Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 36-37 ( Chapter 17 )

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

Chapter 36 - And Thou Singing Beside Me in the Wilderness
      It's Food too Fine For Angels
      Ut Quod Ali Cibus Est Aliis Fuat Acre Venenum [What is food to one, is to others bitter poison]
      Women and Wine Should Life Employ
      Many Companions for Food and Drink
      Few Companions For Serious Business
      Who Is Not Thursday's Child
      Another Such Victory, and We Are Ruined
      To Be Alone Is the Fate of All Great Minds

Chapter 37 - And In What Spirit was the Tool Created?
      I've Known a Lot of People Ride a Dam' Sight Worse
      I've Known a Lof o' Fellows Go a Dam' Sight Worse
      I've Known a Lot o' Fellers Shoot a Dam' Sight Worse
      I've Known a Lot of Fellows Stalk a Dam' Sight Worse
      I've Known a Lot o' Men Behave a Dam' Sight Worse
      I've Known Some Pet Battalions Charge a Dam' Sight Less

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 36 - And Thou Singing Beside Me in the Wilderness


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

C&C, MSTs are welcome


Stories are available in Plain ASCII at:


ht tp:// r-Morituri

(these are the original versions)

What has gone before:

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

      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.  Among them: Jeff, under the influence of Ranma, confronts Belldandy, sending her in to a tizzy, then her sisters, Keiichi managed to defuse it.  Ranko, under the influence of the others, gives Jeff the passionate kiss from the bet he made with Asuka.  Then Asuka and Jeff tickle Nabiki remorselessly.  Rei begins calling Asuka mein Grosse {Große} Feldmarschall.  All the pilots are giddy from recent events.

      Jeff gives Asuka the blade to a sabre-halberd, and asks her to teach Ranma to use his sword.

      All the others pack up for their moves, either to new quarters or aboard the carrier.

      Asuka begins teaching Ranma about swordsmanship.  Jeff teaches Nabiki shooting a pistol.

      To help Misato and Hiro's relationship, Asuka, Rei and Shinji throw together a Sunday in the park picnic.  Asuka invites Keiichi, Belldandy and Megumi.  Megumi volunteers her services and Belldandy's as caterers.

Every once in a while, declare peace.  It confuses the hell out of your enemies.

      The Seventy-Sixth Rule of Acquisition, Star trek: Deep Space Nine - The Homecoming

It's Food too Fine For Angels

July 13, 1947

      Ranma let Asuka mold and shape his hands on the hilt of the blade.  Then she tapped his wrist, elbow and shoulder, gauging what his reaction was at each point, "Loose, loose, loose.  Good."  Asuka walked around his back then to the blade, tapped the flat.

      Ranma let the blade move slightly, then got it into position.  Asuka seemed pleased he'd learned the lesson quickly, he just waited for the commentary he knew was coming.

      "Feel the difference?" Asuka asked.  Ranma could find none of the condescension in her tone and stance that he would have expected.

      "Yeah."  It felt looser and more solid at the same time.  There was no harm in admitting it was different, he'd even go so far as to say it was a lot better.  He'd also learned not to say that.  Unless he had a question, she expected 'yes', 'no', or a short answer.  That suited him fine too.

      "I learned the sword from Masters, a lot of them."

      Ranma didn't think she was proud of that, he would have been ecstatic to have studied under a lot of experts.  He wondered why she wasn't.

      "I've taught a lot of people the use of the sword.  Most of them are still alive.  Those that aren't, better swordsmanship wouldn't have saved them," Asuka said.

      "Then why don't you use a sword?  Like Raccoon?"

      "I never said I could use one properly in combat.  I said I know and can teach how they should be used.  I can do all the necessary moves in training.  I know by sight and instinct if a stance, a grip or a move is right or wrong," Asuka told him as she picked up her weapon, "But in a real fight, something invariably goes wrong."

      Ranma could hardly believe his ears.  'I am Langley hear me roar' CAN'T do something?

      "Now, the best work on the use of the sword is the Fechtbuch 1467 by Fechtmeisters Talhoffer and Ott," she told him as she walked around him in a circle, the haft of her weapon tapping down to emphasize her points, "Raccoon swears by Sir William Hope and Sir Donald McBane, so we'll cover them as well.  The high guard position the latter two favor is useful for shorter weapons, not as much for a sabre-halberd.  You'll probably enjoy the Highlanders' more confrontational methods, although they still require a great deal of sophistication."  As she came around Ranma's front, she demonstrated the stance, the weapon held high, point aimed at the ground.  Ranma had never seen a stance like that, the reverse yes, but never one that extreme.  She kept walking and talked, circling him.

      "But first, we'll start with each stance, each stroke, and their names.  YOU DO NOT SHOUT THEM OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIGHT!" she added, loudly, right in his face.  With his ears still ringing, she continued, "After you've learned them, we'll start combining them together, transitioning one to the other, including recovery and riposte.  That flow you're so enamored of - comes later, much later."

      She waited for him to nod, then she stepped up to him, got nose to nose with him.  He could tell she was angry, he could practically see the blue of her eyes boiling.  "You will not use your martial arts unless you or I would be seriously wounded.  A scratch or bruise is insufficient.  I want your word, or no lessons."  The calm, measured tone was more threatening than her shouting.

      "You have my word," Ranma said, gulped.

      Toji's right, she is scary like this, he thought.

      "May I ask why?" he asked in what he hoped, prayed, she would think was a respectful tone.

      "Because you must learn these completely new techniques, mastering them independently, before you begin mixing them with your other techniques.  You may very well figure out a better way to do something, but you will learn the entirety of the basics I am teaching you, before you try to move to the advanced class.  If you get an inspiration, write - it - down.  If you're going to pass on your art to others, you'll have to learn that too.  Consider it an incentive."

      Ranma nodded, it made sense.  He prepared himself for a long, hard grind.  He was surprised by the way Asuka was acting.  She was as 'fierce' as always, but not as harsh as he expected.

      "Now, this is the first Talhoffer stance."  She held her weapon perpendicular to the ground.  He duplicated it easily, looked for nuances, things a regular person might have missed.

      Asuka carefully leaned her sabre-halberd on the wall, she realized she'd have to . . . no, she could hire someone to make a stand for it.  She'd ask Spineless to see if his fan club had any decent wood workers.

      She pushed her abused muscles to get her into a hot tub first.  The lesson had gone surprisingly well, except how out of shape she was.  It had been a long time since she had used her sabre-halberd, or a sword, or any large hand weapon in the Waking World.  Her entire body ached from the strain.  It had been quite a challenge towards the end, not to get snappish with Horseface, who was doing what she wanted.

      She knew she had to get into that tub soon, or she'd be in agony the rest of the day.  It was going to be bad enough to be on her best behavior with everything else that needed doing today.

      The knock on the door was decidedly not welcome.  "Yes," she said.  The door opened.

      More Horseface is not what I need, she looked at the redhead sheepishly entering her room.

      "Uh, I thought you were hurting, so I uh . . . well, when Raccoon and Nab-chan over did their training I . . . uh, well - "

      "What?" she shouted.  Unfortunately this drew Sammi immediately.

      "Uh, work the soreness out of the muscles," Horseface offered.

      "I neither need nor want a massage - "

      Especially one from you, she didn't add, Especially with Sammi there ready to laugh herself silly.

      "Thank you," she added with what little grace she had left, then went into the bathroom and closed the door behind her.  She'd heard about that from Raccoon and Ice Princess, but there was no way she was letting Horseface touch her that way.  The very thought was revolting.  She ran the water as hot as she could stand as she took off her sweaty clothes.  It was nearly all water from the hot tap.  She shoved that worry aside, she had enough to worry about already.  Her body screamed in protest as she climbed in, but soon the waters did their work.

      Skuld and Keiichi stood outside the temple watching the last of the preparations.  Megumi and her friends were working under Belldandy's direction.  He smiled when Belldandy, once again, insisted that she could do it, and none of Megumi's team would hear of it, again.  He doubted she'd ever had to lead and direct 25 people, even finding a job for Sora, whom they couldn't trust near the food preparation.  It was like someone juggling flaming chainsaws.

      "That's . . . scary," Skuld commented.

      Keiichi agreed.  "Have you talked to Sentaro?  He might want to meet the pilots."

      Skuld turned on him, ready for a fight.  "You'd think we were going on a date!"

      "No, but all of them are excited about meeting the pilots," he told her nervously, pointing to Megumi's group, "Wouldn't your friend?"

      Skuld's rage drained away.  He barely heard her 'no' as she turned back to the final preparations.

      He glanced around, wondering whom he could send, or if he should go himself.  The idea of leaving it to Tamiya or Ootaki was too terrible to consider, Urd . . .  That idea is only slightly less horrible, he thought.

      "Don't you want to go with?" Keiichi asked.

      "I hate you!" Skuld stormed off.

      He did note she was headed for the garage, where her bike was.  Keiichi just shook his head and looked back at the girls marching through the temple with all the food and preparations.

      Poor Belldandy, he watched her trying to manage the group, Like shoveling confetti in a hurricane, but she's managing.  He knew enough to stay completely out of everyones' way, but close enough to be called on for help.

      He just hoped she wouldn't feel it was necessary, after working all-night, that she would also have to act as host.  He wondered if any of the pilots were strong willed enough to insist she didn't.  Then he chuckled, it would be interesting to see.  Especially if the one who scared her was the one who did the insisting.

Ut Quod Ali Cibus Est Aliis Fuat Acre Venenum [What is food to one, is to others bitter poison]

      Usagi looked at the other girls scattered around the outside rock garden in their fancy clothes.  She was glad she'd convinced them that midnight meetings were both melodramatic, and foolish.  Anyone could do the rituals at midnight, to do them on a sunny Sunday morning was a sign of true commitment.  It wasn't as if the ritual had to be melodramatic.  She could have done it during lunch between the soup and the entree, but people expected a certain thrill, so there had to be secret codes and passwords, the candles of all colors and the incense.  So they dressed up, they looked like pretty flowers among the carefully raked stones and other Zen accouterments.

      Daddy's tacky beliefs, she chuckled to herself, At least I'm putting them to good use.  She still wished it was all over,so they could have their tea party, before they went to the ballfield.  Usagi sometimes worried that they were more worshipful of the trappings, than the correct object of their devotions.

      She'd detected no repercussions about the fluff and filigree, and she'd been able to keep the others on track for the most part, so she let it pass.  She returned her attention to the matter at hand.  The proposed 'ceremonial robes' were definitely not her style.  They were fine over those tacky, old-fashioned kimonos, but they wrinkled her tea dress something awful.  Her daddy and mommy had searched so hard to get decent ones, so she wasn't going to have hers ruined.  She was the leader, if the others needed such trappings, her austerity would separate her further.  Place her above them.

      The girl was trembling as she approached the large stone, some might insist it was an altar, but Usagi knew They were everywhere, no place need be more sacred than any other.  Besides, Usagi knew, an altar implied a sacrifice, nothing was sacrificed here, everything was gained.  'Limitless vistas, if that's what you wanted, a degree of control over your life and surroundings if that is all you desire.'  It sounded simple, but it drew certain girls like flies, Usagi's suggestion that boys, and even adults, be made the offer had been roundly rejected.  She personally thought that was cruel, but she didn't want to shatter the fellowship.  Eventually she could foster forward thinking in others, she had plans to advance that too.  Planning was also why she was the leader.  The others thought she had her position from getting there first, but she had it because they underestimated her, her `friends` and her enemies.

      "She knows?" Usagi asked Tomoe, the girl's escort and sponsor.  Usagi knew she was beautiful, it wasn't only her parents who commented on her grace and flawless skin.  But Tomoe looked like a porcelain doll crafted by an ancient master, soft brown eyes and a willowy grace, that combined to make her seem too delicate to be alive.  All over a spirit as brutal as a sledgehammer.

      "Some," Tomoe said, "I told her everything she needed."

      Usagi wished she could divest herself of Tomoe, the girl liked scaring people a little too much for Usagi's tastes.  Unfortunately, Tomoe's instincts on whom to include and who to exclude had been flawless.  It was not Usagi's job to question divine wisdom, or where it chose to earth itself.  Right thinking girls had been added, they had disregarded those too squeamish or too rigid.  Usagi glared at Tomoe, flipped her silken hair out of her face.  Tomoe contemptuously duplicated the gesture and shrugged, unfortunately Tomoe knew how important she was.  Usagi hadn't yet discovered a way to explain how unimportant she was.

      "She exaggerates," Usagi said soothingly.

      "My par-rents are horrible!" the girl burst out, "They want to s-send me to mar-ry some relative in the country, on a farm!  And he's so old!"

      "So you understand what we'll do, what you have to give us, and what you get in return?"

      "My parents and my brothers can't push me around anymore!" the girl was practically in tears.

      Usagi wouldn't have thought her a good candidate, but Tomoe's judgment had been flawless.  Usagi almost wished the girl would turn out badly, merely to tarnish Tomoe's aura of perfection, and to give her the tool to oust her once and for all.  But Usagi knew that was both unworthy and beneath her.  If Tomoe ever truly became a problem, there were ways to deal with her.  Usagi was the leader because she was the strongest, the most capable and had received the greatest blessings, and even Tomoe knew that.

      The girl laid her hand on the stone, "I'm ready."  She squeezed her eyes shut.

      "You're right-handed, aren't you?" Usagi asked, silently urging Tomoe to have a little patience.

      "Yes, of course!"

      "Left hand," Usagi said.

      The girl embarrassedly switched hands.  Tomoe grinned, this was her favorite part.

      "Ia!  Ia!  In Shub-Niggurath Sho'mat Intigua!  Ia!  Ia! Inacta Per Sonen!"

      The girls rarely saw or felt the knife.  Usagi believed in mercy for those who truly believed.

      Shinji bumped into Rei-chan again, he apologized, she smiled.  They returned to work.  Asuka would skin them alive if they didn't get this food ready, or if they were late, or if they didn't bring Misato and Hiro or . . .

      "Rei-chan, no matter what we do, Asuka will be mad, right?" Shinji thought he was on the brink of a true epiphany, a revelation that would shake the very foundations of his worldview.


      He suddenly felt the tension drain out of him.  "If she'll be mad no matter what, then we're doing this for the others, not for her, right?"

      "Of course," Rei-chan said, stared at him, then she smiled for a whole second and went back to work.  Shinji wondered why Rei-chan had come here to cook, Misato's kitchen was kinda of crowded, amply proven when Rei-chan brushed into him again.  However, he wasn't going to send her away, he'd seen her kitchen.

      He shrugged, and continued to work, they had to have this all done by the time Hiro made it here.  Shinji still didn't know who was, or how they were, going to wake Misato.

      Toji glanced into the kitchen, where Natsumi, Yumi' and Hikari were all chattering away like long-lost sisters, his feeling of doom had increased after they chased him out and started talking, and giggling.  Yumi' had known him and Kensuke longer than Natsumi and Hikari had, that made him feel even worse.  So he sat with Kensuke at the dining room table, and did whatever menial task they assigned them.  He prayed nobody mentioned his piloting an EVA.  He'd never survive if Kensuke found out about that.  For one thing, he'd never be able to explain why he NEVER wanted to do it again.

      "Why are we doing this?" Kensuke asked him.

      Toji sighed, "Because both Sour Kraut and ole' Shinji asked us," he told Kensuke.

      And because Sour Kraut, Ole' Shinji, and Ayanami-san told me if you and I didn't come, they'd tell you all about me piloting an EVA, Toji thought morosely, he was doomed, he knew it.  It was only a matter of time.

      "You want to tell Sour Kraut 'no'?" Toji asked.

      Kensuke paled, shook his head and went back to making mochi.

      I'm doomed, Toji thought again.

      "No, 'Suke, not like that."  Toji stood to show him again how to wrap the things correctly.

      "It rises from the grave!" Sammi announced as Asuka slouched into the dining room.

      Asuka felt logy, she'd fallen asleep in the tub and they'd left her in there.  She felt like a walking prune.  She growled at Sammi and Horseface, and dropped into a chair.  "Thank you for cooking," she managed before she put her head on the table.  She wanted nothing else more than more sleep, which she couldn't have.

      "Megorofeld-chan is too kind," Sammi said.

      "Misato, can't you pick one mispronunciation and stick with it?" Asuka mumbled, "Okay, what does that mean?"

      "Mein liebling Grosse Feldmarschall," Sammi told her. [My sweetie Grand Field Marshall]

      Asuka growled, "I should thank you.  Living with you two, and not murdering you in your beds, if that doesn't get me into Heaven, nothing will."

      "Well, it could also mean you're in Hell right now, or the Purgatory rapid processing center," Sammi suggested happily.

      "Horseface?"  Asuka turned her attention to the other inhabitant of the room.  "Aren't you going to say something stupid too?  It's your turn."

      "Ah, you look nice," Horseface told her.

      Why does God hate me? Asuka put her head back down on the table.

      The girls all wore gloves, ladies wore gloves after all.  Tomoe led the slightly stunned new member into the tea room to meet the other girls.  Usagi smiled as she saw the other girl clenching and unclenching her left hand.  This was natural, everybody did it, Usagi herself had.  Tomoe had even cried, until the ritual was over.  Usagi shook her head, nothing was lost, everything was gained.  She didn't know how many times she'd have to repeat herself before people started to believe her.

      The socializing would continue for an hour, Usagi's mother wouldn't mind, she didn't mind much of what her beloved daughter and her charming friends did.  After all, she was so proud of her little girl.  'Such a leader would certainly find a powerful husband.'  Usagi left the silly woman a few of her illusions, she did owe her mother some kindness.

      After the socializing was done, the executive committee had some real business to attend to.  Usagi watched the new girl, she'd have to learn her name eventually, but only those likely to advance were of any real interest to her anymore.  It wasn't as if anyone else really mattered anyway.

      "This is a disaster!" Harumi-the-beautiful-pig-face announced in her nasal voice, which was not at all pretty, always the theatrical complainer, shaking the knickknacks on their shelves, "Some of these . . . people - will never be up to our standard, and we're going to be flooded with them!"

      Usagi simply glanced around the western-style parlor, watching the lines of battle being drawn, before she moved in.

      "Eighty-five is hardly 'flooded'," that was Tomoe, always ready to placate and start a fight, usually both simultaneously.

      "Some of them are 3rd years, like us," Yuki commented, "Isn't that a cause for alarm?"  Yuki was as cold as her snowy name, and her white hair, even Usagi didn't know if it was a affectation or natural.  She did envy the girl her figure, it would be years before she filled out that way, Yuki could pass as eighteen, if she wanted, and she had on occasion.

      "What, you believe the rumors that they actually ran their school?" Tomoe asked and laughed.  How such a graceless boor could have such a delicate laugh always amazed Usagi.  "They were figureheads for this Tendo Nabiki, and she's going to be gone for another month at least," Tomoe explained, "They'll know their place by the time she gets back.  If she wants to be part of our organization, she can come to us."

      "Don't assume she will be a problem," Usagi added, "She may be reasonable."

      "She's a pilot!" Yuki said, as if it had a bad taste.

      "We all know what that means!" Harumi raised her voice along with the level of panic in the room, and shook the plaster, "There are rumors that she had other at her school killed!  Others like US!"

      "Because they were interfering with NERV," Usagi's voice cut through the babble, "What an advantage, if we could bring them into the fold."

      "Ask a pilot to join . . . us?" Harumi sounded like she'd give herself a stroke, or was trying to shatter all the glass in the room.

      "Why not?" Usagi asked, "Surely the pilots must have likely candidates, someone who wants to make a difference, someone who wants to master her own future."

      "It's too dangerous," Harumi insisted, in a whisper this time.  Yuki nodded, along with five other girls.  Tomoe looked neutral, as did the other three members.  Usagi was alone.

      Usagi was also the leader.  "Tomoe, scout them out.  Find one, the most likely.  If we can have one in our pocket, the rest will be neutralized."

      The others looked at each other, they had their orders, now they would have to act.  There was other business to take care of.

      "What of the potential new recruits?" Usagi asked, "I take it you all have candidates to propose from the new crop of students."

      The clamoring for this or that girl began.  Usagi leaned back, sipped her tea and let the others argue about minor details.  It let them believe they were contributing.

Women and Wine Should Life Employ

      "Incoming," Asuka told Horseface as a familiar figure streaked across the ball park calling his name.  She managed to pull the tray of rolls out of his hands before Mirei slammed into him and practically knocked him over.

      "You came, you came, you really came!" the girl hadn't crushed the life out of Horseface the way Ice Princess had.  Instead she took his hands, backed away a pace, and danced around him.

      "Careful," Asuka warned, "Don't turn it into a rain dance."

      "Don't mind her," Horseface said, "She hasn't beaten anything up lately, so she's out of sorts."

      "Horseface why don't you go and help Mirei and her mom unload?" Asuka suggested, she was almost at the picnic tables, she could get help from the other girls there to set out what she had brought.  The quantity of food available impressed her, she hoped the quality was up to her, Spineless's and Hikari's standards.

      "Don't you need my - " Horseface held up his hands.  "Right 'When you need my help you'll be a week dead'."

      "A month Horseface, a month, go."

      She watched the pair head off.  The girls at the tables all stood, bowed to her.  She stifled the urge to tell them to knock it off.  "I've got more stuff in the jeep."  Her eyes fell on two guys, big and dumb enough they could be NERV security.  "You and you, come with me."  When they didn't move she decided to be merciful and assume they weren't really being insolent.  "I need help with some lifting, you two boys look healthy, you will help me."  She spotted Wondergirl arriving from the other direction with Spineless.  "Or else."

      The one with the glasses scoffed, "Or else what?"

      Asuka nodded to Wondergirl, who picked the boy up over her head, then set him down, hard.

      "Let us all just enjoy the day, without dwelling on 'or else', agreed?" she asked, smiled.  She had their enthusiastic cooperation.  She knew that leaving the girls with Wondergirl and Spineless wasn't precisely fair, but she figured Tomiyo and that little demonstration could keep them out of trouble for a little while.  She also didn't want her stomach doing flip flops as Spineless met his fanclub.

      Rei was confused and a little frightened.  This girl closed in on Shinji-kun and began telling him how happy she was that he could come, even as he took a step back.  Tomiyo-san took no action at this near-assault.  Rei was even more frightened when this Megumi dragged her to meet all the others in their group, introducing them by name and what position they played on their softball team.  Rei decided an experiment was in order, to disrupt the fear she and Shinji-kun felt on being completely and closely surrounded, she hoped Megumi's English was good.

      "This is Sora, she plays First Base," Megumi said.

      "Who," Rei replied.

      "What?" Megumi said.

      "What is on Second, you said she played First."

      "Yes, Sora here plays First."


      "Sora here."

      "Who is on First," Rei replied.

      The mousy girl started giggling, she pointed at her friend, "I'll tell you who's pitching."

      "Who is playing First," Rei reiterated.  Megumi seemed completely lost.

      "Who's in the outfield?" Shinji-kun asked.

      "Who is playing First," her giggles spoiled Sora's frustrated shout.

      "What's the name of your outfielder?"

      "What is playing Second," Sora told them.

      "Who's playing Second?" Shinji-kun asked, feigning his own confusion.  Megumi kept looking at the trio as if they'd completely lost their minds.  The others had also drawn back, Rei wondered if it was more from the change in the initially mousy Sora, or the odd conversation.

      "Who is playing First!" Sora shouted, flapping her arms.

      "Just tell me the name of the Left Fielder," Rei said.

      "Why," Sora said.

      "Because," Rei replied.

      "She's the Center Fielder."

      "Sora!"  Megumi seemed alarmed by all of this, "What's gotten into you?"

      "What is on Second," Sora said desperately, "I'm playing first!"

      "Who is on Second?" Megumi asked.

      "Who is on First," Rei and Sora shouted at her.

      "I don't know," Shinji-kun supplied.

      "Third Base!" all three shouted.  Megumi started backing up, very carefully, with a wild-eyed expression.

      "I think I'll go help Miss Langley," Megumi managed before she turned and ran away.

      "I haven't heard that routine since before the war," Sora said, laughing slightly, "It was how I memorized the positions."

      "There is no right field position," Rei reminded her.

      "I'm glad you invited us, and I should thank Langley-san for the new equipment we will be able to purchase.  I also think we'd better explain it to Captain Megumi," she said.

      Rei and Shinji-kun followed the girl to the jeep.  "We call her, Megorofeld-chan," Shinji-kun told her.

      "You pilots have pet names for each other, that's so neat," Sora told them.

      Rei considered that, `pet` connotated affection, she wondered how much of the names 'Mein Grosse Feldmarschall' were affection and how much were something else.

      Tomoe was getting worried, "Would you look at them?"  She pointed to the crowd that was assembling outside the left foul line.

      "All we're doing is playing softball," Usagi told her, "We have nothing to worry about."  She looked over the girls assembling and practicing before the game proper.

      "But can't you feel them?" Tomoe hissed.

      While it did Usagi's heart good that the normally implacable Tomoe was acting more like a frightened rabbit, she had to calm the girl down.  "They have been around us before and felt nothing amiss.  The detection goes only one way.  We feel them, they do not feel us.  If that wasn't true, they would have acted before now."

      Tomoe nodded and returned to the batting practice, giving pointers to the new girls.  Including one who kept looking at the assembled group as intently as Tomoe had.  Usagi filed this information away and continued with the warm-ups.  For the first few games, she'd have to decide which girls were on which teams.  Her team would of course win the tournament, but there was no need to be blatant about it, and lacking skilled opponents dulled the instincts and competitive edge they all needed.  Better that they fought it out here, rather than in the council chambers or at the worship services.

      She picked out four of the pilots easily enough, each had a coterie.  What disturbed her was that she was getting nine `readings` two of the pilots were supposed to be out of the country, which left five.  Who were the others?

      She put that mystery aside.  She had weeks before school started again to solve it.  The simplest answer was that there were other pilots who didn't know they were.

Many Companions for Food and Drink

      Asuka watched her plan unfold to perfection.  Misato arrived with Hiro on her arm.  Misato saw Kaji arrive and immediately snuggled up against Hiro, smiling at Kaji.  Asuka only smiled at him too.  She had work to do.  She wondered if Yumi really thought she was well hidden in the forest, spying on Curly and Hikari.  Natsumi had brought the third stooge, Kensuke, with her, dragooning them to help was easy.  The two burly college students were very compliant after Wondergirl's little demonstration.

      Asuka glanced up, not a cloud in the sky, so Horseface ought to stay dry and male the whole day, she'd explained about staying away from the drink dispensers.  Most of the rest of the food wasn't wet enough to trigger his change.  Wondergirl had already managed to weird out Megumi, which was fine.  If Megumi got too affectionate with Spineless, Wondergirl might take offense.  Asuka doubted Wondergirl could just tell the girl to leave him alone.  Asuka didn't want to get a good look at a jealous Wondergirl, there were things man wasn't meant to know.

      Ah, here comes Belldandy and Dishwater, Asuka thought as she hurried over to greet them.  Their harried expression's source also came into view.  A twelve-year-old girl, who was yammering at them nonstop, even the boy with her seemed less than enchanted by it.

      "Ah, Belldandy!" Asuka said chirpily, "You look so young to be a mother!  What's your daughter's name?"  Asuka grinned like a politician at the girls, both of whom looked like they'd just eaten a large amount of Misato's cooking.

      "I'm not a kid," the youngster announced, Dishwater tried to placate her, unsuccessfully.  She stuck her tongue out at him, which gave Asuka her opening.  She used to hate when her uncle did this, but it taught her to quit sticking her tongue where greasy-fingered old men could grab it.

      "Please lower your voice," Asuka said reasonably to the girl who was shocked that someone had actually laid hands on her person.

      I should have smeared something unpleasant on my fingers first, Asuka lamented her lack of planning.

      "Your sister and her boyfriend just want a quiet day in the park, I'm sure you'll find someone closer to your own age or maturity to talk to, so you don't have to spend time with them," Asuka said quietly and firmly, "If you don't want to behave as an adult, then we cannot very well treat you as one, correct?"

      "Crrct," the girl managed, still shocked at Asuka's effrontery.  Glancing at her captured tongue, then at Asuka.

      Asuka released her, she knew the girl was plotting some 'Dire Revenge!'.  When I have to worry about some twelve-year-old kid, Asuka thought, I'll be ready for them to put me in a hole and throw dirt on me.

      "You build things?" Asuka asked Dishwater.

      "Yeah, It's kind - " he said nervously, as if Asuka would hit him for the wrong answer.

      "Good, excellent," Asuka said as she dragged him along, "If you can, maybe you can explain that after you take something apart, there are ways to put it back together."  Asuka headed for Spineless and Wondergirl, she figured you put the quiet ones together, and everyone else would leave them alone, and she could see to that.

      "Keiichi," Belldandy called.

      The change that came over Wondergirl amazed Asuka.  So there is someone Wondergirl doesn't like, she thought then glanced at Wondergirl's target, Belldandy, Well, what do you know?  Little Miss Happy doesn't like Wondergirl either.  Well, I'll let Wondergirl and Dishwater talk.

      "Don't worry she won't eat him," Asuka said, then turned on Dishwater, "You aren't a vegetable, are you?"

      "Nn - No!" he insisted shakily as she released him.

      "Then you're safe, Wondergirl, he's an engineer, they aren't good to eat.  If you have to nibble, that's what Spineless is for, he'll enjoy it."

      Asuka wasn't sure which one of the four blushed more.  Asuka dragged Belldandy after her, "I need your help getting Megumi out of a tree."

      "What?" Belldandy asked.

      "What's playing on Second," Asuka said, saw the incomprehension, "Don't worry, I'll explain it on the way, I just - "

      'Kaji, Darling!' sounded across the park, Asuka flinched as if hit on the head with a stick.

      "My sister," Belldandy explained.  The white-haired, darker-skinned woman had latched onto Kaji, who didn't seem to be having any problem with this new arrival draping herself over him.  The woman wore a little more than Misato usually did, but her costume managed to show more.

      Asuka glanced around to take inventory, or damage reports, as the case might be.  Misato and Hiro, if anything, Misato seems more interested in Hiro than before and he's paying attention to her, that is good.  Hikari looks ready to belt Curly for staring, not good, Asuka thought as she looked around, Spineless and Wondergirl are talking with Dishwater.  Belldandy's mouthy sister and her date are with Horseface, she looks bored, that really breaks my heart.  Natsumi and - Kensuke - where are those two?  They can't have sneaked off into the bushes . . . or did they?

      "Have you ever considered becoming an only child?" Asuka asked.

      "No," Belldandy didn't seem to get the joke.

      Great another Wondergirl, Asuka thought as she tried to spot Megumi.

      Belldandy was very nervous.  Keiichi and Megumi seemed to be having a wonderful time talking to - that girl.  Asuka had been displaced from her place as host by the arrival of Admiral Simson, his wife and several other couples.  The Admiral had revealed that - that girl - had invited them so ''Megorofeld-chan' could enjoy herself talking with other technical people'.

      Belldandy thought the only one more shocked by - that girl's - behavior had been Asuka herself.  The Navy people had brought tubs of ice and bottles of cola.  The wives circulated providing drinks and making sure everyone had food.  The men had set up a charcoal grill downwind of the group, and were grilling steaks and fish.  The smell sharpened everyones' appetite.

      She looked at Keiichi, and even Skuld was starting to enter into the conversations about building things, materials, methods of joining them, and so on.  At the moment they were arguing welding versus riveting.  That girl - sat quietly, absorbing it all, as her kind always did, watching, examining, analyzing everything.  Occasionally she would ask a question, and the conversation would head off on another path.

      Belldandy sighed, Sentaro, Skuld's friend was with Ranma, Tamiya, Ootaki, and Ranma's guard, Sammi.  That was something else she couldn't believe.  Why did NERV tolerate such a creature among them?  Yet all the pilots seemed to care for her, and she cared right back.  Belldandy was confused, the pilot who had confronted her had to know, the Admiral in charge of the American oversight of NERV was familiar enough they could invite him to a picnic.  Surely someone had said something!

      "Belldandy," Keiichi called and waved to her, "Asuka-san just had a good idea.  She suggested you could teach, Rei-san to cook, they have a big kitchen at Asuka-san's home.  You could take Sora-san, and give her the lesson's you've been talking about."

      Everyone was chattering about what a splendid solution this was.  Belldandy noted that there were only two who seemed terrified by this idea, herself, and - that girl.

      Belldandy stared at Keiichi, who was silently urging her to accept.  She saw - that girl's - paramour urging her to do the same, with much the same expression.

      "You can let Horseface chaperone," Asuka added.

      "Hey I know how to cook!" Ranma approached.

      "Yeah, but it's boring!  You need to learn how to spice things up without becoming . . . " Asuka pointed at Misato-san.

      "Hey, my cooking's not that bad!" Misato shouted from where she and Hiro were sitting.

      "Her cooking - " Asuka whispered to the group.

      "MISS LANGLEY!" Admiral Simson said sternly, marching over wearing a furious expression, "That - is - a - military secret!"  Somehow the apron and chef's hat reduced the effectiveness of any threat.

      Asuka hid her smile while she cowered and nodded, "I apologize, Admiral.  I lost my head."

      "Don't give me any ideas!" the Admiral turned and returned to the grill.  Ignoring the giggling and laughter following him.

      "Please, Asuka-chan, please, don't challenge her to a contest!" Asuka's friend Hikari was bowing low, "I don't know how you survived your last, and only defeat."

      "Don't look at me," Toji added, "Raccoon said he'd make my sister into soup if I talked."

      "He said he'd make you 'eat cream of sister soup'," that girl corrected.

      "This I have to hear!" Megumi said, supported by a dozen of the others.

      "Well, Wondergirl, you want to tell it, or should I?" Asuka asked.

      "Mein Grosse Feldmarschall is too kind," that girl told Asuka, who looked sour.

      Usagi glanced over at the knot of the pilots and their hangers on.  They were all finally distracted, now she could test their reaction.  She was glad Yuki was coming up to bat, the girl was one of the best hitters, not a powerhouse like Tomoe, but a sniper.  Yuki caught Usagi's look, she knew not to take advantage of the pitch Usagi was throwing.  It was a pitch most ball players dream of getting, and Yuki had to taint the hit with magic and bat it foul.

      She hit the ball exactly where it had to go and put the force of a cannonball behind it.  In a few seconds, they'd know what the powers of the pilots were like.  Usagi turned as fast as she could so she could watch.

      The air had suddenly taken on a foul taste to Belldandy.  It took her a moment to realize it wasn't any of their group.  Then she saw the ball.  She wasn't sure who it would hit, but the group was so tightly packed it would probably hit several of them, injuring them severely.  She was stricken with a moment's indecision, if she revealed who and what she was in front of all these witnesses . . .

      As she reached her decision to act, the others were already taking action.  Sammi was running to intercept it, shouting a warning.  Ranma was moving as well.  A field of shifting phase space, invisible to the mortal eye, formed in front of the group.  The barrier solidified.  Belldandy felt the strength of it, even artillery wouldn't penetrate that barrier.

      She watched Ranma grab the upper edge of the barrier to vault over it.  He clipped someone's drink on the way out.  Belldandy watched him change to her, even as she caught the projectile and hurled it back onto the field.  Ranma continued his/her retreat from the scene.  Asuka and the other girl pilot charged after the now girl, through the vanishing barrier.  That girl made a considerably greater turn of speed than Asuka.  Sammi followed in their wake.  The guards had dropped their genial attitude as they took up stations near their charges.  Erin was racing after Asuka, Tomiyo moved implacably next to Shinji.

      Usagi and several others were running towards them, they slowed as they approached.  "Is everyone all right?!" she asked, her voice filled with concern, "We're so sorry, we just . . . "  She saw further words were useless.  She and the others wisely backed away.

      Belldandy noted the change of the entire NERV group.  They had been laughing and happy only moments earlier.  Now they were alert and on edge, even Ootaki and Tamiya were silent, watching, not daring to move.  Belldandy thought moving, or even speaking was a poor idea.  She glanced at Skuld who seemed frightened, then at Urd, her chosen date was ignoring her, he was intent on scanning his surroundings.  Belldandy glanced around, she realized the other thing that was bothering her, a few of the NERV and Navy people were looking in the direction of the ball players or where Ranma had disappeared into the trees.  The rest were looking everywhere else.  Even the sky didn't escape a close inspection.  There was danger, and they were expecting more.  For a few minutes no one spoke, the NERV and Navy people kept looking around.  Even Shinji, `Spineless` as Asuka called him, looked ready for a fight.

      The entire atmosphere had changed.  The children who had been so happy that others could accept them and their associates, were suddenly what they truly were: soldiers.  It saddened her that it had happened, she wished she could have prevented it, she liked seeing Keiichi and his friends enjoying themselves, now they were slightly terrified.

      Everyone relaxed some as Ranma reappeared, back as a male, the bandaging on his head was extensive, and there was a great deal of blood on it.  Belldandy realized that none of it was his.  He leaned heavily on Asuka and that girl, the two of them looked like they'd methodically kill anything that got close to their charge.  Sammi, his guard, loomed behind them, like an angry thunderhead.

      Or thunder god, Belldandy mentally amended.

      Mirei had walked away from the other players when Usagi returned.  She approached Ranma carefully, bowed slightly to his protectors.  "Is he all right?  I'm sure . . . "

      "Head wounds bleed a great deal," that girl told Mirei as they approached.

      "Considering he had enough to turn his hair red . . . " Asuka said, fixed on one of the Navy personnel, "Dr. Chambers."

      "Let me get my bag from the car," the man replied, "Sit him down, keep him warm."

      "I'm fine!" Ranma insisted.  Belldandy suspected that was the truth, his transformation was a secret, they were covering for it.

      "Then why didn't you remember you're allowed to use your hands in softball," Asuka said angrily, "This isn't football."

      Megumi had one of the blankets some of the girls had been sitting on.  She walked carefully, handing it to Asuka and the other girl, then she retreated out of range as Asuka and that girl wrapped it around Ranma.

      The mood was broken, Belldandy felt the people around her.  There was a watchful waiting as Dr. Chambers returned, performed a few minor tests and pronounced Ranma fit.  Although he should return home to rest.

      "I don't want to ruin the day," he protested weakly, then looked at his three stern escorts.  "Well, if I have to sit around, at least Ranko can take my place."  He turned to Mirei, "You won't mind will you?"

      "No," the girl replied, "Be well."  With that Sammi picked Ranma up easily and walked to her car, Dr. Chambers following along.

Few Companions For Serious Business

      Rei caught `Megorofeld`'s sleeve and glanced at Admiral Simson.  She was having some difficulty thinking of her with the new appellation, she had been the Second because she was, she was Mein Grosse Feldmarschall, because Mein Grosse Sergeant, while more accurate, didn't contain the gentle sting of Mein Grosse Feldmarschall's names for the others.  This new name was merely a random label, it didn't feel right.  Mein Grosse Feldmarschall didn't nod, she just headed in that direction.  Rei felt the stares of the three on her the entire time.  She didn't care, she'd felt something before the ball, and they hadn't.

      "The ball was aimed," Rei quietly said to the Admiral without preamble.

      "Anyone else I'd ask if they were sure," Admiral Simson seemed to be concentrating on the grilling steaks, "By whom?"

      "I do not know," Rei told him truthfully.  She doubted any of the three would have done it.  If she thought they had, she would have denounced them, and they would have the EVAs to deal with.  Shinji-kun or Keiichi had been the primary target, after that it would have been random chance.  The Fourth had complained about how hard the blow had been.  She knew his blows could penetrate plate steel or concrete.  For him to call a blow 'hard' would make it the equivalent of a cannon round.

      "Horseface may laugh it off," Mein Grosse Feldmarschall said, "But catching that ball hurt him.  No way a batted softball could do that."

      "Intentional?" Simson asked.

      "No way of finding out," Mein Grosse Feldmarschall said, "Short of interrogating the whole team and assuming whoever used them didn't cover their tracks."

      "Let me worry about that," Simson said.  He looked at the two girls.  "Anything else?"

      "I have no other comments," Rei said, the smell of cooking meat was beginning to nauseate her.

      "Me neither."

      "Do we go or stay?" Simson asked.  Rei knew this was a test.

      Rei considered, she had been enjoying herself, "Remaining where an attack occurred is foolish."  She noted that Mein Grosse Feldmarschall and Admiral Simson shared a smile.

      "I'll stay behind with some of the Navy folks," Simson said, "I don't want these steaks to go to waste, but I think you pilots need to get to safety."

      Rei agreed with the logic.  She wished it were different, but with the two alternates unavailable, they couldn't afford the loss of even a single pilot for any length of time.

      Belldandy watched the various groups pack up and leave.  The pilots and their guards left first, leaving behind everything except their immediate personal possessions.  The NERV personnel and their friends left next, taking what the pilots had left.

      "It's not fair," Megumi commented as the junior high team packed up and left.

      Belldandy agreed.  She suspected the NERV pilots had realized the truth and were fleeing.

      "We can meet them again later," Belldandy told her.  The Navy people cooked the last of the food they had brought, and withdrew.  There were many leftovers, but most of the participants had lost their appetites.

      Belldandy waited with Keiichi, Megumi and Urd.  Skuld and Sentaro had left on their bicycles a few minutes earlier.

      "That's not the point," Megumi replied, "One batted ball and they have to leave."

      "It was aimed," Urd told her, she sounded angry, "Right at Keiichi or Shinji."

      Megumi opened her mouth to protest, then shut it.  There were a lot of stories about the pilots and the creatures they faced.  Belldandy suspected that Megumi was assuming that one of those monsters had made itself known.

      "It's still not fair," Megumi said angrily as she surveyed the food left behind, she'd divide it up among the girls.  Nobody felt like playing their regular Sunday game, not after what happened.

      "I told you they'd flee," Usagi told the others of the committee as they reassembled outside where they kept their sporting equipment in the school's gymnasium.

      "Cowards."  Tomoe had gotten it wrong again, while she stacked the bats in the closet.

      "They didn't know where the attack came from," Yuki warned, "They knew it was more than an errant fly ball."

      "And what happened after?" Usagi asked.  The others didn't seem to know.  Saotome's hair had changed color, and he'd run off.  He'd caught the ball and thrown it back, so the idea he'd been bleeding didn't wash.  It was another thing to investigate.

      "Their guards are pathetic, none of them noticed anything," Harumi announced.

      Usagi glanced at Tomoe, who nodded perhaps a millimeter.  If Harumi was happy, she'd gotten something wrong.

      "So do we keep testing them?" Yuki asked.

      "Of course," Usagi told the others, "Until school starts.  Then we can adjust things.  We also have seen their inner circle and can concentrate on them.  If we break them, we can have our pick of which we want, if any."

      There were concerned murmurs again, but Usagi was more interested in the speed with which Saotome and his guard moved, and what had Saotome pulled himself over.  She hadn't determined where the other targets were.  Her sense of nine targets hadn't diminished, and the NERV people and the others left in a clump, so she couldn't determine who were the individual targets.  Some had remained after NERV and the Navy left, so perhaps some of the college-aged were potential pilots as well.  She decided she didn't need that complication yet, so she shelved any plan she might have to involve them.

      "All is going as is necessary," Usagi announced to calm the growing tumult, "All praise our Beneficent Lord."

      'Ia!  Ia!  In Shub-Niggurath Sho'mat Intigua!  Ia!  Ia! Inacta Per Sonen!' was dutifully intoned by all.  But she knew time would tell.

      Shinji was dreading the rest of the day.  Kaji had decided to accompany them back to Misato's place.  He couldn't figure out why Misato hadn't said no.  Tomiyo had set Shinji in the front passenger seat, then sat between Hiro and Kaji.  Shinji thought the man deserved a medal.  If Kaji thought his intense questioning of Hiro, in that snide tone, was making points with Misato, he should have paid attention to the way her driving deteriorated as the drive home continued.  Shinji wasn't sure if his knuckles were whiter than Misato's.  He knew enough not to say anything to her while she was in this kind of mood.

      The walk from the garage to Misato's apartment was a moment of peace, which would be over too soon.

      "So, what did you do during the war?" Kaji sounded like Asuka, when she was setting you up.  Misato helped herself to a beer, as an afterthought she took a second can.  Shinji didn't know why she frowned so much at the can opener.

      "I was in radio-intercept," Hiro said as he stood at the dining room table, holding the chair out for Misato.

      "That sounds really dangerous," Kaji said, taking a chair, until Misato's under the table kick knocked it out from under him.

      "You should really be more careful," Misato said to the man sitting on the floor.

      Shinji glanced at Tomiyo.  They both would remain standing, in the kitchen.

      "It was, when the Chindits found us," Hiro said without ceremony, as he sat opposite Misato.

      "British jungle troops," Tomiyo explained to Shinji.

      Shinji nodded.  "Hiro-san, is that when . . . uh . . . "

      Hiro smiled, the scar accentuating it.  "When I got my permanently sunny disposition?" he chuckled at Shinji's answering smile, "No, I had an encounter with a Gurkha, several actually."

      "Why didn't you just shoot him?" Kaji asked, smiling all the time.

      "I noticed that Tomiyo and the other guards carry .45 autos, if I had . . . " Hiro said, "The Nambu doesn't do it.  I did shoot him, he died of the gunshot.  That's why I have this, instead of a place at the Yasukuni Shrine.  However, he didn't die immediately.  I heard you were in Berlin most of the war.  Very dangerous posting."

      You've been asking for it, Shinji thought, he'd seen this kind of contest earlier, when Ranma had been challenging Asuka and Raccoon.  One of them would set him up, the other would knock him out of the park.

      "There were dangers," Kaji said, a touch defensively.

      "Yes, I'm sure," Hiro said, "Air raids, advancing Russian troops, very dangerous.  Fighter-bombers, naval gunfire, tropical disease, bad water, they can't really compare."

      Shinji caught Misato smiling behind her can of beer.

      "I'll take the perils of Berlin nightlife over running into angry Gurkhas," Tomiyo said.

      "I thought martial artists were brave, fearless even," Hiro said with mock shock.

      "Where is it written that martial artists have to be stupid, blind to the obvious, or otherwise intellectually impaired?" Tomiyo asked.

      "Wasn't that on the walls of the Shaolin Temple?" Kaji quipped.

      "That's why they knocked it down," Tomiyo said, "Kempo gives a balance, its practitioners are calm, self-possessed."

      "So you can't be overly emotional, no crybabies or maniacs or sex-fiends?" Kaji teased.

      "Any member of my school like that, I'd throw them out," Tomiyo said, "Probably through a garbage grinder."  Tomiyo smiled.  "Miss Tendo and Saotome-san are good examples of the student my art attracts."

      Kaji-san, Shinji thought, Now they'll be working together.  Shinji glanced at Penpen who stared back.  Shinji had the feeling the battle was going to go on for a while.  He'd seen his fellow pilots do this, but they were smart enough to give up a bad situation, he had a feeling the 'adults' weren't.

      Ranko heard Asuka walking towards the apartment, she wondered what Asuka's attitude would be when the door opened.

      "Sorry, we canceled," Asuka said, "Security concerns, I made your apologies to Mirei."  She stared at him.  "Did I forget something Horseface, like my face?"

      Ill-concealed anger, Ranko thought, At who?

      "I need your help with an experiment," Ranko said to Asuka.

      Good, that's got her attention, she thought.

      "Experiment, you?" Asuka said, "This I have to hear.  What's the experiment?"

      "Back in April, Nab-chan tried to give me a wash and trim - "

      "Your hair exploded," Asuka interrupted, "And you want to really ruin the rest of today.  Thank, Horseface, you don't know how wonderful that makes me feel."

      "There was something in my pigtail, it controlled the effect," Ranko doggedly continued her explanation, "I wanted to know if Ranko has the same effect.  I figured with you and Sammi, you'd figure out a safe way to do this."

      Asuka sighed.  That worried Ranko, Asuka looked extremely tired for a moment, but she looked up with determination.  "I think we can use the staircase as a target."  She glanced over to Sammi.  "We should also have some hot water, so we can see if the effect on Ranma continues."

      Sammi nodded.

      "But I want to wash up first, and get some clean clothes," Asuka told them as she headed off.

      Once Asuka had closed the door to her room, Ranko turned to Sammi.  "I think she's really feeling bad about . . . about things falling apart."

      "She's been trying too hard," Sammi replied, "It all worked, it just didn't work perfectly."

      "If I hadn't changed," Ranko said.  She couldn't get the image of Rei, slicing her own palm to provide the blood for the bandage, out of her mind.  Rei didn't wince or cry out, she just did it without anyone asking.  Rei saw the need and did it.

      "You did nothing wrong," Sammi assured her.  "Would you have preferred having that ball really clobber one of the others?"

      "No, of course not!" Ranko quietly told her, "I just wish it hadn't screwed up her plan."

      "I think she'll survive," Sammi replied.

      "She'll survive, I'm the one who messed things up.  If I'd watched what was in the way . . . "

      "The only one blaming you is you, Horseface," Asuka said as she marched out of her room, she had a small bin with combs, brushes and several shampoos in it.  "If we're going to do this, we're going to do this."

      Ranko wasn't sure which worried her more, that Asuka was being sort of nice, or that if she refused, she'd be facing an angry Asuka.  She simply gave in and headed up the stairs.

Who Is Not Thursday's Child

      Shinji watched Tomiyo suddenly tense up, the man headed towards the glass doors of the patio.  Shinji glanced at the three `adults` still sniping at each other.  Misato had turned sideways so Kaji couldn't get at her legs with his feet.  Shinji wondered if she realized she was displaying them to Hiro, and he kept glancing at them.

      Shinji saw Tomiyo nodding at him, he slipped past the argument without being embroiled in it.  On the patio, Rei waited for him.  Tomiyo closed the door behind them, sealing away the growing sounds of bickering.

      Shinji was embarrassed by the way he could edit out Tomiyo's existence from his mind.  He shouldn't do that to people, but he couldn't talk with Rei-chan if someone was watching them, and Tomiyo had explained that he `really wasn't there.`  He understood Tomiyo was watching out for threats, not watching them.  It still didn't feel right.

      "Are you all right?" he noted how embarrassed she looked.

      "I am sorry her plans went awry," Rei-chan said softly.

      "We can try again later.  It's just one day."  He glanced out at the clouds rolling in.  "It would have started raining anyway."

      "Have you considered children?" Rei-chan asked.

      Shinji froze, he knew Rei-chan often jumped between points without touching the intervening thoughts, he'd have to discover what she meant.

      "You mean like at the orphanage, or having my own family?" he asked as he led her to the chairs on the patio.

      "Offspring of your own.  Is it critical they must be of your genetic heritage?" she asked.

      "I think I'm too young to be a father," Shinji said, "I have thought I wouldn't want to have children when we might die or lose the war.  But people still have children, despite those monsters."

      Rei-chan was twisting her skirt in her hands, Shinji had never seen her this nervous.

      "Do you want children?  You seem to like being with the children at the orphanage.  Real kids are a lot of work."  Shinji doubted that was the right thing to say, but he couldn't figure out what had disturbed Rei-chan.

      "I have considered it.  You are correct," she said sadly, "Until we end the war, concrete plans are unwise.  Still . . . "  She seemed to be searching for the words.  "Not considering the possibility seems a betrayal of any relationship."

      "I . . . I'll consider it," Shinji said.  He couldn't bring himself to ask if she wanted to have children with him, by birth or adoption.  It seemed too big a thought to have, until they knew they'd survive.

      "Thank you.  If you could ask the others, I would welcome their comments."  She stood up and headed for the door.

      "We can talk about it tomorrow," he offered as Tomiyo opened the door for her.  Shinji stood to follow her.

      "Thank you."  She removed her shoes and walked through the living room.  Misato and Kaji were staring at her.  "You have not considered children," she told them as she walked by.

      Kaji and Misato blushed furiously.  "I just met the lady," Hiro told Rei, who nodded as she put her shoes back on.

      "So, how do you like children?" Hiro asked Misato, "And don't talk about cooking."  Misato blushed even more.

      "I'm sure Shinji will get her trained," Tomiyo added as he followed Shinji towards the door.

      Shinji blushed, when he reached the door to the hallway outside, Rei-chan was gone.  Shinji wondered if she ran, once she was outside, or if she jumped over the edge and caught another railing on the way down.

      "Ready?" Asuka asked as she unwrapped the binding on Horseface's pigtail, with the possibly exploding hair dangling over the spiral staircase and the girl herself lying on the floor near the stairwell.  Asuka felt the sliver of something in Horseface's hair, she gripped it tightly, keeping it where it was.

      "I'm ready for whatever happens," Sammi crouched on the other side of the supine girl.

      "Horseface, don't move, don't panic," Asuka said as soothingly as she could, "We've got things under control."

      "Yeah, okay," Horseface didn't sound confident, but she didn't move either.

      Asuka moved the sliver out of the mass of hair.  She wouldn't tell Horseface exactly when it cleared, it was always possible that Horseface triggered the change herself.  The sliver came out, Asuka kept agitating the hair with her other hand.  She made sure she had a solid grip on the white sliver, "Okay, it's coming out.  I don't see any change."  She paused, looked for any change while she moved her hand through Horseface's hair.

      "Okay," Asuka said, "It's out."  She braced for any change, ready to thrust it back in.

      "I don't feel anything," Horseface sounded scared, she licked her lips and lay still.  She glanced at Asuka, then at Sammi.

      "Okay, Sammi."  Asuka looked at the other woman.  "The water."

      Sammi carefully, almost fearfully, put Horseface's hand in the mug of hot water.  Horseface changed, the hair went from red to black.  Asuka braced herself for any other changes.

      There was no other change.  Asuka sat back, let out a long breath.  She looked down at the item in her hand.  A small white sliver, she ran a finger over the rough surface.  It looked and felt almost like the vibrissa of a dragon.  "Here."  She handed it to Horseface.  "I don't think you have to worry about it any more."

      "Thanks, Asuka, I don't - " Horseface said.

      "Then don't say anything, Horseface."  She gestured to the tub she'd brought in earlier, "I was going to offer to give you a wash.  I'm afraid I'm too tired.  If you want, I'll do it tomorrow.  But not tonight."

      Horseface made a noise as he sat up, then fell silent.

      Asuka felt the tension drain out of her, leaving only exhaustion.  She headed downstairs to her room.  She hoped she'd get there before she fell asleep.

      "What did I do wrong?" Ranma asked Sammi as he sat there.  Asuka seemed too tired to be really angry with him.

      The woman smiled patted his head.  "You didn't do anything.  She was trying so hard.  She's just depressed, getting depressed is tiring.  And no you didn't do anything wrong catching that ball.  The alternative was letting someone get hurt, and even if it missed completely, we still would have packed up and left," she told him, "You want me to give you a wash and a trim?"

      Ranma considered, "When she said she'd do it tomorrow, did she mean she wanted to do it, or that she was hoping you'd do it tonight?"

      "I don't think she meant either," Sammi told him, "I think you're overthinking this.  I bet you never expected to be accused of that."  She was a little worried that he didn't respond.  She hugged him, wished she could do more, take away the pain the two pilots felt.  She released him quickly when Ranma didn't react.  "Are you okay?"

      "I guess I'm tired too," Ranma said quietly.  He stared at the item in his hand.  "Seems like a little thing to cause all these problems," he said as he walked down the stairs and to his room.

      Sammi when back to the kitchen, poured herself a cup of cold tea.  She felt the bitter liquid passing over her tongue without really tasting it.  She listened carefully as both of her charges washed up and went to bed.


      Sorry I haven't written, but I've been on a `secret` mission for the NERV command.  Incommunicado in Boston of all places.  According to the Security agents, you know about what I was working on, from two of the other pilots.  Be careful, you may find your big old friend isn't the newest and the best.

      Forgive me, but one of them might be mine, and I'll need every advantage I can get to catch up to my, sempai, is that the word?  You've got to teach them German, my Japanese will make me sound like some bubbly bimbo.  'Monster is too dangerous, running away now please.'

      'I'd hate to sounding like idiot like that.'

      Fortunately I was able to meet `Raccoon's` parents.  Harvard is even bigger than Berlin Polytechnical!  They speak German, it was so wonderful being able to argue with people about Goethe and Liszt, they were all wrong of course, but at least they were wrong in an intelligent sort of way.

      But nothing matches being back in Germany again!

      I actually got a leave, since my family is in the Soviet sector, I went down to your ancestral home in Rottweil and met with your grandmother.  She's still fit and healthy, and

      Asuka put the letter aside.  Carefully replacing it in the envelope, instead of tearing it into a thousand pieces.  She did it for two reasons, one it was the proper reaction for a 'well-brought up lady' as Omama's voice now teased her, and two, she knew if she shredded it, she would spend the next two weeks piecing it back together again. [Granny]

      She knew Anna hadn't meant anything bad about mentioning Rottweil and Asuka's grandmother, but sometimes she could be as accidentally dense as Horseface when it came to bringing up painful memories.

      Asuka remembered the old woman.  She'd never been beautiful, she was a relentless taskmaster, and aside from a ruthless mastery of chess, she wasn't very bright.  She was also going deaf, so she tended to assume since she couldn't hear herself, nobody else could hear her either.

      For all that, she was also the only one at her mother's funeral who didn't insist on saying something stupid to Asuka.  She'd stood there, holding Asuka's hand, not insisting she should cry or mouthing useless platitudes.  She was the only one who understood that Asuka thought the EVA accident killed her mother, not the suicide later.

      They'd walked and talked a lot the week before and after the funeral.  Asuka getting lessons on the proper technique to paint and plaster, and Omama would talk about der kleiner GlÜhwÜrmchen [the little firefly] her crazy son had brought into the house.  She wanted to be a scientist, she wanted to be a teacher.  And until grossmutter dragged her away from all the `intellectuals` tramping mud all over her parlor, and into the kitchen, where no one challenged 'der Grossmutter', did Omama finally get out that the woman wanted children too.  Then Omama could tolerate her little quirks, as long as she agreed to teach her children practical things.

      Asuka tried not to cry, as she remembered the lessons on astronomy and celestial navigation, the math drills, sometimes applied to running a household, all the thing Mutti and Omama thought a well-brought-up lady should know. [Mommy Granny]  Especially languages.  German, English, our Italian allies, our Japanese allies, 'she likes science': Latin, Greek, 'she wants to be a knight, let her read Don Quixote': Spanish, and others.

      Asuka slipped out of her inside shoes and crawled into bed, pulling the sheet and the blankets over her.  That was the other thing that had bothered her.  Ever since the fight with Cthugha, she'd been cold, not uncomfortably, but she noticed it.  Even standing out in the sun running around, she noticed the cold.  Until her confrontation with Ghroth, she'd ignored it as nerves.  Now she knew different, Anna's letter just drove it all home.  Anna, her friend and confidant here and in the Dreamlands . . . she could go home, she could go to Asuka's home.

      Asuka couldn't.  Not ever.

      There was no use crying about it.  If she kept piloting, she'd become a monster.  If she quit piloting, their enemies would destroy the world.  The irony of it was particularly bitter.  The whole world looked at Germany and Japan as monsters, despite the monstrous things the Allies, especially the Russians, did.  So she could continue protecting these - her - people and the world, and eventually live up to everyones' expectations.  Or she could quit, turn her back on everything she believed in, betray everyone and die as a human being, accused of being a coward until the world burned around her.

      There was no one to talk to about this.  Sammi hadn't and wouldn't understand, and might report it.  Horseface didn't understand the simplest philosophical questions.  Spineless . . . forget that, same with Wondergirl.  They either wouldn't understand, wouldn't be able to communicate answers, or become so frightened they'd be of no use for anything.

      So, when am I going to have to sleep on a pile of coins, like a dragon, for fear of setting my bedding on fire? Asuka wondered, Damn you Raccoon, you've always got the answers! she mentally cursed her old friend, When I need them . . . where are you?  Out of reach.

      Ranma was in his dream dojo, he wasn't sulking.  Ranma Saotome doesn't sulk.  He was just . . . Meditating, yeah, I'm meditating on the fragility of relationships.  Yeah, that's what I'm doing.  He didn't really believe it either.

      "If you're going to sulk, I'm not going to bother," the voice sounded like Asuka's, but a little older, maybe Misato's age.

      "Who are . . wait - the Meliorist, Asuka's dreamself," Ranma said.  She looked and sounded different than she had in his nightmare.  There she'd been armed and armored, so much so he'd almost thought of her as a walking suit of plate armor.  The young woman with the gentle tone, the simple dress, and hair in a bun, looked more like Asuka the Librarian than Asuka the Barbarian.

      "Well, I'm Asuka's identity in the Dreamlands," the Meliorist corrected.  She gestured with her hand.  "If you are going to use that pig sticker in dreams, with any style or grace, you're going to have to practice here too."

      "You're doing this because you feel sorry for me?" Ranma asked.

      "I wouldn't waste my time.  Your lover ran off.  It ever occur to you, you were thought of as a student first and foremost?"

      "Nabiki's not my lover!" Ranma shouted as he shot to his feet.

      "Who said 'Nabiki'?  I said 'your lover'."

      "Raccoon isn't my lover!" Ranma insisted, vaguely horrified by the suggestion, "We're guys!"  He shook his head when 'the other' implied that wasn't always true.  The last thing he needed was a rebellion inside his own head while he was in dreams.

      "Funny, I didn't say 'Raccoon' either.  You jumped to both conclusions on your own.  You need to learn to either keep your mouth shut, or actually tell those people how you feel.  Even if you don't know how you feel, tell them that."

      Ranma hung his head.

      "So, you want to sit here and mope, or you want to learn something?"

      "What could you - "  Ranma was flat on his back, the axe-bladed naginata against his throat, the woman in full battle armor.

      "Maybe you aren't worth my time.  What say I save you a very short life of disappointments, and have you banished from dreams forever?"

      "I'm not - AH!"  Ranma touched his neck, looked at the blood on his hand.  "You cut me!"

      "I nicked you," the Meliorist told him, "If you don't start paying attention, I'll nick something else."  She smiled at him.

      Ranma was both furious and frightened, he hadn't even seen her move and change when she knocked him down, and he'd barely seen her move when she cut him.  He knew the others could manipulate dreams to move faster than he could, but he could almost feel it when they did it.  He hadn't felt anything.

      The nick had quit bleeding, she let Ranma stand up.  "Okay, I guess you can teach me somethin'."

      "How gracious of you, letting me save your life.  I am truly honored."

      Ranma resented this treatment.  "What is your problem?!"

      "I have better things to do than deal with a little boy who thinks he can fight."

      "Hey!  I can fight."

      "You don't fight, except occasionally in the EVA, you call that jumping around 'fighting'?  That's dancing, it may look pretty, but anyone who could really use a sword or a rifle could take you apart.  And you live the rest of your life by the same stupid philosophy.  You dance around everything, trying to make sure it doesn't touch you, and when it does . . . you still try to act like it doesn't.  That's an effective way to hurt people, you really want to do that to your friends and family, your 'they-aren't-my-lovers-just-friends'?  A man, a real man, or a real woman for that matter, closes with life's problems and engages them."

      She pointed at the sword and scabbard on the floor.  "That metal thing isn't a meat cleaver, or a knife, or a club.  It's a sword, and you don't impress anyone.  Even ole' Spineless knows how easy it is to make you run away."

      Ranma felt his anger rising.  "You want to take me on."

      "Oh, I'm so scared," the woman sneered and returned to her Asuka the Librarian guise, "If you were any threat to me, you'd be dead.  You don't hit girls, remember?"  She turned around.  "Since this is a waste of my time . . . "

      "COWARD!" Ranma bellowed his strongest insult.

      "If you think that's supposed to hurt me," the Meliorist said as she kept walking, "You don't understand soldiers."

      Ranma ran after her, he knew she was manipulating him, but the skill she'd shown . . . he had to learn it.

Another Such Victory, and We Are Ruined

      The white wall seemed to go on forever, vanishing to a point at the horizon in both directions.  It was some 30+ meters tall, topped with the alternating stone teeth pattern of European castles.  Someone or some force had shorn the fields and hills surrounding the place of trees, shrubs, any large growth.

      "We grew up here," the Meliorist told him, she was back in full armor, unlike the previous times, she had a sword on her hip, and a crossbow.  She looked around the place with both longing and loathing.  "Davis, Anna and me, the siege of El Nureenen's fortress.  Nearly 40 years it seemed."

      "You could just walk in, even I can see openings in the wall."  Ranma felt something about this place, something ground into the soil, the very air, especially the building.  Something unpleasant.  Not exactly like the things they fought, it was foreign and abhorrent but in a different way.

      "It's a maze in there, and it constantly changed.  We sent entire battalions in, and lost everyone in them.  There were only 60 people who could navigate through that mess, and that scared the Hell out of the rest of us.  There were sorties of things coming out of there too.  Zombies, giants, made-things, all we had to beat them were our swords and lances, the mages often couldn't affect them, and the dragons were usually elsewhere."

      She paused, stared at him.  "You think you can beat someone who lived through that for 40 years?  I doubt you can, for all your tricks, you're no match for a real expert."

      "Without your dream powers?  Yeah," Ranma told her, "I could beat you easy!"

      "I don't think so, if it means I cut off your hand, your ear or your balls, tough luck, are you willing to risk that?"

      Ranma wasn't.

      "Then you learn from the beginning," the Meliorist handed him a forearm-long, straight, double-edged knife with a plain handguard.  From somewhere, she also produced two shields that were as tall as he was.  "The Roman gladius and scutum were paired weapons.  The gladius was often shorter than the weapons of the barbarians.  But the combination allowed the Romans to create the greatest empire the world has ever known."

      "What about China?" Ranma tested the heft and balance of the blade and shield.

      The Meliorist snorted, "Which one?  They keep destroying their history so the newest one's the first.  They invented movable type and an accurate water clock, decades later, they thought the Europeans invented them.  That's no empire, that's an insane asylum.  Nero only burned down the city itself, the mobs only burned the Library of Alexandria, not the entire empire."  She grabbed his arm and adjusted his elbow and wrist.  "From the beginning, the Romans favored the underarm thrust, to pierce the vitals and kill their foes.  I shove a chunk of steel in your guts and all your bouncing around means nothing, it just means you'll die harder.  Are you sure you're up to this?  After all, you can go back to your safe, little world of punches and kicks, depending on the others to protect you from real enemies."

      Ranma wanted to defend his Martial Arts skills, but he'd seen too many things that were immune to `normal` attacks, although somehow 'the other' in his head had gotten around that.  But against anything except ordinary humans and vehicles, his skills didn't measure up.  If he had to bow to a new sensei and a new philosophy, to get the skills he needed, he would.  The 'Black Belt' of Karate and Judo wasn't an end, it was the point where real learning started.  He had to admit, when it came to killing monsters, anyone who survived a month in this place had one.  "Okay, let's see what you can teach me."

      "All right, supposedly you can learn fast, so we'll start on the basics, if you decide to add any of your fancy stuff, I'll beat you so hard your Waking self won't be able to sit for a year.  If you think I'm joking, try me."

      "Yes, ma'am."  It seemed like the best thing to say.

      "All right, all this is theory, skull work we call it," she explained, "You'll learn the various weapons, tactics, the reasons for them and the attitudes that changed.  Do you know why the rights of way rules for the foil and the epee are so different?"

      "I don't even know what you said," Ranma admitted.

      "That's what I'm going to teach you.  Now you may only wake with some of this knowledge in the Waking world, that's why we'll go over things a few times on different sessions."

      Ranma nodded.  She demonstrated an extremely simple maneuver, and for the next twenty minutes he repeated the same move he'd mastered the third time he'd done it.  He guessed she was seeing if he would keep his word, not to use any 'fancy stuff', it was also really boring, but he did it.

      "Drop the sword, pick up the shield.  This is all defense, get the shield in the way of the blade without completely blocking your vision.  It's a lot harder than it sounds, later we'll work on attacking with just the shield, then we'll work on the combination of sword and shield.  This is an art a lot older and more basic than any you've learned.  But it gave the Zulus the advantage over the Xhosa and it let them defeat a British army at Isandlwana in January 1879.  When you've got an art that beats trained and disciplined riflemen, that's something."

      That got Ranma's immediate attention.  "Raccoon said rifles trump any Martial Art!"

      "One on one, they do, five thousand Zulus against some twelve hundred British troops, eight hundred of them regular riflemen, that's where victory comes.  You might not carry the day, you might not even survive."  She gestured at the walls.  "We learned that here."  Now she stared at him.  "Something you still haven't learned.  The victory of the group is the victory of the one, and rarely vice versa.  Don't feel bad, our glorious commander Major Katsuragi doesn't know that either.  She's got less excuse than you do."

      "Your Waking world counterpart doesn't know that either," Ranma complained.

      "She's a 14-year-old who's had to be ten times as good as everyone else, just to be considered their equal.  You're a boy, well trained in the martial arts, I bet no one ever told you 'You are silly to want to be a knight or warrior'."

      Ranma nodded.

      "Besides, do you measure yourself by the people you're as bad as, or those better?  And you just hate it when someone shows you up, don't you?"

      Ranma frowned at the twinkle in her eye.  Asuka had been manipulating him, like everybody else.  "Better," he growled.

      "Then you have a long way to go.  Now, defend yourself, take the blow, then assess the situation, stay upright, no fancy stuff."

      Ranma deflected the sword stroke, nearly got knocked down by the shield shove as he lost 'situational awareness', a fancy phrase for knowing who, what, where and how all around you.

      The fighting was brutal, except when the Meliorist called a break, he kept expecting an ambush attack while he was resting.  Using just the shield was emotionally rather than physically exhausting.  The tales of battles fought on the ground around them also sapped both his strength and his confidence.  It explained Raccoon and Asuka's poorly concealed contempt.  The death and destruction they'd seen here dwarfed the disaster of the battle against Cthugha.  The pair and the rest of the army that fought here had been through so many desperate fights, Ranma's Martial Arts boasting must have seemed naive and amusing to them, at first.  Then it would have rankled, irritated them as much as the treatment the Meliorist had given him.

      But he was ignorant that didn't make him stupid.  Not listening to all the subtle hints that maybe his fellow pilots weren't completely ignorant of the realities of war, made him seem stupid.

      He knew fighting, knew it better than they did.  They knew war, knew it better than he did.  Worst of all, for him, they were fighting a war, and he wasn't doing all he could, he'd been denying them his skills.  He hadn't really understood . . . he wasn't wrong, just ignorant.

      After one particularly punishing session, after Ranma got his head to quit ringing, he'd tried to include some of the Martial Arts Style in his use of the shield.  It had taken the Meliorist about six seconds to yank the shield out of his hand and clobber him with the flat of the blade.  She'd backed off once she'd made sure he both remembered and couldn't sit down.  Then she called a pause and left him to consider his mistake.  It wasn't that she was faster, she wasn't.

      She's still better, he thought as he put his hands on his head, to keep them from touching the more tender spot, She's better, a lot better.  I could have beat her in a standard fight.  But the combination of the sword and shield gave her the advantage.  In a week, I'll beat her easy, he thought, the painful throbbing at both ends reminded him that he was not the expert.

      Why do people keep having to beat me over the head to get me to believe that? Ranma wondered, the coincidence was clear, but until she'd clobbered him, he'd ignored it, It was the same way with Rei he wondered why that was.

      "So what can I teach you?  Or the others?" Ranma asked when his brains finally descrambled, he wasn't even going to try to sit down.  He remembered his discussion with Asuka, what had started him `moping`.

      "So what do you want in return?" Ranma had asked as they had stood a top the roof, the morning's lesson complete.

      "A hot bath.  You touch me, I'm going to scream in agony, then stab you in the heart," Asuka had replied, gestured with her sabre-halberd.

      "That isn't what I was talking about."  He had taken a stance.  "Martial Arts."

      Asuka had frowned, "Okay, for ten minutes I'm going to try to punch your lights out.  After that, you have one hour to teach me something that will have a positive effect on my next attempt to punch your lights out."

      "That's impossible!" Ranma had shouted, "There's no way I can do that."

      "Then drop the subject, and quit wasting my time and yours."  Asuka had turned and walked away.

      Ranma let out a long breath, and glanced at the Meliorist.  It hurt, Martial Arts was his life.  It couldn't save him, and the people around him thought it was a joke.  Good enough for Ranma, who already wasted all those years, while they were learning something useful.

      "I don't suppose I could trade lessons with you?" he asked despondently of the Meliorist.

      "What take 10 years to learn to breathe, and then learn the stance of the purple kraken dance?  No thanks."

      Ranma frowned.  "I do know how to fight."

      "But not how to teach," the Meliorist replied, "I could teach Spineless or Wondergirl these same techniques, it might take a week, but I could do it.  You weren't teaching those classes, Ice Princess and Ritsuko were.  You don't know how to tailor the lessons to the audience or the student.  Until you master that, your friends won't know how much you know.  I bet you don't even know Asuka and Raccoon's real capabilities."

      "Pretty pathetic," Ranma replied.

      "Details, not opinion.  Besides they'd shoot a real enemy, not fist fight or kick them."

      Ranma considered.  He'd taken the rejections very personally, but he wasn't offering them something they wanted, and he hadn't bothered to convince them they needed it.  "So what rank are they?"

      "Pankration doesn't have a belt system, but I know Raccoon has yellow gloves in - "

      "Yellow!" Ranma laughed, "I didn' know he was that bad!"

      "Yellow gloves are as high as you can go in Savate, without fighting in tournaments, and you're first awarded them at the equivalent of blue or a brown belt, but he's a fully trained, competent teacher in both arts, that makes him at least a black belt doesn't it?"

      "Yeah, I guess."  Ranma didn't like that comparison, if you measured belt standing by how well you could teach, he'd barely be a blue belt.  If the stories from Asuka and Raccoon, that he was supposed to take over a dojo . . . that made it really pathetic.  Made him really pathetic.

      "Thinking is the only real martial art, situational awareness trumps all your fancy moves if you aren't paying attention," the Meliorist reminded him, "We'll start with the attacks, the shield isn't just for blocking."

      That sounded good to Ranma.  He hated standing there, braced to take the blows.  That was a whole other art unto itself, one he still hadn't mastered, while every instinct was to dodge, to discard the heavy object and let his agility defend him.  "You aren't mad that I used the 'fancy stuff'?"

      "That you broke your word, that you can be easily goaded into being stupid . . . why would I be mad?" she asked sweetly, "Are you mad your stupidity and impatience makes you an oathbreaker?"

      Ranma ground his teeth, that it was partially true made it worse.  That the Meliorist, like the others, didn't expect any better of him made it almost intolerable.  His Honor was just about all he had, if everyone assumed he wouldn't keep his word when there was trouble. . . .

      But that wasn't what she was teaching, neither dodging physically, nor breaking his oaths.

      He learned over the next painful hour, both physical pain and humiliation, that you could do a lot of things with a shield, besides bash with it.  Prying, feints, all manner of 'dishonorable' tricks, even crawling under it to hold out and await rescue.  Locking shield to shield to form a shield wall or a tortoise.  These last two were diagramed and discussed during the breaks.  It was a huge amount of information to absorb.  He was definitely feeling tired when the Meliorist called the final halt.

      "No more training, you've had enough."

      For once, Ranma had to agree.

      "Something else you need to see," the Meliorist told him, "If you want to understand your fellow pilots."

      Ranma fell in behind her as they walked up a long slope towards the distant tree line.  As they broke through the thin screen of trees, Ranma initially thought it was some kind of farm field with weird plants, all in straight rows.  Then he realized they were grave markers, some crosses, many other kinds, a grave yard.

      They had approached from one corner, it stretched out as far as he could see.

      "Seven hundred thousand," the Meliorist said, "The `acceptable` loss rate of any military operation, a battle, is between 10 - 25%, one-in-ten to one-in-four.  We came under that by a wide margin.  Our personal units managed to keep the loss rate down to as low as 2% per engagement, but after skirmish after battle after bloodbath, the replacements started outnumbering the veterans. They were as well trained as the vets, they died a lot more, until they got as experienced as the vets.  But none of that helped the other units.  Kids like you who had dreamy ideas about the `nobility` of battle, about covering their name with glory."  She stooped down, picked up a handful of earth, let it trickle through her fingers.  "I don't call this glory, but that's what we covered them with."  She turned, stared at Ranma while brushing off her hands.  "You're full of hope, full of self-confidence, this isn't meant to take that away, just to make you think about what you're basing it on.  And to remind you that others have seen more, maybe too much.  They soldier on, not for honor, not for glory, not even because they gave their word, but because it has to be done, and they're the best to do it, or they're the only ones who can do it.  That doesn't make them supermen, but it doesn't make them fools either.  If you expect the respect you think you're entitled to, understand how they had to earn the respect they have."

      She looked out across the field, the sun was setting.  The yard fell into silhouette, Ranma could see how far the graves extended.

      "It wasn't easy, and as bad as you think your cause is, it is a picnic compared to this.  Compared to remembering this."

To Be Alone Is the Fate of All Great Minds

July 14, 1947

      Asuka barely looked at him during breakfast, never said a word, not to him, not to Sammi.  She just ate, did the dishes and returned to her room.  Ranma let her alone, he didn't want to start a fight, nor did he want to intrude.  He had enough to think about himself.  He went to the roof to do some practice with Kempo, rather than Asuka's lesson.  His katas came with some difficulty.  He kept wondering which or what of his techniques he could teach Asuka, Rei and Shinji.  Raccoon could wait, he wouldn't see him again for over a month.  The earlier lessons with Rei and Shinji generally had Rit-chan and Nab-chan slowing him down, making him wait for them.  He hated it, it felt like swimming through mud.

      As he went through the katas, he began to add bits of the lessons Asuka's counterpart, the Meliorist, had pounded into his head, sometimes literally.  He didn't dare use anything Asuka had taught him.  He wondered at the slowness with which the others learned what was easy and obvious to him, and how they thought he was stupid for not instantly grasping what was obvious to them.  Then he considered the graveyard.  Even with his enhanced vision, the twilight had hidden the far side of it from him.  He saw the edge of the forest, but not the markers themselves.

      How many friends, how many coworkers, how many comrades-in-arms . . . how many lovers lay buried there? the thought disturbed the flow of his practice, he stopped, stood there considering, And how much of that makes them think I'm arrogant?  The expression on Nab-chan's and Raccoon's faces when he stormed in bragging, the day after Hiroko's death.  That image would be burned into his mind forever.  It wasn't resignation or anger, as he'd assumed at the time, the experience just hurt too much to look at.  He had been stupid, and arrogant, especially, he'd been callous.

      "That's a lot worse."

      Later, when he'd finished, he went inside.  He realized there was nothing to do.  No school, no tests with Rit-chan, no wondering what Nab-chan was going to do next.  He could have gone back upstairs, cleared his mind and run through the katas again, or called Shinji or Rei and scheduled a practice, but if they hadn't shown up on their own, they probably didn't want to deal with it, with him.

      Sammi was working on some paperwork.  He found Asuka in her bedroom, lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling.

      "You want something Horseface?" she asked, there was no bite to the insult, she sounded bored more than anything else.

      "I just thought you might want to, you know, do something."

      "I am doing something, I'm thinking.  And I've already spent a great deal of time with you, I'd like a break."

      "If I'm so much trouble!" Ranma asked angrily, "Why are you bothering?"

      "Because you're my responsibility.  I take my responsibilities seriously."

      "Is that all I am?"  he couldn't figure out why being dismissed like that made him so frustrated.

      She looked over at him.  "Yes, Saotome, you are.  You may have the makings of a great pilot, but you ought to have 'The War Department regrets to inform you that your son is dead because he was stupid' stamped on your forehead for convenience.  You have no regard for your enemies, and anyone lacking that is wide open to bad luck, good planning, or even approximately equal skill.  You haven't got enough brains, no, enough common sense to be scared, and fear is what keeps you awake, aware . . . and alive.  So go meditate on how you're better than us non-martial artists, leave me to figure out how to keep you alive."

      Ranma managed not to slam the door as he left her room, it took real effort.

      I'm as good as she is, why should I take it personally?  She's just being nasty.  He knew it wasn't strictly true, but it made him feel better.  He had to admit, it bugged him to be treated as weak, or as someone's project, and he had no idea why.  Shinji was a lot weaker, yet nobody begrudged him his position.  They didn't resent or hate 'having' to look out for `Spineless`, they just realized they had to.

      Maybe that's it, he thought as he returned to his, no Raccoon's, room, he was only borrowing it.  I owe them, they'll never ask to be repaid, and there seems to be nothing I can offer as repayment.  Ranma had to admit that rankled.  An unacknowledged debt he wasn't even trying to repay.  A debt of honor in every sense of the word, but only to him, a simple duty to Asuka.

      "You're overanalyzing," Sammi told him as she entered.

      "Oh?" Ranma asked, he couldn't figure out how she could always sneak up on him whenever she wanted to.

      "You always overanalyze.  You work so hard at thinking, you assume all the answers have to be hard."  Sammi did a fast leg sweep that Ranma easily dodged.  "How many actions was that?"

      "One for you, one for me," Ranma answered.

      "And that's your problem, sit."  She pointed at the bed, as she sat in the room's only chair.  "You can't break things into pieces, you try to deal with the whole thing all at once.  That's not possible, that's also why you can't explain things to the others.  You don't understand something until you get all of it, then it all becomes perfectly obvious, you even get insights others miss.  The rest of us don't work that way, we learn and understand each bit, how they connect with other bits comes slowly."

      "How does that help?" Ranma asked.

      "You have to learn to break stuff down into pieces, so other people can understand, and so you can understand."  Sammi sat back.  "Let's start with Asuka, yesterday and this morning she was practicing with you, at breakfast she barely says a whole sentence to you.  Do you know why?"

      "She's just bein' snarky," Ranma replied, laid down on the bed.

      "And why is she 'bein' snarky'?  And for the record, so are you."

      "Asuka's always in a bad mood," Ranma replied.

      "That's a symptom, what's the cause?" Sammi asked.

      Ranma shrugged, he had a lot of answers, chief among them was Asuka's a girl, who could fathom girls?  Even when he was a girl, he didn't understand girls.

      "Try this one, she's alone in an alien place.  She isn't Japanese, or American, she's German.  That means she has no place to go.  If `Raccoon` gets homesick, he can walk onto the Naval Base and he's surrounded by Americans, he might as well be back in America.  Asuka can't do that.  Now the only two people who could give her any taste of home, the two who spoke German, are both gone.  I don't think you really understand what it's like to be completely alone in a room full of people.  She's gaijin, no matter how good and `Japanese` her manners are, and they're a lot better than yours, she's still one of 'them'," Sammi said the last with distaste and sinister overtones.

      Ranma frowned at that.  "So, everybody gets lonely."

      "Like you are now?" Sammi asked.

      Ranma frowned again.

      "As bad as it is for you, she's felt that way for months, maybe years.  She was never a person.  Like Rei, and Raccoon, and maybe you too, she was part of or completely, a weapon.  She was the PILOT OF UNIT 02, Volkshero of das Reich, und der Paladin of das Vaterland.  The fact she's also a Hell of a scientist and a topnotch engineer, pafgh, unimportant, she's a girl after all.  After a while, she came to believe it.  Then they lost the war.  So the girl whom they proclaimed as the ultimate expression of Aryan superiority, suddenly has to prove it.  Prove it to the whole world that sees Germany as a land of mad butchers who toss anyone who isn't a Nazi into a prison camp or an oven.  You're Japanese, the other Axis power.  However, you and the others grew up in obscurity, so you can walk down the street and people don't stare at you like you don't belong in this country, let alone among the living.  She can't.  If you're lucky, you'll never learn what that's like."

      Ranma fidgeted.  He always felt a little outside, but that's because he was a Martial Artist, he was better, not worse.

      "Just something to think about."  Sammi stood up, patted his shoulder before she left.

      Ranma pulled the pillow over his face, he wasn't sure if he wanted to smother himself to make it all go away, or if he wanted to privately scream his frustration.

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 37 - And In What Spirit was the Tool Created?

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.  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.  Asuka in Unit 02 destroys an assassin of Nyarlathotep's cult.  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, 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 feelings 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 combining Ritsuko, Ranma and Jeff, there are some side-effects as the trio's personalities temporarily bleed into each other.  Among them: Jeff, under the influence of Ranma, confronts Belldandy sending her, then her sisters, into a tizzy, Keiichi managed to defuse it.  Ranko, under the influence of the others, gives Jeff the passionate kiss from the bet he lost to Asuka at the carnival.  Then Asuka and Jeff tickle Nabiki remorselessly.  Rei begins calling Asuka mein Grosse {Große} Feldmarschall.  All the pilots are giddy from recent events.

      Jeff gives Asuka the blade to a sabre-halberd, and asks her to teach Ranma to use his sword.  Asuka begins the lessons from Talhoffer immediately.

      All the others pack up for their moves, either to new quarters or aboard the carrier.

      To help Misato and Hiro's relationship, Asuka, Rei and Shinji throw together a Sunday in the park picnic.  Asuka invites Keiichi, Belldandy and Megumi.  Megumi volunteers her services and Belldandy's as caterers.  They work through the night to get everything ready.

      The baseball captain Usagi and her allies are introduced, and what they worship before their softball games.

      The picnic is a success until Usagi and Yuki decide to test the pilots.  Ranma easily intercepts the batted ball, but transforms and must leave.  The picnic ends.

      Asuka and Ranma are sulky after the failed picnic.  Asuka also has a letter from Anna reminding her of home, to which she can never return.

The cruel-tyrant-sergeants they watch 'im 'arf a year;

They watch 'im with 'is comrades, they watch 'im with 'is beer;

They watch 'im with the women at the regimental dance,

And the cruel-tyrant-sergeants send 'is name along for "Lance"

'E learns to do 'is watchin' without it showin' plain;

'E learns to save a dummy, an' shove 'im straight again;

'E learns to check a ranker that's buyin' leave to shirk;

An' 'e learns to make men like 'im so they'll learn to like their work.

      The 'eathen - Rudyard Kipling

July 15, 1947

I've Known a Lot of People Ride a Dam' Sight Worse

      "Okay Horseface, much more complicated.  Sword: Iron Gate to Underhau/below cut powerful, scabbard High Guard to Above thrust, your opponent is taller than you, recover to the Left and Right Oxen Guards," Asuka called out across the building's roof to him.

      Ranma made the attacks, it made sense to attack high and low simultaneously, the blade could deliver a cut or thrust, but the scabbard could only really thrust.  He could see the logic of the maneuvers, and she also had been right, mastering the stances let him easily flow between them.  He finished with the blade and scabbard on either side of his head facing across and down, a little like the horns of an ox.  Starting and stopping this way was unnatural, but it was -

      "BEHIND YOU!" Asuka's shout made him instantly pivot, scabbard in High Guard, sword at Plough or waist Guard, ready to attack high or low.  There was nothing to attack or defend against.

      "That was sneaky," Ranma commented, not really a complaint, just an observation.

      "You took the correct guards automatically and were prepared to shift or attack," Asuka said, a slight note of satisfaction in her voice, "The blades are becoming more natural to you, you didn't drop them and take up the weeping cranefly stance or some other nonsense . . . like you did the last three times."

      Hence the slight note of satisfaction, Ranma groused inwardly.

      "So I'm not as intolerably bad as I was," Ranma said, hopefully taking the insult away from her.

      "Don't be so hard on yourself, Horseface.  Your swordsmanship was just bad, it was the rest of you that was intolerable."

      "Gee, thanks," he said, decided against muttering anything about 'Megorofeld-chan', she seemed to have very good ears.

      "All right, now go through each guard and perform an above and below cut, and a low thrust left and right, and a high thrust left and right, recover to the guard between each stroke, unless you've run through all the strikes, then recover to the next guard, I want right and left Oxen Guards, pause for a moment as the attack strikes home, then continue.  Start with the sword in Iron Gate, the scabbard in High Guard and go through them, then switch hands and the sword starts at High Guard and the scabbard at Iron Gate."

      A standard kata, Ranma thought, In other words.

      "Yes," was all he said.  The movements began, it frustrated him that teaching him was so effortless for Asuka, she even gave him a kata that covered all the moves, how they would have to be used with his paired weapons.  He didn't let that frustration affect his movements, or she'd make him start all over again, or she'd pick out a few maneuvers and make him go through them.  She never said exactly which maneuver was wrong, but there was always room for improvement in even his best efforts.

      As quickly as he began, he was done.  He almost dreaded the next words.

      "Again, slower this time."

      "Yes," she said, then muttered, "Sensei Sour Kraut."

      "I heard that, now you blew it, start over.  If you can't talk and practice at the same time, quit doing one, your choice which."

      Sometimes I wonder why I agreed to this, he thought as he started over, a relentless perfectionist made an irritating sensei.  Because she was a girl he couldn't just challenge her and prove he was better.  He saw her duplicating the various moves with her sabre-halberd, including a few moves she hadn't taught him yet.  Probably McBane or the other guy, Ranma thought as he went through the maneuvers, he knew her efforts did not distract her, if he wasn't perfect, she'd see it.  And he'd have to go through it again, the whole thing, if she really got mad, she'd make him take a half-hour, go through the kata as if it were a Tai Chi meditation, instead of a combat art.

      The presence of the sawhorses and the 15-foot long 1" by 8" filled him with some expectation, and dread.  She'd steadfastly refused to say what they were for.

      Maybe she's going to let me challenge her, and that's the 'fighting strip', he wasn't happy with that thought, the sword and scabbard were one thing, but he wasn't sure he could avoid hurting her if he were that limited, At least not without resorting to my regular martial arts, he amended.

      "Okay, that was acceptable," she told him, "Don't bow!" she shouted as he started to.  "Salute, that's a sword in your hand, a sword's dangerous no matter who wields it.  A skilled wielder makes it more dangerous to the enemy than himself."

      The sword salute was another trick the Meliorist had taught him, by kicking him in the face when he bowed the first time, and trying to every other time after that.  He didn't mind the bruise, but he couldn't figure out why he couldn't get rid of the red paint on his dreamself's forehead.  He was pretty sure the mark didn't say anything, but if Asuka knew all those languages, it might. He snapped to attention, brought the blade up, and then resheathed it.  No 'fancy-stuff' here either, it was disrespectful.

      She pulled the sawhorses out, he didn't offer to help, 'If I wanted your help I'd ASK!' still rang in his ears.

      "Grab the other end of this," she said as she lifted the 1" x 8".  They set it on the sawhorses.

      "Not that way Horseface!"

      I can't even set a board down right, Ranma lamented.

      "Set it on the narrow edge," Asuka ordered.

      Ranma was a little more worried, the board was badly warped and twisted, footing on the wide part would be a problem, more so for Asuka.  Just walking on the narrow edge . . . if she was going to challenge him like that, he would bow out, until he got more training.  He wobbled the board easily with his finger.

      "Okay Horseface, I've got a treat for you."

      When she said that while they were training, he looked forward to the `treat` as much as he looked forward to Misato's cooking.

      "You always talk about balance."  She wobbled the board, "Now you get to show off.  I want you to put the sword down, jump up here."  She wobbled the board again.

      Ranma's dread grew with each clunk of the board, That thing would fall over from a strong breath, he thought.

      "I'll hand you the scabbard and you go through the entire exercise up here," she told him.

      She's nuts, he thought.

      "Advancing with each attack like I taught you," she added.

      She's insane, he mentally added, set the board back up as it fell over.

      "When you get to the end, pivot, like I taught you."

      She's completely mad, he thought.

      "Then switch hands and do it again," she told him.

      She's completely gone around the bend! he thought.

      "If you fall off use your usual tricks to avoid getting broken, not if you think you're going to fall, only if you - are - actually - falling."

      Completely off the deep end! Ranma thought as he wobbled the board again.

      "It's balance training.  Only now you have to stabilize what you're standing on too."

      She's a genius!  Never thought otherwise, Ranma thought as he hopped up, and landed on the sawhorse as the board tipped him off.

      "You can have breakfast as soon as you do it once," Asuka said and smiled as she reset the board.

      An EVIL genius! Ranma thought as he stepped onto the wobbly board, and walked from one end to the other without toppling it, then reached down for the scabbard . . . and fell off.

      "Do it slowly, like I taught you."  Asuka smiled as she helped him up.

      "Yes, Sensei."

      "And don't get hurt."  She was still smiling.

      "Yes, Sensei."

      "I don't want to have to explain it to Sammi."

      "Yes, Sensei."

      "And be cheerful, this is a great opportunity."

      "Yes, Sensei."

      "And hurry up a bit, I can smell Sammi's blueberry pancakes from here."

      Ranma accepted the scabbard without a word and just walked down the board a few times.  Keeping his insulting thoughts about Sour Kraut Senseis entirely to himself.

      Asuka breezed into the apartment, she smiled broadly at the smell of blueberry pancakes.  Erin was there, polishing off a large stack.  She held the door for Horseface, he hadn't managed to complete the exercise, but she knew he wouldn't the first time.  She'd developed it to give him something to do while she went on her errand today.  All she had to do to glue him to that board was suggest they make it easier, like let him try it on the wide edge.

      Then the baka won't quit until he's mastered it, she thought triumphantly, as she headed towards the dining room table, That will keep him out of my hair for a couple of hours.  She knew that no physical task was beyond Horseface forever, as long as the training didn't kill him, he'd eventually master any task.  She still had one more string to her bow to keep him busy today.

      "That smells great, Samantha," Asuka said happily, "Did you make enough for Horseface?  He gave up, and he's a little depressed."

      "I did not quit!  You called a halt!" he replied.

      Right on cue, she thought, took the stack of pancakes to the table.

      "It's okay Horseface, there are some things beyond you," she told him, with real sincerity, "There's no shame admitting it.  I can set up something easier."

      You'd think I just insulted his mother, she thought about his purple-faced, bugeyed expression.

      "I - WILL - DO - IT - MYSELF," he was practically vibrating with fury.

      "But it's no good unless Ranko can do it too," she said, slathering more deep concern on the sentence than she did butter and syrup on the pancakes, which were . . . completely gone.

      She glared at 'chipmunk-cheeks' Horseface, who chewed once or twice, and swallowed.

      "Delicious, Sammi," he said.

      "How do you know," Sammi said as she set down another stack in front of Asuka, "You didn't even taste them."

      "I have fast taste buds.  I can do everything fast," he said proudly.

      "That explains why Ice Princess thinks she still a - "

      "ASUKA!" Sammi cut her off.

      Asuka returned an innocent smile.  "I didn't say anything."

      Sammi and Erin glared at her.  Then Sammi got a smile like Asuka's.  Now Asuka was worried.

      "Didn't you promise to give him a wash and trim?" Sammi asked, her smile didn't falter.

      Swing and miss, Asuka thought as she looked a little sheepish.

      "Well, I thought I'd ask Spineless and Wondergirl over, let ole' Spineless help give her a cut that doesn't look like a forgotten rat's nest."

      "Are you going to let Ranma wash -?" Erin began.

      "NO!" Asuka shouted, realized she'd blown it, and lost another stack of pancakes.  At least this time Horseface stole the whole plate and was slowly enjoying them.

      "Wouldn't do it anyway," he said between bites of her blueberry pancakes.

      Relief filled Asuka, his stupid code of honor might force him to suggest something like that.  She realized showing that relief had been a mistake.

      "That's not fair," Erin said flatly.

      Ranma's head came up.

      "Very dishonorable," Sammi added from the kitchen, "Getting a gift like that and not giving anything in return."

      Asuka searched for a way to get him off the hook, without appearing to, anything to erase that dawning look of 'I am going to be honorably stupid' that spread across his face.

      "I'm disappointed in you, Saotome-san," Sammi said sadly, "But I guess I expect too much."

      At that, Asuka knew she was doomed, 'Kraznyzamok Ultimate Technique: Reduced Expectations', Horseface had no defense and seemed unwilling to develop one.

      "Okay, I'll do it," Horseface said reluctantly.

      "Do I get any say in this?" Asuka asked archly.

      "No," Sammi told her, "And Asuka, we're out of pancake batter."


      "Well Asuka, she did have all those others in the oven," Erin told her as they drove through the Navy Base.

      Asuka grumbled in relative silence, she knew taking on three-to-one odds was a bad idea, but she'd been ambushed efficiently, and she hadn't seen a way out.

      The storage area was off the beaten track, but the Navy guarded it, so Asuka had some of her less critical stuff stored here, rather than at Sammi's place.  She needed something, so they were at the outlands of the Base getting it.

      "Here it is," Asuka said as she pulled the bag of tools from the back and unlocked the shed, while Erin scanned the area.

      Inside was an old bicycle, most of the parts were good, except the frame. It was too small for her now.  She ran her finger across the spiral crack that marred the frame, it couldn't be fixed, but she felt that throwing it away was impossible.  Besides all the other parts were excellent.  They should be, she had worked them over to perfection.  She had a lot of memories tied up in this bike.  It seemed ironic that when the Americans got Unit 02, they'd found the bike alongside the Unit and sent it to her.  She'd always wondered what exactly the broken bicycle had meant.  Had they broken it, or had it been broken and they sent it anyway?  If so, why?

      She could have gotten Admiral Simson to look into it, but it seemed like such a trivial thing to bother about, when what she really wanted was to be able to ride it again.  She detached the front wheel and carried it and the rest to the jeep., relocking the shed door when she passed through.

      "That's it?" Erin asked.

      "That's it," Asuka told her as she climbed into the jeep.  "The new school is too far to walk, besides, teaching Wondergirl to ride a bike will give Spineless something to do for the rest of the break."

      "Ah, match making," Erin said as she climbed aboard the jeep and started it, "What about the others?"  She put the jeep in gear.

      "Let them make their own arrangements," Asuka said, not really looking forward to the next step.

      Come on Asuka, she told herself, If Horseface can learn new thought processes, so can you.  In her heart of hearts she hated the plan she'd developed, almost as much as she hated being a general instead of being a knight errant.  She liked getting her hands dirty, doing real stuff instead of training and leading others.  Grow up, who else is going to do this? she chided herself.

      Ranma balanced, very gingerly went from the Left Oxen Guard to the Oberhau/'above' cut, it was a harassing cut, just using the wrists and hands.  A medium cut using the elbows landed him on the roof, on his head, four times in a row.  Forget about a powerful cut, Ranma thought, he knew he wasn't that stubborn or stupid.  I thought ole' Sour Kraut had a mean streak 100-meters wide, he thought as he stepped forward and the board teetered warningly, Boy was I wrong about that.  He completed the move and returned to Left Oxen Guard, with the blade beside his head, he began and above thrust to the left as he stepped forward.  She's got a mean streak 10 MILES wide, he thought as he watched the blade inch forward, he was keeping his balance better, but he wasn't anywhere near being able to go through the entire exercise without falling.  He'd given up starting over from the beginning when he fell, he'd just get up and do that move over, and move on to complete the entire exercise, then he'd start over.  The thrusts generally tripped him up, especially the thrusts across from left to right or vice versa, and he didn't know why.  Yet.

      He withdrew the blade to the left Oxen Guard, then slowly thrust high to the right.  The board trembled under him as he stepped forward.

      Oh Ranma it's too hard, I'm sorry for making it so hard, he thought angrily, and that anger almost pitched him off the board.  He controlled his balance, first physical, then spiritual.  She knew, she knew exactly what she was doing.  Tricking me again, he thought, this time he didn't catch himself in time.  He landed easily, stared at his nemesis and set the board on its edge again.  He was looking forward to the time he could reduce this thing to kindling.  He hopped up on the sawhorse, and stepped on the board.  Stopped, set it back up on its edge AGAIN! and stepped up more carefully.

      He kept all the thoughts away and tried to complete this stupid exercise.

I've Known a Lot o' Fellows Go a Dam' Sight Worse

      Misato had gotten up, showered, inhaled a breakfast that Shinji had put in front of her.  He hadn't said anything, merely looked at her with the gaze of vague disappointment.  Her teasing about Rei hadn't had the desired effect.  He'd actually asked why she was so lonely, then retreated into the kitchen.  The horrible, awful, scraping noises he made with the pans had prevented her from charging in after him.

      Besides, she had to go to work.  With Ritsuko and Maya gone, she knew she could at least make a dent in the endless reports she was supposed to be keeping up on.  Most of them were trivial, some few were important, and it took most of the day to separate one from the other, so at the end of the day she had a handful she had to read thoroughly, and no time left to read them all.  She sometimes envied Ritsuko, who was a generator of this endless paperwork, rather than a recipient.

      "Misato-san?" Shinji knocked at her bedroom door, "There's some men out here to see you."

      Misato opened the door and followed him, she was presentable, lacking only her shoes.  The men were waiting politely outside the door.

      "Miss Katsuragi?" the nervous Japanese man among the group of overconfident Americans asked.

      "Major Katsuragi," she replied, they all looked very nervous, she wasn't about to invite them in.

      "Yes, Major.  You were a lieutenant in the Imperial Army, Katsuragi Misato," the man said politely.  He seemed a little ashamed, the others seemed expectant.

      "Yes."  She'd put all that behind her when she went to work for NERV, hadn't she?  She was growing worried.  The men seemed like they'd scatter if Shinji said boo, let alone her.  "What's going on?"

      The man handed her a piece of paper.  "You're being subpoenaed to appear before a select committee of the United States Senate for crimes against the United States during wartime.  The information is all there."  The men turned to leave.

      It took a few seconds for the events to crystallize in her mind, when they did.  "I'm WHAT!?" she shouted.

      Imperative radio transmissions had called Admiral Simson into his office with some urgency.  He'd wanted to inspect some of the new defenses around the NERV base, but Captain Ramsey, General Tomlinson, and General MacArthur had called him, all demanding to know what was happening and that he should get back to his office and find out.  Not for the first time he wished that radio communication were more reliable, he could have found out what put a bee in everyone's bonnet on this otherwise beautiful morning.

      "They're in your office, sir."  His yeoman snapped off a salute that would have been appropriate on a parade ground.  "The Senators."

      Senators, plural, he thought as he returned the man's salute and headed through his office door with a feeling of dread.  Senators, four, unhappy, definitely plural.

      "Gentlemen," he said pleasantly, closing the door behind him, "To what do I owe the honor?"

      "In April of 1945, there were a large number of brutal murders and assaults in the Boston area."  The senior Senator from Massachusetts, a member of the NERV select oversight committee, set down a file folder on Simson's desk, he opened it with the flourish of a magician doing a trick.  There were photos, photos of dead people mostly, a few of huddled survivors.  Simson had seen enough civilian refugees to recognize the traumatized faces, these people had seen something too terrible for them to understand.

      "Their source was this building."  Another photo.  "The murders and attacks came to an end when an explosion destroyed the building and scattered the people operating there," the senator continued in a no nonsense tone, "I think you recognize two of them."

      Simson stared at a picture of a much younger Gendo Ikari and Misato Katsuragi walking down a Boston street, both in civilian clothes.  Spies, saboteurs, he thought.  He desperately wanted a drink right now.

      "We know Operation Paperclip has protected Mister Ikari, like von Braun and others," the senior Senator from Wyoming said patiently, "We are curious what an enemy agent responsible for the murder of dozens of American citizens is doing working for the most important operation, supposedly in the history of mankind.  One who operated behind the lines in civilian guise."

      "I would have thought you'd be curious too," the senior senator from Massachusetts said blandly.

      "I'll call the JAG, and get some answers," he said, wondering what idiot would blindside them like that.

      "Very well, we'll have copies of our interview and photos sent to you.  A joint investigation might be messy, but I think we can cooperate with each other," the senator said while the junior senators collected the photos.  "We'll see ourselves out, we'll be in touch."

      The Admiral managed to recover enough of his manners to open the door for them.  They filed out, he sat at his desk, looking at the one photo they'd left behind.  Big as life, Misato and Gendo, and a Boston street sign.  He knew labs could doctor photos, but one fake photo wouldn't stir up four senators to make them fly all the way to Japan.

      He switched on his intercom.  "I want the JAG, Gendo Ikari, Misato Katsuragi and Captain Ramsey in here, right now."  He didn't yell, it wouldn't do any good.

      He barely acknowledged the 'aye, sir', he was staring at the picture.  He'd heard about 'The Boston Slasher/Boston Vampire', he'd put it all down to wartime hysteria, or some nut.  It was time to do some research of his own.  He could get that started while he waited for the others to arrive.

      Asuka got out of the jeep and waited for Erin to stand alongside her.  "This is the address?" she asked.

      "This is where they said," Erin looked at the wall surrounding the complex.

      "A pagan temple," Asuka said, "Something about this doesn't feel right."

      "We can go to the Navy yards and get what you need done," Erin suggested.

      Asuka nodded, she almost agreed, "No, part of the responsibility of a pilot is not to cut ourselves off from . . . from `normal` people."  Asuka sighed about that.

      Normal people, not that pilots are normal, maybe we weren't normal to start with.  She squared her shoulders and marched towards the gate, pushing it open easily.  Inside, a red and white collection of balls and tubes, like a snowman with a wide, red hat stood as a scarecrow, then it moved.

      "That's cruel," Asuka said, "Making a monkey wear a metal suit like that in this heat."

      "Maybe it's a machine," Erin suggested, "Like the EVAs."

      Asuka rolled her eyes.  "A machine that tiny?  Not likely."  She walked across the paved walkway, she moved fast enough to prevent it from intercepting her and Erin.  She heard shouting approaching them, Asuka's hand closed on her pistol, in the holster concealed as a pocket in her skirt.  She was ready to draw and fire, if necessary.  Erin had braced herself to protect her charge.  "If it's too big, we run for the jeep," Asuka said, knew that Erin would pick her up and carry her if she felt it was necessary.

      It came around the corner of the building, it looked like a rabbit.  That almost looks like one of Spineless's little nightmares, Asuka thought.  Then she saw Skuld and Belldandy chasing it, shouting as they ran.  Skuld had a long, metal croquet mallet, and missed several times as her target bounced around randomly.  Asuka could see the murder in the younger girl's eyes.

      Asuka waited until the creature had doubled back, jumped on and off of Skuld's head, and the two girls crashed into each other as Skuld turned and Belldandy didn't.  Finally with a clear line of fire, Asuka drew and fired.

      "I think that's overkill," Erin commented as the creature `popped`.

      "A .45 is overkill on a rabbit," Asuka commented, she was worried about the thing's appearance and how it died, she was sure it had eight legs, not four.  She had Belldandy and Skuld's full attention, the two stared worriedly.  Asuka made sure her pistol was reholstered and out of sight before she started walking towards the pair.  "I'm looking for Keiichi and Megumi."

      "You - you - you - you sho - sho - shot it," Skuld stammered.

      "I'm sorry, chasing it with a mallet, I didn't think you wanted to take it alive."  Asuka glanced to the pavement where the blood should have been, there wasn't any.

      "No of course not."  Belldandy stood, smiled.  "Please come in and have tea."

      "Are they here?" Asuka asked.

      "No," Belldandy told her, "They should be back in a few minutes."

      "What do you want?" Skuld demanded.

      Asuka turned and smiled.  "Isn't she just sooo cute, such a charming little girl."

      "I'm not a kid!" Skuld shouted at her, "You aren't much older than me!"

      "However, I'm much more mature," Asuka said as she smiled, "It isn't the years, it's the mileage."

      "You don't know me," Skuld answered loudly.

      "Please don't fight," Belldandy tried to placate.

      "Oh, I don't fight, but I do enjoy an argument."  Asuka smiled at Skuld.  "And you don't know me either," she added coldly, glaring at Skuld.

      "Oh, here they are!" Belldandy said brightly waving to the two approaching people.

      "We should get the bike," Erin suggested, rested a hand on Asuka's shoulder.

      Asuka reluctantly broke off the staring contest, was even more irritated by Skuld's triumphant look.

      "Mister and Miss Morisato, I was wondering if you'd be interested in another paying job?" Asuka asked, "I need some precision mechanical work done."

      "Sure," Keiichi said as he followed Asuka out to the jeep.  Megumi followed out to curiosity.

      Asuka pulled the bicycle out of the back of the jeep.

      "I've never seen a bicycle like that," Megumi said.

      "We've had derailers for years."  Asuka smiled.  "I built this one, made the gears and picked the parts for the rest of it.  Well, the other pilots are going to need bicycles, and this one needs a new frame.  A more appropriate size and without the crack.  I'm a lot taller than I was when I build it 4 years ago."  Asuka had heard Skuld approach, she shifted slightly to block the girl's view.

      "You can use all those gears?" Megumi asked.

      Asuka nodded.  "Twenty-one speeds, the rear cluster has five racing gears and two `granny gears` for climbing hills."  She shifted again to block Skuld's view.

      "Large balloon tires?" Keiichi asked.

      "Yes, the frame can be custom, but as many parts as possible should be standard and easily available," Asuka said.

      "There aren't that many bicycle suppliers," Keiichi said quietly.

      "If you have to use plumbing supplies, do so.  If you need to get parts at the PX, contact me," Asuka said, shifted again to block Skuld, who began hopping up and down to see what they were talking about, "The main thing we need is durable, reliable transport.  Use your imagination."  Asuka glanced at Megumi.  "You have the resources."  Asuka noted with satisfaction that Skuld seemed to have given up.

      Megumi blushed.

      "Now, how much earnest money do you need to get started, I'll need the first in two weeks, the remaining five can wait until just before August."

      "Forty dollars?" Megumi asked hopefully.  Her brother looked shocked at her effrontery.

      "You're getting in a rut," Asuka said as she handed over the money.

      "We have to get all the materials," Megumi said, more to Keiichi than to Asuka.

      It seems someone around here has a grip on logistics, Asuka thought.

      "What a piece of junk!"  Skuld had climbed into the jeep to look down on the bicycle.

      "Of course, that's why it needs repairs," Asuka said sweetly, smiling all the time.

      "I could build a better bike than this!" Skuld announced.

      "Of course you could," Asuka said sweetly, "But I was 10 years old and I was going to college, not sitting around doing nothing."  Keeping her smile was beginning to hurt Asuka's cheeks.

      Skuld started to stick her tongue out.

      "WASABI TONGUE GRAB!" Asuka shouted as she reached.

      Skuld covered her face with both hands as she retreated, glaring at Asuka.

      Asuka turned to Erin.  "I'll have to apologize to Horseface," she said, "That actually works."

      "Mein Grosse Feldmarschall is wise," Erin replied.

      Asuka frowned, then glanced at Keiichi, who was staring at the forty dollars in his hands.  "Does he always react to money that way?"

      "He's not used to people paying," Megumi explained, "And especially not in advance."

      "If he doesn't deliver, I'll have my EVA step on his house," Asuka said shrugged, "I don't have to worry really."

      "Step on OUR house?!" Skuld shouted.

      Our house? Asuka thought, glanced at Keiichi and then at Belldandy who was approaching, I guess the family doesn't approve of him marrying outside his own race.  Or maybe they're different religions, maybe she can convert or something.  Or maybe they're in a common law marriage.  Asuka filed that away for later.

      "Purely by accident," Asuka replied, smiled at her, Asuka slapped her hands together.  "Too bad, but I haven't had to do it, except to one Angel.  Should I make an exception?"

      "Asuka," Erin chided, "You've never done that on purpose.  You've only stepped on individuals, and you kicked that Angel, clear off the planet."

      "Well that is true," Asuka said, considering, "But never in malice."

      "You're joking?" Megumi asked worriedly, "Aren't you?"

      "Officially, yes," Asuka said gravely, "Nobody's really irritated me that much.  The amount of paperwork for doing that is unbelievable."  She smiled at Skuld again.  "But I've been really bored lately, I could make an exception, just for you."  She smiled at Skuld's glare.

I've Known a Lot o' Fellers Shoot a Dam' Sight Worse

      Ranma made the thrust, stepping into it as he was supposed to.  He decided he didn't have enough board left before he reached the end, so he'd have to turn.  He was feeling very good and proud of himself.  This was the second time through, and the kata was nearly done.  Getting all the way through a kata perfectly once, could be luck; getting all the way through twice, was obviously skill.  He hadn't fallen once and the moves came more easily.

      I'll have to try it again with the medium cuts, he thought as he paused before turning, All the way through with one hand, then the other, twice.  I'll beat this yet.  Nothing can stop me now.  He made his turn without falling.


      Ranma was fourteen feet off the ground when he realized it was just Sammi.  Next he realized he'd never land back on the board and complete his practice, he wasn't absolutely sure he'd land without breaking something, either the board or one of the sawhorses.  He twisted his best to avoid them, but it looked bad.

      Then his fall stopped.  He glanced at Sammi who'd simply reached out and plucked him out of the air, and was holding him at arm's length.  She didn't look happy.

      "You scared me out of a year's growth!" she told him angrily, "What's wrong with lunch?"

      "I didn't see you, or hear you," Ranma said, it was the truth, and that worried him.

      You might be able to spare a year's growth, Ranma thought as he hung limp in her grip.  Sammi was nice, but she was still built to the scale of a bull, possibly a bull elephant.  How did she sneak up on me again!? Ranma wondered.

      "I'm beginning to wonder if your fear of - well, them, is because you're so much like them."  Sammi considered.

      "WHAT!"  An insult had never offended and horrified Ranma more in his life.

      "Well, you're nervous as one, and you jump, just like them.  You act like you don't need anyone, but you have to be the center of attention.  You hate water - "

      "For a completely different reason!" Ranma protested.

      "You are always ready for a fight, or food, or a - well not that.  Probably because you're still a juvenile.  Of course Rit-chan accepted you immediately, and she's wanted another one since her last one ran away from her."

      "I am not a c . . . ca . . . ca - one of those!" Ranma protested as he hung there.

      "Well, you seem to have mastered their bonelessness," Sammi said, "I didn't say you were one, I said you're like them.  That's a big difference."

      Ranma relaxed a little.  "Well, that's okay then.  Can you put me down?"

      "Aren't you afraid you'll land on your feet?" Sammi asked, "That's really like them."

      "No," Ranma said, them Sammi tossed him into the air and scooped up the sword and scabbard.  As he neared the ground . . .

      "Raccoon's pregnant."

      Ranma managed a very uncatlike landing, dead squid would have been a better description.  "He's a guy," Ranma said patiently, as he tried to regain his feet and his dignity.

      "I never said the kid was yours."  Sammi was headed for the stairs.

      "So, what's for lunch?" Ranma asked.


      "Sammi!" Ranma complained.

      "Would I lie?" Sammi asked, "We can get you a saucer of cream, if you'd like."

      Ranma hung his head and walked after her.

      Belldandy watched her younger sister, they sat together in the garage.  Skuld was drawing designs in the dust with her toe.  Belldandy knew Skuld was trying to ignore her.

      "Skuld," Belldandy gently admonished, "You shouldn't have done that."

      "She was treating me like a kid!  She called me cute!" Skuld rallied weakly, "Besides, I took it off before anyone noticed."

      "It was not a polite thing to call anyone," Belldandy said, "Writing it on them is . . . impolite."

      "Little sister do something again?" Urd ambled in, yawning, "Called you cute, a capital offense."

      "Your boyfriend's friends were here," Skuld complained, "They wanted something built.  Like we're a shop or something."

      "Well," Urd drawled, "K-1 still has to fix the roof from your last little experiment."

      "That would have worked if you hadn't interfered!" Skuld confronted her oldest sister.

      "I think you're jealous," Urd yawned at her outrage, "She gets to work with that mecha, design new weapons, gets all that praise and adulation, and she's really smart and pretty too, not just cute.  You're jealous."

      Skuld gulped like a fish out of water.  Turning purple and white in alternating patterns.

      "MORONS!" Skuld shouted as she ran off.

      Belldandy glanced at Urd's face with the word 'MORONS!' printed on it.  "She did that to them."

      "I knew that," Urd said, touching her face as if she could rub the word off.

      "You shouldn't tease her that way," Belldandy commented.  She saw Urd frown and walk away.  Belldandy shook her head, looked at the patching that had barely kept the rain out of the garage.  Skuld had wanted the fireworks to be special, but she just hadn't counted on Urd's `help`.  She glanced at the damaged bicycle.  She could feel that the girl had loved building it far more than riding it, although she loved that too.  Belldandy also knew it had hurt her to admit she needed help, to do something that she had enjoyed so much, but couldn't do now.

      Belldandy knew the major difference between the two, between Skuld and Asuka, was freedom and discipline.  Skuld could do what she wanted, so she 'puttered' as Keiichi called it, worked on whatever she wanted, she didn't have to finish things.  Asuka only had time and resources to do what she had to do, and she had to complete things to externally imposed deadlines and conditions.  So Asuka's results were cruder, but anyone else could use what she built.  In that way she was more like Keiichi's sister, Megumi, more practical.  Those two built for others, Skuld strove for perfection for herself.  Belldandy smiled, then frowned, Asuka had also brought up the cooking lessons, and asked Megumi to arrange a time when Sora could attend.

      Belldandy shuddered at being close to one of - them.  Demons were easier to understand, they had turned their backs on Heaven out of selfishness.  But - those - the Nephilim's Heavenly parents, had done it for lust, or love, of humans.  As I have, she thought miserably.  She dreaded the possibility that she would have to choose between Heaven and Keiichi.  That girl - was a constant reminder that others had faced the same choice, and had chosen wrong, but believed they'd chosen correctly.

      Simson glanced over at the occupants of the conference room.  The stenographer simply wrote what was said, hiding all her feelings behind a mask of detached professionalism.  Katsuragi was sitting in a chair, practically catatonic, with her legs pulled against her chest and her chin on her knees.  Simson wondered whether the panty flash was subconscious or just carelessness.  Gendo Ikari looked truly shocked for the first time Simson had ever seen.  Ramsey was glaring at both with murder in his eye.

      "I had no idea," Gendo said plainly, putting the folder aside with a shaking hand.  Simson had found the entire file, it was carefully arranged, indexed and footnoted, as if it were the most boring bit of literary criticism, instead of describing the deaths of 246 people and the brutal assaults on some 600+ others.

      "Yet you knew about the other deaths.  Yet, you continued," Simson said quietly, he had gone past the screaming stage and out the other side.  He also suspected if he raised his voice, Ramsey would tear Katsuragi and Ikari apart with his bare hands, and Simson wouldn't have the heart to stop him.

      "Our information was that we could have halted the entire process that began with the Nagasaki and Hiroshima incidents."  Gendo didn't even steeple his fingers, and his stare lacked any trace of its usual force.  "It appears we were wrong."

      Simson picked up the folder, "'Evidence suggests if the creature had been freed, the entire metropolitan areas from Boston, Mass. to Richmond, VA. would be depopulated.'  That's a Hell of a miscalculation.  But it would have bought time for the Japanese to shore up their defenses, possibly knocked us out of the war for six-months to a year.  You are claiming that it wasn't your intention from the first?"

      "The EVAs weren't ready, and your security prevented us from determining the extent of your preparations," Gendo said quietly, "Desperate measures were called for."

      "And the innocent civilians, just collateral damage?" Ramsey growled.

      Gendo pursed his lips for a moment.  Simson knew what he wanted to say, some comment on the firestorming of Japanese cities.  Less than a thousand versus the tens of thousands of Japanese killed.  "Against the millions or billions who would benefit?  We were at war.  If I had to kill a thousand Americans to save tens of millions of Americans, and billions of others.  I saw the cost as acceptable.  When we discovered our error, the project was shut down."

      "And you and your staff retreated to submarines or flying boats to return to Japan," Simson said, "That part of the operation the Senators and their investigators uncovered, you even brought back your dead, or some of them."

      "It was felt necessary," Gendo replied.

      Simson glanced at Katsuragi, she hadn't spoken or moved.  "When we captured you, why didn't you extend the Operation Paperclip protections to your entire staff?"

      And what other secrets and screwups are you hiding from us? Simson didn't add, the atmosphere was tense enough as it was.  He had trusted people going through Gendo's papers.  He just hoped Gendo hadn't hidden everything of consequence in the Magi computing engines.

      "I was in no position to negotiate," Gendo said flatly, "I would like to know where the security leak is."

      "In Boston, someone put together all of this back there.  They even have a charming picture of you two strolling along a Boston street."  Part of his anger was about the attack on his country, but he knew it was war and the U.S. of A. had the OSS. The other part was the rank unprofessionalism, their team hadn't followed basic security procedures, it explained the criminal incompetence of the NERV Security forces.

      "What do we do?" Gendo asked.

      "Major, no Miss, Katsuragi will submit to the subpoena, she will be relieved of duty for the duration of the investigation.  I intend to get to the bottom of this.  You will instruct your staff to cooperate with both the senators' and the Navy's investigations, which includes your records Commander Ikari.  Are there any other little lapses, of memory, procedure or facts you'll like to share?"

      "I will have to review my records," Gendo said quietly.

      Simson noted that Gendo lacked the usual smothered anger at the world.  Gendo had suddenly realized the world could kick back, and it might resent being hated for things it hadn't done.

I've Known a Lot of Fellows Stalk a Dam' Sight Worse

      Asuka, Rei, Erin and Shinji breezed into the apartment.  Ranma looked up from the tunafish salad.

      Well Asuka's breezing, Ranma thought, The other two are blushing.

      "You're late," Sammi said, "Ranma ate all the lunch."

      "That's okay," Asuka said, "Say Horseface, are you ready for that wash and trim I promised.  I have to show Spineless how to wash Wondergirl's hair."  She touched the blushing girl's hair.  "She needs a little work here don't you think?"

      Some instinct told him to move his leg.  He felt the passage of Sammi's foot through where his shin should have been.  Think, he understood the message.

      "Won't that mean I have to wash your hair?" Ranma asked innocently, "A girl having a boy wash?"  He watched her grimace, then dodged another foot, thought desperately.  "Well, maybe have Ranko do it, then we'll both be girls."  He carefully watched her expression soften, slightly.

      "Very well."  She glanced at the other two, screwed on a smile.  "Doesn't that sound nice?"

      "No," Rei said truthfully.  Shinji mumbled something Ranma couldn't make out.  Asuka's smile became a little more wooden.

      "That's good, 'cause it will be wonderful," Asuka made it sound like a command, "I'll get the stuff we need.  Sammi, should we use the kitchen sink?"

      "Let me set it up," Sammi told her.  Erin, Asuka and Rei headed into Asuka's room.  Shinji just stood there.

      "You're getting very clever," Sammi chirped.

      "Thinking's easy," Ranma replied.

      I just have to learn to expect when people kick me in the leg, he thought morosely.

      Asuka returned with Rei in close pursuit, they headed upstairs.  "We'll use the kitchen sink, okay Sammi?"  Erin followed a moment later with a stack of towels.

      "Of course, you'll need a chair," Sammi said, "Right?"


      Sammi set one chair so Asuka could lean over the breakfast bar and sink from behind, another chair in the kitchen so the `victim` could have their head over the sink.

      "Come on Horseface, after the board, this should be easy," Asuka said sweetly.  Ranma couldn't hear any of the trickery she normally had, as she attached a flexible hose and sprayer to the faucet.  He glanced at the way Rei and Shinji were standing.  He decided Asuka was trying not to scare those two off.

      Ranma sat up in the chair and leaned back, Erin draped a towel over his shoulders.

      "We need to move him up and lean him back some," Asuka said.

      "I'm fine, I can do this," Ranma said.  It was a bit uncomfortable, but it wasn't a real problem.

      "Yes, of course you can," Asuka said agreeably, "But that's you, I picked that board because I knew it was impossible for normal people.  So it would be an enjoyable challenge for you."

      Ranma sputtered for a few moments.  "I worked on that for HOURS!" he shouted.  He fell silent as Sammi lifted the chair, by grabbing one leg in her hand and lifting.  With her other hand, she slid several thick books beneath the legs, then she set the chair down.

      Asuka leaned forward and stared down at him, her upside down smile looked appropriate to him.  "And you felt really good at the accomplishment?" Asuka asked, "Right?" there was no levity in her voice, despite the humor.

      Ranma frowned at her.  She smiled and withdrew.

      "First make sure the water is warm but not hot," she told the others.  Ranma felt the water through his hair, she also untied his pigtail.  "Don't let the water get in his eyes.  Especially when there's shampoo involved."

      Ranma tensed as Asuka began working her fingers through his hair.  "Gently, gently," she chanted softly, "Work the water around and through."  Her careful work relaxed him again.  "If the hair is really dirty," Asuka said, "a tiny bit of shampoo just to wet everything more."

      Asuka's fingers gently massaging his scalp relaxed him more, he tuned out her words, closed his eyes.  He was a little surprised she didn't shout at him or douse him with cold water while she ringed.  She washed his hair with something that smelled like lemons and she let it sit for a few minutes, then rinsed it out and washed it again with regular soap, let it sit, then `washed` it with just water until every trace of shampoo was gone.  She talked to the others the entire time, Ranma tuned out the words, relaxed, tried to feel the motions of her fingers and hands.

      He was sitting up as Asuka came around the counter and she carefully dried his hair with the same strong gentle motions of her fingers.  Again it nearly put him to sleep.  He was too relaxed to worry about the other shoe dropping, when Asuka would stop being nice and he'd pay the price.

      "Sammi, I think you'd better take him downstairs and let him sleep it off," Asuka said, "Okay Spineless, up in the chair."

      "Yes, Megorofeld," Spineless said.

      "Oh, by the way Spineless," Asuka continued happily, "I arranged for a couple of bicycles, you can teach Wondergirl how to ride."  Sammi picked up Ranma, he knew protests were useless, so he didn't bother.  Shinji took his seat.  Ranma hated to admit it, but he kinda liked when Sammi carried him around like a little kid, cradled in her arms.  It was a heavy-duty reminder that someone big and powerful was looking after him, looking out for him.  He had a sneaking suspicion Sammi might have held her own against one of those hunters that went after Rit-chan.  She was even stronger than Rei, was halfway decent with martial arts, and was as sneaky as Raccoon and Nab-chan combined.

      He knew there had to be something weird about enjoying being helpless for a little bit, but he knew he couldn't fight Sammi, and neither could anybody else.  She'd done it the first time to forestall arguments, now he thought she did it because they both enjoyed it.  It was a teasing he completely understood and accepted.

      "I cannot ride a bicycle."  Ranma watched Rei climb up on the chair behind the sink.

      "What?  You'll dissolve, or turn into a blob of orange goo if you sit on a bicycle?  That's why Spineless can teach you, so we can ride our bikes to school together," Asuka replied.

      Ranma waited until they were downstairs before he squirmed out of Sammi's arms.  "What's gotten into her?"

      "Nefarious plan," Sammi suggested as she escorted him into his room.  He lay down and took a quick nap with a towel still wrapped around his head.

      "Gently Wondergirl, gently.  Let the chemicals and time do most of the work," Asuka told her.

      "Jawohl, mein Grosse Feldmarschall," Wondergirl agreed.  Asuka decided not to hit her for her effrontery, after all she was trying to teach the girl to have a little spirit.  Spineless couldn't decide if he was in heaven or if he should be embarrassed to death.

      "Now rinse," Asuka told her, "Use the water to keep the shampoo out of his eyes.  You don't want to hurt those pretty eyes, now do you?"  Asuka watched both of them blush until Rei's face was practically normal color.  "Keep rinsing, yes squeeze out the water at the ends, keep rinsing, I'm going to check on Horseface.  Oh, if he falls asleep, it's not an insult, part of the fun is relaxing the recipient."

      "I understand," Wondergirl told her.

      I bet you do, Wondergirl, Asuka thought, But you don't really.

      Asuka headed downstairs to Horseface's room.  He was instantly awake when she opened the door, and instantly suspicious when she quietly closed it behind her.  "Relax, Horseface, I'm not going to ravish you and make you unsuitable for marriage."  She smiled at his frown.  "So you mastered the board, I'm extremely pleased."

      "It was all a trick," he complained, "You tricked me, that's why you're pleased."

      "And how is that different from any other martial arts master, I tricked you into pushing yourself harder than you thought possible."  She smiled broadly.  "Correct?"

      She waited for him to sit up, his frown deepening to a scowl as he realized she was right.

      Good, next step, she thought.

      "So, are you ready to teach those two a little martial arts?" she asked.

      "They won't accept," he said morosely.

      "Oh they will."  She smiled, holding her hand at Plough Guard she made a thrust at his face and withdrew to High Guard before he could slap her hand away.  He dodged, of course, but that wasn't the point.  "How many moves was that?"

      "One."  Then he paused, sat there and thought.  She forced herself to keep a placid expression and demeanor, but she could feel the whole universe in a balance, or at least all her work, which was the important part of the universe.  She watched Horseface get more and more confused as what he `knew` crashed violently into what she'd taught him.

      "Three: Plough Guard, thrust to the face, to High Guard," he said in a thoroughly mystified voice, as if someone had just told him the secret of the universe, and it not only didn't make sense, but was clearly wrong.

      "So, how many moves?" Asuka kept her excitement out of her voice.

      "Three," he replied with irritated confidence.

      "So, and you had plenty of time to analyze those moves on the board.  I bet even you had to move slow to start out."

      "I got better," he protested.

      "Did - you - an - al - yze - the moves?" she hammered each enunciated syllable at him.

      "Yes," he replied in the exact same tone.

      "Good, now you can teach the others a little basic knife work."  She turned and headed for the door.

      "Wait a second," Ranma said as he stood up, "Why don't you teach them?  You taught me!"

      "Me, teach martial arts?" she said as if he'd suggested moving manure with her tongue, "That's your job Horseface, don't slack off because you're lazy."  She had the door closed behind her before he could reply.  She was smiling happily and heading up the stairs a moment later, with Horseface in hot pursuit.

      She was happy to see that Wondergirl had moved on to the next step, either on her own or with a little prompting from Erin or Sammi.  She headed to the kitchen, not giving Horseface a chance to protest.  "I managed to talk Horseface into giving you some tips on using the prog knife and the sonic glaive," she told Wondergirl and Spineless, "Don't hurt his feelings by saying 'no', he's worked very hard on figuring out how to teach better."  She turned to him.  "Right Horseface?"  She smiled, Horseface looked like he'd just walked into a post.

      "You will attend, of course," Wondergirl said.  Asuka wasn't sure, but Wondergirl might actually have been angry.

      "Of course."  She patted Wondergirl's shoulder reassuringly, "I might even learn something."  She glared at Horseface, implying she'd better.

      Horseface hung his head, Erin and Sammi just exchanged glances.

      "We can have fun," Asuka said.

      "All will make merry, under penalty of death," Erin murmured in German.  Sammi laughed.

      Traitors, Asuka thought, frowned at them.

      "After the last rinse," Wondergirl began, "There is only the drying?"

      "Yes," Asuka said, "If his hair were dirtier, or smelled of L.C.L. then you'd do the other washes."

      "Yes," Wondergirl said as she shut off the water and walked around the counter, accepting a towel from Erin.

      Asuka watched as Wondergirl carefully dried Spineless's hair, she was glad she didn't have to tell her not to rub until it all came off, and she changed to a drier towel without having to be asked or told.

      "Do you want Shinji-kun to wash, or the Fourth?" Wondergirl asked.

      Might as well take my medicine, Asuka thought.

      "My hair's longer, it'll take a while.  What do you want to do?" Asuka asked.

      "I wish to discuss children," Wondergirl said, "Having them, raising them, their purpose."

      Asuka blinked, now she felt she'd walked into a post, then knocked the anvil atop it loose.  "Uh . . . what does that . . . have to do with this?"

      "If it is going to take a long time, then that is the time to discuss it," Wondergirl said, as if it were all patently obvious.

      Asuka couldn't fault Wondergirl's directness, she was surprised that Spineless hadn't beaten a hasty retreat.  He was clearly Wondergirl's first choice, and if he wasn't careful, maybe a drunken Misato's.  That thought made Asuka's skin crawl, but she remembered how Misato teased both of them about having kids, as if it was the most important thing in the world.  Yet Misato was well past the age most Japanese women got married and had families.  She'd even heard some Japanese girls got married even younger than Asuka.  She shook her head to clear it, and realized Erin was leading her to the chair.

      She glanced up and saw Horseface with the sprayer, wetting down her hair.  She was fairly sure he wouldn't do anything untoward, especially after Wondergirl's little comment.  Wondergirl was watching what Horseface was doing, she seemed oblivious to how uncomfortable she'd made Asuka and the others.

      "What about a manicure?" Erin asked Sammi, "I mean look at those nails, it looks like she fixes machines for a living."

      Sammi clucked her tongue.  "Disgraceful.  Something must be done."

      "My nails are fine!" Asuka shouted back, "I don't like nail polish!"

      It always chips and peels off when you are working on something, she thought angrily.

      "Well we have to show Rei and Ranko how it's done, don't we?"  Erin was giving a perfect impersonation of the very bubbly, brainless bimbos who'd first convinced Asuka that polished nails were for girls who were decorative, instead of useful.

      "Of course we must," Sammi breathed in the same stupid voice.

      Asuka knew when the pair outmatched her.  She folded her legs under the chairs and vowed the first mention of a pedicure was going to earn the suggester a free foot massage, when she tapdanced on their skull.

      "What do you think of children?" Rei asked mein Grosse Feldmarschall.  While she watched the Fourth washing her hair, and Sammi and Erin carefully clipping and filing her nails.  Considering that mein Grosse Feldmarschall had described the process as relaxing, it seemed to be having the opposite affect.

      "Why would I want kids?" mein Grosse Feldmarschall asked, "It's not like I have to have them."

      "I can understand not now," Sammi said, "But not ever?"

      "What's so hard to understand?" mein Grosse Feldmarschall asked, "You and Spineless may find them as fascinating as you find each other, but not me.  Ask Horseface, he probably doesn't want kids either."

      "I'm a guy," the Fourth responded.

      "How does that preclude you from being a father?" Sammi asked.

      The Fourth stopped, considered.  "I guess it doesn't.  I always figured I'd be a Martial Artist."

      "What?" Erin asked, "Until you died?  No family, no heirs?"

      "Well what about Commander Fuyutsuki and Cap - Major Katsuragi," the Fourth said, "They don't have kids."

      "The Commander does," Rei pointed out.

      "Ah, that's a good example," mein Grosse Feldmarschall said angrily, "He dumped him off on someone else as soon as he could.  He didn't raise ole' Spineless.  Birthing them is easy, raising kids is the hard part."

      Rei nodded.  "Is that why you don't wish to have children?"

      Mein Grosse Feldmarschall turned to face her.  "Look, you and Spineless may be planning your nest and old age together, fine.  I made a fool of myself about Kaji, my mistake.  Horseface here, he can't figure out if he's interested in girls, or just martial arts."

      "HEY!" the Fourth protested.

      "But the boys around here are all immature louts who can't be trusted, and they don't get any better when they get older."

      "What of Roku-kun?" Rei asked.

      Mein Grosse Feldmarschall turned back.  "He's the worst," she said quietly.

      Rei was confused, the two seemed to get along, when they weren't teasing each other, and even that was affectionate.  She looked at the two older women.

      "Well, that writes off half the human race," Sammi commented.

      "If you have to marry someone to be someone, fine," mein Grosse Feldmarschall said, "Don't assume I have to.  I'm fine - by - my - self."

      "Should we leave?" Rei asked, she wondered why mein Grosse Feldmarschall seemed so offended.

      "That isn't what I meant Wondergirl, and you know it.  Horseface wants to be a wandering martial artist, nobody tells him he can't live on his own."

      "Nabiki-kun would," Rei corrected.

      "Uh, can we change the subject?' the Fourth asked

      "No," Rei answered, "I believe, from what she has said and done, that Nabiki-kun desires a home and children with him.  You have no such desires?"

      "I can get a home of my own," she answered.  "Look, Wondergirl, you've made your decision.  You want kids, probably with Spineless."

      Rei blushed, glanced at Shinji-kun who was blushing worse than she was.

      "You're looking at a 15 to 20 year non-concurrent commitment for each one, everything is second to those kids.  You put your career second, vacations, education, everything.  Then if they turn out okay, you may not have had anything to do with it, and you have to let them go.  All you can be is proud of the adults they've become.  If they don't turn out okay, you spend the rest of your life trying to fix it or beating yourself up for what you did or failed to do.  I . . . " her voice faltered, "I already have enough to worry about."

      Rei thought she sounded frightened.  Of what? Rei wondered.

      "What she said is true," Erin said, "I grew up in a big family, when my mom died, my older sister and I looked after five other kids.  From toddlers to a little younger than me.  We never really got a break until the youngest was in school.  I sometimes think I joined the Navy to get away from my family.  I still visit them, but I don't have to go and stay there.  I'm only 23, I do eventually want to settle down and have a family of my own.  However, I wanted some experiences of my own first.  You kids are already having more 'experiences' than I ever wanted."

      "I think you can guess why I never got married," Sammi chuckled, "But I don't think any of you should make hard and fast plans.  People change when they grow up."  She concentrated on mein Grosse Feldmarschall.  "Boys eventually grow up too, some even become men."

      Only because Rei was looking right at her, did she see mein Grosse Feldmarschall mouth, 'No, they don't.'

I've Known a Lot o' Men Behave a Dam' Sight Worse

      Ranma stood atop the board, moving slowly, the kata was one of his simplest.  But he had to move slowly, or the board would pitch him off, again.  He'd run through the entire sword `kata` without a fall.  He wasn't doing this kempo kata, he was studying it, where the moves started, where they landed, where they returned to.  It was such a simple process, he didn't know why he hadn't figured it out before.  He had superb balance, so even though most people couldn't have even stood on this board and remained upright, he could move.  The key was he had to move slowly.  He had to take the time.

      It was a completely alien way of thinking.  As if each move wasn't part of a greater whole, as if a person could shred a battle into dainty pieces.  When he'd told Asuka, she'd simply said 'quanta' and not laughed at him.  He didn't understand her explanation of cutting things into the tiniest pieces, but here he was, trying to do exactly that.  Trying to find the `truth` by slicing something into little pieces, and looking at the separated pieces.

      He moved through the kata, to the end, pivoted and started it again, walking in the other direction.  Each move started, stopped, then the next which started where the last left off.  He tried to fit them into the categories Talhoffer used.  They didn't fit, Anything Goes was too complicated, too many variations.  But in a few days, he could at least start with the first layers.  He continually had to remind himself he'd been trained for a long time, probably as long as Asuka had studied science, as long as Raccoon and Rei had studied what they were.

      The hardest part was trying to stand outside himself and study his own moves.  The movement was him, trying to deny that, to watch the movement instead of being the movement was almost impossible.  He had a feeling he wasn't doing it very well.  He hated the idea of asking Asuka for help, but he was beginning to get the feeling he was going to have no choice.  He'd probably have to ask Sammi, and maybe Tomiyo as well.

      That was humiliating.  He was the expert, he could have beaten all of them.  Yet he was going to have to beg for their help to get what he needed.

      The world hates me, Ranma thought.  The splash of cold water seemed to confirm his suspicions.

      Ranko landed on the sawhorse as the board tipped over.  "At least you waited until I was near the end."  She wiped her damp hand on her shirt.

      "How did you know it was me?" Sammi asked, smirking and setting aside the now empty tea cup.

      "Because nobody else could get so close without me noticing," she said, sighed, "Now you're going to tell me some grand revelation, right?"

      "One!" she shouted in an offended tone, "Two at least.  First, you're going to have to practice as a girl as well, most of a man's weight is above his waist and men are generally stronger; most of a girl's weight is below her waist, and girls are typically faster.  If you're going to teach Rei and Shinji, and Asuka, you need to be able to compensate for that."

      Ranko let her head sag, it was almost too complicated now, adding that made it worse.  "What's the second?"

      "Second, there was a story about a man borrowing a tool from a neighbor on an early morning, he spent the entire walk to his neighbor's worrying about how his neighbor would react badly to being awakened so early.  By the time he arrived at his neighbor's, who was already awake, he pounded on the door and told him he could 'keep his damned tools,' and stalked away.  I figured you were up here winding yourself up, expecting all of us to laugh at you for asking for help."

      "You won't laugh at me," Ranko perked up.

      "No, of course we will.  But we will quit laughing behind your back for not asking," Sammi said happily.

      Ranko shook her head.  I can't win, she thought.

      "I must say I am disappointed in you," now Sammi sounded angry.

      What did I do this time? Ranko thought helplessly.

      "We've been waiting dinner for over ten minutes - "

      Ranko didn't hear any more as she raced for the stair way.  I almost missed dinner, I don't believe it, she thought as she ran, I must really be distracted.

      Shinji glanced over to Rei-chan, as they worked in Misato-san's kitchen.  Rei-chan seemed very nervous.  "I like your hairstyle," he told her.

      "Thank you," Rei-chan said quietly.

      They hadn't agreed on how to restyle her hair, so they had just washed it, trimmed it, and had Shinji brush it out.  He'd been surprised that Asuka hadn't made all kinds of embarrassing comments, just put the brush in his hand and told him 'fifty gentle strokes'.  He done it, then Rei-chan had asked him to continue, he'd done over a hundred.  Then he realized Asuka had been staring at him, not saying anything, not angry, just - staring.

      "If you want," he offered, "I can come with you during your lessons."  He couldn't understand why she blushed so.  She nodded, the only answer he suspected he'd get.  "Do you know why Misato-san is so late, was there something special scheduled today?" Shinji asked, Rei-chan seemed to know everything about NERV operations, but she rarely talked about it unless directly asked.

      "No.  The Commander was not available," Rei-chan said quietly, "There was nothing special that should have occurred."

      That leaves unscheduled disasters, Shinji thought, But then why no alert, why didn't they call the pilots?

      Misato slouched in, she paused at the door to remove her shoes.

      "Welcome home, dinner will be ready shortly," Shinji tried to sound cheerful, he thought he sounded sick.

      "Bath, sleep," Misato mumbled as she walked through the dining room for the bedrooms.

      He glanced at Rei-chan who seemed as lost and confused by this behavior as he was.  "She didn't even get a beer."

      "Should I offer to wash her hair?" Rei-chan asked.

      Shinji froze at the possibility of a Misato explosion at Rei-chan.  "You can offer, but be ready for her to refuse."

      Rei-chan nodded and headed towards the bedrooms, and walked into Misato's, closing the door behind her.  Shinji stood there, his warning unspoken on his lips.  He didn't know what to do.  He doubted Misato-san would hurt Rei-chan, but as odd as she was acting, anything might happen.  He heard the sound of a chair dragging across the floor.  He headed closer to the door.

      I'm getting as bad as Nabiki, he thought as he stood close to the door, eavesdropping.  His thought about Nabiki seemed accurate, he'd heard that noise before, when Nabiki was crying her heart out after Hiroko's death.  Shinji dithered for a moment, then shook his head.  I know what to do, he thought, I did it for Nabiki for over a week.

      He returned to the kitchen, shut off the cooking dinner and carefully prepared some tea and snacks, then returned to the bedroom.  The scene he found also followed the pattern.  Rei-chan knelt with Misato-san's head in her lap.  Rei-chan looked very uncomfortable, but she stroked Misato-san's back with one hand while touching her head with the other.  Rei-chan was glad of his appearance.  Having a fellow pilot sobbing this way was one thing, having the chief tactical officer sobbing was something else entirely.  Shinji set the tray where he could reach it, and sat down next to Misato-san and set one hand on her heaving shoulders.  He was still convinced it wasn't enough, but he had seen it work slowly on Nabiki.  Without a better idea he followed the pattern.  He didn't press the tea on Misato-san, it would get cold, it frequently had, but it never seemed to matter.

      Shinji closed the door after Rei-chan had walked through with the tray.  They returned to the kitchen.

      "Who would do something like that to Misato-san?" Shinji was horrified, she'd been relieved of command and was facing not just a criminal investigation, but possibly a war-crimes tribunal.

      "Any of her victims," Rei-chan said, "Many died in that operation."

      "What do you know about it?" Shinji asked.  He saw Rei-chan hesitate.  "If it's secret, don't tell me, but . . . please tell me what you can."

      "I was badly injured," she said.

      "You were there?"  Shinji couldn't believe it.  "What happened, can you tell me?"

      "Many people died," Rei-chan told him, "If we had succeeded, NERV and the EVAs would not be necessary."

      "Oh," Shinji said, he was still confused, but Misato-san had been trying to do a good thing, but people died.  People died when the EVAs sortied.  "Does Raccoon know you were there?  Maybe he knows what happened."

      "I told him, he was not aware of everything.  He was aware of the killings," Rei-chan told him.  He considered telling Admiral Simson about this, then he remembered how badly Misato-san and Raccoon got along.

      Maybe it's better he isn't here, Shinji thought, I can't imagine what would be worse, that he'd refuse to help, or that he'd help and Misato-san would hate him more.

      "Should we ask Admiral Simson and Captain Ramsey what's going on?" Shinji asked.

      Rei-chan considered.  "Yes, in the morning, after practice.  We agreed to attend the Fourth's martial arts training."

      I guess that's as close as Rei-chan gets to a sneer, Shinji thought, But I agree with her.  What difference would a couple of days make?

      "It is the polite thing to do.  With Asuka, Sammi, Erin, and Tomiyo there too, he'll probably behave."

      "We will see."  Rei-chan started washing the tea cups.

      "Do you . . . want to stay the night," Shinji managed without stuttering, "To see if Misato-san needs us.  I think she might."

      "I will inform the Commander of my location.  What sleeping arrangements?  Will I sleep in your bed?"

      Shinji couldn't even phrase or signal a denial.

      "While you sleep in your previous room," Rei-chan referred to the huge walk-in closet.  Shinji relaxed.

      "What would you like?" Shinji asked.

      Rei-chan stared at him, he could feel his blush rising, like the mercury in a thermometer, he figured he'd get a nosebleed when the blush reached that point.

      "I will sleep in your bed, and so will you," Rei-chan said.

      Shinji felt the entire world swaying.  He didn't know how he was remaining upright in the earthquake, or why he couldn't get his legs or mouth to move.

      "I will sleep two hours while you keep watch, then you will sleep two hours while I keep watch.  Nabiki-kun attempted suicide, that must be prevented.  If she uses the bathroom, you will wake me and I will accompany her."

      Shinji felt the room shifting, but for a very different reason.  Now he was afraid.  Rei-chan had brought up something he hadn't considered, hadn't remembered until she reminded him.  "Do you really think she'd . . . ?"

      "It does not matter, if we can prevent it," Rei-chan said firmly.

      Simson stood by the window of his office and looked over the preliminary reports from the day's `interview` with Miss nee Major Katsuragi.  They hadn't informed her about her rights against self-incrimination, nor had she been afforded an American legal counsel, until the JAG pointed out that such behavior would be grounds for appeal anywhere the U.S. Justice system held sway.  At the moment that included Japan.

      He looked over to Ramsey who had controlled his anger, or at least hid it better.  "Politics, here I am feeling good we might get a war-criminal off on a technicality.  What does that make me?"

      "The case would have to be above board and airtight if they were planning on going through with this," Ramsey said, "The JAG seems to think that any case against her would be very shaky."

      "The JAG is thinking like a lawyer, a couple of stars on your shoulder and you start having to see things a lot wider, politics, law, your men, supplies, everything," Simson paused, "I'm sorry Captain, it's been a long day.  How did the debriefing of those kids go?"

      "No problems, nothing unusual, other than in patriarchal Japan they managed not only to take over their school government but get funding for a girls' sports team.  My guess is that this Usagi and her friends are dyed-in-the-wool baseball fanatics.  That's practically all they talked about."

      "Keep on it," Simson said, "We got blindsided once, then again.  Have a seat Captain."  Simson sat behind his desk, glared at the reports his people had turned up in the past few hours.

      "Maybe it's a good thing, Admiral," Ramsey said as he sat down, "We've got the leverage to investigate a few things on our own. Considering the man who holds Gendo's purse strings is right here, we can ask him to tighten those strings, if `Commander` Ikari doesn't cooperate."

      "It does give a possible explanation why they didn't deploy Unit 00 in the Hiroshima incident.  Miss Ayanami might not have been in the country, some of the NERV personnel didn't make it back until the war was over."

      "Are you planning on questioning her?" Ramsey asked.

      "No, she may be artless, however, she can keep a secret better than even the cleverer pilots," Simson said and smiled, "If she ever opened up, we might get a complete picture of what happened, who knew what when, and then we could make sense of this all.  Speaking of distractions, what about that Hiro Takemono?"

      "His story checks out, sir, and he's got one more character witness.  One I think you'll trust."


      "Me, sir."  Ramsey waited for Simson's intrigued glance.  "I was coordinating air support for a British advance in Burma.  They'd been trying to come to grips with a Japanese column.  Both of them came in contact with a bunch of Tcho-Tcho's and a few 'something else's.  The Brits called for support, but their transmission of their coordinate got garbled.  Most of us heard the same thing, but we weren't sure, not sure enough to call in an air strike and naval gunfire.  Suddenly this voice comes over the radio, the authentication codes were correct, and the voice was perfect American English.  One of the radio operators guessed Kansas.  Turns out it was Kansai, but it was my decision.  The coordinates were exactly where we thought the Brits were calling for.  Nevertheless, Admiral, I knew there were no Americans anywhere near that place.  Stilwell wouldn't have permitted it.  But I sent the planes in, bombs, rockets, napalm, strafing.  The Brits were so grateful, the planes even chewed up the Japanese."  Ramsey chuckled.  "If I'd kept my mouth shut, I might even be an Admiral and Knight of the Bath, Mountbatten himself shook my hand."

      "But you went on about Tcho-Tcho's and it got out you responded to Japanese `disinformation`," Simson said.

      Ramsey nodded, "They were pressuring me to accept a permanent rank of Captain and retirement.  Then I heard about NERV and some of the things there and . . . "

      "And I got saddled with a disgraced Captain who hadn't learned to keep his mouth shut."

      "I have since, Admiral.  However, when I heard Mr. Takemono's voice, I even asked him point-blank if he could do regional accents.  He got this weird look in his eye and repeated the entire exchange.  My part and his, in the appropriate dialect.  I may discuss it with him privately, later."

      "Well, this may be a distraction from all the other investigations going on.  I don't think they intended it as such.  Put some friends out as additional eyes on the girls and Mr. Takemono.  The military can concentrate on plumbing the depths of NERV," Simson said.

      Especially that tank that ended the world, Simson thought.

      "I already found one disturbing piece of information.  A sergeant Rokubungi who was in Nanking during the massacre.  That's too much of a coincidence."

      "SEELE versus the 'Deathless Chinese'?" Ramsey asked, "That makes sense.  Go into a city full of sympathizers, kill all the suspects, you'll probably get most of them.  If thousands of innocents die, well too bad."

      Simson nodded.  "Get some sleep Captain, I think the next few days are going to be very busy for us."

      Ramsey stood and left, Simson turned back to the window, watched the stars for a while before he too left.

      He missed the small dark figure who thoroughly examined the papers, then put them all back exactly where they had been.

July 16, 1947

I've Known Some Pet Battalions Charge a Dam' Sight Less

      Ranma had been up for a couple hours now, but he hadn't come out of his room.  He had been studying.  After Rei and ole' Spineless went home and after dinner, he'd gone back up on the roof to practice.  Asuka had handed him a broomstick and a Marine's fighting knife, and let him go with a smile and a nod.

      He'd faced Great Old Ones, yet still, a smiling Asuka frightened him beyond anything except - one of the furry ones.  For hours he practiced, first with the knife, and then with the broom stick . . . and he fell down a lot.  Then a dose of water and she did the exercise with the sword, where she fell down a lot; the knife, where she fell almost not at all; and the broomstick, when she fell down more than she wanted to, but only because the evening breeze had come up and the board fell over on it's own a few times.  But at the end, he and she, could do the exercise without error with any weapon that came to hand, short, medium or long.  She and he had studied the movements in detail, she and he knew what was important and what wasn't.  As well as what was different for girls and boys, different balance, different strength.

      He'd returned to the apartment, and asked to look over the Talhoffer book, Asuka had smilingly turned it over.  He discovered it had many pictures, but the words were all in German.  Then Asuka had pointed out the pages of translation.  Pages filled with Asuka's neat hiragana handwriting, with katakana for highlighting.  He did notice there wasn't a single kanji character on any of the ten pages of translation.  A stark reminder of the debt he now owed, the best way he could repay, and the general perversity of the universe.  To settle a debt to Asuka for training him in Martial Arts, he would have to teach her to write.

      Ranma heard the others arrive.  Asuka greeted them: Shinji, Rei, Tomiyo, Erin, Juri, and Misato; she and Sammi took them to the roof for warm up and stretching exercises.  He stayed in his room.  He hadn't even faced them, and he could already feel the fear sweat crawling down his back like a bug.

      "What am I afraid of?" he asked himself.

      Screwing up, came the immediate answer, I've got a second chance.  I don't want to mess this up.

      "So I won't," he said as he walked out the door, up the stairs, across the roof.  He let a little of his natural arrogance out, the appearance of confidence.  The Meliorist had been relentless in teaching how you appealed to students, novices and veterans.  Making him repeat her lessons in his own words.  Hours of 'skull work', as well as a little knife work, and reminders to keep it simple.  'Teach only the basics, and if they all got it, the lesson was over.  Then you teach it to them again, practice, repeat.'  She made it sound easy.  Walking across the roof in the early morning light, it seemed anything but.

      They arranged themselves in a semicircle around him, each one reaching out with a hand to open the gap between them.  Something he'd forgotten to tell them to do.  Each also had a broomstick and a scabbarded knife, another thing he'd forgotten to provide.  He glanced at Asuka, she kept her eyes straight forward, refusing to look at him, smile or show any expression at all.

      He slipped his toe under his broomstick and flipped it up into his hand.  The Meliorist had been very clear, 'Don't flaunt your skill, but at the beginning give everyone a quick lesson why you are the teacher.'  Clear, but contradictory.  Asuka was walking towards him now, carrying her stick and knife.  She stopped a few paces away and turned her back to him.  He hadn't the faintest idea what she was doing, so he went on with what he had planned.

      "There are four stances in Talhoffer: the Iron Gate."  He took the stance, so did Asuka.

      Oh, front and side views, Ranma thought, Something else to remember.

      "The Plough."  He took the stance, so did Asuka.  "Oxen Guards, left and right."  He took the stance held it for a moment, then switched to the next.  Asuka followed right along.  Ranma felt the sweat beading on his face now.  "High Guard."  He took the stance and so did Asuka.  He chided himself for his nervousness.  He and the Meliorist had gone over this, his 'lesson plan', it was obvious Asuka knew all that too, she was covering the holes neither she nor the Meliorist had pointed out to him.  Demonstrating the improvements, rather than telling him about them.  Worse, she wasn't teasing him about it, wasn't embarrassing him.  That almost guaranteed payback ten times worse later.

      He swallowed before speaking again.  "We will practice the stances with the stick, the knife and with our fists."

      Oh crap I forgot! he thought, moved to cover his lapse.

      "The stances are the beginning and end of all attacks, but they are just points you move through on the way to the next move."

      I blew it! Ranma thought, Asuka'll never let me live that down.

      Ranma lay face down on his bed, a pillow over his head.  "I can't believe how bad I screwed up!" he moaned.  He heard the door open and Asuka walk across the floor.

      "That isn't how you do it, Horseface," she whispered to him, "You're supposed to have your face in the pillow."

      "Thanks," he told her, not moving the pillow, "It's nice to know someone still thinks I'm an idiot."

      "I never doubted you were an idiot, you just gave me more proof," she said quietly.

      "I already know how I screwed up," Ranma said, "And so do you."

      "True."  Asuka flopped down across his back, staring at the ceiling.  "But that's not why you're an idiot.  You got a couple things out of order, you forgot a few minor points.  But that isn't it.  You're an idiot because all those mistakes you're moping about, only you and I know you made them, everybody else was pleased how well things worked out.  Sure Sammi and I had to keep things going at a comfortable rate, and only Sammi and Tomiyo got all four stances correct by the end, but your moping is your real mistake.  That is your only mistake."  She stood up.  "Don't forget, we still have McBane and Hope to work on.  No slacking off just because you're teaching a morning class.  I'll just have to concentrate on the evening lessons."

      Outside there was a rumble of thunder.  Ranma raised his head, looked at Asuka.  She seemed amused rather than angry.  "Thanks, I guess."

      "You're welcome," Asuka told him smiled, "I don't have to guess at all."  She left.

      Ranma couldn't bring himself to believe her.

      Sammi watched Asuka tromp up the stairs to the dining room.  "Problems?" she asked.

      Asuka fixed her with a glare that would have killed a lesser being.  "Did you see anything wrong with the lesson this morning?" Asuka asked in a barely controlled voice.

      "Should I get a pillow for you to scream into before I answer that question?" Sammi asked, got a frown.  "It was rough, like any new teacher's first class.  It was better than the ones he was teaching at Ritsuko's.  Overall it wasn't too bad for a beginner."

      "He - is - down - in - his - room - moping."  Asuka was practically steaming from the heat of her rage.  "'Oh it all went wrong, everything's bad, I'm going to disembowel myself honorably.'  What happened to all that arrogant self-confidence that even a COMPLETE AND TOTAL SCREW UP WAS PERFECTION ITSELF!?"

      "Fire in the hole, fire in the hole," Sammi said, "On this site was once the mighty city of Tooo - Kyoooo.  The explosion that created Nerima harbor was of unknown origin, but the survivors in Yokohoma walked around for the rest of their lives with bleeding ears, shouting 'What?' at everyone."

      "Is that supposed to help?"  Asuka flopped down in the chair opposite her.

      "No, not really.  You're just so CUUUTE when you're angry."

      Asuka cleared her throat and put her head on the table.  "Insane morons surround me.  What did I ever do to God to deserve this?"

      "You are our shining beacon to the better, more thought-filled life," Sammi pronounced, patted Asuka's shoulder.

      "If you really want to pour golden light on everything," Asuka said without raising her head, "You might want to pour some on Horseface."

      Sammi let that lie for a little while.  "What about the cooking lessons for Rei?"

      "Thursday evening," Asuka said to the table, then she raised her head and looked out the window at the growing storm, "I think that Belldandy is looking for a polite way to back out.  I also suspect that paying her is out of the question.  So what's rare and expensive in Japan, and I can have Wondergirl pick up at the PX for cheap as a 'Thank You' present."

      "I think 'Wondergirl''s new name for mein Grosse Feldmarschall, is quite accurate.  Don't you think Rei knows about the customs?"

      "There's a big difference between knowing and applying the knowledge.  I don't think those two like each other.  Wondergirl wouldn't do it for a calculated insult, but Wondergirl's surprised me lately.  And no jokes about the world ending.  I worked to that end, I'm . . . pleased how it's turned out, and how quickly."

      "So that's why you don't kids," Sammi said, "You've already got them."

      Asuka growled, but said nothing intelligible.

      "Well, Dr. Frankenstein," Sammi said in German, "You have created better than you expected.  What are you going to do now?"

      "I have this image of a kingdom of fairy-tale castles and magic, talking mice."

      "Ah, a search and destroy mission," Sammi said, "I understand.  Will you be blowing things up yourself, or calling down artillery?"

      "We thank you for coming again, Miss Katsuragi, and your cooperation," the translator said politely.

      Misato just felt numb.  The questioning yesterday had gone on for hours.  She hadn't consciously remembered half the details they'd pried out of her.  She hadn't known about the death and destruction that the operation had caused.  She hadn't cared, neither now nor when it happened.  To say the senators had been unhappy about that was a colossal understatement.

      She took the chair and glanced at the wood paneled room.  Her lawyer had told her she could refuse any question.  But she'd already divulged enough to get her hung, like a piece of meat, not hanged like a condemned prisoner.  She'd wanted to destroy the Angels.  That was all she cared about during that time.  She and the Commander knew the EVAs were a longshot.  What they had been doing was supposed to be guaranteed.  Yesterday, they revealed that it had all been a lie.  The monster they were trying to release was no savior, it was just a monster.

      "Miss Katsuragi, Commander Ikari has not been forthcoming on much of the information and testimony you gave us," the translator changed the senator's accented English into flawless Japanese.

      Why am I not surprised?  He's immune to prosecution, Misato thought, Throw me to the wolves and get away.  She smiled bitterly.  It's a good tactic, she thought.  Then she returned to a blank expression.

      The senators didn't appear to have noticed the lapse.  "So they have had to go to other sources for corroboration.  They agree with your testimony to a high degree of accuracy.  We thank you for your candidness."

      "You're welcome," Misato said woodenly.  She thought it was amusing, she'd always hated having to be clean and pure and better.  Now she was a war-criminal, somehow this wasn't what she wanted now.  She was disgraced, dishonored, only trial and punishment awaited her.  They had executed officers for lesser crimes than hers.  They were still executing officers and soldiers for such crimes.  'I was only following orders' was no longer a defense.  She doubted 'I thought I was saving the world', would cut much ice with them either.

      She pursed her lips while the old men and their staffs shuffled their papers.  She was determined to go down with her head held high, if they wanted the scalp of an officer, they would get an officer.  Inside, behind her mask, there she would allow her world to fall apart.

      "Just a few questions more I'm afraid," the translator converted the oldest of the men's words, he managed to retain the kindly tone.

      Misato wasn't deceived she knew these were politicians, they were after very specific goals and could smile or act to get whatever they wanted.

      "The travel papers and ration books you used in the 'States.  You said you obtained them locally, and their authenticity was never questioned."

      "That is correct," she answered, "They looked and felt exactly like the correct ones issued by the American government."

      There was silence and hurried conversations.  Misato looked outside, yesterday it had been bright and sunny.  Today it promised to be a storm to remember.  Neither seemed a proper metaphor for what was happening to her.

      Kaji tried to block the door to the NERV Security offices.  "I must protest."

      "Protest to MacArthur," Ramsey replied, "Move or be moved."  He pushed Kaji away and went through the doors.  Ramsey's 'battlegroup' was an odd affair, a mix of clerks, typists, and combat troops.

      The records of NERV Security were worse than he'd feared.  As much as he hated paperwork, records made sure people didn't have to keep making the same mistakes.  They seemed to want to, but he could attribute that to their failure to read the records and warnings.

      Another team was going through Katsuragi's office.  He'd taken one look at the mess and wondered if tossing in an incendiary might not be simpler.  Simson and MacArthur were confronting Gendo and Fuyutsuki to get their records of the time.  He could remember Fuyutsuki's shocked expression when they'd revealed what they were doing.  Of course a squad of Shore Patrol kept the Commanders from their offices, to keep them from hiding or destroying anything special or incriminating.

      Kaji was approaching him.  "I am not under criminal suspicion," he protested.

      If you wanted to attract my attention you hardly could have given me a better opening, Ramsey thought.

      "This is not the last vestige of the Werewolves or the Kempeitai's last outpost.  This entire operation is run by the United States Government under the oversight of the United States Navy.  Now we have a handful of senators wondering just what the Hell we're doing out here.  I want answers to the same questions.  If you think we're being ogres, remember we are the Office of Naval Intelligence."

      Kaji winced but fell silent.

      A few minutes later one of the clerks approached, "Captain, these records are incomplete.  What's Japanese for 'Swiss Cheese'?"  He gave Kaji an angry glance.  "We have events we know happened, that don't appear in the daily reports."

      Ramsey rubbed the bridge of his nose and wondered how bad his headache was going to get today. "Assemble all you can, mainly we need the pre-surrender records.  What they were doing and why.  I've got to arrange people to question the staff."

      "Better you than me," the clerk joked and saluted.

      Ramsey headed out, he was going to start with Mister Kaji Ryoji, including his prolonged absences.  It would be interesting to remind him that his `secret` activities were a good deal less secret than he thought.  They'd see what that rattled loose.

      Ranma tried a medium cut with his scabbard, felt the board wobble beneath him.  He ignored the warm rain that slickened everything.  He lowered the blade and tried to retain his balance and keep the board upright.  He managed it, then spotted Asuka walking through the rain towards him, seemingly unconcerned that she was being soaked to the skin.

      She carried a broomstick and climbed onto the sawhorse.  Taking an Oxen Guard right, the weapon beside her head and diagonally across her body.

      "I don't fight girls."

      "You are defending yourself." she made a high thrust.

      He started from Iron Gate to an Oberhau cut, then . . . onto the roof.  Ranma looked at Asuka wobbling on the sawhorse, using the stick to retain her balance.  "What are you trying to prove?"

      "That you - "  She dropped the stick and started windmilling her arms.  He rushed forward and caught her waist, holding her balanced.  "That you learned something," she told him, as he took his hands away and braced for the attack, her expression indicated something bad was going to happen.  "And that sometimes you assume your way into wrong thinking."  She put her hands over her head and did a forward roll into a handstand on the sawhorse.  Then she dropped off the side, landing correctly and bowing to the adoring crowd that wasn't there.

      "You tricked me," Ranma said angrily.

      "Only because you've been tricking yourself," Asuka said, "I tricked you into no longer tricking yourself."

      Ranma wanted some revenge.  "Are you up here to remind me I need to help you with your kanji practice?" Ranma asked.

      Asuka made a face like he had sentenced her to 30 days of Misato's cooking.  "If you want, we can also work on your German, so you can read your notes and Talhoffer yourself."

      Ranma figured he'd pulled out a tie on this one.

      "Get back up there," Asuka told him, "You still need practice on recovery against real attacks."  She picked up the broom stick and climbed back onto the sawhorse.  Ranma walked to the other sawhorse and stepped down on the board, balancing carefully as he walked forward.  Asuka thrust and her attack was knocked aside, but Ranma was too busy retaining his balance to follow through on his own attack.  Once he was stable, Asuka attacked with a medium cut he parried and made a half-hearted attack on the stick, he couldn't reach Asuka, on purpose.

      Again she waited until he stabilized, then attacked again.

      "You - could - attack - now," he said as the board bucked and tried to throw him off.

      "Later," she replied and clamped the board between her ankles, "One step at a time."  She released it when both he and it were stable.

      Shinji sat in Misato's room.  He was wondering if this was going to become a pattern.  Although he thought Rei-chan looked cute with Misato-san asleep in her lap.  Rei-chan wasn't happy about being drooled on.  He handed Rei-chan some tea while they worked out how Rei-chan was going to get out.  Her back was against the wall and Misato-san was too heavy for Shinji to easily move without waking her.  She still had her hand on Misato's back, staring down at her.

      He refilled the cup with hot tea and handed it back to Rei-chan, and sat back waiting.  He wondered why this was happening.  What he could do to help.  Rei-chan sipped her tea and remained patient.  He envied her calmness in the face of this.  He wanted to either fix this or run away.  He couldn't do either.