Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 34-35 ( Chapter 16 )

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

Chapter 34 - Not Angles but Angels
      We Aren't No Thin Red 'eroes
      If I Do Not Save It, It Shall Not Save Me
      Had Anything Been Wrong, We Should Certainly Have Heard
      Save Me From The Candid Friend
      Physician, Heal Thyself
      I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Chapter 35 - The Mother of Invention
      Acurst Be He That First Invented War
      What Fool First Invented Kissing?
      Beats All The Lies You Can Invent
      It Will Be Necessary To Invent Him
      Teaching Swords
      Invention Arises From Idleness
      Equal License In Bold Invention

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 34 - Not Angles but Angels


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)

Author's Notes: I'd like to thank Tom Hackwood, D I, A.V. Morgan, Charles and Dale Gibson for their help with this chapter.

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.

      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, Jeff and Misato are sent to investigate.

      Asuka takes Ranma to Tokyo University, meeting Belldandy and Keiichi.  Then they return to enjoy the carnival set up on the school grounds.  The arrival of an assassin of Nyarlathotep's cult spoils everyone's evening as it attacks the pilots and senior staff, Asuka in Unit 02 destroys him.  In the aftermath, Ranma, Rei and Asuka, make efforts to draw Nabiki out of her shell.

      Kaji investigates the facts of recent events, but doesn't realize his contact is a Mi-Go.  Ritsuko, Rei and Jeff discuss their origins and other facts.

      The S2 engines are tested, and NERV Tokyo vanishes.  Nabiki and Rei escape and land outside Roswell, NM., they must deal with the aftermath and loss at NERV Las Vegas.

      NERV Tokyo, in the Great White Space, becomes the battle ground between the crew and alien invaders.  Toji and Jeff transfer there to aid the fight.  With the base is the Outer God Ghroth, on the Outer God's surface is the device that brought the base there, the trapped and intermixed spirits of the victims of Angel Malaise, including Toji's sister.

      Ghroth awakens and takes revenge on the Pilots and especially Nyarlathotep.

      Toji visits an unusual woman's kitchen, and gets a commission.  The other pilots all suffer nightmares.  Rei summons the Meliorist and the Scholarly Dragon to effect a rescue.  She also contacts another self who just died.  Shinji escapes on his own, the Scholarly Dragon helps Asuka escape, Ranma has to rescue himself from his nightmare.

      The NERV crew develops a plan to return them home.

      Misato and Jeff are interrogated about the events of the plane crash, their memories of events are very different.

      With the return of NERV Tokyo, everyone is celebrating, except Asuka who realizes their enemies are taking a direct interest in the pilots.  Nabiki and Rei are returned to Tokyo separately, Rei by express, Nabiki aboard the Spruce Goose with cargo for the EVAs.

Rise again, rise again, that her name not be lost to the knowledge of men.

Those who loved her best and were with her till the end, will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

She went down last October in a pouring driving rain.  The skipper, he'd been drinking and the Mate, he felt no pain.

Too close to Three Mile Rock, and she was dealt her mortal blow, and the Mary Ellen Carter settled low.

There was just us five aboard her when she finally was awash.  We'd worked like Hell to save her, all heedless of the cost.

And the groan she gave as she went down, it caused us to proclaim 'That the Mary Ellen Carter would rise again.'

Mary Ellen Carter - Stan Rogers

July 8, 1947

We Aren't No Thin Red 'eroes

      The three men were nondescript, average height, average build, complexion tan enough they could almost pass for Asians or Hispanics.  All three dressed in suits of a common enough style they wouldn't have been out of place anywhere in the Americas, Europe or Japan.  Except they were too similar.  When one looked around, the other two did as well.  When one stared at you, so did the other two.

      General Tembris didn't like disquieting visitors standing on his cavern's doorstep, especially when his plans had finally gotten on track again.  He also disliked visitors when the military was closing in on his current base of operations.  He knew he'd have to move again soon, but this visit made it imperative to move today.

      "I understand that the Katsuragi woman is your primary target, and that Pilot Saotome is your goal," one of the visitors spoke.

      At least they don't speak as a chorus, Tembris thought as he stood aside, letting them enter.  He hoped no one had followed them.  His lookouts reported nothing.

      "That's right, I forwarded my plans to SEELE already, they are well underway.  I'm just hoping you aren't here to `help`."

      "You mean interfere," another of the trio said in an amused tone.  The other two immediately smiled.

      "We have no intention of operating against you, or your plans," the third of the trio said.

      "We have a different target, we respect your efforts," the first said in an earnest tone of voice.  A little too much like a politician's for Tembris's peace of mind.

      "We are only here to assure you and ourselves that our operations are not now, nor will become mutually exclusive," the second added.

      "We will neither interfere, nor insist we coordinate," the third said.

      Tembris disliked this verbal game of hot-potato, almost as much as these men's mere presence disquieted him.  They had still not given their names, nor the identity of their target, calling it only 'the renegade'.  Tembris wasn't certain they were talking about a male or a female, they had called it both she and he during their introductions.

      "Unless you request it," again the first.

      "Well then, why don't you sit in my office and we can draw our plans.  I'm afraid that I'm going to take some time to get Saotome."  He gestured for them to follow him deeper into the cave.

      "Saotome is unimportant to us," the first assured him.

      "We have a different target," the second reiterated.

      "The renegade has exceeded acceptable limits, divulged secrets better left hidden, conspired against the original purpose," the third said with all the emotion they seemed to possess, which wasn't much.

      "We will kill the renegade without interfering with your plans," the first assured him.

      "Unless, of course, we can arrange it to assist your operations," the second added.

      Tembris didn't trust these men.  They were too regimented, too stilted in their speech and movements.  He didn't know what they actually were, but he would have bet money they weren't human.

      Sammi sat in Asuka's bedroom, she'd been watching the girl the entire night.  She'd only left her to check if Jeff had returned sometime during the night.  A quick call to the Navy got her bumped up to one of Captain Ramsey's aides.  He assured her that they were watching Jeff.  She had a bad feeling about that, but Asuka, then Ranma were her primary concerns.

      Asuka slept without dreams, seemingly peacefully.  Sammi simply waited and watched.  She didn't know what she could tell the girl when she awoke.  The most obvious, was that humanity was a state of mind and a set of behaviors, however giving her proof would be counterproductive.  She smirked at that, and the cruel irony of it.  At the same time, she wondered if Ritsuko had any more appropriate parts, Davis and Ayanami needed someone to look after them, and frankly, a human simply couldn't keep up.

      Asuka finally woke late in the morning.

      "So are you in the mood for breakfast?"  Sammi wasn't certain what attitude the girl would have.

      "Yeah sure," she said, stretched, "Rice, fish, miso soup . . . " Asuka headed into the bathroom to take a shower.

      Sammi was leery about leaving her alone.  "So I assume you wouldn't be interested in beer and sausage?"  She asked through the door.


      "Oh boy," Sammi whispered, "Lot of work to do."

      She waited until Asuka finished dressing and followed her into the kitchen.

      "I guess I should apologize for acting like an idiot," Asuka said.

      Sammi froze, wondering how she should redirect the conversation.  "You brought up legitimate concerns.  You just brought them up before the others," Sammi said quietly, watching Asuka furtively, "That doesn't make you wrong or weak, just a little more perceptive."

      "Yeah, whatever," Asuka said and moved off to sit at the table, fidgeting with the napkin holder.

      Sammi, on the one hand was glad Asuka was acting like a regular teenager, on the other hand Asuka was also covering over a serious problem.  Sammi was also worried that Asuka hadn't even asked about her friend's absence.

      Shinji opened his eyes, he wasn't sure who was pounding on the door.  He was extremely glad that Misato was still snoring and seemed able to sleep through the disturbance.  He did wish she'd been snoring a bit louder, so he wouldn't have heard it either.  He yawned and headed for the door.  Toji was visible through the peephole, Shinji opened the door and let in the thunderstorm.

      "Ya gotta come with, it's real important - " at that point Toji was talking too fast for Shinji's sleep-addled brain to keep up.

      "So you see how important it is?" Toji asked him after finally coming up for air.

      "No," Shinji yawned, "You just woke me up.  I was out last night."  He saw Toji didn't understand.  "The fireworks, the parties, the parades," he explained, "Celebrating NERV's return."

      If Misato-san was out there, the drunken dancing in the streets, he thought, he just hoped she left her clothes on this time.

      "So that's what that was," Toji seemed mystified, "I heard the Ghost again, but I guess I slept through the rest."

      For a moment, Shinji wished he were Asuka or Nabiki, so he could give his dear friend the beating he so richly deserved.

      "Well, it's 10:00 A.M., you should have gotten plenty of . . . what is that noise?" Toji asked.

      "That's Misato-san."  Shinji frowned, hoping that the continuous snoring would explain why he was still tired, "She can sleep through anything."

      "Shinji!  You lucky dog!"  Toji punched Shinji's arm, "Not only do you sleep with a beautiful woman, but you know exactly when to go in and peek!  Does she wear something special - urk?"  Toji's advance on Misato's room was interrupted by Shinji testing the arm lock Nabiki and Ranma had shown him.

      Shinji was considering if he should just toss Toji out the window or the front door.  He knew Misato probably wouldn't make a big deal over Toji or Shinji looking, somehow that made it worse.  Shinji smiled at his friend, twisted his arm a little more, kept smiling.

      "Okay!  Okay!  Let go!" Toji said.  He rubbed his arm.  "What's got you in such a bad mood?"

      Shinji released Toji and just stared at him, "Ghroth, or don't you remember?"

      "Oh yeah, I - " Toji said, "I guess since my sister's back, it doesn't really matter as much.  That's why I asked."

      Shinji shook his head, trying to wake up some more.  "Asked what?"

      Toji growled.  "I asked you to come see my sister, she wants to see the pilot who helped rescue her."

      Shinji thought that was a bad idea, She's probably going to yell at me for putting her in the hospital in the first place.

      "Well, I'll see if Asuka's busy," Shinji said, watched Toji wilt a little.

      "If you have to bring Sour Kraut . . . "

      "What's the matter, Curly?" Shinji asked, then ruffled Toji's hair.  "Getting a little long on top."

      Toji punched Shinji's arm again.

      "Let me get some breakfast," Shinji replied, then smirked, "Or you can cook it, all pilots can cook, boys better than girls."  He kept from smiling at Toji's stricken look.  "That's really why Raccoon picked you, Kensuke can't cook."

      "Card," Nabiki said, she had seen Chemin-de-Fer or Baccarat played in James Bond movies.  She'd never played it herself.  She got the card, a nine and went from a fifteen or five to a twenty-four: four, worse.  "I lose.  I thought they didn't let priests gamble."

      "This isn't for money."  Brother Jonathan turned over his cards, sixteen, or six.  "Your turn."

      "Okay."  She accepted the deck, shuffled.  "Ask your question."  She dreaded this part, the game was simple, whoever won the hand could ask one question, which had to be answered truthfully, but fortunately not completely.

      "What is there between you and Saotome?" Brother Jonathan asked.

      Nabiki fumbled the deal, collected the cards and reshuffled.  "I don't know, I thought I did.  Then . . . "

      "You know it wasn't his fault, but you can't forgive him.  Stand."  The man glanced at his cards.  He waited for her to nod.  "Part of the lack of forgiveness is you haven't forgiven yourself, now that you have some distance, what would you have done differently?"

      Nabiki sighed.  "Seven."  Nabiki turned over her cards, she considered the comment.  "I feel there has to be something, but I don't think there is."

      "Reasonable, seven."  He waited for Nabiki to either deal or ask her question.

      "What are you?  Not who - what."  Nabiki was shocked when the man smiled at her insulting question.

      "You really haven't studied Shinto have you?" he said, "Eight million gods representing everything, from the smallest tree to the greatest island.  Did you think that only applied to Japan?"

      Nabiki's fingers went numb in shock, dropping the cards on the plane's deck.

      As they walked along the hospital's corridors, Shinji kept glancing worriedly at Asuka.  He had asked her along as moral support, and to counterbalance Toji, who was beginning to get on his nerves.  He was glad that Toji's sister was back, but his friend's enthusiasm was wearing Shinji out.  Asuka's continued silence worried him more.

      Maybe I'm jealous, Shinji thought, Because Rei-chan isn't back yet.

      Sammi was with them also, she seemed as worried about Asuka as he was.  Toji hadn't noticed as he dragged Shinji along.

      Right now he wouldn't notice five Angels tap dancing through the halls to the music of sacred drums, Shinji thought as Toji hauled him forward.

      "See, I brought him."  Toji finally released him into the room before he tore his arm loose.

      The younger girl in the bed was propped up on some pillows, Hikari was there.  Whatever they had been talking about was lost beneath an embarrassed blush by Hikari, and Yumiwashi's enthusiasm.  Which appeared to be a family trait.

      "SoHikaritellsmeyou'reacellist, youdon'tlooklikeIexpected, consideringtheapologiesyougave, yesIcouldhearyou, andyou'reforgiven, whydidn'tyoubringyourcello?  IaskedTojitoaskyoutobringyourcello!"  She glared at Toji.

      "She's your sister all right, Curly," Asuka commented, she was still deciphering the rapid-fire Japanese.

      "YoumustbeAsukaI'm - "

      "Talking too fast," Asuka commented, "You sound like your brother, when he's talking about a girl."

      Shinji wasn't sure if Hikari, Yumi' or Toji was more embarrassed.

      "Pilots have all the tact of a howitzer barrage I'm afraid," Sammi said, extended her hand to the girl, "I'm Samantha Kraznyzamok, call me Sammi.  I'm here to keep them from killing each other."

      Shinji noted the shocked look on Yumi's face, meeting Sammi for the first time.  Sammi was nice, but she was big.  It was like a grizzly bear ambling over and saying 'hi'.

      "I don't bite," Sammi said, smiled, "I prefer calling in artillery strikes.  Then I can just spoon up the remains."

      "She's joking," Asuka assured the startled girl, "She uses chopsticks like the rest of us.  She's Horseface's regular guard.  So don't beat up on Shinji here, she likes dumb, helpless boys."

      "So poor Hikari-san will have to compete with her?" Yumi` asked innocently.

      "Did you really pilot?" Hikari asked, trying to change the subject, "Why didn't you say something about it?"

      "Don't tell anybody!" Toji yelped, waving his hands desperately.

      "Oh, secrecy," Hikari realized.

      "No!  Kensuke will never let me hear the end of it.  If he found out I piloted, he'll never give me an instant's peace."

      Shinji and the others laughed at Toji's distress.

      "So," Yumi` began, speaking in a slower, understandable voice, "You told me you composed as well as played.  Why didn't you bring any of your music or your cello?"

      Shinji nervously looked at the others.

      "Just because I was . . . " she paused, shivered, "Well, you told me."

      "A composer . . . ?"  Asuka was staring at him now.  "And you saw fit not to tell any of us," Asuka said, clearing planning a reckoning later, "Or did you spill your soul to Wondergirl?"

      "Well," Shinji explained, hoping to survive the next few minutes, "I knew you couldn't so I - "

      "You kept it from me, to protect my fragile ego," Asuka said sweetly, "Since you knew I would feel bad.  You're so noble."

      Shinji was getting more nervous now.

      "So when can you give me lessons?" Yumi' asked.

      "What do you mean?" Shinji asked, now he was desperate to change the subject.

      "I - play - the - violin," Yumi` told them, "Didn't Toji tell you?"

      Toji nervously scratched his head.  "It must have slipped my mind."

      "All you need is another violin," Hikari suggested, "For a string quartet."

      "Wondergirl plays," Asuka said, then stared at Hikari, "You should know that."

      "She never said anything about it," Hikari replied and shrugged.

      "She wouldn't say anything about being on fire, you know that!" Asuka told her friend, "You didn't try and get her in the music club or the orchestra or anything?"  Asuka seemed mystified.

      "She just didn't seem to care about the rest of us, what we thought, what we did," Hikari explained, "Until you showed up Ikari-san.  She was always forbidding.  Most people just wanted to leave her alone."

      "Well," Asuka said, hands on her hips.

      I think I should leave, as fast as I can! Shinji thought as he recognized Asuka's 'I have to fix this, no matter who suffers' stance.  He knew what came next was not going to be pleasant.

      "That does it, you're going to start taking her on dates, do all the things robots do when they're alone and in love," Asuka told him.  "Maybe if you take Curly and Hikari along, you three can civilize him."  She smiled to her suddenly terrified audience.  "A perfect solution, as always."

      "I thought you didn't approve of Toji-san," Hikari squeaked.

      "That was before I found out he could act like a human, for short periods of time.  But those two should teach him reserve, and he can teach those two how to loosen up.  We'll have four humans instead of one."

      "Matchmaker Asuka has spoken," Sammi said, "But why haven't you picked out a man for yourself?"

      Shinji suspected that Sammi had someone in mind, and that someone wasn't Kaji.

      "Oh I have, but General Galland is too old for me," Asuka said breezily.

      Shinji saw Asuka was covering up something, he knew how she'd reacted to being rejected by Kaji in the dream, even though both were the `same age`.  He'd have to broach the subject of Misato and her rescuer later, but while she was still in matchmaker mood.  She'd probably enjoy leaving Kaji with no one.  Shinji wondered if Kaji knew what kind of red-headed hornets' nest he'd stirred up.

If I Do Not Save It, It Shall Not Save Me

      Rei bowed to the flight crew, thanked them for the flight, and jogged down the landing strip.  There was no one to meet her.  She was actually glad of this, it would simplify things.  She spotted Kensuke among the group photographing the plane.

      I should have expected that, a new aircraft arriving, she thought.  She ignored his shouted questions about 'riding in the XB-36' and ran towards her apartment, accelerating to full speed once she was out of sight.  She had to check in with the Commander, then she had another mission.

      Rei looked around her apartment.  She felt as if a year had passed since she was last here.  Simultaneously, she knew it had been only a handful of days.  Over a month ago, she had received the report of Roku-kun's leave.  Her telephone call, a moment ago to the Commander, revealed that Major Katsuragi had deployed a squad of security to follow him.  She thought the last was a particularly bad joke, but the Commander wasn't joking.

      I agree that leaving him alone on this day is not right, she thought, But I doubt NERV security guards are the appropriate companions.

      She had weighed the advantages of going to see Shinji-kun immediately, or the responsibility of going after Roku-kun.  When the Commander told her that the security teams had lost contact within minutes, and had not been able to reacquire, she made her decision.  She would apologize to Shinji-kun, but she knew he would understand.  She suspected the Commander was intentionally leaving the matter to her discretion.

      She left her apartment, and found tracing Roku-kun herself proved very difficult.

      Rei had a vague idea why she was doing this.  The Commander needed all the pilots, she neither knew exactly why, nor did she need to know for what.  She did understand that the events since the battle with Cthugha had nearly cost them Nabiki-kun.  The loss of the base, Shinji-kun and the Commander had set despair in her own heart, only by her and Nabiki-kun mutually clinging to each other, had either of them made it through.

      To possibly lose another pilot, after such a hard-fought victory, greatly offended her.

      Rei was also well aware that the anniversary of painful events seriously affected the victims, far beyond what the reasonable effect should be.  Perhaps that was why the Commander had left taking action to her consideration.  Even she and the Commander had been so affected.  Long ago, he had shown her the cloning tanks, and the brain register system.  She had been overjoyed at meeting so many other children her age, after being alone for months.  She'd wanted to go swimming with all the laughing girls.  Then the Commander had explained the brain register system and it's recording and playback functions.  If he'd been thinking properly, he wouldn't have shown it to her on that day, on the anniversary of Yui-chan's death.  Rei had asked to go through the process, and it was as painless as he'd told her.  But during that time, she'd developed her plan, decided that she had the perfect means for revenging herself on Naoko Akagi.  Her own death would be meaningless to her and Gendo, but not to Yui-chan's murderer, who was ignorant of Rei's new `ability`.

      Rei knew how arrogant Naoko Akagi was, how she hated to be compared, especially unfavorably, to anyone.  Rei had listened to Gendo, and to their associates in the Dreamlands, learned that this type of person would do anything to avoid judgment by the `lesser` people around her.  Rei's plan was remarkably simple, antagonize Naoko to the point that she would kill.  The Commander had grown tired of her neediness, her endless complaints and her need to force everything except her from the Commander's life.  Telling her this, calling her an 'old hag', telling her all the unfavorable comparisons Rei had overheard the senior staff make between Naoko and Yui, adding her and Ritsuko's feelings, it all worked.  In a blind rage, Naoko had strangled Rei to death.  She learned later that Naoko had thrown herself to her death on her masterwork, the Magi.  She did not damage them, Ritsuko could maintain them, so the loss to NERV was minimal.

      Awakening in another body brought the most terrible shock.  All the warm feelings she'd had for Yui-chan, Gendo-kun, even Shinji-kun, all the time she'd spent with her family.  It was all just data.  She remembered it, in exquisite detail.  She could tell exactly what Gendo had looked like when Shinji-kun had eaten a wasabi-smeared rice ball, she could remember the terrible anger, and the laughter underneath, when Yui-chan and Gendo had discovered Shinji with his hair painted blue, and Rei with her hair painted black, each insisting that now they were the other.

      However, the emotion, hers and theirs, had been sucked out of it.  She could no longer really understand why they had done all the things that they had.  It was as if it had happened to someone else.  It wasn't like reading a book, because a book might strike chords of similarity with other experiences.  She had no experiences, just dates, faces, names, places.  Even when she learned that Naoko had taken her own life, the knowledge held no satisfaction.  The cost had been too high.  Ritsuko would never forgive her, despite the terrible treatment the new Technical Director had received at Naoko's hands.  Worse, her once-friend's hatred hadn't mattered to her any more.

      Rei hoped Roku-kun was not doing something equally foolish.  She was also somewhat angry with him.  He had gone to such lengths to convince them to seek out each other in times of trouble, and the technique had proven surprisingly successful for Rei over the last few days.  Yet when he was afflicted, he retreated into isolation.  It wasn't that he had suddenly found the others too traumatized, he had planned this betrayal of his own ideals back when all was calm.  She tried to keep her irritation from becoming full-blown anger, there might have been rational reasons for it.  He might have made incorrect assumptions.

      But it is extremely difficult, she thought as she ran along, following the faint trace she had of him.

      Rei stood atop a ridge line, looking at a number of sheltered coves.  She had passed a radio truck and two platoons of Marines.  They were Engineers or heavy weapons troopers, considering their heavy armaments: machine guns, flamethrowers, mortars, etc.  Offshore, a lone destroyer waited, just sitting there.  She suspected there were other ships farther out, and airplanes high enough overhead that a person could ignore them.  After the events of the past weeks, she suspected that this was as `private` a moment as any of the pilots were likely to get.  There was an old woman sitting in a short chair under a tree, knitting and watching all the people coming and going from the coves.  Rei suspected the woman's constant humming to herself and line of chatter was a constant status report to unseen eyes that all was well.  Rei also suspected that the oversized bag alongside her, opposite her knitting, did not contain golf clubs.

      The woman glanced at Rei, then returned to her knitting and humming, as if she knew who Rei was, but didn't want to interfere.  From the reactions Rei had gotten from the children at the orphanage, and the Americans in their own country, ignoring a pilot was never normal behavior.  Rei hadn't heard the words 'arigato' and 'Ayanami' mangled so badly and so often in her life, yet so many of the Americans had insisted on thanking her, in Japanese, for what she had done.  She replied in English, 'I have only done my duty.'  They never got the hint, and continued to fail to make themselves understood in Japanese.

      Rei glanced around again, for all the people to choose from, she saw no one she recognized.

      He stood by me when I was alone and under attack, seeking to erase both conditions, she thought as she walked, My tracking has led me here, where I cannot find him.

      Rei considered, and then walked down to the beaches, deciding to make a methodical search of the five coves.

      After the death of Naoko, Rei had always had trouble communicating with others, as if there was a special set of instructions that somehow she'd lost with her death and rebirth.

      But not all.  With Ikari-kun - I could simply be silent with him, small signs and glances seemed enough.  The Commander, I could talk with, I understand him.  Jeff, Roku-kun, he seemed to adjust to whatever situation presented itself.  He had `tricked` me into performing on the U.S.S. Coral Sea by carefully explaining the rules of the exchange between us to me.  I was gratified by the pleasure of the crowd, and Roku-kun's praise, she thought and remembered, At school he'd watched my aloof behavior at lunch.  His solution was to sit down near me, set up a chess board and without a word, play several games against himself.  He seemed to know I was watching, analyzing, learning, so these contests against himself educated me on the basics of the game.  On Saturday of that week, as we all left school he offered the loan of his chess book and board, on the condition I play against him the following week.  I agreed, and was beaten the first few games, winning more consistently toward the end of the week.  On Saturday, after we'd finished cleaning the classroom, Roku-kun had asked for one more game.  I had beaten him at lunch and after-school two days running, his insistence elicited my curiosity.  At the lunch time games, he'd been impatient, taking risks that were not justified, that was how I'd finally begun beating him.  This match was different.  He was slow, methodical.  Laying traps for me, and ultimately defeating me with scant loss to himself.  'People have many sides, different faces for different circumstances.  It even confuses them sometimes.'  He'd told me when he gave me the board as a gift, we played `by mail` now, exchanging moves at school.  I had yet to beat him this way, but I remember and treasure the lesson, and the effort on my behalf.

      Rei wondered if that was part of the reason she was doing this.  Rei wondered which side, which face, this represented, One so alien that I cannot find him here, but the attention of the military marks this area as clearly as any sign.  She recognized some of those who came and went in the adjacent coves they were no doubt additional guards, appearing as out-of-school students or off-duty military with their families.  A wide array of people, but none of them were who she sought.  She reversed her journey to examine the coves again.

      A boy stood near the surf, hurling rocks into the glass-smooth sea.  A simple shirt and pants with the cuffs and sleeves rolled up.  Rei had passed this beach twice on her search, and he had continued this useless activity.  She wondered if he'd seen Roku-kun go for a swim or something, and was standing guard.

      Should I ask him if he has seen Roku-kun pass by? Rei asked herself, I cannot find a trace of him.

      She watched the boy for a while, selecting her new course of action.  She realized he was very different from the pilots, and she did not like the self-conscious awkwardness of his movements, as if he knew someone was watching him and was disturbed by it.

      I have grown so used to the grace and physical confidence of my fellow pilots, the training by the Fourth and Tendo-san has granted them this, Rei thought, Some of this has rubbed off on our classmates, especially those in the `circles` that formed around most of the pilots.

      Slump shouldered, fidgeting with his clothes and the stones, and clumsy, this boy was the antithesis of the pilots.

      I will have to approach him carefully to avoid frightening him away, Rei thought as she walked towards him, My classmates and fellow pilots have grown used to my irregular appearance, it still unsettles the unwary.  Or makes them act strangely in other ways.

      "Excuse me?" she called.

      "Yeah," a curt reply, no reaction.

      Something sparked her curiosity, He sounds vaguely like Shinji-kun sometimes does, she thought, Beaten down, uncertain and defeated.

      "Have you seen a tall boy in a suit?" she asked, not believing anyone could have missed Roku-kun, "He walked this way some time ago."

      "No."  No other reaction, he continued hurling the stones into and across the water.

      No that's not right, his accuracy has fallen off, Rei realized.

      She had no other conclusions, Roku-kun clearly came to this area, additional forces were clearly in place to guard this location.  Unless he expected pursuit, he could not have evaded her.

      Regular security, yes, but without extraordinary measures he could not elude me.  She walked away to consider the situation.

      "Would he have taken such extraordinary measures?" she asked herself.  "If so, why?"

      SKIP, SKIP, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, Skip, skip, skip, splash.

      SKIP, SKIP, SKIP, SKip, SKip, SKip, skip, skip, splash.

      SKIP, SKIP, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, Skip, Skip, skip, skip, splash.

      She stood on the trail leading to this small beach, watched the boy hurling stones into the water, or rather across the water.  She'd heard the sound on her walk toward the beach, then during the rest of her fruitless search.  Now she watched, nine throws and each time the stone would bounce across the flat water until it finally sank.  She still could see no purpose to this activity.  If a greater number of bounces was good, he hadn't reacted to 15 bounces any differently than six, or two.  She was wholly confused by this, and her failure in finding Roku-kun.

      Perhaps the tanuki 'Raccoon' appellation was more correct than we realized, Rei thought.

      SKIP, SKIP, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, Skip, skip, skip, splash.

      She had only one source of information immediately available, she must confront and interrogate the boy here.  He must have seen something of use, even if he didn't realize he had.

      But I don't know how, it isn't something I do unless ordered.  I have no orders here, Rei considered, her inability worried her.  The other pilots sometimes struggled to understand when she was speaking to them, and the reverse was likewise true.

      SKIP, SKIP, SKIP, SKIP, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, Skip, Skip, skip, skip, splash.

      A solution, she thought, Let him be the one to speak.  She lifted a small stone of her own, Timing.

      SKIP, SKIP, SKIP, SKip, <SPLASH> SKip, SKip, skip, skip, splash.

      SKIP, SKIP, SKip, SKip, <SPLASH> skip, skip, splash.

      SKIP, <SPLASH> SKip, skip, skip, splash.

      skip <SPLASH>, skip, splash.

      splash <SPLASH>.

      splash <SPLASH>.

      <SPLASH> splash.

      The boy paused, rolled his shoulders and took a deep breath.  The change was remarkable, his anger caused him to stand straighter, more determined.  He threw the last stone in his hand.  Rei threw at the same time.

      SKIP, <SPLASH> SKIP, SKIP, SKIP, SKIP, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, SKip, Skip, Skip, Skip, Skip, skip, skip, skip, splash.

      He turned to face her, she could barely contain her shock.

      "My Japanese must be no good, Ayanami-sama."  A furious Jeffrey Davis bent down to collect more stones.

      For a moment, Rei feared she might be the target.

      "It took an hour to evade Major K's assigned bodyguards.  What part of 'alone' did I fail to make clear to everyone?"

      Typically, Roku-kun would talk to anyone he was aware of, if only to acknowledge them, she knew he knew she had been there, but he hadn't reacted with words.  She'd watched him and didn't recognize him because he was so different.  The transformation back was as startling as the appearance.  Roku-kun, the Jeffrey Davis she had known, practically disappeared before her eyes.  The stoop-shouldered, fidgeting boy reappears.  Even looking right at him, Rei almost couldn't recognize him.

      I have seen him healer, killer, happy, angry, wounded almost to death, the spirit was always the same and shown through.  This person has none of that, she watched in horrified fascination.

      "On this day," her voice faltered, then she charged ahead, "You should not be alone."

      "What's special about today?"  Roku-kun glanced guiltily down at the handful of stones.  "Oh I forgot, you have ne plus ultra clearance, you are ne plus ultra clearance."  Roku-kun poured the stones back onto the beach.

      She walked down the slope towards him, tried to remember all the lessons in communication Nabiki-kun and he had taught her, she abandoned the effort.  They had been tailored for Shinji-kun, but Roku-kun was not Shinji-kun.  Roku-kun would insult Commander Ikari, Admiral Simson, or even an Outer God to his face, and escape by wit and humor.  Shinji-kun feared the world and especially his father.  This sulkier aspect was like neither, baffling.  "You are not to blame."

      "Why not?!"  His face a mask of fury, he scooped up the handful of stones and hurled them into the sea.  "Every ripple affects every other ripple, everything we do or hope for effects everything that is and will be."  He stopped, glared at her, "The clown wanted a day off.  Is that so hard to understand?  I don't want to look into your faces for one day and see your hurts, feel the need to help you, teach you to heal yourselves and each other.  I want for one day to be alone and selfish, to wallow in my own self pity, to do something totally useless, to remind myself I can't fix everything and that sometimes God says 'No.'"  He finished shouting at her and sat down on the sand, ran his hands through his hair.

      "You don't understand anything but the words."  He looked up at her, "Do you?"

      She considered, "To rest."  She managed.  She was angry, she understood the words, but the motivation behind them exasperated her.

      I cannot understand this, she thought, feeling an anger build.  She thought the anger was out of place.  When she thought Shinji-kun and the Commander had died, she had felt the same desperate confusion.  The pain drove her to run away, to escape within her own mind.  She wanted to sit outside the world and be alone with her heartache, to drown in it until nothing else was real.  She had been utterly wrong, as he and Nabiki-kun had told her it was wrong, then proved it.  "Do we trouble you so much?" she asked, to keep her temper under control.

      "I think they assembled this bunch out of the most self-wounded people on the planet, they hate each other only slightly less than they hate themselves.  It isn't an onus or a chore demanded by another, but it calls on me to help and put it right, a responsibility or duty I put on myself."

      "What of Samuel?" she asked, trying to get onto more comfortable, less personal ground.  She wanted to ask if he included himself in his analysis, but it was clear he was in it, whether he included himself or not.

      "I wished him dead, and he died.  That hundreds of millions died of smallpox worldwide, immaterial, that he didn't want to go on suffering, irrelevant, to a six-year-old child.  I hated his favored status, hated the way my parents doted on him and ignored me.  I asked God to take him or save him.  God took him.  Ergo, I killed him."  He scrubbed his face with his hands.  "It isn't logical or rational, the end was more merciful than the continuation, I know that in my mind.  My heart . . . " he paused, stared at the ocean, the 'middle distance', for a moment he was the Roku-kun she knew again.  "Every year about this time I remember I asked for what happened, I gave God a choice and he did what I really wanted, what I never asked for, but I wanted."  He looked at her again, "Can you imagine what it would take to kill another human in cold blood?  Not in combat or in self-defense but murder someone, your own family, because . . . "

      "You were angry?" she asked, "You were jealous?"

      "As good an explanation as any."  He sighed, stood, "It takes me a day to get this out of my system, just let it hurt me, then I can screw the lid down on it for another year."

      "No," she replied to his self-deception, "You seek atonement, always.  To fix and heal.  Even the Commander whom you hate, the EVAs that you fear, everyone and every broken thing."  She considered, "You should measure progress today.  'You cannot rewrite the past or change the present, just the future.'"

      "Terrific," Roku-kun lamented, "Now you're quoting me at me."

      "Is it wrong?"

      "No.  I just don't want to be responsible today."

      "I will listen."

      "You don't want to hear it, believe me.  And I don't want to talk."

      "I will listen."  She stood close to him.

      The other pilots frighten me, more than even the Angels.  Why this is, I do not know.  I have listened to others all the time in my silence, perhaps it was time to listen to the silence of the one who talked all the time, she thought.

      "Then let me be blunt.  Go away," Roku-kun told her, walked away from her.

      She knew that might be what he wanted, but it was not what he needed.  She had learned from her experience with Nabiki-kun.  Both as intruder, and intruded upon.

      "I said leave!" he shouted over his shoulder, "Get out of here!  I don't want you around!"

      Rei knew she needed to get him to talk about this.  Talking had helped Nabiki-kun tremendously.  That was why she had gone to Sammi's apartment first, before pursuing Roku-kun.  Not to seek help from the others, but to get a catalyst.  Rei remembered Roku-kun had acted this irrationally one other time.  She removed the pocket watch from her skirt pocket and touched the catch which opened it, and played the tune.

      Roku-kun's head came around, "That's mine, give it back!"

      She stood, put her fists on her hips, consciously duplicating the Second's combative stance.  Although she slipped one foot back, as Nabiki-kun had taught her.  "Make me," she said, trying to imitate the Second's tone and mannerisms.

      The accuracy of the rendition was immaterial.  She got the effect she wanted, as Raccoon turned and came at her.

      Again Rei could barely recognize him.  This was not the young man who would coolly sit back and manipulate, until you were ordering him to take the watch from you.  This was a frightened child, like one of the younger orphans.

      He is acting like the child he was when the trauma occurred! Rei realized.  She'd been planning to appeal to his logic, and his duty.  That would have worked on the man, but instead she had a little child on her hands.  A child who was hurt and didn't know how to make the hurting stop.

      He came straight at her, no finesse, no strategy.  He was still taller than she was, so holding the watch over her head would not be effective.  She grabbed the front of his shirt and held him away from it.

      "It's mine!  Give it back!" he lunged at the hand with the watch, pushing her back.

      "It is just a watch," she told him, she knew it wasn't.  When she'd seen the others with her I.D., her link to NERV, the Commander and her purpose, she'd nearly attacked Shinji-kun to get it from him.  She understood that sometimes things represented other things.  "Why is it important?  Besides, it is not yours, it is Samuel's."

      "Ayanami-san, give me the watch," his tone was angry, not hurt now, enraged.

      "Or what?" she asked as insolently as she could.

      She had heard the Fourth speaking about turning an opponent's energy against himself.  She thought it was irrational, a smart foe would never allow you to do that, But a non-thinking one, she thought as she pushed Roku-kun off stride, dodging his charge.

      "Why do you want it?" Rei asked, "Do you believe you killed him merely for this?"

      Roku-kun stumbled and fell face first into the sand.  Rei initially considered it was a feint, but his stricken look as he sat up told her otherwise.

      "Or did you kill him to get your parent's love and affection?"

      There was no charge, he simply sat there and stared at her.  Even she could see the pain on his face.

      "It did not work, did it?" she asked.  She knelt next to him, handing him the watch, "What did happen?"

      He opened it, stared at the picture inside, listened to the odd rendition of 'Scotland the Brave'.  "They sent me to my aunt and uncle in Wyoming," he told her in a small voice, "Later, they sent me to Boston, to be educated."

      "Were they proud of you?" Rei asked, Shinji-kun only wanted his father to be proud of him.

      "I don't think - I ever entered their thinking again."  He closed the watch carefully, stared up at the sky.  "They were busy, doing important work.  They couldn't be troubled.  Nobody could be troubled."

      "You reminded them of their loss?" she asked, wondering if Shinji-kun's uncanny resemblance to Yui-chan was the reason the Commander had sent him away, but kept Rei close.  Wondering if being ignored made him want to reassemble a family here, it fit the data.

      He didn't answer, continued staring at the sky.  Rei wondered if she should reveal that she had the other pocket watch, to spark another reaction.  She rejected the idea, she had other means to use first.

      She glanced up at the knitting woman, who was now watching them through a telescope.  A fistfight between two pilots was evidently a matter worth the loss of subterfuge.

      Rei decided not to spark another outburst, but 'attack' from a different direction.  Another direction she knew the answers to for herself.  "Were you pleased when they died?  After they had ignored you?  Or did you feel the anger was not worth the emotion lost."

      "What would you know about it?" he asked in a low, menacing tone.

      "I know," she admitted, aware he might be diverting her again.  She felt beat, talking this way was as tiring as fighting.  "I do know, you have commented on my snarl in combat.  I have lost those I care about."  She took his chin and turned his head to face her.  "I do not wish to lose another."  She let some of her anger show.

      Roku-kun looked ashamed.

      "You should consider why you do as you do," she told him, releasing him.

      "I'm not being brave or selfless, I just don't care.  Not anymore," Roku-kun told her tightly, "I have my mission, my duty - and that's it.  That's the sum total of my existence."

      "Perhaps you should consider . . . " Rei paused, this was difficult, speaking of the others this way, "Perhaps you should include the others."

      Your own advice, she thought reproachfully, merely waited to see and hear his response.

      "Rei, you of all people should understand what I'm talking about."  He turned to face her.  "Are you going to tell me that if you had to choose, between saving Shinji's life, and completing the Commander's mission, and no weaseling about maybe he won't die or maybe one of the others would save him?  Straight up, either you save him or he dies, and if you save him, the Commander's plan fails."

      "If the Commander's plan failed, the human race would be destroyed, it would make no sense to save him, only to watch him die again."

      He smirked at that.  "There are a fair number of humans who might say that dying together was better than dying separately."

      Rei refused to be drawn in, his skill with argument could side track her if she let him.  "Still, that is not the case here, events have injured you, like the others.  You have counseled seeking out the others, yet when you suffer the same fate, you retreat within yourself."

      "I don't need anyone."

      The statement was so patently absurd Rei almost didn't comment, "Then you didn't need Samuel, then why do you mourn?"

      "That's different!" Roku-kun insisted.

      "As Hiroko was different for Nabiki-kun . . . as the Second's feelings after the death of your dreamself?  How are they different?"

      Roku-kun said nothing hugging his legs tightly against his chest.  She wished one of the others were here, instead of or in addition to herself.  She was uncomfortable with the anger she felt, Roku-kun was not doing anything different from what she had been doing for years.  When she had done it, it had seemed right and proper, when he did the same . . . it seemed a terrible offense, it outraged her and insulted the others.  She considered what the others would do in this situation, from how they had reacted to each others hurts in the past.  Rei decided that Ranko's approach would be the most effective, she moved behind him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.  She held steady as he lay his head on her arms.  "You must accept that it is not as it was."

      "I don't want to lose anyone else either.  I'm tired of being the last one, the survivor.  The one who decides who lives and who dies."

      Rei shifted so she could look at his face.  "I at least will not be lost."

      He looked at her with a cold smile.  "Why are you doing this?"

      She considered he was trying to divert her again, then decided to answer the question.  "Many reasons.  Abandonment is inappropriate, I believe you are here for a purpose.  You have served a purpose beyond what the Commander might have intended: maintenance.  Even maintenance equipment may require maintenance.  Correct?"  She received no answer beyond a shamed look.

Had Anything Been Wrong, We Should Certainly Have Heard

      Shinji left the hospital room, he looked a little shell shocked.  Asuka followed, kept glancing at Hikari and Toji still talking in Yumi's room.  Ranma, who'd come looking for the others about an hour ago, glanced at Sammi who brought up the rear.

      "That was . . . ," Asuka glanced back into the room, "Interesting."

      Like getting your leg chewed off by a shark, Ranma translated Asuka's comment as they walked towards the exit of the hospital.

      "She must be making up for lost time," Asuka said, "She hasn't said anything for months."  She tapped Shinji's shoulder, "Watch out, if you ever get Wondergirl talking, she'll never stop either."

      Shinji looked stricken.  "She was supposed to be back this afternoon."  He looked at the darkening sky.  "She's going to think I forgot!"  Shinji ran for the exit.

      "She isn't even going to notice!" Asuka shouted as she ran after him.

      "Go after them, I'm going back to Rit-chan's apartment," Ranma said.

      Sammi looked torn, then headed off after the pair.  Ranma walked outside and then headed home at full speed, he wanted to know when Nab-chan would return.  He also wondered if they should have some kind of party.  He could call Raccoon, find out if he'd help set things up.

      Arriving home, the apartment was quiet, with Rit-chan sipping coffee at the dining room table, and Misa-chan also sitting there, looking like someone had driven over her, several times.

      "Hangover?" he whispered to Rit-chan, when Misa-chan winced and stared at him, he took an extremely deep breath.  Watched her squirm as she mentally prepared for the noise.

      "Yes," Rit-chan said in a normal tone of voice, causing Misa-chan to wince.

      "When's Nab-chan supposed to be back?" he asked quietly, carefully lifting the chair to sit on it, rather than dragging it across the floor.

      "Sometime tomorrow evening or the following day," Rit-chan said, she looked at Misa-chan, "Why did you want to know?"

      The last thing he wanted to do was mention the work 'party' anywhere around Misa-chan.  "Oh, I need to talk to Raccoon about something."  He stopped at the expression on Rit-chan's face.  "What's wrong?"

      "Uh, he's on leave, you should wait until tomorrow," Rit-chan stammered.

      "Security can drag him back," Misa-chan said.

      Rit-chan noisily scraped her chair across the floor.  She gestured for Ranma to follow him.  Leaving a tortured Misa-chan in the dining room.

      Rit-chan closed the door to her room behind them.  "If you want to plan a party, I think that is a good idea, but I think you'd be better off finding Shinji and Asuka and getting their help."

      "They went after Rei, with Sammi," Ranma said, "What's going on?  Why's Misa-chan so mad, and what's with a leave?  What is a leave?"

      "Leave of Absence, an official vacation," Rit-chan said, "You haven't read any of the pilots' biographies, have you?"

      "No, what's this about?" Ranma was getting nervous, and a little irritated.

      "It would be better if you read it yourself," Rit-chan said as she left.

      Ranma followed her, back to the dining room, where Rit-chan extracted two pages from a folder.  Ranma spared a glance at Misa-chan, now sound asleep on the dining room table, starting to make noise that would have made her homicidal.  If anyone else had made it while she was awake.

      Ranma returned to his room, climbed into the empty upper bunk, pulled the reading lamp on the frame over, and read.  He was surprised it only took one reading to get it.  He looked out the window at the darkening sky, considered why Raccoon would want to be alone.  He also had no idea what to do with the information.

      Rei looked across the driftwood fire at the blanket-wrapped figure.  She stretched tiredly, rewrapped her blanket around herself.  She was glad he was finally asleep.  She was equally glad she'd been able to demand blankets and some food from the Marines, they were Engineers.  Both platoons had been watching from a concealed position, they had admitted they were worried the two pilots had been trying to kill each other.

      The thought of that, and their reaction to her demands, made Rei smile.  An actual grin.  She had not felt like explaining why she found it so funny.

      A simple sentence had started it, she had all night to consider why, and the effort would keep her awake.  She hoped it was the last such outburst, that the others could help the rest of the way.

      'No.  It is not your fault,' seemed the correct response to his litany of his actions which his parents didn't approve, from his birth, ending with Samuel's death.

      She saw the sudden rage on his face, she couldn't understand what she had said to suddenly elicit it, but she had felt a similar rage herself once.

      I think the `lid` is completely off now, she hadn't been congratulating herself at the time.

      The death of Yui Ikari had hurt her this badly.  Discovering that it had not been an accident, and was instead a deliberate act, had filled her with rage.  Rage at the perpetrator: Akagi Naoko; rage at herself, for not being able to protect or avenge the woman who showed her such kindness; and rage at Ritsuko `Akagi`, who had the ability to take vengeance, and chose not to.  To Rei, that had seemed the ultimate betrayal.  Through all her `incarnations`, she had never forgiven Ritsuko for that.  Nor had she forgiven herself.  She could easily understand the wellspring of his anger.

      The attack Raccoon had launched reminded her of a similar attack she herself had made a little over two years before.  Depending on her superior speed and strength had been her downfall, literally.  The coordination of the counterattack had defeated her.  She had ended up impaled on a wrought iron fence, dozens of fatal wounds from the battle and her fall onto the sharp points of the fence.  She had enough time to realize her folly, as she watched her blood draining from her body, only to be washed away by the rains.

      She had the advantage in coordination this time, Raccoon's attack was born of pain, and the vain hope that inflicting pain on another would assuage the hurt he felt.  She'd caught his two-fisted strike, deflecting it away.  Then she grabbed him around the waist, and spun him upside down.  She had paused a moment with his head aimed at the sand, then completed the loop around and landed him on his feet.  To compound his disorientation, she had grabbed his shoulder and spun him away from her, then back to face her.  She had the advantage, she was thinking right now, but he wasn't.

      Roku-kun wove drunkenly, looked physically ill, but prepared for another attack.  Rei had prepared to receive it.  With Nabiki-kun, this stage had happened naturally, her anger at the loss was similar to Rei's own fury.  Rei weathered that anger, held Nabiki-kun until it passed.  With Roku-kun, he had bottled it up, as both she and Nabiki-kun had when she learned of the destruction of NERV Tokyo.  The girls had both released it when they learned NERV had returned, neither could stop crying, 'Letting the tension leak out', Nabiki-kun had called it.

      This time, with Roku-kun, Rei had had to dig it out.  She knew how destructive such emotion could be.  She had watched Ritsuko withdraw, then Nabiki-kun withdrew.  Only the arrival and subsequent chaos of the Fourth and Nabiki-kun drew Ritsuko back.  Only the release of anger, then the despair of further loss drew Nabiki-kun out.  With Nabiki-kun it had been easy, the return of NERV Tokyo with all the people she cared about was the appropriate tool.  Roku-kun had proven much more difficult.

      When Roku-kun had moved forward, Rei stepped into his attack.  The Fourth would not approve, she had thought, catching him over one shoulder and under the other.  While she had the strength to spin him along his axes, as she had before, she had intended something very different.  Only his coat, boots and all the equipment he regularly carried gave him any weight advantage.  Stripped of those things, this boy who towered over her, was actually lighter than she was.  She had absorbed the impact of his charge, then reversed it.

      Lines of rocks walled the cove, giving it the isolation Roku-kun had desired.  It also gave her a barrier to pin him against.  Driving him back, she selected a smooth section and reduced speed before impact.  She had taken what little force remained on her own arms.  She kept her head against his shoulder and her grip firm.  She knew getting that close was dangerous, she had decided it was worth the risk.  She had been intentionally not acting like herself.  It was difficult, but necessary.  Denying him his usual frame of reference disoriented him further, further broke down his defenses.  This once, she felt confident she could understand the feelings and reactions of another.  She knew certain things would happen, in what order and how they would likely manifest.  She'd done it herself, and saw another play out much the same pattern.

      She was ready when he shifted his whole weight.  She believed it wasn't an attack, there was no strength behind it and no place to conceal his usual weapons.  Exhaustion, physical and emotional collapse, she didn't let him sprawl to the ground, lowering him gently.  She said nothing as the tears came.

      Since the others had arrived, she had studied materials and their properties, to try to understand the Second and Roku-kun's affinity for building things.  Cast iron was much harder than steel, but it didn't bend.  When stressed too hard, it shattered.  The comparison to the pilots was too apt.  Mere presence of the Angels killed some, drove others mad.  The pilots hunted and killed them, immune, until the stresses reached some undetermined limit.

      "He would forgive you," she had told him, got no response, but she hadn't been expecting one.  "I know he would forgive you, and you should forgive yourself."  She paused, still no response.  She had another tool to use.

      "I do not hold this against you.  You may gain some insight," she had paused, "It was Boston, April 1945.  It was a dark and stormy night."

      Like so many of the occasions that changed my life, she still wondered why that was.

      It had been raining for days.  The Commander had not exactly ordered this.  However, he had implied he wanted to be rid of these interlopers.  Their attention threatened the Project, and it was clear the others who searched Boston, including Lieutenant Katsuragi, had had no luck.

      So Rei hunted.

      The death or wounding of one of the three should scare off the others.  And she'd found the most active one.

      Destroy him, she thought as she silently closed in, And the others will pull back, the Project will be completed before they can interfere again.

      She left the fire escape silently.  With a voiceless snarl, she sprang.

      Some instinct caused her target to roll aside and strike out with his fighting knife.

      Rei gasped in pain as she rolled across the gravel to a stop.  The boy had thrown himself flat at the last moment.  The blade he had used had cut through her arm until it grated on the bone.  She didn't cry out, she'd heal if she had time, but not in the middle of a fight.  She moved up, speed hadn't been to her advantage, she would have to depend on her strength.  She circled carefully.  The rain was making the roof slippery.

      "Why are you doing this?" the boy called out.

      She came in fast again.  He thrust with his cane, a feint, the fist to the side of the head snapped her head sideways and she missed her attack.

      "Why are you doing this?" he asked, again and again, changing languages, trying to communicate.

      He wants to know why, I will not answer, Rei thought as she circled, searching for weakness, He is the enemy, that should be sufficient.  She wished she had better control of her abilities, He would have no chance then.  She reasoned the cane was the key, if she could get it away, then it would come down to hand-to-hand, And even wounded, I will have the advantage.

      She charged, weaving left and right, making it difficult to determine from which direction she would attack.

      Then he drew a pistol.  The bullets' impacts were like sledgehammer blows.  In the chest, in the shoulder, in the leg.  She was thrown across the gravel, limp as a rag doll.

      But I am not done, if I do not move, I can lure him in, close enough to attack, she thought, ignoring the pain, If it kills this enemy, I can afford to be patient.

      He walked closer, carefully, the lightning had ruined her night vision, she hoped it had ruined his.

      He cannot know if I am alive or not, she thought as she listened, waiting for him to get close.  Blood stained her clothes, the ground.  She was growing dizzy from shock and her injuries, she knew she only had to hold on a little while longer.  She waited until he was close enough, then knocked the pistol and the cane from his hands, but that gave him time to wrap his hands around her throat.  He picked her up and slammed her face-first into a brick chimney.  She saw stars and was stunned.  She fell to the ground when he let go.  A strip of leather crossed her throat, then another, and they tightened as he put both knees on her back and pulled.

      She stood up and slammed him into the chimney, but the grip didn't slacken.

      Her vision grayed, then narrowed to a tunnel, her fingers clawed at the straps, scoring them and tearing her fingernails.  She stumbled, unable to stand.  She gasped as the bands parted, but before she could react, she was flying through the air and off the building.

      She saw the wrought iron fence racing towards her, Are those spear points merely decorative?

      She hit the fence, still alive despite her terrible injuries.

      I can feel the blood draining from me, I am sorry Commander, I could not stop him, she thought as she watched the boy cross the street and enter the headquarters, until her vision failed and darkness came.

      Rei had finished her story, looked at her `guest`, still in her arms, as he stared at her in amazement and shock.  She still marveled at the changes in both of them after just two years.  He is embarrassed, she had thought.

      "I thought you were a twin or a sister," he'd stammered.

      "You intended to kill me, I forgive you.  You wanted to save him, could you imagine he would not forgive you?  You defended . . . " she stopped, that had not been what she wanted to say, "I learned, it was not my function to die.  My function was to protect.  As is yours.  Neither of us has always been successful, that does not give us permission to cease trying, even for single a day."

      It has just taken me until recently to understand what I should have learned before, she admitted to herself.

      "If you are going to lecture me on my duty to the others . . . "

      "Your duty to yourself.  You have lost the right to be alone, we have become interdependent.  That is your fault, I blame you for that."

      The short bark of laughter was the breaking point.  He began crying, the same type of wounded-animal cries Nabiki-kun had howled at the world that had taken Hiroko from her.

      Rei had held him until the cries and he'd fallen asleep, then laid him on the sand and gotten the supplies.  She built the fire and made sure he was warm.

      I should have asked for tea, she thought as she stared at the driftwood fire, bits of red and blue and yellow in the flames as sea salts burned away.

      Because he thought I was blaming Samuel for his own death.  She shook her head, it was an irrational assumption on his part.  But he has hardly been rational, she realized, Nor would I expect him to be.  She also knew that on the anniversary of Yui-chan's death, something would have to be done, for the pilots, for the Commander . . . for Ritsuko.  She had time, she had the other pilots to depend on.  She knew she shouldn't reveal what she had shared with Shinji-kun, Yui-chan and Gendo, before he became 'the Commander'.  There would have to be another way to achieve this.

      She looked at the fire pit in the sand, the starry sky, she would have to ask Shinji-kun to do this.  Not breakdown as Roku-kun had, but simply sit outside and watch the night pass.  The quiet was pleasant.

July 9, 1947

      Rei was packing up the breakfast supplies, she had not considered that Roku-kun would have brought all the relevant pieces for meals: food, water, a cook stove.

      At least that is normal, she thought as she considered their discussion: Immortality.  She had it, because of all the others; Roku-kun had it, because he could not remain dead; Ritsuko had it, because of what she was.  Others had it by more obscure means.

      "So if you remember him, then he is not lost?" Rei asked Roku-kun.  It was a very difficult concept.  They had talked of other difficult things, insights and guesses about the other pilots.  She had listened and made her own comments.  She had listened to Roku-kun's stories about Samuel and himself, since well before sunrise.  By the time he had finished, she too wished she could have met him.

      "I know it seems strange, that anyone would make such a promise."

      "No," Rei corrected, "I too have made such a promise."  She remembered Yui Ikari and her own actions after the woman's murder.

      "Have you kept it?" Roku-kun asked.

      She considered, arranging Naoko's death hadn't fulfilled her desires, perhaps with Shinji-kun, when the war was over.  "No, I have not."

      Roku-kun staggered to his feet under the weight of his pack and all the supplies within, despite this, he offered his hand to help her up.  "Then since you will help me keep mine, I will help you keep yours."  He turned and stared at the ocean as she stood on her own.  "Perhaps then we can forgive each other the crime we cannot forgive ourselves."

      Rei was horrified.  "What crimes?"

      He turned to her, smiled sadly, "Having survived, when those better than us . . . did not."

      Rei nodded, stared at the ocean with him.  She found she wanted forgiveness, she wanted Shinji-kun's forgiveness, for what she had failed to do.

Save Me From The Candid Friend

      "Of all the stupid, arrogant, self-righteous, hypocritical - " Horseface's voice rang off the walls of Misato's apartment as he confronted Raccoon.

      Wondergirl had told them a good deal about what had happened, how they had spent the afternoon and night.  Asuka suspected she was holding a few things back, considering the way she kept glancing at Spineless and blushing.  Asuka figured she could beat it out of Raccoon later.  Horseface was mortally offended that Raccoon had run off when he needed help, Wondergirl seemed to agree with him.

      "Just who are we talking about, Saotome-san?" Raccoon smoothly interrupted the tirade.

      Asuka braced herself to physically intervene, she glanced at Wondergirl who returned the glance, evidently she was ready too.

      "We - are - talking - about - you," Horseface said through clenched teeth.  His fists closing and opening.

      Asuka had never seen Horseface this angry before, she suspected Raccoon had finally offended Horseface's honor beyond redemption.  It's about bloody time, she thought, 'I want a nice, clean fight, and when the bell sounds, come out swinging.'  If Horseface keeps his head, this time he's got all the advantages in a verbal duel, and he knows if he goes physical, he loses.  Let's see if he's learned anything.

      "I didn't want to add to your troubles.  If I was wrong, I apologize," Raccoon countered softly.

      VERDAMMT! Asuka silently cursed.

      "Did he just admit he was wrong?"  Asuka held her head.  "I may faint."

      "He did not," Wondergirl told them, "He said 'if', and you were."  She stared at Raccoon, who backed up a pace.

      She's worked up too! Asuka thought, although she could hardly believe it, You'd better be on your best behavior, Raccoon.  Now you've got them working together.

      "No one in this room knows what losing a brother or a sister feels like."

      "That is untrue," Wondergirl told Raccoon in a gentler tone.

      Raccoon nodded to Wondergirl.  "Point taken, but none - I thought none of you - would understand."

      "You were incorrect, Samuel's death was no more intentional on your part than Hiroko's was on the Fourth's."

      Oooch, Asuka winced as she thought, That's got to hurt!  Reassure Raccoon, and hit ole' Horseface with the back swing, very nice Wondergirl.  Then she saw Wondergirl actually grin, she saw several teeth for perhaps a quarter of a second.  Asuka wondered if the world was instantly about to end.

      "When you kill," Wondergirl explained, "There is no ambiguity."

      What's he blushing about? Asuka wondered as Raccoon turned bright red.

      "Why don't you hold your friend?" Wondergirl asked Asuka.

      Wondergirl's question completely flustered Asuka, she couldn't figure out where that had come from.

      "He's not Adolf Galland . . . but . . . " Spineless suggested.

      Horseface picked it up too.  "So when are you lovebirds getting hitched?" he asked her.

      The suggestion so ruffled Asuka that she almost missed Wondergirl glancing at Spineless, who nodded slightly.  Wondergirl immediately kicked Horseface in the shin.

      "OWW!"  Horseface rubbed the injury.  "What was that for?!"

      "You have said you do not trust words," Wondergirl patiently explained, "So a physical shorthand might be useful.  This meant you have been insensitive and should remain quiet while we repair the damage."

      "You didn't have to kick me so hard," Horseface complained.

      Asuka expected Wondergirl's next kick.

      "OW!" Horseface yelped.

      "Better?" Wondergirl asked, all curiosity.

      "NO!"  This time Horseface got his legs out of the way.  "I mean don't kick me at all!"

      Now Wondergirl was confused.

      "Ranma-chan."  Ice Princess had arrived.

      Asuka was a little irritated and more relieved that everyone ignored what had been going on, as they went to greet her.  Horseface got there first, and to his credit, he paused, arms at his sides.  She threw herself into his arms.

      It's just soo KAWAAIII! Asuka thought, I may be sick.

      "Be nice," Raccoon whispered to her.

      She blushed, she hadn't thought she'd spoken aloud.

      "If they reconcile, you won't have to date him anymore," Raccoon continued in that quiet tone.

      "IT WASN'T A DATE!" she shouted.  Then looked at the others staring at her.  She put her hands on her hips in defiance.  "What are you all looking at?"

      "A beautiful, young woman," Raccoon told her.

      Asuka blushed, readied for the insult that would follow.

      "Lonely," Wondergirl added as she advanced on Asuka alongside Raccoon.

      "She's always been passionate," Raccoon said, as if recommending a wine or a song, as he approached, step by step.

      Asuka looked at them in horror.  Then looked at the others, Spineless was composed, Horseface was his usual lost, Ice Princess was grinning.  "You . . . you can't be serious!"

      "I have always wanted to kiss you," Wondergirl said as she continued to progress at the same slow pace, "You are truly beautiful."

      "NO!  You want to kiss Spineless."  She waved her hands at them.  "Shoo!  Go 'way!"  She couldn't believe this was happening, and Ice Princess was the worst, now ignoring everything, snuggling in Horseface's arms.  When Asuka's heel touched the wall, she lunged forward, diving between her tormentors.  Asuka grabbed Spineless by the shoulders and swung him in front of her to act as a shield.  "See?  Here he is."  She held him between herself and the approaching Wondergirl.  "You want to kiss him, not me, you really do!"

      Wondergirl slowed as she came near.

      "Tell her it's all right, Spineless," she hissed in his ear, all the while watching Raccoon saunter towards, then past her.

      "I would like that very much," Spineless managed, "Rei-chan, I've missed you very much."  Then he whispered to Asuka, "Was that all right?"

      It was out of a poem they'd read once, but it would serve.

      "Go to it."  She released him and backed away.

      The two maneuvered for the best approach.  Asuka didn't have to watch, she knew they'd get there . . . eventually.  She had more pressing concerns, like where was Raccoon?

      He was standing next to Ice Princess and Horseface.  Ice Princess was holding Horseface so tight, Asuka doubted he could breathe.

      But breathing, even consciousness itself is unnecessary for the Divine Ranma Saotome! she thought sarcastically, I will not be defeated!

      Then she saw Raccoon pull two bills from his wallet.  Ice Princess grabbed them out of his hand with her teeth, then stuffed them down Horseface's shirt with her lips and tongue.  Which made Horseface squirm like a man standing on a hot plate.  Raccoon merely turned back to Asuka, favoring her with such an angelic smile, one that radiated peace and innocence.  She instantly knew she'd been had.

      "I'll settle now for five," Ice Princess said from her place in Horseface's arms.

      "I have faith in Miss Langley, I know exactly what she'll do," Raccoon said with such an offensive air of smug superiority, as if the world were proceeding along his preset path.  Horseface either clueless and embarrassed, or suffocating.

      Oh you do, do you?  Her disgust at Wondergirl and Spineless, brows and noses touching, staring into each other's eyes, was instantly forgotten.  She stalked towards Raccoon, forcing the rage and determination from her face.  Horseface picked up Ice Princess and moved her a few steps away, out of Asuka's direct line of advance.

      Asuka clasped her hands under her chin.  "Aren't you happy to see your friends?  Aren't they sooo romantic?"

      Careful, she warned herself, Don't want to sound too sappy.

      "You haven't had time to get a knife," Raccoon said.

      She forced herself to only give him a little, hurt smile, instead of the broadside he deserved.  She ignored that all the others were watching her now.  "Maybe you were right," she said in a sad, quiet voice.

      I HATE this!

      "Maybe I am lonely," she made herself sound even more lost and plaintive, blinked dewy eyes at him.

      You're going to get yours for making me do this!  She held out her hands to him.  If he does something funny, I'll kill him!

      He leaned into her grasp, she barely stifled the urge to throttle or crush the life out of him, simply hugging him for a moment.  Then she moved him back slightly and kissed him, breaking it off the moment he started kissing her back.

      "I always wanted a little sister," he told her in Latin.

      Asuka gritted her teeth.  She knew only the two of them understood what he'd said.  The tone had been affectionate, so it gave nothing away.  Only they would know that he'd insulted her, only they would know she was the one who pulled away from the kiss.

      The others were turning back to their own partners.  She'd cheated, and they were going to just let her get away with it.  That was intolerable.  She grabbed Raccoon's collar.

      "You don't know if I won or lost," he told her.

      She practically threw him into one of the dining room chairs.  "This is how it's done.  Horseface!  Wondergirl!  Attention!"

      "And you," she told Raccoon sweetly, "Behave."  She tightened his tie so hard that the special knot came loose, if it hadn't, she would have garroted him.  She could see he'd gotten the message, no comments or funny business.

      Now her nerve faltered.  I've kissed him before in the Dreamlands! she told herself, But never like a lover or a girlfriend! came back the traitorous thought.

      She sat 'sidesaddle' across his knees to equalize their heights, she'd still have to crane her neck a bit to do this.  If he didn't cooperate, he could make her look ridiculous.

      I am not lonely! she told herself, And I am not jealous!

      He made her lift her head slightly while he held her shoulders to steady her.

      That almost makes it worse! she thought.  She almost broke it off as they made contact, but he'd shifted one hand to the back of her head.  She mirrored the move, just to keep things fair.  She increased the contact slightly, then broke away, then resumed contact.

      Well, if I was expecting fireworks and brass bands, that was a disappointment, she thought, It was pleasant, and it was warm, but it was just comfortable.  Like a warm wind on a cool day, or a mug of soup and a place by the fire after a long winter walk or a day of skiing.

      She broke it off, looked in his eyes.  Despite her best efforts, it had been the same for him.  No mad light of lust or passion, no eternal fire had been lit there.  She saw he'd gladly accept another, or give one of his own.  But neither would swim the Hellespont, or launch a thousand ships of war to get another.

      She stood up, glanced at the others, all watching as she'd told them to.  She leaned over and gave him a more heartfelt, but chaste kiss on the cheek.

      Then pushed over the chair.

      "Now you two," she said coldly to Horseface and Ice Princess.

      "Without the chair," Raccoon added from the floor.

      She ignored him, she was trying to burn holes in Horseface's eyes by sheer force of will.  "Think of it as a martial arts move."  She advanced on him, step, by menacing step.

      Ice Princess yanked his head down, within millimeters of hers, "Just close your eyes and think of England," Ice Princess told him.

      He got a stupefied look on his face, which only intensified when Ice Princess kissed him.  Asuka kept glaring at him until he started kissing Ice Princess back.

      Asuka turned her attention to Spineless and Wondergirl.  She watched Wondergirl grab Spineless's chin and turn his head sideways.  Then she gave him a good imitation of the friendly kiss Asuka had given Raccoon.  Then she turned her head to receive one from Spineless.

      "Again," Wondergirl said, kissed him, waited to be kissed.  They did that five times before they dissolved in giggles.

      Well Spineless dissolved, Asuka thought as she stared at Spineless on the floor, But I did see most of Wondergirl's teeth for nearly a second, so it's the same thing.  Her job done, her back ramrod straight, Asuka stalked off.

      The others watched Asuka leave and heard the bedroom door slam.

      Shinji's giggles subsided, "When do you think she'll realize she's in my room?"

      "She knows it now," Raccoon said as he stood and retied his tie, "When will she admit it, well, never."

      "More practice?" Rei asked, almost eagerly.

      Shinji was uncomfortable with that.  With Asuka glaring at him, he'd been more afraid of her than kissing, now he was really afraid of -

      "Oh great, more girl - " Saotome was cut off by Nabiki covering his mouth with hers.

      A moment later he yanked his head back, "What was that?!"

      "Tendo secret wrestling technique," Nabiki stood on her tiptoes, "I heard Ranko needs to give Raccoon a passionate kiss.  I'm not even going to charge for the lessons.  If you are an attentive student."  She smiled, as she pressed Ranma against the wall.  "Or you could just admit Raccoon is better than you are."  Nabiki looked at Raccoon and sighed, when she sighed, a lot of her moved.

      Not conducive to Ranma's thinking ability, Shinji thought as they all watched Ranma's arrogant proclamation die as a surprised 'eep.'

      Rei helped Shinji to his feet.

      "We'll continue," Shinji said, "Sitting down, on the patio."  Shinji glanced at Ranma trying to come to terms with Nabiki, she'd backed off a step, letting him act.  Raccoon moved to the kitchen to get out of everyone's way.  Shinji knew nothing would distract him in there.

      You could roll in a grenade, and his only reaction would be to use it as a garnish, Shinji thought, After he'd disarmed it.

      He pulled the curtain closed after he and Rei were on the patio, giving them - he and Rei, and Ranma and Nabiki, privacy.

      Misato yanked the door to her apartment open, she finally had the excuse she wanted for a party.  What she saw at the dining room table and the shadows from the patio, could not be tolerated.

      Her cry of 'What the HELL is going on?!' was cut off by what might as well have been a steel band.

      With Ritsuko covering her mouth and dragging her back from the door, Misato tried to protest.

      "What say we come back in fifteen minutes?"  Ritsuko smiled.

      Misato nodded, and shivered at that smile.  In the ocean, smiles like that normally had fins attached.

      "What!" Ranma shouted, "What did I do wrong this time?"

      "Oh, thank you very much," Sammi replied, "Asuka, he thinks sharing an apartment with two beautiful women is a punishment."

      "He could always move in here," Asuka commented about Misato's apartment, where Misato's 'Welocome home Nabiki and Rei' party had suddenly ground to a halt.

      Ranma was about to say something, when he noted Asuka, Sammi, and Ritsuko's glare.  He wisely chose silence.

      "As I was saying," Ritsuko continued what she'd been saying when Ranma reacted, "Maya, Jeff, Nabiki and I will be leaving day after tomorrow for the Azores, we'll be gone about a month and a half."

      "Why can't I go with?" Ranma asked plaintively.

      There's a lot more to this, isn't there? Ritsuko silently asked.

      "Because with both alternates gone, we need a spare pilot," Ritsuko said, "And since I'm going to be gone, you have to be supervised."

      "Hear, hear!" Asuka added.  If she was hoping to upset him, he was already too upset to be derailed.

      "So I'm the spare," he said.

      "No, Asuka is," Ritsuko said, "I - "

      "What!" Asuka shouted, shutting off the conversations that had restarted.

      "Well, he'll pilot Unit 01, Shinji will take Unit 00, and Rei . . . " Ritsuko braced herself for the explosion.

      "WONDERGIRL in MY EVA - !?" Asuka shouted.

      "It will be an honor," Rei said, after a moment's consultation, from where she was talking with Nabiki and Jeff.

      Asuka marched over to engage the other three.  Asuka's change of battlefields gave Ritsuko the chance to explain things to Ranma.  "NERV SAR trained them in diving, not just to rescue you, but for this mission.  I think you can guess what we'll be doing."

      Ranma thought about it for a moment, "Yeah, I guess.  It's just that . . . well, Nab-chan just got back."

      In more ways than one, Ritsuko didn't add, Or perhaps, in the one that really matters.

      "Girls and boys and boys and girls," Sammi added in broken French.

      Ritsuko kept the look of shock from her face, that made more sense, a frightening amount.  Ranma was losing Nabiki, `Ranko` was losing `Raccoon`.  She wondered if Ranma was even aware of the complete reason for his distress.  "I'm going to bring them back," Ritsuko reassured him.

      "So I get stuck with `Lang-ley` for a month, you can't sew her mouth shut can you?" he asked, worriedly eyeing his new roommate.

      Ritsuko glanced at Asuka, who was clearly on the defensive.  "How would she eat?  Let her get to know you, she's not as bad as you think."

      "Yeah, I know," Ranma said morosely, "I just wish she wouldn't treat me like I was stupid."

      "Like you treat anyone who isn't a martial artist as helpless?" Sammi asked with an innocent smile.

      Ranma blushed at that, stared at the carpet.  Rei had detached from the group arguing with Asuka.  Ritsuko was about to tell them to knock it off.  Asuka was looking from Jeff to Nabiki and back again so fast she was going to get whiplash.

      "Doctor, at your convenience, I would like to discuss some things," Rei delivered it like a practiced speech.  For all Ritsuko knew, it was.

      "If I promise not to cook anything, will someone open this door!" Misato yelled from her bedroom, rattling the door for emphasis.

      Ritsuko still didn't know what they'd done to the door, but neither it nor the window would open more than a handsbreadth.  Ritsuko and Sammi had tried to open it, to no avail.  The opening was wide enough to pass food and drink, but not even Ranma or Rei could squeeze through.

      "Don't trust her!" Asuka announced.

      "After the party, Rei, I'll walk you home," Ritsuko said uneasily.  Rei never wanted to talk to her.  Rei nodded and walked away.

      "Why do I suspect there's a lot more going on here?" Ritsuko asked, returned her attention to Ranma, "You'll survive, I assure you."

      It didn't reassure him, but he went off to join the others.  Shinji and Rei had rescued Asuka by practically dragging her into the kitchen.  Ritsuko sighed, "Hard days."

      "They have been," Sammi agreed, "And you don't know the half of it.  Having Ranma around will do Asuka some good, she's . . . a little depressed."

      "About what?" Ritsuko asked.

      "Nothing much to worry about, but with Ranma moping she can focus on something besides herself and her fears.  Also I think she needs a dose of his optimism."

      "There was some testing I wanted to do, but I doubt I'll have time," Ritsuko said, "Ground speed Ranma, Rei and Jeff, find out what the real parameters are."

      "Worried about something?" Sammi asked.

      "No, just a baseline for later comparison, as well as a lesson to Ranma about his physical abilities.  He is faster, and stronger, but Rei should be able to run rings around him, and according to some reports, young Mister Davis is nearly as fast as she is."

      "I lost him once," Sammi said with an air of wounded pride, "I picked him up again."

      Ritsuko hid her smile, she thought about the other things she'd have to do aboard the U.S.S. Bennington while they sailed for the Azores.  Thirteen days there, a day or two to get the Angel, five days to Boston, then 14 days back, plus up to two weeks for unforeseen problems.

      The three men watched the apartment, they had already located where the renegade lived, but she was here now.  They would simply intercept her on the way back to her dwelling.

Physician, Heal Thyself

July 10, 1947

      Rei walked along the deserted street, she knew Ritsuko was behind her, but there was also someone - No, something else, she thought, glancing behind her occasionally, she saw nothing.

      "I told Roku-kun, that I am not the first Rei he has met," she began without preamble.

      "What do you mean?" Ritsuko asked.

      "The early 1945 mission, Major Katsuragi, the Commander and I were in Boston."

      "So that's where you all disappeared to," Ritsuko said, "Is he the one who shot you?"

      "Yes," Rei said, then looked around again, she could almost feel something out there.

      She considered bringing it up to Ritsuko, But she would demand details, Rei thought, Details I do not have.

      Ritsuko seemed to have caught some of Rei's concerns, she glanced around, but said nothing about it.  "How did you . . . your colleague get those other wounds?  Especially the spear wounds."

      "He threw me off a six-story building onto a wrought iron fence," Rei told her.  The strangulation was what really bothered her, the tightness around her throat, the slow fall into death, the loss of faculties and the awareness of it the entire time.

      "That sounds like his sense of thoroughness," Ritsuko said, lit a cigarette, or rather tried to.  She stopped, looked around again.

      Rei thought Ritsuko could sense something.  "Do you feel it too, Doctor?"

      "I don't feel anything," Ritsuko told her, discarded the cigarette and extracted a small pistol from her purse, "Bad - old - memories," she breathed as she scanned the area around her.

      Rei drew her own pistol, she had neglected to carry a full allotment of ammunition, she only had two speedloaders: eighteen shots total.

      Ranma crouched down, well behind where Rit-chan and Rei had stopped.  He glanced around, it amazed him that he'd nearly missed Raccoon, some 20 meters away.  When Rei and Rit-chan left, something had felt wrong, so Ranma followed them.  It was a martial artists' duty to protect the weak.  He only wished he'd brought his sword to the party, then he'd have it with him.  He contemplated trying to sneak over to Raccoon, to see if he had a spare weapon, something designed to work on these nasties.  Alternatively, he knew he could surrender himself to the 'other', but there was no telling what it would do.  He'd seen animals react to Rit-chan, they weren't happy she was around, and his own animosity to Rei might get her classified as an enemy too.

      He saw the man in the suit step out of the shadows, Ranma was certain there was only trash and a few boxes there a moment earlier.  Now it was empty, he'd been the trash and boxes.  So it isn't human, he thought, Terrific.

      He considered standing up and announcing himself, at the very least he could distract it.  I'd never survive, Ranma realized, Even if I did beat it, Rit-chan and Raccoon would kill me for doing that.

      Rei scampered off in that odd, super-fast run of hers, leaving Rit-chan alone.

      Except Raccoon wasn't waiting, he was taking aim.  Ranma wasn't going to wait either.  As soon as Raccoon started firing, Ranma raced out and picked up Rit-chan.

      Kamis!  She's heavy! he thought as he dashed off, at nowhere near his usual speed.  He hoped Raccoon's gunfire had its usual effect.

      Raccoon caught up with them, "Run, run, run, it's wearing body armor."  He held up the locked open pistol.  "Two clips and nothing."

      The punch caught Ranma completely by surprise, he tried to twist Rit-chan out of the path of the blow.  It still clipped her, the impact made him drop Rit-chan and crash backward into Raccoon.  Sprawled on the ground, he now thought he had a good idea what being hit by a truck felt like.  Raccoon seemed even worse off than he was.  The man, looked like the first one, same suit, similar expression, and the same talent for appearing out of nowhere.

      Ranma scrambled back to his feet and launched into a series of fast combinations, each punch or kick landed with precision and full power.  The barrage would have reduced an elephant to so much hash.  The man acted like he'd stepped into the rain, he didn't like it, but it didn't hurt him.  Ranma felt the stiffness of the man's jacket, but that wasn't the worst.  The almost jelly-like oozing of what was underneath sickened him, even as his blows landed.  It was like fighting a leather bag of mud.  The man counterattacked, punching like a boxer.  Ranma dodged every blow while continuing his attack, he figured blocking one would break whatever he blocked with.  What got him was what looked like fifteen other pairs of arms suddenly coming at him.  He knew it was an optical illusion, but the moment of surprise was all the man needed.  He only connected once, but that too was all the man needed.  With the glancing blow along his side, Ranma felt the ribs break and had the wind knocked out of him.  He saw stars and couldn't get back on his feet.  He had the terrible feeling the man was just playing with all three of them.

      "Stay down," he heard Raccoon say, from nearby.  He didn't look at him, he was looking at Rit-chan, putting herself between the two men, and the two pilots.  She took the stance Nab-chan had taught her, and her battle began.

      Ranma felt a spooky chill crawling through him, but his ribs ceased being fractured, the odd, broken feeling inside him stopped, his head cleared.  Raccoon pulled his hands away from Ranma and rolled into a ball, protecting the same parts on himself that the man had wounded on Ranma.  Besides checking he was alive, he could do nothing for Raccoon for the moment.

      I need to learn that trick, it has to work with Ki, Ranma thought as he searched for a way to help.

      Ranma concentrated on Rit-chan, she was holding her own.  The other two had no skill at all, just powerful brawlers.  So powerful in fact the few times one of them did connect with Rit-chan, she flew back some five to eight meters.  Then got up, still game for the fight.  When she connected, the targeted man seemed to deform like soft plastic, and wound up some eight to twelve meters away.  Unfortunately they too would get back up.  Really unfortunate for anything that was in their way, storefronts, light poles, the carcass of a truck, all of it was crushed if it was in the flight path of one of the fighters.

      One of them tried that 15 pairs of arms trick on Rit-chan, it didn't faze her in the least.  Ranma realized it wasn't an illusion, the guy suddenly had 32 arms!  He wondered what they were fighting.  He really wished he had his sword, he glanced around, he didn't see Raccoon's stick around either.

      But Raccoon could be curled up around it too, Ranma thought, the other boy was still rolled into a ball.

      "Somebody has to have called the police or the military," he told Raccoon, unwilling to get too far away from the other boy, who was still recovering from whatever he'd done to repair Ranma.

      One of the men Rit-chan had punched through an abandoned storefront got up, rather than rejoining the fight, he headed straight for the boys.  Ranma interposed himself.  He suddenly realized his art wasn't a good way of defending a person you dare not move, if the other guy didn't care about getting hit, and seemed to flow out of your hands before you could throw him.  Ranma couldn't stop him.

      "They want you alive," the man said, "He'll be the lucky one."  With Ranma still pounding away, trying to throw him, trying to trip him, the man picked up Raccoon by the collar and slapped his wounded side.  He seemed angry he didn't get the scream or gasp he was expecting.  The man shouted something at Rit-chan, she looked stricken, and put up her hands.

      "Ritsuko, you naughty girl," Raccoon managed, then slapped something on the man's face.  It was a small black crystal.

      Ranma lunged forward and twisted Raccoon out of the man's grip.  The man was trying to slap the crystal away.  Then he began digging in his face to remove it.

      "Don't look," Raccoon urged, "Don't watch."

      Ranma turned his back and carried Raccoon away from the screaming man, he could see the light making their shadows appear.  Ranma didn't want to know what Raccoon had done to the man to turn him into a torch like that.  He vowed he'd keep his sword with him from now on, even their enemies didn't deserve that kind of agonizing death.  Getting chopped to pieces was more merciful, than whatever made the man scream, and scream, and scream.  It was horrible to listen to, he didn't want to turn and see what was happening.

      The cavalry had arrived, in the form of Rei and a tank.  Rei knelt atop the turret and sprayed the man fighting Rit-chan with the top-mounted machine gun.  Once Rit-chan scrambled clear, the crew fired the main gun.  The man stood there as the shell passed through and exploded down the street.

      "Running might be a good idea," Rei suggested, as she opened fire with the machine gun.  The man simply walked through the hail of bullets as the tank's other machine guns also opened up.

      "Get me over to Ritsuko," Raccoon ordered.  Ranma picked up the other boy and closed the distance.  Raccoon reached out and touched Rit-chan.  Suddenly the three of them were on top of a building.  Ranma halted, looked around.

      I hate magic! Ranma thought as he shivered, not just at the wave of arctic cold that had enveloped him, Even if it did just save us.

      "Put me down," Raccoon said, "I've got an idea."

      "Just use another of those black things on him," Ranma said as he set the boy down.  He shuddered to think about whatever those were, the callousness to make a weapon like that.

      What if you used them on people? Ranma asked himself, he felt sick just thinking about it.

      "I've only got one more, and I have to set them.  You can't."

      "There are more than two," Rit-chan said in a desperate voice.

      "How do you know that?" Ranma demanded, he hated this stuff, this time he had an answer, a cleaner answer, "Can we go by Rit-chan's apartment, so I can pick up my new sword?"

      "Not a bad idea," Raccoon said, now he could sit up on his own, the cold had retreated, so he'd finished whatever magic he'd used.  "Like I said, I have an idea."

      "Fine, what are those things?" Ranma demanded of Rit-chan.

      Rit-chan laughed mirthlessly, "They're me."

      Suddenly Ranma didn't want any more explanations, not from Rit-chan, not from Raccoon.  There were things he just wasn't meant to know.

      Ritsuko slipped around the walkway of her building, moving from one shadow to the next, blending seamlessly, moving soundlessly.  She had to admit this was the most ludicrous idea she'd ever heard.  But what other choice do I have? she asked herself, Besides, it's working.

      She felt rather than saw the first hit, a line of silver fluid penetrating her flesh.  She could imagine the weapon, she'd seen them often enough, long ago.  A number of bottles of colored liquids, and tubes running between them, all atop a series of bands that the Elder Thing's branching arms would go through.  The Elder Things' equivalent of a rifle, firing what would have been for a human, a neurotoxin, everything just quit working, quit moving.  Paralysis or death, depending on the dosage.  Sometimes they wanted to take their rebellious slaves alive.

      Marinade, went through her mind, she ignored the thought.  It was a little too accurate to be funny.  Fortunately, the Elder Things lacked that kind of creativity, of all the races she'd heard of, only humans had that kind of a sense of perverse humor.

      Still, the bolt didn't affect her, her stumbling was to draw her opponent out.  Inwardly what she saw amazed her, the patterns of energy, the myriad colors, the smells and sounds that depended on what she saw, the light and tastes depending on what she heard, it was nearly overwhelming.

      The man in the suit stepped out of his place of concealment, exactly like the other two, the last of the hunting triple.  She wondered why they always came in threes.

      They didn't expect a fight, we showed'em.  She couldn't shake her head at the idea, it would alert the quarry.  But she wouldn't have fought, even a year ago.  She wasn't certain what had possessed her, running away had always served so well in the past.  She'd changed, running had suddenly stopped being an option, despite eons of experience running and hiding.  She might have even defeated three, given time, and a little more training.  She'd never been a skilled fighter.

      The hunter carried a rifle exactly as she remembered.  She thought it was a cruel irony that the Elder Things had lost so much of their technology, they could neither understand nor use many of their ancient devices.  However, another group could, retaining mastery of the maintenance, even the manufacture of many ancient devices.  And one of them had taught it to others.  The rebel became the keeper of the heritage, the thought came, In another, nonhuman world it might have been ridiculous.  With humans it's appropriate.  She forced the thought away and concentrated on the hunter.

      Nondescript, like all of his kind, an appearance designed to be unnoticeable, easy to overlook.  "The hunt is over."

      He'd gotten too close, the kick caught him completely by surprise.  The rifle was her real target, and she destroyed it.  She'd simply relaxed, and let the move flow, without conscious thought.  The `man` grimaced and attacked, using all the tricks he knew, he was instantly and completely outclassed.  Ritsuko stood to meet the attack, parrying or dodging as appropriate.  It was so easy.  Her hands, arms, legs and body moved wherever they would do the most good and avoid the most harm.  At the same time, she was aware of the growing rage of her attacker, his attacks became wilder, more desperate, and correspondingly easier to avoid or deflect.  Her movements had a precision that was different from mathematics or physics, but still governed by the same kinds of unwavering rules.  Ritsuko's analytical mind watched her body moving with a grace and speed she would have considered impossible.

      Then she struck, thrusting her hand into the man's chest, injecting the silver fluid from the AT field bottle created to contain it.  The man looked at her in horror, she did not withdraw her hand.  The flesh around the wound became gray powder, the effect spreading through his entire body, as his thoughts, memories, what few feelings he had, became part of what Ritsuko now was.  She knew, for example, the surviving one would be arriving soon.  Somewhere within her, came the confidence that a deal could be struck.  She had never considered such a thing before, she doubted it could be done.  Yet the confidence remained undiminished.

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

      Ritsuko stood on the roof of her apartment, apparently alone.  This man, the last of the hunters, approached more cautiously.

      Patience, a voice not her own cautioned.

      He tries anything, another voice added, I'll clobber him.

      Patience! the first voice repeated.

      Am I going to have to separate you two? Ritsuko thought.  They subsided, she waited.

      "You killed the other," he said, glancing around, clearly uneasy about being alone, "That is new, different."

      "The hunt is over," Ritsuko told him, "The Elder Things can't reverse what they have done.  They can barely maintain technology the humans have mastered."

      "You allow me to be your messenger?  How magnanimous.  You do remember what happened the last time anyone trusted you?"  He hadn't moved, hadn't bothered to change his expression or the tone of his voice.  She sometimes forgot also, it gave her a reputation for steadiness she didn't deserve.

      She controlled the denial that formed instantly, gave her own response instead, "I am not asking you to follow.  I am merely pointing out that the world has changed.  Have you, any of you, been to Antarctica recently?"

      "So that's where you were hiding.  Clever.  No, obviously we have not," the man said.  He hadn't approached, hadn't drawn a weapon, or prepared a spell.  He was frightened, Ritsuko knew that from the colors of his words, so he was considering his options.

      Ritsuko was a little jealous, he and the others knew a good deal more about being human than she did.  She was aware of the preconceptions Jeff had about her extreme age, and being a font of wisdom and knowledge as a result.  For this one, and his/its colleagues those misconceptions might actually be true.

      "We never served them.  We served our own goals."

      Ritsuko froze, her hope faded.  But the feeling of confidence, that wasn't hers, remained.  She was also well aware of the weapon available to her, and the available skill to hit him with it, even at this distance.  But the possibility of ending the hunting and the running stayed her hand.

      "But we adapt, do we not?" the man admitted, smiled sadly.  From the color of his words she knew the sadness was genuine.

      "Almost as well as the humans," Ritsuko replied, relaxing slightly.

      "Yes, strange, considering they were an accident.  I cannot speak for all the others, but some might be . . . reasonable."

      After you tell them Rit-chan beat you, Ritsuko heard go through her mind.

      She watched the man return the way he came.  Through an odd awareness that extended far beyond sight or hearing, she was able to track him for a distance.

      Do you really see and hear and smell and taste and feel all the extra stuff? raced through her mind.

      Certainly, doesn't everybody? came the sardonic reply, Same as the energy patterns.  Are those what ki flows look like?

      "Children!" she said quietly.

      This was very useful, and educational, she thought, But I want you two out of there!  Mainly she needed the privacy to actually think about what was happening.

      If you'll permit me? came the question.

      She nodded, realized that was no answer.  Go ahead.  She watched in fascination as her hand pushed into the side of her leg, and removed a brass topped, brown wood walking stick.

      "Do I tap this on the ground and shout 'I have the power' or something?" she asked.

      I was going to suggest just closing your eyes and relaxing, came the reply, "Then reooo - oof.  Then reopening them.  Ouch."

      Jeff had fallen over, wearied by the evening's effort.  Ritsuko glanced at Ranma, who had suffered a moment of gender uncertainty, switching back and forth rapidly as she/he reformed.

      "OOOH!" Ranma's female form knelt down, holding herself and moaning loudly, "I HATE that!"

      "So rapid gender changes are disorienting?" Ritsuko asked, "Fascinating."

      Ranma stared at Ritsuko, "And how could that guy be you?  He was like, millions of years old, you aren't that old, are you?"

      "A gentleman never - " Jeff began.

      "'Asks a lady her age', I know, I'm a lady too!" Ranma finished in a disgusted tone, looked around, "How did I know that?  Wait!" Ranma commanded, concentrated, "There will be some psychological, eidetic and mnemonic leakage due to inherent morphic instability of all participants.  Reducing by an inverse exponential curve over an estimated period of four to six hours."  Ranma finished, looked at Jeff and Ritsuko in horror, positively beside herself, "I've got enough in my head!  I don't want you two in there too!"

      "It means go to sleep," Ritsuko counseled, "In the morning we'll be gone."  She stopped at Ranma's stricken look, "I didn't mean it like that, I meant it as . . . well I - "  She stopped, mastered her, no Ranma's raging emotions, "The carrier is leaving in the evening.  In the morning the intrusion should be gone."

      "Oh," Ranma subsided, then she brightened again, "This is GREAT.  I finally see why subdividing the individual element of the style into . . . discrete steps would . . . greatly enhance - AUGGGGH!"  Ranma ran off holding her head.

      "You're a bad influence on that girl," Ritsuko commented.

      "What about on this girl?" Jeff asked, leered and waggled his eyebrows at her.

      Ritsuko blushed, Ranma's emotions came up on her suddenly, overwhelming her attempts at reserve.  `Raccoon's` weird sense of humor terming the effect 'a ninja tsunami'.  She shook her head to clear it.  For the next few hours, there could few secrets among them.  Given the mix of Ranma's emotions, and her own and Jeff's needs, separating all three from each other might have been the wisest course of action.

      "She really does love you, and Nabiki," Ritsuko said.

      "Part of it is this `other`, it definitely enjoys a chase and cuddle, very catlike in that respect," Jeff said in an analytical voice.

      Ritsuko knew it was no mere facade, Jeff really was that cold and collected, he didn't really feel anything for himself or for others.  Except for his immediate `family`, which both Ranma and Ritsuko had managed to become part of.  "That must have been what saved you, and fought the tigers.  The question is why both you and Nabiki run away, to keep it chasing, or for your own reasons?"  She paused to let Jeff blush and recover.  He wasn't completely immune to Ranma's congenial and cheerful personality.

      "What exactly did you do?  And don't say 'magic', I've been around enough to know that much."

      "Do you have, from my memories, the Rite of Ascension?" he asked.

      She bit her lip and reluctantly rummaged through the borrowed memories.  "Yes, you and a dragon exchange - something, it's not very clear.  You can turn into a dragon?"

      "Only in the Dreamlands, where I can't go anymore.  The Rite wasn't very clear to me either.  Simply put, we were three superimposed waveforms - "

      "That's a great oversimplification . . . " Ritsuko was bothered by her ability to finish the other's sentences.  She knew the temporary combination had overjoyed Ranma, neither he nor `Raccoon` could fully use their abilities, a human body couldn't take the energy load.  Her body could, so he had moved to entirely an greater level of performance, at least temporarily.  Normally she'd never generate the ki and mana that performance level required.  She suspected, no for a while she knew, Jeff had offered this solution because Ranma would have to get used to the power increase as they all changed.  "You're as Machiavellian as Gendo, you know that don't you?"

      "Machiavelli was loyal to his home."  Jeff shrugged, as she expected.

      Ritsuko returned from dropping Jeff off at Sammi's.  She found Ranma in his room, still in female form, writing furiously in her 'ki' journal.  Nabiki sat on the floor near the martial artist, watching with bemused silence.

      "Wait 'til you see how fast he can type," Ritsuko whispered as she sat down next to her.

      "Saw it," Nabiki smirked.

      Ranma sat back with a satisfied look on her face, then focused on the page.  "AUUGH!"  Ranma gripped her hair as if to tear it all out.  "This is all written in German, I - !"  Frustration instantly became fury.  "Raccoon!!"  She shot to her feet.  "If this is some stupid joke to get me to work with Asuka - !"  Ranma shook her fist at her unseen tormentor.

      "What is she talking about?" Nabiki asked as she stood and looked over the pages and pages of fresh notes Ranma had entered, "Yep, that's German."  She stared closely at it, "Even I don't understand all of that."

      Ranma looked at the tiny double-spaced handwriting, very different from her own.  With a grim expression she began making notes on the blank lines, checking every so often that the notes were still in Japanese.

      "It's complicated," Ritsuko explained, "Let's just say Ranma, Jeff and I got some insights into each other."  She could hardly keep from blushing at some of those insights.

      "Oooo."  Nabiki rubbed her hands together, "Like what."

      Ritsuko gave in to her first impulse, she wasn't sure if Jeff or Ranma was the source.  She patted Nabiki on the head, "You're far too young to be worried about that kind of thing now."

      She was rewarded by Nabiki's eyes going wide and pointing at Ranma.

      Ritsuko smiled, shrugged.  "Yes, you would look better with longer hair.  You should let it grow out a bit during the voyage."

      Nabiki narrowed her eyes at Ritsuko's non sequitur, Ritsuko returned a calm facade, her own this time.

      I will be glad when this is over, Ritsuko thought.

      "How am I supposed to know the difference between operant and classical conditioning?" Ranma wailed.

      She beat down the silent self-satisfied feeling.  Very glad, Ritsuko thought.

      "Oh," Nabiki piped up, "About your typewriter.  There was - an accident."

      Ritsuko followed Nabiki to the little portable they both sometimes used.  It was on the patio still smoking slightly.  A roller with kanji on it, and a single hammer to make the impression.  The roller was stuck tight.

      "He overheated it," Nabiki explained, "You were right about the typing."

      "Things are never easy," Ritsuko lamented, she could order another typewriter.  Maybe someone could figure out how to water cool the bearings.

      "Shinji!" Misato ordered, in a whining tone, "Just get a saw.  I really have to go to the bathroom!"  She struggled with the still jammed door.

      "Where am I supposed to get one?" Shinji replied, stepping out of the way of Penpen.

      "I don't care!" Misato shouted in her distress.

      Penpen shoved the door aside and walked into the room to look around at the leftover food and beer still there.

      Shinji had the good sense to stand aside as Misato rushed past him.  Shinji stared at the penguin, who seemed far too nervous about the scrutiny.

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 35 - The Mother of Invention

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.

      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, Jeff and Misato are sent to investigate.  Asuka takes Ranma to Tokyo University, meeting Belldandy and Keiichi.  Then they return to enjoy the carnival set up on the school grounds.  The arrival of an assassin of Nyarlathotep's cult spoils everyone's evening as it attacks the pilots and senior staff, Asuka in Unit 02 destroys him.  In the aftermath, Ranma, Rei and Asuka, make efforts to draw Nabiki out of her shell.

      The S2 engines are tested, and NERV Tokyo vanishes.  Nabiki and Rei escape and land outside Roswell, NM., they must deal with the aftermath and loss at NERV Las Vegas.  NERV Tokyo, in the Great White Space, becomes the battle ground between the crew and alien invaders.  With the base is the Outer God Ghroth, on the Outer God's surface is the device that brought the base there, the trapped and intermixed spirits of the victims of Angel Malaise, including Toji's sister.  Ghroth awakens and takes revenge on the Pilots and especially Nyarlathotep.  The NERV crew develops a plan to return them home.

      Toji visits an unusual woman's kitchen, and gets a commission.  The other pilots all suffer nightmares.  Rei summons the Meliorist and the Scholarly Dragon to effect a rescue.  She also contacts another self who just died.  Shinji escapes on his own, the Scholarly Dragon helps Asuka escape, Ranma has to rescue himself from his nightmare.

      With the return of NERV Tokyo, everyone is celebrating, except Asuka who realizes their enemies are taking a direct interest in the pilots.  Nabiki and Rei are returned to Tokyo separately, Rei by express, Nabiki aboard the Spruce Goose with cargo for the EVAs.

      Shinji, Asuka, Toji and Hikari meet with Yumiwashi.

      Rei locates and confronts Jeff on the anniversary of Samuel's death.  She remembers her feeling on the death of Yui Ikari, and how she arranged Naoko Akagi's death.  Jeff wants to be left alone, Rei decides he needs to talk about events, and doesn't take no for an answer.  Including revealing how he killed her years earlier in Boston.

      At the welcome home party for Nabiki and Rei, the Azores mission is revealed.  Ranma will move in with Asuka and Sammi.

      Three shoggoths, once fragments of Ritsuko, fight and are defeated by Ritsuko, Ranma and Jeff.  But only by combining, there are some side-effects as the trio's personalities temporarily bleed into each other.

I am ready to meet my Maker, whether my Maker is ready for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter -

      Sir Winston Churchill

Acurst Be He That First Invented War

July 10, 1947

      Jeff walked towards Rei's apartment.  He realized he'd seriously underestimated the effect of the merging on himself.  He'd seriously underestimated the force of Saotome's personality.  Ranma!  This is ALL YOUR FAULT!!

      While neither truthful nor fair, it seemed appropriate.  The Saotomes' sniggering in the background at their `victory` over him, didn't help a bit.  The major part of the problem was screening out Rit-ch . . .

      DOCTOR-AKAGI'S!! he screamed in his own head.

      "You're supposed to be the bloody expert in this stuff!" he growled, "Can't handle one martial artist and one woman?  Can you?"

      The real difficulty was Saotome's sense of fair play, all three of them: Ranma, Ranko, and 'the other'.  The 'other' wasn't human, but somehow or other it was definitely a pack animal.  Jeff had never heard of a cat as a pack hunter, not with 'other species' at any rate.  Which is how 'the other' saw most of the other pilots.  While 'the other', Ranma, and Ranko's need for social interaction would have been a fascinating subject of inquiry at any other time, their reaction to what Jeff knew had to be happening to Rei was an immediate call to action by them.  Their warcry of 'Charge in all guns blazing, take no prisoners, no time like the present, erase the stain on honor, warrior's duty, firing until you can't see the whites of their eyes, protect the weak, avenge the honor of the pilots, I love the smell of napalm in the morning, only the pilots can safeguard the world', etc. etc. was an elemental force.  Stopping it was like trying to extinguish a forest fire by screaming 'water' at it.

      Then he'd felt one of her tormentors waiting in ambush for Rei.  He'd desperately tried to put it aside, but Saotome wouldn't let him alone.  Worse, Saotome discovered he had a plan, then it was either implement it himself, or get dragged along and watch Ranma try to carry it off.  It seemed that Saotome's 'honor' was more emotional than rational.  Jeff's normal level of detachment was sorely tested.  He felt the anger Ranma would feel at someone beating up on the helpless.  It required immediate and forceful intervention.

      He had tools that would force them to back off.  More insidious tools than Saotome had or would ever consider.  Ranma might beat them up, Jeff intended to put them through Hell.  He was a little surprised Ranma and Ranko weren't more alarmed at his strategy.  The 'other' wanted to watch and take notes.

      Nabiki was telling Ranko about some of the experiences that she'd had, since that fateful June day.  She felt awkward talking to Ranko.  After what Rei had told them about how she'd spent her time with Raccoon, Nabiki felt she didn't have an excuse to hold back everything.

      "I blamed you, for what happened to Hiroko.  I also blamed me, and Raccoon, and the others in SAR, and . . . and . . . " she paused, composed herself.  She was surprised Ranko hadn't blurted something out yet, although the poor girl looked like an attack dog straining at a leash, she wanted to say or do something, but couldn't.  "It's going to take some time to get this all straight.  I want to go on this mission.  I hate having to depend on other people to protect me and do everything."  She smiled at Ranko, "You probably don't know what I mean."

      Ranko shook her head 'no' vigorously.

      "All right speak, you won't send me tearing off into the corner."

      "I got a real good lesson, I nearly killed Asuka's dreamself, the Scholarly Dragon, a couple of Reis and some of their friends, cause I couldn't ask for help, and I couldn't accept that friends help each other."

      Reis?  Plural? Nabiki wondered, but let Ranko talk.

      "So, yeah, I understand," Ranko said quietly, "Don't ask me if I like it."

      Ranko changed, sat and looked at Nabiki differently, "The trauma will take some time to abate, and you also should be aware of the anniversary effect, in which the trauma revisits annually and unexpectedly."  Then Ranko returned to normal.  She shook her head.  "I hate this!"

      "What just happened?" Nabiki asked, not sure she wanted to be in the same room as Ranko.

      Ranko smirked, shook her head.  "We had to, well sort of - "

      Ranko changed again, her expression almost looked like Ritsuko's.  "We merged to facilitate combat.  Ranma's, Jeff's and my - " Ranko paused, she looked like herself, "I can tell it.  Just give me some time!" Ranko growled.  "Anyway, all three of us were together, we didn't separate completely.  It'll go 'way but I wanted to talk to you.  But it's like that kid at the front of the class, who gives the answer before the teacher finishes the question."

      "So . . . Ritsuko and Raccoon are part of you?"  Nabiki leaned close, "What does he think, about Ritsuko, you and me?"

      Except for her pants, Ranko became monochrome, hair, skin and shirt were all bright red.  "Ah . . . uh . . . oh . . . he kinda . . . "

      Ranko changed, "I thought you liked me."  Ranko looked stricken, "Hey no fair!  It's not like that!  It's not - I'd never say that!  Oh look, an Angel, I've got to call it in."  Ranko leapt over her and raced down the hall.

      "Hmm, this is better than I thought," Nabiki said.  She stood up to see where Ranko had run off too, she also decided a thermos of hot water might be a wise addition to her pursuit.

      Belldandy was leaving - that `girl's` - apartment.  Since the `girl` allowed no reflective surfaces, no standing water and no radios, neither Belldandy nor her sisters could simply appear in the building.  They had to climb the stairs and walk some distance before returning home.

      The walking stick, virtually materializing right in front of her, was her first warning that something was amiss.  She'd felt nothing, no she'd felt an entire area that was the same throughout.  The trick was to spread your spirit through an entire area, make it all appear as 'you', then there was no center or focus to detect.  It was a technique used by the most elite and militant demon hunters, Angelic demon hunters, no humans should know . . .

      No, she thought, There were 60 humans who'd been painstakingly taught the techniques.

      "Necessity," he spoke in German and translated her correct name, "They say necessity is the mother of invention.  Is that why you hang around with that boy, you need a father?"  The tall boy in the suit, another pilot, uncurled out of the shadows.

      Belldandy would have missed him, he had learned well from some very good teachers.

      "Deciding when that girl will meet her Fate?"  He used the translation of Urd's name, his voice was friendly, but Belldandy could feel his hostility.

      "You shouldn't trouble yourself - "

      "No trouble at all," he cut her off, "I know all about 'not troubling myself.'  Agenor, Achen, Menefelius, and K'naar taught me all about 'not troubling yourself with things beyond your ken.'  But in Japanese, ken means sword, so I won't use the sword."  He lowered his walking stick.

      Belldandy suppressed a shudder.  Agenor, Achen, Menefelius, and K'naar were well respected demon hunters/Renegade killers, but they were considered obsessive, even by the standards of other obsessive demon hunters.  For a human to know even one of those names was unfortunate in the extreme, especially if another angel ever had to deal with that human.  For a pilot to have served under all four was something to be afraid of.

      "I've learned that a mere human can't understand what's 'Truly Important', so I suppose getting down on my knees," he said as he did it, "And begging you to leave her in peace will fall on deaf ears."  He stood up, brushed the dust off his pants.

      Belldandy only smiled, then he interrupted her soft answer.

      "Yes, I know, I don't understand what's really happening here, you can't simply allow the girl to explore her recently rediscovered humanity."  He leaned close and gave her an unsettling smile, "You know all, since you aren't human," he told her sarcastically.  "But after I showed you that little trick, do you really believe I'm as blind as all that?"

      Belldandy considered, If he mastered the technique to hide, then he and the others must have mastered the original technique to sense.  Then he probably was more aware of the situation than a human was.  It was also clear to her that he was not fully human.  There were other, alien elements, not the things later grafted on, like the other pilots, but something else entirely.  Something that was part of him through and through.  She recoiled slightly in surprise.

      "Ah good, you noticed, then there are fewer reasons for deceptions, self- or otherwise.  I think you will find we can police ourselves adequately.  This is not the Book of Enoch, and you are not Gabriel.  And in any case, Miss Ayanami hardly fits the ancient pattern.  She's a hero, rather than a monster."

      "You don't understand," Belldandy told him, she didn't fully understand it herself.  To a great extent, she agreed with his premise, that Ayanami was a threat only to the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods.  Only the `Angels`, not the humans, were the ones who had to fear her.  If the blue-haired Nephilim's recent, diligent rescue of both Tendo and Davis wasn't proof, then there was no proof.  She didn't have anything she could tell him, her instructions from the Celestial Hierarchy made that clear.  So, despite what he might genuinely understand, she was instructed to offer only silence on the subject.  She knew it would only reinforce his prejudices.

      "And you have to follow orders.  I learned that the hard way.  You and your counterparts, the cogs of the machinery of Heaven . . . tell me," he considered, "Is that boy you keep getting into and out of trouble with . . . "

      Belldandy froze.  She hadn't considered that a pupil of Agenor and the others would, and could, hunt Angels as well as demons and renegades.

      "Is he orders too, or just a bit of fun while you fulfill your real mission?"  He jerked his thumb back at the - `girl's` - apartment, "And he is a lot of fun isn't he?  Even more fun than most humans."

      Belldandy blushed furiously, turned away, looked at her feet.

      "Swept away to bliss, while the tide of emotions and sensations cleanse away everything except that single perfect moment?  Yet knowing another such perfect moment may happen in a minute, or a second, or maybe never.  It must be very bewildering," he sounded almost sympathetic.

      Belldandy didn't think she could be more embarrassed.  Being with Keiichi was indescribable.  Just sitting quietly with him was bliss so wonderful she thought she'd just shatter.  The others around him were wonderful too.  She could understand how the betrayal occurred, and the current prohibition.

      "You rotten hypocrite!  You condemn her for something you yourself plan to do!" he shouted at her, shattering her revery, "She didn't ask to be born."

      "I would never . . . " she realized she'd just walked into a trap.

      "You really aren't, are you, and you haven't told him?" he laughed, "Oh, I'd really like to be present for that little conversation.  He's his parents' only son, but you already know that.  I suppose his sister could inherit.  However, of course you can handle it.  Fresh from the light of the Upper Heavens, but not the lowly grubs polluted by the Earth.  Of course the others had to fail first, before you realized the danger and had to take steps.  So what is the current policy, vengeance to the 7th generation, the 10th, or total annihilation of all their kind?  Only in the last case does Miss Ayanami qualify."

      "No."  Belldandy wasn't sure if she was asking him to stop talking, or if she was answering his question.  Belldandy had confusing orders to cover this as well.  The pilots had to learn to protect each other from external threats, so they could later protect each other from themselves.  But nothing in her instructions covered the possibility of a pilot confronting her directly, treating her as one of those external threats.  They had not even addressed it.  Now he was hammering her, by twisting everything she'd done and said.

      "Still, I can't touch you, even with all the tricks and techniques mastered over the years, there's no way I could strike you."

      Belldandy nodded, feeling a little relief.

      "As a master of curses and enchantments, I've always wondered if I could craft a spell so subtle, that even one of your kind couldn't detect it."  He shrugged dismissively.  "I know it's impossible - " he paused, grinned at her, "But that's what humans are good at, the impossible, and old-fashioned viciousness.  Even the demons can't compare with us."

      Belldandy felt a chill, she couldn't keep the look of horror from her face.

      "Just because I can't touch you, don't think I can't rip your heart out."  The smile was the most malevolent thing she'd seen in a long time.

      "You can't!  You mustn't!" she cried, "He's done nothing to you!"

      "And she's done nothing to you, nor is she guilty of the traditional crimes which would justify your behavior and concerns," he replied coldly, "A fair exchange me thinks.  Oh, don't worry, I wouldn't think of killing or torture, that would be inhumane, it just isn't done.  Of course what happens if you interfere?"  He shrugged.  "Also, it's pronounced - 'they' - not 'he'."

      Belldandy's eyes went wide.  She knew of human cruelty.  The world had been rife with it, but one of the pilots . . .

      "Consider it a wonderful opportunity to experience all the uncertainties of humanity," he said cheerfully, "Not knowing if bad things are random chance, or directed action."  He extended his hand, in it he had a pocket mirror with a leather wrapped lanyard.  "I should be back in about a month and a half.  We can discuss it further then, I will be waiting on pins and needles to hear your insights on the subject.  Good day to you, ma'am."  He put the mirror in her numb hand, tipped his hat and walked away.

      Them?! Belldandy's mind was racing, Keiichi and . . . Megumi?  And others, how many others?  Just Keiichi's friends, or the other girls Megumi works with?  The softball team talked with Pilot Ikari, were they targeted too?  She realized the mirror had slipped from her hand, instants before it hit the ground.  The sound forced her to concentrate, to force aside her terror.  She stooped to pick up the polished steel, and she left through it an instant later.

      Belldandy reappeared in the temple.  She could feel no spell, she couldn't imagine how someone would have gotten past the defenses that Skuld had assembled.

      But if he got to Keiichi and Megumi at school?! she thought as she rushed through the house.  She thought of calling on her sisters, or Heaven itself, then wondered if that was what would set off the effect.  Then she wondered if her presence would be what would give the curse the strength to hurt Keiichi, or if her searching for it would power it.  She kept searching for him . . . them, but not willing to call out and alarm them.  He found them at the dining room table.  Keiichi had a tweezers and magnifying glass, Megumi had her hand on the table and a pained expression on her face.  He was removing splinters of something from her hand.

      No, NO!  NO! she could feel her horror rising.

      "Hey, Bell.  Don't worry, it's my own fault.  I got some mason jars for mom.  One of them was broken.  It's just a sliver or two," Megumi told her.

      Belldandy turned and ran, she had to find Urd and Skuld.  She ignored Keiichi's worried calls after her.

What Fool First Invented Kissing?

      Ranko waited in Raccoon's room, it would be Ranma's room until the four all got back.  She'd burst in here in a total panic, she was certain she'd blown it with Nab-chan completely.  Scaring her first, then insulting her.  Ranma did like her, a lot, so did Raccoon and so did Rit-chan, but in different ways.  The feelings Raccoon had for Rit-chan sort of fed on Ranma's and the others' feeling for Nab-chan and . . . the whole thing had spiraled out of control so fast.  She believed that Nab-chan hadn't realized what she'd set off.  Ranko had to get out of there before she said or did something really stupid.  Something that really hurt Nab-chan.

      She didn't want to hurt Nab-chan, not again, not the way Ranma already had.  But she knew that retreating from a bad position wasn't the same as running away completely.

      Ranma'd tell her, he would.  When he could figure out what to tell her.  When the very thought of talking to her wasn't so frightening.

      Once I get my emotions back under control, Ranko admitted.

      Raccoon walked in.  Ranko examined his entire posture, his stride and his expression.

      "Okay, what did you do?" Ranko recognized it all, she wondered if it was Asuka, Nab-chan or Gendo who had been the victim.

      "What makes you think I wasn't just out strolling?" Raccoon asked innocently, a dead give away.  Plus, he wasn't as 'poker-faced' as he usually was.

      "You only look that innocent after you've pulled something off, and . . . "  She reached out and touched him.  "Your aura is screaming 'satisfaction' at the top of its lungs.  Now Nab-chan and Rit-chan can get their own revenge during the trip, Asuka's been here the whole time, so I can just imagine what you did to ole' Stoneface.  Not that he doesn't deserve it."

      "No, no NERV victims," Raccoon said warily.

      "Do I have to beat it out of you?"  Ranko stood cracking her knuckles.

      Raccoon cowered theatrically.  "It's better you don't know.  You can't beat them up, and I can't do anything directly.  But . . . that doesn't mean I'm helpless."

      Ranko shivered, remembering that black crystal, Raccoon had one more to use.  "Why do I suddenly feel sorry for whoever it was?"

      "They were persecuting our favorite, blue-haired stoic," Raccoon said coldly, "What's that do for your sympathy?"

      Ranko cracked her knuckles again, not as a joke.  The rage she felt was oddly mirrored on Raccoon's face.  Rei was hardly Ranma's favorite person, but she hated the idea of anyone attacking her.  Without orders, a threat to her life, or someone else to protect, Rei would probably just sit there and take it.  Any sympathy she felt was gone.  "Only a real coward would attack Rei," she growled.

      Or a fool, Ranko thought, If they're hiding behind someone so Raccoon isn't allowed to fight them, and I can't, they are beneath contempt.

      "I hope you really hurt them," Ranko said, she was pretty sure she meant that.

      "I couldn't be sure," he said, then smiled, Ranko backed away from that smile, "But I can make them looongg for death.  Without anything more than drawing a circle, labeling it 'Here be Dragons' and asking if they hear the roar."  He continued in a teasing tone, "You learned that your own mind can make you more scared than anything outside."

      Ranko held up her hands.  "You're right.  I don't want to know."  Ranko suppressed a shudder at the memory of the helpless feeling that plagued her in those dreams.  Worse than the cat phobia, was the feeling while standing back, letting others fight and get hurt, while Ranma could do nothing.  She had to trust that Raccoon had protected Rei, especially if Ranma couldn't beat them up.  Ranko decided she'd make sure Rei was with the others as much as possible.

      "So you intended to make me write all that in German?" Ranko accused, then realized Raccoon hadn't the faintest idea what she was talking about.

      "I doubt I had direct control over your actions," Raccoon replied, "I might have made a strong case and you agreed.  Besides, what's wrong with learning German?  Langley, Nabiki and I speak and write it, fluently.  If all the pilots speak and write it, it gives us a private language.  Kaji speaks it, Major K's is worse than her English."

      "Exactly!  She'll lord it over me all the time.  'I speak five languages, and you don't!'" Ranko lamented.

      "Actually it's more like 11, but that's neither here nor there.  You speak Japanese and some Chinese?"

      "Yeah, Mandarin and a little Cantonese."

      "And you can write Japanese and Chinese, especially the pictographs?"

      "Kanji, yeah, so who can't?"  Ranko couldn't see the point.

      "Asuka Soryu Langley, that's who," Raccoon told her, "You could offer to help with her kanji exercises, just help her work them out."

      Ranko's smile was truly catty.  She took his hand and led him out of the room, and past Nab-chan, who'd just arrived.

      Nab-chan will understand.  Anyway, she knows about the bet, she thought, Besides, we did this before.

      Asuka was in her room, rereading Tallhofer, waiting for the martial idiot to go home.  She needed to talk to Raccoon about actually teaching Horseface something useful.  He needed to learn to use his new sword.  She might be able to use one of the claymores without embarrassing herself too badly and losing credibility as an instructor.  If she couldn't keep his respect and attention, Horseface would always be a rotten swordsman who depended on Karate and Judo tricks to `drive` a sword, never learning the martial art of the sword.  She'd seen kendo, the martial art of Japanese swordplay, even if she could get permission for someone to teach Horseface, Japanese swordsmanship was a lousy joke, too artsy for a real fight with someone trying to kill you.  The same way fencing had devolved, use the rules of 'right of way' and allowed strikes when trying to defend yourself, and a competent opponent would kill you.

      No, I'll have to go back to the old school, real fighting, she thought as someone knocked on her door.

      "Come in."  She wasn't about to stop reading, besides only Raccoon wouldn't simply barge in.

      What came crashing in shocked her.  The center was Raccoon, flailing desperately as he fell, because Horseface had her legs wrapped around his waist, her arms wrapped around his head and his face pressed firmly between her breasts.  Horseface arrested their fall with her legs and arms, without ever releasing Raccoon.  As soon as he was safely down, she quickly changed the location of his face from her cleavage to her face.

      Asuka leaned over to get a better look at this aberration.  What the HELL is happening?!

      She thought that Horseface's movement atop Raccoon was too random to be undulating and no evidence, despite Horseface's emphatic moaning, of the pain that would make it a writhe.  Asuka managed to tear her eyes away, long enough to see that Ice Princess was as appalled by this as she and Raccoon obviously were.

      Horseface broke the kiss, raising up by arching her back, panting heavily, breasts heaving, practically purring while she did it.  Then Horseface smiled and dove in for act two.  Asuka would have hit them with her book, but it had slipped from her nerveless fingers.  She had seen the look of rapture on Horseface become pure craving before she started again.  It was making Asuka extremely uncomfortable, not jealous, but reeling, Horseface is a guy, isn't he?

      Horseface sinuously straightened up, until she sat down across Raccoon's hips.

      "Eep!" Horseface squeaked, falling forward, then catching herself before she fell face to face with Raccoon.  "Raccoon, you're so naughty!" she purred, licked his lips, then stood up.  She looked over her shoulder with a smoldering gaze, she blew Asuka a kiss as she stepped through the door.  "Oh, Nab-chan," she growled, "He's a grrrrreat kisserrr.  So passionate."

      Ice Princess stared open-mouthed at Horseface walking back to Raccoon's room, then at Asuka, back to Horseface, back at Asuka again.

      "WHAT TH - " Asuka's voice cracked, "What just happened?"

      "I was hoping you could tell me," Raccoon said in a bewildered tone, "My glasses seem to have fogged over."

      "You aren't wearing your glasses," Ice Princess reminded him.

      "Oh," Raccoon said in a small voice.

      "Do I even want to know what just happened?" Ice Princess asked.

      "My teeth are remarkably clean," Raccoon said, "Although I think my fillings have melted.  All I suggested was that Saotome and Langley could exchange lessons in German, for lessons in kanji."

      "I'm better!" Asuka shouted in her defense, and to disrupt the memory of what she'd just seen.

      "And Saotome is better still."  Raccoon sat up, slowly.  "Oh, I remember, I have something for you."

      "If it's like what Ranko just gave you," Ice Princess said, "I'm getting a minister, then a cold shower."

      Raccoon headed for his room.

      "Will they need a chaperone?" Ice Princess asked.

      "Only if you have a crowbar," Asuka told her, shook her head.

      I am NOT jealous, she told herself.

      Raccoon returned, he carried a large bundle.

      "Your firstborn already?" Ice Princess teased, "You work fast."

      Raccoon ignored the jibe, setting the package in front of Asuka.  "I think Saotome needs a few lessons in swordsmanship."  He looked at Ice Princess.  "Pack your Le Mat, we're working on that."

      Ice Princess stuck out her tongue.  Anything Asuka might have said was drowned by what she saw as she helped pull away the wrappings.  She couldn't believe that it was what it was.  She ran her hands over the smooth gray metal, the faint variegation without being true damascene.  The shape was unmistakable, as was the craftsmanship.

      "Is that a sword or an axe?" Ice Princess approached.

      Asuka was speechless, she tested the edge, it was as sharp as it could be.  She wanted to believe this was all real, that she had it in her hands, a sabre-halberd head.

      "H . . . h . . . how?" she said in a small voice, as if a loud noise would wake her from this wonderful dream.

      "I had some friends, they duplicated it, as closely as was possible to the Meliorist's," he told her.

      "It needs a haft," she said quietly, her hands still running over the sabre-halberd of their own accord.

      "I thought you needed a hand weapon.  That also gives you the responsibility to train the others.  That includes Shinji and Rei, they need some knife work."

      "Okay," Asuka said, she was practically in another world, but she would have agreed to nearly anything to keep this `old friend` with her.  She was aware of Raccoon and Ice Princess withdrawing, but her mind was on more important things.  She kept touching the blade, as if it would disappear with her daze.

      Nabiki followed Raccoon back to his room.  He held the door for her and closed it once they both were through.  Ranko was carefully packing Raccoon's books into his huge steamer trunk.  Nabiki remembered lugging that thing.

      "Have you both gone completely insane?  Or did I wind up in another universe?" Nabiki asked.  She watched Ranko closely as she walked towards the redhead.  Despite the precise movements, her lips quivered and occasionally a tear trailed down Ranko's cheek.  As she stepped close, Nabiki wanted to comfort the girl.

      "Langley's off in another world," Raccoon told her.

      Nabiki's acid comment was brought up short by Ranko's loud, sharp snort, then a snerk, then Ranko started laughing uproariously.  The redhead barely managed to get her arms around Nabiki's waist as her knees collapsed.  She buried her face in Nabiki's hip, her laughter shook both her and Nabiki.

      "You're a bad man!" Ranko managed through the laughter, "She won her bet!"

      "You PLANNED that?!" Nabiki accused.  She couldn't manage much outrage, she was too glad Ranma could laugh.  She couldn't remember anytime in Nerima when Ranma or Ranko laughed so freely, or so forcefully.  Hearing it was wonderful, and that she felt comfortable enough around them to do something so ridiculous, made her feel better about herself.

      "Not I," Raccoon said with unfeigned innocence, he seemed as confused as Nabiki had been.

      "In my head," Ranko sobered a bit, stood to face Nabiki and explain to her fellow pilots, but she couldn't maintain it.  She got her arms around Nabiki's shoulders before the laughter made her collapse again.

      Nabiki caught her and wondered how much any of the fiance/fiancee brigade would have paid to trade places, her `continuation fee` was just holding Ranko up and keeping her own mouth shut.

      "I suspect it was cross-contamination," Raccoon explained, "I had a `Ranma-moment` of my own earlier this morning, she could be really nasty if she had a mind to be.  So she assumes that her 'nefarious plan' was due to my influence."

      Nabiki felt the laughing girl nodding as her tears soaked through Nabiki's shirt.  "So it was all an act," Nabiki announced, "Poor Raccoon, she doesn't love you, it's so sad."

      Ranko's head came up, she was about to blurt something out, then her face changed.  She still looked like Ranko, but Nabiki could see `overtones` of Raccoon and even Ritsuko in that coolly, calculating expression.  "Would you like to really know how he feels about you?"

      Nabiki was a little worried about the intellect looking out from Ranko's eyes, none of it was borrowed, only the training, and the honing in combat.  The raw material was clearly there before.

      "He thinks it's completely plutonic."

      Nabiki relaxed, she'd overestimated Saotome, "That's platonic."

      "No, plutonic.  He thinks, you believe you'll feel lots better lying in piles of money."

      Nabiki frowned, wondered if she could get away with beating him up just once.  She contented herself with a scowl, which Ranko spoiled by dissolving into laughter again, resting her head on her shoulder.

      "She fears you no longer," Raccoon said, "You'll have to settle for being loved."

      Nabiki froze.  She wasn't sure if she was more frightened that someone really said it, or Ranko laughed harder, nodded, patted her back and offered sympathetic noises.  It hadn't been meant as an insult or a profundity, just one of Raccoon's loony observations before he went back to packing for the trip.

      It can't be! Nabiki wanted to shout, she could hardly ignore the kiss in Asuka's room, back `home` that little scene would have gotten Ranma married to the recipient the instant he'd even mentioned the plan.  But there was also some feelings behind it, or Ranko was a better actress than Nabiki thought.

      But . . . me? Nabiki thought, she felt very small and vulnerable.  Hiroko had loved her, and died, her mother had loved her and . . . Nobody can love me, not really.

      Ranko straightened up, stared into Nabiki's eyes.  "I think you shocked her."  She gave Nabiki a kiss on the lips that was a lot more than just friendly.

      All Nabiki could do was look at Ranko as if she were a thousand miles away, untouchable.

      "I know what she needs!" Ranko said happily, rushed off to the bathroom.  A moment later Ranma walked out.

      "Hey! Saotome!" Raccoon said angrily, "If you've been hiding in there, why weren't you helping Ranko?"

      Nabiki shook her head, ready to tell him once again about the curse.

      "She started handling your library and sighing."  He did an impression of Ranko being cutesy.  "I had to go in and throw up," Ranma replied as he walked past with a big grin on his face.

      Raccoon nodded, as if accepting it.  Ranma stopped about a meter away from her.  "I'm still afraid of you," he said in a small voice, but couldn't completely banish the smirk.

      Nabiki smiled as sweetly as she could, carefully wrapped her arms around his chest, rested her head on his shoulder, and tightened her grip until she heard his ribs creak.

      "Can't breathe!" Ranma whispered.

      "Nonsense," Raccoon told him.

      "Blue's a good color for you," Asuka said as she opened the door and looked around.

      "Help!" Ranma whispered.

      "I never said I wasn't afraid of her," Raccoon said.

      "Oh, I'm afraid of her too," Asuka added, "I'm just more afraid of you two nuts.  I'm afraid you're contagious."

      "Langley, do you think you can teach Ranma some real swordsmanship and knife work?  I'm sure he'd be eager to learn, considering how poor his stance and grip are."

      "Hey!" Ranma softly rasped.

      "Sure, if he survives.  Ice Princess obviously doesn't have that problem," Asuka replied, sighed, "You do realize we have to save him."

      "Yes, if he dies . . . " Raccoon sighed, "I hate paperwork."

      Nabiki heard them both close in on her, standing just in her peripheral vision.

      "Ode to Joy?" Asuka asked, stood with her arm folded, one finger pointed at the ceiling, like a dueling pistol at the ready.

      Nabiki glanced at Raccoon who was standing the same way.  Nabiki dreaded the thought of Raccoon demonstrating his singing, if that was what Asuka was suggesting . . . I must run away, I must run away, she thought.

      She was unequivocally relieved when the two of them started whistling instead.  Her relief was extremely short-lived.

      Ranma wasn't sure whom the manner of the `rescue` confused more, him or Nab-chan.  She hadn't really been strangling him, but if she wanted to think so . . . She was giving him her 'I am nasty, fear me' glare, when Raccoon and Asuka attacked.  The glare was instantly spoiled by one eye clamping shut and the other bugging out, with her shark smile becoming increasingly jangled.

      In time to the whistling, Asuka and Raccoon were poking Nab-chan in the backs of her knees.  How they knew she was ticklish, and where to bombard, he didn't want to know, but Nab-chan went from trying to squeeze the life out of him, to desperately hanging on.

      He glanced over her shoulder at the spastic dance Nab-chan was doing to try to keep her ticklish regions out of reach, but it wasn't working.  The grimaces and contortions on her face, in time with the music, made it look like she was suffering horribly.  Only a complete villain would fail to help a girl in such straits.

      "I can save you," Ranma told her, a look of hope suffused her facial jitterbugging.  "For a reasonable fee, let's talk stock options, let's talk - "  The tragic look on her face almost broke his heart.

      Almost, he thought.

      "Let's talk about lump sum versus perpetuity."

      She stared at him with trembling lips, although her eyes were still spasming.

      "Let's talk about picking up the tempo!" he announced.

      Nab-chan shook her head 'no!' as emphatically as she could, while the attacks landed with increased speed and no less precision.  Nab-chan grimaced and started beating her head against his chest, then finally gave in, the real source of her agony vanishing.  She started laughing like a crazed loon.  She'd probably never be able to intimidate any of the trio again.

      Sammi rushed in, to see what they were murdering, and stayed to watch.  Ranma wondered why the woman put up with the raucous noise.  Nab-chan sounded like somebody was using a buzzsaw to slice up a live moose, and she was totally helpless against the continuing attack.

      Ranko stepped out of Raccoon's bathroom, wearing one of Sammi's shirts, which was too big, and a pair of Asuka's shorts, which were uncomfortably small.  Raccoon was in the room, back to packing for the trip.

      "How could you do that to her!?"  She couldn't really manage the proper outrage because she could hear Sammi, Asuka and Nab-chan laughing in Asuka's room, where they were cleaning up Nab-chan.

      "You were the one who let her climb Mount Saotome to escape her tormentors," Raccoon said offhandedly.

      Except her tormentors are taller than Ranma.  So even sitting on my shoulders wasn't a rescue, and no where I put my hands to steady Nab-chan wasn't ticklish, Ranko thought as she frowned at him.

      "I hope you noted all the points of contact, they may be useful in the future, during negotiations especially."

      "Quit changing the subject," Ranko said, her ire diluted by an increase in the other girls' laughter, all three of them, "Why didn't you stop?"

      "Before or after she `marked her territory`?" Raccoon asked innocently.

      Ranko marched over and aimed a palm strike at his nose, with every bit of her strength behind it.  What kept his head on his shoulders was she had next to none of her speed behind it.  So all she did was push him over.  "You embarrassed her!" Ranko shouted, she had to keep Raccoon listening to her instead of the girls' laughter.  Which seemed to give lie to the idea that Nab-chan had suffered any permanent physical, social or psychological damage.

      "I give up."  Ranko threw her hands up.  She was glad the connection was lessening.  The two of them were going to have a hard enough time explaining their bizarre behavior, let alone living it down.  She sighed, a similar insanity had affected Asuka, Nab-chan and Sammi, without an outside cause.  So maybe they'd be willing to keep it to themselves.  She smiled at the thought.  "Is this why Misa-chan gets drunk?" she asked, "So she can do stuff like this?"

      "Probably," Raccoon replied.

      "We didn't need to."  Ranko shook her head.  "I don't think I want to do that trick again."

      "Agreed.  I'm putting it down to sleep deprivation.  Except for the nightmare, I don't think I've slept more than four to five hours this whole week.  People get awfully strange without sleep," Raccoon said, turned to her, "But did you get a look at Langley's face.  She was staring at me the whole time."  He started laughing.

      Ranko laughed too.  "I thought she was going to die.  Then when you two started tickling Nab-chan and she wouldn't laugh.  I've never seen someone so . . . okay, once was fine, but never again."  Ranko sighed.  "Sometimes I don't understand her.  Not what she does, but why she does it."

      "You're trying to protect her and stand up for her," Raccoon told her as he stood up, "There's nothing wrong with that.  But maybe you're angry because you're scared that 'Nab-chan' feels comfortable around you, the change and both Ranma and Ranko, more comfortable than anyone else is with it, including you.  Now she's going away for a while.  And you don't want her to."

      Ranko considered that Raccoon had only gotten part of the answer.  "And when you feel that way, you run away?" Ranko asked, "Did you really want to run away, or did you want someone to come after you?  Do you even know?  Have you bothered to look?"  Ranko felt angry about that.  She'd trusted Raccoon for help, but when he needed it, could have asked her for it, he ran away.  She'd seen how angry Rei got.  For once they were in perfect agreement.

      "So how am I supposed to know what I want?" Raccoon asked her quietly, "Do you know what you want?"

      Ranko considered, fidgeted, she knew she wanted . . . something from Nab-chan and Raccoon, but putting it into words was impossible for her.  There were too many complicated feelings, too many subtle shadings, too many differences when it was Ranko and when it was Ranma, all of them conspiring to keep her from thinking straight when she considered.

      Raccoon put his hands on her shoulders, gripped them firmly.  She looked up at his knowing smile.  "Is this what you want?" he asked.

      He released her as he sat on his bed, then he pulled her into his lap and enclosed her in his arms.  For a moment Ranko panicked, then relaxed as he sat, went no further.

      "Or is this what you want?" Raccoon asked, then he lay down, twisting slightly so she wound up lying atop him.  Ranko was stunned for a moment.  Even more when Raccoon brushed her hair off her cheek.

      "Or is it this?"

      Ranko rolled off him instantly.  She seethed with confusion and no small amount of rage.

      Dammit!  He would have to `talk` to me like that, so I understand perfectly, she thought, as she pulled her legs against her and wrapped her arms around them, 'Do I want a mentor, a comforter/confessor, or a lover?' It wasn't that he'd asked the question, but that the answer was something . . .

      Ranko realized his question was a diversion, she hadn't asked to answer his questions, But that might not be a bad idea, Ranko thought, as she unfolded herself.  Then pushed Raccoon, so he precariously perched on the edge of the bed's wooden frame.

      "Right now.  This is what I want."  She knelt behind him, as he tried to balance and keep away from her at the same time.  She wrapped one arm around his shoulders, the other around his waist, leaning him back from the edge so he rested against her.  She placed her chin on his shoulder and held him tightly against her.  "This is what I want.  This is what we all want."  She tightened her grip.  "This is what you taught us," she lectured, "Then you don't let us help you.  That isn't a gentleman's way.  Placing himself outside the others around him."

      "I'm sorry."  Raccoon relaxed a bit.

      "You can also be wrong occasionally.  Nobody has to be perfect all the time, nobody can, not even the divine Ranma Saotome.  But don't tell him I said that.  I'm sure we can arrange times for you to be wrong."  She chuckled, and was pleased Raccoon laughed once too, then relaxed in her arms.

Beats All The Lies You Can Invent

      Keiichi had enough of this, the sun was coming up and the frenetic activity hadn't slackened.  Belldandy, Urd and Skuld were methodically disassembling the whole place: the temple, the garage, the outbuildings, etc.; examining everything minutely, before replacing it.  More often than not, they didn't put it back where it belonged, or worse, they replaced it where they thought it should go.

      So Skuld rearranged the kitchen, Urd rearranged his room, and Belldandy rearranged both Skuld's and Urd's rooms.  He was vaguely surprised somebody hadn't blown up the entire temple by either mixing things that shouldn't be, or seeing the mess one of her sisters left her private place.

      He'd escorted Megumi home, and returned.  Belldandy looked so worried as she rushed around, Urd and Skuld alternated from angry to worried, occasionally stopping at frustrated.  He dodged out of the way as Belldandy rushed into the tea room and searched it.  She examined everything, except the little mirror on the table, she ignored that.  Before he could ask, she rushed off.  He walked in to look at it, and was nearly thrown out of the room as Skuld charged in with a device, she used it to examine everything in the room, except the mirror, then charged out without saying a word.

      The mirror was a piece of steel, with Belldandy's name and address neatly carved in the edge.  Both of the large faces were polished and without any markings.  The maker had carefully drilled a hole in the corner and looped a leather-wound wire lanyard through it.  Keiichi couldn't see anything special about it.  It's ordinary, he thought, Is that why they're ignoring it?

      "Belldandy?"  He walked out with the mirror, "Is this what you're looking for?"  He'd done it so often, it was embarrassing, walked right past what he was looking for a half-dozen times.  He didn't figure goddesses would be vulnerable to that.

      She came out of the kitchen, looked at the mirror, and covered her mouth in horror.

      "Keiichi," she said carefully, "Please, put that down."

      He did as she asked, he wondered what horrible thing he'd done by moving it.

      "That can't be it?" Urd asked as she approached, "Can it?"

      "What are you talking about?" Skuld asked as she lugged yet another machine behind her, this one looked like a tank vacuum cleaner with a fan and a half dozen types of antennae on the nozzle she was sweeping around the room.  "There's nothing here."

      "What about this?" he held up the mirror again.  Belldandy looked horrified, Urd looked ill and Skuld looked shocked.

      "Where did you get that?!" Skuld demanded, aiming the nozzle at him menacingly.

      "Off the tea room table, you can have it back," he said as he tried to hand it to Skuld.

      She drew back as if he'd offered her a poisonous snake.

      "Belldandy."  He turned to her.  "Please tell me what's going on."

      She sighed and led him, and her sisters, back into the tea room, where they all sat down.

      Belldandy told him a complete tale, minus a few key details which she was not to reveal to any mortal.  He understood, but he wished she could at least hint what was so important about them.

      He had nodded while she spoke, understanding her feelings.  It was hard to remember that while they might understand the ebb and flow of the universe, the goddesses had great blindspots when it came to humans.

      Tamiya and Ootaki had played this same kind of trick on him a half-dozen times, before he caught on.  Sending him to the Naval base for Relative Bearing grease was a particularly . . . interesting experience.  He'd learned a lot of new English that day, little of it usable in polite company.  Keeping a straight face while they described it all was very difficult.  He was glad Megumi hadn't heard this, she wouldn't have been able to keep from laughing.

      Finally he told them, "There is no curse."  He wished they didn't look at him as if he'd suddenly gone insane.

      "But he said . . . "  Belldandy was near tears.

      "No, he never said anything of the kind."  He tapped the mirror, "Do you usually take the mirror you use with you?  I watched all three of you ignore this or not notice it.  This is the subtle spell he was talking about.  He said something to lead you to believe there was a curse.  The Americans call it 'Putting the fear of God in someone'."  The angry stares from Urd and Skuld told him to hurry this along.  "Uh, sorry.  You've been scaring yourselves and each other.  We met those two pilots Ranma and Asuka, Megumi met two pilots, Ranma and Shinji.  You told me about the pilots.  If any of them were really serious about hurting you, Megumi and I would be in custody, there would be Marines and Army all over the temple, and a couple of EVAs chasing you around."

      "So there's no curse?" Belldandy seemed relieved and bewildered.  "Why would he do such a terrible thing?"

      "Like he told you.  As a warning," Keiichi explained, "You've been talking to this other pilot, and probably scaring her.  So, he scared you.  You might want to consider what you've been saying to her, the effect it actually has, not what you expect it to have."

      "We can't talk about that," Skuld warned sharply.

      "Fine," Keiichi relented, "One of them just proved he can hurt you or frighten you, anytime he wants to.  I'm just saying you should be careful."

      "I'll fix him!  I hate him!" Skuld announced.

      "Agenor and K'naar trained him," Belldandy said softly.

      Urd looked like she'd sat on something sharp, Skuld looked like she did when Sora tried to make ice cream, and got too much rock salt in it.

      "When did they let him out?" Skuld shouted.

      "During El Nureenen's War," Urd said quietly, "This is very bad."

      Keiichi would ask Belldandy who those people were, later.  Right now he felt he had to stick up for a fellow human.  "I don't think he would have given you a present this useful."  He tapped the mirror.  "If he hated you all that much.  Like I said, he gave you a warning.  And this is a bribe.  You've been using the wrong approach."

      Belldandy nodded, Urd looked worried, Skuld looked sullen.  He would ask Megumi to ask about the pilot who had done this.  Maybe he could aim him at Mara or one of the other monsters that endlessly marched through his life.  Carrot and stick, he thought, BIG stick.

      Ritsuko stood in Sammi's kitchen sipping coffee.  None of the kids had returned, so she had come to Sammi's apartment to check on them.  They were all bedded down in separate rooms.

      "You could wake them up, do your running tests," Sammi suggested.

      "I'd like to live," Ritsuko said.  Sammi had described the midnight events to her.  "When did they finally get to sleep?"

      "About 5:00 A.M.," Sammi said as she stood and sipped her tea.  "I think they exhausted themselves, and I think letting them sleep in is a good idea."

      "When Misato acted like that in college, I was angry," Ritsuko said, "Yet I let the kids act like that . . . I think it's kind of sweet."

      "They are 14, not 19, and after all that's happened, anything that makes them laugh that much is a good thing."

      Ritsuko smiled.  "Are they planning a surprise going away party?"

      "Ranma probably is."

      "You know, a few months ago, if you would have said Ranma, party and planning in one sentence . . . he's come a long way.  I guess I'm proud of . . . `my son`."

      "Well, you should be," Sammi replied, poured more coffee and tea, "There are things the kids haven't told you, and I'm not going to tell you, but I think I'm the only one who really has a good bead on young Saotome, his history and psychology."

      "What about him?" Ritsuko asked, suddenly concerned.

      "I don't think Asuka's and Jeff's dreams were anything except accurate, even though they don't match.  Some of it he's better off not knowing, other parts he'll figure out along the way.  Yet he's happy here, happier than I think he's been in a long time," Sammi admitted.

      "You don't know how terrifying a statement that is," Ritsuko replied, "Ancient monsters, mortar barrages, assassins, and gods know what else.  And you tell me he's better off."

      "I said happier, not better off.  He also has people who care about him, and a chance to prove himself, a chance to be proud of himself and have others he respects proud of him.  He's a lot like Shinji in that respect, people kept hurting him, he wanted it to stop, he wanted someone important to him, to be proud of him.  Ranma's smart enough to see that the others tear him up because they expect him to be a lot better.  There's a huge gap between 'you're no good', and 'I expect better of you'.  He's smart enough to feel the difference, even if he doesn't understand it."

      "You're too young to be having thoughts that old," Ritsuko commented.

      "Good stock," Sammi teased back, "You're the one they really worry about."

      Ritsuko was terrified of what had to be coming next.

      "They know you aren't happy, and they don't know how to fix that," Sammi said.

      "You're going to give me a heart-attack, you know that," Ritsuko said, then took a long drink of coffee, the action steadied her nerves.

      "You should have redundancy built in to handle that," Sammi commented, "Maya's the odds on favorite, but . . . ," she stopped before Ritsuko reacted.

July 11, 1947

It Will Be Necessary To Invent Him

      "That's it?" Asuka replied as she looked at Ranma's closet, the lack of variety and quantity of clothes.  "We have got to take you shopping!"

      Ranma wondered why he had asked for Asuka's help in packing.  Because everyone else is helping Nab-chan, Ranma reminded himself.

      "I think my clothes are fine," Ranma replied as evenly as he could, "Considering my condition."

      "A few bras, some more formal wear, some socks, a couple of winter jackets."  Asuka ticked off the points on her fingers.  "I'm not saying dresses or skirts, although Raccoon wears a skirt pretty well.  Maybe even some clothes specifically for practicing in, a proper gi, that kind of thing," she told him as if it were obvious.  She put the entire contents of his closet in a box.

      It seemed reasonable that he didn't have much, not like the huge baggage train she'd brought with her.  He didn't need much, did he?

      "Oh, here!"  She tossed a briefcase to him.  "Put your personal papers in that, set the combinations on the latches so nobody else can open them."

      "I know what a briefcase is for," he replied.

      "Then I'll leave so you can get your private stuff out of hiding."  She turned to leave.  "Say, are you taking the bunkbed?  Or are you - " she giggled and sighed, "Or are you going to sleep in his bed?"  She retreated before he could throw the briefcase at her.

      He carefully closed the door, then set the briefcase's combinations and put his journals and notes inside.  Then when he was sure no one was watching, he got the picture album out.  He'd snuck the negatives from Nab-chan and Raccoon, and had his prints made.  Mostly of the pilots and their friends together, a few of Nab-chan, Raccoon, Rei and Asuka.  They weren't the shots Nab-chan sold, definitely not the racy ones.  But the blurry ones, the ones that the others wouldn't use, the ones that showed them moving too fast for the camera and the light.  He hadn't wanted to explain to Asuka why he wanted these, he wasn't even sure why he wanted these and not the others.  Still, these seemed to be the people to him, not the fixed poses, the unmoving images that others wanted.  Nevertheless, though blurred and sometimes shadowy, he could still recognize them.

      He sighed, he still had the going away party to plan.  He hated the look Asuka had given him when he laid out his plan for the welcome party.  Like he offended her by actually coming up with a plan, even for something as simple as a party.  Except when he tried to let her plan this one, she really got offended.  I just can't win, he thought.

      Maya was more than a little nervous.  She had asked for help, but she hadn't figured Sempai would come herself.  She was a little less embarrassed that Rei was with her.  Rei seemed to be operating to a preset program, if an embarrassing one.

      "Doctor, Ibuki-san?"  Rei held out a black dress, "Is this both fancy and formal enough for a party?"

      Maya had never had the courage to wear the dress with the low, v-scooped neckline and the side-slit.  She'd always suspected she was under alien influence when she'd bought it.

      "Yes, Rei," Sempai told her.

      "Rei-chan," Maya asked nervously, "Who told you such embarrassing things?"

      "Both the Second and Nabiki-kun were specific in what was necessary," Rei explained calmly, "I limited myself to the items that existed on both lists given.  On this they were both quite specific, and in total agreement."

      Sempai looked like not laughing was doing her an injury, Rei stared at her, waiting for an answer.  The stare, fortunately, was not a combination of Asuka and Nabiki's impatient stare.  Rei seemed prepared to wait for Maya's answer, forever if necessary.

      "I guess it goes," Maya mumbled.  "Rei-chan, you really shouldn't call her 'the Second', it's disrespectful."

      Rei nodded, carefully hung the dress in the trunk, then selected several more pieces.

      Maya thought about how she was going to `thank` Asuka and Nabiki, for the advice they'd given Rei.

      Toji glanced at where Hikari and Yumiwashi were in Kraznyzamok-san's kitchen, he could hear his sister lecturing Rei while his quiet classmate watched the pair preparing food for the rest.  While Yumi's attitude had always irritated Toji, she seemed to have Ayanami's rapt attention.  He wished Shinji were here, or Kensuke.  But Shinji in Unit 01 was unloading the HK-1 Hercules of its cargo of sonic glaives.  Kensuke was down there taking pictures, of course.  Mirei was practically hanging off Ranma, and everyone had formed little knots of conversation.  Akagi-sensei and Kraznyzamok-san had interposed themselves between Maya-san, and Sour Kraut and Tendo-san, respectively.

      He returned his attention to Sour Kraut, and her explanation of the week's events to Mirei.  "What does it mean that words are assimto - assimt - " Toji still hadn't figured out why he'd accepted an invitation to the farewell lunch for Nabiki and Raccoon.  He understood less why he was arguing with Sour Kraut, and she was certainly trying to make him understand, rather than just screaming how stupid she thought he was.

      "Asymptotic?" Sour Kraut asked in an irritated tone, "Words have no intrinsic meaning.  Each word brings the meaning closer to the reality.  An asymptote refers to a curve that approaches, but never reaches a certain value.  For example, I say 'chair'.  Do you know what that means?"

      "Yeah, sure," Toji said.

      "No, you don't, beyond something to sit on.  Your mental picture of a chair, is it wood, or metal?  What color is it, red, brown, blue?  Now if I say 'Blonde oak, four-legged, cane-back chair', then we are closer to both having the same idea," Sour Kraut looked around to see if her audience was still following, then continued, "More words bring the idea closer, but can never exactly duplicate it."

      "I understand . . . I think," Toji said.  He was glad Yumi' walked through with some fresh potstickers, it gave him a moment to think.  It also let him see how happy she looked, after all those months in a coma, she seemed to have bounced back faster than he'd hoped.

      "I don't," Ranma said, he'd been staring at them in confusion as Sour Kraut finished.

      "Look, both of you," Sour Kraut said, "I'm not going to explain the universe to a couple of jocks.  All I can do is get you close - closer to understanding, does that make sense."

      "You're just being you," Ranma complained.  The others were drifting over to listen in.

      "No," Toji realized, "She can't explain it exactly, because we don't see things the same way."

      "Great," Ranma complained, "More words."

      "Connections," Rei said as she put Nabiki's hand in Ranma's, "That is what is important."

      Rei paused, she realized that everyone was paying close attention to her.  She reached out and caressed Ranma's face, then balled her fist and mimed a punch at Nabiki.

      The first had confused Ranma, but he instantly pulled Nabiki out of range of the second, she wound up nestled under his arm.  He blushed when he realized what he'd instinctively done.

      Sour Kraut tensed as Rei walked over to her.

      "I love you as a friend and as a lover," Rei paused.  "I hate you!  I wish you dead!" Rei hissed, then stepped back.  "The meanings are the same, the connection is the same.  Connections are all that is important."

      "I doubt that," Sour Kraut said.

      "You are incorrect.  Chemistry is about connection of atoms and molecules, Physics is connection of matter and energy, Engineering is the connection of large arrays of forces, materials, chemical bonds, and their interactions," Rei said.

      "Okay, I'll grant that," Sour Kraut admitted, looked like she'd been stung, but continued, "By that reasoning, math is the connection between thought and reality, and language is the connection between thoughts and the thoughts of others."


      "I say you're wrong, but you proved my point anyway," Sour Kraut said, "I can make myself think like you for a limited area and time."

      "So what's Martial Arts?  What connection does that make?" Ranma asked.

      Rei considered for a moment.  "Connecting opponents with their unconscious self."  She paused to let the others' groans die away.  "Beyond the purely physical?  Mind with body," Rei told him.

      Ranma considered.

      Toji thought that made sense, although Ranma didn't want to admit that.  He was also struck that Rei, who shunned and was shunned by others, thought connections the most important thing there was.  He wondered what all the time alone had meant to her, how lonely she must have been all those years.  He hadn't considered it, and that bothered him.

      Ranko was hanging up her clothes in Raccoon's now-empty closets.  She wasn't comfortable with this.  Once again, she was kicking Raccoon out of his `home`, she knew that wasn't really what was happening, but that's what she felt.  Asuka was out of the apartment, helping Nab-chan settle in on the carrier.

      Why did she not want me there? she wondered.  Asuka and Nab-chan had their heads together, talking in German, since they got up.  Every time Ranma or Ranko got close, they both shut up and stared at him or her, until they were let alone.  Ranma was getting nervous about it.

      Raccoon was helping Ranko unpack, before he left for perhaps two months.  "So, Saotome, are you all right with this?  Not just Ranko, but Ranma?"

      "Yeah, I guess.  I still think I should go with."

      "You aren't trained in deep diving, and there's no facilities to train you aboard the carrier.  Besides, our enemies can read the newspapers.  They'll know one of the EVAs and both alternates will be gone.  If you were in charge of the opposition, what would you do?"

      "Hit NERV as hard as I could," Ranko admitted.

      "So what do you see your duty as?  Moral support for two experts, or concrete, combat support for the others?" Raccoon asked.

      Ranko sighed, she nodded.  Honor demanded a martial artist stand to protect the people, despite cost to himself.  "So it's duty, not honor?"

      "Of course.  I'm not exactly honorable," Raccoon told her, "But I am a gentleman."

      Ranko asked, "So what is a man?"

      Raccoon considered, "Others can tell you what a man is better than I."

      Ranko frowned, fidgeted.

      "I can tell you what a gentleman is," Raccoon said coldly.

      "And what is that?"

      "A gentleman is the final arbiter of fear."

      Ranko withdrew a step from the change that had come over Raccoon.

      "A gentleman allows others to feel at ease in his presence.  He will succor the weak, he will comfort the wounded.  Even a blood enemy can feel at ease in his proximity, as long as his enemy has come with no ill-will."

      Ranko relaxed.

      "A foe . . . "

      Ranko tensed up again.  I know I can beat him.  I know I can beat him.  Echoed in her mind as Raccoon approached, as she backed up.

      "A foe will never know rest, never take a meal without glancing over his . . . or her, shoulder, wondering when the blow will fall.  For it will fall without warning, without mercy, and without remorse."

      "How's that different than honor?" Ranko asked as she wilted under the gaze.

      "It is different because it serves not the man, but the community, and the community becomes the anvil.  While others speak of his manners, witty conversation, good meals and good comradeship.  Instead, the blackguard feels as if someone had invited a waiting Death to the party, and seated Him at the blackguard's table."

      Ranko had backed up until she was against the wall, as he bent down towards her, she felt her heart pounding in terror. Still, he bent closer.  She prepared to defend herself if necessary.

      Then he put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her forehead.  It was like someone had cut the strings of a puppet, she nearly collapsed as the tension vanished.  "I think I understand."

      Raccoon nodded.  "Good.  Ranma should strive, not to honor, but to be a gentleman.  For there is real power."

      Raccoon left, Ranko hung her head.  "I'll never figure out how he does that."  Her heart was beating wildly, she wondered if it was just fear.

      Nabiki stood on the fantail of the U.S.S. Bennington.  She was as close to the rearmost 40 mm. anti-aircraft guns as she was comfortable.  Behind them was another, smaller carrier.  Supposedly, a second small carrier and a pair of battleships accompanied them.  She watched Tokyo dwindle in the distance.  She'd only been away from Japan in this, her new existence.  It was an odd feeling, the first time it had been a rush of panic, this time she'd `volunteered`.  How she felt confused her, she always thought of herself as an adventurer, a risk taker, braver and more flexible than the martial artists.  Yet she felt uneasy leaving her homeland behind.

      Before she left, she'd visited Hiroko's grave, telling her that she was leaving, asking her to look after the others.  She'd wanted Hiroko to look after her, but she would survive without it.

      "Troubled?" Raccoon came up behind her, looking where she was looking.

      "I was thinking about a dream."

      "The Cthulhi ripping open the guts of NERV, and blowing up the world by spitting the remains of the pilots into something?"

      Nabiki stared at him, drew back.  "You . . . too?!"

      "Yes, I woke up as the fireball erupted out of what was stored deep in NERV," Raccoon told her, "I woke up screaming.  I was so sure I was still on fire, they sprayed me with fire extinguishers then wrapped me in a blanket and `put me out`.  CO2 extinguishers are cold."

      She chuckled at that, "Did Rei tell you?"

      "She told me the dream she had, and that she believed you suffered through it also."

      She wanted to change the subject, "What got into us, yesterday . . . this morning?" she asked and laughed, "Just happy to be alive?"

      "Being overly tired, and feeling safe," Raccoon admitted, "We've all been through a lot in the last month.  I've been shot at before, but not as much as since I joined NERV Tokyo."

      "I'm sorry about not being there . . . well, you know."

      "Rei learned well whatever you taught her.  She was - " He paused.

      Nabiki suspected he was searching for a polite way of saying it.

      "She accepted no evasions on my part.  Was forceful in that course."

      "She wasn't 'takin' no bullshit', you mean," Nabiki said, smiled, "She wouldn't leave me alone either," Nabiki said wistfully, "I . . . I haven't felt like that . . . that way, in a long time."

      "Yes.  Of course in my case it was like getting blanched and peeled first," Raccoon said.

      "So what did happen?"

      "I'm guessing part of it, Nyarlathotep collected peoples' spirits to power a spell to bring NERV to the path of Ghroth, the Harbinger of the Great Old Ones.  Toji and I found the base."

      "How did you do that?" Nabiki asked, frowned as Raccoon looked around.

      "Magic.  Anyway, we were able to link with the Units 01 and 02 and then we fought Nyarlathotep."

      "The Inspector?!"

      "Yes," Raccoon told her, "They didn't beat him, Ghroth did.  I don't know who sent the dreams, Ghroth is better known for waking things up."

      "I landed in Roswell, New Mexico.  'Little gray men in their flying saucer' or weather balloons."

      "Can you imagine the hysteria if they'd told the truth?" Raccoon asked.

      "So you don't mind being the instigator of a panic?  There were all kinds of crazy stories about it in the Las Vegas newspapers," Nabiki said defensively.

      "There was a big 'mysterious airship' scare in 1896.  Unidentified flying objects have been with us since the clouds and the birds.  You forget, the Great Old Ones are mostly extraterrestrials."

      Nabiki narrowed her eyes at him.

      "The word has been around since the Civil War, the American Civil War.  Besides, when I was Ranma in the dream, do you think I sat around and waited for people to challenge the dojo?" Raccoon asked, "I studied.  Our enemies and other things.  I got a doctorate in Metallurgy/Materials Science, Masters in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.  Langley got a triple Doctorate in Physics, Mathematics and Biophysics with a healthy dose of Metaphysics."

      "Sorry, I keep forgetting what information junkies you are," Nabiki teased, got a smirk in return.

      "You just think too small.  No grand plans or ideas."

      She hated being teased, "Oh?  And you had a better idea of how to run grand schemes in Nerima?"

      "In Boston, I had a racket with a throughput of around $30,000 a month, that is, in terms of that 'future' I saw, about 400 million yen a year.  I'd say I can handle big schemes.  Don't play kicks with a mule, young lady.  A couple of people are finding that out themselves."

      Calm down Nabiki, she told herself, He said 'throughput', not profit.

      "Oh?  Some other deep, dark plot.  Perhaps to conquer the world?"

      "No, just dragging a few things out into the light," Raccoon replied, "Kicking and screaming the whole way."

      She also hated when he got all cryptic, it usually meant he expected her to solve the mystery.  And the not knowing would nag at her until she did figure it out.

July 12, 1947

Teaching Swords

      Ranma stood on the roof.  He had his sword and scabbard.  Asuka was approaching, she clearly wasn't happy about being awake to greet the sun.  He suspected pointing out this was the best time of the day would get him an introduction to the ax-bladed naginata she carried, and how good she was with it.  The weapon looked exactly like the one the Meliorist carried, he knew how good she was with it.

      "You need to learn how to use that," Asuka told him, pointing to his sword.

      "I don't hit girls," Ranma replied, the major sticking point of this training.

      "Good."  The stroke was so fast he barely got the sword up, while he easily dodged to get out of the way, so there was no way she could hit him.  Instead she caught and yanked the sword out of his hand with her weapon.  As Asuka continued her turn, she thrust backward with the haft, Ranma dodged it easily.  As she completed the circle, the blade went through where Ranma's head would have been, if he hadn't dodged the haft.  The blade stopped directly between and below where Ranma's ears would have been.

      I could have dodged that, Ranma thought.

      "By a couple of centimeters," he added a moment later.

      "Considering how rotten you are with a sword . . . " Asuka removed the sword from where she'd trapped it with her own weapon.  "That won't be a problem for several weeks.  First, you'll learn to actually hold on to this, instead of being afraid of it."

      "I ain't afraid of - " Ranma shouted.

      "Cats.  And keep your voice down, normal people are sleeping," Asuka continued, "Second, you'll learn the stances and the nomenclature."

      "I know how to use a sword," Ranma told her, arms akimbo, "I just need some pointers."

      Asuka frowned, she stared at Ranma for a moment, then casually threw the sword over the side of the building.

      "Hey!  That's mine!" Ranma shouted as he ran to the edge and looked down.

      "If you're going to be stupid, my pointer is: learn to depend on other people to protect you.  You'll just hurt yourself otherwise."  She turned and headed for the stairwell.

      Ranma ran after her.  I can't hit her, but - he thought as he yanked the weapon from her hands.

      "Maybe you," he told her as he threw it out and away as hard as he could, "Shouldn't be so smart."  When he turned back, Asuka had her hand practically in his face, her fingers outstretched.  "You missed."

      "No, I'm teaching," she said calmly.

      "What are you teaching?" Ranma sneered.

      'Asuka,' Ranma heard Sammi's voice.  "You're just being cruel."

      "He needs to learn realities," Asuka said primly, "Besides, I dragged his useless carcass back here didn't I?  She would have been lighter, but I didn't do that."

      "Oh, what hit me."  His hand found the bag of ice on the back of his head.  He was face down on the living room couch.

      "My sabre-halberd," Asuka told him, "Haven't you ever heard of a boomerang?"

      Ranma tried to sit up, Sammi pushed him back down.

      "Rest.  You had a hard knock on your head.  Your sword didn't land on anyone when it took its little flight.  If you're going to use a sword, you have to hang on to it."

      He heard Sammi walk away.

      "Very wise," Asuka said in a chirpy tone that made Ranma's headache worse.

      Asuka carefully rearranged the ice pack on Ranma's head.  "What say we try again tomorrow," she was still chirpy, "You have to understand there are a lot of things you need to learn.  The first, does your magic weapon return when you call it.  See, a real professional always puts that in when he makes a powerful weapon.  It can even be used to attack.  Can you imagine how?"

      Ranma groaned, not just from the headache he had now, This is gonna be a long month.

      " 'I'm Ranma Saotome,'" she said in his usual tone, patting his shoulder, " 'I can never be defeated.'  Especially by a girl."

      Oh shut up! Ranma thought he could feel his headache getting worse.

      Click.  Clatch.  BLAM.  Click.  Clatch.  BLAM.  Click.  Clatch.  BLAM.  Click.  Clatch.  BLAM.  Nabiki hated this, she didn't like guns in the first place.  The noise, the smell, they were a cheat, not an `honorable` weapon.  She'd always known you didn't need much skill or training to use a gun.  Watching the bullets eat up the center of the paper target, with 20 Marines and a few dozen sailors watching, didn't help.  She stood in the Bennington's cavernous hanger deck and kept her fingers in her ears, and flinched with every shot.  Finally Raccoon emptied the pistol, then the shotgun barrel into the target set up on the deck edge elevator of the carrier.

      "Not bad at 50 feet," the Marine ordinance sergeant said.  He took the paper target down while Raccoon carefully reloaded the pistol.

      "Okay, okay, show's over," a Marine captain - `major` told the audience.  The men grumbled and left, while the other Marines set up a few partitions.  The better to let Nabiki save face, when she tried to use her pistol.

      She remembered the discussion this morning in her cabin after breakfast.  Raccoon had finished closely examining her pistol and needed to talk to her about it.

      Raccoon held the pistol up, Nabiki had just watched him remove all the bullets and check the barrel, from the breech end.

      "Okay."  He set the empty weapon between them, careful to set it so the barrel wasn't pointed at either of them.  "What condition is it in?"

      "It's loaded with a bullet in the chamber," she repeated in a bored tone, "I was listening."

      "But you still don't respect it," he replied, "Unlike the martial artists of Nerima, this is worth respecting, if only for how dangerous it is."

      "It's empty," Nabiki said.  She didn't even want to touch the thing, that it came from one of their alien enemies seemed almost appropriate, she wondered if Nyarlathotep had given the human race these things just to help destroy them.

      Raccoon had a Government 45 on the table between them as well, he picked it up.  "You really think so?"  He pulled back and locked the slide.  He put a wood pencil in the hole the empty bullets came out of, then released the slide with a snap.  The pencil's top half flew through the air, the bottom dropped out the hole where the clip went, after the slide cut the pencil in half.  "I suppose you could hope and pray that Saotome discovers some martial arts technique that lets him deal with these monsters.  Then put in an extraspecial prayer that he can figure out what he did, and then pray for direct intervention from God Almighty that he can actually teach it to you.  Or . . . you can overcome your own prejudice and learn to protect yourself."

      Nabiki frowned at him.  Ritsuko had made it abundantly clear, that Nabiki would learn to shoot.  Ritsuko then had to lower the boom on Maya, who was just as ignorant, fearful, and unwilling.

      "Maya's at least learning to use a rifle," Nabiki groused, just looking at the thing made her uneasy, "You, Rei and Asuka can hit things at hundreds of meters with a rifle.  What good is this?"

      "In a city you won't have hundreds of meters.  Tens, or more likely ones of meters, especially with that shotgun," Raccoon explained patiently.

      That was the other thing that bothered her, he seemed to have settled in for a siege.  He expected her to be `unreasonable`, so he had a soft, clear answer for every one of her objections.  She'd seen him do this to Ranma on several occasions, wearing down resistance, pointing up positives, praising any progress no matter how slight.  She never expected to be the recipient of that treatment, of being treated as a stubborn, willful child.

      "There is a major design difference between your Le Mat and most modern pistols," Raccoon told her as he picked up the .45 auto.  "Half-cock."  He pulled the hammer part way back.  "Is a safe position."

      He handed her the pistol, butt first.  "Pull the trigger."

      She pointed it away from him, she'd gotten a lecture about that from Asuka and Rei weeks ago, then almost the same words from Ritsuko, Raccoon and an ordinance officer this morning.  The trigger wouldn't pull.

      "Take it to full cock, then let down the hammer."

      She did as she was told, not losing the hammer this time.

      "But your Le Mat - "  He handed her the large pistol, and double clicked it to rotate the cylinder.  "Pull the trigger."

      She did, it took a lot of finger strength.

      "But at half cock - "  He pulled the hammer back so it clicked once, the cylinder didn't move.

      She barely touched the trigger, and the hammer dropped.  "What was that?"

      "Hair trigger, some kind of double set trigger.  I'll have to find out if that was standard on the Le Mat, or a modification."  He took the pistol back, fully cocked it, then pulled the trigger and lowered the hammer to half-cock.  "With practice, you can do the same, the lighter trigger pull will be useful for accuracy."

      Like I'd ever shoot something, she thought sullenly, Why couldn't I get a sword or a bow, something useful?

      "Shouldn't I be learning to use a rifle?" Nabiki asked, banishing the memory.

      "Teaching the use of a rifle requires a level of physical intimacy," Raccoon told her in Japanese, so the Marines wouldn't understand.

      "It was a date?!" she sputtered, "Do you do anything without a second motive?"

      He stopped, paused, considered, then shook his head, 'no.'.  "Okay.  Aim from here, to here, to the target.  Just squeeze the trigger.  Don't worry about hitting the target."

      Just try not to hit anything else, she thought he wanted to say.  Click.  Clatch.  click.  She blinked, looked at the pistol, there were bullets, well shells in it.  Or are there?

      "Is this a standard trick, fill a gun with empty cases and real bullets?" she asked angrily.  She didn't like these games everyone was playing with her about this thing.

      "Maybe, you still flinch when you pull the trigger.  Why don't you assume they're all spent casings and just cock the hammer and pull the trigger a few dozen times to get used to it?"

      More being reasonable, she thought as she cocked it, took aim and . . . another empty.  So was the next, and the one after, and the one after that.  All nine were that way.

      It was with some contempt she flicked the switch to fire the shotgun, cocked, took aim and BLAMM!

      "Congratulations.  You didn't flinch until after!" Raccoon told her happily.

      She hadn't finished the flinch, still was recoiled and tensed from the noise and force of the gunshot.  It didn't register that from 20 feet, with a shotgun, she'd missed the target completely.  Instead, everyone was happy about her not flinching.

      She didn't really hear the soothing words of encouragement Raccoon was saying to her, as he peeled her fingers, one-by-one, from the death grip they still had the pistol in.  Two of the Marines carefully set her in a chair, her arms and hands locked as if she were still holding the gun.

      "I think I've figured out your real problem," Raccoon told her.  Other people's words were starting to register on her consciousness again.

      "Wha -?" she said intelligently.

      "You haven't named it," Raccoon explained, "I know it's silly, but things aren't really yours until you've named them.  Even if the name is only 'my car'."

      Visions of Asuza of the Golden Pair danced in Nabiki's head, urging her on from mere consciousness to true sentience.  That's disturbing enough!

      "Name -?" she said.

      Oh, great! she thought as she shook her head to clear it.

      "In Japanese, they call howitzers kyokushahou: arc shooting cannon, or ryuudanhou: pomegranate bullet cannon.  So you should call it kyokukibi, it means fancy or tricky playing on an instrument.  It's appropriate, once you've let me train you, you'll be a regular Annie Oakley."

      Her mind finally queued up the kanji for the word.  "It could also be read 'meandering bullet'."  She told him.

      "What an amazing coincidence!" Raccoon sounded genuinely shocked.

      Nabiki took the gun from his hand and marched over to the ammunition table, missing the smile and thumbs up from the ordinance sergeant as she reloaded, with live ammunition.

Invention Arises From Idleness

      Admiral Adams looked at his small battlegroup.  It felt strange not having the Bennington's standard air group embarked.  All it took was one look at the damaged flight deck, and he could see why the operational orders had included no plans for aircraft aboard Bennington.  Even the typhoon off Japan in June '45 hadn't done that much damage.

      He couldn't fault the EVA pilot, Davis had been excruciatingly careful.  The damn thing was just too heavy for an unarmored flight deck to handle.  There had already been talk about swapping an Essex or two to the Royal Navy for an Illustrious-class or two.  H.M.S. Victorious had worked with the U.S.N. before, and H.M.S. Formidable was in reserve.  Installing the secondary generators, to give them the 150,000 horsepower necessary to tether power an EVA, had to be easier than the flight deck repairs the Bennington or any other Essex would need from one trip with an EVA.

      But I'm not in charge, he thought.

      "Penny for your thoughts, Admiral," Capt. Casey, his flag captain, and Capt. Garibaldi, his chief of staff, approached.

      "Just wondering whether capturing one of these things is a good idea.  We lost Castor and Pollux to two of the monsters they thought were captured."

      "There is that, Admiral," Capt. Casey replied, "But then we aren't a freighter, and we aren't trusting the thing to stay asleep."

      "We also have a technical staff to study it, Admiral," Garibaldi added, "And extra Marines."

      Adams nodded.  Without the air group and its support personnel, there were a lot of empty berths.  The NERV troops took some up, enough that the ladies each had their own cabins, and one head all to themselves.  It also meant they had a short brigade of Marines aboard, mostly armed with the weapons that certainly seemed to work on the monsters.

      "Schedule a fire drill for about an hour before first light.  Then get the Marines up to speed on fighting fires at sea, dismissed."

      "Yes sir," Casey turned and left.

      "Permission to speak freely, sir?" Garibaldi remained.

      "Of course."

      "It isn't the monsters we're worried about," his chief of staff told him, "It's the sealed orders."

      "State your case."

      "All the Marines, all the special weapons, two battleships sheparding us.  The Angels aren't really bothered by battleships, somebody's expecting something else . . . and so are you."

      "You could get a job as a carnival mind-reader," Adams told him, "I've got rotating coverage, so there's always surveillance, fire and 'repel boarders' drills will cover the troops going armed a lot of places.  Putting them near the hull so the battleships can shoot through.  But it isn't enough."

      "The special team is flying out of Pearl.  They'll be here tomorrow noon.  We've still got enough flight deck to conduct landings."

      "Thoughtful wasn't it?"

      "Admiral Simson's idea, sir.  Anyway, why worry about something we don't have to worry about, yet.  We'll know for certain in a few days."

      "Thank you, Mr. Garibaldi, dismissed."

      Garibaldi saluted and left the Admiral.  Admiral Adams returned to his own thoughts about his oath to protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.  He had to wonder how peremptory that oath required him to be.

      Asuka looked around Wondergirl's apartment.  She restrained herself from walking over to the wall, and scraping off the brown layer to see what exactly was underneath.  First, she didn't want to know that badly; second, she doubted she'd ever get the gunk out from under her fingernails.

      " 'You all no doubt wonder why I've called you here today'," Asuka quoted all bad detective stories, "So spill it, Spineless.  Are we here to sandblast these walls, or have you finally decided to consummate your relationship with Wondergirl, and you need witnesses and instructions?"

      "NO!" Spineless shouted.

      Asuka couldn't figure out whether Spineless or Wondergirl was blushing more.

      "Okay, Spineless, speak."  She turned her back to them.

      "Misato met this guy."

      Asuka rolled her eyes, she knew where this was going.  "Penicillin, Spineless, or there's delousing powder."

      "No, he seemed nice," Spineless said, "She isn't dating Kaji . . . she's going out alone, and getting drunk.  Almost every night."  He'd gotten quieter with each phrase.

      Asuka considered, "So what do you want me - us to do about it?"

      "I'm not sure, that's why I needed to talk."

      "All right," Asuka said gently, as she turned to face them.

      Lead the children through the forest, Asuka told herself to stay calm, No need to tell them about the wolves.

      "We need to know who he is, where he lives, what interests - Wondergirl, why are you writing this down?" Asuka asked her as she scribbled frantically on a pad.

      "It may have other applications," Wondergirl explained.

      I may not have been too far off, someone may have to explain things to them on their wedding night, Asuka thought.

      "Wondergirl, there's a book, it's called the Kama Sutra, I think."

      "I have it."

      Asuka stopped, she briefly wondered if this was how Horseface felt when he encountered unfathomable mysteries, like long division and wearing socks.  She blinked, shook her head and hoped the crews had cleared the wreckage of her train of thought.  "Did you read the words, or just look at the pictures?  Don't run away Spineless, she hasn't asked for volunteers yet."

      "I can read all of it," Wondergirl seemed ashamed of the admission.

      Translation, I have read all of it.  Asuka couldn't get the images that conjured out of her head, Wondergirl sitting up nights wondering what possible benefit this all brought, and whether it would increase or decrease her and Spineless's combat effectiveness.  Asuka debated sending her to Sammi, or Admiral Simson, or both to ask those questions.  The idea of Wondergirl and Spineless actually trying what was in there made her want to laugh and made her skin crawl, at the same time.

      Although telling Horseface it's a close combat stamina drill and having an appropriate partner was critical . . . , Asuka thought, That would certainly be good for a laugh.

      "I'll -" she dropped the idea and returned to what they had been talking about.  "Wondergirl can find out anything.  So let her find out where he lives, where he works.  Then we can observe him.  If he likes baseball, we can invite him to a softball game, let him meet the other pilots.  I understand the school's girls softball team is going to have a few practice games.  One's tomorrow.  Getting Misato to come will be interesting, we might even invite Kaji, just to make things stimulating."

      "They might fall into conflict," Wondergirl pointed out, as if Asuka hadn't considered it.

      "Of course, they'll fight over Misato.  Remember how Spineless felt when you fought for him?"

      Again with the double blush, Asuka thought in disgust, Are they one person or two?

      "I remember," Wondergirl said quietly.

      I ought to introduce these two to Belldandy and Dishwater, her boyfriend, Asuka thought, The only other people on the planet as totally clueless about romance as these two.  She paused, considered, No, even Horseface knows more, at least Ranko does.

      "Okay, it's settled then," Asuka announced, "I'll go get some more people, you find him and invite him, and her of course."

      "Jawohl, mein Grosse {Große} Feldmarschall," Wondergirl said. [Of course, my Grand Field Marshall]

      Asuka stared at her.  "Was that supposed to be a joke, Wonder - Rei?"


      "It isn't a joke?"

      "It is nine jokes," Rei said, "Do you know what they all are?"

      Asuka sighed, "I'm going to stop letting you talk to Raccoon when he's going to get out of my reach."  She left the room shaking her head.  Erin was waiting with Tomiyo outside.  "Tomorrow we'll be having a picnic at the softball game.  I'll be spreading the word to some friends and acquaintances.  Spineless and Wondergirl will probably need some transport, they've got a mission of their own."

      "Naturlich {natÜrlich}, mein Grosse {Große} Feldmarschall."  Erin snapped to attention and saluted. [Naturally, my Grand Field Marshall]

      Raccoon, I am going to kill you so slowly when I get my hands on you! Asuka thought as she headed back to the jeep with Erin marching after and holding her salute.

      Shinji glanced over at Rei, "What is a . . . ?" he wasn't even going to try.

      "A Great Field Marshall," Rei explained, "I looked up the highest ranks in the German army and navy."

      "Your idea?" Shinji was confused.

      "I no longer wished to call her 'the Second', Maya suggested it was disrespectful."

      "Her name's Asuka."

      "I do not wish to call her that either," Rei told him.

      With anybody else, he would have thought they were trying to evade the question.  "We'd better start looking."

      Rei nodded.

      "How is that spelled anyway?"

      "me-i-n gro-sse {gro-ße} . . . "

Equal License In Bold Invention

      Asuka walked into the warehouse, she'd been directed here by the people at the university.  She carefully picked her way through, Erin was following, there was junk all over the place.  Half assembled, or half-disassembled machines, cannibalized parts, bookshelves made from crates, all of it mixed together.  The floor was clean, which surprised her.  Somebody took the time to dust and sweep in here, but not reorganize.

      Curious, she thought as she followed the voices near the back.  It sounded like a small, but friendly, argument.

      "Keiichi Morisato," she announced.  She recognized the boy, and one of the girls, the other girl might have been a relative.  The corner she'd tracked them to was subtly different, the parts were more organized, the few tools weren't lying around.  The projects were smaller, some clearly completed, a single small engine and a few other motorized projects, some with wheels, some with wings.  A couple of postcards of German, American, and Japanese planes were thumb tacked to one of the exposed wooden beams.

      "Langley-san," he said as he stood, bowed, "I wasn't expecting to see you again.  There was nothing wrong with the quilt was there?"  The two girls had also bowed worriedly.

      "No, it served its purpose admirably," she said, she looked around, "You built all this?"  She waited for him to nervously nod.  "A friend of mine builds a lot of stuff, he might have a paying project or three for you, when he gets back in the country.  He demands the highest quality, this stuff looks like it might pass muster."

      The other girl, not his girlfriend, stood up, "Does he let girls build stuff, does he - "

      "Megumi," Keiichi warned, "Sorry, my sister works at the college, she, uh . . . "

      "She helps you build this stuff," Asuka calmly finished for him, "Have you seen the EVAs?  The long spear they started using recently?"

      "The sonic glaives?" Megumi asked, "Yes, I've seen them."

      "My design," Asuka told her, "So, no, he doesn't have a problem."  She tried to make her tone friendlier, "I was wondering if you wanted to meet the pilots."

      "Is Ikari Shinji-san going to be there?" Megumi asked enthusiastically.

      Good God!  Spineless has a fan club! Asuka thought.

      "Yes, and his girlfriend Ayanami Rei, and Saotome Ran - ma," Asuka said.

      Yeah that would be our luck, it isn't supposed to rain tomorrow, but Horseface changes right in the middle of a crowd, Asuka considered.

      "Yes, he does!" Megumi said for Keiichi, who didn't protest.  "When is it?"

      "Tomorrow early afternoon," Asuka told them, "It's sort of a command performance."

      "Tomorrow," now Keiichi sounded a lot less enthused.  He kept glancing to the two girls flanking him.

      "A command performance?" his girlfriend Belldandy asked.

      "That means you have to come . . . or else."

      The girl paled.  "Or else . . . what?"

      Asuka leaned close, smiled.  "Something truly terrible, think about it."  Asuka straightened up, the girl looked ready to faint.  At least Keiichi and his sister got the joke.

      Is there anyone in this country who has both a brain and a spine? she silently asked.

      "Where?" he sounded like he wanted to refuse.

      "Shibuyan park, am I pronouncing that correctly?" Asuka asked.

      "Yes, no problem he'll be there." Megumi said quickly, "We play softball there after the middle school team finishes."

      "We'll be there to watch a friend who plays on that team," Asuka explained.

      "Well . . . " they still hadn't convinced Keiichi.

      "We can have the picnic another time," his girlfriend offered.

      "Well if it's a picnic you want, we already have people bringing food.  And if you want to drag her off into the bushes, nobody'll say anything."

      Good grief! Asuka griped inwardly, Horseface and Spineless get the same stupid, stupefied look, I wonder if they teach it in the schools?

      "Well now you have to go!" Megumi insisted, "And Bell's the best cook, she could probably cater the whole thing if you wanted."

      Belldandy suddenly looked alarmed.

      Job, catered, Asuka put two and two together, You don't have to drop an anvil on me, unlike the others around here.

      "Well, full meals for . . . well it's twenty people, but they eat like fifty."  She pulled a billfold from her skirt pocket.  "Would $40 cover the food, preparation and delivery costs, as well as a premium for a rush job?"

      It's only money, besides it'll give Curly and Hikari, and Wondergirl and Spineless, a better atmosphere, and hopefully Misato and her new boyfriend too, Asuka thought as she extended the bills.

      There was no response except stunned looks from the trio.  Megumi shook herself loose first.  "Yes, of course.  We can do it.  13:00 hours?"  She carefully took the money from Asuka.

      "Yes, very good.  Oh, one last thing, couples only, I'm afraid I'll have to insist on that."

      Megumi looked grim but nodded.  The other two still looked a little stunned.

      "You said they were pilots," Megumi said, "Does that mean you can fly planes too?"

      "Yes and no, I can fly a plane, so can Raccoon, if it's a little one," Asuka explained, "But the others can't."  She paused to let them ask any other questions, then Asuka took her leave.

      "Mein Grosse {Große} Feldmarschall is too kind and generous," Erin told her when they left the warehouse.

      "Double rations for lunch and dinner for the rowers on the galley, and cancel all my appointments.  I'll be water-skiing all afternoon," Asuka said breezily.

      "Too kind for words," Erin assured her.

      Megumi took Keiichi's hands and danced around him.  "We're saved, we're saved!  Belldandy said we didn't have to worry, it would be provided for, and it was!  The money you needed for the club and the money we needed for the softball team just walked right in the front door!  You pay the fees, we get new equipment, HA!"

      "But fifty people," Keiichi said.

      "Oh good grief, for new equipment all the girls will pitch in, the University cafeterias clean out all the unused food tonight and we'll be doing the cleaning.  Oh, it'll add me and Sora, and Tamiya and Ootaki, and . . . that's sixteen, we'll call it 20 more.  That's seventy total."

      "Tamiya and Ootaki?!" Keiichi was dumbfounded.

      "You and I aren't carrying food for seventy people," Megumi told him firmly, "Besides, I've seen the bodyguards the pilots have.  Saotome-san's looks like she could kill and eat a bear for breakfast, and Ikari-san's is no weakling either.  Besides there won't be any beer or wine anywhere, they'll behave."

      "I guess," Keiichi said.

      "And did you hear?  She can fly a plane," Megumi added.

      "So?" Keiichi asked.

      "That fighter you have hidden."  Megumi saw her brother blanch.  "I'm not going to tell anyone, I don't want to see you go to prison.  But you always said you just wanted to see it fly.  How do you expect to fly it?  If you try to get flying lessons, they'll arrest you immediately.  You have a chance to do a favor for a trained pilot.  You sell the plane to one of them, they can help get parts, and they can fly it once it's finished."  Megumi paused to let that sink in.  "Think about it, you might even be able to go to the States to work designing cars or planes there.  That's what you always wanted, ever since we were kids."

      "You've got my whole life planned out for me," he joked nervously.

      "Well somebody has to look after you," Megumi joked back.  She glanced at Belldandy, "She was joking about the 'or else', if she really wanted us, she could always send out the army and drag us there in chains."

      "How can I tell Urd she can't come?" Belldandy asked, "She doesn't have a date."

      "And Skuld does?" Megumi thought that was hilarious.

      Asuka walked in, she could smell Horseface's cooking.  He wasn't as good as Raccoon or Spineless, his stuff tended towards bland, but he was no where near as bad as Misato.  She was exhausted, Hikari had been enthusiastic when Asuka told her, Yumi' had been equally raring to go.  Asuka wondered when those two would join forces and make sure Curly married Hikari.  It was almost scary.  Mirei and her parents had been delighted as well, although they teased Asuka about the endless life of parties the pilots lived.  Mirei's oldest brother had been a fighter pilot, and had lived a similar lifestyle.  They didn't have to tell Asuka that he was dead.  The Allied air forces had destroyed the Axis air forces, survivors of long service were the exception, not the rule.  Spineless reported that Wondergirl found Hiro Takemono, he could come, he also was looking for a position as an English teacher.  Asuka wondered if he could teach Misato and Horseface.

      Whose English is painful to the ears, she thought she was misquoting Shaw.

      As Asuka sniffed the air, something didn't quite smell right, or rather it smelled too familiar.  "Hello?  What is that?"

      "Sausage, potatoes and boiled cabbage okay, Mar-chan?" Horseface called from the kitchen.

      She was about to say yes, when the last part caught in her mind.  "Mar-chan?  Who's Mar-chan?"  Asuka headed up the stair to the second floor.

      "You are," Horseface said, "Mein gro sen fe . . . Marshan.  Mar-chan."

      Asuka began plotting whom she should kill first, and how much they should suffer, before and during.

      "I don't think that's a good nickname, Ranma."  Sammi began setting the table with forks, knives and spoons.

      "Why not?" Horseface asked.

      "It sounds like 'march on' in English, march on Poland, march on Czechoslovakia, march on France . . . no, never mind, it's perfect, don't change a thing."