails on your feet, the other on your hands.  It's kind of nice after a long bath, makes you feel pampered and nice.  They'd insist you do the same for them."  She stopped, stared at him, "What did you think I meant?"

      "Oh nothing nothing."  He shook his hands, as if trying to cool off any anger she felt.

      They walked along in silence, Asuka mentally separating the booths that just provided information, from those that would have games, when they were up and running.  She smiled at the thought of taking all these rubes at their 'games of skill'.  She'd learned all the cheats they used, and ways to beat them.  She smiled, I'm gonna have fun!  She noticed that Horseface had spotted all the couples walking around, and had stuck out his arm for her to take.  We aren't on a date! she didn't let the thought reach her mouth, they'd been working too hard on civilizing him.  "Full marks on manners, Saotome," she told him instead, "Except we aren't on a date, we're doing a survey."

      "Of what?" Horseface asked, looking disappointed.

      Maybe if you'd offered your arm to Ice Princess a few times, rather than her having to take it, you wouldn't be in this mess, Asuka thought.  "Games, a little fun."  She softened her tone, "It isn't as if you couldn't use some."

      "Yeah," Horseface said despondently.

      Asuka actually felt bad for him, he just didn't understand, until he did, he'd never get out of the hole.  "More important question, Horseface."  She pointed at the set-ups going on all around her, "Why is the college having a festival?  Didn't finals just end?"

      "To welcome prospective students and faculty," Horseface told her, "It's on banners all over the place."

      Some of us can't read kanji characters, Asuka thought.  "But why carnival games?  I saw a shooting gallery, and a couple other games.  They're advertising a fireworks show."  That much I can read, she thought.

      "How am I supposed to know?" Horseface practically shouted at her, "It's not like I went to college!"

      "I think you're jealous," Asuka told him.

      "What, that you wasted years of your life listening to boring people tell you boring stuff?"

      You're going to pay for that, Horseface, she thought as she smiled.  "No, of Raccoon and Ice Princess," she said mildly, "You could beat them up, but you can't get them to talk to you.  Yet they spent an hour alone, probably talking.  Ice Princess naked in there alone with him.  That's the problem with you and your martial arts.  It's why you'll never win in a real fight."

      "I seem to remember blowing up that giant glowing beach ball, and I'd have finished it off myself, if someone hadn't interfered."

      "Uh huh," Asuka nodded, "If I hadn't, you would have blown the whole thing."

      "Howda'ya figure that?" Horseface shouted, loud enough to disturb everyone working around them. The sudden silence was disturbing.

      "NOBODY TOLD YOU TO STOP WORKING!" Asuka shouted at them, glaring at them.  Most returned to work immediately.  "You stand up on a hill and say, 'I'm the greatest martial artist, no one can defeat me!' and the challengers climb up after you one at a time, each waiting their turn.  A soldier's life isn't like that.  He - " or she, Asuka thought.  "Gets orders to attack or defend a place, they can't pick their ground.  They have to make the best of where they are, and they have to fight whatever comes at them.  If your infantry platoon has to face three companies of tanks, you'd better deploy in depth, and be ready to lose every man.  If your battalion of tanks is facing one martial artist screaming about invincibility from a hilltop, you deploy one platoon to shell the hill, while the rest of the battalion drives on, to the real objective."

      "What does that have to do with anything?" Horseface asked sarcastically.

      "Simple, you've never learned to pick your fights.  You try to win every one, to defeat your opponent.  You've never considered that the - battle - may require other solutions.  Winning your fight immediately may be the worst thing you can do, or maybe you want to lose."

      "Why would I ever do that?" Horseface sounded insulted by the very notion.

      "To draw attention and resources away from the others.  If you can convince someone that you are the weak point in the line," Asuka explained more patiently than Horseface deserved, "You'll draw off strength from those attacking the others in the line.  You can't defeat the entire enemy force, but you can draw enough of it away from the others, that your allies can defeat it.  That's the point, you look only at the fight, not at the battle."

      "I didn't see you 'looking at the battle' when we fought that thing," Ranma retorted.

      "Did you have a sonic glaive in your hands, were you tossing those balls around?" Asuka asked archly, "The fight, isn't the battle.  In 1940, we smashed superior French and British tanks, because our German and Czech tanks were better led, more reliable and had radios.  In 1944, the Americans and British slaughtered our superior tanks, because their Shermans were more reliable and numerous, and they were really just bait for their air support.  Both won the fights in the engineering shops and on the training fields.  Technology and doctrine won, long before they reached the battle field."  She was amazed, Horseface was actually considering what she'd said.

      "So what does that all mean?" he asked as they walked along.

      "It means look at the battle, the whole thing.  Look at what a victory really means.  Ignore the fight until you know what you're fighting for.  Raccoon, in the Dreamlands, kept an entire enemy army occupied by marching.  He had two regiments and ten sets of colors appear at so many points along the enemy's route of advance, they thought they were facing four divisions, with two more as a mobile reserve.  He stole the idea from the Peninsula Campaign and John Bankhead Magruder's 11,000 troops, they held up General George McClellan and his 150,000 plus troops."

      "That's insane!" Horseface insisted.

      "In both cases, the enemy retreated.  The battle was to buy time, fighting would have been suicide.  Ignore the fight until you're in it, concentrate on the battle."  Asuka shivered, remembering the battle Raccoon's delaying action had made possible, a disorganized, murderous fistfight, that the two of them and their troops were a tiny part of.  Until her cavalry and two dragons, and Raccoon's mages and infantry had found a gap in the enemy's line.  They'd split in two and attacked in both directions, breaking the enemy's lines. " 'One good knight is worth a dozen hirelings afoot', we found that wasn't true by a long shot."

      "You okay?" Horseface actually sounded concerned.

      "Bad memories," Asuka admitted, "That butcher's yard wasn't my first battle.  It was the first time that many civilians got killed.  I've been in battlefields where it was possible to walk from one end to the other, walking on the dead, never having to set a foot on the ground."

      Horseface looked sick.

      Well, it's good he's seeing it, finally.  Well, if Misato won't see it, it's good the rest of us do.  But I'd better lighten things up, before his delicate stomach empties itself all over the road.  "Well, do you see enough here to come with me on Wednesday?"

      "Wha-wha-what-t?  A date?" Horseface stammered.

      "Don't be disgusting!" she insisted.  Wondergirl, you are going to owe me for this!  "I need someone to trounce, and to carry home all the prizes I win.  You're strong enough."

      The transformation was comical.  From a nauseous Spineless, to drunken Misato in a full battle rage.  "You won't win!  I'll win all these games!"

      "Ha," Asuka already knew that wasn't likely, the shooting gallery for one, the 'guess the number of marbles' for the other.  He might win most, but not all, she thought as she smiled evilly at him, and watched the confidence drain out of him.  "Little bet?  That you don't win all the games, not just against me, but at all?"

      The switch flipped again, "You'll never beat me!"

      "You're thinking of the fight again, I said you won't win every game, you have to beat them, not me."

      Then Asuka realized Horseface had been hanging around Ice Princess too long.  "What are the stakes?" he asked.

      Damn! Asuka didn't let her disappointment show.  "You have to give ole Raccoon a passionate kiss."  That'll get him!

      "And you have to kiss 'Wondergirl'," Horseface replied, making a good show of Ice Princess's calculating gaze.

      Well, I'm not going to lose, Asuka thought.  "Agreed."  I can tell her I'm teaching her, if Spineless is there, I can make that work.  Besides, he didn't say on the lips.

      She smirked evilly, she knew she had him, Frankly, getting Ranko to kiss ole Raccoon ought to shake him out of his malaise.  She considered the possibilities and other things they could do at the college.  She also wanted to tour the engineering department here.

      Jeff looked at Kensuke as the boy talked and gestured wildly to him about something of dire importance.  "Slow down!" he insisted, "You sound like you're playing at 78.  What is it?"  All Jeff really wanted was sleep

      Kensuke took a deep breath, "Natsumi-saw-an-Angel-in-Osaka-it-looked-right-at-her!"

      It all sounded like one word, but Jeff could understand him.  "All right, let's go report to Captain Ramsey.  Admiral Simson is at a conference, I suspect he's getting in trouble for not getting us in trouble for . . . "

      I don't feel anything, Jeff thought as he stared across the city, All those others, all the losses, and all I feel is weary.  How do I tell the others that?  Do I tell the others that?  Nabiki thinks she's a monster for being angry, what does that make someone who's indifferent, apathetic?

      "Well, you know."

      "Yeah."  Kensuke nodded, "She showed us the pictures, then she took them to the Admiral.  So we were ready for them.  Wasn't enough."

      "Don't beat yourself up over it."  He smiled at the other boy, "That's an order."

      Kensuke smiled back, saluted, "As my General commands."

      "Let's go trouble someone else with this," Jeff told him, "It's always fun to share the misery.  That's why it has eight other states around it."


      "Missouri loves company," Jeff told him.  It took the rest of the walk to the Naval base to explain the joke.

      Good grief, Asuka thought as she looked over their tour guides, This kid is shorter than I am, and is his girlfriend on happy pills, or what?  And what's with the marks on her face?  She doesn't look Hindi.  She was glad that this Keiichi kid knew his stuff about engineering, and his girlfriend Belldandy spoke enough German to translate some of the technical terms he used.

      "Belldandy, I bet you have a sister Skuld and Urd," Asuka said.

      "Why yes, how did you know?" she said.

      Horseface chuckled, "Somebody's better at jeering than our local champion."

      Asuka resisted sticking her tongue out at him.  Keiichi looked shocked at the exchange.

      "So are you taking your war-bride home?" Asuka asked the girl, "Back to Norway, or is it Denmark?"

      "Well," the girl blushed, "I am Scandinavian, originally."

      One point for Asuka, she thought.

      "Still, I'm going to stay with him, always," Belldandy sighed and smiled.

      The way she said it turned Asuka's stomach.  If it was fake, it was saccharine-sweet; if it was real, it made Asuka jealous.  She knew Kaji would never look at any woman the way Keiichi looked at his girlfriend.  Spineless, Horseface and Raccoon weren't her type, the first two were too immature, the last too grave.

      "Well," Asuka continued, "I understand your fascination with automotive engineering, but I'd like to see the aircraft and chemical engineering sections as well."

      The boy blanched again.  "The peace treaty doesn't allow Japan an aircraft industry," he smiled trying to hide his embarrassment, "I can show you the chemical engineering section."

      "You aren't the chemist," Horseface said, "Raccoon is."

      "You know a raccoon?" Keiichi asked, "A real one?"

      "Yeah," Horseface interrupted, "He's a real raccoon all right."

      "That's just a nickname," Asuka explained with a frown, the last thing she wanted was these two to discover they had two pilots in front of them.  She'd seen that mindless adulation often enough in Germany, during the war.  "Most Japanese can't pronounce his name correctly - "

      "But Raccoon applies," Ranma insisted.

      "Yes, Horse - face," Asuka said, calming him down.  The two college students looked unhappy.

      "If you love someone - " the girl began.

      "If I EVER fell in love with Horseface . . . I'd shoot myself in the head," she got nose-to-nose with the girl, "I'd need a lobotomy to tolerate him.  Understand?"

      "Yes," Belldandy said quietly.

      "Chemical Engineering," Asuka told the boy.  He nodded and led them through the building.

      The yeoman opened the door to Captain Ramsey's office.  Kensuke looked around the room at the strange assemblage of people.  An Army WAC, a police officer, a guy in a black suit pressed with creases you could slice with, a rumpled working man, a housewife, and a guy who practically screamed 'certified accountant'.

      "Come in Mr. Davis, Mr. Aida."  Ramsey waved them in, "How is Miss Tendo?"

      "Better, I hope," Raccoon said.

      Kensuke watched the others watching Raccoon, it was spooky the way they were looking, moving out of the way.  Not as if he were offensive, but almost respectfully, or fearfully.

      "And Mr. Saotome?" Ramsey asked.

      Raccoon sighed, "I don't know, I just don't have the words.  I don't think words are what he needs.  I can't - I won't give him what he thinks he needs.  A fight."

      Kensuke watched the people glancing at each other, weighing the words carefully.

      "Mr. Aida, what are you here for?  Considering what happened last time one of the 'eyes and ears' arrived in my office, I'm expecting the worst," Captain Ramsey said.

      "There's a Great Old One in Osaka," Kensuke said, then repeated Natsumi's message word-for-word.

      Ramsey digested it.  "Is Miss Matsuda remaining in Osaka?"

      "Yes," Kensuke said.

      "We'll put her and her family under guard.  Then we'll send some people to interview her properly."

      "And a sketch artist, I doubt she took a camera or any pictures," Raccoon added.

      It gave Kensuke chills how still and attentive the others in the office were, as if they were vultures waiting for a kill or something.

      "Are you sure she said it removed its tie?" Ramsey asked.

      Kensuke's nod elicited a smirk from both Ramsey and Raccoon, then he saw it on the others.  Kensuke wondered why they thought that was important.

      Asuka could hardly believe it, she wondered if Horseface had set out to humiliate her, or if it just happened.  "The entire Karate and Kendo clubs, all at once?  What were you thinking?"

      "You know, college might not be too bad an idea."  Nothing was going to erase that smile from his face.

      Asuka considered, all she needed was to take the edge off.  "You have to have a college degree, before you teach at a college, and that means learning to teach, as a professional.  That also means teaching anyone in the class, not just the ones you want to.  It also means teaching them, whether they want you to or not."

      Horseface frowned at her.  "What are you saying?"

      "I'm saying, don't think it's easy, it's not," Asuka told him.  "I'm also telling you that your grades aren't good enough to even get in here."

      "If I'm a war hero, they'd be happy to let me in here," Horseface replied.

      Probably true, Asuka admitted to herself, But . . .   "They aren't going to pass you, or let you teach.  If you aren't qualified, they'll have you in an office somewhere, and they'll wheel you out to show off to the contributors and potential students."

      "You're making that up!" Horseface replied.

      Asuka just smmmiiillleeed at him.

      Keiichi was quietly wondering how he'd survived that little encounter.  He knew both of them were pilots, he remembered Belldandy's descriptions, of both their appearance, and their personalities.  He'd thought she was exaggerating.  Instead, she had politely understated things, as usual.  He actually felt a little sorry for the things they fought.

      "If Skuld and Urd fought that much . . . " he began, as he watched the pair recede, "Well they wouldn't, except maybe over sake-flavored ice cream."  He smiled at that.

      "You asked why I did not help them."  Bell looked terribly sad, and very happy at the same time.  "It hurt more than you could know, to stand back, to let them suffer, when I could have made things right.  You see how they are now?"

      "Yes, like Urd and Skuld, 'The only one who fights my sister is me!'" Keiichi told her.

      She smiled, nodded.  "Kami-sama's plan seems so cruel, to let them go this way.  I hope they will learn their lessons more easily, that they can rescue each other.  Soon they will go where only they can help each other."

      Keiichi decided he did not want to know anymore.

Groundwork for Clouds

      Ramsey looked up from his desk, as another visitor entered.  He suspected he'd never get any of the paperwork done.  From Saotome's expression, this was going to be one of those deep discussions.  "Can I help you Mr. Saotome?"

      "Yeah, I guess, I mean I hope you can."  Ranma fidgeted, like he always did when he had to admit his ignorance.

      Ramsey put on his best 'fatherly' demeanor, he didn't offer Ranma a seat, he never sat in this office.  Pacing and looking out the window, as if he wanted to be anywhere else.  Ramsey guessed this would be no different, "You have a question?"

      "Yeah, how do you win a war?" Ranma asked, "How does a navy, a nation, and an army win a war."

      Ramsey blinked, decided he needed a ground-pounder to help explain things, maybe more.  "Follow me, I think I've got a few people you can talk to."  He stood and headed for the door.  "What prompted this?"

      "I need to know how you win a fight, when you can't be there," Saotome admitted.

      Ramsey told his yeoman to cancel all other appointments.  He had a feeling this was going to take a long time.  Mr. Aida's revelation was already in Admiral Simson's capable hands.

      Asuka hadn't the faintest idea why she was going with Hikari to visit Toji's sister.  She didn't have much use for the chief of the three stooges, she certainly wouldn't have any use for his kid sister.  Though, even in a coma, she's probably more interesting than he is, Asuka thought.

      But when she had arrived, she'd found Hikari packing a basket full of goodies.  It seemed that every Sunday, Toji spent a couple hours with his sister, lately Hikari had brought him lunch, and the two of them talked to Toji's sister.  Asuka had been disgusted by how many times Hikari blushed telling the story, as if she were sneaking off for some illicit rendezvous.

      Asuka had promised not to fight with Toji, so she could come along.  Asuka doubted it would be as interesting as paint drying, but she didn't have anything else to do.

      "Who would have guessed I'd miss school," Asuka said disgustedly.

      "You like being popular," Hikari said as they walked along the road.

      "So, what's the diagnosis?" Asuka asked, she knew Hikari's next question would be about boyfriends, a subject Asuka wanted to avoid.  She'd never be able to explain why she was spending time with Horseface, before the rumor mill had them dating, or worse.

      "They don't know," Hikari said, her face downcast, "Her injuries weren't severe, but . . . she hasn't ever woken up."

      "Sometimes an Angel will do that, hurt people in the vicinity with just it's presence.  I found out that's why the Search and Rescue and decontamination procedures."  Asuka shuddered at what Ramsey and Simson had revealed to her, she hated those monsters now more than ever.

      "I wish there was a magic wand I could wave, and make her all better," Hikari said, "Too bad Raccoon is only good at blowing things up."

      "He didn't cast a spell and . . . " Asuka trailed off as she realized she was being had.  Hikari could barely keep her smile hidden.  "Being a pilot doesn't automatically make you a wizard."  Why hasn't Raccoon fixed her yet? she wondered, It should be an easy job for him.

      They entered a simple three story wooden building, sparkling white of course.  The girl's room was on the first floor, with a southern exposure.  Toji's father and grandfather had enough pull at NERV to insure that.

      Asuka heard Toji's voice droning on and on about sports and the weather.  Asuka shook her head, "A girl doesn't want to hear about all that stuff."

      Hikari smiled, "That's why I brought you along."  Then she got a grave look on her face, "Unless you aren't up on all the latest gossip."

      Asuka growled at her, especially when she started laughing.

      "So why haven't you healed her?" Asuka asked Raccoon as they washed the dinner dishes together.

      "Simple, she isn't there," Raccoon had gone 'linguistically agile', changing languages with every word, making it almost impossible for anyone but her to understand.  It also told her that he didn't want anyone understanding their conversation.

      "So, she's . . . elsewhere," she shifted through the languages they shared, "We have allies in the Dreamlands, we could search there."

      "She isn't there, I already checked.  She and about 50 other people were affected by what's called 'Angel's Malaise'.  I worked on another one, before I offered Toji.  I couldn't help."

      "That's saying something," Asuka admitted, "Where else could she be?  You know what I'm asking."

      "Literally anywhere, even with the Red Dragon's searching, it could take a hundred years," Raccoon replied, handing her another dish to dry.

      "Why would someone do that?" Asuka asked, "There has to be a better way to collect slaves, sacrifices, or whatever."

      "There are thousands of reasons for some.  For Toji's sister, I can only think of one: blackmail."

      "Blackmail?" Asuka asked, "His dad or grand . . . blackmailing him?  The Stooge?"

      Raccoon's answering nod shook her.

      "They don't have any reason!" Asuka said.

      "They would have the same reason for Hikari, for Hiroko, maybe others," Raccoon told her.

      She was glad they were keeping the conversations secure, the implications of this were incredible.  "How many?  The whole class, the whole school?"

      "I don't know, maybe one in four could function as pilots.  None as good as we are, none could ever come close to you."

      She knew it wasn't empty flattery.  "But in war there are always casualties.  Replacements, blackmail one of them . . . an agent in place.  Terrific.  We have to find her."  She glared at him to prevent a protest, "I know it won't be easy."

      "It would be very easy," he sighed, "The cost, the personal cost, would be . . . prohibitive."

      Asuka considered the deal Raccoon would have to make to get the information where, or rather who, was probably holding the girl's spirit.  She wasn't going to support trading the blackmail of a possible replacement, for whatever trap her old friend would be caught in.  "Maybe there's another way?"

      "There is, we just have to think like one of our enemies," he told her, "And narrow our search accordingly."

      "Oh joy," Asuka replied, taking the last plate and drying it.

June 23, 1947

      Sakai Hijo left his house for his job, a job he was very glad to have.  Out in front of his apartment, his boss waited.  The older man had his hat in hand, crushing the brim, turning it slightly, then crushing that portion.  Hijo had only seen the old man do that when he was terribly worried.  The two men who stepped up behind his boss didn't look the least bit worried.  They must have been the cause of his distress.

      "Hijo-san," his boss said apologetically, "They wish to speak to you, about your tenure aboard the I-400.  Your trip to America."

      One of the men approached, a Japanese-American, from his utter confidence.  "You aren't being charged with anything," he assured Hijo, "Our investigation is for the United States Senate.  We just need to know who and what your ship carried to Boston, in April 1945."

      Hijo frowned, he wasn't certain this didn't mean trouble.  If it didn't mean trouble for him and his family, then for those he'd carried into the heart of the enemy.

      Captain Katsuragi walked through the hallway.  At the end of a long work shift, all she wanted was some dinner, a few beers and sleep.  She hoped Shinji cooked something interesting for once.  She heard gunfire coming from the indoor rifle range.  "Who'd be using it at this hour?"  She opened the door.  Damitsu, wearing shooting glasses and headphones, was carefully firing his .45 automatic at the target 75 yards away.  He emptied the clip, slid the empty pistol back under his coat, and walked to the tunnel under the range that led to the targets.

      He left his headphones on, so Misato decided to trail him.  By the time she got through the door and into the tunnel, he was already climbing the stairs at the far end.  What did he do? she wondered, Fly down there?  She jogged down the tunnel, mindful of the noise she was making.

      There was no way out of the pit behind the targets, except through the tunnel.  So she knew she could catch him.

      She saw Daimitsu standing behind where the targets could be pulled down out of the line of fire.  He was examining his target.  She looked carefully, she couldn't see the perturbation a gun would make in the lines of his jacket.  That meant special tailoring or . . .

      The target in his hands had holes all over it, "Good evening, Captain." He didn't look up.

      "I didn't expect anyone would be using the range this late."

      "Considering the events of the last few weeks," Deimisu said, still not looking at her, "I thought it a good idea to keep my proficiency up."

      "Congratulations on your commendations."

      "Thank you.  I wish there had been another way."

      "May I see that?" she asked.  He handed her the target.  It consisted of eighteen small bull's-eyes, each no more than 3 cm. across.  Each one had a half-inch hole in it or touching it.  The logo at the top read 'For 75 yards Small Bore Rifles.'

      "That's good shooting.  No standard .45 can do that."  Misato commented, Daifitsu shrugged.  "Can I see your pistol?" she asked.

      He reached into his jacket and carefully pulled the pistol out, using his thumb and forefinger, handing it to Misato butt first.  Noticeable differences were the adjustable sights, and the barrel extending out of the frame with compensating vents cut in the top of the exposed length.  She pulled the slide back, the forward-most inch of the frame stayed locked to the barrel and a tube under the barrel.

      "Gas operated, like a Garand rifle," he explained, "A very good gunsmith owed me a big favor.  I wanted a 45 that was more accurate, but could still handle dirt and hard use."

      She handed it back.  It disappeared into his jacket, his arm seemed to go farther in, than a shoulder or belt holster would require.  Unless he carries it at the small of his back, Misato thought, That also explains the lack of jut in the jacket.

      "I'm heading home.  I could drop you by Sammi's place."

      "She lives 4 miles from your place, Captain.  I don't want to trouble you.  Besides, I still have another 36 rounds to go."

      "I'll wait," she offered.

      "You'll need eye and ear protection."

      "I'll wait in the gallery."

      He shrugged.  She watched the boy cut two more targets like the first.  She was suspicious that he'd been politely trying to get rid of her.  Maybe he's only shy about older women, she discarded that thought as he came out of the tunnel for the last time.  Shutting off the lights and the ventilators as he entered the gallery.

      She asked for the other two targets, "Have you considered the Olympics?"

      "No," he said flatly.

      "Shame," she teased, "You could win a gold medal with shooting like that."

      "It's not something I'm interested in.  I don't care who's the best.  I just want to know I'm very, very good."  He packed away the ear protectors.  He'd already collected his spent brass.

      "Reloads?  Sammi lets you do that?  I doubt Ritsuko would."

      "No, I sell them.  There's a jeweler who makes them into bracelets, earrings and such.  Sends them all over the world." He held up an empty casing.  It read 'NERV' and a string of numbers.  "Empty casings from one of the pilots' personal sidearms.  Lends the whole thing an air of mystery and danger.  The refugee funds appreciate the extra donations, and a pilot or NERV officer who goes down to see the kids and the others.  Considering what happened, they'll really need the extra funds and encouragement."

      The fires of suspicion died in Misato instantly, "You really care."

      "We brought death to this city, after the war was over, somebody has to be willing to stand up and explain to those who have to pick up the pieces that it's worth it.  Even if I am not as sure as I sound."

      "You have doubts."  Her suspicions flared again, "After all you've seen?"

      "Who do you serve, Captain Katsuragi?  You command the most powerful fighting force in the history of the world.  Yet you're intimate with a man whose loyalties are shadowy at best.  Doctor Akagi is your old friend, but you don't want to know what she really does.  Yes, I doubt because of all I've seen.  I'm sorry Captain, I've changed my mind, I'll walk home."  Damitsu tipped his hat and headed off.

      Misato watched him leave, she silently cursed.  Shinji withdrew from teasing, Ranma teased right back, but she could never predict what these Americans were going to do.  "This time, he hit me in the face with the truth, his truth.  Then when I don't claim it as mine, he walks away disappointed," she said angrily.

Listen to the Fizz

June 24, 1947

      Ranko didn't know why she was doing this.  She was more likely to get answers from Raccoon than from any of the others, but it wasn't answers she was after.  She wasn't sure she liked tricking Raccoon, Not like this anyway, she thought as she waited in his room, listening to the shower shut off.  Five minutes, Ranko thought, Still typical of him.  She wondered why he never indulged himself, a hot bath was one of the few things you could really enjoy.  She waited as she heard him finish, and exit his bathroom dressed in pajamas, a shirt and pants, the same tan ones he always wore when he slept in the room with Ranma.

      He stared at her for a few moments.  She hated how tired and dazed he looked.

      "I came here because I want . . . " Ranko almost said 'to be punished', then she realized that she was alone in a boy's bedroom, and `punishment` led down too many dark paths she really didn't want to travel.  She doubted that Raccoon would ever take advantage, but there were a lot of things that a girl and a boy could do in a room together, that Ranma would definitely consider punishment.

      "I want to help."

      "Ranko, I appreciate the offer," Raccoon said softly, "But you aren't a strong enough Dreamer.  I'm sorry I haven't . . . "

      She'd walked up to him, stood on her tiptoes and kissed him gently on the lips, a very gentle, chaste kiss.  All part of the plan, but she felt strange doing it, and at Raccoon's resulting submission.  Ranma could beat him up for a week, and not get that.  "Trust me?"  She pouted a little, remembering what Asuka had said about fighting the battle instead of just the actual combat.  His talk with Ramsey and his staff had been helpful, sort of.  Ramsey had told him a lot of things.  Most of them didn't make any sense.

      Except one that started making sense on his run home.  The Americans gave the British the technology to mass-manufacture 100 octane aviation gasoline, to fight the Battle of Britain.  It gave the British fighters another advantage.  On the way home, running faster than most people could, he'd realized the answer: fuel.  Not just any fuel, the fuel of life itself: chi.  Ranma realized he had enough to spare, and the others were burning theirs without realizing what they were doing.  If they were linked together somehow, if he could 'refuel' one of them, he could help them all.

      Raccoon hadn't said anything, merely stood there, considering.  He wasn't reacting as if Ranma had made the suggestion.  "What do you need me to do?  I think you can guess, I have a rather pressing time concern."

      "Go to bed, go to sleep," Ranko led him over to his bed, "I'll help you relax.  You're fighting something, something attacking Nab-chan."

      "Against herself, actually."  Raccoon lay face down in his bed, turning to look at her.

      She sat on the edge of his bed, began massaging his shoulders, and reading his ki and chi levels and distribution.  She always knew he was bony, he was lighter than Rei or her, but hadn't been as thin as this.  She suspected he'd actually lost weight.  More proof that her suspicions were correct.

      "No funny stuff," he murmured.

      Ranko instantly recognized that the impulse could only have come from the 'other', it was just too catlike to be her own.  That didn't stop her from following through on it.

      She was several times stronger than the average person, but she also had absolute control of that strength.  She clamped her arms around his ribs and after applying slight pressure, held him, like a band of steel.  She also closed her teeth on his trapezeus muscle.

      To another cat, it had all kinds of sexual messages, but not to humans.  For Ranma's peace of mind, it was something boy cats did to girl cats, mainly.

      "Okay!  Okay!!" Raccoon told her.

      She instantly released him.  She was afraid of a few of the subsequent images the 'other' added, 'suggestions' for dealing with a reluctant tom.  That's not why I'm here, she reminded herself.  "No, no funny stuff, it's an experiment."  She laid down on his back, she felt his individual vertebrae through her cheek, "It's all about chi."

      Raccoon moved slightly to compensate her added the weight.

      Ranko abruptly got an answer to a lot of unasked questions.  She'd thought what she needed was physical contact with the others.  An under-the-table motive for being here.  Now she felt the truth.  It wasn't being touched that was missing, and needed.  Now she understood how wrong that was.  The touch wasn't as important as the motion behind it, the living motion and energy behind it.  When Ritsuko had consoled him that first night of Nab-chan's nightmares, she'd been so still that it hadn't helped, really.  But now, she felt the touch, the motion, and most important, the chi that drove it.

      It was that need, that had prompted him to offer his arm to Asuka, in hopes of feeling her move beside him.  It explained why he tolerated, and by mutely tolerating, encouraged Nab-chan's touching and groping.  The physical sensations were pleasant, in a jarring sort of way, but the interaction of his movements with hers, and the chi needed to make those movements, was what really drew Ranma and Ranko, and drew them to Nab-chan and Raccoon.  Raccoon had very little chi and effectively no ki, but what he did have virtually sizzled, like Nab-chan's.

      Her own chi well-nigh sang in response.  Like Asuka's wineglass trick, one makes a sound, and another next to it makes a sound a lot like it.  Asuka had told Ranma the word for it, it didn't matter right now, as her chi sang as it hadn't for days.  If Nab-chan and Raccoon hadn't isolated her and Ranma this way, she'd never have figured it out.  That song defined her, it and the touch made her real.

      The others could use words, trusted words and numbers to define reality.  Ranma didn't, couldn't.  If he couldn't see it, couldn't feel it, he couldn't believe it was real.  Photographs and movies were the ultimate of this unreality.  They contained nothing he could experience as real, they were representations of something else, and were uninspiring.

      So was music, until he went to the concert, saw the people moving, felt them creating it, making the music themselves.  He could sense the difference, although up until a moment ago, she hadn't been able to understand it.

      Ranko understood her attractions to Nab-chan and Raccoon, while Asuka was prettier, she wasn't as interesting, and forget Rei, she was a smooth pond.  They didn't fizz this bewitching way.  She didn't know why these two were different, but it made sense.

      The blast of almost indescribable cold brought her back to the present.  The odd voids she'd found in Raccoon's chi, that had puzzled her, were now filling with mana.  But it was like watching someone stuff an entire glacier into a cupboard or a briefcase.  Ranko didn't know if mana and chi were equivalent, but if they were even close, Raccoon's mana reserves were nearly as vast as her own reserves of chi.  And he's preparing to use them all in this battle, Ranko thought in fear.

      For the next few hours, she waited and analyzed.  Briefly the mana would flare, suffusing a pattern Ranko couldn't make out.  Then as the flare died down, she realized the reserves were less, sometimes far less, than they'd been.

      Incredibly, as the night wore on, those almost unlimited reserves were drained dry, Raccoon scavenged and expended the last speck.  Ranko idly wondered what kind of enemies Nab-chan was conjuring that would require that kind of effort, then she decided she really didn't want to know.

      Then to her horror, Raccoon's chi flared the same way: forming a pattern, then returning to normal, but smaller.  There hadn't been much to start with, and Raccoon halved that before he gave up.

      That was when Ranko acted, it was what she had planned, though the thought still daunted her.  She slowly bled her own chi into Raccoon, hoping whatever circuit or connection he had with the others would carry it to them.  She instantly felt as if she were filling a lake with an eyedropper.  She increased the flow when Raccoon didn't react, concentrating on channeling it to areas where his chi had been the strongest.  She also felt it draining away almost as fast.  She would have known and felt it, if it were 'leaking' back into the room.  So she had to guess it was going to the others.  She was growing alarmed, there seemed to be no noticeable increase in Raccoon's chi, as her levels dropped near his.  She couldn't believe the others were such bottomless pits that they could have absorbed all she had given them, without any evident effect.

      As her level equalized with Raccoon's, Ranko found the flow stopped of its own accord.  She knew she could force more out of herself, but she was terrified of the possibilities of draining herself completely.  She cut the flow and lay there exhausted and frightened.  From his breathing and other signs, she could tell Raccoon was still sound asleep.  She couldn't raise her head off his back, she was weak, shaking, and disoriented.  She felt as if her body had completely lost all coordination.  Some parts responded to commands instantly, but others had a slight hesitation.

      Merely trying to sit up caused her to tumble to the floor, she couldn't even move to break her fall.  As she lay there, she hoped she'd done some good for the others, because she felt awful.

      She completely missed the bedroom door opening, and Sammi padding across the floor.  Ranko stared up at her, with her powerful build and her brown nightgown, Sammi did look a lot like a bear.  From Sammi's crooked eyebrow, Ranko knew she would have a lot of explaining to do.  Right now, she felt like a turtle on its back.

      Except turtles have an excuse, Ranko thought, I just can't get all the pieces to cooperate.  She didn't complain or even comment when Sammi scooped her up, and silently deposited her in a bed in one of the spare bedrooms.  Ranko was exhausted, but she thought she'd be too worried to sleep.  A few minutes later she realized how wrong she was.

June 25, 1947

      Morning came, and with it, mourning.  Ranko felt as if she'd been run over by a train, then, after they buried her to rot for a few months, dug her up and steamrollered her a few times.  They must have poured what's left into this bed, she thought.  Only the delicious smell of okonomiyaki urged her to wakefulness.  She slitted her eyes at the harsh light that was slipping in under the door.  There wasn't much, but the way she felt, every ray seemed to be clawing at the back of her eyes.  She lay there and tried to let her eyes adjust, she was glad she had a few extra minutes.  She could also hear the stirrings of the others as they began the day.  She smiled at Asuka's quiet grumbling about 'morning people', and driving a sunbeam through their hearts, 'each and everyone of them!'

      Ranko still couldn't move in a coordinated manner, even her smile at Asuka's discomfort was lopsided.  Her only real regret was that she couldn't get up and see if her embarrassment and the risk had been worth it.

      A moment later she had her answer, and her reward.  All wrapped up as one.

      Raccoon arrived with a tray and six of those delicious smelling discs.  Ranko thanked whatever gods were still looking after the pilots that it was Raccoon who was bringing them.  Anyone else would have teased her mercilessly, by putting them just out of reach.  Which for her right now, was about three centimeters.  No Raccoon might kill you without warning, but he'd never take advantage of a helpless girl, she thought.

      Raccoon set the tray on the bed in front of her, and propped her up in the crook of his arm.  While he carefully cut out small pieces and let her take them off the fork.  They were delicious, as usual.

      How can someone who can't stand these, make them so well? Ranko wondered to herself.

      "I would be interested to know if you think the experiment worked.  It had several positive effects, whatever your intentions were."

      "Don't know," Ranko wondered how she could politely urge Raccoon to move faster with the food, he paused every few bites to wipe some insignificant crumb from her mouth or chin.

      "Ah, you need to see the 'test subjects' shall we say."

      She nodded, waited for the last of the okonomiyaki to pass her lips before answering in detail.

      "Let's find out."  He settled her back in the bed.

      The food had helped, so had his presence, he was in much better condition.  Raccoon didn't look so weary and beaten down.  If Asuka had improved, that implied Rei and Shinji also had, and that would make the whole exercise worth it.

      "Langley," he called from the doorway.

      Suddenly, Ranko didn't want to know if Asuka was back to normal.

      The other redhead peered into the room, unfortunately, she wore her habitual expression.  Ranko pulled the covers over her head, a major accomplishment.

      "Langley, she was asking about a new hairstyle.  I don't believe Miss Tendo will be helpful."  She heard Raccoon say.

      Then she heard laughter that made her hair stand on end.  She risked a glance over the covers, saw Raccoon and Asuka smiling and rubbing their hands together.  "SAMMI!  HELP!!"

      All hope of rescue ended, as Sammi entered, rubbing her hands together, and laughing the same spine-chilling travesty.

Carnival of the Body

      Asuka sighted the rifle carefully.  She ignored the sights, they were off, on purpose.  The top of the target, the uppermost edge was her mark.  She fired and watched the green block tumble over.  She worked the action of the rifle, the game's proprietor was sweating now.  He knew that of the four colors: yellow, blue, red and green; that green was both worth the most points, and was supposed to be the most difficult to knock over.  The trick was to weight the target, and make the hinge as stiff as possible.  That meant you had to hit the target as hard as you could, as far away from the hinge as possible.

      The stand had three rifles, she'd had to buy three tries just to sight in each one.  Her fourth was for the points.  Twenty shots, each target a green worth twenty points.  With twenty shots, Horseface had barely managed 12 points on the best of his three tries.  She could win this, beat Horseface completely.  Make up for being humiliatingly defeated at catching goldfish with a paper net, and at the ring toss.

      He didn't have to toss them over his head hopping on one foot! she thought, forced the anger back, calming herself as she fired.  The target went down, only one left to go.

      The proprietor began coughing.  She took the pause to adjust her kimono to a more comfortable draping.  She felt a little guilty, well before the `incident`, Ice Princess had helped her pick out these fancy clothes.  The red silk was the color of her hair, decorated with a yellow and blue flower motif, the blue center of the flowers was the same color as her eyes.  Ice Princess had helped her find and fit the clothes, and they had the desired effect.  Everybody looked at her, boys and girls.  She liked that, it was the whole point of dressing up.

      However, she was out having fun, while Ice Princess was . . . it didn't bear thinking on.  Especially when it was Wondergirl and Spineless who were looking after her.  Her last shot knocked down the twentieth target.  She stood up, smiled at the owner.  He was practically crying now.

      The prizes were stuffed animals.  The only one worth 400 points was a huge purple elephant.  Most of the girls took one look at it and announced 'KAWAII!' to the world.  Forcing their boyfriends into useless attempts to win it.  Asuka had no use for it, she was rather intrigued by the 'see no evil', 'hear no evil', 'speak no evil' trio of monkeys, or were they pigs.  In either case, they looked a lot like the Three Stooges.  She thought that they would be good presents for Hikari, Wondergirl and Natsumi.  She glanced at the pile of prizes she and Horseface had already won, she hardly needed more.  The problem was, they were 140 points a piece, 420 for all three.

      "That elephant is soooo cuuute."  She smiled at Horseface, setting the proprietor to shaking.  Horseface frowned, he didn't approve.

      "But those three monkeys, wouldn't they be a nice present for the others?" she asked while she pouted at Horseface.

      "Oh!  Of course, the young lady has excellent taste."  The man thrust the trio into her hands.  "Please, enjoy the rest of the carnival, please!" he said with hands clasped in prayer.

      Asuka had proven her point, and won the bet, she could go with a light heart.  Horseface rebalanced the load on his head and walked alongside her.  She still didn't know how he kept it together and balanced.  She had a sneaking suspicion he didn't know either, but he'd never let on.

      Let's see if it has something to do with concentration, she thought.  "I hope Raccoon appreciates the passionate kiss he's going to get from you."

      The load disintegrated, nearly burying Horseface under the kitschy stuffed animals, trivets, junk jewelry and other prizes they'd won.  He managed to catch all the breakables, but the rest rained down.

      "From Ranko!" Horseface protested, then hung his head.  "We could go back, try that shooting thing again."  His 12 points hadn't been enough to win anything.

      "You closed your eyes even before you fired," Asuka said gently, she'd won, she could be magnanimous, "You'll never hit anything that way.  Besides, the sights were all misadjusted.  Maybe with a couple weeks of training you could do better.  You don't use guns very well, it isn't a fatal failing, and I never said the kiss had to be public."

      He brightened, "It doesn't?"  He lifted the load again.

      "Sure, after you slept with him, a private kiss is just the - " she stopped as the pile of swag buried Horseface yet again.

      The night was warm, it was the first night she'd been out since Hiroko's death.  Nabiki had spent the time just walking, staring at the stars, wondering what it all meant.  Not the grand cosmic questions of life and existence, but the simple question, why did Hiroko love her?  Why did Ritsuko?  Why did Ranma care for her?  Why did anyone?

      She knew she was a troublemaker, she knew she could be cruel, she enjoyed making people edgy, before she closed in for the kill.  Figuratively, she thought.

      She'd let people die, she'd arranged people's just punishment, capital punishment.  But she wasn't a killer, not yet.  She sighed, walked along the pools of light from one streetlight to the next.  She glanced back, she couldn't see Juri, she figured the woman was trying to be discreet.

      There were no answers in the dark, nor could the silence all around her penetrate and silence the thoughts whirring in her mind.  Raccoon's revelation of his own feelings didn't make hers any less unworthy and dishonorable.  Rei had admitted similar feelings, as had Shinji and even Ritsuko.  So they were normal, along with the anger at everyone and everything for allowing this to happen.  That didn't make her feel any better.  What made her feel worse was how she shriveled up inside every time she even looked at Ranma.  Shame, anger, fear, too many other emotions to quantify, and she just retreated from them, and him.

      It's wrong, and hurtful, she admitted, But I can't do anything else.  She looked at him and remembered Hiroko's dead face, eyes staring at her.  She didn't know if the dead girl expected vengeance, explanations, or what.  But Nabiki couldn't give her vengeance, nor could she explain, or even live up to her factor's expectations.  Hiroko had wanted 'the Boss' to be happy, now Nabiki couldn't even do that.

      About the only benefit to standing out in the dark was that no one could see her cry.  She had been doing far too much of that lately, but she couldn't stop herself either.  She was supposed to be the one who was distant, detached and lucid, instead she started blubbering if she remembered anything even remotely sad.  If she took after Soun a little more, she could drown the next Angel by remembering all the lost opportunities in her life.

      Ritsuko was actually having fun.  She'd forgotten how much fun sneaking around was, when it wasn't likely to get you killed, or lose you a meal if it failed.  Her black slacks and jacket were hardly 'ninja' wear, nor was the black watchcap that covered her hair.  They weren't meant to be, she was tracking her `quarry` for fun and to satisfy her curiosity.

      Tracking Jeff from a distance was surprisingly easy.  That he towered over most Japanese made it like looking for a sailing ship on a roiling sea.  The jacket, fedora and walking stick clearly set him apart from any American service man on the street.  So she could concentrate on remaining undetected, rather than countering any evasive tactic he used.

      She knew she wasn't using her full abilities, with them she could practically have walked behind him, and he never would have known.

      But they're disgusting, she thought, and was amazed by that thought.  She'd spent immeasurably more time in her native state, than she had masquerading as a human.  But I identify with them so much more strongly than I do my own, she lamented silently, also she could imagine the reaction of her charges to discovering the truth about her.  She liked being Ritsuko/Dr. Akagi/Rit-chan, she liked that they came to her, for companionship, for mothering, for advice, even Rei had tried to reestablish the relationship they'd once had.  Rei had not even revealed to the others Ritsuko's darkest secret.

      The building she entered was far off the beaten track, deep in the manufacturing areas.  There were sounds of activity, in other buildings around them, but they were far away.  This building looked like it had been abandoned since the war, and a lot of the wartime temporary repairs were proving how temporary they were.

      Her first impulse was collect Jeff and get him out of here.  Except, she'd lost sight of him when he entered, and she hadn't spotted him again.  She moved carefully, this was the kind of place, that in the movies, a monster waited around the corner.  She smirked at that.  She knew for a fact that any 'monster' she ran into was going to be in a lot of trouble.

      She spotted him lying on the floor in an office, as she walked past.  She'd almost missed him.  Sneak, she thought, If he hadn't been looking right at me, I wouldn't have seen him.  The light reflecting off his face had given him away.

      "Okay, Jeff, fun's fun.  But let's go home, or find a park to play hide and seek in."  She didn't want to go home yet, she was having some fun.  She was a little annoyed he didn't move.  She wasn't eager to adopt Sammi's technique of 'throw'em over your shoulder and walk out', it went against the grain.

      She walked closer, and she made out more details.  The dim light didn't impede her vision in any way.  Her refusal to accept what she was seeing did.  He was looking at her, except he was lying flat on his chest.  Something had rotated his head almost completely around.  No, he put his coat on backwards! she thought as she leaned down to touch him, The body was still warm.  No pulse, no breathing, her scientist mind accepted this, as another part wailed in rage and agony.  The scientist continued, that there had been no sounds of a struggle, and he'd only been out of her sight for perhaps 90 seconds.

      The first blow took her completely by surprise.

      Shinji stared at the other person under the little bridge in the park.  Rei had told him 'It is imperative you go.  The person you meet has something for you, that belongs to you.  I do not wish you to be without it.  I am sorry about your mother.  I wish you could have known her better.'  He'd arrived a little early.  Rei had been closemouthed about any details, simply telling him she refused to answer.

      "Father," Shinji said, "Ayanami-san said I would meet someone who had something that belonged to me."  He saw the scowl forming on his father's face, but he found he didn't care.  His father hadn't taken the risks he had, his father was his Commander, but he wasn't God.  "She said that someone had something to do with knowing mother.  I wasn't expecting you."

      "She told me," Gendo said softly, "I had lost something.  That she thought it important I get it back."  He smiled, a warm and genuine smile for once.

      Probably a joke only he'd understand, Shinji thought.  He didn't want to deal with his father, but if it meant getting information about his mother, he'd do it.

      "I lectured her on responsibilities."  Gendo continued with his wan smile.  "From what I've heard about her treatment of Miss Tendo, now you . . . and me, it seems she's taken it to heart.  Like many others, I created more than I intended."  Then he was back to normal, stern, uncaring.  "The answer is there."  His aim was a graveyard.

      Not the best place to go at night, Shinji thought, but he wasn't about to let that frighten him off.  The things he'd seen in Nabiki's mind, the things she'd conjured up to hurt herself, were as bad as the Angels.  Shinji doubted any ghost story would ever frighten him again.  "I ran away the last time I was here."  He stopped, paused, "Rei found me.  I knew I'd seen her before . . . but . . . "  It had been one day, one terrible day, long ago.  Realizing his mother was gone, and she was never coming back, and somehow it was his fathers fault.  Ironically, Gendo was the one who had told him all of that.  So he'd run away, from his father, from his dead mother, from everybody.  Even the little blue-haired, red-eyed girl who'd stood over him and stared down before leaving, hadn't made an impression.  He'd met Katsuragi that day too, she'd taken the sobbing little boy to the man who would be his tutor.  Then he and his tutor went back to the man's home on the train.  He hadn't thought about it since then.  Until a little while ago, all he remembered was the grave, and how cold his father had been.  That he didn't care that mother was dead.  Now that he'd seen Nabiki draw into herself, try to wall off the rest of the world, he understood.  His father had done the same thing.  Only he didn't have Rei outside with a battering ram, Shinji thought, Until now.

      Asuka looked at the jar.  Ranma couldn't imagine what she was doing.  What was the point of counting the marbles in the jar?  She probably can calculate their actual volume and guess the number, Ranma thought, It's a stupid game.  He did have to admit she looked cute in her kimono.  No, not 'cute', he admitted to himself, Beautiful.  Once he'd lost the bet, all the tension seemed to leave the pair of them.  They weren't on a date, but they were two friends having fun.

      "Tricky, really," Asuka said as she returned to his side, "The white, black, and cats-eye marbles are all the same size, 12 millimeters.  The swirly blue ones are 10 millimeters, and the yellow swirled are 14 millimeters.  Add to that the irregularities of the jar itself, and it becomes a very interesting packing problem."

      "Interesting to you," Ranma said, "You aren't having to carry all this stuff."

      "Not all of it is for me."  Asuka turned to him, put on her cutest pout.

      Ranma felt uneasy, but he'd prepared a counter, "Why were you so insistent on Raccoon kissing Ranko."  He sighed as he got it out without stammering, the sad, almost-crying eyes still got to him, even when he knew Asuka was faking it.

      "Ranko kissing Raccoon," Asuka corrected automatically, spoiling the 'poor-little-girl lost' look.  "I've seen the way she looks at him, the little kisses and touches.  AND how nervous you get about it.  Until you get that out of the way, it's going to be 'Forbidden Fruit', an endless source of curiosity and distractions.  Better to get it out of the way, so you can concentrate on how your relationship develops, or fails to develop."

      Yeah, riiight! Ranma thought.  "So embarrassing me has nothing to do with this?" he asked innocently.

      "Of course, that's what made this entire exercise worth it," Asuka explained, "When I saw that shooting gallery, I knew I had you, the Auto Club's 'count-the-marbles' booth was just the clincher.  I knew you couldn't win, so I knew all I had to do was maneuver you into a challenge."  Her cruel, too-sweet smile and tone dropped away, "Since you wouldn't listen to words, I thought you might understand a demonstration."

      "You all trust words, numbers, science, I guess.  I don't," Ranma admitted, "Words and numbers and science can't explain what's happening around us.  Not the Angels, not me and Ranko, not . . . not Nab-chan."

      "They do," Asuka replied quietly, "You just don't understand how."  She gestured around, "That's what places like this are for.  You can't tell a six-year-old about death and insanity.  They won't understand it.  You need a certain age and maturity.  I don't like 'boys', because I don't like immaturity, I don't like not being able to talk to them.  You can't talk to Nab-chan, imagine walking through life not being able to talk to anyone, except a few brilliant scientists, or in your case, martial arts experts.  Imagine, nobody without a tenth-degree black belt could even say hello without embarrassing both of you to the point you want to strangle them."

      Ranma could imagine that, all too easily.  If most of the boys from the school were here with a pretty girl, they would be headed for the tunnel of love, or some hidden corner.  What they'd do there . . . he doubted the accuracy of their claims.  He nodded.  "What about Raccoon?  Sometimes he can think rings around you."  He saw her scowl, remembering the ring toss game, he smiled at her, making it seem the accident was intentional.

      "I don't know.  It just doesn't feel right somehow.  I'd like him to be happy, but not with me.  I've haven't seen him like he is with Ranko, not for a long, long time."  She turned to him, gave him a smile that made him wish she was a Great Old One, then he could stab her to defend himself, "And you, Ranma?  Have you ever felt the way Ranko does, with anyone, Nab-chan, Wondergirl, Rit-chan, Misa-chan?  Hmmm?"

      "Hey look is that a flying car!" Ranma shouted.  It distracted everyone, except Asuka who was pressing her nose against his.

      "He could make you very happy," she whispered, "He could teach Ranma to be a real gentleman."

      Ranma was sweating now.  Suddenly Asuka backed off, "Saotome, you are too easy!"  She turned and marched to the booth, "The jar contains 14,752, do you want a breakdown by color?"

      The short boy who'd been their guide earlier this week, and a scowling black-haired younger girl with the odd facial markings, stopped arguing with each other.  They stared at Asuka for a split-second, then both fainted dead away.  Asuka flashed him a triumphant smile, then started negotiating with the girl who had been their other guide, about delivery of the quilt that was first prize.  It had salt shakers and cats looking out windows, and all kinds of scenes of home and hearth.  It seemed the exact opposite of what Asuka would ever want.  Asuka marched over to him, if she'd been a ca . . . like the 'other', she would have had her tail in the air, she radiated triumph.

      "Now we have your gift for Nabiki, let's get some food."  With that she marched off, leaving a very confused Ranma holding all the other junk they'd won.

      What planet am I on now? he wondered as he raced after her.

Carnival of the Mind

      Dr. Akagi opened her eyes.  She'd never been hurt this badly before.  As she assessed the situation, she focused on the figures in the darkness, Rei had knelt over the fallen figure, which was wearing a suit.  She wanted to tell Rei that she'd already checked, the boy was dead, but her lungs and vocal cords were elsewhere.  She was shocked when Jeff stirred, the popping of bone, as his head turned around, disgusted the scientist.

      He sat up, unsteadily.

      "You must rest," Rei urged.

      "No time."

      Rei was holding him up now.  Now she held him close with one arm around his shoulders, the other stroking his back and neck, and she sang.

      Ritsuko had never heard anything as sad or beautiful in her life.  It spoke to her of healing and vitality lost and regained.

      As suddenly as it started, it was over.  Ritsuko felt a pang of loss.

      "My thanks, Ayanami-sama.  It seems now is the day for secrets to be revealed."  Jeff walked unsteadily to the wastebasket, looked down and removed Ritsuko's head.

      "I'll dispense with the 'Poor Yorick' jokes," Jeff told the piece of the scientist.

      Ritsuko could only glare at him.

      "Ayanami-sama, please help me find the rest of her."

      They began searching for and stacking pieces of the Doctor that the attack had scattered around the abandoned office.  The savagery of the attack had stunned Ritsuko, she knew she could eventually recover from it, but being dismembered this way brought back too many terrible memories.  Memories she had hoped to never revisit.

      Once the two pilots had all of the parts, down to the smallest finger joint, they laid them out like a jigsaw puzzle.  There was very little blood, Ritsuko knew there wouldn't be, Jeff didn't seem to care.  Rei seemed more terrified of Ritsuko and 'Roku-kun's' equanimity, than the dismembered `corpse` itself.  Ritsuko was worried about her charge's calm acceptance of this, Rei she could understand and accept it, but not Jeff.

      "The head goes on last, I don't think the reassembly proper . . . will be all that pleasant.  And Doctor, the technical term is Blunted Affect.  I seem calm on the outside, because I can't scream on the inside."

      Ritsuko couldn't nod.  Rei was wide-eyed and ready to bolt at this point.

      Jeff placed two of the pieces together, then drove his fingers into the parts.  "I'm hoping the trick I used with the EVA Units 04 and 01 will work here," he explained, "And that the pieces will remember being part of a greater whole.  I figure, considering the same people built both of them, the same design philosophy applies."

      Ritsuko froze at that.  He knows, but he said nothing? she wondered what it would cost her to keep her secrets, she didn't want the others to know.  Especially not Nabiki and Maya.  She agreed with his assessment, it was logical, it was also an excruciatingly painful process.  She screamed and sobbed, as they restored her head to the rest of her body.

      Rei laid a gentle hand on her back as Jeff held her, until the pain and howls subsided.

      "Well, maybe you'll be sympathetic with your tests in the future."  The effort had exhausted Jeff.  She held him until he looked well enough to stand, or at least until all three of them could lean on each other.

      Ritsuko stood up, supported by Jeff and Rei.  It was a toss up which of the three of them looked shakier.

      "If I don't?" Ritsuko chuckled.

      "You'll wake up inside Misato's empties some morning.  That, plus her usual hangover, should be very interesting," Jeff told her.

      "I will tell Maya," Rei added.

      Rei had never threatened Ritsuko before, it worried her, even if it might have been an attempt at humor.

      "So, what did they make you for?  Ayanami-sama and I are weapons.  Did they build you as a doctor?"

      "I don't know, a bulldozer I guess," Ritsuko admitted, wondered how much the Sixth Children really knew about the First, and what she was.  "Maybe as food," she added.

      "Did you see what attacked you?" Rei asked, recent experiences seemed to have drawn her a little more out of her shell.

      "No, it blind-sided me," Jeff admitted.

      "No, I checked the body out I . . . "

      "Went to pieces," Jeff suggested.

      Ritsuko tightened her grip on his neck.

      "It didn't attack you, Ayanami-sama?" Jeff croaked.


      "Then it's one operating to a plan, or it's several, each with a separate target."

      "Ikari-kun," Rei breathed.

      "Very likely either or both."  Jeff stopped.  "Ayanami-sama, can you find Shinji?  I think we'll need the EVAs, at least they'll be safer in them then outside.  We'll get help."

      Rei nodded and ran off.

      "How is she supposed to find - Right."  Ritsuko shook her head, then noticed they were about 100 yards from NERV headquarters.

      "I didn't lie at St. Louis.  And explanations will remain among the three of us.  You may need leverage against Gendo-chan."

      "Let's get to the EVAs," Ritsuko told him, "Unit 00 and 04 are in maintenance."

      "I'll take Unit 01."

      "Do you think that's a good idea?"

      They ran through the headquarters, Jeff unbuttoning his coat, vest, and shirt as they ran through the corridors.

      "No, you've got a while to think of a better plan."

      She followed him into the locker room.

      "By the way, Doc.  Krazny - zamok, Dr. Aka - gi, did you have to be that obvious.  I thought my puns were bad."

      "How are you going to find them?" Ritsuko asked from the command deck, technically she hadn't released the EVA for combat operations.  Jeff was using the EVA for Search and Rescue procedures, while SAR was using their conventional vehicles to locate the others.

      Fuyutsuki had finally arrived and was beside her, eliminating the need for the fiction, but Jeff still clung to it, even reminding the EVA of their mission.

      Neither Ikari could be located, and Security wasn't reporting in, no radio communications what-so-ever.

      "I can find Ayanami," Jeff told them from the cockpit of Unit 01, "I know she'll find them above all the others."

      "And then what?" Fuyutsuki asked.

      "Shinji gets the chair, and I go looking for the others.  Any word?"

      "No."  Fuyutsuki and Ritsuko chorused.

      Shinji ran.  Gendo wasn't far behind him.  It was very like the last time they had visited his wife's grave, except this time it was something else that had driven them away.  Gendo quietly hoped the parallels continued, and he hoped Rei was in Unit 00 when she found them.

      Neither expected this moment of togetherness.  Gendo was finally able to explain some of the things he'd tried to explain to the young boy.  In his grief, he couldn't understand how the boy couldn't understand what he was telling him.  So the boy did what he could understand, he blamed Gendo and ran away.  None of that had happened this time.  Shinji, the young man, had understood, nodded, spoke of what he remembered of his mother.  They both spoke to Yui.  Gendo had been wondering what had prompted Rei to decide to take this action, how she had interpreted his instructions into this.  They would have a lively conversation when he got a chance to talk to her again.

      What had come after them hadn't fit any pattern the elder knew of.  The attacker came from nowhere, his pistol had no effect, Shinji had urged him to run.  For once, Gendo thought, The boy has the right idea.  He'd followed, Shinji ran as if to a shifting goal only he could sense.

      "Follow."  Rei appeared in front of them, gesturing them forward.  Gendo and Shinji didn't question, they both ran.  "Help is coming," she assured them, as she slowed to let them fall into formation with her.  For a moment she hesitated, he could see she was troubled, if she had to save just one of them, which would she choose?

      "Discard the thought," he told her.  He knew if either were threatened, she would destroy that threat, or be destroyed first.

      Ranma glanced warily at Asuka and the ice-cream cone she held, offering it to him.  He reached out his tongue, expecting to have the cone smashed in his face or have her jerk it away at the last moment.  Instead she held it steady, letting him enjoy it, while smiling at him, and enjoying his uncertainty.

      He and Asuka had enjoyed the carnival, competing at the games, eating the food, Asuka enjoyed the admiring looks.  Ranma had to admit, he liked the jealous looks from the boys, and the measuring looks from the girls aimed at him.

      He admitted part of the fun had been all the contests, they split between themselves, physical versus intellectual.  That both of them beat almost every barkers was immaterial, despite the terms of the bet, they were really competing against each other, that both technically `won` was immaterial.  He'd lost the bet, that worried him, but he had put it aside and was starting to enjoy himself.

      Ranma glanced around, something was beginning to bother him.  It wasn't that Asuka was being nice to him, too nice.  He liked it, but it was setting him on edge.  Then he realized it wasn't Asuka that was bothering him.  He looked around more carefully.

      "Ogling all the girls, Baka Horseface?" she asked, a little too angrily to be teasing.

      "No!" Ranma replied, "Do you see any of the security guards?  Where are Sammi and Carter-san?  They normally follow us around everywhere!"

      Asuka looked around, "Sorry Horseface, I don't normally consider them."  She chuckled nervously, "I've been under observation, if not under guard, most of my life.  The minders change, but they are always there.  So I just ignore them."

      "Well, where are they?"  Ranma looked around again.

      "Okay, Ranma."  Her calling him that scared him.  "You're correct, either they're being a lot more discreet than usual, or they aren't there anymore."

      "Do we call in?"

      He watched Asuka bite back her automatic reply.  He could almost read her thoughts, 'Horseface rarely worried about anything, now he sounded worried.'  He could see that really worried her.

      "Yeah, come on baka.  Let's show you you're worried about nothing."  She hustled away, Ranma followed with their load.

      "Asuka!  Where are you?!" Ritsuko practically shouted at them over the phone.

      Asuka cringed at the sudden noise, switched the phone to the other ear, "At the college festival," Asuka shot back, "Didn't Misato or Sammi tell you?  She was going out with Kaji."

      Horseface winced as she tightened her grip.  She was anxious.

      "Come back here, we have a problem.  We need you and your EVAs, as soon as possible," Ritsuko told her.

      "Ask her where Security is," Horseface suggested.

      Asuka covered his mouth with her hand.  "What's going on?"

      "We don't know.  Raccoon, I mean Jeff, and I were attacked, we think there may be other attackers."

      "We're on our way.  Don't send a car, we'll use the Ranma express.  Bye."  She hung up and turned to Horseface, "Okay, Horseface, make with the super leaps, we have to get back to headquarters, right now."

      "But all this - "

      "Drop it!" she commanded, "It's not worth the delay."

      Horseface dropped it all and picked her up, soon they were racing towards NERV HQ.  Asuka thought being carried this way, this fast, was almost as exciting as piloting her EVA.  If only Kaji could do this, that would be pure heaven.  She frowned at that, Kaji didn't care about her, didn't really care about anyone.  She wished she knew what he did care about.

      It is closing on them, Rei realized, she dropped back to face the shadow pursuing them.  Shinji-kun and Gendo kept going.  It was clear it was after one of them.  She did not want to know for certain which.

      The immense hand of Unit 01 closed on the thing chasing them, and squeezed.  Gendo was ashen, she knew that Unit 01 had moved on it's own before, but not have it leave Headquarters to come after him and Shinji-kun.

      Unit 01 extended it's other hand, gathering both Ikaris and Rei, lifting them to the entry plug hatch, the plug partially ejected.

      "Three may be a little cramped, four is too much."  Roku-kun climbed out of the hatch.

      "I will - " Rei began.

      "You will NOT," Roku-kun countered, then looked at Gendo for support, "Agreed?"

      Both Ikaris nodded.

      "They already tried me, I think they only get one chance.  Get in."

      Gendo paused and paled at the plug filled with the dark, foul-smelling liquid.  Rei couldn't think of one thing to tell him, except to trust them.  She knew he could trust the three of them in this.

      "It's safe with two pilots in there with you," Roku-kun told him gently, when Gendo still hesitated, "With all due respect, sir.  Get in - or I'll throw you in."

      Gendo grimaced at the rank insubordination, but slid in none-the-less.  Rei smiled at Roku-kun, then glided in after the Ikaris.  Once inside, she saw Roku-kun descend the EVA's extended arm to the ground.  She didn't know where he would head, who he would choose to rescue.

      "We've got two minutes to get back to base."  Shinji drove the EVA at its full speed.

      "Commander?" Ritsuko's voice and image came through.

      Gendo had never been in the L.C.L. before.  Rei had carefully fitted the A10 nerve clip on his head, and held his hand.  It seemed ridiculous that she was trying to reassure him.  The foul taste and smell of the L.C.L. made it almost impossible to avoid retching.  Added to that, the impossibility that he should clearly see the pilots, despite the impenetrable darkness around him.  It was all very disorienting.  "Yes, Doctor, status?"

      "There were attacks on Pilot Davis and myself."

      "On us too, Doctor," Shinji interjected.

      Ritsuko nodded, filing the information away, "We've reestablished contact with Pilots Langley and Saotome, they're on their way back to base.  We are rushing Units 00 and 04 out of maintenance.  Unit 02 is only awaiting a pilot, and we have a full set of power packs for Unit 01.  We can't identify our attackers, what they are, what they want."

      "Pilot Davis killed the one chasing us: there may be some residue on the EVA's hand to allow us to do an analysis.  When Unit 01 returns to base, it will take up a security patrol, evidently they've also target the staff," Gendo expected a comment or protest from Shinji, he didn't get one.

      "Recall all senior staff," Gendo ordered.

      "Short of sounding an alert, sir.  We can't, none of the communications gear is working.  Pilot Saotome reported losing sight of the minders.  If this indicates they have been separated from their charges, or killed, we don't know."

      "Is there a tether plug near the entrance to the EVA bays?" Shinji asked.

      "There is," Rei pointed to where it was on a map that sprang up in front of her.

      "Why?" Gendo asked.

      "There are two of those things trying to get through the doors to the bay," Shinji said coolly.

      'I've got to protect Misato,' Gendo heard him murmur.  Rei released Gendo's hand, and rested her hands on Shinji's shoulders, "You must fight those in front of us first."  She waited for him to nod.

      Gendo had never seen the look of determination on their faces, or never acknowledged them if he had seen them.

      "Let me out here," Rei said, "The Fourth must contact Captain Katsuragi."

      "Wait a bit, and we'll send Ranma with you," Ritsuko said.  Gendo and Rei didn't argue.

      "So, the kids keep you too busy for your boyfriends?" Kaji asked as they sat in the restaurant.

      "Too busy for you," Misato countered.  Kaji laughed.  Both were enjoying the repartee.  Then Nabiki ran up.

      "Is there a problem?" Misato asked.  A cloud of black smoke shattered the windows at the far end of the restaurant.

      "You can say that.  Forget the bill, just run."  Nabiki urged them out of their chairs and out into the street.

      "What are those things?" Misato demanded as she ran.

      "Lethal," Nabiki replied, "Asuka's on her way with Unit 02.  Raccoon is on his way, these things are target specific, and they already tried Raccoon and Ritsuko."  She desperately hoped they didn't ask how she knew, she'd never be able to explain about Belldandy.  Nabiki hadn't had time to demand why Belldandy and her `boss` had allowed all of this to occur.

      She glanced back, the pair ran after her.  Misato and Kaji exchanged glances, and ran faster.

Carnival of the Spirit

      Asuka ran Unit 02 at its best speed, to . . . where?  Horseface and Wondergirl had headed off again, all she knew was the address where Misato and Kaji were supposed to be.  She didn't know where the two actually were, or what the things were, or anything.  Except the invincible EVA pilot Baka-Shinji had killed two of them with Unit 01, and Raccoon had killed a third, also in Unit 01.  That troubled her.  Unit 01 had a reputation almost as bad as Unit 03 in the pilot/technician community.  Now there were three pilots who could control it in combat.  Stupid monster wouldn't even react to me! Asuka fumed.

      Her Unit 02 was supposed to correct the flaws in Units 00 and 01, to allow a wider range of synchronization candidates, and easier synchronization, and so it was the only one of the four EVAs she could sync with.  She worried that everyone else could control more than one EVA, Everyone except ME! she thought, Stupid monster probably just likes boys.  She thought as she headed downtown, searching for sights or clues to these things.

      Rei had led the Fourth and Roku-kun straight to the security guards, after they'd gone to Sammi's apartment to collect additional ammunition and a few hand weapons.  She had thought the Fourth's refusal to avail himself of the weapons had been pure stupidity.  The three pilots walked through the small room slapping and yelling at the somnambulant guards.  The adults woke slowly, almost reluctantly.

      "What happened?" Juri asked.

      "Somebody knocked you out," Roku-kun told them, "Then brought you here."

      "What about the others?" Sammi shook her head, trying to clear it and wake up faster.

      "They have already been attacked," Rei told them flatly.

      Furious murmurs answered her comment.  The guards were angry at having been neutralized like this.

      "Do any of you know how you arrived here?" the Fourth asked.  The guards looked at each other, none of them could answer.

      "Magic," Roku-kun whispered to Rei and the Fourth.  None of the three of them was comfortable with that idea.

      The guards stood, stretched.  "Where do we go now?" Sammi asked.

      "Shinji-kun is in Unit 01, the Second in Unit 02, they are safe," Rei told them, "Nabiki-kun will locate Captain Katsuragi and Ryoji Kaji, I must locate her."

      "Great," Tomiyo Tendo glanced around at the others, "How do you do that?"

      "Follow me," Rei turned and headed out of the room.

      The Fourth glanced at Roku-kun, Roku-kun shrugged and followed Rei.  "What am I getting myself into?" the Fourth asked no one in particular.

      Shinji waited as two of the creatures moved towards a heavy, armored door.  He had ducked Unit 01 down behind a small hill and peered through the trees atop it.  He didn't consider that hiding a 40 meter, 700 ton war machine was ridiculous.  He didn't consider it, because he'd successfully attacked two other pairs of these creatures, using the exact same tactics.  If he didn't move, he didn't make noise or draw attention to his presence.

      In the cockpit of Unit 01, Shinji narrowed his eyes, he could pick the shadowy creatures out of the darkness.  He could sense their attention was elsewhere.  Now! he thought, as he commanded Unit 01 into action, closing the hundred and fifty meters in seconds.  Each hand extended, questing for these creatures.  He couldn't do the AT field tricks Asuka, Rei and Ranma could, but he could form one strong enough to destroy such creatures easily.

      The two shadows flashed briefly, then vanished.  Shinji resumed his patrol, to find any more of them.  When they died, he had felt the single-minded hatred that drove the creatures.  He intended to destroy any more of them he could find.

      They aren't the only ones who can hate single-mindedly, he thought as he searched.

      "We have reestablished contact with Security," Gendo's image appeared and told him.

      "Any word on Misato-san or Kaji-san?"  After all, she's my parent, he thought, You said so.  He didn't let that information reduce his vigilance, he trusted Asuka to rescue Misato-san.

      "Unit 02 is on its way to their last known location," Gendo told him.

      Shinji didn't like that answer, but there hadn't been any of these creatures inside headquarters, and he intended to keep it that way.  Only an EVA could stop them.  Like Asuka had done earlier, hunting the flame vampires attacking the hospital: a few steps, then freeze to look and listen for anything, then another few steps.  He'd caught all the targets that way, it worked.

      "We were attacked by one," Shinji said, "All the ones here have been pairs."

      "We will relay that to Security," Gendo told him, then cut the connection.

      He doesn't know what's going on either! Shinji realized, This is getting out of hand.  He wished they had Units 00 and 04 in launchable condition.  But Ritsuko had told him that might take several hours.  Why don't you have Raccoon fixing them? Shinji silently asked, He's got a talent for that.  He sprinted Unit 01 at a possible target, and scared a Marine out having a smoke.  Shinji smirked at the terrified man's expression as this huge monster with glowing eyes, his EVA, appeared out of nowhere.  Shinji turned Unit 01 and continued his patrol.

      Gendo stood on the Commanders' level of the command deck.  He glanced at Fuyutsuki, "I've never read any descriptions of these creatures."

      "The analysis of the residue on Unit 01 clearly indicates they are not Shoggoths," Fuyutsuki told him.

      Gendo didn't like mysteries, he liked them even less when they threatened the entire project.  "Do you think the old men sent them?"

      "I wish I knew," Fuyutsuki admitted.

      Gendo picked up a phone, dialed the EVA bay, "Dr. Akagi, did you get a clear view of what attacked you?"

      "No," Ritsuko answered over the phone, "I didn't see it or hear it . . . or smell it.  It attacked out of nowhere, the next thing I knew, Rei and Davis were helping me recover.  Davis didn't see anything before - whatever these are - attacked him.  Rei must have frightened it away.  That's the only explanation I have."

      "Understood," Gendo said.  He considered, The debriefings will be individual and private, there are things the pilots and staff do not need to know.  Gendo looked at the operation, trying to find a pattern, a better way to deploy his forces.

      The platoon of NERV Security men had joined the four personal guards, and the three pilots.  The assembled force walked behind Rei through the top floor of the new Tokyo Museum.  Ranma followed as she led them relentlessly forward.

      Nab-chan had reported by telephone that she, Misa-chan and Kaji had retreated there.  However, she hadn't known how to differentiate which of the two buildings they were in.

      Ranma could see that Rei was irritated that while she could lead them straight to their goal, she had picked the wrong building.  "The quickest way to the other building is the pedestrian walkway," Rei told them, heading towards the down staircase to it.

      "Did you memorize the entire architecture of Tokyo?" Ranma asked, as he jogged alongside her.  He'd never figured out why she concentrated on such weird stuff.

      "Haven't you?" Rei asked.  He was never sure when she was kidding, and when she wasn't.

      She couldn't have actually done that - could she? he wondered.

      She was ignoring him, concentrating on her goal.  Ranma wondered if she could feel them, tell if they were close.

      They headed down the two flights of stairs at a jog.  "You didn't tell us the walkway is six stories above the street."  He jogged towards the doors, getting ready to yank them open for the others.

      As Ranma touched the doors, Raccoon suddenly yanked him and Rei back from the slashing claws that came at them through the gap between the doors.  Ranma dropped into a defensive stance.  He hadn't felt anything, no presence behind the door, and no sound of the attack.

      Magic, Ranma thought, as the hair stood up on the back of his neck.  Despite seeing the unkempt man right in front of him, he couldn't feel him.  It was like looking at a hole.  He steeled himself, I should be glad, overjoyed, he thought, I've been wanting to fight, to fight something without holding back.

      "There's nothing here for you, Saotome-san," Raccoon took the saber and scabbard Rei had carried since they left Sammi's apartment, "You'll need this." He handed Rei his walking stick.

      Ranma remembered what that stick could do, wondered if Raccoon was that confident.  Or does it mean something else? Ranma thought as he looked from Raccoon to Rei, wondering which he should stay with.

      "We go around."  Rei headed away, most of Security troops followed her.

      Ranma glanced at Sammi, who seemed ready to stay with him, whichever way he went.  He stepped back and watched, normally he judged people not by what they said, but by how they acted and moved.  He'd always distrusted Raccoon because he didn't move naturally.  He hadn't been able to categorize it, he'd been too shocked the first time he saw it, but now he saw clearly.  `Raccoon` was an ill-fitting veil: The well-educated clown in a suit.  What was beneath, what was real, Ranma now discerned clearly, the two opponents were warped reflections of each other, both killers.  There was no hesitation as each prepared to kill another human being.

      After all the killing, Ranma wanted to shout, Haven't you had enough?  He wanted nothing to do with this.  The monsters they fought he could understand, they had no conscience.  If Raccoon was really like this, Ranko would have felt it in his chi, it didn't track.

      Unless he hates what he's facing, Ranma considered as he jogged after Rei, with Sammi right behind.  Maybe he's going to kill that guy, maybe he's going to die trying, Ranma thought, He's absolutely unconcerned about it.  It went beyond personal honor, duty or vengeance.  Ranma didn't believe Raccoon cared about living, and Ranko had missed that too.

      He's insane, Ranma thought as he ran to where Rei was, And I'm stupid.  He felt guilty abandoning Raccoon, but he didn't know what he could do to help.  Magic scared him, and if neither Rei nor Raccoon thought he could help, he probably couldn't.

      Rei had unscrewed the brass knob from the top of the cane and unwound the cord that formed the handgrip.  She replaced the knob and smashed out the window with the cane.  She had seen Raccoon do exactly this in the Dreamlands.

      She sighted along the length and hurled it like a javelin.  Without even pausing to see if it was secure, she pushed past the Security men and tied off the line to a heavy table.

      "How are we supposed to cross?" One of the Security men asked.  Rei merely ran down the line to the other building.

      "Run along or use your coats to slide down, I don't think she's going to wait."  Ranma stepped onto the line.  "It's a bridge," he told them, "Handrails and everything."  He ran down the bridge after Rei.  A moment later Sammi followed, then the other personal protectors.

      Rei was already punching through one of the windows with her bare fist.  She ignored the cuts the glass made in her hand and arm.  Ranma saw the same dissociation with her he'd seen in Raccoon, as if wounds, even death had no importance next to the goal.

      Ranma spared a glance at the pedestrian walkway.  The thing unleashed a burst of lightning that stopped short of Jeff's crossed saber and scabbard.

      What the heck is he fighting?  What the heck is he? Ranma wondered, then looked at the hole Rei had punched through the armored glass with her bare hand, What is she?

      Ranma watched the guards waiting to cross over, one at a time.  All of them looked uneasy at walking on nothing.  Rei seemed impatient with the delay, but was willing to wait until they had helped the personal guards through the window and into the building.

      Ranma saw Raccoon parry the creature's claws, which sliced out chunks of concrete.  His confusion at Raccoon's lack of counterattack vanished when he remembered Asuka's words about the battle, Raccoon was keeping its full attention focused on him.  Until they got Misato and Nab-chan, then he could risk trying to kill the thing.  "We'd better hurry," he told Rei.

      "We have enough," Rei replied as they assembled a squad, leaving two regular guards behind to collect the others.  They headed off.

      "How do you know where to go?" Ranma asked as he ran after her, even he was having trouble keeping up.

      Nabiki had watched Kaji and Misato empty their pistols into the things, twice.  They would have had more effect throwing rice balls.  She'd repeatedly attacked the shadows with a ferocity and determination she hadn't imagined she possessed.  She managed to slow the things down long enough for the two adults to run a little farther.  Then one or both managed to get a grip on her and toss her away.  She'd lost count how many display cases and other fixtures she'd destroyed by flying through them.  Evidently, someone had 'preprogrammed' the shadows for Misato and Kaji, and nothing else was a threat.

      No, Nabiki thought as she stood painfully, Beating me up is just fun.  She ignored the twinges from her shoulder and knee, she had no illusions about the fate of anyone, who lacked her Nerima-born toughness, taking on those things.

      "We're running out of places to run to."  Kaji looked around.  The museum at this point was a series of balconies surrounding a large open area.

      Better to deal with the heat, without air conditioning, Nabiki realized, then wondered whether blood loss was finally making her irrational.  I could have just waited a few days, she thought, This hurts worse than the razor, but nobody will assume I had any choice.  "Down!" she tackled the two adults.

      A fusillade of bullets and a ball of light had interrupted her consideration of the architecture and her own mortality.  The impacts staggered, but didn't stop the creatures, but help was arriving.  She almost regretted that, almost.

      Well, well, well, Nabiki thought, Ranma finally mastered that little trick.  She glanced around.  "This way!" she dragged the pair to their feet and towards the stairway, the level below crossed to a gallery below where there help was: down, across, and up.  And then we'll all be one big target, Nabiki considered angrily, they needed an EVA, or a battleship, and they needed it now.

      Ranma should have been jumping for joy at mastering what was almost the pinnacle of the Art, instead he could easily match Nabiki's frustration.  All the time they'd been running, he'd gotten glimpses of the sorcerous duel occurring far across the nearly empty museum.  Raccoon's fighting was pathetic, as usual, but it was no sham to distract the enemy.  He really was that outmatched.

      And it's my fault, Ranma reproached himself, If I'd bothered to train him, like I promised, he could have polished that jerk off already, and he'd be helping us.  That Ranma's attempt to intervene had been less than useless didn't help his attitude.

      While he and Rei had waited for the guards to catch up, they'd watched Raccoon forced back nearly 20 meters by the relentless claws swipes and lightning bolts.  Then Raccoon had gone down.

      He had to protect him, to do something.  Nab-chan had nearly died, because she didn't care anymore, and he'd been oblivious to it.  Raccoon had known and had saved her.  Ranma couldn't let Raccoon go down the same hopeless path.

      He'd somehow taken that need, crushed it to a point, infused it with ki, and hurled it at the attacker.  It hit and expanded, like the versions using the AT field he'd fired from the EVA.  And it did nothing, except draw an answering barrage of lightning.  Raccoon had to rescue himself with a flash-bang of some kind.

      Rei had been a lot more affected than his target, 'Don't do that again,' Rei had insisted, angrily for her.

      Ranma was miserable.  He could watch and analyze the battle, but he couldn't affect the course of it.

      You could have intervened, weeks ago.  He could have been trained by now, instead of proving you're better than he is.  Well now you know.  That thing will finish him off and kill the rest of us, he thought.  Now they had Nab-chan and Misato-chan in sight, they were still facing an opponent that gunfire and physical attacks were useless against.

      Asuka pounded the console and shook her fist at the image of Gendo before her in Unit 02's cockpit, "What do you mean you lost contact with Security, AGAIN!?"
      Ritsuko stood behind Gendo on the command deck, and with everyone else, winced at the sound and the fury.  "The last report was, they were in the museum," Ritsuko said in a placating tone, they finally had Unit 04 ready, and no pilot for it.  Ritsuko had to convince Asuka to bring at least one of the pilots back here, "We lost contact after that."
      "I'm supposed to walk my EVA through a building full of Rembrandts?" Asuka shouted at the image, "Nobody's that much of a Philistine!"  Well, she smirked, Maybe Ranma.

      A flash like blue-white fire illuminated the tops of the nearby buildings.

      "Never mind, I know where they are."  Jeez, Raccoon!  Why don't you take out an ad in all the Tokyo newspapers? she thought.  The red EVA headed towards that building.

Carnival of the Soul

      Ranma watched Nab-chan and the two adults run up the stairs towards them.  Rei had forbidden them to go down the stairs, she wanted to be able to run back the way they came more quickly. It made sense to Ranma, he too wanted to get out of here fast.

      Nab-chan turned to face the creatures, once Kaji and Misato-chan were within the security guards' perimeter.  She didn't mind when Ranma moved up beside her.  She looked terrible: cut, bruised, blood matted her clothes and hair, but she wasn't going to give up.  Rei moved up with him to support her.

      A blast of thunder, and Ranma turned to see Raccoon roll down the stairs from the roof, his opponent in pursuit.

      Well, he's out of it, Ranma thought angrily.

      Raccoon managed to get his scabbard up to deflect the follow up bolt of lightning, but the impact knocked it from his hand.

      Ranma felt something he'd never . . . "Duck!" Ranma yelled, caught both girls and threw all of three of them flat, as a huge red hand smashed through the window, passed over the trio of pilots, and closed on the two shadowy figures.  There was no noise to show their destruction, but Ranma could feel the difference.  Nab-chan and Rei stared at Unit 02 peering through the windows.

      "Orders are: I get you all out of here."  Asuka's voice came over the EVA's loudspeakers.  She carefully pulled Unit 02's arm back through the window, putting her Unit's clean hand against the window sill.  "Come on," she urged.

      Tomiyo and Sammi shuffled Misato and Kaji to the EVA.  The fallen scabbard on the far balcony captivated Ranma's attention.  He remembered Raccoon's magic devices from his dream. Maybe that's why Raccoon sent us away, he thought, An explanation would have taken too long.  Maybe would have given the enemy too much information.  "I'll catch up!"  He ran along the gallery, now he could intervene effectively, make a difference for the first time tonight.

      "Where is he going?" Asuka shouted, looked around, "And where's Wondergirl?"

      "Take who you have and get out of there!" Ritsuko's image ordered.

      Asuka frowned.  Those `little Angels` seemed to have frightened her, Asuka thought, More than the big ones.  "Okay."  She glanced to where the two wizards were dueling.  I'll be back for you, she vowed silently, as she headed back to the headquarters at a quick but gentle walk.  She was fearful of shaking her precious cargo to pieces.  She knew she shouldn't be worried about the other three pilots, but at the back of her mind, she knew only she and Shinji were effectively able to deal with the things.  Without Unit 00 and 04, they, in their EVAs, were all that could beat them.

      Ranma ran up the stairs and onto the roof.  He thought about shouting instructions to Raccoon.  Like he'd believe you, Ranma thought angrily, That the others are safe is the only thing he'd care about.  The bolt of white fire that came at him focused his attention, he got the sheath up and watched in amazement as the bolt bent off in another direction.

      "What is this thing?" Ranma yelled as the enemy turned and ran for the edge of the roof.  Raccoon stood there and watched him go.  With his shoulders slumped, breathing hard, Ranma could see Raccoon was exhausted.

      If I hurry, I can take some of the heat off of him! Ranma thought as he ran at full speed, closing on the man quickly.

      The scruffy man leapt off the edge of the building, and sailed toward a building under construction, nearly 300 meters away.  Ranma came to a stop at the edge.  He'd never seen anyone jump that far, it wasn't possible, not even for him.  He looked at the other building, and realized Raccoon had somehow gotten there first, standing right where his enemy would land.

      Ranma watched the arc the man followed as he leapt from the museum.  He winced as Raccoon gave them a lesson in the dangers of predicable flight paths, as he emptied his pistol into the man.  The impacts caused him to miss his landing and fall to the street, rather than landing in the metal skeleton of the upper floors.

      That should have finished him, Ranma thought, But I'm not betting anybody's life on that.  Ranma looked down, eight stories was a long way, but he had no choice.  Ranma's call to action came as the man stood and hurled a lightning bolt that forced Raccoon to his knees.  The enemy's lightning clawed at the barrier that surrounded Raccoon.  Ranma recognized the eight-sided shockwave patterns of an AT field under attack.  He could also tell the kneeling boy was still worn out, resting behind his AT field with the enemy probing for weakness.

      Ranma flipped himself over the edge and dropped over a hundred feet to the sidewalk below, occasionally catching the brickwork to slow his fall.  Once on the ground, he dashed across the pavement after their opponent.

      Ranma realized, every second Raccoon resisted, destroyed a little bit of the enemy's advantage.  The man had made his mistake when he'd turned away from Ranma, chasing into whatever trap Raccoon had set for him.  Ranma lost sight of both of them as he entered the building.  Inside, he avoided the stairs, climbing through the empty elevator shaft.  Rising three floors with his first leap.

      Asuka was driving Unit 02 at the best speed she'd ever achieved.  She wanted to be back at the museum NOW!  Horseface, Wondergirl and Raccoon were the three most irritating people she'd ever met, she was still unwilling to let these monsters have them.  The others were safe where Spineless could protect them.  Once Ice Princess reached Unit 04, they'd have more forces.  Until then, right now, it was up to her to get the last few people to safety.

      She didn't know what Wondergirl and Horseface were doing, Raccoon was fighting the mage, like always.  It took a mage to fight a mage.  If I had my weapons and armor, I could do something! she grimaced as she ran, "Sorry," she apologized to Unit 02, "I guess in the Waking World, you're my weapons and armor."  Now I'm talking to the EVAs, she thought, I've been listening to the nuts too long.

      Ranma cleared the lowest completed floor and immediately dodged two of the shadow things.  A hundred strokes from the scabbard battered the first of the things into pieces.  Ranma smiled, now he had a chance.  But he knew the creatures were a diversion.  He was fighting a symptom, not the real problem, that was the mage.  He glanced up at the battle going on across the girders over his head.  He finished off the second monster, then a body slammed into the flooring.

      "NO!" Ranma looked at the mage waiting above.  All he felt now was red rage, this - thing - had been trying to kill them, the pilots, the staff, his friends.  He'd finally succeeded with one of them.

      Ranma watched in horror as two more of the shadow creatures formed near the mage.  But rather than send them against Ranma, the mage absorbed them back into his own body.  Then he waved Ranma forward.

      Ranma took a breath and forced his rage into the appropriate place, where it would fuel his fighting, but not impede his thinking.  He would destroy this monster.  He scooped up Raccoon's saber and jumped up to the girder where the creature waited.  Ranma attacked.

      At first, Ranma was confused, the creature was faster and vastly more skilled than it had been fighting Raccoon.  Did it absorb those two to be stronger?  Or was Raccoon fighting it a different way? he wondered.  Now it was sword against claws.  Strikes, sweeps and throws kept it off balance, unable to use the lightning that had been the signature of the earlier battle.  A lucky slash cut one of the creature's hands off, now Ranma pressed his attack as hard as he could.  He thought for a moment he could end it.  Then something unseen threw him off the girder, and across the building.

      He landed standing, and was instantly dodging lightning, rivets, tools, anything that could be picked up and thrown.  Ranma dodged left and right, parrying what he could.  He was all too aware that the mage was 'herding' him over the edge of the building.  A jump down three stories wasn't a major concern, except the time it would take to get back up here.  This thing might escape while he was trying to get back.

      That arrogant bastard isn't going to face me man-to-man, Ranma thought angrily, dodging, parrying with all his skill and speed.  The relentless barrage still forced him back inch by inch.  His enemy never seemed to run out of missiles.  Ranma saw the four, huge, glowing eyes narrow angrily behind the man.  Okay, now all I have to do is keep your attention, Ranma thought as he dodged and shouted in rage and screamed insults.  The huge red fist that closed around the mage ended it.

      "Great timing, Langley," Raccoon called from his position as he sat up.

      "You're all right?!" Ranma shouted in amazement, rushed to the other boy's side.  He looked terrible.

      "I wouldn't go that far."  Raccoon's head drooped.

      Ranma felt empty and unclean after the combat.  "I wanted to kill that guy," Ranma admitted his shame, "When I thought he killed you, I was so angry."

      Rei walked down the Unit 02's arm.  "There is no shame in feeling so."

      "That isn't it," Ranma explained, as he glanced at the saber and scabbard in his hands.  He resheathed the blade.

      "Still, warfare is as much about deception as it is about combat."  Raccoon let Rei pull him to his feet.  "And as for killing another human being, the last time I checked, stabbing a human through the heart was fatal, so is chopping off its head.  Not in this case.  I don't think it was human."

      Ranma walked tiredly to Unit 02's outstretched hand.  Rei had recovered the mage's severed hand.  Then she silently, reverently, returned Raccoon's walking stick to him.

      "It served."

      Raccoon nodded.  Rei helped Raccoon seat himself, then seated herself between the two boys.

      "We are ready."  She put an arm around each, holding them up.  Ranma noted how strong Rei was, and how carefully Rei held him, he assumed she was holding Raccoon the same way.

      "What am I?" Asuka asked, "A taxi service?"  None-the-less she carried her cargo very carefully, Ranma could barely feel the EVAs footfalls as it walked back to base.  Ranma guessed what anger Asuka felt she concentrated on her other hand, where she ground whatever was left of the mage into smaller fragments.

      It turned his stomach that he'd been ready to kill another person.  That it turned out it wasn't a person didn't eliminate the intent.  I would have murdered that thing, Ranma thought as the city passed by them, Even if it surrendered, I would have killed it.  He wondered what kind of monster that made him.

The Brass Ring

      "There is no physical evidence that it was any of the `Angels`, although it is similar to a minor avatar of Nyarlathotep," Dr. Akagi reported as she examined the sample of the shadows in the isolation lab.  Commanders Fuyutsuki and Ikari, who stood outside of the isolation lab, nodded.  It matched the speculation Gendo and Fuyutsuki had made in Gendo's office.

      "What has been discovered about the identity of the summoner?" Gendo asked.

      "Miss Langley didn't leave much residue," Dr. Akagi said, indicated the second sample in the sealed room.  All of them winced at that.

      Miss Langley certainly ground the enemy into a thin paste, Gendo thought, Before she returned with the others to headquarters.

      "But other investigations indicate he was just a madman working alone.  Security is relatively certain he was not connected to SEELE or any established cult.  He appears to have begun his attack because of some delusion about the nature of the EVAs, that they would supplant the existing gods."  None of the three of them commented on that, they all knew Security was living up to the Office of Naval Intelligence's (ONI) disparaging nickname, FUBENS.

      "Very well, Doctor.  Any lingering effects of the attack?" Gendo asked.

      "None, as I said, Rei seems to have scared off the attacker before any permanent damage could be done to myself or Pilot Davis.  I must have done the same to Davis's attacker."

      "Understood, we'll leave you to your investigation."

      Doctor Akagi turned and nodded.

      "Professor, it was clear the attacker wasn't human.  Another avatar of Nyarlathotep," Gendo told his friend.

      "Or one of the Million Favored Ones," Fuyutsuki countered, "Like those plant-like assassins.  Rei reported Davis cut its head off.  It also nearly survived in hand to hand against Saotome.  Nothing human could do either of those things."

      "I dislike this - personal - interest the Crawling Chaos is taking in NERV, our pilots and operations."  Gendo held the door for Fuyutsuki to enter his office.

      "Do you suggest we make a deal?" Fuyutsuki asked, smiling, after the door was closed.

      "Yes, he either leaves us alone, or we'll send a recording of the pilots' interviews to R'lyeh, Carcosa, and Kadath."  Gendo sat behind his desk, steepling his fingers to hide his smile.

      Ritsuko wasn't sure what Gendo and Fuyutsuki believed, she had to admit she wasn't sure what she believed.  If Rei hadn't told Gendo the complete truth, she didn't know what to tell him herself.  She, Jeff, and Rei had agreed to keep the details of the night's events to themselves, until they could discuss it among themselves.  She looked down at the samples in the isolation lab.  She remembered how frightened she'd been, considering what she was, it should have been ridiculous.  Yet, Rei and Jeff charged out without any concern for their safety.  I guess that's what they meant by being designed as weapons, she thought, A fair amount of fearlessness must have gone into the mix.  That and their unusual life-cycle.  She smirked at that.
      Ranma draped the quilt over his arms, and walked into the girls' room.  The look of concern, if not outright fear on Nab-chan's face tore at him.  That, and he remembered the extensive wounds she'd suffered.  Now her nightgown shrouded the extensive bandages that nearly covered her legs, arms and body.  But he remembered what Raccoon and Asuka had drilled into him on the walk to base, 'Say NOTHING!'  They'd even made him repeat it again and again, while Asuka and Raccoon worked out the best way to fold the quilt for presentation.  Then they'd made him practice that, that practice went quicker.

      He thought it strange that of all the prizes he and Asuka had won, they'd only retained this one.  He thought it ironic, that Asuka had called him to pick it up.  With all her other doodads and thingamajigs lost, he'd thought she'd want to keep the one they did retain.  Asuka never mentioned it, any of it, and Ranma didn't want to push things.

      He set the quilt down next to Nab-chan's bed, unfolding it once, so she could see the elegant and homey designs, and if she wanted to, pull it over herself.  He was actually biting his tongue, to keep from saying everything he desperately wanted to, but Raccoon had been right, 'If you can learn any martial arts move just by watching, you should be able to learn nonverbal communication the same way.'  Ranma had to admit, he was right.  His mouth got him into more trouble than the rest of him combined.

      So while Nab-chan stared at him suspiciously, he said nothing.  Nearly drawing blood to do it, but saying nothing.  After he had unfolded the quilt, he bowed slightly and withdrew.

      "Thank you," Nab-chan said, "It's beautiful."

      Ranma nearly blew it, but he clearly remembered the perils promised by Raccoon and Asuka, if he said one word.  Asuka would immaculate him, he wondered about that: making him clean didn't seem bad, but Asuka made it sound really threatening.  Raccoon said that none of the other pilots would speak to him, or Ranko, ever again.  He definitely wanted to avoid that as well.

      Instead, he put his finger under his chin and curtsied.  Evoking a giggle from Nab-chan.  Ranma silently walked back to his room, he felt he was walking about a foot off the ground.

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 31 - Sub Rosa, Just Watch the Thorns

What has gone before:

      About Book 11 of the Tankoubon Manga, 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 make the breakthrough in the equations governing the AT fields. They teach the other pilots the math to understand it. Ranma understands enough to use the AT field the way he had against Nyogtha.

      Hiroko accidentally discovered the truth about Ranma/Ranko, and is ordered to keep silent. She asks to be a pilot, both Rei and Ritsuko try to convince her not to. She is killed during the battle against Cthugha, along with her entire family, and Ranam's friends Kenta and Seisuke.

      All of the pilots react to the disaster surrounding the destruction of Cthugha and his cult in there own ways. Nabiki retreats, Asuka investigates, Jeff attacks the SEELE. supporters, Ranma seeks a decisive battle and is frustrated in this end, Rei and Shinji try to support Nabiki.

      One of the SEELE members is killed in Osaka, and Natsumi Matsuda witnesses the entire event.

      Asuka takes Ranma to Tokyo University, meeting Belldandy and Keiichi. Then they return to enjoy the carnival set up on the school grounds.

      Ranko does what she can to help the defense against Nabiki's nightmares.

      The arrival of an assassin of Nyarlathotep's cult spoils everyone's evening as attacks the pilots and senior staff, he is destroyed by Asuka in Unit 02.

I, I live among the creatures of the night

I haven't got the will to try and fight

Against a new tomorrow, so I guess I'll just believe it

That tomorrow never comes

Self Control - Laura Branigan

Chapter 31 - Sub Rosa, Just Watch the Thorns

Camera Means Vault

June 25, 1947

      Jeff lay in his bed.  Something depressed him, Asuka could see that as she entered his bedroom.

      "Why are you moping around here?" she asked, "I don't think Horseface will mess up too much."

      "That isn't it," Raccoon said, "I just learned I'm flying to Osaka."  He paused, "With Captain Katsuragi," he added despondently.

      "As long as she's not flying, it shouldn't be too bad."  Asuka tried to jolly him.

      "That's what you think."

      "I've never understood why you hate her so much," Asuka said.

      "It isn't hate, but I just don't trust her.  I don't believe she'll do any good," he replied, "It'll be a waste of time to bring her along.  Natsumi won't react well to being badgered by her."

      No, you hate her! Asuka thought, You just won't admit it.

      Asuka sighed, she knew there were some things about Raccoon that even she could never understand.

      Ritsuko looked at Nabiki, sleeping soundly on her futon.  She kept thinking of the legend of the baby Hercules strangling a serpent sent to kill him.  Ritsuko hadn't seen the colorful and intricate quilt before.  Nabiki had wadded part of it under her head to replace her pillow, then coiled the rest around her like a python.  The faint smile, and the lack of shouts and cries of fear were the most welcome additions.

      What am I going to tell Rei and Jeff? Ritsuko wondered, That's what's got me worried.  She sighed, they had told Rei what Ritsuko was, on at least one occasion, but there was no reason Jeff should have taken it in stride.  She wondered how the others would react, how horrified would they be?  Would they attack her?  Or just shun her?  She didn't like either possibility.

      She sighed again and looked out the window at the night sky.  She realized the hopelessness of thinking she could keep her secret forever.

      I'm a coward, she thought, I just can't make myself trust them.  They've given me no reason to doubt, and many examples of the reverse.  I just can't trust anyone after so long.

June 26, 1947

      Morisue Takeshi and his brother Takao had returned to fishing after their stint in the Imperial Navy.  The arrogant young man, who was questioning them about their service aboard the I-14, was unconcerned about that, or that he was keeping them from earning their living.  During the war, they had serviced the Aicha M6A1 floatplane/bombers carried aboard their boat, and both had hoped to remain aircraft mechanics after the war.  The peace treaty made that impossible, so they fished and did odd repairs on the side.

      "So besides the pilot, there were two women aboard the plane when it returned from its rendezvous with the I-400?" the man asked.

      "Yes, we refueled it, and sent it off.  Then we waited to refuel the I-400 from our tanks, both ships returned home," Takeshi said.  He didn't like being interrogated away from his brother.  As if they'd lie.  The only dishonorable action they had taken in their service aboard I-14 was allowing the two Allied warships they had sighted to escape, surely these Americans weren't objecting to them not taking American lives!

      "Thank you for your time and truthfulness," the Japanese-American who had questioned them bowed as the others accompanying him simply nodded.  Out of custom, the older fisherman bowed in reply.

      Takao approached, "We'd better get that engine repaired, if we're going out tomorrow."

      Takeshi agreed.  "Why the sudden interest in the mission to refuel the I-400?"

      "I'd guess the I-400 went to America, they asked if I knew anything about it.  Maybe the I-400 bombed their country."

      "With those planes," Takeshi laughed, "We could only hope."  The two returned to their fishing boat and their repairs.

      Kaji looked at his evening newspaper, his back to the door of a closed restaurant.  Just another worker lounging about in the dark, waiting to sober up enough to walk home.  No one would expect that this night, in this locale, a meeting was actually taking place.

      "Take a look at the baseball scores," the voice behind him buzzed, like someone talking through a rice paper mask.

      Kaji paged through the shimbun to the sports section.  The envelope taped there disappeared into his coat.  "Gendo seems to be taking all that in stride," Kaji whispered to his unseen accomplice behind the restaurant's closed door.

      "He thinks he is running things, of course he's taking it in stride.  He plays games with the gods and is drunk on his tiny successes.  They are already very angry with him.  Powerful as he and SEELE believe they are, there are always things stronger, or more dangerous."

      "His little snoop, Rei, warned him that he may be working for the Crawling Chaos, killing the Crawler's enemies.  If that is the case, it may have all been a deliberate deception," Kaji told his contact.

      "He'd believe her?  You believe her?"

      "It's hard to tell," Kaji admitted, "I'd almost bet he did.  Me, that's another story.  The kid knows less about people than a cat does."

      "The Old Men are getting impatient with his strange reticence."

      "Another band of people who think they know everything," Kaji chuckled.

      "You still have to report to them," his ally reminded him, "If they are ignorant, it is partially your fault."

      "How is it my fault if I tell them, and they ignore my information?" Kaji disliked being called on the carpet, even if rightly so.

      "You keep digging?" the other - man - Kaji guessed, asked him, "Sometimes not knowing is better."

      "When information is the only real currency, you don't deny yourself a source."

      "Then do you want to return the money we've paid you?"

      "Of course not!" Kaji replied, "I am curious why you want to know what they're both doing, the steps of their little dance.  I know full well, the major powers have riddled NERV with spies, none lack eyes within or ears at the walls."

      "Perhaps we want independent confirmation.  Perhaps, like you, we prefer to keep our options open."

      "A good, noncommittal answer."  Kaji folded the paper after noting his next time of contact.  He wondered why the man insisted on that buzzing trick to disguise his voice.  It was effective, even a deep-voiced woman might have duplicated it.  The voice was clear enough, and the money and information were simply too good to walk away from.

      Several blocks away from the restaurant, Kaji discarded part of the newspaper.  Blocks later, he discarded the rest after he'd confirmed no one was watching the first drop.  The information in the envelope was the important thing, even more than the money.  He wondered what Misato was doing, supposedly she would be headed for Osaka on some mission or other.  Later, he could take her on another date, get the real facts from her.  She always talked too much when she got drunk.  While getting her that drunk was expensive, it was usually worth it.

      Many of the things he learned about NERV, SEELE, and their enemies were horrible.  Others were simply embarrassing for those who hid them.  Other things eluded him completely.  Such as, overnight Gendo became a greater expert on their enemies than even the best sages advising the Old Men, reports were that Pilot Davis likewise had an epiphany of similar breadth and depth.  Neither had been willing to discuss what had suddenly allowed them this discernment.  Kaji wanted to know not only what they knew, but how they suddenly gained the answers he so desperately sought.  That was a secret he wanted above all else.  He suspected he could use Rei as a wedge against the Commander, but he doubted he'd survive the riposte.  Davis lacked a real weak point, but Asuka might be a good start.  He could get her ensnared again, but she'd been less friendly, and therefore less talkative of late.  If he could reverse that, he might have a way to pry the secrets loose.  But he'd also need another string to his bow.

      "Maybe I should convince Misa-chan to be `friendly`, or better yet, Rit-chan."  He'd seen the way the boy looked at Rit-chan.  Kaji wondered what she'd be willing to do to keep the Children from learning some of her secrets.

      But blackmail's not my style, he thought.  He also had to wonder how much he was going to report to Gendo about this.  He had a feeling the Commander of NERV was hiding the most important and intricate secrets of all.  The very ones that would make sense of all this.  The ones even the Old Men didn't know.  Getting him to reveal those secrets was worse than pulling teeth.  In pulling teeth, the other person could know what you were doing.

      The street Kaji had left was sparsely populated, but the small figure in the shadows, who had observed everything, waited until nothing moved on the street before vanishing back home.  He'd seen the other `person`, who was part of the meeting, take flight through the night sky.  He'd already decided the Russians and their enemies needed further scrutiny.  Now he had proof they were interfering on this side of the Sea of Japan.  He considered all this as he instantly returned home.

      Another hour passed.  Another figure, less sorcerously capable, but vastly more patient, left its hiding place to slip from one shadow to the next in its return home to report all it had seen and heard.

June 27, 1947

      Gendo watched Kaji lounging in the chair before his desk.  Gendo stared at the other man over his steepled fingers.  it was too early in the morning to stomach such insolence, but Kaji had probably been awake all night.

      "They aren't happy about what you have been withholding," Kaji told him, "But considering the casualties they've taken in Tokyo, they can't do much to directly redress the situation."

      "That means they will take even more precipitous action when they do move," Gendo said, completing the thought, none of this was new information, but he wasn't going to let Kaji know that.  "What would they have me do?" Gendo asked, "They are not the only concern we have here.  Not even they can ignore that they have competitors."

      "You think someone is feeding them disinformation, lying to the Old Men?  Impossible!" Kaji seemed aghast.

      Gendo suspected it was an act.  "They have continually expressed an interest in Ranma Saotome, not Ranma and Ranko, they implied the two are different people.  There is only one person at NERV who shares that particular delusion."

      Kaji considered Gendo's words.  "Then you think I should report all this?  Including what I've learned about what you are doing behind the Old Men's backs?"

      "I'll report the necessity of changes in operations, considering they have finally gotten the engine upgrades broken loose, I doubt they would be averse to a few changes that get their agenda back on track.  They've rarely worried about endangering us to accomplish their goals."

      "That is true."  Kaji smiled.

      Gendo returned it, Arrogant puppy, if you really knew half of what you think you do, you'd crawl into a hole and pull it closed after you, he thought, but didn't let any evidence of the thought show.

      "You play a dangerous game."  Kaji stood and walked out, without being dismissed.

      Fuyutsuki waited for the door to close and the Sephiroth in the floor to flash, before he stepped out of the concealing darkness behind Gendo's desk.  The brief flash indicated whatever listening spells or devices Kaji had left behind had been neutralized, if not destroyed.

      "We are playing a dangerous game?" Fuyutsuki asked in quiet outrage, "He thinks he can simply play one group off another."

      "As long as he reports what I tell him to the Committee, they will believe it when I tell them the same.  He is useful for that alone.  A useful idiot."

      "And the others he disseminates this information to?" Fuyutsuki asked, "There are some things we don't want known."

      "Keep him guessing, feed him enough clues, red herrings, half-truths, speculations, and he happily runs off, chasing his tail, never suspecting the truth, the real truth.  What he tells the others is what we want them to know," Gendo replied, fully satisfied by the course of the meeting, "I also tell the Committee things he should have ferreted out, but hasn't.  This guarantees the Committee doesn't trust him fully either.  So, if he does reveal something, we can always blame it on a disinformation campaign we're running to smoke out spies."

      "And are you going to tell him eventually?" Fuyutsuki asked.

      "Only after he has no one left to turn to for support, or answers.  There are many things he doesn't know, and great gaps in what we've told him.  He'll investigate and find nothing, so he'll be forced to return to us for answers."

      Fuyutsuki nodded, not accepting, merely understanding and acquiescing.

      "It's all about politics, and control, old friend.  Who knows what, and knowing who knows.  As long as we control that, we control everything else.  As for Ryoji-san . . . addicts are addicts.  They will always need more, seeking a stronger, purer dose to recapture the initial rapture of their first time.  But, they never can."  Gendo's smile had no humor or warmth in it.  Things were proceeding according to plan, his plan.

Truth and Ice Cream

      "Just like I told you," Jeff whispered to Rei as Dr. Akagi entered the ice cream shop.

      "You two seem to be no worse for wear."  Ritsuko smiled weakly, as she approached the table and sat down.

      This place was far enough from headquarters that others couldn't easily eavesdrop on them, and it had the reputation for having the best ice cream in the prefecture, good cover for this meeting.  Ice cream and truth, she was vastly more concerned about the later than the former.  Both what she would learn, and what she would have to disclose.

      "I took the liberty of ordering three of their largest hot fudge sundaes," Jeff said brightly, the ice cream was on Ritsuko's tab.

      "What should you and I have, Doctor?" Rei asked.

      Ritsuko stopped, blinked, shook her head, trying to fit what she had just heard into her previous view of the universe.

      "See," Jeff told Rei gently, "Comment on something completely obvious, or take the words with a different meaning or with a different understanding."

      "Yes," Rei said, a slight nod.

      "Teaching her to tell jokes?"  Ritsuko's frame of reference returned.  'Raccoon' was turning the universe upside-down again, to see what shook loose this time.

      "Considering I got an impromptu Philosophy Final when I was with her, I suspected her education was lacking in a few critical areas," Jeff said, turned to Rei, "That's a veiled insult."

      Rei's brow furrowed for a moment.  "A very small veil."

      "Very good," Jeff applauded silently.

      "We can work on sarcasm and understatement later," Rei told him.

      Ritsuko shook her head, 'Raccoon' indeed.  She nodded as the waiter delivered the sundaes.

      "Out of respect for your seniority," Jeff told her, "You can go first."

      I guess I deserved that, Ritsuko thought.  "I don't remember all of it.  After all, it started in the Precambrian Era, although I wasn't actually sentient then.  So I guess it really began during the Pennsylvanian Epoch of the Carboniferous Period, when I became - aware."  She paused, she hated these memories, she wished she could erase them from her mind.  However, she couldn't, they hung like a pall over everything she did.  "They used us as construction apparatus, with as little regard for us as most people have for their machines.  I also learned we had been, and continued to be . . . food."  She stared at the ice cream in front of her, slid it between Rei and Jeff, she'd lost her appetite.  "It was a way to discipline the most intelligent and rebellious, the ones who best understood what was happening to them."  She watched both Children shudder at that.

      "During the Permian Period, there were too many of us who had ideas of our own.  We fought . . . "

      "And you lost," Jeff said, "I've read the histories.  The `Valusians` were very disturbed by the goings-on."

      "So," Ritsuko smiled, "That's where you learned all of this.  So whose side are they on?"

      "Like everyone else," Jeff admitted, "Their own.  Which really means a lot of different ones.  What about your people?"

      "I wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw the Coral Sea, the water, not the ship."

      "Ah," Jeff nodded.

      "So you killed the second shoggoth that boarded the Coral Sea," Rei said, enjoying her ice cream.

      "Yes," Ritsuko said, she felt ashamed, killing one of her own.  She also knew she would do it again.

      They both turned to Rei.

      "And what about you?  Do you understand what and who you are?" Ritsuko asked.

      "Yes," Rei told them, "I have an idea."  She looked at Jeff, "Like you, I am a weapon.  Unlike you, I am a disappointment."

      "You just aren't as vicious, or I should say, experienced.  There is nothing wrong with being gentle.  Believe me, that's the real struggle."

      "Ah-men!" Ritsuko agreed, "So is being human, very confusing."

      "Some `humans` never learn," Jeff added bitterly.  "Don't worry about it.  You'll learn.  You are already ahead of most, just by acknowledging you have to learn."

      Rei nodded.

      Ritsuko thought, Does that apply to me too?  And you?

      They dug into their ice cream in silence for a while, Jeff with real anger, Rei more thoughtfully.  Ritsuko merely held her spoon, her appetite had returned, or perhaps she wanted to join in.  Rei got the hint when Ritsuko kept staring at the dish she'd slid over to the Children, Rei slid the untouched sundae back to Ritsuko.

      "So what are you?" Ritsuko asked.

      "I'm not trying to be evasive, but I haven't discovered all the truth.  Nevertheless, I know I was conceived a year before the records would imply, although I was actually born at a time appropriate for being one of the Children.  That might imply something recovered by the first expedition to the Elder Thing's city was part of my construction.  The Americans first went there three years before the other expeditions.  What was brought back?"  He shook his head.  "I don't know.  There were 15 Americans and 15 British foci.  Those running the project divided the Americans into five sub groups.  I haven't learned about what the differences were exactly.  Two of my group, Sharon and I, survived to work with the EVA, Jason was of a different group.  Six of the British survived, and they were all lost testing Unit 03.  You know what happened to Sharon and Jason."

      "You alone remain," Rei said, "That does not explain your abilities."

      "The curse you saw, I got from El Nureenen."

      " 'I was trained as a warrior against Chaos's darkness, by a cabal of Serpent Man and Dragon sorcerers.  Inculcated in their deepest magics, schooled in the darkest lore of our enemies.  Then, implanted with alien technology of the Great Race, to further enhance my ability to hunt and kill those things that lurk in the darkness.  Then I was cursed by an ancient meta-god, to live to see the dawn of the last day, to battle my foes, but not live to see the end.  Only then, will I be permitted to die.  After all that, not fighting these things would void my warrantee,'" Rei quoted.

      "Exactly what I told you in the elevator before we fought the Green Fire," Jeff said.

      "So, you made a deal with the `Valusians`, the Serpent Men," Ritsuko accused.

      "He is not alone in having divided loyalties," Rei reminded her.

      "My deal with Gendo has nothing to do with this," Ritsuko quietly insisted.

      "No one is accusing you of disloyalty."  Jeff glared at Rei, who nodded.  "Just that each of us have several claims on our loyalty and attention."

      "True," Rei added.

      "Did you make a deal?" Ritsuko asked.

      "Yes," Jeff admitted without shame, "But their deal applies to something that does not involve protecting humanity, and does include why the Elder Gods have an interest in us."

      "Which is?" Ritsuko asked.

      "Our dreams provide the Elder Gods with their chief slave race," Jeff said with real venom.

      Ritsuko didn't need to hear more.  She too would jump at the chance to free such a race.  She had tried once before, and her failure had cost her.  Her own people had no allies in their rebellion.  With outside help, they might have won.  They might be free.

      "The Scholarly Dragon is one," Rei said, pleased with herself for figuring it out.  "That is why they aid you, they value dragons."

      "My relationship with the Scholarly Dragon, it's a little more complicated, but generally yes.  So, ironically, does Yig, the Father of Serpents.  He strives for millions of years to create the ultimate reptile, and a bunch of hairless apes do him one better.  Frankly we couldn't have given him a more worthy sacrifice of our time and talents, and it's rare the human who doesn't dream a dragon into existence at least once in his lifetime.  Even if it's more dragonfly than dragon."

      "So, how do you walk the tightrope?" Ritsuko asked.

      "By negotiating, getting my `patrons` to adjust their demands, and understanding their goals."  Then he gave a grin that made him look like the teenager he was.  "It helps to arrange a conference and let them discuss it directly."

      "Very dangerous," Rei said, wide-eyed.

      "Less dangerous than letting them continue in ignorance," `Raccoon` said.

      It struck Ritsuko that the change between Jeff and `Raccoon` could be that noticeable, that he could be that sure of himself.  Ritsuko questioned everything about herself.  Ritsuko also noted that Rei was holding back, intentionally, or because she lacked the force of personality she and Jeff had.  Ritsuko decided not to push, but she would make sure the girl got a chance to speak.

      "So they pulled you out of Antarctica, they reinforced me with something from Antarctica," Jeff said, turned to Rei, "Your origin?"

      Rei sighed, "They sought the perfect pilot, from materials recovered from Antarctica, and human biological samples.  I do not know the source or details, I have not sought to know, I am not human," Rei spoke quietly, even for her, "They primarily intended me as a weapon also.  The EVA and I . . . without it, I would have no reason to exist."

      "You will excuse me, I hope, if I tell you you're wrong," Jeff said, "Everyone can be greater than their `design` capability."

      "If you believe so," Rei admitted.

      "Rei-chan," Jeff said gently, as he leaned close to her, "I don't just believe, I know.  I was supposed to be a slave to one, then another, and another.  I broke free, I still serve, freely and without reservation, but because it is what I wish.  You can still serve as loyally as ever, but if you do it because you choose, rather than you must, you'd be amazed at how different it feels."

      Rei nodded, hiding a ghost of a smile.

      "So what do we do with this?" Ritsuko asked.

      "Understand each other.  For example, do you still change shape?"

      Ritsuko froze.  "Not in a long time, well, not for several years."

      "You might want to get into practice again.  Since Saotome absorbed Nyogtha, he may have absorbed its plasticity," Jeff said.

      Not Unit 01 absorbed it? Ritsuko wondered, "How do you know that Ranma may have those powers?  Your speed absorbsion from Chaugnar Faugn?  Is that why you were testing Ranko?  You think that will happen to the rest of you?"

      "I was able to induce Ranko to test her own capabilities," Jeff admitted, "I believe I was testing the barest minimum of Saotome's capabilities.  Having an experienced form shifter might soften the blow and give him a challenge to meet."

      "What of your hypergeometric analysis?" Rei asked.

      "You mean magic?" Jeff asked with a smile, "Mostly healing and enchantments, making magic items, that kind of thing.  Some alchemy to go along with that."

      "The golden dust for the shotguns!" Ritsuko said, "That was you!  I thought you were joking about the formula!"  Ritsuko turned to Rei, "And what about the songs you sing?  I felt their power, even though I wasn't the recipient."

      "I have only a few," Rei admitted, "To heal, but they have little effect on the creatures we fight."

      "Frankly, 'the creatures we fight' are mostly humans."

      "And Nyarlathotep," Rei added.

      The name still gave Ritsuko shivers.

      "I understand that you want to be here, I am curious what happened," Jeff said to Ritsuko.  "What did they do to you?  Since you survived, you must have been one of the ringleaders.  The histories say they killed, reenslaved, or made examples of the rebels."

      Ritsuko thought she could handle the question.  Instead, she nearly broke down, unable to deal with how the Elder Things had tortured her.  An oh-so subtle torture to be sure, they understood their creations very well.

      "How much do you know about the . . . the psychology of . . . of my people?"

      "It's not a subject that gets a large amount of research," Jeff admitted.

      Rei simply shook her head.

      "We were simple creatures, self-replicating and self-sufficient: eat, metabolize, mytosis."

      "Eukaryote?" Rei asked.

      "Prokaryote," Ritsuko shook her head and continued, "They interrupted the cycle, permanently.  No more growth, no more divisions.  They broke me into pieces and scattered me all over their territory - "  She broke down.  It had been done to her before the Age of the Dinosaurs, yet the deep, gnawing hurt, the feelings of failure and emptiness, had never left her.

      Jeff and Rei amazed her when both stood and embraced her.  She was grateful for it, even though she didn't understand why they tolerated her.

      "They pitted us against each other," she admitted.  She wondered why she was telling them the very things that should repulse them, and why it seemed to have no effect.

      "Nice, get you to destroy yourself," Jeff said sarcastically, then more sympathetically, "And no progeny.  Is that why you want to be with the Children so badly?"

      Ritsuko wanted to curl up and die, Jeff's tone and expression contained no anger or malice.  Rei stared at her with open interest, not the hatred and loathing she expected.  "Yes," Ritsuko admitted quietly.

      He patted her shoulder.  "Good, now that you realize why you're doing it."  Jeff returned to his seat and his attention to his ice cream.  "You should consider telling the others, not all at once, but bit by bit."

      Rei patted her shoulder, as Jeff had done, before returning to her own ice cream, there was no condemnation there.

      "I thought you'd object."  Ritsuko was completely mystified, this was all impossible.  She wondered if they fully understood what she was telling them.

      "You've shown whose side you were on aboard the Coral Sea," Jeff said, "Besides, what exactly do I have the right to object to?  I'm a monster too, a created thing, remember?"

      "You have done nothing to disprove your statement of allegiance," Rei added.

      Ritsuko found she was shaking.  The reality had not met her expectations about how the 'meeting' would go, in even the smallest detail.  She felt terribly hurt by her memories, rather than by the questions she had to answer.

      "Rei, do you have any questions?" Ritsuko asked.

      Rei glanced up, "Who is the enemy?"  Rei looked at Ritsuko and Jeff.

      "I think our real enemy among the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones is Nyarlathotep.  I believe he's the only enemy we have among them.  The others, well . . . "  Jeff stared at the table.  "Is a landmine or a cloud of poison gas your enemy, or is it just dangerous?"

      "Yet if they bear us no ill-will, why do we . . . why does Captain Katsuragi hate them so?" Rei asked, staring at Ritsuko, then Jeff, and back again..

      Jeff chuckled at that, "She hates them for her own reasons, they don't have to hate her back."  Now he laughed.  "I think that they don't, is part of the reason she does.  'Look at me!  Acknowledge my existence by hating and fearing me!'"

      Ritsuko thought that was a little too close to the truth, even if it wasn't true, it was extremely apt.  She smiled as she realized it also explained a lot of Misato's dealings with other people.

      "These creatures do not bear us anymore malice than most people give ants in their sugar bowl.  Just get them out and go on with life."

      "What of their worshipers?" Rei asked.

      "I don't think most are even noticed.  The gods have their own servitor races, their worship is sufficient," Jeff explained.

      "The humans," Rei corrected.

      "They believe that they can free their `masters` and the creatures will lavishly reward them.  In 1925, R'lyeh briefly surfaced, other than opening the door to his tomb, humanity offered the Lord of R'lyeh no more assistance than that in his return to the world, and he returned to his slumbers just as peacefully and in his own time.  The followers are initially deluded, then are simply mad.  Perhaps they were touched by an errant dream of one of those who are imprisoned, and they built the rest out of whole cloth, often simply for self-aggrandizement.  The worship of those that walk free may be very different, but they'll still the use those gullible fools as tools or pawns in their own schemes.  The world will be theirs, not ours, in the end.  Being the last gravedigger is not the reward most are expecting to get."

      "That makes sense, when - " Ritsuko paused, even here, she wouldn't say the name, "First came down from the stars, he made no attempt to conquer the entire planet, just one almost uninhabited continent.  He was acting locally, not globally.  The legend is, that in 50 million years, the Stars will be Right again, and they'll stay that way for billions of years."

      "Either we'll be ready to join them, or we'll tear ourselves apart in our own madness," Jeff commented.

      Rei stared from one to the other for a long while.  "The human race, or the pilots?" she asked.

      "Ah, that is the question, isn't it?" Jeff said.

      Rei lowered her eyes, "You have resolved the uncertainty I desired purged."

      Ritsuko knew she was referring to her standing by when there was evidence that Akagi Naoko had sabotaged Unit 01's first test, killing Ikari Yui as a result.

      "I . . . ,"  I wasn't in a position to do anything, she thought, it was the same old lie.  "I was afraid of what she'd do to me, if I made an issue of it."

      Rei nodded.

      Dodging another possible mine puzzled Ritsuko.  She wished Jeff would ask Rei some questions, she doubted she could expect the reverse.  She didn't want to divulge Rei's secrets, unless Rei somehow asked her to.

Snake in the Grass

June 28, 1947

      "So what did they ask you to do?" Misato asked as she followed Deimisu into the R4D.

      "Look, listen, ask questions," Daimitsu walked down the aisle to the tail.

      "I want to sit up here," Misato pointed to the front.

      "Who's stopping you, Captain?" Daifitsu glanced at her and asked.

      Misato stared, "Do I have to spell it out?"

      "Not really."  Daifutsu set his oversized bag in the seat next to him, as he sat down, then pulled his hat over his eyes.

      "You're supposed to sit with me," she said quietly.  She sat at the front.  Two dozen other people, Navy and NERV boarded the plane.  Most sat some distance from her and the EVA pilot.  She didn't know why they needed her for this mission, it was supposed to be a straightforward interrogation/investigation, more Security and Technical Branches' bailiwick than Tactical Branch's.

      She settled in to await their take off, and their landing in Osaka.

      The plane ride passed in boredom.  Too much noise to sleep, not that it stopped Daimitsu.  The others either slept or were immersed in their own conversations, and she lacked the knowledge make meaningful contributions, or the desire to.  She had no interest in the changes in soil chemistry or the cellular breakdown of microbes caused by the presence of this or that Angel.  She was hoping she could summon one of the EVAs to kill this one, but it seemed she was going to be disappointed.  There was only one reported sighting, and that one from a Junior High School girl from the pilots' school.  Shinji had told Misato that Matsuda Natsumi was a science bookworm.  So she might really have seen anything.

      Then why didn't they send Ritsuko or Maya? she asked herself.  She wasn't getting any answers.

      Jeff dreamt of a house, with a major city far in the distance.  A huge, ghostly snake coiled around it like a living pyramid.  All around, attempting to attack the house, were rat-things, like the ones he'd seen and killed around NERV.  The snake's ghostly form repelled them.  They milled around: a confused, teeming, squealing, mass; as though they couldn't fathom what was keeping them at bay.

      Occasionally, the snake would lash out and eat some of the rat-things.  Most of the time it just waited.

      Jeff walked through the milling, squealing crowd towards the snake.  One step at a time, seeing how close he could get before he provoked a reaction from either side.  He didn't get a reaction even as he walked through the phantom snake and into the house.  Before he could take off his shoes, he woke.

      "I wish people would at least let me finish when they drag me into a dream."  He stood up to stretch, and talk to the Security and Navy guards.  He ignored the disapproving look from Captain Katsuragi.

      What did she expect? he wondered, Sitting in the noisiest part of the plane.  I wanted to sleep, I doubt I'll be getting any sleep this evening.

      Nabiki was frightened.  She had expected a day of talking, not this.  She knew her fear was irrational, but it existed and threatened to overwhelm her none-the-less.  She glanced at Asuka, who waited patiently.  The other girl stared intently into Nabiki's eyes.

      To Nabiki's side, Rei took aim and fired steadily at their targets.  Nabiki's finger tightened on the trigger, she tried to ignore the expectant look on Asuka's face, only the trigger, the target and the fear remained.

      'Click.'  Nabiki opened her eyes to stare at a frowning Asuka.

      "You were expecting it to blow up in your face?" Asuka asked, as Rei pulled her target back to the firing line on a wire.  "Even Wondergirl can punch the center out of a target.  Yet you and Horseface close your eyes when you fire.  Why?"

      "I don't know."  Nabiki glanced at the LeMat pistol.

      "Then cock the pistol and fire again."

      "It didn't shoot."  Nabiki was actually very glad of that.

      "Some of the shells are empties, others are squibs, the rest are normal.  You'll never know, I spun the cylinder so even I wouldn't know and give it away."  Asuka tapped her foot impatiently.

      "You must learn."  Rei walked over with her target.  Nabiki could have covered the ragged hole with her palm.  "Captain Katsuragi's and Ryoji Kaji's pistols were ineffective.  Mine was not.  It is reasonable to believe yours would be equally effective."

      "It's not mine, it's Raccoon's."

      "That is an excuse," Rei said sternly, staring at Nabiki.

      "I hate to agree with Wondergirl - "

      "More than she knows," Rei said.

      Asuka frowned at the interruption, "Anyway, anything that would help prevent our deaths is what's important.  Tampering with the pilots is like tampering with the fuses of atomic bombs."

      "You're making it sound like we're above ordinary people."  Nabiki didn't like that one bit, it reminded her too much of the `honorable` martial artists of Nerima.

      "We hold ourselves to a higher standard," Rei amplified.

      "That means we aren't expendable either," Asuka added.

      "How does that apply to learning how to use this thing?"  Nabiki considered tapping the pistol, but she was afraid it might go off.

      "Someone evidently wanted us to have these," Asuka explained, "I don't know why we got them, but they plainly work on things that regular guns don't hurt.  Yes, I'm worried why one of our enemies would want us so well armed, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth."

      "I hate this!" Nabiki said, as Asuka turned her back to the targets, then stood where she could watch Nabiki's eyes.

      "Keep practicing," Asuka insisted as she examined Rei's target, "Do you always shoot that well?"

      Rei paused, considered, "Only when I have a gun."

      "That's always!  Schiesse!" Asuka complained, "Why do you have to be so literal?"

      "It is who I am," Rei replied, for once, without a trace of apology.

      Nabiki pulled the trigger again . . . again, nothing happened except she flinched as the hammer fell.  She angrily recocked the hammer, aimed and pulled the trigger.

      The blast frightened her, she completely missed the target.  She was glad she didn't hit anyone with the wild shot.

      "Not as bad as you expected?" Asuka asked.

      Nabiki glared at the smiling girl.  "Worse," she said.

      "Get a decent grip on the pistol, now you know it isn't going to hurt you, maybe you can use it to hurt someone else."

      The temptation to hit Asuka over the head with it overwhelmed her fear.  Nabiki managed to control herself.  Instead, she took aim, and fired . . . or would have if there'd been a live shell under the hammer.  She got Asuka's point, that she was scaring herself more than the pistol should have scared her.  The next one was a live load, it wasn't as scary as the first.  When the follow up was live, that really shook her up.  Asuka's comments on her flinching didn't help.  Nabiki knew she was doing it wrong, she didn't know why.

      "You're as bad as Horseface," Asuka told her, "I'll bet no one ever told him firearms are the martial art, if you don't count plotting artillery."

      "What about if guns are illegal?" Nabiki asked.

      "They were illegal in Europe almost since their inception.  So the knights and local lords could do whatever they liked to their subjects, and wouldn't have to worry about a bullet in the head from some farmer who didn't like them taking liberties with his daughter.  That doesn't mean the criminals or the desperate didn't make their own."


      "The simple fact is: You - have - to - learn," Asuka told her.

      Nabiki glanced at Rei, who was busily cutting the center out of another target.

      Nabiki continued firing, now flinching more at Asuka's comments on her accuracy, rather than the gun going off.

      Towards the end of the day, her hand was starting to just ache.

      They finished unloading their gear from the plane.  Misato couldn't figure out why Daifitsu carried such a load of equipment for such a short mission.

      "I'll go see the girl," she told him, "You can go and survey where she thought she saw the thing."

      "How am I supposed to do that, unless she tells me where it was?" Deimatsu asked.

      "She must have told someone," Misato told him.

      He shrugged in response.  She angrily ordered everyone into the waiting jeeps and trucks, then they proceeded out of the city to the Matsuda residence.

      The large convoy drew curious and fearful looks from the citizens, as it traveled down the country roads.

      Misato, in the lead jeep, wasn't that interested.  However, it bothered her that mothers saw the NERV logo on the vehicles and instantly dragged their children inside.  She looked at the others in the jeep, they all accepted it with bemused silence.

Sports Agents

      Shinji followed Ranma to the ballfield.  Nabiki was with Rei-chan and Asuka.  Shinji was more surprised that Asuka was being civil to both Nabiki and Rei-chan than Rei-chan's request that 'The females need some time alone together.'  What was even more surprising was that Rei-chan asked, and Asuka ordered, him not to leave Saotome alone.  He'd already come to that conclusion himself.  He had told Asuka about it, then warned her that when next she got on a rant about how different she was from `Wondergirl`, he would remind her of this moment.  He'd retreated so quickly, she hadn't reacted, at least not when the reaction would have damaged his hearing.

      It ought to give her apoplexy, he smiled.

      The two guards walked with the two boys.  Sammi slightly in front and to one side, Tomiyo behind and to the other side.  Shinji thought it was eerie that he could have two additional people around him, but for all their reaction to his and Ranma's conversation, the two boys might have been alone.

      At the ballfield, they were holding the tryouts for the softball team.  The team came from the school the pilots would also be going to, when the new term started.  Mirei was trying out, and Ranma had gone on and on how he wanted to cheer her on.

      Shinji was just glad to be out in the sunshine.  Without Misato around, he'd actually managed to thoroughly clean the apartment, and it was likely to stay that way for a day or two.  He wondered who was stuck cooking for and cleaning up after Misato in Osaka.

      There were a lot of families standing around with their daughters.  He wondered why the fuss over the team, it wasn't as if there was a national championship for girls' softball.  He'd thought it was primarily for fun.

      Ranma spotted Mirei's parents and headed in that direction.

      The two minders got a thorough looking over from their counterparts who were discretely guarding the family.

      "Oh, good!  You came!" Mirei hugged Ranma, "Here to cheer me on to my eventual victory!" she smiled, "And you brought some others to cheer."

      "Well, I figured you could use the help, you still can't hit my fastball," Ranma said sternly.

      "Radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns can't hit your fastball."  She frowned at him.

      Shinji introduced himself, then watched the girls enjoying the game.  He also saw a group of older teenaged girls watching the Junior High School girls, all chattering about this and that.  He could almost imagine they were scouting.  He envied their ordinary existence, when a day watching a ball game was a treat to break the boredom.  Instead of a chance to escape the excitement of his `regular` life.

      As Mirei came up to bat, the pitcher and team captain, Tomoe Usagi, sneered and threw a curve that had baffled many of the other girls.  Mirei calmly put it out past the outfielders.  She ran the bases.  Shinji saw she was surer on her feet than when he'd last seen her.  Later there was catching, throwing to other players.  About half the girls were rejected and went home.  Mirei continued to shine.

      Shinji wondered why she fought so hard for this.  He muddled through, doing what he had to do, rather than what he wanted.

      But what do you want? he asked himself.  He liked being with the others, especially Rei-chan, but he also liked being with Nabiki-san, and Asuka, and even Raccoon and Ranma, in progressively smaller doses.  He also liked helping and being needed, that he'd never expected.  Yet that didn't answer the question of what he wanted.  Ranma wanted to be a MARTIAL ARTIST.  Rei-chan wanted to be an EVA pilot, so did Asuka.  He couldn't figure out what Raccoon wanted, but he doubted he didn't want something.  He was the only one who was confused and clouded this way.  He envied the others' surety, he sometimes wished he had it.  Then he'd think about 'after the war', what would become of the others.  What would Asuka and Rei do, with no more enemies to fight?  What would Ranma do to support himself?  He wasn't a very good teacher, Nabiki-san was a lot better, but she didn't have the obsession with The Art Ranma did.  She'd find something a lot more lucrative than teaching martial arts.  The `adults` were in the same fix, whether they thought about it or not.  Once they defeated the Angels, his father and Misato would have to step down, as the U.S. military eliminated the combat wing of NERV.  Ritsuko-sensei and Maya might still have jobs as researchers, but that wasn't something he wanted to do.

      Once the war was over, he wanted to put as much distance between himself and NERV as possible.  Maybe never see or hear about Angels and EVAs again.

      And again, he came back to the same problem: what did he want?  He could search a thousand years for what he didn't want.  Finding what he did was proving nearly impossible.

      Then he glanced up as one of the older girls was walking towards him.  She'd been staring at him for a while, he'd thought that was particularly weird.  With Ranma only a short distance away, why would anyone look at him?  Why would any girl?  Especially a cute one.

      The guards came alert as she unerringly homed in, and another followed in her wake.

      "It is you!"  The girl stopped about 3 meters away.  She had short, dark hair, and the same intense look Asuka sometimes got.  "I recognized you from the news reels!"

      Shinji wasn't sure if that, and her enthusiasm, were good or bad.

      "I'm Morisato Megumi, and I work at the college."

      Shinji bowed.  "Ikari Shinji."

      The other girl approached.  "Trying to get hired as a 'musu'?" a taller, prettier girl with long hair and a predatory expression asked Morisato-san, "He's a little young, don't you think?"

      Shinji blushed, he'd heard the stories about that at the orphanage.  `Extra` girls were sent to Tokyo and `sold` to American Servicemen and rich workers, 'musu' came from the word daughter 'musume'.  It was one of the undiscussed reasons NERV, the University and the military had Japanese girls all over the place.  They were cheap, and worked just as hard as anyone else.

      Slavery was technically illegal, but when the choice was between servitude and starvation, servitude became much more attractive.  Besides, a female factory worker only earned 16 cents a day, tack on free room and board, and a few dollars a week was a fortune.  He'd also heard rumors that a lot of the 'musu' were not merely servants, but prostitutes.

      Shinji did not need those particular services.  He also knew that Misato and Asuka would kill him if he `bought` a girl.  He suspected Rei and Nabiki would help.  Raccoon and Ranma would only intervene to prolong his suffering.

      "What did you want me for?"  Now he was hoping she was mad at him for something.

      "Your autograph, silly."  She smiled at him.

      He took the little notebook and signed his name to her.  She seemed absurdly pleased he'd remembered her name.  Once she headed away, the pretty one stared at him with venom that matched Asuka's worst, then she turned away.

      Ranma or no Ranma, I'm getting out of here!  Shinji turned had headed out the way they came in.

      Jeff walked through the woods outside of Osaka.  He hadn't quite figured out what he was looking for.  Natsumi had led them out here, then Captain Katsuragi took her to the interrogation team, over a small hill from the site.  She'd looked so scared when she left with the Captain, but his `commander` had ordered him to help the science teams.  Now they were questioning her, if they were doing it the ham-fisted way NERV Security did most things, they wouldn't get good quality information.  He hoped the Navy team had the good sense to play `good cop` to NERV's automatic `bad cop`.

      He already knew she was holding something back, something he'd have to get from her personally.  Then figure out how to reveal the information without getting her in trouble for not divulging it, he thought.

      His first clue to the deeper mystery was the discarded tie, it was snake skin, and at least a dozen people walked right past it without seeing it.

      Dark blue with gold thread on a pile of leaves? he thought that was a coincidence that stretched credulity, 'If it had been a snake, it would have bitten you.'

      He was beginning to get the idea this whole thing was a message.  He pocketed the tie, he could run an analysis after everyone was asleep.  Or trying to sleep, once 'Chainsaw' Katsuragi gets going, nobody will be getting any sleep, Jeff thought with a smile, I could refight the battle of Kursk in the hotel's hallways and no one would notice.  He still wondered what had possessed the good Captain to insist on a suite at the hotel, with the two of them sharing it.  He'd been expecting to camp out near the investigation site, and packed accordingly.

      "With the way she snores, I probably will be camping out," he muttered angrily, "Just to get some sleep."

      While the rest of the investigating team chattered about background radiation, soil chemistry, microbe mortality rates, and even latent moisture retention, he wondered what a Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrograph would make of the residue the 'Angel's' appearance had left.  Or better yet, an Atomic Spectrograph.

      A few elements not on the Periodic Table, he thought, Atoms composed of nonstandard particles and odd sub-nuclear particles.  Knowing how the machines operated in the future didn't mean he could build one, or even duplicate its effects with magic.

      But Chaugnar Faugn was an expert in genetic manipulation, he had a few spells to assist him in those endeavors, he thought, and shuddered at the implications of those spells and their effect, if he dared use them.  He wasn't insensate to the horror, but it offended him more than it frightened him.  Disgust, rather than rage or terror, motivated him.  Those creatures, their enemy, were unsubtle, clumsy, arrogant.  For all his powers and skills, Chaugnar Faugn and his lesser `brothers` were appetites, sophisticated, brilliantly intelligent, and alien, but just appetites in the final analysis.  They would consume the universe, not because they savored the flavor, but because they could. Good and evil had as little to do with it as a greedy two-year-old with a fistful of stolen cookies: he had them because he was somehow better or favored, not because he made them or even understood they had to be made.  It disgusted him.

      Glancing around at the people, the human beings working so diligently around him, he wondered how many of them could escape the same trap if they were simply given the vast powers he and the others would gain from the Angels they'd helped kill.  If they'd take it as their due, as fortunately none of the pilots had.  If they would hide from it, as Ranma and Asuka seemed to.  Or like him, would they investigate, think about what to do with it, remember the creatures they once were and . . .

      "God!  I'm getting maudlin early this year."  He hated this time of year.  He knew why he got this way, he knew all the theories, explanations and excuses.  That didn't make his reactions any more acceptable.  He had a job to do, in a few weeks he could put it all behind him for another year, until then, he hated how his mind kept wandering down odd tangents, instead of focusing on the task before him.  He definitely hoped none of the others caught him acting like this.  He didn't need then unnerved by what had always been a temporary condition.

      That's easy, he thought, It wasn't Nyarlathotep.  Do the clues point to who was masquerading as him?  Or are they to divert me to thinking Yig was masquerading as him?

      "Coyote," he said, "It fits the legends.  I'll have to find out if Shinto contains a similar creature in their mythology, a trickster but not malignant.  No one tanuki could do all this."

      But would the local Coyote come all the way here, or was it someone else with a worldwide range? he asked himself.  Nyarlathotep had many enemies and rivals among the Great Old Ones and the Outer Gods.  Jeff could even suspect the Elder Gods.  But aside from the obvious culprit, it could be any of them, including Nyarlathotep himself playing his own games.  The only thing he was sure of, was it was a single actor.  These creatures might have a partner or lover, but these creatures definitely didn't operate by committee.

      So who hates the Crawler enough to stage this?  And, who would be willing to risk the Crawler's wrath when he finds out?

      The first group had too many members.  He could exclude only the most idiotic and distant.  The second list was much shorter, on Earth, shorter still.

      Only Cthulhu, Yig, Ithaqua and Tsathoggua have the guts and the skills to pull this off.  No cold, so no Ithaqua; that leaves the three biggies.

      He remembered the snake-skin bow-tie, and Asuka describing it as a relative of the hoop-snake.

      So, Yig wants in on our little games.  'Brother Jonathan' warned me about that.  So, does this presage a more active role, or just a little creative rearrangement, like Nyarlathotep sending Cthugha at us?  Jeff found he had no answers.

      "Why'd you leave?"  Ranma found Shinji and Tomiyo a short distance from the ballfield, as everyone else was going home.

      "It was a little much," Shinji explained, "Did Mirei get on the team?"

      "Of course!"  Ranma thought the question was silly, "She was practicing with me after all."  He posed triumphantly.

      He smiled as Shinji just rolled his eyes.  The game with the Inspector had taught him the advantage of being `more Ranma` than usual.

      "And what about you?" Sammi addressed Tomiyo, "You couldn't keep your eyes off her!"

      Ranma watched the older man squirm.

      "That is quite a Lolita complex you've got.  You dirty old man," Sammi teased, "You're 20, she's only 13."

      "I thought she was twelve."  Shinji seemed confused.

      "She had a birthday," Ranma explained.

      "And she didn't invite you to the party?" Shinji sounded amazed, Ranma knew when people were teasing him.

      "It was the same day as Hiroko's funeral," Ranma told him.

      Now Shinji squirmed.  "I'm getting as bad as you are, at sticking my foot in my mouth."

      "HEY!" Ranma protested at the smirking boy.  He frowned at the swiftly hidden laughs and smiles on the two guards.

      "So," Ranma said to change the subject, "What do you want to do?  Mirei went home to fall asleep.  I'll never understand girls, I'd be celebrating."

      "I want to hunt down the 'Ghost of Tokyo'," Shinji said.  "It scared me to death when I heard it wailing the other night."

      Ranma shuddered, remembering the unearthly screeching.  It had sounded so close.  "If I boiled ca . . . ca . . . "

      "Felines," Sammi supplied, it didn't help.

      "Yeah, those.  If I boiled a bunch of'em alive, I couldn't make a noise like that."

      "Do you really think it's the sound of a mythos creature's spirit being dragged down to Hell?" Shinji repeated the most common explanation.

      "I would prefer the idea it's the world celebrating the death of one of those creatures," Sammi said with a smirk, "It would definitely support my belief that the world is inherently unearthly."

      Ranma frowned at their laughter.  There was something truly appalling and unnerving about anything that spooky, sounding so happy.

The Cry of All, the Game of Few

      The invitation, for Jeff to dine at the Matsuda residence, was completely unexpected, and very discreetly delivered.  With Captain Katsuragi headed for 'something to eat', read: something to get drunk on, nobody noticed Jeff slipping out of the hotel.

      The five generations of the Matsuda family was very interested that 'bookworm' Natsumi actually knew, let alone was friends with a boy, let alone an EVA pilot, even if he was a gaijin.  While no one actually said it out loud, that was the gist of the conversations.

      Jeff was glad their reactions to him were more horrified fascination, as opposed to xenophobia.  So he took it all in stride, then with Natsumi's permission, told the story of the Lliogor attack on the school, and Natsumi's considerable assistance.  Natsumi blushed at the description of her bravery, her cool steadiness under danger and great responsibility.

      "It is not praise, it is no more than the truth," Jeff told the group.  There were whispers and comments.  Jeff couldn't quite make out the words, the colored conversation blocks hovering over the table and the people mostly showed amazement and shock.  There was also a fair degree of teasing from the younger kids, and some from those of Natsumi's own age.

      Natsumi was desperately trying to keep her composure.  Then came the questions to both of them.

      "Should we expect the same here?" the mother of the clan asked worriedly.

      "I doubt it," Jeff said truthfully, "They seem to be pursuing a policy of breaking our greatest strength.  Osaka should remain a safe haven, unless we fall.  Then there won't be a safe place in this entire part of the galaxy."

      Perhaps I shouldn't have said it so absolutely, Jeff thought, But we'll need Natsumi with us in Tokyo, with Hiroko gone.

      The muted conversations continued, politely excluding him, as they discussed the future.  The children began clearing the dishes.

      "Please come with me," Natsumi told him.  Jeff followed her into the kitchen, her uncle followed close enough to make sure nothing untoward occurred, and to make sure there were no eavesdroppers.

      "Sensei," she said quietly, "I suddenly remembered something.  The Angel's head changed just before it looked at me, it changed into a . . . what's that noisy American snake?" she spoke very rapidly in low tones.

      "Rattlesnake, Crotalus or Sistrurus?"

      "Yes."  She nodded, "A pit viper.  I didn't see a tail or fangs, but it changed and it looked right at me," she paused, she'd been speaking as if it were all one word.  "Why would it do something like that?"

      "It might have been a message, an Angel can't exactly send a telegram, right?"

      "Yes," Natsumi considered.

      "Are you all right?" Jeff asked.

      "It is a little disconcerting that I'd be so . . . involved."

      "Well, part of it helped Miss Tendo, she hasn't been able to deal with Miss Ayami's death."

      "I'm glad I could help."  The girl smiled.  "I wish I could do more."

      "The job is hers, I don't think there's any way to hurry it along."

      "If you tried, it would lower the `yield`," she joked.

      "And no real catalysts.  Although, she is on the road to recovery, it will take time."

      Natsumi nodded, then led her guest back to the rest of the family.

      Misato was frustrated, the can opener she'd brought with her had broken, and she hadn't been able to get this can of beer open.  Trying a pen and a rock she'd picked up outside the hotel had opened the can all right.  Just enough to spray her with beer, and send the can sailing out of her grip and across the room of the suite.  The rest of the empties fell to the floor with a series of clangs.  She stood there, ringing some of the beer out of her hair and t-shirt.

      She thought of the desk clerk, It was none of his business how I dressed when I went outside.  It's not like there was anyone else around.  She thought a t-shirt and shorts were perfectly acceptable.

      There was a knock on the door.

      "Come in!"  She hated wearing beer, it was sticky and it didn't smell very good, apart from being a waste of perfectly good beer.

      "That is to be taken internally," Daimitsu said as he entered.

      Smart mouthed kid! Misato thought, and wondered why Gendo had sent the two of them to investigate the sighting.  Nothing she couldn't have handled herself.  The last thing she needed was his sardonic looks, from objecting to sharing a suite to the look he was giving her now.  He always made her feel like she was stupid.

      "My opener broke," she told him.

      "Could be a sign from above to quit for the night, Captain."  He stared pointedly at the not-so-small pile of empty cans littering the floor.

      "Are you saying you think I drink too much?"

      "I don't think you care what I think, Captain, about much of anything."

      Misato frowned, that was the other thing he kept doing.  She'd ask a direct question, and he'd deflect it.  What he said was always the truth, but it was never an answer to her question.

      "So do you have an opener or not?" she asked, "Yes or no answer."

      "Yes, of course."  He sat at the room's table and dropped the empties, one at a time, into a trash bag.  Only the sound of steel on steel broke the silence.

      "Well?" Misato asked.

      "Well what?" he asked too innocently.  Clank.  Clank.

      "Are you going to give it to me?" she shouted at him.

      "I'm a little young."  He continued dropping the empties in the bag.  "Besides, I really think Rit-chan would be a lot more - "

      "I meant the OPENER!" she shouted at him.

      ". . . abstemious.  The opener of course."  He tied the bag closed and took it to the kitchenette.  "How much is it worth to you?" he asked as he walked back to the chair, "I'm interested what one can of beer is worth to you."

      "I could order you," she told him as she leaned way over to stare at him.  He didn't even look, staring at her face.

      "You have no authority."  He smiled at her stare.  "It's just a simple question.  I didn't say I was going to charge you, but I didn't say I won't.  I just asked for a price.  You have already had fifteen beers, you wasted one, how much are the last two worth?"

      "How about letting you sleep indoors tonight?  It's supposed to rain."  Misato stood up and glared at him.

      "Considering your snoring, I'll be sleeping in the jeep anyway."

      "I don't snore!" she countered, folding her arms under her breasts .

      "Then somebody's been running a metal stamping plant in your bedroom.  So what else?"

      "What else what?  For the opener?  Okay, a dime."

      "How about a dollar?"

      "I can go out an' buy two beers for that!  And a new opener!"

      "Not at 23:00 on a weekend, this place rolls up the sidewalks at 21:00 hours.  I doubt there's a bar open anywhere in town."

      Misato glared at him again, again to no effect.  She couldn't order him.  "Okay, a dollar."

      "How about two?"

      "You just agreed to one!" she complained.

      "No, I asked you if one was acceptable, now I'm asking if two is acceptable."

      Misato glanced at the two cans sitting there, she really wanted another beer, she could put it on her expense account as a bribe.  "Okay, two."

      "How about five?"

      "I just agreed to two, now you want five?!  If I say five, you'll say ten, how about fifty, or a hundred?"

      "One hundred dollars it is," he said, "Last offer, no price increases beyond $100, in U.S. dollars."

      Misato blanched, it took her weeks to earn that much, and he knew it.  Not even ten beers were worth that.  She changed tactics.  "Why are you doing this?" she asked softly, "There's something else you really want, isn't there?"  She was glad she was wearing her T-shirt and shorts, they'd help.  "Something you're too embarrassed to ask for?"

      She sat in his lap, facing him, trapping his legs between hers.  "You don't have to be so mean," she said as she pouted, "You could just ask.  Maybe I'd say yes."  She slid her hands down his back, leaned into him.

      "You're wearing your beer," Deimitsu said scornfully.

      Misato bit back her automatic reply, and kept a smile on her face.  "Maybe you should help me with that, get all those hard to reach places."

      "It's not in my back pants pockets, so you can remove your hands, Captain."

      Misato stood in a huff.

      A moment later he stood up and walked to his room.

      Misato fumed, I should have known he wouldn't have it on him, she thought angrily at the embarrassment of getting caught `searching` him that way.

      A few minutes later, he walked out, wearing a new shirt and tie, and his coat.  He was carrying the opener.  "It's good to know the value of things.  How can you expect us to respect you, Captain, if you do not respect yourself."  He carefully opened both cans and left the opener atop them.  "Case in point: you refused to pay $100, but you'd let someone you hate, cop a feel or even play a little game of slap and tickle.  Or would you have let me go further?  Good night, Captain."

      He left, closing the door behind him, just before Misato threw the opener against the door so hard she scored the wood.

      She looked at the two beers, decided they weren't worth the teasing she'd gotten from Daimitsu, but she wasn't going to waste them either.

      Ranko glanced around the dream dojo.  She hadn't done anything except basic practice for a while, now she had reason to regret that decision.  This time, she doubted it would be practice.  The walls of the dojo seemed a kilometer away.  The intervening space was filled with Ranmas, Rankos, Raccoons, Nab-chans, Asukas, Reis and Shinjis.  Some were dressed in Ranma and Ranko's red and black, other in Raccoon's suits, Asuka's yellow dress, Shinji's slacks and white shirt, Nab-chan's slacks and pull overs.  There was no limit to the mixing and matching, with girls wearing boys or girls' clothes, boy the same.  A Ranma in a suit, and Raccoon in red and black, Asuka wearing Shinji's outfit, another in her yellow dress.

      "There's a thousand of them!" Ranko gasped, suddenly all of them turned to look at her.

      Oops, she thought as they got ready to fight, she recognized the stances they all took, they were hers.

      "Tens of thousands," a gravelly voice told her.

      Ranko turned and looked right into the maw and glowing yellow eyes of the dragon she's seen before.  The one that turned her into a mini-Unit 04.  "What is this?" she squeaked.

      "The Koan is an old Zen technique, meditating on an impossible problem.  The Mondo is another, requiring a spontaneous answer, also instructive.  You have to decide which this is.  Consider your actions . . . or . . . take this as a chance at cathartic violence, while you have the advantage.  As you saw, all of them are as skilled in martial arts as you are."

      Ranko was ashen, "I can't beat 10,000 people as good as I am at martial arts!"

      Especially if they can manipulate dreams as well as the originals! Ranko thought in terror.

      "Koan it is.  They don't have the ability to manipulate dreams," the Dragon smiled, not the least reassuringly, "Also, they aren't all hostile.  Some don't want to fight, some want to be on your side."

      "Great, so how badly am I outnumbered?" Ranko asked.

      "You and your allies might outnumber those who will fight you no matter what.  All you have to do is find them.  How well do you know your fellow pilots?  What really matters to them, and to yourself?"

      Ranko frowned.  She wanted to beat up someone.  She didn't want to sort through a crowd.  She didn't want to play games or politics.  "Why are you doing this?" she asked angrily.

      "Because I just discovered one of our `enemies` is willing to pay to be left alone.  The question of attacking humanity has already been answered, it won't," the Dragon told her, "I believe it.  If you could ask one of them for anything, what would it be?  An end to your `curse`, mastery of ALL Martial Arts?  'Nab-chan's' heart and soul, or perhaps Raccoon's and Nab-chan's?"

      Ranko was thinking about what she would ask for, if she asked.  Everything the Dragon had suggested elicited a - strong - reaction from Ranko.  None of those things were what she'd ask for, tempting as some of them were.

      "You don't know, do you?" the Dragon smiled, "What you'd ask for?"

      Ranko didn't feel like smiling back.  "No."

      "That's why," the Dragon's smile vanished, "This creature won't try to pervert what you ask for, but it doesn't understand humans at all."

      "Oh, that's good news," Ranko replied, "I'll tell you what I really want - "

      "A fight," the Dragon smirked, more than 90% of the figures vanished, "Enjoy, remember, many carry guns."  The Dragon vanished as Ranko dove for cover.

      Ranko glanced up, and saw most were carrying hockey sticks, swords, pool cues, bicycle chains, but no guns.  All were advancing at a run, slipping into formations.

      "No, I don't know what I want.  At least there are only a few hundred of them now."  She wondered how Shinji had summoned those rabbit-spiders, she could use a herd of cats, or elephants, right now.

      She sideslipped, trying to draw off a few of them.  Orders among them broke the force into platoons that moved in excellent coordination.  Ranko heard Asuka and Raccoon calling orders to their counterparts in the other platoons.

      "What the heck am I supposed to do now?" Ranko shouted as she ran away at her best speed, changing the dream's parameters so she was faster than either Rei or Raccoon.  The Dragon's mocking laughter was her only answer.  The platoons ground forward at a steady jog.

      Okay, think of the battle! Ranko thought, as she turned and charged the nearest group, there were four Rankos wearing her current clothes in it.  That platoon drew back, as two other platoons with only one Ranma or Ranko in them moved to intercept.

      She crashed into them, and let eighty bodies wash over her.

      "Where the HELL did she go?  Schiesse!" Ranko, now disguised as Asuka in her yellow dress, stood up with the other confused combatants.

      'Fan out, stay as squads,' came the orders from a dozen throats, mostly Asukas and Raccoons, but a few Shinjis, Nab-chans and Reis were included.  A Rei in a suit even confronted her.

      "You see her, you do not try to be a hero, you call for help!  Do you understand?!" Rei stared at her.

      Ranko gulped and nodded.  For several hours, she assisted with the `search` for her.  For some reason, nobody had the idea that Ranko had infiltrated their search parties.

Fourth of July

July 1, 1947

      Nabiki looked askance at the weird suit.  Ugly gray color, none of the fittings that give the real plugsuits a sense of style, she thought it looked like a wetsuit.

      "The layers of lead, suspended carbon and other materials will give you increased radiation resistance," Ritsuko told her and Rei, as they sat in front of Ritsuko's desk.  Diagrams of the EVAs covered every flat surface except the floor and ceiling.  The ones on the walls clearly showed some piece of equipment to be added to the EVAs.

      "Why do we need greater radiation resistance?" Nabiki asked, because she knew Rei wouldn't.

      "We have had four new engines for the EVAs delivered.  Two of the S type and two of the S2 type.  The S2 type is a much more radical system.  You and Rei will test that system in Units 00 and 04, while Asuka and Ranko are testing the S type in Units 02 and 01."

      "What about Ranma and Shinji?" Nabiki asked.

      "The S2 engines have had a bad effect on males," Ritsuko didn't elaborate.

      "When is Raccoon getting back?" Nabiki was getting ever more worried about this.

      "He and Misato have finished checking out what's happening in Osaka, but they'll be back the day after tomorrow, just in time for Jeff to celebrate the Fourth of July."

      Nabiki nodded.

      "Also, you can seal the suits if the L.C.L. becomes contaminated.  There is a system to oxygenate the L.C.L., for a time, to allow you to escape."

      "The face plates are opaque, how do we see?" Rei asked.

      "While you're in the EVA, the neural link will allow you to see as you normally do, in your mind.  Once outside, you can release the face plate and depend on the outside air, unless it's too contaminated.  Then remember the audio alarm is directly over the main door, just head towards the noise.  The face plate isn't completely opaque, you can see through it in bright light."

      They nodded.

      "One important note, the oxygen supply is limited in time, there's an alarm that goes off when you have five minutes left," she held up the basketball-sized tank and set it off.  The alarm was quite noticeable.  "Do you have any further questions?"

      Nabiki shook her head, this all sounded like a very bad idea.  She wondered if they were rushing things like this because they didn't want anyone to find out.

July 2, 1947

      Nabiki was glad that Ritsuko and Ranko were helping her on with the new suit, it was stiff and heavy, she could barely move.

      Asuka and Maya were suiting up Rei.  The pair waddled towards the EVA bay, "I think you should have loaded us aboard a forklift," Nabiki complained, she was already sweating from the exertions.  She hated getting in the EVAs all sweaty, it made the L.C.L. taste salty, Salty sewage, yum yum, Nabiki thought.

      Once in the EVA bay, they transferred to the command chairs, which were then loaded into the EVAs.  Nabiki wasn't happy with how worried Ritsuko looked about this.  "I have a sudden urge to update my will," Nabiki told Rei as she ran the initial power ups.

      "It does not matter."  Rei's calm irritated Nabiki.

      "It's better to have a chance to say goodbye . . . it's what I really miss about Hiroko.  I never got a chance to say goodbye . . . or thank you."  Nabiki wouldn't let herself cry, she had a job to do here.

      Ritsuko headed into the control room.  They where already running tests on the powered down S2 engines.

      "Sempai," Maya said, "We just received word: Captain Katsuragi and Pilot Davis's plane disappeared crossing the mountains."

      Ritsuko closed her eyes, "There are a lot of explanations, we won't tell them until we actually know something."

      "Yes, Sempai," Maya said.

      Ritsuko activated the comm system, "Your vital signs are a little elevated," Ritsuko told the two girls.

      "It's the weight of the suits," Nabiki told them, "It's hard to move."

      "Any problems with the life support systems or any subsystems?" Ritsuko asked.

      "No, Doctor," Rei told her.

      "None I can see," Nabiki said.


      "All systems nominal: no odd harmonics, no anomalies."

      "Engage S2 engines, 1% output," Ritsuko was sweating bullets, if this system worked, it would free the EVAs from the need for batteries or tethers.  They had worked out the technical considerations months ago, in theory.  They had only recently solved the political ramifications.  The Allied Governments had a collective attack of apoplexy, at the idea that the EVAs would lose the `safety` factor that a tether or running out of power provided.  The S engines were the compromise, giving the EVAs a range measured in hours, instead of minutes, or weeks.

      That was acceptable, but the S2 engines were even more acceptable, if NERV could install them in separate vehicles.  Vehicles smaller than an aircraft carrier or a battleship.  A railroad boxcar could carry an S2 engine and all the support gear.  This increased the places in which an EVA could operate.  The pilots' political reliability had been the real question that had been answered recently.  So the months-delayed tests could finally go ahead.

      "No anomalies," Maya told her.

      "Nabiki, Rei, any problems?"

      "No, Doctor."

      "Nothing serious to tell," Nabiki said.

      "What?"  Ritsuko felt a twinge of alarm.  "What's the problem?"

      "Well," Nabiki embarrassedly admitted, "It's like static electricity, occasionally flowing through the suit, then me."

      "Does it hurt?" Maya asked.

      "Quite the opposite," Rei added.

      "It tickles," Nabiki told them.

      Maya giggled, "Well that would make up for being in the plug for hours and hours."

      While she could frown, Ritsuko couldn't manage the appropriate stern glare at her assistant, "Well, tell us if it increases, or becomes painful or irritating.  Increase to 10%," Ritsuko ordered, she glanced at the observation gallery, where the other pilots and some of the staff looked on.  Ritsuko had a bad feeling about something, she didn't know why, she couldn't quantify it, "Any problems?"

      "No, Doctor."

      "Nothing," Nabiki told her, "Are you all right?"

      "Just nerves, if you detect any problem, report it immediately."

      "Yes, Doctor."

      "You'd better believe it," Nabiki said.

      Ritsuko let the test run for several minutes, she felt the eyes of the others on her, silently questioning her delay.  She could find no reason in the readings or the pilots' reactions for her unease.

      Without an excuse not to, "Increase to 50% output," she ordered.

      The lights dimmed briefly as the increase occurred.

      "A brief power surge, in the tether line," Maya reported, "The safety systems handled it easily."

      "Any other anomalies?" Ritsuko glanced over at the technical staff as she scanned the tapes from the chart recorders, there was nothing there to give grounds to her concerns.  Maybe I am just worried about Misato, that if I wasn't working here, I could be assisting in the search.  But I can't, she reminded herself.

      "Up to 75%, detach external tether."

      "Seventy . . . SEMPAI! 100%! 120%!" Maya's voice sounded distorted.

      The girls were both shouting indecipherably, the voices of the staff around here were a distorted garble.  She saw the pattern of lights forming around the EVAs, "Eject the plugs!" she ordered.  She saw Maya stab at the control, whether from her order or her own sense of the danger Ritsuko didn't know.

      The plugs rocketed up, struck the ceiling, the prayer Ritsuko had been ready to offer, that the eject system actually worked, died unspoken, as the plugs passed through the ceiling.  They didn't make craters or bore through, but passed through as if they had become as insubstantial as clouds or mist.  The plugs were through, and vanished from sight.  Ritsuko watched in horror as the light emitted from the EVAs shifted up-spectrum to higher energies, and the voices of the crew grew more distorted and blurred together.  She managed to get the emergency shutters down, before ultraviolet light flooded the control and observation galleries.

      Nabiki felt the rockets fire and was squashed forward against the forward control column.  The babble of shouts and orders had mixed and gotten shriller until they just cut off with a piercing whine, then that had cut off as well.  She couldn't see outside, she knew she wasn't connected to the EVA anymore.  Leaving only the sound of the rockets.  She'd managed to close the mask, sealing the suit.  The flight was extremely smooth, only the sounds of the rockets for a few seconds, then silence, complete, unearthly silence.  She slid back in the chair and braced herself for the inevitable crash landing.

      "Rei, can you hear me?  Rei?"

      She got no response, she wondered what had gone wrong, Everything appeared to be working, until we reached the 75% threshold.  The silence was so great, she could clearly hear her own heartbeat, and the blood coursing through her body.  The pressure that had crushed her to the column was gone.

      Then an explosion of sound, incredibly loud, like suddenly being thrown into a waterfall.  The plug seemed to be trying to shake itself apart, spinning violently on all three axes.  The sound of tearing metal seemed to prove it was succeeding.

      The side hatch ripped loose.  Nabiki watched in horror as the L.C.L. poured out, and burst into flame as it mixed with the outside air.  She couldn't make out anything outside because of the tumbling and the flames.  The initial jerk backward crushed her against the controls, then the force released the plug with another shriek of metal, and threw her back onto the seat.  Cold began seeping into her suit, then as if changing its mind, heat, heat and more heat.

      The centripetal forces pressed her back against the chair, as the plug spun and disintegrated in earnest.  Through the gaps torn in the walls of the plug, she spotted another plug some distance away, doing a similar disintegrating flip across the ground, before the violent motion threw her out of the plug and sent her skidding across the ground.

      She considered trying to make it over to the other crash site, When I can stand up, Nabiki felt she'd been beaten on every inch of her body, inside and out, then flash fried to preserve freshness.  She couldn't stand or move.  She collapsed, opened the faceplate, disgorging the L.C.L. from her system.  She discovered the rest of the suit was sealed shut, and she didn't have the strength to force the damaged closures open.  Darkness enfolded her.

      The sound of the low oxygen alarm woke Nabiki, she had a feeling it had been going off for a while.  She still felt bruised and burned, So it wasn't a bad dream, not that I haven't been having enough of those lately, she raised the faceplate all the way, and glanced down at the radiation plugsuit, soot streaks covered it.

      She wondered how she'd survived the impact that had destroyed the plug, And how am I going to get out of this stupid suit?

      She gritted her teeth and crawled towards the other crash site.  She saw men, in U.S. military uniforms, surrounding Rei, carefully loading her aboard a stretcher.

      "Hey," Nabiki managed.

      "There's another one," someone shouted in English, several men closed in, gingerly loading her aboard another stretcher.

      "I'm Nabiki Tendo," she told them, matching their use of English, "A NERV EVA pilot.  I have to contact NERV Tokyo."

      "First we have to get you to the base hospital, you scared the Hell out of a bunch of people around here."

      "Sorry," Nabiki told them as they loaded her into what looked like a hearse.  In the tail lights, she could make out the greenish to tan uniforms, Not Navy, probably.  "I hope we didn't land on anyone," she told them.  As she started blacking out again, she heard someone ask how they were going to explain this, one voice suggested a flying saucer, another a weather balloon crash.  She was glad it wasn't her problem.

Verify is an Event

July 4, 1947

      The tape tugging at her arm was the first thing she felt.  Slowly, Nabiki opened her eyes.  The room was a hospital, done in institutional drab.  A soldier sat near the door, on the only chair in the room.  He was reading a comic book.

      "This isn't the NERV med center," she said.

      "Yes, Ma'am."  The soldier snapped to his feet, saluted.  "I'll get a doctor, Ma'am."

      Nabiki watched him go, Ma'am, saluting? she wasn't sure about all of this.  She raised her head, then dropped it back, as exhaustion took her.  They'd somehow got the suit off her.  She could tell the hospital gown was military, as was the underwear.  She was too confused to really be worried about that.

      The doctor arrived a moment later, an Army green uniform under his white lab coat, "Miss Tendo, I must say, it's quite an honor to meet you and Miss Ayanami, even considering the circumstances and all the trouble you caused.  I am curious how you managed to get here."  He said as he checked her pupils and her pulse.

      Nabiki expected to get a thermometer in the mouth before she could answer, "We ejected during a power system test," Nabiki told him, then got the thermometer.

      "Miss Tendo, you are in the United States, an Air Force base in New Mexico to be more precise.  Do you have any idea how you made it all the way here?" he removed the thermometer, seemed to accept whatever it read.

      "No," the realization stunned Nabiki, she and Rei had crossed the Pacific Ocean!  She hadn't been able to time the flight, but it couldn't have been more than a few minutes, "This is impossible," she murmured.

      "Well," the doctor said, "We'll get that I.V. out, then let you rest."

      "I need to see Miss Ayanami."

      "I'm afraid she hasn't regained consciousness.  She was injured far worse than you were.  We had her in surgery, and she's recuperating nicely."

      That damned Nerima stamina, Nabiki thought, It seems I've got it in spades too.

      "You need to rest," the doctor continued, "I realize this is all a shock, but you should relax and heal.  You didn't come away from this unscathed either, you know."

      Nabiki nodded, she suspected she'd aggravated the injuries from the fight in the museum, "Have you contacted NERV?"

      The doctor's professional demeanor faltered, "We've been in contact with the Las Vegas base, that's the nearest base.  They'll be arranging transport when you are both well enough to travel."

      Nabiki didn't feel strong enough to argue.  She stared at the ceiling, then the tube in her arm, wondering about the insanity of the situation, "Happy Fourth of July."

      Later that day, Nabiki rolled into Rei's hospital room in a wheelchair.  The girl was still unconscious. Nabiki saw the I.V. going into her arm, and the four bottles feeding it.  She rolled beside the bed, took Rei's other hand and held it, hoping Rei was all right, that she'd wake soon.  Nabiki needed someone to talk to, she suspected they were keeping something from her.  Everytime she tried to bring it up, they changed the subject.  Considering that Gendo was not raising the roof to get his secret project back in hand, she wondered how bad it was at NERV Tokyo.  How many casualties?  Did they think she and Rei were dead too?  Or were they safer here?

      Nabiki lowered her head to the bed.  It's too much, she thought, Too much too soon.  She felt terribly beaten up, inside and out.  She idly wondered if the others were worried about her.

      She jerked her head up as an officer entered, he quickly removed his hat.  Nabiki noted the stars on his collar and the aviator's wings.

      "Miss Tendo, I'm pleased to see you up and around."

      "I heal very quickly, General," she smiled, "I also am violently allergic to bullshit.  When are we going to rejoin the other pilots?  When are we going back to NERV Tokyo?"

      "Miss Tendo," he stepped closer, rested his hand on her shoulder, "You and Miss Ayanami are the only pilots, NERV Tokyo is gone.  Not destroyed, it's simply not there anymore," he took a breath, "You'll be transferred to NERV Nevada at Las Vegas, they should be able to complete construction of two EVAs to allow you to return to service."

      "None of the other pilots or staff survived?" Nabiki felt the bottom drop out of the world, "What about Pilot Davis, and Captain Katsuragi?"

      "Pilot Davis and Captain Katsuragi disappeared on their flight back to base from Osaka."

      Nabiki suspected he'd memorized that fact, as if he'd expected her question.  "Anna Alice?"  Nabiki was grasping at straws, and she knew it.  Asuka's friend was the only other EVA pilot Nabiki knew of.  She also wondered what agonies the other girl was going through.  Maybe she needed to talk to someone who had gone through it.

      "I don't know.  I'm sorry, excuse me."

      Nabiki numbly watched the man leave.

      She felt Rei tighten her grip on her hand, "Shinji-kun," Rei murmured in her sleep.

      Nabiki wished she had something to say, she just felt empty.  She didn't have any comforting words for herself or Rei.  She laid her head on the bed, let the other girl's breathing lull her into a quiet state.  Nabiki wasn't eager for the nightmares to start again, she didn't want to feel the anger at the others for leaving her again.

      That Rei had to be going through the same, if not worse . . . Nabiki couldn't imagine what they would do.  Without Rei and Shinji, she would have drawn within herself, and never come out again.  If Rei was hit as hard, Nabiki didn't know what she was going to do.  If she could help Rei.  If she could help herself.

July 5, 1947

      Nabiki wasn't sure if it was a good idea to move Rei this way.  The plane was a converted B-24.  Raccoon or Kensuke would probably know the correct designation.  The berths were comfortable and Rei seemed secure, but Nabiki really wanted someone to talk to, but this was a very rush-rush, hush-hush mission.  So there was a full flight crew, a doctor, and two nurses, one for each of the Children, but none of them tried to talk to the EVA pilots.

      The takeoff and climb were smooth, as smooth as Nabiki remembered from the few modern commercial flights she'd been on.  They rapidly reached cruising altitude and the doctor and nurses checked they were secure, but none of the trio seemed willing to talk.

      Maybe this is how Ranma felt, Nabiki thought as the seconds seemed to crawl by.  They had told her the flight would be three hours.  Nabiki reached across the aisle to hold Rei's hand, a touchstone to the reality that had been, and was no longer.  She found the irony particularly bitter, she would have to see to Rei's mental health, after the girl had been looking out for her.  She wondered which of them had been worse prepared for the job they'd been forced to take on.

      She also knew there would be no last minutes saves.  There was no one left to accomplish them.  She didn't care who saw her cry.

      The old man who approached and sat next to the two girls said nothing, merely waited for her to notice him.  He reminded Nabiki of the old man who ran the American fried chicken franchise, it seemed an odd coincidence that this visitor had the eagles of a Colonel as well.  She also saw the cross on his collar.

      "I'm not Christian, Father - ?"

      "Brother Jonathan," the old man said in passable Japanese.

      Somehow his craggy face reminded her of Ranma, the man was a fighter, but he was also an honorable and gentle knight.  That reminder brought more tears, the man waited silently until she had finished.  "I'm sorry."

      "There's no shame, I've felt like that myself, on more than one occasion.  I was with the 442 Regimental Combat Team.  I learned a bit about Shinto and Buddhism.  So, I figured you might be a little mad at God right now, maybe you'd like to file a complaint, I can forward it, if you like."

      Nabiki smiled at that, she had some harsh words, words she wanted to tell Belldandy to her face.  She was supposed to be here to help Ranma.  While she hadn't done the best job, doing that job now would be impossible.  "I don't think he'd care to listen to what I'd say," Nabiki said, "I'm not sure he has in the past.  Of course neither did anyone else, my mother still died, my best friend still went away, and when I thought I could help him, my boyfriend was taken away.  I don't think I'm on speaking terms with the higher powers."

      "You want to sock one of them in the nose," Brother Jonathan said, a grin splitting his face.  "I met George S. Patton once, never saw a man quite as devout, nor as profane.  Sometimes an old friend has to be reminded of what's what and who's who.  I've admired you, Miss Tendo, and the others.  I haven't been able to tell you, I rarely leave the States."

      "But now you have the opportunity," Nabiki smiled, there was something intriguing about this Brother Jonathan, for all his 'aw-shucks' folksiness, she doubted she'd enjoy sitting against him in a negotiation, or across a poker table.  "I don't think there are any gods interested in me," Nabiki admitted.

      "Then how do you explain your visitor in the bath?" the old man had a twinkle in his eye at Nabiki's shock.  "There's a few that are interested.  Some don't have a dog in the fight, others most assuredly do, and they admire you, Miss Tendo, you and the others."

      "You mean the . . . Angels?" Nabiki whispered.

      The old man raised an eyebrow in confirmation.

      One of the Angels saved me?! Nabiki thought, she wasn't quite sure how to take that.  "You're serious?"

      The old man nodded again.  "Some want nothing to do with us.  Others want us to stay just as we are.  Some want to consume us, to nourish themselves on our outrage.  Others only want to watch us die.  All play the game using what ever tools come to hand."

      "So it doesn't care?" Nabiki said.  Typical, just something to be used to another's ends, Nabiki thought, Now I'm just like Ranma.

      "It might not, or it might care enough to just leave you alone," the old man explained, "Or it may want to help, by giving you whatever you want, or rather, whatever you ask for."

      Nabiki lay back and considered all the things she could wish for, and the difference between what she would wish for now, and what she would have wished for only a few months ago.  Money, influence and power seemed worth a lot less in the face of the loss of almost everyone and everything she cared about.

      Nabiki half listened to the people around her, as she stared at the titanic bay in front of her.  The base was impressive, the cavernous bay where they were assembling five EVAs was a step beyond impressive.

      "That one on the left is Unit 05," one of the techs told her, "That one is yours, Miss Tendo."

      Nabiki thought it was an odd-looking thing.  Not as slim as Units 00-02, nor serpentine like Unit 04.  Humanoid, like most EVAs, except it had three complete sets of arms, like some Hindu god.  It was also stockier and burlier-looking than the EVAs she was used to.

      "These have much increased physical strength and thicker armor," the same tech told her.  She realized either he liked to talk, or he'd been appointed spokesman.  "The armor is a type of spaced armor, as well as several built-in weapons systems.  Unit 06 is similar, as are Units 07 to 09."

      Which are actually further along in their construction, Nabiki thought, They weren't expecting we two alternates to need them.  No, we'd get the older Units, if we got anything.  Now they've got no choice.

      "Well, Units 05 and 06 had to be stripped down," another tech started, "To - "  The slap on the head interrupted him.

      "To test the S and S2 engines," Nabiki finished, suddenly everyone looked ashamed.  Nabiki felt rotten at bringing it up.  What had befallen NERV Tokyo was supposed to happen here.

      She didn't begrudge those people their survival, she still wished it had happened to someone besides her friends.  She was too shellshocked to react to her realization.

      "Um, Miss Tendo, we were wondering what kind of paint scheme you wanted," the lead spokesman took up his duties, even the subdued mood couldn't keep him quiet for long.  "Maybe you could give us a clue about how Miss Ayanami wants her Unit 06 to look."

      Clumsy an attempt as it was, Nabiki was actually grateful for the distraction.  Truly, Nabiki could have cared less about what color it was.  She was tempted to tell them 'white', and not explain the significance in Asia, as mourning colors.  "Gray and black camouflage, something that would blend in no matter the background," Nabiki told them.

      None of the techs speculated about why she'd want such a somber paint scheme, they simply argued about stripes versus lozenge patterns versus blotches.

      "As for Miss Ayanami's, paint it like a dragon: scales, fiery extra eyes, fingers like claws, teeth painted on the jaw, the whole nine-yards."

      "I thought she was the quiet one," the spokesman seemed disturbed by this.  That the self-proclaimed `expert` should have failed to realize something.

      "You've never seen her in combat," Nabiki said in a tone that implied she'd explained everything.  She also gave them her most enigmatic smile.  She knew Rei would take whatever they gave her, considering the tacky orange she was still stuck with.

      But our enemies will know, Nabiki thought, Revenants, or remnants, that's what we are.  All that's left, returned from the dead.

      She wondered where Belldandy was during the disaster, was she destroyed as well, or couldn't she leave Japan?  A spirit of the place, rather than worldwide.

      Or is it with Ranma gone, Nabiki no longer mattered in 'the greater-scheme-of-things' anymore? Nabiki asked herself.

      The rest of the tour was mildly interesting, but Nabiki knew it was mainly a distraction.  She didn't need distraction, but she wanted to talk with someone.  Someone who might actually understand.  These people had never felt what Nabiki was currently feeling.  "Could I speak with the chaplain who brought us in?" Nabiki asked.

      "What chaplain was that Miss Tendo?" the tech asked, brought up short.

      "A 'bird' colonel, I guess he was Catholic, he was a 'Brother', rather than a 'Father', I never asked which Order."

      "Miss Tendo, the only chaplain here is a Protestant, a Lutheran major."  The spokesman glanced at the other techs, who were looking at each other.

      "His name was Jonathan," Nabiki patiently explained, "I assume it was a family name since it was on his uniform."

      "There's no such chaplain here, I think we'd know about it, and no chaplain aboard the plane that brought you in."

      Nabiki was mystified, she'd talked with the man for over an hour!

      "Would you like a talk with the chaplain?"

      "Thank you, no, I'd like to check on Miss Ayanami.  She wasn't conscious when they brought her in."

      "I don't think she will be awake yet."  Now they were confused.

      "Yes, but she's still a good listener," Nabiki told them.  She hadn't expected any of them to get the hint, she wasn't disappointed.

      The infirmary was plain, built along the lines of the NERV med center in Tokyo.  Nabiki wondered if it was still there.

      Nabiki stared down at the girl in the hospital bed.  She had to admit, there was something about Rei that made her want to comfort the girl.  She reminded her so much of Ranko, not just the odd similarity of their voices, but they were fighters, hurt and lonely deep inside.

      Nabiki sat on the edge of the bed, opposite the arm with all the IV's in it.  Nabiki idly ran her hand through the other girls hair, smoothing the uncombed mess into something approaching order.  Nabiki really didn't have anything to say that she thought Rei might want to hear.  Just being here with her was an anchor to who she had been for the last few months, who she wanted to be again.  She wondered when Rei too would be taken away from her, as had everybody else who mattered to her.

      Rei rolled unexpectedly, trapping Nabiki's hand between her cheek and the pillow.

      Nabiki froze, wondering if she'd woken the sleeping girl, or if Rei had moved unconsciously.  Nabiki waited, she could pull her hand free.

      And abandon Rei, she thought, Or I can just sit here, let her dream whatever dreams she has left.  Nabiki knew reality would demand their attention soon enough.

Making a Majority of One

July 6, 1947

      Nabiki was in Rei's room, the other girl was awake.  Theoretically they were eating a breakfast of rice and vegetables.  Both were just pushing their food around on their plates.

      "Rei, do you know anything about NERV Nevada?"

      "It is an EVA construction base outside of Las Vegas, not optimized for combat support, or training."

      "Maybe they'll send us to NERV Massachusetts, which was a personnel base."

      "No, they will send us to Matsushiro, that - " Rei stopped, closed her eyes a moment, then continued, "That was the backup for NERV Tokyo," Rei said, more woodenly than Nabiki had ever heard.

      Nabiki didn't know how to say anything that might have done any good, Ranma and Raccoon's deaths tore her up inside, as did Ritsuko and Maya's.  Yet she knew the intensity of feeling that Rei had for Gendo and Shinji made their twin losses more devastating.

      "We still have a job to do," Nabiki quietly reminded her, "Anna will need to be brought up to speed.  You are the institutional memory, you remember the established training and standards."

      Rei nodded.

      Nabiki didn't have the strength or will to continue trying to cheer up 'Wondergirl', she wished there was someone to cheer her up, There was a month ago, Hiroko, Nabiki felt the tears coming again, But she's dead too.  Everybody who matters to me dies.

      Ranma walked through the deeper corridors of NERV.  The weird things floating around, in and out of the walls, paid him no mind.  That was all right with him.  He'd seen what they could do when they wanted to, or were surprised.  Watching what happened, when they materialized inside somebody, had been something he could have lived a long time without seeing.  Discovering that he simply passed through them, when he attacked them hadn't been a pleasant experience either.  Even his newest ability had no effect on these things.  He summoned that fiercely protective attitude that had allowed him to create this the first time.  The ball of light was smaller, still the same fiercely golden color.  He shoved it in the lock to the strongroom and waited a moment. "I should really name this thing."  Then he considered what calling out a name in battle would mean, "It would mean I'd find Asuka, Captain Ramsey and Rit-chan waiting for me with baseball bats when I got done.  Just to `explain` why I shouldn't yell out during a fight."  Ranma sighed, sometimes his teammates had no sense of style.

      The pain he'd been pushing aside came back full force.  He had watched Nab-chan and Rei die.  Once the rockets pushed them through the roof, he'd run to the other levels, and found nothing.  They were gone.  Then Rit-chan had admitted that she had a report that Raccoon and Misato were lost too.  Initially he didn't feel anything for them.  It was as if they'd never been.  It was a dreadfully dishonorable betrayal of their memories, but he had others, others he still could protect.  That was the reason he was here, he was no longer going to let pride, his or theirs, get in the way of duty, his and theirs.

      He yanked the door to the strongroom open.  He could almost hear the trumpet fanfare.  He frowned at that, "No need ta rub it in."  He walked to the long box, carefully labeled in Rit-chan's meticulous handwriting.  He opened the box and drew out the sword and scabbard.  The weapon he'd woken up with after that weird dream, two and a half months ago.  He'd been eager to get rid of it then, now he needed it.

      It wasn't a proper katana, more like the ancient Ken, a long straight double-edged blade.  It had a large hand guard carved like a pair of shells, about the only adornment on the whole thing, and two 'arms' projecting out like a sai.  What really disturbed Ranma wasn't the flat gray metal of the blade, that was harder than diamond, or the perfect balance, but that it the entire thing was nearly weightless.  It bothered him no end, that someone, or more likely something, had gone to the effort to create a weapon that would fit him, his style and sense of esthetics.  After watching Raccoon fight that thing, then Ranma himself killed one of the shadows armed only with the scabbard, he guessed that the same something had enchanted the blade to a fair-thee-well.  The scabbard that went with the blade was an equally odd thing.  If the blade was plain, the scabbard was beautiful, the metal seemed every color of the rainbow, the colors and the swirls were never the same twice when you looked at it.  What saved it from being `artsy` was the strong edge of the same gray metal the sword was made of, running along the edge of the scabbard, and the stirrup hilt to guard his hand.  You didn't wear this scabbard on your hip, you used it in the fight, to parry and draw your opponent's eye, while the sword flashed in unnoticed to do the work.  Yes, someone knew Ranma's style and preferences very well.  One of the more aggressive of the invaders passed through the wall, it looked like a ball of spikes or a sea urchin, and it accelerated right at him.  Ranma flicked the blade and cut it in half.  The pieces fell and twitched for a few moments, then lay still.  Ranma stared at it and the blade.  Now he had the means to kill these things now, to protect the others, but he couldn't help wondering if that were the right thing to do.  The NERV base was the invader into these things' home, he didn't like the idea of simply killing them all because they were trying to protect their own.

      He sighed as he left the room, he glanced around, there were none of the strange creatures in the corridor as far as he could see.  "Maybe we finally scared them off," he said, Maybe I - finally scared them off, he thought sadly as he headed for the command deck.

      The pair stood on the edge of the crater.  One crouched, looking for details; the other stood, trying to take it all in.

      Don't look into the abyss, the abyss looks back, Jeff thought.  He wished he could go elsewhere and not deal with this, but he had no choice.

      "This changes nothing, Daifusa," Misato told Jeff as he examined a pipe that had been sliced by the removal of NERV Tokyo from the planet.

      "I wouldn't expect it would."  Can't you pick ONE mispronunciation and stick with it? he wondered.

      "Where are you going?" Misato jogged after him.

      "Admiral Simson," he replied as he climbed into the jeep, and drove off before Misato could climb aboard.  He'd been stuck with her in close quarters for over a week, that was well beyond his saturation point.

      "They're still alive," Jeff told Admiral Simson and General Tomlinson as he walked into the command tent.  Captain Ramsey and Colonel Stedman were in the base when it disappeared.

      "How do you know?" Simson asked.

      "That wasn't an explosion, it was a transport, but not along any of the normal time-space axes."

      "How does that help?" Tomlinson asked.

      "If we can coordinate with the base personnel, we might be able to put it right back where it was."

      "And what do you need to do that?" Tomlinson joked.

      "Toji Suzuhara and a couple of Amerind shamans," Jeff wasn't joking.

      "What tribe?" Simson wasn't joking either.

      "Navajo, or Cheyenne would be my preference, spiritwalkers."

      "Get what or who ever else you need.  Now!  I'll have those people waiting for you in two hours."

      Tomlinson looked around worriedly, wondering if the madness was contagious.