Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 38-39 ( Chapter 18 )

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

Chapter 38 - Know That He Who Finds Himself Loses His Misery
     The Kitten Who Thought It Was Robespierre
     God Forbid I Should Know Myself
     I Know Myself, But That Is All
     The Proud The Cold Untroubled Heart of Stone
     Self-Knowledge Tends To Make Man Shallow Or Insane

Chapter 39 - When The Candles Are Out All Women are Fair, All Cats Be Gray
     Behind Him Lay the Gray Azores, Behind the Gates of Hercules
     A Handful of Gray Ashes, Long, Long, Ago At Rest
     An Old and Gray-Headed Error
     Shoot If You Must, This Old, Gray Head, But Spare Your Country's Flag
     Dear Friend, All Theory Is Gray
     Gray Truth Is Now Her Painted Toy
     The Sun That Brief December Day Rose Cheerless Over Hills Of Gray
     A Heart Grown Cold, A Head Grown Gray In Vain

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 38 - Know That He Who Finds Himself Loses His Misery

Author's Notes: Thanks to Sniper for correcting my German.


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:

ftp :// -Semper-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.

     With the return of NERV Tokyo from the Great White Space, 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.

     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.

     With the aid of a narrow board and two sawhorses, Asuka begins teaching Ranma both sword fighting, and how to teach.  Only he believes his first class with the others was an unmitigated disaster.

     Asuka contracts Keiichi and his sister to construct several bicycles for the pilots.  She shoots a bug and has her second clash with Skuld.

     All four senators from Wyoming and Massachusetts begin investigating the Boston incident and Misato's part in it.  Admiral Simson scrambles to begin his own investigation of what has been happening in NERV before and after the war.  Shinji and Rei console and watch over Misato.

     Asuka and Ranma wash each others hair, Shinji washes Rei's.  They discuss children while doing this.  Asuka doesn't want the responsibility, Rei appreciates her advice.

The Kitten Who Thought It Was Robespierre

July 12, 1947

     Jeff walked the corridors of the U.S.S. Bennington, the noises of the ship asleep were a relaxing sound, but he couldn't sleep.  He hadn't heard many others awake at this hour, although some Marines were walking standing patrols.  He nodded to them as he headed down into the machinery spaces.  The engines that drove the carrier weren't markedly different from the Coral Sea's.  The snipes of the evening steaming watch seemed pleased by the chance to discuss their charges and their duties.

     After an hour of learning the differences and similarities of the plants and their arrangement within the ship, listening to the gossip, commenting where he could on the EVAs and their mission, he excused himself and headed back to the hanger deck.  He'd read to Unit 04 for a while, then try to get some sleep.

     The man at the base of the ladder wore evening dress of the latest and finest kind.  Handsome, patrician features and a bemused, saturnine facial expression practically screamed 'vampire' to the world.  The man had all the characteristics, including the impeccable manners and weary amusement at the foolishness of mankind to complete the stereotype.  Only one thing went against, and it was a major impasse.  He was standing in a magnificent sunbeam, the kind of sun you hope for on a day at the beach or at a picnic.  Enough to warm without burning, a light that makes most things look better.  Jeff glanced around, sure enough there was absolutely no one around to see this.  He wondered if there had been people around the moment before he laid eyes on this `man`.

     Jeff checked his suit for any spot of lint, or other imperfection.  He always felt merely being human was sufficient imperfection, although the man would never be so crass as to admit it.

     "Miss Tendo needs to learn magic."

     Jeff was sure the creature's mouth hadn't moved, except to quirk into a momentary smile, but he heard the words clearly enough.  He could see through most illusions because his Synthesia gave him the wrong secondary sense impressions.  Fires burned merrily and felt hot.  However, they never tasted hot, the flavor was either completely lacking, or the wrong one for that temperature.  The beast roared, but the conversation block was the brown of curiosity, not red of rage or the white of pain.  This appearance was always completely correct, to the finest detail.  The man was either there or was such a masterful illusion that the difference was unimportant.

     "Just like that?  She is not going to be the most cooperative student, she is just learning firearms," Jeff replied, stepping into the sunbeam, tasting the rich chocolate that confirmed this was real sunlight.  Quite a trick for the core of an Essex-class carrier at 23:30 local time.

     "You will find a way," command gave way to amusement. "You generally do.  She has been considering the possibility of broaching the subject with you again.  This time you will find an excuse to say yes."

     "Glad I'm so entertaining," Jeff replied sourly, "You could have been more forthcoming about the side effects of the combination technique, I nearly got into a knockdown drag-out with a Friend of Man.  If I miss one of these informational briefings of your's, I might not know something critically important and might actually have to come to a conclusion myself.  I screw up like that, and it will blow my entire reputation of being all-knowing and always prepared."

     "Waiter, may I have some cheese and crackers with my whine?  You assume that the future is yours simply for the asking."

     "You were quite specific about maintaining a facade of absolute certainty," Jeff retorted, "That it was 'Imperative beyond all measure that they have confidence in one leader/advisor until they can find their own.'  Well I played the part, I believe both Langley and Miss Ayanami are capable of standing on their own, with Shinji's help they can even stand together.  It was not an easy role to play."

     "Arrogant, overbearing self-confidence particularly suits you, you have a flair for it, and they still depend on your surety."

     "Terrific, I'm thrilled, if I were any more excited, I'd emit light," Jeff said sardonically, managed to get a Rei-style ghost of a smile from the man, "All I am saying is things have gotten a great deal more complicated.  Other forces are moving - "

     "Some are your allies," slight disdain colored the words, "You can contact them for assistance."

     "Sir, do not take that tone with me.  You knew very well who I worked for and why I did, when you approached me," Jeff said, paused, "I apologize.  Your advice on Nyarlathotep's assassin came late, and on dealing with the anniversary came not at all.  It is extremely frustrating."

     "Ayanami came to your rescue on both occasions," the man told him, "You are not the only tool, your increased and true helplessness, respectively, encouraged her actions and allayed the fears of others.  The sabre-halberd parts were adequate recompense I believe."

     "Yes, thank you.  So what else do I need to know?"

     "Many things," the man actually sounded sympathetic, "All wrapped up into 'Sharon has escaped'."

     "Oh, crap," Jeff said as the world slid out from under him.

     "The problem with omniscience is seeing all is perhaps seeing too much.  You can't let her reach the others, fortunate because you will be her first and primary target.  Should you die without killing her, her obsession will transfer to another, and another.  El Nureenen's curse will serve you well, this is not the final battle, so have no fear in utilizing it."

     "So if I blow up a nuke, it's okay then."  Jeff glanced around the walls, wondering when and how she would get aboard, or if she would wait until they made landfall.  "Any idea of what she's become?  How far she's gone?"

     "Beyond you."

     Jeff closed his eyes.  He could feel the man's gaze on him, he also knew the man was gauging him, testing for suitability for . . . something.  But Jeff could only be himself.  "Is there anyway to bring her back to our side?  She would be a powerful asset."

     "To regain your lost friend . . . ?"  The pause was longer this time, as if the man were sifting through the possible futures, seeking some answer.  "Doubtful, she seeks your death, that may serve, or it may incite further madness.  Too many answers."

     "That figures."  Jeff sighed, he hated acting confident all the time, he hated having to dole out what he seemed know slowly, piece by piece, because he actually only found some things out slowly, piece by piece.  Most of all he hated being alone, but Sharon would only be the latest in a long list.  He thought briefly of Langley: so frightened that anyone might care for her and then leave her when she cared back, and the bitter irony that he did care, and he was just as afraid of her for the exact same reasons.  "Sometimes I wonder if the universe is actively plotting against me, or if I am just lucky."

     "You can judge a man better by the quality of his enemies.  Yours are of the highest caliber."

     Just like that, he was gone.  Leaving only the dimmed light of the carrier at night, the sounds of the water against the hull.  Jeff decided he'd head for the hanger deck and read a few poems to Unit 04.  After that, as depressed as he was, he would have little trouble getting to sleep.  "Oh, Sharon I hardly knew ye," he cursed as he climbed the ladder.

July 13, 1947

     Nabiki opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling.  She wished the dream had continued.  She'd dreamt of having difficulty sleeping because of her pregnancy, yet she had also had her husband Ranma's arms around her, his hands caressing her, his lips kissing her, his. . . .  She angrily grabbed the weight on her belly that had induced the dream and shoved it aside, the holster caught her nightshirt and tightened it nearly to the choking point.

     "AHHHA!" she shouted and sat up suddenly.  The entire room shifted as if the carrier were on a heavy sea.  Vertigo and nausea warred briefly, then ebbed away.  She winced at the bruises the pistol made on her tender skin.  But she had to wear it, awake and asleep.  Worse, Ritsuko came in every two hours to check.

     She really didn't mind mornings, since they began the day.  She didn't mind Mondays, since they began the week.  She didn't mind them when they waited patiently and let her meet them on her own terms.  However, when they attacked her in her bed at, she glanced over, 05:00 on a Sunday, then she felt that warranted a little animosity.

     "I have to get used to the gun, learn the gun is my friend," she told the lump of metal in the holster she wore, "I have to wear it at all times to get used to the weight and how to move."  She sighed.  "And now I'm talking to it as if it could answer."  She growled at the world in general.  "I hate this."

     She knew she should have worn the holstered weapon when she went to the bathroom late that night.  She hadn't expected to catch Maya in the bathroom, not carrying the rifle she was supposed to wear at all times 'except when you're asleep'.  She'd thought Maya would be reasonable, she wouldn't tell if Maya didn't.  Instead Maya had dragged her to Ritsuko and told her they both had failed.

     "What's gotten into her?" Nabiki asked as she ran a hand through her hair, held one strand and stared at it hatefully.  "Asuka wakes up with her hair behaving.  'Just let it grow out a little, and it will behave, Ice Princess.'  Some people are just born lucky."  She considered getting up, cleaning up and getting some breakfast.  She just wanted to crawl back in bed and ignore the world.

     Nabiki walked through the mess hall, every few steps she bumped the holstered pistol into something with a clunk.  The sailors in the mess seemed not to notice, their sudden silence indicated they were scrupulously not noticing, and making sure none of their messmates noticed either.  She noted Maya clunking ahead of her with the rifle slung across her back muzzle down.

     What Nabiki dreaded most of all was that today both she and Maya would spend the whole day learning to shoot.  Ritsuko had very patiently explained the necessity of the procedure to both of them.  Maya had turned very green, Nabiki just felt depressed.  The problem was that Ritsuko and the group's Admiral had backed each other up.  The sailors and Marines had been extremely polite, doing their best to make the experience painless.  That made it worse.  They had even presented Nabiki with the holster and belt she currently wore, including the small pouches to hold reloads.  Not loops for individual shells like in the movies, but all nine bullets held in formation by a metal piece.  She hated how everyone was making her carrying this disgusting thing as painless as possible.

     As Maya wove through the mess tables, the more experienced men got out of the way of the errant rifle barrel, it stuck out from Maya's hip.  Nabiki followed in her wake, noted the bemused expressions on all the faces.  Several Marines and Navy personnel, from seamen to officers, had assured her they had to go through much the same.  She sat next to Maya, she was ashamed she'd picked the side away from the rifle barrel, but that also put her pistol between her and Maya.  Neither spoke, they were both too embarrassed by the sudden weight gain and deformity they hadn't learned to compensate for.

     After wolfing down her breakfast and escaping the mess hall without maiming anyone, either by accident or on purpose, Nabiki walked through the cavernous hanger of the Bennington.  She started at the bow and walked the length of that multicolored metal cave, glancing at the walls, the floor, the roof that were all supposed to be gray, but were many colors and decorated with brightly colored signs all over the place, from 'No Smoking' to 'Beware Propellers'.  The roof was the most worrying.  The sight was terrifying.  The EVA had been walking so gently, and still made those foot prints in the metal.  Now she looked at them from below.  She knew they had discussed trying to crawl in through the bow, stern or side openings.  However, only the big deck elevators were large enough holes to allow the EVA into the hanger deck.  She wondered about the metal of the hanger floor.  It didn't seem to be damaged like the flight deck had been.  She paused by the stored EVA external batteries, the special ones that would survive the extreme pressure of the deep ocean.  She looked at the protective covers over the battery terminals, some were cracked.

     "Problems, ma'am?"  A man with the chevrons and rockers of a Chief Petty Officer had noticed her stop walking, and he had come over.

     That was another thing that worried her, warriors who were as old as or older than her father called her 'ma'am'.  Their tone wasn't condescending or patronizing.

     "Master Chief, I think someone better check on this," she told the man, "If Dr. Akagi sees this, she'll have someone's guts for garters."

     The chief knelt beside her, checked the covers.  "Thank you, ma'am, I'll have someone repair these immediately."

     She nodded and left, walking along the center of the hanger, looking around.  She stopped next to the hole for the forward elevator, looking down at the massive lifting machinery.

     "Ma'am, Miss Tendo, please step away."  A young Marine who was probably about her actual age approached nervously, his Adam's Apple bobbing.  Nabiki did as he asked.

     "I was just wondering what it would be like to ride this to the flight deck," she told him, sounding wistful.  He melted a little as they always did when she charmed them.  She knew Kasumi would never approve, but she didn't approve that much of Kasumi anymore.  That saddened her.  Growing up, Kasumi had been an ideal to aspire to, her older sister hadn't just stained her armor of perfection, but cast it away and let Nabiki clearly see the corruption and cruelty underneath.  Because it was `traditional` Kasumi didn't have to rise above it.

     Nabiki watched the young man stumble a bit from her sudden pout, then smile.

     "I'm sorry ma'am, they're doing a walk down up there," the Marine told her.

     "May I watch?" she asked, "What is a walk down?"

     "They form a line and walk the entire length of the flight deck and pick up every piece of debris.  It, aha, really isn't that interesting ma'am."

     "I thought I was going up there with Miss Ibuki, for shooting practice," Nabiki said.  She noted the looks at the Marine talking to her by the other Marines and sailors.  Jealousy, curiosity, a few other things.  That too was odd: nobody looked at Tendo Nabiki, or Tendo Kasumi for that matter, not when they could look at Tendo Akane, the Tigress of Furinkan.  Nobody got jealous of a young man talking to Tendo Nabiki, the Ice Queen of Nerima, everyone pitied such boys.  Yet here, she was 'Ice Princess', 'Nab-chan' or 'Nabiki-kun', and men, young and old, looked at her.  With interest that had nothing to due with the Prime Rate.

     "No ma'am.  We've got a plane coming in, your practice is probably after that."

     "Thank you."  She walked on.  Past the forward elevator there were no more footprints in the ceiling.  She wondered what Ritsuko and Raccoon were going to be doing while events were humiliating her and Maya.

     No one bothered her as she walked.  That was the other thing that bothered her.  Kuno always wanted to be 'sempai' upperclassman, here she was 'ma'am' by real soldiers.  Senior Sergeants and Petty Officers didn't 'ma'am' anyone except officers.  She'd gotten both a Bluejacket's Manual and the Marine Field Manual from ship's stores.  She wanted to know what was expected of her, how she should act and expect others to act.  In some ways she was more confused now than before she read those books.  They were treating her as an officer.  Her, a fourteen-year-old, Japanese girl.  She could think of nothing she'd done to deserve the honor.  She walked alone with her thoughts all the way to the fantail.  She walked to the rail, and realized with disgust she had just walked past the 40mm gun battery that she'd avoided just days ago.  They were making her used to the things.

     In the distance she saw a plane coming in.

     "Ma'am, you'd better clear the area, if he hits low . . . " the battery commander told her.

     Nabiki nodded and put more of the heavy metal of the carrier between her and the incoming plane.  She heard the swish of the water, then the squeal of tires and a metallic snap, then just the noise of the airplane's engine receding.  Then a strange, dragging, clicking sound.

     "The plane's down?" she asked of the gunners.  When they nodded, she headed back to the fantail, banged the pistol against the wall, or bulkhead, whatever they called it.  She frowned, but when she looked up, the gun crew were all staring at her, wearing the stony expressions of those who refused to laugh.  She sighed and walked to look out the stern.  "Terrific," she noted she couldn't see the smaller carriers or the two battleships, "They must be afraid I'll accidentally shoot them."

     "I doubt that ma'am.  They probably didn't want the plane landing on them," the battery commander told her.

     Before she could reply, "Miss Tendo," the Marine Sergeant stood behind her, he seemed on the verge of saluting, "The flight deck is ready for you."

     "Cleared away all the breakables and got everyone under cover?" Nabiki asked.

     "I wouldn't know ma'am," the Marine said with professional and practiced politeness.

     Nabiki knew she would never get a straight answer out of the man.  She saw the plane being lowered on the forwardmost elevator.  Once down, several men got out.  "That's a big plane, for one engine.  Those aren't American markings."

     "Yes ma'am, Royal Navy, but the plane is an AD-1, an American plane."  He followed her up the ladder, a sharply tilted stair.  Another reason she wore slacks everywhere instead of a skirt.

     The wind over the flightdeck was strong, Nabiki figured that would make shooting even more `interesting`.  They were already setting up the targets, a small thing they were weighting down with sandbags, a man stood behind it.

     "Let me guess, that's what you test the planes' guns on?" Nabiki asked.

     "I couldn't say ma'am," the Marine approached several others, two were older men, sergeants older than her father, but Nabiki doubted you could make them cry outside a funeral, except by playing the National Anthem.  Her escort saluted and withdrew.

     One man looked her over carefully, she wondered if she should open her mouth to let him check her teeth.  Maya was approaching, the other man went to greet her.

     "Miss Tendo, we'll be training you with your pistol and the M-1 rifle.  We will also give you some training in using rifle grenades.  The things you fight will be more vulnerable to the Anti-Tank and ironically, the Practice Grenades.  Don't worry, I've trained plenty of men.  Some hated the touch of weapons, they were conscientious objectors.  They quickly discovered even medics had to be armed."

     Against Japanese troops, to protect their charges, she mentally added, but just nodded.

     "First we let you see the sight plane."  Maya's coach was lying next to a rifle-on-a-box, he was calling out to someone moving her target.  "We'll put the target where it belongs, then let you see how it's supposed to look."

     Nabiki nodded.  She felt the movement of the EVA below through her feet.  She wondered what Ritsuko and Raccoon were doing directly below them.  She concentrated on her lessons.  She knew that as soon as she mastered this, she wouldn't have to wear the pistol all the time.

God Forbid I Should Know Myself

     Ritsuko watched the EVA walking slowly down the length of the hanger.  She hadn't thought of it before, but the walking pattern was the same one as a centipede.  A half dozen feet on either side touched the ground at any time, the entire body took on a slight sinusoidal movement.  Ranma divided the 37 pairs of legs into four groups and walked like a quadruped, straight ahead.  The centipede pace wasn't normal for a human, and it was too smooth for Jeff to be intentionally using it.

     The EVA itself must be doing some of the thinking, she thought worriedly.  She walked along behind the huge machine watching carefully, other techs were collecting the telemetry for later review, she needed to watch the EVA, not the data.

     The EVA came to a dead stop at the end of the hanger.  "Back up or turn around?" came Jeff's voice through the external speakers.

     "Back up."  She watched the legs go through the same pattern.  She walked along beside the EVA and realized the tips of the feet were moving in circles, almost like wheels, it was a deceptively simple pattern, all the `wheels` `rotated` at the same rate.  They were at different positions along the circle, but the legs stayed out of each other's way.  The whole thing disturbed her.

     "Okay, turn around backward."  She glanced at the plane in the hanger, the space was tight, she wanted to see how he handled it.

     It was the standard type of turn used by most navies, like ships in a column, as each segment reached a point, it turned while the others held tightly to their course.  Again it was the movement of an expert, Ranma and Asuka could match that easily.  There was no way someone with less than a 50% sync rate could move that smoothly that fast.  The EVA backed across the hanger again, until it reached the end.  That was the other thing.  When Shinji first operated the EVA, even with his higher sync rate, he fell down several times, his EVA mirrored his uncertainty of where his body was.  That was normal for a growing child, their arms and legs got longer and their clumsiness increased.  She walked to the back, the EVA had stopped some centimeters from the wall.  But the EVA knew where its legs and body were, she thought.

     Ritsuko felt a chill go through her.  `Raccoon` reading poetry to the EVAs no longer seemed like such a crazy thing, he grew up around large animals, and had to learn how to control them.  This was just an extension of that.  The animal weighed 700 tons, but a 1000 kg angry bull would kill you just as dead.  She'd certainly have a great deal to talk about on the following days.

     Admiral Adams waited in his day cabin for two of the three arrivals to be issued in.  The guards would keep anyone else away while the briefing was going on.

     The first man was tall, gray, balding, he had His Majesty's Regimental Sergeant Major practically stamped on him as he came to attention.  An American-style salute, which Adams returned.  The other man was fully gray, deeply lined and of Chinese extraction.

     "Major ggreg late of His Majesty's forces, and Adam Smith, reporting as ordered, sah," Major ggreg told him.

     "Any particular branch, Major?  Please sit down."  Adams gestured to the two additional chairs.

     "Boats and aircraft, and any combination there of," ggreg said offhandedly, the way junior officers did when they were politely trying to dodge the question, and could not tell you straight out it was classified.

     "Your two friends' qualifications?" Adams asked, "You aren't NERV, or Royal military."

     "I hold a roving commission from Her Majesty," Mr. Smith's English was Oxfordian, not Chinese accented.

     "'Her'?" Adams asked.

     "Her Imperial Highness Victoria, yes, I am that old," Smith said contentedly.

     Adams believed it.  "You fully understand our problem?" Adams asked, "Supposedly you have been trained, I don't see the training that would let you deal with this."

     "Assassination and demolition would be a favorite," ggreg suggested quietly.

     "The reports of the other surviving pilot's psychosis are . . . disturbing.  Right now he's down there running tests with an EVA, the only protection we have is that the batteries will run out and we can externally disconnect the tether."  Adams wanted to stand and pace, but the size of the cabin prevented that.  "How sure are you the limiters are still in place?"

     "It's much more serious than that," Smith told them, "He's piloted once against an Angel, he might have gotten something from the other Angel he was part of the battle against.  The limiters may be in place and undamaged.  What they are limiting may have escaped from their bonds."

     "Terrific, what then?" Adams asked, he could feel the fear in the room rising, not just his own.

     "We do what our governments sent us here for.  There is no danger of the Axis pilots having the same problems, their governments recruited them, rather than prepared them," ggreg said it as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

     And I thought you two were friends, or at least student and mentor, Adams kept the thought to himself, But you'd snuff him out for the good of the Crown.

     "Are you planning to invite them to the Captain's Table?" Smith asked.

     The question startled Adams, "I hadn't planned on it, not this early.  I would have thought . . . "

     "Better to relax them first, get them to lower their defenses," ggreg said, "That means treat them all as you would any dignitary.  Or any non-seasick dignitary."

     They won't be the ones sick at that table, Adams considered he'd never had dinner with a blameless man he might have to kill for the good of his world.

     "There they are," Nabiki grumbled about Ritsuko and Raccoon as she trudged into the mess hall with Maya behind her, "All rested and happy."  Nabiki heard an answering grumble from Maya.  The line cleared away to let them go ahead.  Nabiki preferred to think that her icy glare cleared them all away, rather than the men saw these were 'ladies', and their anger was so cute.  Considering that everyone of them had gone through the same trials, they could chuckle at another's misery.

     Nabiki and Maya managed to get over to the table where Ritsuko and Raccoon were.  Nabiki did notice she only ran into one post, and Maya only hit one of the younger sailors, and his mess mates chided him for not being aware.  Neither Nabiki nor Maya was in a good mood as they sat.  The fates did not smile on Nabiki, she wasn't able to `accidentally` clobber her fellow pilot.  Nabiki also grimaced at the tape on her thumb.

     "Didn't get your thumb out of the way when you loaded a clip?" Raccoon asked of her injury.

     Nabiki managed not to dump her lunch down his shirt and beat him unconscious with the tray.  Instead she gave him a sunny smile.  "Has anyone told you that you are an exasperating know-it-all, who needs a muzzle or a cork?"

     "No."  Raccoon smiled right back.

     The treacherous monster waited until she had a mouthful of liquid before adding, "They don't smile as cute."

     Nabiki plotted her revenge as she tried to figure out why cold milk in her nose felt so strange.

     "I know where you're ticklish," he told her in German, "So does Ranma."

     She glared at him.  Once I was well and justly feared by people who could reduce you to a puddle, she thought behind her murderous glower, One tickling session, and you think you're immune?

     "Nabiki dear," Ritsuko said in English, "You and Maya should hurry up and eat, as soon as you are proficient, you can end this terrible onerous trial and accept your laurels as true heroines of sterling character," she said in theatrical tones and `swooned` after making her pronouncement.  There was one guffaw, swiftly silenced.

     Probably by someone's elbow, Nabiki thought.

     "They won't let us shoot," Maya complained, "We just make marks on paper, and then they tell us how to make the marks closer together."

     "I thought you didn't like shooting," Raccoon said so innocently.

     Nabiki watched Maya's embarrassment war with her deep need to unlimber the rifle she still wore, and beat Raccoon to death with it.  She thought of her own pistol, unlike the rifle, it was loaded.  "It would be so easy," she said, smiled.

     Raccoon gave her a dewy-eyed look right out of a girl's manga, "You wouldn't hurt something as cute and fluffy as me?" he sniffed tearfully.  "Could you?"

     "Then I would fry you up and hang your skin on my wall," Nabiki told him.  It felt eerie how quiet a room full of men eating could be.  She lamented that they weren't terrified into silence, but they didn't want to miss the repartee.  "They eat rabbits, don't they."

     He wiggled his nose at her.  She wondered if a pistol whipping would be acceptable.

     "There's not enough meat," Ritsuko observed, "Have to use him in soup, although the L.C.L. probably isn't good marinade."

     Nabiki sighed, glanced at Maya.  "Are we the only rational people at this table?"

     Maya smiled, patted her shoulder and said, "You're half right."

     Nabiki suspected she wasn't going to get any help or sympathy, from anyone.

     "ATTEN'SHUN!"  Echoed through the room.  Every man shot to his feet.  Nabiki and Ritsuko were perhaps a half second behind them, Maya a hair slower.

     "As you were," Captain Casey snapped.  The men all sat with the same machinelike precision.  Nabiki kept up this time.  She also noticed the Captain seemed to be heading directly towards them.

     Nabiki's instinct to joke with Maya about one of them having shot someone was smothered, Casey looked too serious.

     "Ladies, sir," Casey said, "May I join you?"

     "Of course," Ritsuko said, "To what do we owe the honor?"

     "The Admiral asks the pleasure of your company at dinner, formal, full dress uniforms if you have them, at 19:30," Captain Casey told them, "If you lack the appropriate coat and tie," Casey joked with Raccoon, "One can be provided."

     Nabiki noted that Maya had gone very pale.  From Rei's report, Nabiki knew Maya only had one formal piece of clothing, the rest of her baggage was all work clothes or her uniforms.  NERV didn't have full dress uniforms, which meant only one thing.  Nabiki hid her smile, Rei was a very useful coconspirator.

     "Of course," Ritsuko said, "I'm sure we all have appropriate clothes.  Except perhaps Miss Tendo."

     Nabiki felt an icicle dragged down her spine.  I have some nice clothes, I packed them!

     "Maybe Miss Ibuki has something that wouldn't be out of place and appropriately formal," Ritsuko said.  Sipping her coffee.

     Probably to hide her smile, Nabiki thought.

     "Well," Casey said as he stood, "I'll let you work out the details, 19:30 hours."

     Nabiki looked at Maya's malevolent smile, felt a cringe and a simper building.  The tap on her shoulder brought her around to face Raccoon, who seemed to be studying some piece of food at the end of his fork with utter fascination.

     "I have something that might fit," he suggested offhandedly, "It is formal, just not from this century."

     Shakespeare costume, or Maya's little black dress, Nabiki thought desperately, the icicle's cousins and brothers had shown up and were following along the same path.

     "Well, I think I've got some appropriate clothes," she said desperately, "But if I don't, I'll take you up on your kind offer."  She turned back to Maya, tried to look sympathetic, "I'm afraid I'll have to turn down your kind offer."

     Maya's stricken expression was worth whatever Raccoon would do to her later.  She fervently hoped.

     Nabiki wasn't sure if she had walked into a dream or a nightmare.  Ritsuko had vetoed everything Nabiki had brought with her, her `finery` didn't measure up.  One look at the dress Ritsuko would wear, and Nabiki had reluctantly agreed.  The costume was traditional all right, a kimono and obi, of pure silk.  It looked like it would fit Nabiki very well.  That was the dream.  It was a bright yellow with colorful patterns of butterflies all over it, and the obi was a deep forest green.  It was . . . irresistibly cute, that was the nightmare.  The words 'little Madame Butterfly' floated unbidden in her mind.  Maya's little dress was beginning to look better.  She looked around Raccoon's cabin, wondering if he had a suit and tie that would fit.

     "Isn't it lovely?" Raccoon asked, "Excellent stitching, easy to get into and out of.  A marvelous blend of costuming and engineering."  He smiled.  "Finding the patterned silk was the real triumph."  He sighed.  "Then they canceled the production, lucky you."

     Nabiki could only manage a sick grin, she couldn't bring herself to say what a hideous thing it was, it might be fine for a 6-year-old, but not her.

     "I am especially proud of this feature," he told her as he detached the obi that was hung on with hooks and easily came off.  Then he folded it, the garment changed radically.  "It's reversible," he said as he reattached the obi to the now midnight blue kimono, a peregrine falcon and an eagle design seemed to be swooping from opposite shoulders across the breasts and to the center of the obi.

     "It's beautiful," Nabiki didn't have to manufacture her enthusiasm.

     "The only problem is I'll have to sew you in, it was only meant for the stage, not walking and dining aboard a carrier."

     "Sew, like with a needle?"  Nabiki worried.

     "I have never stuck someone by accident," he said sincerely.

     "By accident?" she asked archly.  Folding her arms across her chest.

     "Well I've never done it on purpose either, but my costuming teacher told me to always say it that way."

     She relaxed a bit, then came the fright of what she'd wear under it, and the thought of standing in his cabin in her underwear.  She knew it was an irrational thought.  Feminine modesty was one thing.  But considering what tests Ritsuko and Maya regularly did on her, the things they stuck all kinds of places and the samples they took . . . and that a plugsuit left practically nothing to the imagination, she thought she'd be immune to that kind of embarrassment.

     "Shorts and a T-shirt," Raccoon said as if reading her mind, "You think this is the first time I had to play costumer?  The first time boys are as nervous as the girls.  You want something to catch the sweat and that keeps the costume from chafing sensitive bits.  This is not a suit of clothes, it is a costume.  It's only meant to be worn for an hour or two."

     "Right."  She felt relief, then irritation at his calm demeanor.  "Doesn't anything ever bother you?  Get you all jittery?"

     "Yes, and no, respectively.  You'd better hurry and get changed," he told her.

     She headed back to her cabin to get changed.  She grumbled at her fellow pilot's cold-bloodedness, she wasn't sure whether she envied or pitied him.  She could get worked up about things, she wondered how he'd react to 'Sigmund's Religion Test', Asuka's uncle told Asuka 'Let me take the most devout Communist or fervent Atheist down in my submarine under water bombs, and he will be on his knees praying to his God.'

     She changed quickly.  She looked at her holstered pistol, she sighed and put it around her hips, then dashed back to Raccoon's cabin.  She thought that being worried or excited by this was ridiculous.  She put it down to being a 14-year-old again, she hoped she hadn't been this silly when she was that age the first time.

I Know Myself, But That Is All

     Nabiki walked carefully, afraid of damaging the costume, or the seams, or catching the holster on something.  Nabiki glanced at Raccoon next to her, holding her arm.  He looked good in his black tuxedo, top hat and walking cane, and a holstered pistol.  She paused, instantly Raccoon sensed it and stopped.

     Nabiki glanced back at Maya, she looked very attractive though extremely uncomfortable in her dress.  Her only capitulation to modesty was, the strap of the rifle covered the decolletage.  Nabiki thought that was funny, the hated thing now kept her from embarrassing herself further.  Nabiki also wondered where Ritsuko had gotten the blue pistol belt and holster. She wished they'd walk hand in hand, but there were limits to how far they would push things.  Ritsuko's dress didn't look much different from her usual blue shirt, black skirt outfit, except it reached the ground, and it wasn't solid colors, but gently spiraling stripes that accented her figure.  Ritsuko managed to remain elegant, despite the surroundings.

     "I should have changed upstairs," Nabiki said as she looked worriedly at the ladder leading to the next floor.  She was not looking forward to climbing all the stairs.

     "If you want.  I can carry you," Raccoon suggested.

     Nabiki felt her cheeks color.  "No, thank you," she said as she climbed slowly.  She wondered what the men who got out of the group's way saw.  A little girl in a fancy dress and make up trying to act grown up?  Or something else?  A glance at Ritsuko and Raccoon showed they carried themselves as if they were deigning to meet with a mere Admiral.  She couldn't erase the memory of her humiliation aboard the Spruce Goose.  She had eventually calmed down and had a brief, composed conversation with the men.  She'd refused an offer to a poker game, she'd hidden in her berth for most of the remaining flight.  She couldn't figure out why she felt like going to pieces again.  She ran Nerima, she could intimidate or blackmail anyone.  Here she had her friends to back her up and cover for her.  She still felt terribly vulnerable.  If she did act like a fool - again - and they didn't cover for her, or worse they humiliated her further, she didn't know what she'd do.  That she intellectually knew they wouldn't, didn't alleviate her fears.  The butterflies got worse with every step.  She had realized that in Nerima she had been a big fish in a puddle, for most of the populace insanity and obsession masqueraded as brains.  Most of the people in authority here were there because they had brains.  Maybe they didn't have her instincts, but none were stupid.

     "Maybe I should have worn the other side," she joked as she walked.

     "He's just a man, remember your manners," Raccoon said, "Otherwise be yourself, if you want to answer his questions or ask your own, do.  If something is out of line, treat it that way, politely."

     Be myself, Nabiki thought, I'm not that sure I want them to see me.  She frowned, as she walked in a borrowed dress to meet a man who literally had the power of life and death over her, if he wanted.  She also glanced at the guns they were all wearing and suddenly she got a cold chill that all of them were in the same position, all of them had the power of life and death over the others riding on their hips.  She felt the cold sweat starting, she was used to people who threatened and hit.  Death was something that happened not from combat, but from disease and old age.  She remembered Hiroko, she still didn't have any answer to those eyes.  She didn't know if what she was doing made her happy, most of the time she was frightened or confused.  But when she did pause and look back, she was amazed how far she had come.

     The line of Marines in dress uniforms and white gloves, and rifles, stood outside the room where the Admiral, his chief of staff, and the Bennington's senior officers waited.  Nabiki was in the lead of the NERV group, the Navy officers smoothly came to their feet.  Nabiki cringed inwardly at the appraising looks, looks she was usually the deliverer of, not the recipient.  Raccoon cut the steward off and held Nabiki's chair for her.  She half-expected him to slide her in right against the table.  But he's a gentleman, she reminded herself.  Raccoon took his seat, while the stewards seated Ritsuko and Maya.

     Nabiki waited for some comment about the kimono, and waited.

     "The steaks came in from Pearl," Admiral Adams said, "Admiral Nimitz's own dog-robber claims you could cut them with a sharp look."

     "Dog-robber?" Nabiki asked.

     "An officer who sees to it a high-ranking officer has all his personal logistical needs filled," Captain Garibaldi said, glanced at a Lt. Commander down the table.

     "You mean like a man whose suit coat weighs forty pounds because of all the stuff he carries?" Nabiki asked, glanced at Raccoon.

     "Something like that," Captain Garibaldi said.

     "I am curious about the operation against Choohooga - " Captain Casey began.

     "Cthugha, Captain," Raccoon interrupted, "Miss Tendo and I would appreciate a change of subject."

     "My apologies," Casey said.  Raccoon nodded.

     So that's how it's done, Nabiki thought, she'd dreaded that subject.  She'd heard it referred to in glowing terms, but she'd been down in the muck for the entire operation.  All of it was very painful.

     "What about Chaugnar Fa . . . "  Admiral Adams shook his head.

     Stewards glided in and served the soup.  Nabiki felt better about someone else being in the spotlight.

     "A nightmare," Raccoon said quietly, "Girls get intensively trained before their first combat, boys get thrown into the first fight that comes along.  Learning how to direct the unit while in combat with a powerful and dangerous enemy . . . not - fun."

     "That's not true," Ritsuko commented testily.

     "It has been so far," Nabiki commented, feeling a little better on familiar ground.  "I still haven't seen combat."  The soup was something tomatoey, but spicy.  "Raccoon you should get the recipe for this."

     "I've heard that, and all the other nicknames," a Commander down the table asked, "Where did they come from?"

     "Your witness," Raccoon told her.  She frowned as the Navy personnel chuckled.

     Having to be cut out of a dress seemed strange.

     Considering how tight a lot of Shampoo's costumes were, Nabiki wondered Is that was how the girl got into them?  She felt tired, but at the same time she hadn't wanted the evening to end.

     "Get ready," Raccoon told her.  Bringing her back to her cabin in the present.

     "Won't it stay?" she carefully gripped the kimono to keep it from dropping.

     "It may not."  Raccoon cut the threads.  Carefully held the dress.  "It seems to be holding.  You can return it tomorrow."

     "You're leaving?" she asked, then thought what a stupid thing to say.  "You don't have to leave."

     "You're going to undress and take a shower," Raccoon commented, "I wouldn't think you'd want a boy around for those activities."

     Nabiki felt her cheeks coloring.  "It's not like I'm going to immediately get naked."

     "No."  He finished packing away his small sewing kit.  "But probably soon after."

     "And you don't want to watch?" she asked, "I don't believe that."

     "You have more practice in the morning, you need your sleep."  He left before she could find something to throw at him.  She walked over to the door, hatch whatever, and locked it.  She unhooked the costume and carefully hung it up.  She noted she'd have to pay for it to be cleaned.  She'd sweated a good deal more than she thought.  Standing there in her T-shirt and shorts, now she felt hot and sticky.  She needed a shower before she went to bed.  Fatigue was coming down on her hard.  "I guess once you relax you come down fast," she said as she headed towards her closet to get her robe and clean underwear to change into.

     "Nabiki!" the cheerful voice woke her instantly.  Nabiki looked up at Kasumi, then looked again and wondered whether she was actually awake or not.  She felt awake, but demure, decorous Kasumi was wearing a postage stamp, a smiley button, and a snake.  Not snake skin panties, but a live snake.  The idea of a snake crawling around down there almost drove away the question of how Kasumi had affixed the smiley button like a pasty.  The obvious answer seemed much too painful and kinky for Kasumi.

     "You have a board meeting," Kasumi supplied, yanked the blanket away, and chivvied Nabiki out of bed.  Nabiki looked around what had been a cabin aboard a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier, it looked like a half-set of her old room.  The door, window and furniture were all there, but not the walls.  She idly wondered how the window frame simply hung there in space.  The rest of the house seemed the same way.

     Any second she expected Rod Serling to make an appearance.  In the dining room she saw Akane, Genma, Tatewaki, Kodachi, Shampoo and Dr. Tofu, all sitting around the table, all stark naked.  They all looked at her and screamed their outrage.  Nabiki leaped back before looking down.

     I hate when I'm naked in dreams, she thought, and saw she was wearing a business suit of conservative cut and styling.

     "That's it, I'm going back to bed," she grumbled and marched back to her room.  Inside there was a three-way poker game.  Belldandy, Raccoon and a figure in a cowl were playing.  The entire pot was a single glass sphere with a rather sickly green flame within it.  Scribed around the circumference was the name 'Tendo Nabiki'.

     "I win," the cowled figure announced in a voice that even sounded like it was rotting, while a skeletal hand with rags of flesh hanging off it, raked in the pot.

     Nabiki could feel the miasma of evil roiling off the figure.  My soul goes to the devil, she thought that was laying the symbolism on a little thick.  Her pistol was an uncomfortable pressure on her stomach.  I probably rolled over in my sleep and I'm lying on the stupid thing, she thought as she drew and fired, not at the figure but at the prize.  The glass shattered, and the flame went out.

     She brandished the pistol.  "I am - through - playing - games," she announced, "Everybody vacate the premises."

     "It doesn't work like that," the deep, gravelly voice came from behind her.  She whirled around, leveling the pistol.  Her fingers abruptly went on strike, and her knees and bladder were preparing a walk out of their own.

     It was big!  Maybe the Spruce Goose or the carrier was bigger, but this thing looked like it could eat an EVA for breakfast.  A black cloud of opalescent darkness, this wasn't a patch where the light hadn't gotten too.  Light took one look and ran the other way screaming for its mommy.  There were different intensities of the absolute blackness, so the whole shone like a mockery of pearl.  Then, like a window opening onto another universe, two distant yellow suns appeared.  They were old suns, forbidding suns that had long ago eaten all their planets and anything else they could draw in.

     Nabiki felt the draw of those eyes, as they extracted any thought or volition out of her, replacing it with a numbing cold.  She was certain the only reason she hadn't wet herself was everything inside her was now frozen into a solid lump.  She knew she should run away, but every instinct told her to remain motionless.  Attempting to escape would only make it angry.  From Ranma's wild stories, she finally put a name to this apparition before her.  "Sc - Scho - Dr - Drag."

     "The Scholarly Dragon, at your service."  There was a movement, some differentiation of the darkness as it spoke and bowed.  Individual scales, the huge, sharp, black teeth, and the smell of pine, jasmine and spices assailed her nostrils.  Ranma hadn't been able to tell her if the creature was good or bad, 'irritating/scary' was about the best he could describe it, and even then, he'd been extremely respectful about it.

     "You are under attack by three separate forces.  Any of them could have overwhelmed you, but each is attacking a different terror it understands, and thus interferes with the others.  So they each attribute your resistance to your own resources," the Dragon told her, "You would not survive even a single assault, their combined might would even give me pause.  Fortunate they will not coordinate."

     Nabiki dragged her eyes away from the Dragon's eyes and teeth, and gazed numbly at the two odd, pink, wormlike things that were lifting and stretching themselves from the Dragon's skull.  She missed his next words as the pink things writhed and expanded, growing longer, and . . . fuzzier.

     The Dragon's eyes lacked pupils, but she got the distinct impression that it was looking at the growing bunny ears it had sprouted.  "Excuse me a moment," the huge creature said politely, "I have to go kill some things."  The massive creature stood and turned around.  Nabiki saw the size of the hands and claws.  Despite the ridiculous bunny ears, she was still too frightened by the rest of it to move.  She doubted anything could disperse the aura of absolute and maleficent power the creature seemed to fill the entire area with.  Even when she saw the lashing tail racing towards her, her terror transfixed her.  She braced for the impact, then the tail passed well over her head.  She felt and smelled the breeze of its passage.  Not a reptile stink, but again pine, jasmine and spices.  In another context, it wouldn't have been an unpleasant smell.  She doubted she would ever smell pine again without thinking of her current peril.

     The monster vomited forth a stream of something even blacker than itself.  Wherever and whatever it touched burned away instantly.  The Nerima Wrecking crew, the odd house, huge windup cars with keys, a powder blue teddy bear the size of an EVA, and a horde of tiny Godzillas riding miniature tricycles.  In an instant, only she, the dragon, a pile of large white blocks, and a bowl large enough for her to swim in remained.

     The Dragon seemed amazed that any target had survived.  He carved off a section of a white block with a massive claw, sniffed then tasted it.  He then marched over and peered into the bowl.

     "Is there any reason you are dreaming so fervently of miso soup and tofu?" the Dragon asked, his voice full of almost benign amusement.

     "I guess I miss Japanese food," Nabiki managed, paralyzed again when those eyes returned to focus on her.

     "Concentrate on the ears, they seem to amuse you," the Dragon ordered with a jaded mirth.

     Nabiki made those cute, floppy immense ears the entirety of her visual universe, trying desperately to block out the massive horror they were attached to.

     "Tell the boy about the attack, the Circle of The Twilight Reeving may suffice, tell him that."

     Circle of the Twilight Reeving, Nabiki mouthed, but no sound came out.

     Then those eyes filled her field of view.  She couldn't imagine her mouth getting any drier, but it had.  She saw a yellowed reflection of a terrified girl staring back at her, her hands clasped in a silent prayer to whatever might be listening.  Nabiki wished she knew what the girl was praying to, there was nothing out there she could have that much faith in.

     "Or you could offer training in Martial Arts, in compensation for controlling your own dreams.  The boy managed to train the Iron Horse, Langley managed to teach `Spineless`, although he was a natural."

     She couldn't manage to make 'why?' come out of her mouth, but the dragon understood.  "Because lessons are more valuable if you must pay for them.  You will awaken now, the boy is awake.  Go tell him immediately."

     When she couldn't move the Dragon thundered "GO!" at her.  With the menace of its mocking laughter echoing after her, encouraging her, she could have broken the sound barrier.

The Proud The Cold Untroubled Heart of Stone

     Jeff heard the bare feet coming down the cross corridor and running towards his door, a moment later he saw Nabiki pass in front of him and crash through the door into his cabin.  She was wearing only her nightshirt and pistol belt.  Jeff jogged down the corridor after her, he wondered what was so important about his cabin at this hour of the night.

     He looked through the door at the girl practically spinning in the center of his room, the mattress and bedding were on the floor, as if she'd desperately searched the bed.  He turned on the lights.

     "AIEEEE!"  He was sure her scream went on longer, but he couldn't hear any more than that.

     "Corporal of the Guard, Post number five!" he shouted, he knew he was bypassing the post's sentinel, but he could apologize after his hearing returned.  He turned back to see Nabiki cowering in the corner.  Ritsuko in her night gown and robe was his first reinforcement.

     "What's going on?" she demanded.

     "She crashed into my room and screamed," Jeff explained.  Maya arrived, carrying her rifle correctly.  Although the fixed bayonet was a little much, and a longer nightgown or robe probably would have been a good idea, he approved of her priorities.

     Ritsuko walked into the room, moving slowly towards Nabiki.  A squad of Marines was approaching, looking ready for a fight.

     "Possible intruder in Miss Tendo's room," he told them, was prepared to go with them, when Ritsuko called him back.

     He stepped into his room, Ritsuko motioning impatiently.  He knelt near Nabiki, the leap-grab he almost expected.  Nabiki sobbing in terror was not.  He held the shivering girl, glanced at Ritsuko who shook her head slightly.  Both were ignorant of what had brought this on.  Jeff was content to wait, massaging Nabiki's knotted shoulders.  He checked the wards he had within the room, nothing had disturbed them.  The place was still as secure as he could make it.  Maya stuck her head in the room and shook her head, the guards had found nothing in Nabiki's room to justify her reaction. 

     He suspected it was just tension, events had been pushing her very hard lately.  The dreams that came with that had probably been the cause.  "Bad dreams cannot reach you here," he said softly, weaving a spell that eased the tension he could feel in her back.  She looked up at him with her eyes half-lidded and her face slack, like a toddler who was determined to remain awake, despite being asleep on her feet.  She tried to say something as her exhaustion caught up with her, and her eyes closed, and she collapsed into his lap.  As he reached with his cane to collect the bedding she'd strewn on the floor, he could feel her gentle snoring begin.

     "Now what are you going to do?" Ritsuko asked as he wrapped Nabiki in the sheets.

     "I am going to sit here, and do something I rarely do," he told her as he brushed Nabiki's hair out of her now peaceful face, "I'm going to get jealous of Ranma Saotome."

     Ritsuko chuckled quietly but stayed seated next to both of them.  She draped an arm around him.  "You should understand how Ranko feels, or rather why she feels that way."

     He smiled back.  Except you don't know what I am.  If they don't catch Sharon before she gets here, you may just find out, he thought sullenly, while he kept the cheerful smile on his face, You don't understand, even you.  Maybe you can't, and without that understanding I can't even begin to explain.

July 14, 1947

     Nabiki woke with a start, she hadn't told him, she hadn't . . . but she'd been asleep, no bad dreams?  She became aware that her pillow was a lot bonier than she remembered it.  She twisted around and looked up at Raccoon.  He smiled, she returned a rather sickly version as her mind filled in the details that she had been asleep curled up in his lap.  "Uh, hi."

     "Hello, sleep well?" he asked, that faintly amused look on his face, the 'I know everything and you don't' expression that irritated her so much.  She released his leg and crawled out of his lap.  What really irritated her was he never took advantage of either the romantic or blackmail opportunities of such events, as if it was all somehow sordid, or he couldn't be bothered.

     "After your behavior last night," he said.

     She tensed, she remembered grabbing him in a Shampoo-style hug.

     "I can understand why Saotome calls you nab chan," he told her.

     It's too early for this, she thought, Besides, he's probably been up for hours.

     "I guess I should go back to my room and go back to bed," she suggested.

     "I'm afraid I can't allow that Miss Tendo," he said.  Nabiki felt a faint trace of fear, what had she - they done?  She could barely remember, she vaguely remembered Ritsuko, surely she wouldn't have allowed them to do anything untoward.

     "You have an hour to get showered, dressed and eat breakfast before your rifle practice begins."  He said it with such a detached air, as if he were her father, not a kid her own age she'd spent the night with.  "And keep the sheets, you striptease in your sleep."  He reached over and handed her her nightshirt and panties, from where she'd probably thrown them.

     Her plan to belt him vanished as she took the garments without loosening her grip on the covers.  She briefly considered simply dropping the bedding and putting her clothes on with him watching.  If it had been Ranma, she wouldn't have hesitated, but she knew she wouldn't get a reaction out of him, and getting a reaction out of Ranma would have been the whole point of doing it.

     "I'll make my apologies to Ritsuko, and put up some defenses in your room.  Unless you'd like to switch," he told her, catching her eye, "They tried again, whoever they were.  I'd very much like to meet them, a good ambush would be enormously entertaining."

     "You're cruel," she said with some rancor, "You know that?"

     "Only to those who attack the helpless," he replied breezily, "Merely having the power to do a thing, does not give you the right to do it.  I could step on your train as you walked outside, give the guards an eyeful.  But what benefit would I gain?"

     "You could laugh at me," Nabiki suggested darkly, making sure she had a good grip on her covering.

     He stood up.  "And what benefit would I gain?  Tell me something Miss Tendo."

     Uh, oh, she thought, He only talks like that when things are going to get really nasty.

     "If I could teach you a spell that would bring Hiroko back from the grave, would you use it?"

     Nabiki felt herself start to shake, rage and tears in equal measure rose up to overwhelm her.  If he had such a spell, why hadn't he used it, why hadn't he brought Hiroko back?!  Why did he make her suffer through the loss of her friend?!

     "Would you use it, even if you knew that anyone who said the spell again would return her back to dust and ashes?  And she'd know that too.  Would you bring Hiroko back knowing that if she made you angry, you could send her back to whatever Hell you plucked her from, even if you could restore her a moment later when your anger cooled?  What about her family, would you restore her family with the same spell?  What would you do if some of them didn't want to be back, but Hiroko wanted them?  Would you put aside their wishes to please Hiroko?  And . . . what if she wasn't in Hell, what would you do if you plucked her out of Paradise to bring her here?  Would you keep her here because you were lonely, or would you let her go?  Or would you only call her up to get you through the bad times?"

     Nabiki was ashen, she hadn't even considered that.  She wanted Hiroko back, wanted the hurt to go away.  She'd thought about such a spell to bring her mother back, but if she were dragging them out of a better place . . . she knew Hiroko, she thought she knew her mother.  Neither would complain, but the knowledge would eat at them constantly.

     "I don't know," Nabiki said quietly.

     "So I'm cruel, I didn't give you the decision because the stakes were too high.  It was a burden you shouldn't have until you are ready.  You no longer want revenge on your sisters and father for what they did to Ranma.  But it's no fun when you can change things that radically.  It's only 'whee powers' when you don't have to live with the consequences.  You've done triage on a scope I hope neither of us ever sees again.  But when you have to live your life like that."  He shook his head.  "It isn't the powers, it's the responsibilities you think of.  A wizard's natural place is the edges, light and dark, good and evil, life and death, too much and not enough.  There are no grays at the edge, the black and white get very precise, a hairsbreadth between true mercy and real cruelty.  That thing on your belt is the first step.  That's life and death in one metal package, everyone around you now lives or dies because of your conscious choice.  Your enemies and those who irritate you live only because you decide to let them.  Consequences are for later, the choice you make is for now."

     "So the ones attacking me, you've decided they should die," she said quietly, "Being a wizard gives you that right?"

     "Being alive gives me the right, being a wizard gives me the responsibility.  And I said 'ambush' Miss Tendo.  You - suggested murder."

     Nabiki sighed and walked to her room.  The weight on her hip a reminder that if he had stepped on her train and humiliated her, she could have turned and shot him - shot at him.  The way she shot now, the safest place was where she was aiming.  She didn't want to have to think like that.

     "Edges, huh?" she said, she didn't want to think about that either.

     She suddenly realized he'd scared her out of asking about learning magic, AGAIN!  She was half tempted to march back and demand . . . then she decided it would be more fun and effective to trick him into agreeing to teach her.  The poor guy wouldn't know what hit him.  "In a few days you'll tell me everything you know, whether you want to or not," she said grinning with satisfaction.

     Nabiki was getting sick of this.  The morning had been more directing someone to make marks on a piece of paper while she looked at it through the rifle's sights, this time at the exciting distance of 200 yards!  The only breaks came as they taught her different ways to sit, stand, squat, kneel and lie to hold the rifle, with the strap wrapped around her arm.  This was worse than martial arts training, she smiled at that.  Learning how to shoot a rifle was a martial art.  Moving smoothly from one stance to the other was simplicity itself.  Ranma might have learned the stances and transitions with one demonstration, but Nabiki learned and mastered them all before lunch.

     After lunch came the most tedious part.  She'd been shown the dummy rounds, a case and bullet, but no powder, no primer, a hole drilled in the side.  She'd learned to load and insert the clip, without the rifle catching her thumb as it had the first time.  She wondered if they'd reduced the spring strength or if Nerima durability kept her thumb from being broken.  The job was simple, pull the trigger, then work the action to eject the cartridge, all just to get used to the feel.  Reloading when the clip emptied.

     She always thought she'd enjoy a handsome boy laying at her feet looking intently into her eyes.  Except he kept commenting on her blinking when she pulled the trigger.  She didn't know why she was flinching that way, she knew very well nothing terrible was going to happen, she'd fired her pistol a number of times and it hadn't exploded or turned into a monster.  These bullets were dead as a doornail.  I couldn't be afraid of being successful, could I? she wondered.

     "Oh beauteous maiden, why do you hide your eyes, when doing your warrior's duty," the man said the haiku in accented Japanese.

     Nabiki nearly dropped the rifle.  "What was that?!" she demanded in English loudly enough to draw the attention of most of the people around them.  Including Maya, who was still making marks on paper.

     "Well, Mr. Davis and Doctor Akagi gave us these inspirational messages to say if you were having trouble."  The young Marine was sweating slightly.

     "Do you speak Japanese?" Nabiki asked.

     "No ma'am," he said, handing her an index card, on it were several more `inspirational messages` in phonetic English.

     Nabiki handed it back. "Yes, they certainly inspire me to learn how to use a rifle better," she told him.  "Do you think I can learn how to use the bayonet?"

     "That's amazing!" the Marine said, "He told us you'd really be encouraged to learn all about the rifle."

     Nabiki sighed and concentrated on learning how to shoot this thing.  Once she was good enough, she'd turn that particular rooster into a capon.

     Ritsuko stared at the violet medicine.  She hadn't needed it, she didn't need it right now.  She didn't understand that.  The pain had been a constant problem, the medicine dulled her wits, but kept the pain away.  It was impossible that she didn't need it now.  She returned the bottle to the wall safe her cabin came with.  She locked the safe door and stared at it for a few moments.

     Maya burst in, nodded to her and flopped onto the bed.  "Please, sempai, I don't want to do this anymore.  Can't you just tell them I can't do it and . . . ?"

     "And what Maya?" Ritsuko said as she sat next to the girl, "Let you get killed when you cannot defend yourself?  Nabiki is going through the same thing."

     "But she's good at it!" Maya wailed, still face-down in the bedding.

     Ritsuko rested her hand on the trembling girl's back.  Then froze, wondering what she was doing.  They had shared the cabin, but Maya was in her bed.  She decided comforting a frightened subordinate wasn't too much.  She handed the girl a handkerchief and waited.

     Nabiki was sitting in Raccoon's cabin, going over the little triangles from her exercises.  Groups of three `shots`, the ones at the end of the day were smaller and smaller almost equilateral triangles.  The last two were less than 2.5 cm across, which was very good, 4 cm was the minimum standard.  If she could get over closing her eyes when she pulled the trigger, she could be a good marksman.  The little haiku's Raccoon and Ritsuko had provided were very good incentives.  She wondered if Raccoon had any way to help.  Ways that weren't so embarrassing.  She did wonder if the Marines knew what they were saying, or if they didn't.  Their tone indicated they knew it was something special, but not any specifics.

     Raccoon walked into the room in his robe and with a towel over his head.  He glanced around.  "I didn't know we had switched rooms."

     "We haven't," Nabiki said, she handed him the papers.  She looked and saw the shirt and pants under the robe.

     Does he go dressed everywhere? she wondered, she was also bothered that he wasn't reacting to her in shorts and shirt in his room.  Instead, he concentrated on the papers.

     "This is very good," he told her with a smile as he handed them back, "Once you get over flinching you'll be most of the way there.  I had to pick up, in bits and pieces, the techniques you're getting whole.  I'm a little envious."

     "You can have it," she said angrily, "I should thank you for your so useful little haiku's.  You won't believe how much I want to learn how to shoot now."

     "You don't react well to being humiliated, even if only you know.  You and Langley are very much alike in that respect, very proud," he told her as he headed for his closet.

     "So you manipulate me by humiliating me and tweaking my pride?" she asked angrily, she was considering hitting him, hard and repeatedly.

     "A little pain now to save a lot of pain later.  If you had to shoot to save Saotome, and couldn't do it, I don't think you'd be very happy with yourself."  He removed a fresh suit coat, pants and a tie.  He hung up the robe and stood in his pajamas.  He stood and stared at her.  "Was there something else, I would like to dress for dinner."

     "I could bring you a tray and feed you," Nabiki commented suggestively as she glided out of the chair and stalked towards him.  Ranma would have retreated in a delectable panic, Raccoon just stood his ground and impassively stared.

     "I don't think that's such a good idea," he commented, "You'd be too tempted to do something unfortunate.  Then you'd be so worried about my revenge . . . no, not a good idea at all."

     Nabiki growled, she disliked anyone who couldn't be put off their feet, and refused to even acknowledge an attack had been made.  A knock on the door interrupted them.  Nabiki stepped aside and let Raccoon go past her to the door.

     "Jeffrey Davis?"  A tall, distinguished-looking Briton stood at the hatch, "Major ggreg."

     Raccoon greeted him neutrally, "I take it you've cleared this?"

     "With Dr. Akagi, yes.  There is a wardroom reserved," Major ggreg said.

     Nabiki remembered the name, "Sarah's uncle?" she asked.

     "Father now, I formally adopted her," Major ggreg told her, "Of course, Miss Tendo."  He glanced at Raccoon.  "Brown Bess indeed."

     "Brown Bess?" Nabiki asked, raising an eyebrow at Raccoon.  She had the sinking feeling she was standing in the ring of a prize fight, the bell had rung and the two fighters were too polite to simply throw her out.

     "Some privacy Miss Tendo?" Major ggreg said as he cleared the door for her.  His posture made it clear she would be going through it and then watching it close behind her, with a minimum of force and a maximum of politeness, and in the very near future.

     She walked slowly, making it clear she'd gotten the unspoken message, but she wanted an answer.  "Brown - Bess -?"

     "In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade; Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise - an outspoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade, with a habit of looking men straight in the eyes - at Blenheim and Ramillies fops would confess; 'They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.'  Though her sight was not long and her weight was not small, yet her actions were winning, her language was clear," Major ggreg said, as if reciting.

     Nabiki felt no small amount of rage at Raccoon for calling her such insulting things.  Her lips formed a hard, thin line and she was definitely staring someone straight in the eyes.  "Brazen faced - jade - whose weight - was - not - small -?" she asked as carefully as she could.  She had better control over her temper than Akane, but she still had a temper and her pride.  That the pair of men were smirking at each other did nothing to quell the coming explosion.

     Major ggreg didn't take the hint, and continued, "If you go to Museums - there's one in Whitehall - where old weapons are shown with their names writ beneath, you will find her upstanding, her back to the wall, as stiff as a ramrod, her flint in her teeth.  And if ever we English had reason to bless any arm save our mothers', that arm is Brown Bess.  Rudyard Kipling's tribute to the Brown Bess musket.  Very touching I believe," Major ggreg said, nodded to Nabiki, "Sarah thought the correspondence 'remarkable.'"

     Nabiki felt a little mortified again, now neither man cracked a smile, maintaining their stoic expressions that even Rei would be hard pressed to match.  They were merely discussing a poem.  She glanced from one to the other, got no hints to their feelings.  She refused to slink out of the room.  She reminded herself that unlike Nerima, people often worked together.  As skilled as she was, two clever people working in concert could still best her easily.  She removed Raccoon's Kipling book from the desk's book shelf, and closed the door behind her quietly as she left.  She looked up the poem in the index and read it while she waited a distance down the corridor.  All in all, it wasn't completely inaccurate, at least as far as she wanted to be thought of, or would tolerate to be thought of.

     Major ggreg left Raccoon's cabin, Nabiki had hidden herself with all the skill that had served her so well in Nerima.

     "Ma'am."  Major ggreg clicked his heels, bowed slightly in her direction, then turned and walked away.

     She wanted to scream.  How did he see me? she wondered, Even the nervous martial artists never spotted me.  How did he?

     A few minutes later, Raccoon stepped out, wearing his usual three-piece suit and tie, looked right at her where she'd concealed herself.  "Since I can't stop you from following, give us about half an hour.  I can guarantee you will be severely punished if you eavesdrop or interfere.  There is proof a pilot could operate an EVA just as well with no feet or legs, no, I am not joking."  Raccoon bowed, turned on his heel and marched away.

     Nabiki stood there a few moments, then she checked her watch.  He said 30 minutes, fine, she thought.  "Thirty minutes."

Self-Knowledge Tends To Make Man Shallow Or Insane

     Nabiki slipped in among the stewards, she explained that she needed their help to play a joke on Mister Davis, she was late for dinner and wanted to see if he noticed.  Most of these men were Filipino, they spoke among themselves quickly in a language she didn't recognize, then they provided her a uniform and a tray with a tea pot, cups and all the fixings.  They also helped her pin her hair up and hide the resulting bun under a simple cap.  Most of them shook their heads, the loser in their hidden lottery told her she obviously wasn't going to fool anyone.  She was a little taller than they were, and a girl, but she knew that servants were invisible.  Two of them stood near her to help as she lifted the tray and transferred it to her shoulder.  She was glad of the training she'd gotten from Cologne at the Nekohanten.  She walked steadily down the corridor, one of the stewards waited at the wardroom door to open it for her.  She felt very worried and disoriented as the man closed the door behind her.

     "So what, ugh, brings you to, ow, this part of, ah!, world?" Raccoon asked as Nabiki walked through the door.  Raccoon was sitting backward on a chair stripped down to his T-shirt, while an older Chinese man in shirt sleeves was standing over him and using acupressure on Raccoon's Chakra.  She recognized him as Adam, the pilot who had flown them to San Francisco.  A short distance away Major ggreg stood and stared out the porthole, he was also in suit and tie.  They looked like a trio of merchant bankers in varying states of undress.  None of the three seemed to take notice of her.

     Adam turned on her in a fury.  "Why you interrupt us, we not ready to order yet!  You go away!" he shouted in Mandarin.

     "Honored Elder." She bowed to hide her face and stammered in Mandarin, "Please forgive the intrusion."  It was a stock phrase she'd learned at the Nekohanten.  She suddenly realized she shouldn't have understood or responded in Chinese.  But no one seemed to notice.

     "You think I am an old man?" he shouted back in Mandarin, "So frail that a little cold will freeze my bones?"

     "No Honored Elder." Nabiki bowed again, "We make the tea available to all."

     She felt a little relief, He would have said something, she thought.

     Adam straightened, turned to Raccoon who was putting his shirt on.  "You were right.  But does your wife follow you ev-rywhere?" he asked in English.  He sat down, smiled and waggled his eyebrows at her.  "Bring the tea," he commanded in English, "You can be mother."  Nabiki, chagrined, complied.

     "We are not married," Raccoon said.  Pulling his vest and coat back on.  "And being mother means you serve the tea."

     "Ha," Adam mocked.  "When I was your age, I had a wife," he teased.

     "I'm not a randy old goat who can't keep his mouth shut," Raccoon said sweetly.  Nabiki nearly spilled the tea when the old man shot to his feet.  She backed out of range hastily.

     "You call me or . . . "  He sat down, smiled.  "I came to test your balance and learn you can upset mine.  Joma!"

     A huge man, who Nabiki hadn't noticed, stood up from his place by the hatch and blocked her path to that door.  With Major ggreg at the porthole, Nabiki suddenly realized that there was now no way out of the room.  A glance at Raccoon gave her no clue to what would happen next.  She wondered if even Ranma would do well against this giant.  He was so tall and broad he'd make Sammi look petite.  She decided Major ggreg and the sea was definitely the safer option.

     "Give the young lady your chair and get another from the staff," Adam commanded in a conversational tone, never taking his eyes of Nabiki.

     Nabiki barely heard the Major step up behind her.  "Allow me," he said.  She stepped aside to let Joma place the chair at the table.  The huge man said nothing, the Major continued, "Alfred Kelsey ggreg.  Three g's, two lowercase at the front, late of His Majesty's armed forces."  He pulled the chair out from the table and held it for her.  She gauged her chances, she could make a run for the door or porthole, if she moved this instant.  If she stayed, she could sit down of her own free will, or they would coerce her.  She sat.

     She thought the best course of action was to go along, keep things civil.  "Arigato."  She saw that he understood her, but returned to English.  "So how is Sarah?"

     "Do Itashimashite.  She has had some trouble settling in, but she has enjoyed learning a number of things from . . . her father.  Things I wouldn't think such a refined young lady would be interested in."  He sat beside her, a quizzical smile on his face.

     "Daughters often like to emulate their fathers," Nabiki said pleasantly.

     "Except that Major ggreg's teaching includes what you've been learning the last few days," Raccoon said, "Martial arts, firearms, explosives."

     "I have not taught her about the last," Major ggreg complained.

     "I bet she hasn't bypassed a chance to convince you otherwise," Raccoon commented.

     "I usually hit him with a frying pan at that point," Nabiki said.  Saw the other two nod sagely.  "What part of His Majesty's forces were you in?"

     "He used to be `deployed` out of airplanes, boats, submarines.  Land on something and blow it up," Raccoon explained, "Usually while he was still standing on it.  The Germans developed the 'Fritz' radio-guided bomb to counter the 'ggreg' that the British had developed."

     "Ah, a smart bomb."  She smiled.  She also felt more relaxed.  It seemed that if you were 'inside' there were fewer secrets.  She suspected that she'd later be told what was secret and what she'd never be able to talk about.

     "Anyway."  Raccoon winced at the joke.  "Major?  You didn't finally get your colonelcy?"

     "For San Francisco I got my permanent Major's rank and an O.B.E., I understand there was some talk of a Medal of Honor, not possible unfortunately," the Major sighed.  "My sunburned, Birmingham colleague goes by the name Adam Smith."

     "My ascension name to honor the man who codified the most POWERFUL magic known to man: Supply and Demand," Adam said theatrically.  His cultured English accent seemed vaguely out of place.

     "I think I like him," Nabiki commented to Major ggreg.

     "Strangely enough, most people do," the Major said with a good deal of distaste.

     Joma returned with the chair and gingerly sat next to the door.  Nabiki couldn't figure out how someone so big moved so quietly.  He too wore a suit and tie, she felt very underdressed.

     "Isn't he going to join us?" she asked.

     "He only eats a crumb of the Host on St. Walpurgis Night," Raccoon explained, "He's a golem, an artificial lifeform.  The man with the flip-top head."  Nabiki remembered the events in San Francisco, it seemed like a century ago.

     "You interrupted the Major," Adam said, "Yes all people like me."

     "Honsata," Raccoon said.

     "Aieeu!" the British-Chinese mage shrieked and threw up his hands, "Do not say that name unless you have warded all nine mystic directions against evil!"

     "His second wife.  At fifteen she grew up."  Raccoon held his hands more than a foot in front of his chest.  "At thirty she grew out."  He held his hands over a yard away from his sides and puffed his cheeks.

     "I could have lived with that, but her four sisters and their mother ate me out of house and home!" Adam lamented.

     Nabiki could sympathize, remembering Genma and Ranma practically eating them into the poor house.  She was relaxing slightly, but in the back of her mind she wondered if they were sedating her before they struck.

     "Did that demon you fed them to ever get over his indigestion?" Raccoon asked.

     "That has never been proven."  Adam crossed his arms, and stared angrily.  "Are you going to introduce your wife?"

     "You met, Tendo Nabiki, in San Francisco, we pulled her out of the trunk before everything hit the fan.  She was with me when you recovered Sarah.  And we aren't married.  I mentioned that before also."

     "Destiny writes for those to see."  Joma commented from his place at the door.

     "He used the I-Ching to plumb my future," Raccoon explained tiredly, "According to Joma, what keeps you away from Ranma and me away from Ranko will be spread among all of us and thus eliminate the problem.  I think he's implying a menage a qua."

     "Not implying, it will be interesting seeing who will father and who will bear your children," Joma said.

     "I wish someone would explain what it is about pilots that encourages this behavior, the girls and guys at school speculated on it endlessly: who's going to 'get involved' with Ranko, who is Langley sweet on, are Shinji and Ayanami going to marry, if so when, will Ranma ever take up?" Raccoon said testily, "I'd like to survive first.  The survivors can think about home and hearth after the war is over."

     The others smirked at him Nabiki noticed.

     Nabiki knew Raccoon wouldn't have revealed the curse to them, no matter what clearances they had.  She wasn't sure if that meant Saotome would be split, or if the curse spread to her and Raccoon as well.  She remembered how Ranko carried on with Raccoon in Asuka's room before they left, and wondered what that would be like if Ranma ever opened up that way to her.  She felt the heat of a blush climbing her chest and neck.  Raccoon merely looked disturbed and a little peeved.

     "Wasn't he on the opposition last time?" Nabiki asked, trying to change the subject.  She remembered the living statue with the demonic face.

     "When Mister Davis defeated me, he took my Khem."  Joma touched his head.

     "A slip of magic paper with the spells to animate the golem," Raccoon told her.

     "Cheeky bugger threw in my commission in His Majesty's forces instead," Major ggreg complained, aimed a frown at Raccoon.

     "Rule Britannia," Joma intoned with no emotion but absolute conviction.

     "And my copy of the Federalist papers.  Had to make sure he was as confused as the rest of us, so he could fit in."  Raccoon smiled.

     Nabiki was wondering if the Mad Hatter and the March Hare were going to wander in for tea, or if they had already listened in and run for the hills.

     Joma nodded his thanks.  "A trained sculptor and painter of statuary helped, now I can pass as a human, in bad light."  Nabiki agreed, he looked more human than Gosenkugi, the voodoo man.

     "Back to business," Adam insisted, "There are things that bring us out here.  There have been Cthonians sensed in this area.  Until last month, when all traces ceased.  They could only have been here to attack NERV and the pilots, were you aware?  Have you made precautions?"

     "I was aware.  The most formidable precautions have been taken," Raccoon said, "They also are staying away because of the rainy season.  They may be back in August, they'll definitely be back in November after the second rainy season is over."

     "About the disappearances?" the Major asked.  It didn't seem to be possible anyone would call him Alfred.  His father would probably call him 'the Major' or 'Major ggreg'.

     Raccoon shrugged, "Maybe it swam away."

     "Water is their bane they . . . "  Adam stared at Nabiki.  "Have you heard him play piano?"

     She was about to answer.

     "Stop!" Raccoon warned, he seemed desperately worried now, "Miss Tendo, if you answer that question, you're stuck.  Right now you can stand up, and walk away.  No one will stop you."  He scanned the others, the threat lay unspoken but for the moment she had safe passage, if she wanted it.  "Answer that question, and you take a step you can never call back."

     "With all the divided loyalties and half-truths at NERV, you think I'd give up a chance to find out what side you're really on?" she asked levelly, "I've asked you twice.  You scared me away both times.  Not this time."

     "He sides with the human race," Major ggreg told her gently, "And he's right Adam.  By getting involved with us, she's putting her soul in jeopardy.  You may leave, my dear, right now.  In the end it will be safer and none of us will think any less of you."

     Nabiki considered, they were all trying to convince her, but they were not forcing her, "If, if I say yes to getting in, will this give me an edge surviving the craziness of NERV and SEELE?"

     The trio looked around at her mentioned of SEELE.  She kept her face as solemn as theirs were, but she wanted them to know she had a few resources as well.  Although Belldandy hadn't been around lately.  She wondered what the others would do if she introduced them.

     No, she'd never allow that, Nabiki thought, Stay in the background unseen and unknown.

     "The hardest, sharpest edge known to mankind, but a double edge," Raccoon said despondently as he toyed with his empty teacup, "For a price, a high price."

     She considered, considered the mission, her mission, that had brought her to this world, "Then, I'm in.  The price, I'll pay it, when it comes due."

     Raccoon put his forehead on the table and shook his head.  "Before we continue, we are not talking sales of souls or some dark contract.  You have to set the price, for yourself.  In many cases it is a test of character rather than a traditional contract.  To . . . "  He paused, he couldn't seem to find the words.

     "Have you heard him play piano?" Adam alluded.

     "Yes," she whispered, remembering.  It had been as if he were plucking her emotions this way and that.  Considering his awful singing, it seemed impossible that he could make music like that.

     "Enchanting, was it not, almost as if he could see your soul and draw it one way or another?" Adam asked.

     "Yes, and he wouldn't do it for a paying audience," she admitted, frowned both at Raccoon and at the nebulous ideas that refused to form fully.

     "That isn't magic, that is just foolishness," Adam shouted, "You always were a fool."

     "To take what came and prepare was my way.  Better to sip from the river than try to catch it all and dry it up," Raccoon retorted angrily, it had the feeling of a longstanding argument that wasn't going to be resolved anytime soon.

     "This fool had $30,000 a month flowing through his hands!  And he kept none of it!  His flunkies had better pay than he did!"

     "$30,000?" Nabiki asked, smiling broadly at him.  Raccoon looked from her to Adam with a deepening frown.

     "About 10,000 troy ounces of gold, a year," Major ggreg added, not knowing she knew all about it, except where the profits went.  Where that pile of money was.  Raccoon would have had an eye on the future.

     "There was a war on, I was raising money for the war effort," Raccoon defended angrily, "I had no right to make myself rich.  Besides there were always the poker games."  That stopped Adam's rant.

     "And I'm not going to tell you how much I made on those, old man," Raccoon added.

     "You have no respect for your elders!" Adam shouted.

     "How does playing the piano relate to the edges you were talking about, and preparing the way?" Nabiki asked.  After getting so close, she didn't want to get sidetracked.

     "Magic," Adam said, as if it was obvious, "Any fool can start an avalanche with a howitzer, and expert can start one with a pebble, but a mage can set the pebble to aim that avalanche where he - "

     "Or she," Raccoon said darkly.

     "- wants it to go," Adam explained, "This one - "  He nodded at Raccoon.  "Masters spirits, souls, dragging them one way or another, making deals, arranging things.  Seeking to `balance` things, so they fall his way.  He never speaks a lie, but twists things so your ears and expectations lie to you instead.  Gadfly negotiator, or godflea, considering some of his `clients` and patrons."

     "You're a fine one to talk, riding ebb and flow like an Eskimo and his kayak," Raccoon replied disdainfully, "You never hold on to anything, or make anything permanent.  That's why you don't match me!"

     "It is the flow that is important, not the rocks in the river!" Adam thundered back.

     Nabiki decided she did not want to be present at a full blown wizards' duel.  "Since you're `late` of His Majesty's service, who's calling the shots, and who's paying the bills?"

     "His Majesty's government, unofficially of course.  NERV has everybody worried, well everybody who knows anything.  America's own Delta Green chappies are nearly frantic," the Major explained, "Sooner or later, you are going to go against something that can't or won't fight against those giant monsters of yours."

     "Another watchdog," Nabiki commented, "How do all the spies keep from tripping over each other?  And we've already done that, the mortar attack for one thing, the Lliogor for another."

     "We don't, that's why it's cloak and dagger," ggreg explained, "And those were still in Japan, in Tokyo.  There is a whole other world out here.  You're sailing through part of it."

     "I assume you want my help, how are you going to arrange it without raising suspicions?" Raccoon asked.  Nabiki tensed, since her discussions with Brother Jonathan, she'd realized there were other powers interested, at least one was a Great Old One, and that one a powerful one.

     "You two are studying the search and rescue techniques, including underwater work?" ggreg asked.

     "Yes, Nabiki and myself," Raccoon admitted.

     "Splendid, you'll both need training in underwater demolitions, using small explosive charges to force entry, free trapped equipment or simply blowing up `Angel` corpses," ggreg explained.

     "Where the Hell were you a month ago?" Nabiki said bitterly.  Raccoon patted her hand.

     I will not cry, I will not cry, she thought as she clenched her fists and squeezed her eyes shut, Why couldn't I have known how to do that a month, two months ago.  That girl and the others might have lived.  Why now, when it's too late for them?  She could almost hear the confusion and embarrassment in the silence around her.  She wondered when the memories and emotions would quit leaping out of the darkness to ambush her whenever someone even mentioned that day.  A few moments later she opened her eyes, looked around at the faces.  Raccoon looked grim, the two older men looked chagrined.

     "I apologize," Major ggreg said, "I should have realized.  Your exploits . . . I suspect this is not the right time, but even Their Majesties were impressed."

     He paused, they all let the abashed silence drag on for a moment.

     "I am a fully certified instructor," the Major began carefully, "I've used contacts in His Majesty's government to `expedite` things.  The cover story can be Great Britain and His Majesty's personal interest in the progress and project.  The Atlantic is definitely of greater interest to Great Britain and her Commonwealth than Japan.  Gibraltar as well as the Home and Mediterranean Fleets are already on high alert."

     "We're going to be spied on."  Nabiki shrugged, she knew the guard also reported the pilots' activities.

     "That is the cover," Adam explained, "Actually we . . . "  he paused and glanced at Raccoon, who nodded gravely.  "You may not have heard of the Manhattan project."

     "The atomic bomb project," Nabiki said.  Her pulse quickened she knew it was super secret, she wasn't sure when they declassified the project.  She also knew something they might not have.  "The first pile was in the squash court of the University of Chicago, in 1942."

     Raccoon's head came up, he stared at her.  He'd made the connection.  If the others needed to know, she'd let him tell them.  His parents, a chemist and a physicist, had been in Chicago, they'd died there in 1943.  It seemed an awfully big coincidence to her.  She'd let him investigate further if he wanted to.

     "Well, there was another project," Adam continued, staring alternately at the two pilots, "This one was a joint Anglo-American project.  Our governments suppressed the findings of the 1930-31 Antarctic expedition, but what the Axis spies were able to discern began their frantic race to develop a counter.  First their own expeditions, which the British and Americans tried and failed to beat to the source.  They failed."

     "There were only three survivors," the Major took up the tale, "Gendo Rokubungi, Kozo Fuyutsuki and Misato Katsuragi, you are familiar with those names?"

     "Yes," Nabiki said quietly.  She didn't even want to think about the implications.  "And Gendo changed his name to Ikari later, correct?"

     "After his actions in Nanking, yes," Adam said.

     "The city they found was ancient, and humans did not build it," Raccoon said, "They took a great deal of equipment.  The Magi computing engines are just one such piece of equipment."

     I wonder if that's where they got Penpen too, Nabiki wondered, she was sweating now.  The implications were too big, and there was still this other project.

     "The Americans and Britons shared something the earlier expedition found.  Something we firmly believe that the Axis forces were searching for and we know didn't find.  That something was the basis of the Chicago project," Adam said, "An experiment in bioengineering, creating weapons capable of engaging and defeating our enemies by force and guile.  Weapons that also could pass among the normal population without being noticed.  Not all of the enemy are giant monsters, some were born human and still pass themselves off as human."

     "To do this," Raccoon said, "It would have to be able to simulate humanity in all its aspects.  Not just apparent physiology, but psychology as well.  Emotions, thought processes, that sort of thing."

     "I believe that simulate is the wrong word, share might - " Adam said.

     "Simulate is the word I used, and I would appreciate it if you would accept that I know a great deal more about the reality than you, sir.  You know the theories, I know the facts," Raccoon responded coldly, now he was shaking, but she couldn't bring herself to comfort him as he had her.  Nabiki had already reached the conclusion they were all dancing around.  She wanted to end it, but there was other data she suspected she wouldn't hear anywhere or any when else.  Joma seemed the only one who wasn't tense now.

     "The Americans and Britons prepared 15 subjects a piece," the Major continued, "When the war was won and we could evaluate the data on the EVAs, there were three American and six British experimental subjects left.  EVA Unit 03 destroyed all six British, and I mean destroyed, there was nothing left of any of them.  The American pilot - "

     "Jason," Raccoon interjected.

     "Yes, Jason," the Major said, "Fell victim to the same phenomenon, a sudden incredible increase of sync ratio.  There seems an upper limit to the safe sync ratios, but we have no idea what it is."

     "And Sharon became a monster," Raccoon said with no emotion at all, "In mind and body, contact with the EVA did that to her.  So they are here to see if the last Chicago Project unit has slipped a cog and has to be put down."

     "That's hardly - " Adam said jovially.

     "Miss Tendo deserves the truth," Raccoon said carefully, "She deserves to know that if I disappear tomorrow, it was for her safety and the safety of the others."

     "How can you be so cavalier about this?" she shouted at him, he was talking about being murdered as if it was of no consequence.  "Don't you care?  Care about yourself, care about anyone else's feelings?"

     "I care about their survival - more," he told her, "When I said simulate, I meant simulate.  Five years studying acting were part of it.  Perhaps if I spent time as someone else, then I might have the feelings they would have.  I'm not without emotions, my own simply don't burn as hot."

     Nabiki got the message, and it was the opposite of the message he'd given the others.  The dream where he'd been Ranma, he must have had Ranma 'I wear my heart on my sleeve' Saotome's tremendous emotional reserve and glacial calm.  She wondered how that would have hit him, since Raccoon was normally such a hysterical drama queen.  She also knew Ranma's honor and Raccoon's relentless logic would come to the same conclusion, if he became the enemy, an ending was mercy, not murder.  She almost didn't want to hear any more, but it was like watching a train wreck, you could not tear yourself away.  "So what did you find?" Nabiki asked, she almost didn't want the answer.

     "There has been no cause for concern," the Major said carefully.

     Nabiki could have hidden an ocean and two continents in what that statement didn't cover.  Ranma could have hidden an ocean and a continent in what that didn't cover.  The first thing was 'yet.'  She didn't understand how anybody could be under a death sentence and go on as if nothing was wrong.

     "What they aren't telling you is that no one really knows what was supposed to occur, only their plans and estimates.  Contact with the EVA threw all those plans and estimates in the dump.  I don't think anyone ever thought the pilots would absorb what they do.  I went from being able to walk only with a cane to being able to sprint up to highway speeds."

     That revelation alarmed the two older men.  Nabiki thought that might be unwise, given the circumstances.

     "The concern you should be having is why the sudden concern," Raccoon told them, "Something must have changed.  I take it Sharon woke up, she was completely catatonic when I last saw her."

     "Yes," the Major said, "Quite around the bend."

     Raccoon looked at Nabiki.  "As odd as you think my behavior is, I don't think I'm around the bend."

     "All you westerners are crazy, as far as I've been able to tell," Nabiki made an attempt at humor, it fell flat.  "So you're the last hope of the Allies and the rest of us are semi-reformed Axis?"

     "Crudely stated," Adam told her, "But basically correct.  How reformed is a question for others."

     "The initial plan was for there to be one American, two British and one ex-Axis on each team.  Jason and Sharon would head the combat teams.  Miss Langley and I would be doing mostly R&D work with the EVAs, assisting Dr. Akagi.  Rei and Anna would be the other ex-Axis pilots.  You, Shinji, and the Saotomes would have been well out of it, or they would have made the teams five strong instead of four.  The Units would have been 00, 02, 03 and 04.  Unit 01 was thought too dangerous, then they encountered Unit 03, and that changed everything."

     "You believe that Rit - Dr. Akagi saved your life?" Nabiki asked quietly, this was making her very nervous.  The entire project was a lash up, a series of clever improvisations, a disaster waiting to happen.  Only a series of fortunate accidents and interventions kept things from spinning off into disaster.

     And Gendo acts like he's keeping the whole thing running on rails, Nabiki thought angrily, He's doing a juggling act and insists on doing it alone.  Nabiki felt her fear and fury warring in her mind that anyone could be so foolish.

     "Yes, I believe Dr. Akagi prevented me from going the way of every other Anglo-American pilot," Raccoon admitted, "It is difficult not to come to that conclusion.  Don't you agree?"

     You really do care about her?  Don't you?  And you aren't eager to die, just desperate not to be a threat to others.  To us humans? she thought as she looked at his expression, there was an almost Ranma-like embarrassment there.  Yet you're too much of a gentleman to declare it, she thought, Because of your age and the age difference, there is nothing you'll do about it.  Nabiki sometimes thought honor should only be a guideline, whenever you used it as a set of rules, you cut yourself with it.

     "I could argue, but it wouldn't make a difference," she said, "You'd still believe what you believe."  She saw he'd gotten the message.

     "You were asking what else sparked our concerns," the Major sounded embarrassed, "In truth, we were worried about you and the other pilots.  It seems we lost the Twins."

     Raccoon stood up so suddenly, he knocked over his chair, "You assured me that thing was securely locked away in the bowels of the British Museum.  That was the only reason I let it live."

     "As we said, some of your enemies don't wish to fight you or your machines directly.  Even His Majesty's government harbors enemies to the common good."

     "Like Edward," Raccoon muttered, setting up his chair.

     Major ggreg shot to his feet.  "Mister Davis!  If you and Adam want to play `the belly game`, fine.  I have no stomach for it."

     Everyone stared at the Englishman's trim form while they winced.  "You know what I mean."  He sat down irritatedly.

     "The sad part is, he did that by accident," Raccoon explained as he sat down, "Please don't tell me that idiot is in China or the Azores."

     "We don't have to.  He is in Tokyo," Adam beamed, "We are absolutely certain of it."

     "Terrific."  Raccoon put his head back on the table, as if preparing to drive his head through it, like a karateka.  Instead he began massaging his temples, "This time just kill it, okay?"

     Adam and ggreg exchanged glances, then agreed.  "It will give your chaps something to do."

     "Now we will eat, and I will tell your wife what a charlatan and a two-faced man you really are," Adam announced.  Joma left to get the stewards, to tell them they could serve dinner.  Raccoon shrugged apologetically to Nabiki.

     He didn't deny it, she thought As Ranma always did with his fiancees.  Then she put herself back on track.  Or am I reading too much into this?  She couldn't figure out why he would be introducing her to all this weird stuff if he wasn't interested.  But he might want a colleague close at hand, she thought, Or he's sick of fighting about it.

     "It was a beautiful late fall day in 1944.  ggreg and I were pursuing another case in the Boston area.  Harvard had many books we needed, but a horse race on the grounds would have attracted attention anyway."

     Nabiki walked back to her cabin, she was glad Raccoon was escorting her.  The evening had been long and amusing, terrifying and enlightening.  "Did you really do all that stuff?"

     "I can get out the microscope and the film strips," Raccoon offered as they walked along.

     "Doesn't reading that book make you . . . well, insane?" she asked.

     "Have you noticed that the pilots are immune to the mythos monsters that force normal humans into Angel's Malaise or screaming madness?  We aren't immune to fear.  There were one or two times you were sweating in there, so was I.  But the really weird stuff that should send us screaming into the night doesn't have any effect."

     Nabiki didn't like the sound of that.  "So how can we tell if we are crazy?" Nabiki asked as they reached her cabin, "Do we wait until we've eaten someone or we're foaming at the mouth?"

     "I think we watch each other for a serious change of behavior."

     "Like you giving me a good night kiss?" she asked in a sultry tone, pressing against him.

     "I must keep you pure for young Saotome who pines for your release," he told her.

     "Have you, uh, protected the room?  I'd rather not have anymore of those dreams."

     "Already done.  You'll sleep well.  Maybe I should teach you about controlling your dreams.  You certainly have an interesting patch of nightmares."

     "You were protecting me after Hiroko died, weren't you?" she practically accused him.

     "Me, Shinji, Langley and Ayanami," he said and backed away from her anger.

     "I . . . I'm sorry, it's just the bad dreams, they just stopped . . . and I felt guilty about not having nightmares about Hiroko anymore.  It was as if I were betraying her somehow."

     "You will still remember and dream of her.  But we knew you needed unhindered sleep if you were going to survive," Raccoon explained.

     "I would be interested in learning.  Just not tonight.  Maybe you'll accept some lessons in hand-to-hand as compensation."

     "Let you hit me after I gave the Marines those haikus?  I remember what happened last time I `sparred` aboard a carrier.  Maybe after we're done in the Azores.  Good night, sleep well."

     She knew that was the end, as far as he was concerned.  She went into her cabin.  She almost wished she'd found Belldandy or Brother Jonathan or something strange in it.  It would make her feel a little better to be reminded that her life had some odd elements to it as well.  That somehow, she was a paid-up member of this new club.  As weird as Nerima was, it was safe.  No one killed each other.  She still hadn't quite figured out how you went from a horserace to investigating the mythos to walking around a sewer with two platoons of armed mobsters.

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 39 - When The Candles Are Out All Women are Fair, All Cats Be Gray

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.

     With the return of NERV Tokyo from the Great White Space, 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 Grossfeldmarschall {Große}.  All the pilots are giddy from recent events.

     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.

     With the aid of a narrow board and two sawhorses, Asuka begins teaching Ranma both sword fighting, and how to teach.  Only he believes his first class with the others was an unmitigated disaster.

     Asuka contracts Keiichi and his sister to construct several bicycles for the pilots.  She shoots a bug and has her second clash with Skuld.

     All four senators from Wyoming and Massachusetts begin investigating the Boston incident and Misato's part in it.  Admiral Simson scrambles to begin his own investigation of what has been happening in NERV before and after the war.  Shinji and Rei console and watch over Misato.

     Asuka and Ranma wash each others hair, Shinji washes Rei's.  They discuss children while doing this.  Asuka doesn't want the responsibility, Rei appreciates her advice.

     Aboard the Bennington, Jeff meets with one of his patrons and receives an update on Sharon.  Nabiki is coming to realize the differences in the way the military treats her and the other pilots.

     Major ggreg and Adam Smith arrive, to cover their `spying` on NERV, they will teach Nabiki and Jeff about explosives.

     Ritsuko begins to investigate the unusual way Jeff syncs with the EVA.  Nabiki and Maya begin training to operate firearms.

     A dinner at the Admiral's table proves a real eye opener for Nabiki, about her colleagues and their interrelation.  A dinner with Major ggreg and Adam Smith gives her further insight into Jeff, his history and origins.

     Jeff begins teaching Nabiki about control of her dreams, and possibly about magic.

Gray-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing over the wine-dark sea.

Homer - The Odyssey book ii, l. 420

Behind Him Lay the Gray Azores, Behind the Gates of Hercules

July 15, 1947

     Ranma was watching the early morning practice with Asuka on the roof, while Sammi watched them both.  He was nervous enough about Asuka's `great idea`.  He spotted something out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned to look directly at it, it vanished.  He kept on practicing, but he also kept the odd figure in the corner of his eye.  Once he had lulled it/him and lured it into a more open area of the roof, he wouldn't have to dodge, just a max speed sprint straight to the target.  At the right time, he exploded into movement.  He instantly lost sight of the target, but he had one of the golden ki orbs ready to fire.

     Instead, he plunged through a field of cold so intense he thought he might die.  He stumbled to a stop, the orb gone, he felt terrified that whatever it was would attack him, and he'd be helpless.

     "What idiocy are you playing at?" Asuka shouted as she rushed towards him, her sabre-halberd in hand.

     He tried to warn her off, she passed through whatever he had, and she was unaffected.  "Somebody was spying on us," Ranma replied defensively, barely managing a croak, "I saw him out of the corner of my eye."

     Although I couldn't see him looking straight on, he admitted to himself.

     "He was wearing some kind of uniform, not American, British or Japanese.  Tall guy, dark hair and eyes."

     "Could you give a sketch artist a description?" Sammi asked as she walked towards him at a leisurely pace.  Ranma could tell she didn't really believe him, especially the way she was staring over his head, but maybe she'd give him the benefit of the doubt.  "I really want to know how you got frost in your hair."

     Ranma brushed his head, expecting Sammi was teasing him again, but his hand came away cold.  He stared at it for a moment, remembering everything he'd learned about ghosts and some of his own theories about the cold ki they generated.

     "Ingegnere!  Stegone!" [Engineer] [Wizard]

     Jeff woke to the spirit world, gray wisps like clouds swirled and eddied around them.  It happened occasionally, usually when one of his allies was particularly agitated.  Spirits whom he could strongly rely on had to be allowed an occasional tantrum, they had never acted without good reason before, it also gave him insights into what type of missions he could best send them on, to minimize the 'pay' he had to dole out and it kept them satisfied.  All in all, good things.  "Captain Rosatelli is there a problem?" he asked the tall man-form in the uniform.

     "He see me, the Iron Horse!  He look right at me and he not see me, he look through the angle of the eye, he see me clear!"  The ex-Captain of the Regia Aeronautica [Italian Air Force] fingered the gold signet ring hanging from a chain around his neck, a signal he was extremely nervous.  A difficult enough state to create in a fighter pilot, nearly impossible in this man, who literally flew into death.

     "The Iron Horse, Ranma saw you?" Jeff said, quickly waking up, switched to Italian, "I am fluent in your mother tongue."

     "And no more practice my English?" the spirit seemed offended, "My little girl's English is to be proud of," he added indignantly.

     "So Ranma saw you?" Jeff switched back to English, he was confused, spirits were the best spies because they were almost impossible to defend against or detect.

     "Your amore, Ranma," the once-officer needled Jeff, "I should have realized earlier, chiedere scusa, Signore." [I beg your pardon]

     "There is no fault.  Ranma's capabilities are increasing," Jeff soothed, "I should have realized.  You won't be able to get so close to him in the future," he paused, decided to change the subject.  "You mentioned your daughter, have you checked on her recently?"

     The man brightened, the reason he'd remained `behind` was his daughter.  They'd been estranged over her pending marriage, he'd been killed before he could return and put a stop to it.  Then her husband of eight weeks was killed at the Battle of Matapan, and all he wanted to tell his grieving daughter was that her father still loved her.  Duplicating the signet ring and the chain the spirit wore around his neck had been difficult.  'Weathering' it to make it look like it had been through the crash that had killed the man had been a painstaking job.  Spiritwriting the letter had been child's play by comparison, getting it to the woman and her young daughter had clinched the deal.  The man had loved his daughter and had fallen in love with the granddaughter who hadn't been born before his death.

     Such are the works of a shaman, Jeff thought as he remembered the deal he'd struck.

     "Oh my poor Napoli!" the man wailed, "Such damage, such devastation, all the work to be done!"

     Jeff remembered that the man's daughter worked with the companies and government agencies rebuilding his hometown.  "She still enjoys her work?" Jeff asked.

     "So, so happy and proud, my wife loves spoiling the little one," he gushed, then sighed in satisfaction.  He had remained 'in-between', once his initial mission of communicating with his daughter had ended, specifically to watch out for his family, Jeff helped where he could.

     "She has the face, so angelic.  Such little hands!"

     Jeff had heard it all before, although he kept an ear open for anything that changed in the litany of grandfatherly pride.  The subject unexpectedly returned to the other pilots.

     "Something is stirring, around Major Katsuragi, something large."

     "I know," Jeff said, "I set it in motion."

     "No, not that . . . something else.  Something even you wouldn't throw at her if you could."

     "But you don't know the details?" Jeff asked.

     This is new, he thought.

     "No, signore, but I will find out, something very large and very bad."

     Jeff nodded, faded from the spirit world and back into sleep, then from sleep into wakefulness.  "So, it's begun, and something else."  He considered his options and his resources.  Today promised to be more testing in the EVA and in the afternoon, the first 'classes' in demolitions.  He thought Miss Tendo was going to kill him when he added training in dream control and manipulation to her already heavy load of `classes`.

     Nabiki glared at the approaching Raccoon, as she sat at her `usual` mess table and ate her breakfast.  The same quiet noise, the same food.  The Navy claimed to offer the best food, she would have accepted a bit of Misato's cooking, it would have been more palatable.  She barely knew what she was eating.  The white granular stuff looked alive and moving, and tasted like boiled newspaper.  The `scrambled eggs` tasted like Akane had cooked them.  Raccoon had taken a double helping of everything, and was apparently enjoying it.  "You know that I hate you," she told him quietly.

     "That's okay, Bess, I know how you feel," he replied breezily.

     Nabiki frowned.

     "I found out Ranma saw a ghost," he told her.

     "IS he all right, did it get him?!" she asked quickly, then stopped, "And how do you know that?"

     He looked around theatrically.

     She frowned again at the obvious set up, knew she'd have to take it with a grain of salt.

     "I am a magician after all."

     Nabiki shook her head, more shooting practice, then an afternoon learning how to blow stuff up.  Nabiki was not that happy with her life.  She probably would be when it was all said and done, but right now it just abashed her too much.

     The scene on the flight deck was the same: guns, wind, targets, instructors, and them.  More blanks, the charge wasn't enough to chamber the next round, so she had to work the rifle's action.  She wasn't flinching as much.  But too much for her pride.  Maya was rapidly catching up, she only flinched from the sound of the rifle, but that meant she was doing it after the gun went off, and everybody did that to some extent.  Her accuracy was not as good as Nabiki's 'firing' at the paper.  But Maya would catch up to her if she didn't get over her fear.
     "Mister Davis."  The Marine stood at attention next to the lunch table where they were eating together again.  "The Admiral would like to speak with you immediately."

     Jeff pushed aside his tray.  "Lead on, Sergeant."

     Nabiki looked over.  "He's in trouble now."

     "It doesn't automatically mean he's in trouble," Maya chided.

     Nabiki shared a glance with Ritsuko.  Yes it does, she thought.

     Jeff knew where the radio room was, he'd figured it was Admiral Simson, rather than Admiral Adams who wanted to talk to him.  He wasn't expecting to be led into the CIC and a small alcove full of radio gear.  The tech there explained the use of the radio and changing the setting on the scrambler.

     "Hello," Jeff said once he'd slipped the headphones on.

     "Davis, switch the scrambler to Tembris's wing attacks."  Admiral Simson's voice was distorted.

     Jeff made the adjustments based on the order General Tembris had fed the reserve groups into the battle.  The battle that got him relieved of overall command.  "Admiral Simson, do you hear me?"

     "Yes, I hear you.  What the Hell did you think you were doing?" the man shouted.

     "I'll need more information before I can answer that," he replied calmly, he'd been expecting this.

     "You know damn well what I mean, siccing four Senators on NERV, from Wyoming and Massachusetts, you think we couldn't figure that out?" Simson shouted, distorting badly on the radio.

     "I was protecting from enemies foreign and domestic.  She was operating as a spy and saboteur in Boston, have you seen the information packet I provided the Senators?" Jeff replied calmly.  He didn't like these scramblers, they disguised what a person said too much, cost him the advantage the conversation blocks gave him.

     "That still doesn't excuse - "

     "I watched her gun down some kid on the streets of Boston in a fit of pique, she would have killed thousands, millions to further the Japanese war effort.  AND - THE - NAVY - STONE - WALLED - ALL - INVEST- IGATIONS - ADMIRAL.  Don't get all high and mighty with me, Admiral.  Katsuragi is a means to an end only, she's not worth my time.  The only thing I care about her is revealing what she was ready to do to achieve her goals and that the foolishness and blood cost of the goal doesn't matter.  That is something the pilots need to know.  If they release her or hang her it won't change anything.  I want to know who was protecting her, on our side, during the war."

     "You're pretty damn ruthless, and she is your superior officer."

     "She is a spy and a saboteur, her rank and gender don't change that she was a major part of a conspiracy to commit mass murder that partially succeeded, hundreds died, Admiral, and some Americans want to forget that.  If someone is going to tell me to forget that, it isn't going to be one man, not a judge or a naval officer, or even a President, it's going to be a jury or a public hearing.  Who and what she is will be revealed.  I strongly suggest you review the information, look at the crime scene photos, read the reports of how what she and Gendo let loose shredded your fellow citizens.  I was there, Admiral Simson, living among the people who were living in terror of those things.  I doubt what these things did ever entered her mind.  That's your tactical officer, Admiral."

     "This will seriously affect her ability to do her job," Simson said.

     "Fine, you want to give her amnesty, the behavior still occurred, and it will happen again," Jeff explained, "I'm willing to bet they did not give you a full briefing on her wartime actions."

     "This was certainly left out," Simson admitted.

     "What did he want to talk about?" Ritsuko asked Jeff as he changed back into his plugsuit.  She acted like she wasn't concerned she was in the locker room with him.  It bothered him a little, although she'd seen him naked many times before.

     "Just an investigation into a bunch of murders that took place in Boston during the war."  He tried to seem unconcerned also.

     "I take it you were hunting the murderer."

     "The murderer got away, they found'em.  But it's political now."

     "Who'd you accuse?" Ritsuko asked, "The Emperor's nephew?"

     Jeff looked around theatrically.  "Major Katsuragi."

     Ritsuko frowned and jerked a thumb towards the hanger deck.

     Jeff walked out and climbed into the entry plug, knowing he'd told her.

     Nabiki was getting better, she was still flinching, but not with the squibs.  They were back to the pistol, varying squibs, blanks and live rounds.  She wasn't very accurate, but she was controlling herself.

     Maya hadn't achieved that with a pistol, but she'd moved up to firing practice/dead ammo.

     One of the Japanese Search and Rescue team, a master diver called Adachi, approached across the flight deck.  "There is another aspect of the rifle that Miss Tendo might be more skilled at, and give her more confidence in using it," he called over the wind and Maya's rifle fire.

     "I'm listening," Gunnery Sergeant Armstead said.

     "I'll need a rifle and a scabbarded bayonet," Adachi-san said, and was provided with them, and an opponent.  "Jukenjutsu, the art of the bayonet, derived from Sojutsu, the art of the spear, the entire rifle is a weapon, not just the bullets that come out of the end."  He took a guard position, the Marine attacked with his rifle sans bayonet, a second later was sans rifle.  Adachi retreated a step from his shocked opponent and retook the guard position.  The rearmed Marine came in more slowly, more carefully.

     Nabiki watched as the fencing match began and ended.  She'd never seen anyone use a rifle like that.  It looked a lot like kendo, but it was a lot more aggressive and it looked very useful.

     Especially as something to teach Raccoon, Nabiki thought, I wish I could have gotten this to Ranma, it might have been the breakthrough he needed.

     Adachi returned the rifle to the Marine he'd borrowed it from.  "Many of the things we face are immune to gunfire, but the bayonet and the rifle butt have the desired effect."  He chuckled.  "There is also the problem of running out of ammunition."

     "Marines never run out of bullets," someone called, general laughter answered.

     "I can't carry a thousand rounds of ammunition like you big boys can," Nabiki exclaimed, "I'm just a poor, delicate flower of femininity."

     "And she'll beat the crap out of anyone who says otherwise," came the same wit.

     "I have never been so offended."  Nabiki took an Asuka-style fists on hips pose.  "I'd break his kneecaps, like a refined lady."

     Laughter ranged around her, the Sergeants and Chiefs laughing at her.  She didn't let it bother her, it wasn't as if they were laughing at her maliciously, she'd invited it.  Another significant difference from Nerima, no one was allowed to laugh at her, or there would have been incalculable retribution.  It didn't hurt, or rather it was a little sting compared to everything else she'd gone through, and it wasn't a callous disrespect, but a comradely one.  They wanted to know she could take a joke, she could, and throw one right back at them.

     Adachi nodded, he too knew Americans were weird about bowing.  Armstead directed Nabiki to start practicing with the pistol again.  She frowned but did as she was instructed.  The exercise showed some little progress.  She wasn't going to give up, she remembered Tomiyo blasting one of those tiger-things practically in half.  Her pistol was theoretically more effective.

     She innocently asked if 'Mr. Davis should be included.'  "I've seen the old Springfield he uses," Nabiki said in a normal tone, "I doubt he doesn't have the bayonet and a little training with it."  That started things going, the words 'a little training' were like a red flag to a bull to these long service veterans, who regarded 'a little training' as worse than complete ignorance.  Nabiki noted this with pleasure.  The arguments became when in his busy day would Raccoon be available for the practice.

     Turnabout is fair play, Nabiki thought, also realizing that it would be a bit of knowledge that Ranma would beg, buy or bully to get.  She was satisfied with that possibility as well.

     "There are two types of explosives," ggreg told them as he stood and they sat in a ward room, "Low explosives, like gunpowder and other propellants, and high explosives, like nitroglycerin and TNT.  Low explosives have a heaving effect, high explosives have a shattering effect.  So all an explosive is, is a very powerful hammer."

     I wonder how mallet-sama would stand up? Nabiki asked herself.

     "What about the Monroe Effect?" Raccoon asked.

     ggreg cleared his throat, rocked back and forth on his heels.  "Let's not get ahead of ourselves.  The sensitivity of explosives varies widely.  Nitroglycerin can detonate for no reason, or it may not react to being hit by a rifle bullet.  On the other hand, you can safely burn TNT as fuel, but an explosion always sets it off."

     Nabiki goggled at that, her experience with explosives was even more limited than her experience with guns.

     The next hour was a discussion of the history of explosives and their advancement.  She'd never realized that the Nobel Prizes were originally funded from the profit of the sale of stabilized nitroglycerin: dynamite.  Nitroglycerin was a more powerful explosive than TNT, but not 'better' because of its instability.  They discussed the use of fuses versus booster caps versus electrical detonation.  After two hours, ggreg let them go.  She was glad Raccoon had his arm around her shoulders, holding her up.  She felt like she wasn't walking through the real world.  Guns, bombs, all looped through her mind.  The potential of all this was unbelievable.  She was beginning to understand why Raccoon was so leery about teaching her magic.  The tools available to ordinary humans were already more destructive than she was comfortable with.  Magic promised even more power, more destructive and thus even more responsibility.

     "How do you handle this?" Nabiki asked as they arrived at her cabin.

     "Mostly by habit, I've been aware of it for a while, it doesn't come as a shock to me."

     "What is the Monroe Effect?" she asked.

     "He'll tell you when you're ready."

     She stuck out her tongue at him as he closed the door behind him.

A Handful of Gray Ashes, Long, Long, Ago At Rest

     Nabiki hadn't been able to locate Raccoon or Ritsuko after her nap, so they were probably off going over the readings from the EVA.

     I wish they were off doing something else, she thought as she wandered the passageways, smirked to herself, Work, work, work, those two need to have some fun once in a while.  She frowned.  I, Tendo Nabiki, chasten you in the name of Fun, she shivered at that thought, but kept walking, this late the carrier was amazingly quiet.  She almost felt she was walking a ghost ship and the occasional green-clad sentinel was one of the ghosts, a ghost who would nod to acknowledge her passage.

     The laughter from a mess hall drew her attention.  She glanced in and saw her instructors sitting at a mess table, cards in hand and a pile of money between them on the table.

     The old instincts came back, plus it was a good way to get a little revenge for the humiliation she'd been suffering at their hands.  She'd get her revenge, in negotiable U.S. greenbacks.  "Hi."

     "Hello, Miss Tendo," Sergeant Armstead hailed her, "I thought you'd be sick of us for the day."

     "I smelled money and poker," Nabiki admitted.

     "Well, it's only nickel ante, we're not highrollers like you pilots," the senior Master Chief, Cole, told her.

     "We only get a tenth of our pay Master Chief, as an allowance," Nabiki pulled up a chair.  She put some cash and change in front of her.

     "We're also lying to each other, telling old war stories," Armstead said, "If you . . . "

     Nabiki held up her hand, "I've probably seen it.  Believe me, I've seen things I never believed I'd ever see, and I wouldn't mind never seeing them again."

     One old, grizzled sergeant, Jones, took a long pull on his beer.  "Well, if you insist.  It was in the island hopping up the Solomons."

     "I guess what I really want to know is: Are there any tricks you haven't used?" Nabiki hated admitting any kind of weakness, "I don't like not being able to do my job properly."

     There were chuckles from the men.  "I don't think you'd like the ones that work," Jones told her.

     "We're just talking here, you can tell me," Nabiki said, "Do any of you know the actual contents of the little messages you've been reading to Miss Ibuki and me."

     More chuckles, some nods.  "We guessed," Armstead admitted while he dealt the hands, "That isn't the same as some of the more . . . intense techniques.  Generally the things we're thinking of are like G.I. showers with lye soap and scrub brushes for a guy who won't shower, or . . . " the man paused, embarrassed, "Generally those `inducements` are applied by the recruit's fellow soldiers.  I suspect that you and Miss Ibuki wouldn't be eager to do that to each other.  Mister Davis is right out, and if Doctor Akagi had any ideas, she would have told us when we discussed it with her."

     "You already talked to her?"  Nabiki was a little surprised, but reminded herself these were professionals.  "Of course you did.  So what is the verdict?"

     "There's not really anything to do, you are progressing," and other Gunnery Sergeant instructor, Kilrain, reminded her, "Basic training is eight weeks, you've been at this for a couple of days.  I'm sure piloting an EVA didn't come instantly either."

     "It did to all the boys," Nabiki admitted, saw she had their attention, "The joke among the pilots is that girls get extensive training, boys get thrown into the first fight that comes along.  So far it's three of three, Shinji, Ranma and Rac . . . Mister Davis, were all sent into combat with minimal training.  Misses Langley, Ayanami, Ranko all got extensive training before they saw combat."

     Good grief, Nabiki thought, That's right, Ranko already had plenty of experience when `she` saw combat the first time.

     "I haven't been in a battle the two times I've been in an EVA," she added.  She suddenly realized they were all staring at her with looks varying between incredulity and disgust.

     "I'm sorry, I just haven't been in a fight yet," she said defensively.

     "That's not it," Armstead said tightly, "We've all been told about how rare you pilots are, beg pardon, but that's the only reason they allow Japanese and German nationals as pilots, two of our three got wiped out.  The idea you'd risk them that way is unconscionable."

     "Yeah," Kilrain added, "It's not like boiled potatoes where you've got a big vat out there somewhere, ready to serve up the next one."

     "That's the way the Axis treats all their soldiers, only the leaders aren't expendable."  Nabiki knew how that would go over with a bunch of sergeants and chiefs.

     "Don't get your hopes up," Cole leaned close and whispered, Nabiki could smell the beer, she didn't envy the man his hangover.  "There's plenty of bad officers on our side too.  Ones too interested in politics or kissing the ass in front of them to think about their men.  Chiefs - and sergeants - "  He sat up straight and proud, "Good sergeants, put a stop to it.  A good non-com manages the officers, keeps them happy, and keeps the men, at least most of them, alive."

     "How can you do that without power?" she asked, she knew the answer, but this was a forum of experts, and when someone dropped free gold in front of you, you were never so crass as to refuse or count it, you smiled and took all they were offering.

     There were chuckles all around, she knew she'd asked the right question.

     "It's about what you hear, what the troops hear, and what your officer hears back," Jones told her.

     "And you asking innocent questions," Kilrain said, "Like the last one."  He paused, considered.  "We were on Guadalcanal, after the 1st Marine Division had pulled out.  A nice, quiet rear area," he began his tale.

     Ritsuko had been looking for him all over the ship.  I should have started at the top, she thought as she walked out onto the darkened flight deck under the starry sky, the cold wind cutting into her.  She could pick out the figure sitting in the gloom halfway between the island and the stern.  Without the airgroup, it was empty, dark and quiet here.  No one braved the fierce winds just to sit up top.

     "I was looking for you," she told Jeff.

     "I thought we were done," Jeff said as he stood to face her.

     She waved him down and sat beside him.  "We are done with the testing with the EVA for today, you just seemed a little subdued."

     "Just remembering what happened a while ago, how history can repeat itself and how it catches up with you."  As he sat down, he had turned away from her.

     "You're too young to have a history to catch up with you."

     "You'd be surprised," he enunciated every word.

     "Believe me, there are things you don't have to worry about.  As fast as we're moving, very little could catch us, there are nightfighters and gun crews to guard you," she tried to make her tone light, leaned forward to see his face.

     "Not when we reach Panama, besides, I don't have to be present for it to catch up.  Sometimes you find out something is no longer taken care of and you have to consider it again."

     "You want to share?"  She moved closer, tried to keep some of the cold wind off him and to get a better vantage point.

     "Just some existential questions: Who am I? What is my purpose in the Universe?"

     "It's not like I have those myself," she teased.

     "More like questions of what am I expected to do."  He continued to stare at the horizon.  "Act to solve one problem and guarantee bigger problems, or take no action and hope the problem goes away.  I'm not the kind who can easily let a problem go."

     "I've noticed.  But sometimes you can trust other people to handle problems for you."  She debated touching him, holding him, as if it would make a difference and not make the problems between them worse.

     "And when you suspect that they might make the problem worse?"

     She didn't have an answer, if you were the only one who could really act, and by acting unleash a new series of problems.  It sounded like a teenager's typical problem, but with the pilots, it could mean more.  "Do you want to give me some details?"

     "Have you ever considered going home?" he asked, looking at her for the first time, "The problems, the old memories, the people you left behind?  Expectations of you and others."

     "You could write your family, tell them."

     "They know, it's just . . . "  He sighed, turned away.  "It's just that who left is not who is coming back, I'm more worried about the reaction of people to me, rather than me to them."

     "I think you're too worried, you haven't changed that much," Ritsuko told him, she wanted to take his chin, make him look at her.

     "That's what I'm hoping," he replied.

     "You don't want to return as the conquering hero?" Ritsuko asked.

     "I did enough in Boston that people who needed to know, knew what I did," Jeff said, hugging his legs against his chest tightly.

     Nabiki didn't know why she'd said all those things, talking about Hiroko and the disaster, and the aftermath.  But it had seemed reasonable to do.  The other men were talking about those kinds of things.  Friends lost, things they'd rather not have seen, one or two even mentioned strange things they'd seen or heard about.  It had seemed reasonable, they were telling all the stories about terrible things that had happened to them.  In the first stories it was due to bad officers, then inexperienced officers, then simple happenstance and 'plain-ole-bad-luck'.

     She hadn't said a word about Nerima, they weren't holding back anything, so she hadn't.  Better to avoid the subject entirely and keep their respect, 'They're all gone,' seemed to be the right answer, none of that group pressed.

     They hadn't offered sympathy other than 'That's a rough one', or similar comments, she didn't cry, with extreme effort at times, from their stories or hers.  She saw some tears in their eyes, but she knew if she slipped that much she'd break down completely.

     As the game broke up, they explained that she shouldn't take their 'old war stories' too seriously, they were just drinking and playing cards.  She got the message, it didn't really happen.  She nodded, decided not to mention the money she'd taken off all of them, and headed off.  One of the guards walked her to her cabin.  She walked as quickly as she could, she couldn't hold it in much longer, remembering Hiroko, all the others, the smell, the helpless, useless feelings.  It was too much to hold in.  She made it to her cabin and got the door closed before she threw herself on the bed and started sobbing into her pillow.  It just hurt too much.  She didn't care about the money she'd dropped on the floor.  She didn't care if anyone found her like this, depending on the person, she might welcome it.  She just wanted the hurt to stop, more she wanted the guilt to stop, because it didn't hurt so much as the first time.  She wanted to curse her callousness for forgetting Hiroko and the others, even a little bit, while remembering them tore at her.

An Old and Gray-Headed Error

     Ritsuko wondered how many times this would play out, whether she'd feel as helpless each time.  She had been walking Jeff back to his cabin when they had heard a noise in Nabiki's.  Jeff had insisted on investigating, even though Ritsuko had recognized the sounds.

     She restrained a sigh and the impulse to pick up the money scattered on the floor, for Nabiki to leave money on the floor unattended had worried them a lot.  Jeff had approached, what they thought was the sobbing girl, placing himself ahead of Ritsuko.  Although he had one hand in his coat, probably on his pistol.

     Ritsuko remembered how uneasy she had felt as Jeff sat on the edge of the bed and touched the girl's hair.  The lunge at him had shocked Ritsuko, she'd expected Jeff would shoot out of pure shock.  The blow had knocked him to the floor, but he'd collected himself, and Nabiki, and set them both back on the bed.  Nabiki had cried herself to sleep, never relinquishing the deathgrip she had `Raccoon` in.  He'd shrugged, draped his coat over Nabiki, then pulled his hat over his face and gone to sleep as well.

     There was no way to cover both of them with a blanket that would both stay and not smother one of them.  So she sat and watched and listened to the cries of alarm and pain Nabiki emitted.  As distressing as it was, she still thought Nabiki and Ranma's more open and expressive ways of dealing with grief and pain were healthier than the other pilots, who bottled things up.  She'd bottled things up herself, and it led to ridiculous moments like this, of sitting in a chair all night watching two kids, her kids, just sleeping.  In case they woke and needed something, anything.

     I'm a monster, one of the most feared creatures the Elder Things ever created, it would take a tank or an EVA to stop me, she thought, And I sit here in case one of those two needs a pillow or a blanket, or a cup of tea.  She shook her head at the preposterousness of the whole scene.  At the ludicrous situation she was in with Maya and the horrendous situation she was in with Jeff, he at least knew what she was, but he didn't care.  There was something deeply wrong with a universe that allowed such things.  The humans believed existence was a warm and friendly place where god(s) looked down and ruled if not benevolently then with some keen interest in human activities, even the enemy gods looked on humans as worth attention and consideration.  The Elder Things knew the universe was a cold, hard place limited only by the strength you wielded, and that nothing and no one really cared about anyone or anything else.  You were food, fuel, an ally of convenience, a lover of some skill, or some-such.  She knew the kind of wonderful stupidity that humans lived their lives in wasn't part of anyone's design, the Elder Things, the Mi-Go, the Moonbeasts, the Valusians, the Cthulhi, none of them could even conceive of such a thing, let alone know how to instill it in a creature.  Yet the humans had it, maybe for only their family, or their own tribe, but even these extended it to some servant or companion animals as well.  Some humans tried to extend it to their entire nation or race.

     All that she understood, but why did they extend it on such an intense and personal way to her?  The idea that it was the teachings of Naoko Akagi was almost laughable.  A horse or dog, treated the way that woman treated her, would have rebelled to the point of murder.

     Was I that desperate for any contact? she wondered, Was I that needy?  Am I still that way?  She was aware of the mechanics of human sexuality.  Kaji and Misato had been very instructive, although as drunk as they were, she doubted they accurately remembered the events.  The idea of Maya and her, or Jeff and her . . . it was an extremely disconcerting thought.  She could see the signs that Ranma and Nabiki were investigating and would require watching in the future to keep it from progressing beyond that.  Shinji and Rei didn't worry her, she suspected neither would be `forward` enough to do anything.  She also knew that if they did do anything, there would be no physical repercussions.  She dreaded the thought of having to explain that bit of biology to Rei, the way they had to explain normal female biology to Ranko those weeks ago.  Maybe I should let `Roku-kun` explain it, he'd probably be able to put it in the intricate, mechanical detail without becoming completely embarrassed, Ritsuko thought, then shook her head, she knew the pilots would be furious if they ever learned the complete truth, homicide would be a real possibility.

     Ritsuko watched the two of them move slightly as they slept, she waited, she was good at waiting, and watching.  She'd done it all her long life.

     It was a weird, gray place, Nabiki looked around trying to get her bearings, any landmark disappeared when she looked away from it.  The whole situation was disconcerting.

     Disconcerting? she thought angrily,There was a time this kind of stuff would have scared me to death.  When did it become if not normal, but accepted even expected?

     She nearly jumped out of her skin when she looked back and saw . . . the Dragon.  An immense, black shape broken only by those two glowing, yellow eyes.  She backed up a step from the now smiling monster, the smile was amused, but the teeth that varied from arm-long, needle-sharp, pointed incisors to the huge, axe-like teeth near the back did nothing to soften the aura of dread that filled the area surrounding the creature.

     Another step back, and another, then she bumped into something, and a hand dropped on her shoulder.

     Even the dragon had recoiled, as the echoes of the scream died away.

     "That's one way to get rid of ear wax build-up," Raccoon commented while shaking his head and yawning to restore his hearing, "Vaporize it with sound."

     "You scared me!" Nabiki protested.

     "Eh?"  Raccoon put his hand to his ear.

     Nabiki advanced with clenched fists.  A wall of black logs interposed itself between them, Nabiki realized they were the dragon's fingers.

     "Behave," the Dragon ordered.

     "But she started it!" she heard Raccoon whine his protest.  A moment later he screamed horribly.  Nabiki couldn't see what had befallen him, as the scream devolved into a bubbling, gurgling moan, filling Nabiki with horror.

     The Dragon removed his hand, revealing Raccoon unharmed, even unmarked.  She advanced with the intention of remedying that.

     "You are in the realm of dreams," the Dragon said as it . . . he, retreated to a safe distance, safe from Nabiki's point of view, easing the worry she felt, "Here the world will submit to your will, unless a stronger will is opposing you."

     "Ooh."  She smiled as she rubbed her hands together and concentrated.  Ten thousand Akanes armed with mallets and Kung Pao Chicken failed to materialize, so did the rain of bricks, a single truck, even the lone, fire breathing mouse.

     "It doesn't work that way," Raccoon told her as thousands of singing marshmallows descended on her.

     The next few minutes were a unique experience, the overriding cuteness of the attackers was if anything, a greater risk of tooth decay and insulin shock than the actual content of the attackers.

     Nabiki sat there on the gray, almost featureless landscape, scraping off mashed marshmallows, and considered what revenge was appropriate.  Especially with Raccoon standing there, arrogant, self-satisfied, and clean.  But nothing she could think of, no matter how minor and badly wanted, appeared to avenge itself on him.

     "Are you blocking her?" Raccoon asked the Dragon, who shook his head 'no'.

     "This isn't good," he said as he dodged a handful of the marshmallow Nabiki had assembled as a missile.  "Do you remember your dreams?"

     "Not usually," she admitted, while preparing another.

     "Have you ever tried lucid dreaming?" he asked.

     She shook her head, she didn't know what he was talking about.  "Controlling my dreams?"

     "It looks like she'll have to start from the beginning," the Dragon told them as he spread his wings and flew away.

     "Okay," Raccoon said, "From the beginning.  This is your personal dreamscape, with experience it will change shape, change the material, the color, even the properties.  If you want a minefield of exploding cinnamon-scented chickens, you can have them."

     "But it takes practice," she said, hoping he wouldn't answer in the affirmative, she was disappointed.

     Another set of skills I have to master, she lamented silently, as all the marshmallow vanished, Isn't there one of these tricks I can be instantly good at?

     The Dragon flew over the gray, indifferent hinterlands of the girl's dreamscape.  He'd sensed the intrusion here, the boy would notice it soon enough.  Twenty figures clad in brown robes, some of them encrusted with `magical` symbols and more bright, shiny bits than a magpie's hoard.  The few in the plain robes at the front were the dangerous ones.

     The Dragon considered simply killing them, but they were here to humiliate the girl, he decided to return the favor.  Chickens can't really fly well, but dropping straight down they only needed to fly well enough to avoid going splat when they landed.  They smelled of cinnamon, and scent was the best sense to link with memory.

     Curious, for a species so `nose-blind`, the Dragon thought.

     There was screaming and swatting.  One or two of the figures chased the chickens.  He let them all relax a bit, before he started detonation.

     Nabiki didn't want to ask about the screams and cries, human and chicken, and the strong smell of cinnamon chicken wafting through the air.  She was concentrating on changing the color of the rock in her hand.  She thought Raccoon was being cruel by suggesting that she should turn it gold-colored.  The gold steadfastly remained gray, like everything else here, except the people, the Dragon included.

     "It isn't working," she told him.

     "That's what's got me confused," he said, cocked his head, listening to the silence, "The material is less malleable than Saotome's, but it shouldn't resist you this way.  This place is supposed to be yours."

     "So what do we do?" Nabiki asked archly.  Everything lately had been proving how limited her horizons were, how sheltered her life was.

     Ranma took that treatment in stride and rose to the challenge, but she was beginning to resent it.  "Well, I'm going to let you figure it out.  I'm going elsewhere, turn off the lights and put out the cat."

     Just before she fully awakened, "CO2 or sand?  To extinguish . . . "

July 16, 1947

     Nabiki opened her eyes, disentangled herself from Raccoon.  The cabin was real, dark, and even with the lights on, it would be gray, when she battered her shins walking around to locate the switch.  She expected her blush, from having once again found herself in a compromising situation with Raccoon, would light the room well enough for her to see.  She stood and pulled off her wrinkled, sweat-stained dress, and was suddenly embarrassed by her nakedness.

     If I can't see, she thought, He can't see.  She pulled on her slacks and a shirt, not the nicer ones she wore as 'work' clothes, but the darker, plainer ones she'd brought in case she had dirty work to do.  Then she headed for the light switch.

     And nearly jumped out of her skin.  "How long have you been there?!" she shouted at Dr. Akagi, now revealed by the overhead lights.

     "I came in with Jeff," she explained, "It's nothing I haven't seen in your medical exams."

     "How do you know I was naked?" Nabiki asked.

     "She was naked and I missed it?" Raccoon asked, Nabiki considered a double homicide, then decided it was too early in the morning.

     "So that's why you wanted my camera!  So I couldn't get pictures!" Raccoon exclaimed.

     One homicide before breakfast, Nabiki considered, Nobody would blame me for that!

     "You were wearing different clothes when we came in," Ritsuko said reasonably.

     Nabiki nodded, now she began to dread the inevitable questions about why she was crying, why she'd carelessly left money all over the floor.  Money that someone had stacked carefully on her desk.  And why she'd tackled Raccoon when he touched her.  Even she didn't have an answer for the last, she just needed to hold someone, she probably would have hugged Gendo if he'd been there first.

     Oh ICK!  BAD thought, bad thought! she thought, Well, I'm wide-awake now.  She wondered if she could borrow a steam hose and steam out her brain.  It could be worse, it could have been Genma or Happosai -

     "Excuse me, I have to go get my brain washed, it's too early for such disgusting thoughts."

     "I have ice cream!" Raccoon shouted cheerfully after her as she walked down the corridors.

     She'd torture him later for the thoughts that seemingly innocent statement put in her head.

Shoot If You Must, This Old, Gray Head, But Spare Your Country's Flag

     Nabiki steadied herself, she thought only of the target, ignoring the tightening of her finger, concentrating on the target, that little black dot almost 100 meters away.  The rifle kicked in her hands.  She didn't wait for the report, only the little dot mattered, this time she had to work the action, again, her entire mind, all her thoughts and emotions focused on the target.  The rifle kicked, she recentered herself and again, front sight, rear sight and the target.  Work the action to get the dud out, concentrate on the target, the sights let her point the rifle, then only the target mattered.  BLING! as the clip flew clear as the rifle fired.  She rocked back, blinked.

     "That's - " Armstead said, "You've improved a lot."

     "You told me to concentrate on the target."  She practically unclenched as she stood up, tried to loosen up.

     "Ten ring and four ring, you missed with the third shot," the acting range officer, Cole, said.

     "Fourteen out of thirty," she said.  Her accuracy disappointed her, but she was flinching a lot less, enough that she was actually hitting the target.

     It's a start, she thought.

     "Now you're going to make me practice with the pistol."

     "No, a hundred rounds of 30 cal," Armstead told her, "Then we'll see."

     Nabiki sat down, rewrapped the sling and concentrated on the target to the exclusion of all else.  It was difficult, normally she tried to notice and be sensitive to everything, it didn't work in this.  She didn't notice Maya's progress, she didn't think of explosives training, she didn't think of martial arts training.

     Maya had listened to the new lesson on a better way to concentrate, but she kept thinking about too many things to really focus on the target.  That Nabiki-chan had made such an improvement was disheartening, her falling behind again was a further worry.  She also wondered what Sempai was doing.  They'd completed all the tests they had planned.  Yet they were still working with the EVA, and Sempai was being very secretive about the new experiments.

Dear Friend, All Theory Is Gray

     Ritsuko hated this, she was logical, rational, the Elder things did what people might foolishly believe was magic, but it was nothing more than a more advanced application of hypergeometric principles to various free floating energies.  This, sitting and listening to drumming inside the entry plug was ridiculous.  Jeff was simply chanting and occasionally striking a metal tube with a screwdriver.  The blackness of the L.C.L. hid everything, but she could hear the sound of the impact, weirdly distorted by the L.C.L., and she could feel something moving out there in the darkness.  She could be sure of that, even though she knew intellectually she was sitting in a metal tube that they had not connected to the EVA except through the L.C.L. and the life support system.

     Not this nonsense.  She looked at the darkness, something had been very close.

     "Relax, Doctor, they're just confused.  They know what you are, but they have my word.  Just stay calm and let me work."  Jeff's voice was reassuring, it came through the A10 nerve clip she wore, she could see what was outside the EVA in her mind's eye, but her eyes showed her only the blackness of the L.C.L., she wondered now how the pilots dealt with the vast, yawning emptiness that surrounded them.  Especially during tests, she knew sitting still she'd go numb.  Even the horrible taste and smell had faded into the background.  So they could handle near-total sensory deprivation for the hours of the testing.  She wondered what they focused on, what held their attention so they didn't go mad.

     She felt them distinctly now, not one or two, but several, the faint buzzing/humming almost a conversation among them.  She wasn't even sure it was a language, but they all used it.

     One of them touched her, she clamped her mouth shut to avoid screaming.  She'd clearly seen the face, the Amerind features, a young woman, an adventurer who was sacrificed to power Unit 04.  Ritsuko could recognize the girl's `voice` among the murmur of the others.  Another touched her, again she almost screamed as the face and the brief history appeared in her mind, an old, grizzled warrior, long past his physical prime, but clever, cunning and taking up the defense of his people, sacrificed to power Unit 04.

     "ENOUGH!" she snarled, "I can't do this!  Let me out!"  She scrambled out of the control chair, flailed in the darkness.  She felt the hand close on her wrist, warm flesh against hers, drawing her to the exit.

     She purged the L.C.L. from her lungs and stood next to the huge machine in the vast cavern of multi-colored metal, drawing sobbing breaths.  When the boy wearing green and white stood beside her, he carefully lowered her to the ground.  She touched his face, for a horrible instant she'd completely forgotten who she was, what she was.  It was there now, but hazy and it threatened to vanish like a fog.  She almost recognized the look he wore.  She hugged him tightly to herself.  She hadn't realized she was shaking so badly until she felt him against her.  She was careful not to crush him while she held on for dear life.  She'd never been so frightened before in her long life, she remembered that much.  Contact and scent were her only clues to who this number 06 was, and perhaps who she was.  Contact with those things had erased all she was, all her memories and drives for an instant.  She was all she really had, to lose that she would lose herself.  She wasn't even sure what she'd become, a human with that person's memories, or revert to a mindless monster with no thoughts except eating and reproduction.  She felt someone drape a blanket across her shoulders, all she wanted was the familiar feeling, the assurance she was someone, if only someone would tell her who.  The boy was providing that, the words of her history, the words of her identity.

     As she came back, back to herself, she realized Jeff could have added the history he remembered from his dream, but he didn't.  She would have seized on that `data` as her identity, if he'd done a good enough job, she would never have remembered who she really was.  She broke away, stared at the young man before her, saw only concern on his face.

     She sighed.  "It was - a little overwhelming," she admitted.

     "It's okay," he soothed, "You're back and you're you," he continued like that, holding her and rocking her side to side, telling her what he knew of her, the details started a cascade of her own memories, recreating her identity by accreting it on itself.

     After a time he told her, "Next time will be easier."

     Ritsuko hung on to him desperately at that thought.  I can't do it, I can't, I can't! she thought hopelessly.

     "My, what a morose group," Nabiki commented as she sat in the mess, at `their` table.  She was beginning to wonder why it was always left open.  Then she noticed the jockeying for positions at the tables surrounding it.

     If they want dinner theater, she thought as she decided to have some fun.

     "So what's the word on the Blockade of Berlin?"

     "Oh, Stalin's still working up the guts.  I still think driving an armored column through would send a better message than an airlift."

     "What?" Maya began, and fell silent at Ritsuko's glance.

     "It's safe to talk about," Ritsuko said, "No Soviet spies.  Is it true someone stole next year's election results?"

     "Broke into the Kremlin and stole them, there's going to be a shortage of toilet paper as they reprint them, no other paper in Russia is tough enough," Raccoon replied.  Nabiki wasn't the only one who winced at that.

     "How goes the EVA testing?" Nabiki asked.

     "It was . . . informative," Ritsuko started hastily . . . and ended slowly.

     "I heard you were crying in Raccoon's arms for nearly an hour, you should have gone to his cabin, he's a little young - "

     "IT'S NOT LIKE THAT!!" they chorused in angry reply.

     Nabiki smiled sadly at Maya.  "They can finish each others sentences, like an old married couple."

     "Let's just remind her of her first experience with Unit 01," Raccoon replied with a too friendly smile, "I thought you were going to break my and Saotome's ribs, you were squeezing so tight, or drown us in tears."

     She glared at him, the only other sound was the tinkle of cutlery.  It was like living in a fishbowl, everyone watching, everyone listening.

     "Now I know how Saotome used to feel," she muttered in Japanese.

     "We'll have another go after lunch," Jeff suggested.

     The shocked look on Ritsuko's face gave Nabiki her opening, "Actually, I wanted to discuss this afternoon," Nabiki began, "One of the SAR people suggested some advanced bayonet training.  'Learn how to use the entire rifle', he said.  Since I doubt we'll be in any shape after Major ggreg's lecture, we could do it before."  She saw the indecision on Ritsuko's face.  "If you would rather try the EVA, or you could get checked out with the rifle."

     "Yes, I think it's important, they might have some pointers for me, and I should be able to do what I'm insisting you do, or at least prove I can do it."  Ritsuko grabbed the lifeline eagerly.

     Nabiki kept the look of triumph from her face.

     "Oh, no, we can't," Raccoon stood up and announced loudly, "Where are we going to find a room with a padded floor?  Last time we did martial arts, two of us wound up in the infirmary."

     As he sat down, she heard a good deal of hurried whispering and muffled laughter, as well as a few people leaving quickly.  Raccoon waggled his eyebrows at her, she smirked back.  Maya looked around at the activity, she hadn't figured out what the little scene was about.  Ritsuko seemed to be absorbing the lesson.  She also had an odd gleam in her eye.  Nabiki wondered what that meant.

     Maya watched the troops set up for Sempai's testing on the flight deck, they had a completely different bull's-eye for her, something over 2 meters across, the stand was heavily weighted with sandbags.  The winds had picked up, or the speed had increased, which had the same affect, and the new large target was bearing the brunt of it.  She also noted the ships had rearranged themselves, so none were directly behind.  She remembered how angry Nabiki-chan had been about that.

     She looked at the gray all around her, almost no difference between sea and sky, and thought it was appropriate for her mood, gray sea, gray sky, gray ships, and an icy wind cutting through even her warm clothes.  It all seemed a perfect comment on her current existence.

     There were several gasps and men began pointing.  Maya turned and saw Sempai, her lab coat and slacks billowing in the wind, coolly walking across the flight deck.  She had an M2 .50 machine gun, the gun part balanced on her shoulder, steadied with one hand which also held the handle of an ammunition box.  In her other hand was the stand for the gun and two more boxes of ammunition.

     The Marines began muttering among themselves as Sempai carefully set down the ammunition and the stand, the tripod they called it, then set the machine gun down on it and connected the two.  Then she pulled a strange device from her coat pocket and affixed it to the rear of the machine gun.

     Several of the senior sergeants headed over to her.  Maya moved to get out of the direct line-of-fire of the machine gun to the target, she saw the other Marines clearing the weapons and stands out of the way.  Sempai had set up much farther away than Maya or Nabiki-chan had been firing.

     "I thought you were going to get checked out with a rifle," Maya overheard Marine sergeant Armstead say.

     "I decided to qualify with the weapons that actually work," she adjusted the device on the machinegun, sighted, made another adjustment, "CLEAR!" she loaded the belt, closing the machinegun on it.

     "Range is clear," Cole, the range `officer` said.

     Sempai pulled the charging handle and fired one shot, adjusted her aim point and fired several shots, squeezing them off one at a time.  The target's bull's-eye was larger than the entire target Maya and Nabiki-chan had been firing at, Sempai still had put all her aimed shots right through the bull's-eye.

     "Reflector gunsight," Sempai explained, "Developed specifically for this."

     The Marines looked at the target they had set up, Maya was beginning to suspect they'd set it up as a joke, then Sempai had turned it on them.

     "I still need to check out with a rifle," Sempai told them, "The length of the flight deck should be sufficient, correct?"  She was letting them know they'd been had.

     "Uh, you need twenty shots minimum to qualify," Armstead told her sheepishly.

     Sempai let off a long burst, turning the center of the target into a lace doily, "That was twenty-three."  No one seemed willing to disagree.  She took the rifle from one Marine's unresisting hands, and began walking to the front of the flight deck.  Three Marines grabbed the machine gun and dragged it aside, while another collected the ammo boxes.

     Once she reached a point near the bow, Sempai fired one round to determine how the sights were set, and ran through three clips, bull's-eyeing each shot.  Sempai smiled at the Marines and Navy Chiefs, who were muttering among themselves.  Not the unhappy muttering of someone caught and in trouble, but that of someone enjoying the joke and verifying impossible rumors.  They took the tweaking in stride.  Several of them were commenting on her carrying the whole set up, Maya overheard that the crew was typically three men over any real distance, to carry what Sempai had easily carried in her arms.  The looks and comments were a good deal more respectful.  Maya saw her Sempai's wide smile and thought she was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

     Nabiki took up the guard position.  She was glad there was something she was better than Raccoon at.  She smirked at the thought of telling Ranma about this.  She hadn't decided whether to tell Ranma she was the expert, or Raccoon was.

     An excuse to spend time alone with Ranma, or let him learn how to teach from an expert teacher? she considered, Decisions, decisions.  She watched Adachi-san fencing with Raccoon, with broomsticks.  Nabiki recognized a little of the stick work, as Savate.  Both were surprisingly competent.  However, she doubted either would want to fence with Kuno, not while they had a rifle in their hands.  But it would be useful in using the sonic glaive Asuka had helped develop.

     Nabiki admitted it also gave her some confidence for her eventual, first battle.  It bothered her that all the other pilots had operated in combat, she hadn't.  If this mission went well, she might well continue that streak.

     She wasn't foolish enough to think that her reputation from Nerima had preceded her 'Oh no, it's Tendo Nabiki!  Slither away!' or that her luck would continue.

     "Miss Tendo," Adachi-san said.

     She adjusted her guard position.  All she was doing was the stances, he wanted to see how Raccoon's Savate measured up.  With that done, the lesson could begin in earnest.

     "Attack!" he called.

     Nabiki thrust the weapon forward.


     She pulled back, remembering to twist the weapon as instructed, to inflict more damage, as well as making pulling the weapon out easier if it got lodged in the ribs or something.  She thought the opposite would be true, it would be more likely to lodge if you twisted, but she could argue that later.

     She watched with some satisfaction as the man went over to correct Raccoon's stance and methods.  She took the time to look around the `gym`, really no more than a large room with the floor, walls . . . and ceiling, padded with mattresses.

     She glanced at the ceiling, Is that a joke, or do they know something I don't?  She hoped it was the former.  She wondered how long this had taken to set up, and if anyone would be sleeping on a bare floor if they didn't break it down at the end of the day.  She doubted she or Raccoon would fall, but considering the pounding Raccoon and Shinji took from Ranma, she could understand his resistance.

     "Very well, now we move on to basic binds.  Catch the opponent's weapon and strip him of it," Adachi-san instructed them.

     Him, huh, not much faith in ole' Raccoon.  I wonder why Ranma didn't do that as a matter of course?  See Kuno, take his bokken away, eventually he'd run out, Nabiki thought as she watched the man demonstrate the attack against a Marine.  Nabiki would `fence` against Raccoon, the Navy was still very leery about anyone not another pilot, U.S. Navy or Marine Corps with a weapon around the pilots.  She'd joked that they probably felt that way about the Army and the Air Force.  The Chief had told her that anything that entered the exclusion zone around the carrier would be fired upon.  They were deadly serious.

     It worried her that if someone got stupid or obstinate, e.g. any member of the Nerimaniacs, her sister included, would be killed to protect her and Raccoon.  It was a sobering thought as she watched the demonstration of a martial art designed specifically to kill.

     Face it Nabiki-chan, you are not in Kansai any more, she thought as she took up her stance and moved slowly through the bind maneuver.  Then Raccoon picked up his rifle, then he stripped the rifle from her hands.  They repeated this several times, alternating.  Nabiki was impressed, even when ready for it she couldn't overcome the leverage by strength alone.  She noted the lack of comments/insults between them.

     Then they moved on to the next basic maneuver.  She noted and approved of the look of intense concentration on Raccoon's face, absorbing another lesson, another skill.  She decided she'd tell Ranma that Raccoon would have to teach Ranma, and Nabiki would have to teach Ranko.  She smiled at her cleverness, causing Raccoon a moment of wariness, and continued the lesson.

     "The placement is on the weakest points," ggreg explained, "Either stress concentration, previous damage or other reasons."  Nabiki didn't know where they'd gotten the engineering and architecture books scattered all over the wardroom's table and stacked on the floor, but it did explain where Adam and Alfred had disappeared to, they'd been scaring up all these books.  The dams were the interesting thing.  She looked at the problem ggreg had marked in an engineering book.

     "That much force?"  Nabiki hadn't considered this, "From just the water?"

     "Yes, with proper placement of explosives, you can magnify those forces to use them against the structure.  You can probably guess it doesn't take much, properly placed."

     Explosives are like martial arts! Nabiki nearly blurted out.  She'd heard about Happosai's bombs, but they were a child's toy compared to this.

     "The other thing is to limit the places the explosion can go.  Packing a stick of dynamite into a hole will be more effective than a case simply placed atop the same rock."

     "So you find the points of highest loading -"

     "Highest stress," ggreg corrected, "Because that axiom applies to people as well.  If you blow up an incompetent commander, you may have made your job harder.  You blow up a beloved commander, you'd better be on your way out, because when the shock wears off, they are going to want your scalp."

     Nabiki smirked at that.  "Greatest stress, and pack the explosives inside as small a package as possible."

     "Greatest stress, tightest crack," ggreg blushed, "Beg pardon, miss."

     "Why whatever do you mean?" Nabiki said in her best Scarlet O'Hara, fluttering eyelashes included.

     "Uh, yes, very good," ggreg muttered, desperately trying to change the subject.

     "So I could use gunpowder to blast," Nabiki said, "If I picked the right target and packed it in a small enough hole."

     "I think you'd better watch out young man," ggreg told Raccoon, "Bess is getting ideas."

     Nabiki frowned at that, actually she'd been considering using explosives on some of the idiots back home.  Whisper an idea in their ear, then pack the rest of the ear canal with explosives, it might give the idea force enough to penetrate their minds.

     "What's the most powerful explosive for it's size?" Nabiki asked.

     "Depends on how you define 'most powerful', shattering power, velocity of flame front, it depends on what you're doing."

     "Driving good ideas into the stubborn," Nabiki replied.

     "No explosive yet can do that, but enquiries are proceeding."

     "Hydrogen fusion," Raccoon said, "Hydrogen bombs."

     "AH!" she said.  No wonder it never worked, she thought, noting ggreg's concerned glance from one of his students to the other.

     Nabiki was glad someone had pointed out the whirlpool tub in the infirmary.  She lay inside, letting the hot water pound her into mush, but less pain-filled mush.  She wasn't sure if her body or her head hurt worse.  The day's lessons were interesting and would be very useful.  She suspected Raccoon knew a lot more about demolition than he let on.  Nabiki just hoped to retain a lot of it.  She'd go over her notes before she went to sleep, where there'd be more lessons about dreams and dreaming.  She hadn't been able to change the world, her world, through force of will.  Yet.  She'd have to learn how, use the appropriate force on the appropriate targets, she wished she could bring explosives with her, but she'd never been a combatant, maybe that had something to do with it.  She wasn't one to overpower an opponent, but outmaneuver an opponent.  She'd wanted magic to correct that.  She glanced at the pistol that sat within easy reach of the tub.  Even `safe` aboard the carrier she went armed, she knew Raccoon went armed everywhere.  Both concepts should have disgusted her still, as it had when they had set out.  But the idea that many of these otherwise intelligent, reasonable people with wives and sweethearts and kids of their own would - die to protect her . . . it seemed a horrible betrayal to not be willing and able to fight and kill to save her own life.

     "What a world!" she said as she debated getting out, or continuing to `stew` in the pot.

     Raccoon took the unchanged gray stone from her hand, Nabiki nearly jumped out of her skin as the huge head of the dragon appeared between the two humans.  It looked at her and she nearly wet herself, then it stared at the stone.

     "This should not be happening," the deep, gravelly voice stated.  The look of almost pity from this cauldron of malevolence nearly made Nabiki berate the creature.  She only needed one look to remind her that was a bad idea, very bad idea.  She was personally certain it wouldn't hurt her, but she wasn't willing to take the chance.

     "So what do I do?"

     The dragon looked at Raccoon, she could see the similar expressions on both faces.  She wondered why that was, they couldn't really be related, could they?

     "Too low a footprint," Raccoon said.

     "I concur, although it is almost without precedent," the dragon replied.

     Nabiki was about to exclaim she was here when the dragon turned its, his head to stare at her.  Again she saw the frightened, yellow-tinged girl staring back at her.

     "You may have a unique ability to infiltrate dreams.  That will give you the ability to interrogate, gather intelligence without your target even knowing.  This is human psychology, not my field."  The creature snapped his wings to full-extension and launched himself into the air, the near thunderclap shook the two humans as the air rushed in after the leaving dragon.

     "What are you two talking about?" she demanded.

     "Slipping in, getting the information and getting out, all without being detected," Raccoon said.

     That interested Nabiki.

     "As well as ways of further reducing your signature, to decrease your chance of being caught.  The trick is to get to the thoughts, feelings, ideas you need to get."

     "And I should do what?" Nabiki asked.

     "We'll teach you ways of concealment, infiltration, etc.  It's different than what I've been trying to teach you, it's not-affecting things rather than the combat oriented ways.  The problem is there are some places you could go, but you shouldn't."

     "Trust me," Nabiki said.

     "Considering what I know about you," he said, "Your curiosity and need to do, I think you'd stick your nose some place you might get it chopped off."

     "Ah, come on!" she said sarcastically.

     "I'd hate to have to mop up after Saotome bawling all over the place," he said coldly, she felt a chill that had little to do with his tone.

     "Okay, sensei.  I'll do as you want, but how does this relate to learning magic?" she asked.

     "Nothing directly.  But learning control is the important thing."

     "Tell me, when did you learn all this self-control?" she asked.

     "When I had to," he replied, "It took a while.  I expect better of you."

     "Oh?  Why's that?" she asked.

     "You'll have a much better teacher," he said.

     She picked up a big rock and slowly approached with a big smile.  She got very nervous when he smiled back, and the rock started ticking.

Gray Truth Is Now Her Painted Toy

July 17, 1947

     Ritsuko lay in her bunk and stared up at the ceiling.  Her encounter with the spirits within the EVA still shook her, and the need to do it again tomorrow, on that Jeff had been adamant.  She felt her entire existence had been drowned in a sea of the spirits' identity, not once, but twice.  All their hopes, dreams, aspirations, memories, hurts, joys, they all seemed so alive and vibrant compared to her long, gray existence.  For that's what most of her life had been, existing.

     A thing of slow-developing intelligence, a few brief centuries of plotting and planning the revolt, a millennium of fighting it, then untold eons living out the punishment meted out to her.  The loneliness had palled within a few millennia, then it was just a day-to-day existence of getting enough to eat, evading a patrol that never lasted even a week.  And so on and on and on without significant change.

     The species she trapped and ate changed, the climate changed, but both were always so gradual that the changed became blurred.  Even the massive die-offs didn't affect her too significantly.

     She'd come with Gendo, it was back to the halcyon days of planning and fighting, add the kids, all their trials and tribulations that became her responsibility, all of it added to more excitement than she'd ever known before.  She couldn't destroy the source of the problems.  She couldn't even find the source sometimes, she could only soothe the symptoms or listen to the pain.  She never did as well as she wanted to, but the way the kids reacted . . . Jeff she could almost understand, she was terrified what Nabiki and Ranma would do, how they would react, would they feel she'd `betrayed` them, abandoned and lied to them?  When they finally found out the truth, found out what she actually was.

     She remembered her terror at losing herself and the arms around her, the calming tones and string of facts bringing her back to whom she was.  She remembered the two frightened children snuggling up against her, depending on her to protect them.  She didn't know why it was important, she could intellectually say the nerve densities of humans' skin was much higher, she knew human children were far more helpless for far longer than her own species.  While that might explain the psychological imperatives that drove humans to seek out and welcome such contact, it in no way explained why it so deeply affected her, why she needed and wanted it as well.

     She could see it was a lot of little things.  Ranma was so hapless, and yet so infectiously joyful, as if every moment of his/her existence was a new one, yet he was also so eager to please those around him, he didn't see what he'd done wrong unless strongly confronted.  Nabiki was like Ritsuko, she tried to convince everyone, including herself, she was in charge and unaffected.  Jaded and in control.  Yet the others continuously drew her out, and she was no where near as independent as she believed.  She reveled in these constant challenges, like Ranma did.  Jeff was difficult, so annoyingly sure of himself, so arrogantly confident and disturbing.  She'd noticed the change the dream had wrought, it wasn't just coffee the way she liked it or him finishing her thoughts or the warm glances and smiles.  It was a great deal more, which was the problem.  She'd seen Yui and Gendo look at each other that way.  Nabiki sometimes looked at Ranma that way, and Ranko to Jeff.  On one side she almost welcomed the attention, the affection, and all it implied.  On the other, it also frightened her that anyone could understand what she was, and still have those feelings.

     Her mind told her such a thing was irrational at best and insanity at worst, more irrational and insane was the niggling feeling that all the kids would react the same way, they wouldn't mind they wouldn't care.  They'd still care for Rit-chan.  Yet she found herself wanting that intimacy, the closeness and touching, the trust and understanding, and support that went with it.  That she only had to be herself to get it was madness, there had to be a hidden price.

     The age problem was one mostly of appearance and law, and even that was an excuse, while Japanese could marry at 12, so could Americans, with their guardians' consent, and Jeff was an emancipated minor.  Marrying outside his `race` would be a greater problem, but again not insurmountable.

     She thought of Maya, asleep in the cabin's other bunk.  What Ritsuko had always considered 'just a crush she'll grow out of' had become different.  Not just due to changes on Maya's part and in the way Maya saw her, but a change on Ritsuko's part, a change in awareness, a change in thinking.  Ritsuko had always been aloof and in control, not so unlike Asuka, Nabiki and Jeff, because it was a mask all four of them wore.  Finding herself suddenly out of her depth, not just an adult, but a parent, she'd been forced to ask for help.  Trusting, and including Maya in her trials, had made her more accessible to the young woman.  Ritsuko was realizing that maybe the girl's, young woman's, feelings couldn't be set aside so easily, or ignored.  It was another case of not understanding, not understanding what she'd done to engender them, why exposing her weakness and helplessness hadn't driven Maya away, not understanding why none of the brush-offs she'd tried ever worked.  Not understanding why she seemed willing to go on these long and dangerous missions for her 'Sempai', and why she put up with everyone except Ritsuko seeing how she really felt.  Ritsuko lamented that it all made no sense to her.

     Misato was vivacious, fun-loving and bohemian, to the point of grating on Ritsuko, but she put that down to her own love of quiet and her alienness.  Misato should have had all the kid dancing to her tune, except Jeff hated her guts, Asuka could barely stand her, Ranma tried not to think about her, and Shinji felt he had to take care of her.  Ritsuko had no clear idea how Nabiki and Rei felt, she suspected they followed Ranma's and Shinji's lead, respectively.

     But they all liked or respected Doctor Akagi, Ritsuko-sensei, Rit-chan.  She didn't understand.  Admiral Simson seemed to respect her as well, taking her advice over the advice of his own man, and he'd accepted Samantha on Ritsuko's word alone, almost without comment.

     Ritsuko glanced at the clock, the radium dial showed 03:04, she wondered if there was something special about that time, when all your doubts and questions massed and marched on the battlements of your security and self-image.  As if questioning everything was the proper thing to do at that hour.  Normally she could relax.  She didn't need sleep and couldn't in the conventional sense, she had learned to meditate, let her mind drift and mull over problems, usually scientific ones.  Except tonight the problems weren't scientific and they didn't seem to be converging towards a solution, an explanation or even a blank wall of failure, they remained nebulous worries just out of reach, second guessing questions she didn't have the courage to go and ask the principals for answers directly.  It would be easy to get up, walk over, wake Maya and ask point-blank 'Why do you love me?'

     Although she suspected that waking her out of a sound sleep wouldn't get her any answers.  Jeff would be a better bet, he was probably awake, but she already had some of the answers, the dream, but she knew there had to be more.  More than the arms around her when she was so frightened and rocking her until she felt safe and herself again.

     She sighed, turned to stare at Maya, dreaming whatever she dreamed.  The ever present noise of the ship eventually lulled her assistant to sleep, after she'd complained about it the first two days.  None of the worries seemed to bother her, as long as Sempai was around, she wasn't worried.

     Ritsuko rolled back to stare at the ceiling.  She threw off the covers in disgust, pulled on a pair of slacks and a blouse and left the cabin to walk around the carrier.  She headed for the hanger deck, specifically to Unit 04, considering what she'd learned today, Jeff's reading to the Units seemed a lot less ridiculous.  She stopped halfway up a ladder, one foot hovering over the step.

     If there are spirits `powering` Unit 04, are there spirits in the other Units? she wondered, But Yui Ikari was lost in Unit 01 and . . . the thought stopped her.  Asuka's mother went insane on contact with Unit 02.  Is that why Asuka can sync so well with Unit 02 and only Unit 02, and Unit 01 rejected every sync attempt until Shinji?  She stood there in the half light, half way between decks, halfway between steps, halfway between thoughts.  The thought was too big, she couldn't have it all at once.  It can't be! she rejected the implications, but it all fit so well.

     Several soldiers peered down, saw Ritsuko's expression and went to find another ladder.

     Ritsuko could hardly believe she'd missed something so obvious.  After Yui's death, the problems with Unit 01 had increased, after Kyoko's accident, Asuka had no problem syncing with Unit 02.

     Of course, if she was linking with her mother's spirit.  Ritsuko couldn't imagine why she hadn't seen it, and neither had anyone else, Jeff had seen part of it and never made the connection.  No, she thought, He joked that the spirit in Unit 01 was Shinji's mother, but he doesn't know Yui was lost . . . she discarded the thought, But it was in his journal, she remembered, What did he sense in Unit 02?

     Then another thought struck Ritsuko, Does Gendo know?  What would happen if Shinji or Asuka discovered the truth?!  She now had to decide how to tell Jeff to not mention it to them, but she had to know how much he actually knew, what he'd figured out.  All without revealing exactly what she knew.

     She restarted her walk to the hanger, her conclusions gave her a much greater turn of speed.  She entered the hanger and looked at the huge ma- No, not a machine, she reminded herself.  She wondered if it was aware of her even now, what was it like fully activated with a pilot.

     It would seem that Jeff's technique allows it to be more awake, she considered, But how 'asleep' or subdued are they with the other pilots?  How aware are they just sitting here?  She reached out, stopped her hand before she made contact.  She'd never been afraid of the EVAs before.  She realized she hadn't really understood them.  The Elder Things had build war machines like EVAs because a bilaterally symmetric form was so disconcerting to the radially symmetric Elder Things, like the sirens on the Stukas or the mouths and teeth and eyes painted on warplanes.  She hadn't known the details of their activation, although she'd seen and participated in their construction, and had unsuccessfully fought against them.  She just couldn't imagine that humans could have duplicated the systems that controlled them.  This extensive system seemed to be lacking in the EVAs, but she'd put that down to a living true pilot, rather than just a weapons' operator, and the EVAs having the same form as a human.  Now she was realizing that the elaborate and complex thinking machines to balance them while moving and control them in combat had a simple equivalent, a living mind/spirit.

     'And God Formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul', she thought darkly, What exactly have we built?  And is it what Gendo and the others intended.  And what drives Unit 00?

     She sighed.  And what do I do with the information? she wondered as she reached out and touched the EVA.  It felt no different than it had before, but she knew it would never be the same, and later today, Jeff would reveal more.  It wasn't the most reassuring thought.  In fact, she really did not want to know what he was revealing, both about the EVAs and about herself.  First, that she was a coward, second -

      "I hadn't expected anyone else would be here."

     Ritsuko nearly jumped as the large figure detached from the darkness.  "You're Major ggreg's friend," she found her voice.

     "Yes, I also believe I am young Mister Davis's friend," Joma said as he looked at the EVA, then at Ritsuko, "A made thing must have duty, must have purpose.  I know."

     Ritsuko shifted uneasily, she wasn't absolutely sure he wasn't referring to just the EVA.  "Do they have this need for duty?"  She indicated the EVA.

     "Don't you know?" Joma asked.  "Doctor Frankenstein's greatest failing was underestimating what he had created.  He had lost faith in his creation."  Joma took one deliberate step towards her.  "Humans often apply emotions to made things, they likewise claim that such things can love or hate them back.  Such fancies existed long before such machines could react even in the most primitive ways.  Yet even in these rational and scientific days, the belief continues.  Imagine how the belief will change when the devices can feel and love those who own and possess them in return.  The question becomes what to do with these feelings.  Some may make tools so their carnal desires might be met, or to pamper other physical desires and needs."  He took another deliberate step forward, Ritsuko took a step back.  "You study the interaction of living systems, Doctor.  When you consider love: is it only a carnal longing, Doctor, or a mirror of your other yearnings?  Do you desire just a warm and lively bed warmer, or one who would warm your entire day?  Would the hug or kiss of a lonely child seeking reassurance serve?  Or the parent knowing their children are steadily becoming adults?  Or do they simply want someone to approve of them, their actions and one who will keep them from going beyond the boundaries and will snatch them back from the abyss, until they are ready to face it?"  He stepped away.  "Time, ability, eventually things equalize, and all that remains are regrets and joys.  The failures teach and the successes build self-esteem.  But all must be in balance."

     Ritsuko watched the man withdraw back into the darkness, and he was gone.  She could see in darkness, but she hadn't seen him when she entered and she didn't see him now.

The Sun That Brief December Day Rose Cheerless Over Hills Of Gray

     Maya wasn't sure what was going on, as she walked into the mess hall, the usual table was open and Nabiki-chan was already headed that way.  Jeff was carrying a pitcher of orange juice and a carafe of coffee, and was angling towards the table too.

     She idly wondered why that table was always open and no one else seemed to use it.  Those thoughts were all brushed away by the memory of Sempai's actions this morning.  Sempai had waited until Maya was in her work uniform before she'd given her a brief hug and told her how proud she was of Maya, and how glad she was of her help with the work and the kids.

     Maya had expected that Sempai had finally decided to acknowledge her feelings, her disappointment that she hadn't was mixed with embarrassment at the praise and an odd feeling of concurrence.  She thought everyone could see her blush as she remembered it.  She was grateful for the acknowledgment, and she did realize that they wouldn't have had the time for anything more, but it still left her in a whirlwind of 'might-have-beens'.

     Be patient! she fiercely told herself, again, She's at least aware you're alive and helping her, not just doing your duty, maybe she even knows how much you care.  She was still in the maelstrom as she got ready to eat breakfast.  She did wish they had a more reasonable menu.


     Maya came out of her revere as Jeff snatched her oatmeal away.

     "Orange juice does not go well with oatmeal.  Unless you are conducting an experiment," he said as he slid it back.

     "It couldn't get any worse," she muttered in Japanese as she ate a spoonful.

     Yes it could! she thought as she swallowed that stuff and washed her mouth out with black coffee.  On impulse she poured the rest of the cup in the oatmeal and mixed it.  Ah, no longer as bad as Misato's cooking, she thought, choking down another spoonful, But still awful.

     "I heard that Doctor Akagi did well on the range," Jeff said in a pleasant tone.

     "Yes," Maya admitted, "With a machine gun."

     "Well, the 50 cal was supposed to be an antitank cannon, they developed a gunsight for it and it is capable of single shot."

     "So you could shoot something . . . what, half a mile away?" Nabiki-chan asked.

     "More like two miles," Jeff said, as if it were nothing.

     Maya gulped.  Then Sempai breezed in, she looked so happy, as if the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders.  Maya loved to see her this way.

     Nabiki-chan clearly couldn't stand anyone to be that happy that early.  "I heard you made poor Rit-chan cry yesterday."

     Jeff glared then smiled.  "You're just jealous because it's never happened to you.  You can't get Ranma to cry in your arms."

     Careful Raccoon, Maya thought.

     "Before you two kill each other," Sempai said as she sat down with her breakfast, "You break it, you bought it, and aircraft carriers are expensive."

     Maya chuckled at that, and the pilots' rueful smiles.

     "And you aren't at your best in the morning, take him on when you're awake."

     "Doctor!  You gave away my best trick!" Jeff complained, "Now how am I going to leave her with a day-long inferiority complex?"

     "Easy," Doctor Akagi said sternly, "Don't."

     "Mommy always liked you best," Jeff whined at Nabiki in Japanese.

     Ritsuko noted the byplay with amusement, she'd have to thank Joma for his advice, she'd been so afraid of taking a romantic step, that she'd ignored all the other steps that she could take.  She'd been on her way back to her cabin, when she'd seen the light on in Jeff's cabin, so she'd knocked and went inside.  There, sitting together on the edge of his bed, she'd told him he'd given her a great deal to think about and a warning not to disclose this to the other pilots until she'd had an opportunity to discuss her latest findings with Admiral Simson and Commander Ikari.  He'd agreed.  Then she'd apologized for embarrassing him.  He'd explained it happened every time, even when you were ready for it.  Then she'd ruffled his hair and told him how proud of him she was, that he'd stayed determined and showed her what he knew she needed to know.  Then she'd hugged him.  That had triggered a change.

     No denials, no affirmations of strength, just a response in kind.  Him laying his head on her shoulder.  He wasn't the 'everything-under-control' know-it-all, just a boy who desperately appreciated the approval of an older woman he respected.

     Ritsuko wasn't arrogant enough to assume she had suddenly become 'mommy', but it was another bit of data, and a step onto a different path.

     When she'd thought Nabiki was awake, she'd followed the same formula: knocked, entered, told Nabiki how proud of her she was for all the extra effort, she'd kissed Nabiki on the cheek before hugging her, and Nabiki had hugged her back.  Ritsuko suspected the few sniffles she heard accompanied a few tears.  Nabiki had broken off the hug first and apologized.  Ritsuko had held her shoulders and asked for the right to cry on Nabiki's shoulder.  Nabiki had said yes, in embarrassment.

     The reaction from Maya had been more expected, both because Ritsuko knew her better, and she'd seen the pattern twice already.  She could ask Maya about details later.  She always wondered why Maya never went home, there had been several months after the staff stopped being prisoners and before they restarted operations, Maya hadn't gone home to her family.  She'd only gone back when she had to ask for a leave of limited time and the military would come get her if she was late.

     Ritsuko was beginning to suspect that everyone in the senior staff had drives to connect with an older woman to gain her approval.  Approval they'd never gotten or still needed from their mothers.  She suspected that Ranma was the same, Asuka another likely possibility.  She considered the wisdom of asking Jeff to use his EVA spirit trick to contact Nabiki's mother, find out from the woman herself what she felt about Nabiki.

     It was something she'd have to carefully consider.  She read the pilots' diaries, now she was planning a more serious invasion of privacy, she also had to wonder if the trick could also find Ranma's parents, and if that was a good idea.  She also suspected asking Gendo and Kozo about their relationships with their mothers, would certainly be interesting.

     "You don't have to do this," Jeff told Ritsuko as he set the A10 Nerve clip on her head and checked the connections, exactly as she usually did for the pilots.  She knew that any of the plugsuits were 'one-size-fits-all', although she had to be careful wearing one of Nabiki's, trying to wear one of Jeff's was out of the question.  She wished she'd brought her lab coat to cover up with.

     "Yes, I have to, there are implications you haven't considered, and no I don't want to share," she told him.

     He shrugged, offered his hand to help her into the plug.  She took it for balance, but if she put any of her weight on him, she'd either topple him or pull his arm out of its socket.  They descended into the L.C.L. to further investigate.

     Once inside, he began to drum.

     Nabiki lay in her bunk, another long, hard day, she'd gone over her notes on explosives and had considered a few new suggestions to Jukenjutsu, as well as suggesting applying Zen Archery to rifle shooting.  She only had to find someone who studied archery and was open-minded enough to adapt it.  Tomiyo was a possibility.  She sometimes wondered if her father knew how to use the antique bow he sometimes carried around.

     She idly wondered if anyone would ever develop a rifle for the EVAs, she suspected someone would.  Naval guns would work, the difference in the performance of the 5 inch/38 caliber arming the Bennington and the 5 inch/54 caliber arming the Coral Sea indicated it would have to be long-barreled and battleship guns were too heavy.  She suspected that tank guns were too weak, so some kind of cruiser gun.  The follow-up question was would they develop it in time to help?

     She refused to let all the day's lessons and questions chase each other through her mind.  She closed her eyes and fixed her mind on nothing, and went to sleep.

A Heart Grown Cold, A Head Grown Gray In Vain

     The little girl with two pigtails played in the sandbox, alone.  Her family was a short distance away, but they were fixed on their own activities with their favored children, who mirrored the parents' interests.

     The assassin advanced slowly.  Killing in dreams was the perfect method.  It left no trace and few could defend against it.  Anything could kill in these dreams.  It was trivially easy, a knife was the easiest, they carried the requisite fear to give the sacrifice the proper `flavor`.

     "Do you have an appointment?" the gruff voice emanated out of the field of darkness that had appeared behind her.

     She searched it for any feature, for any sign that would give her a point to strike at.

     "I can squeeze you in on Tuesday, week after next, we'll be fingerpainting."

     She couldn't determine where the voice was coming from, the edges of the cloud hadn't moved, she picked a point at random and struck at the unseen voice.

     The blade broke off as it struck the cloud, the fragment scratched her cheek as it flew away.  She touched the flowing blood, felt the blade's poisons coursing through her veins.

     She glanced at the little girl obliviously playing in the sandbox, hoping beyond hope that the blade had struck her.  No such luck.

     She turned back to the cloud.

     "Interesting conundrum, if you remain, you will die, if you do not sleep, you will die, after you go insane.  I will watch with fascination."

     The assassin vanished back into the Waking World.

     The next woman who appeared was not the enemy.  The Scholarly Dragon withdrew, allowing Ritsuko to complete her mission.  He considered the boy's near obsession with this fool's errand another major difference between the two of them.  He'd provided his end of the gate, now he could leave.  Ritsuko could get out on her own, she wouldn't need anyone's help.  He did wonder why the little girl's dreams were so vital and animated, and the older one's were nearly as dead as the boy's ruined dreamscape.

     Ritsuko looked around, she recognized the sunlit park.  She wondered if this was an amalgam of many childhood memories, or if there was a real place like this.  Little Nabiki stayed near enough to her family, but the parents seemed to pay her little attention.  Little Kasumi helped mommy lay out the picnic, little Akane was `sparring` with her father.  Nabiki was keeping an eye on them, not they on her.

     Ritsuko knew enough psychology to know that what people saw was rarely what was really going on.  She looked at the elaborate sand fortress Nabiki had built around herself.  It was a mixture of Oriental and European castle elements, Ritsuko suspected that if Nabiki ever talked to Asuka, the next time it would look more like the Maginot or Siegfried Lines.  She was no expert, but she couldn't see any effective way to assault the fortifications, except by air.

     "Rit-chan, Rit-chan, Rit-chan!" Nabiki shouted happily as Ritsuko lifted her out of the fort.  Ritsuko noted that the fortress vanished almost instantly.  Ritsuko wasn't sure if that was significant, or if it was only that Nabiki's attention was now focused on her.  Ritsuko did notice that the parents hadn't noticed.  She strongly believed that was intentional, on Nabiki's part.

     "Where's Ranma?" Ritsuko asked, got a frown in return.

     "All he cares about is martial arts!" the little girl said disdainfully, "All Akane cares about is martial arts, so they're made for each other."

     "So you want to keep Raccoon for yourself?" Ritsuko asked, rubbed Nabiki's nose with her own, "Or do you want to share him with Ranko?" she teased.

     Again the scrunched-up face, indicating her bare tolerance of the stupidity of adults.  "Ranko is Ranma.  He likes to cook and clean so much, let him marry Kasumi, they can have cleaning contests."

     "And cooking contests," Ritsuko added, "Like against Asuka."

     Little Nabiki nodded with the same disdainful frown.

     "Then who's for little Nabiki?" Ritsuko asked, "What boy takes your heart?"  She'd meant it as a jibe, a harmless probe.  She knew that Nabiki felt very alone, but she was hoping some of that had changed.

     The tears came slowly, the stricken expression slower still.  The clouds and the cold wind rolled in much faster.  Ritsuko turned to keep the girl out of the worst of the wind.  She glanced over at the family, who seemed not to have noticed.

     "Don't you want anyone else?" Ritsuko asked, trying to keep her tone light.

     "I want you Rit-chan, I want you, I want you, I want you," the little girl hugged and sobbed.

     "Don't you want anyone else too?  Isn't there someone else you want us to be with?" she asked.  Felt the girl shake her head 'no.'  Ritsuko was at a loss now, she'd always thought Nabiki was more gregarious than this.

     I guess in this dream she's alone, Ritsuko thought.

     "If you don't stop crying this instant," Ritsuko began, "I won't hold you upside down."

     There was a loud sniff and Nabiki wiped her face frantically before presenting it for inspection.

     Ritsuko peered at it and the increasingly worried Nabiki, who struggled not to wipe her face again while Ritsuko was watching.  So Ritsuko would look away at something for a moment, then return her gaze with more intense scrutiny.  "I guess that's good enough for sideways," Ritsuko said holding Nabiki horizontal.

     "Rit-chan!" came the indignant protest.

     "Manners," Ritsuko said as sternly as she could.

     "You promised, Akagi-sensei," Nabiki enunciated from her sideways position, "You should keep your promises."

     Ritsuko kept sternly staring at her.

     "Please, Akagi-sensei," little Nabiki said with complete disgust at all the idiot rules of adults.  One hand came away and Nabiki was shrieking with delight as she swung from her ankles.

     Ritsuko wondered if she should mention this to either Ranma or Jeff, decided it was probably a bad idea.

     "I'm an elephant's trunk!  Rit-tusko!" Nabiki insisted as she picked several tufts of grass then bent up to offer them to Ritsuko.

     "Why don't we go raid that village over there, scatter the villagers and eat all their food?" Ritsuko suggested.  Nabiki dropped the grass and began waving her arms and roaring.  Ritsuko decided not to tell her that elephants don't roar, as she walked over to the family.

     Just treat it as a vacation, not an invasion, Ritsuko reminded herself, I can take as long as I need.  She smirked at Nabiki roaring fiercely at the two martial artists.  Besides, how much experience do I have dealing with little kids, she thought, None.

     Nabiki had grabbed her struggling little sister and lifted her up to present her to Ritsuko.

     "I can't eat her, I don't know where she's been," Ritsuko protested the disheveled, sweaty and grass-stained offering, "The older one looks clean."  Nabiki set the little girl down and roared at the older girl and advanced as menacingly as she could.

     "Little girls shouldn't act like that," Kasumi protested, backing away.

     "I'm an elfant!  Rit-tusko!" Nabiki roared.

     "Girl el-e-phants are better mannered," the girl squeaked as Nabiki grabbed her.  It was more of a struggle to lift the larger girl.

     "I'm a BOY caniverows elfant!" Nabiki insisted as she struggled to lift her sister.

     "Would you prefer to be cooked or eaten raw?" Ritsuko asked.

     "RAW!  RAW!" Nabiki insisted, then had to lower Kasumi back down.

     Ritsuko wasn't sure if she was roaring or stating a preference.