Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 42-44 ( Chapter 20 )

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Sic Semper Morituri

Chapter 42 - The Price That Life Exacts

Courage Is Saying 'No' One More Time

Those Who Place Decency Above Courage

Courage Tastes Of Blood

Their Mastiffs Of Unmatchable Courage

My Little Spark Of Courage Dies

Deus Ex Machinations

Love Comforteth, Like Sunshine After Rain

A Crown Is Merely A Hat That Lets The Rain In

A Wolf In The Fold, Rain On Ripe Corn

The Winter Is Past, The Rain Over And Gone

It Is Neither Shaken By Winds, Nor Ever Wet With Rain

Still Falls The Rain - Dark As The World Of Man

Chapter 43 - Sturm und Drang signifying . . . nothing

In restless dreams I walked alone narrow streets of cobblestone,

'neath the halo of a street lamp

I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light

That split the night and touched the sound of silence.

And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more.

People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening,

People writing songs that voices never shared

And no one dared disturb the sound of silence.

Fools said I, you do not know, silence like a cancer grows.

Chapter 44 - Sturm und Drang signifying . . . nothing Denouement

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you.

But my words like silent raindrops fell

And echoed in the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon God they made.

And the sign flashed out it's warning, in the words that it was forming.

And the signs said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls.

And whisper'd in the sounds of silence

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 42 - The Price That Life Exacts


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 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 investigates the unusual way Jeff syncs with the EVA, she is terrified by the contact.  Later she realizes the spirits power the EVAs.  Nabiki and Maya train to operate firearms.

     Jeff and the Scholarly Dragon teach Nabiki about control of her dreams, the Scholarly Dragon prevents a dream attack by Usagi and company.

     Admiral Simson asks about Jeff siccing the Senators on Misato, he did so because the Navy stonewalled his investigation.

     Nabiki adds hand-to-hand training with the rifle.

     Nabiki discusses Hiroko's death with several of her instructors.  Ritsuko looks over Jeff and Nabiki as Nabiki comes under dream attack.

     Joma and Ritsuko discuss the desires of made things for their creators/users.

     The pilots and guards reminisce about the events of the previous weeks with Belldandy, Sora and Megumi while taking a cooking lesson.  The day ends with a bug attack on Keiichi's home being destroyed by the pilots and their guards.

     Usagi and company summon a strike force of Dark Young, dholes, shantaks and Hunting Horrors.  For a short time the EVAs and the pilots are caught off stride.  Once they regained the upper hand they never released it.  Ranma used baseball techniques, Shinji uses Ranma's accidental attack on him to lure the enemy in close.  Rei guides Asuka to restrain one dhole until the Navy, Shinji and Ranma can arrive to finish it and the other one off.

     The Twins watches the summoning and draws its own plans against the EVAs, pilots and NERV.

     The pilots go over Misato's head to participate in rescue operations.

Well, the owners wrote her off; not a nickel would they spend.  She gave twenty years of service, boys, then met her sorry end.

But insurance paid the loss to them, they let her rest below.  Then they laughed at us and said we had to go.

But we talked of her all winter, some days around the clock, for she's worth a quarter million, afloat and at the dock.

And with every jar that hit the bar, we swore we would remain and make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

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

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

All spring, now, we've been with her on a barge lent by a friend.  Three dives a day in hard hat suit and twice I've had the bends.

Thank God it's only sixty feet and the currents here are slow or I'd never have the strength to go below.

But we've patched her rents, stopped her vents, dogged hatch and porthole down.  Put cables to her, 'fore and aft and girded her around.

Tomorrow, noon, we hit the air and then take up the strain.  And make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

The Mary Ellen Carter - Written by Stan Rogers.

Courage Is Saying 'No' One More Time

July 18, 1947

     The shackles proved quite unpickable, and the chain was equally unbreakable, Jeff settled back, waiting for the next stage of the attack.  Misato padded lithely across the carpeted floor, the faint moonlight revealing what she wasn't wearing.

     She knelt before him, a knife hung from a thong around her neck.  She leaned close, the blade slid smoothly through the shirt he was wearing, parting the fabric, "I think you know what I'm here for," she breathed.

     "Nabiki, this isn't going to work either."  Jeff felt someone yank her hand off his neck as he opened his eyes.

     He rolled over in his bunk to look at a startled Nabiki, "Miss Tendo you don't have the strength to force acceptance of impossibilities.  If I found myself chained up and Misato walked in with a knife, my first instinct would be to wrap my legs around her throat and choke the life out of her.  I wouldn't carewhat she was wearing or not wearing, or what squishy things she was promising to do to me."

     "I thought all the boys drooled over her," she said in a weak defense of her latest attempt.

     "I have a history with her that makes that unlikely.  But that's beside the point.  You and `Horseface` aren't strong enough to make improbable actions likely in dreams.  Infiltration, remember?  You'll have to find out what weaknesses in my defenses mesh with your strengths, that way, like in martial arts, my mind and instincts can be used against me to strengthen what you're trying to accomplish.  It'll take some research on your part, but that's part of the training too."  He smiled.  "Besides, purely hentai dreams won't work."  He brushed her nose, and said sweetly, "I like and respect you too much, that should give you an idea for a wedge to work on.  Now go back to sleep."

     She dejectedly stood and glared down at him, too spent to argue.

     A few minutes later Ritsuko entered, wearing a lot more than Misato had been.  She stared down at him.

     "Didn't make it again?" she asked, "Who was it?"

     "Misato, fairly standard bondage stuff.  You're chained up and she's the one begging," he said, grimaced at the image, "Even Langley and I working together couldn't make that believable."

     "You could let her win," Ritsuko suggested, "She really hates it when they don't work.  It's as if you turned down a handmade present she was offering you."

     "It's always someone or something I don't care about," Jeff explained, "I'll admit, I like looking at Major K and Rit-chan, even better naked."  He paused to let her frown and glare in the direction of Nabiki's room.  "But looking is as far as I'll go.  She's tried other, unrelated activities like cooking or going to concerts and dances with Rei, Asuka, Shinji, Ranko and Maya and sometimes together, and she's tried with people who look like her, but all of them are totally out of character.  They act like she expects them to act.  Like Ranma fighting and losing to Shinji or Asuka, she doesn't have the strength to force reality out of the hands of a strong Dreamer."  He paused, "On the defense, Ranma can hold his own against most opponents, but Nabiki needs to learn that she can't oppose someone force to force."

     "Cunning and trickery," Ritsuko said, "Why isn't she using that technique?"

     "That - is the real question," Jeff said.

     Nabiki was angry.  Jeff can be so frustrating!  He's always so noble and pure,she thought, Except I know that isn't his nature.  I've seen him looking at Ritsuko, he's as much a slave to his hormones as any other teenager.  Even her in own fourteen-year-old body caused her some problem.  It should have worked, I've seen him looking intensely at Misato, and the danger of the woman should have intrigued him, not repulsed him the way it did.

     "Research."  She grimaced, not her favorite word, especially since she was the real local expert on the subject, the others knew less about him than she did.

     But there were others who knew more, she smiled at the plans began to form.

July 19, 1947

     Nabiki faced the Daimorigon, not the Scholarly Dragon.  What she faced was weaker, but far less amused by the human race.  It only hated humans, and they feared it, it was easy to fear. She felt it absorbing her, tearing her soul apart, tearing her memories from her feelings, all separating her into bits, destroying the integrity of what she was.  And it HURT!  She screamed as she ceased to be anything except the pain of dissociation.

     "Nabiki!  Nabiki!" the face swam into focus.

     "Mommy mommy mommy!" Nabiki heard herself saying as she held onto her contact with reality where she existed, where Tendo Nabiki was alive and well.  The body holding her rocked slowly side to side, made soothing noises.  Until Nabiki again felt safe, until fear retreated to allow rational thought.

     Nabiki was aware she'd called Ritsuko 'mommy', repeatedly, and that she'd broken down and cried again.

     "Sorry.  It must be embarrassing."  She was aware that Ritsuko hadn't released her, or stopped rocking her.  The rocking was lulling her to sleep.  She could feel her eyelids drooping, Ritsuko lowering her back into bed and pulling the covers over her as she dropped back to sleep.

     Ritsuko slipped out of Nabiki's cabin, spotted Maya slipping out of Jeff's.

     "Bad dreams?" Ritsuko asked when Maya turned towards her, away from the door.

     "Yes, sempai," Maya said, "The death of Nabiki's mother."  She seemed confused, Ritsuko suspected where Jeff had gotten those memories.

     "I think our testing the two pilots together for an extended time in an entry plug may cause these problems.  Without proper preparations," Ritsuko said, "Preparations we don't have time to make."

     "What happened to Nabiki-chan?" Maya asked as they returned to their cabin.

     Ritsuko raised an eyebrow at 'Nabiki-chan', but let it pass.  "One thing, Analyst Ibuki, you should have a lab coat or a pair of slacks to throw on quickly."

     Maya noticed the very abbreviated nightgown she wore, `eeped`, and raced back into the cabin.  Ritsuko adjusted her lab coat and followed more sedately, she doubted Nabiki or anyone else noticed she didn't have anything on under it.

July 20, 1947

From the Journal of Nabiki Tendo:

     We passed through the Panama Canal today.  'Whoopie!'  The crews had turned out to watch the massive ship slip through the narrow opening.  Widen the stupid thing!  I bet Asuka could have a design in three days.  A week if you didn't want to take it out of service during construction.  It was amazing watching the locks open and close to raise the ship, there's nothing to compare it to.

     I thought Raccoon was going to go nuts trying to look down the lengths of the ship, both sides at once.  He must have known it was hopeless, but he kept at it.  Disturbing.  Ritsuko told him it was going to be fine but he didn't believe her.  I hope we don't run into whatever has him so spooked.

     The escort group changed at well, it seems we wore out the two battleships and the two light carriers accompanying us.  When we exit the canal, the new escort group will pick us up: the Midway, the Franklin Roosevelt (Coral Sea-type aircraft carriers, with aircraft on them), the Hancock, an Essex-class, like ours, Missouri and Wisconsin.  The Missouri is one ship I want to stand on, if only to stand where the surrender was signed.  Kensuke would go nuts about that.  There's also a force of cruisers and destroyers to guard us during our trip through the lake.  Someone's knocking at the door, bye for now.

July 21, 1947

From the Journal of Nabiki Tendo:

     I got my wish.  Rather than wait with the carrier, Raccoon, Ritsuko, Maya and I were helicoptered to an airbase and flown to the Midway.  Maya hates flying, Raccoon was nervous about leaving the Bennington 'unguarded'.  Fifty cruisers and destroyers, 2 Army Tank divisions, a thousand Marines standing guard and he calls that 'unguarded'.  No, I don't believe he's paranoid.  There has to be a stronger word than paranoid.  Maybe I'm sure he's got a persecution complex.  I'd hate to meet anything that justified his fears.

     Also, I was informed that 'Midway is not a Coral Sea-type, Coral Sea is a Midway-class' by an officious lieutenant.  Raccoon suggested he go back to Annapolis for a refund, they were supposed to make him an officer AND a gentleman.  I wanted to stick my tongue out at him, except one of the photographers would have snapped that picture.  I've never seen so many photographers in my life!  All in military uniforms.  There were interviews.  I even got to sit at the mess table on the Missouri, someone had set it up for the occasion.  I sat where MacArthur did, thank you very much.  I've been too intimidated to see the American Caesar, although I could, Asuka did.  I wonder if I asked, whether I could go to Pearl Harbor and drop a wreath at the Arizona.  Looking at Japan, with the remnant, and knowing the Japan I grew up in.  I think we owe a debt to those men, as strange as it is to say, Japan, or rather the Japanese, won that war.  Many of the things holding us back from being the superpower we wanted to be were beaten out of us.

TRANSCRIPTIONIST'S NOTES: The following were heavily crossed out

     The feudalism still exists, but its corporate rather than military and there is still meritocracy, despite trying to force family `dynasties`, business is as grinding to failures as war and more constant.

TRANSCRIPTIONIST'S NOTES: Ends strike out, recommend further analysis

     The loyalty to company might replace loyalty to lord, resulting in a type of feudalism, but it would also be in the realm of business, where constant pressure would force a meritocracy, the founder might be the head, but his sons or daughters would have a board of directors and shareholders to answer to, an incompetent could be removed.

     Where was oh, - there were photographers and flash bulbs, and the reporters and their questions.  'What do you think -?'  'How do you feel -?' until my head was spinning, and Raccoon, handling it all like an old hand, the rotten -.  He reminded me in Japanese that I was a worldwide celebrity.  Telling me an Angel was attacking wouldn't have scared me so much.

     Then he asked me 'How do you enjoy it?' I could have strangled him, in front of all those cameras.  I wanted to so badly!

     Maya at least had the excuse of poor English skills, she feigned having none, or she was too scared to do anything except stammer 'sumimasen'.

     By the end of the day, I couldn't stand the idea of another camera, movies or still, another person asking questions about the details of my life and opinions, or anyone commenting how 'pretty', 'charming' or 'fluent' I am.

     Sleep and anonymity are welcome, Raccoon's nervous about someone getting aboard while we were away.  I think he's overreacting, considering the photographers and reporter on Bennington when we arrived, any invader would have already been interviewed and had a hundred pictures taken of them.  The crew was interviewed about us for Stars and Stripes, the military paper.  I don't think I want to read what they said, I'd almost prefer if they said awful things about us, it would be less embarrassing.

Those Who Place Decency Above Courage


     General Borodin watched the Navy newsreel intently, along with the few others in the small screening room.  He proudly commented for the Ogromniy pilots and the GRU man, all of whom spoke little to no English.

     "That's Nabiki Tendo, the Fifth Child," Borodin told them.

     "Isn't she tall for a Japanese?" Anna asked.

     "Hoping for pilots shorter than you?" Sonya teased the younger girl.

     "Is that wrong?" Anna teased back, "Good - Is he really just 14-years-old?"

     "Jeffrey Davis," Borodin said, "It appears so, look at those boots, a cavalryman's boots."

     "Half Cossack, half capitalist," Uri joked, got some laughter.  "You did -"

     "Wait," Borodin ordered, "They're going after an Angel, one deep in the sea.  The EVAs have been specifically prepared, these two pilots have been special - specifically trained."

     "They can go into the ocean?" Ivan, the oldest pilot by a few months, asked, "Is there anything these EVAs can't do?"

     "They have no rifles," the GRU man said, "If I may General?"  He got a nod.  He shut off the projector, it hung on a picture of the pilots and the two NERV scientists.  "Uri, what were you asking?"

     "Where are their medals, their decorations and awards?" Uri asked as he stepped up to the screen.  "Only Natalia is not a Hero of the Soviet Union," he said as he touched his award, "She has two Orders of Lenin instead."  The Ogromniy pilots' dress uniforms were almost as resplendent as any General or Marshall in the People's Republic, all earned by service in combat.  "We heard no mention of awards," Borodin admitted.

     "Records say nothing other than a few personal commendations.  Especially for June the 15th."

     Borodin and the GRU man exchanged glances, this little point could go up to the Political Directorate, maybe recruitment or subversion rather than just propaganda.  They restarted the film.

     "She's a proud one," Natalia commented on the blonde woman.

     "Doctor Ritsuko Akagi," Borodin supplied, "The world's foremost expert on the EVAs."

     "Asuka Langley might contest that," the GRU man said.

     "Jealous?" Sonya, a natural blonde asked the plainer Natalia.

     "Of what?  That she dyes her hair?"

     "She seems more friendly with the pilots than just a commanding officer . . . my apologies General," Anna said.

     "No offense taken, the reporter just made a similar comment Anna.  A big sister, or a guardian?" Borodin asked.

     Anna considered.  "A mother.  Watch her watch the reporters."

     Borodin did, the others didn't need to hear the force structure of the Naval Group.  She did seem a lot more protective than a detached technocrat should have been.  It was something to ponder as the film ended with a patriotic flair.  Borodin couldn't fault the American's their sea power, he also knew that against what they were fighting, it meant absolutely nothing.

     "Additional comments, questions?" Borodin asked.

     "What was that other girl saying?" Natalia asked.

     "I don't know, I think it was Japanese," Borodin replied.

     "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could get them to help us deal with our invasion, then we could help them deal with theirs?" Anna said happily.

     The others exchanged smiles, the youngest was always full of happy thoughts, that would never work.  They still enjoyed hearing them.

     "Yes it would.  Dismissed, get some rest," Borodin told them, "You've earned it."

     The pilots stood and saluted with precision, then trooped out.

     The GRU man had stood and saluted as crisply as the pilots, but he lagged behind.  "Are you going to examine the new troops Moscow has sent up?"

     Borodin nodded.  Outside the base, the sidings were full of flat cars, passenger coaches for the officers and the lucky, boxcars for the rest.  All of them were unloading into makeshift buildings, or sheds, or tents they'd brought with.  For a month or two it would be enough, but the men and machines would need better protection against the harsh Tunguskan winters.  Tanks, anti-aircraft trucks, soldiers.

     "Two full Guards Armored divisions and three Motor Rifle divisions," the GRU man said, "Quite a force.  Supposedly they are bringing you another star."

     Borodin nodded, next was the single large star of a Soviet Marshall, quite an advance for a man who escaped the purges of the '30's by being in a place so remote Moscow forgot about it for a decade.

     "Now the entire Motherland, the entire world depends on how you deploy these troops, this army," the GRU man told him.

     "I am aware of that," Borodin replied tiredly.  He was never sure which direction the man was pushing.  He was loyal to Mother Russia over the Party, the Army, or seemingly anything else.  "Tomorrow, I'll meet with the company commanders.  I have an idea about new deployments that should have the effect we need."

     "I'll tell your chief of staff, your new one, and I still haven't discovered why your old one was recalled to Moscow."

     "Probably to insure I don't turn against the Motherland," he chuckled, "As Marshall Zhukov has."  He didn't believe the rumors, but the minor postings fir the great hero made sense.  It also made sense if Stalin was as paranoid as rumors also said.


     "That will prove true," Borodin said, "Zhukov could have challenged Stalin."

     That he never would doesn't change anything, Borodin told himself, It just matters what Comrade Stalin believes.  Borodin couldn't let on how worried he was, the enemy had been quiet, but new problems had cropped up, the brazings and mountings that held the armor in place were cracking.  Of course, they could be repaired.  But what about fighting in winter?  There was also the need to guard the depots.  The rail line was another vulnerability.  It was all too much.  Anna's innocent statement kept coming back to him, the EVAs, the Ogromniy units, together.  The EVAs were a dozen times more capable in hand-to-hand combat, with the Ogromniys as snipers covering the flanks, nothing could beat the combination.

     The question, he thought, How do I arrange for Moscow to propose this, so I may loudly support it and do my utmost to advance World Socialism and the Great People's Republic? he wondered as he walked to his office.  He watched the troops for a while before retiring to his office to think.

     "Are you crazy?" Sonya asked Anna as they walked through the bare concrete corridors, "These are Japanese and Germans.  They would have to be crazy to come here.  Besides, we don't need them."

     "They won't come and we don't need them, I think you've been listening to the political officers," Anna said, "I've been listening to the mechanics.  The armor, they have to keep checking it.  It isn't right.  They have to send the Units back to Moscow or `Tankograd` for repairs.  What then?"  She wondered why they kept erasing the patriotic slogans she chalked on the walks.  They were so inspiring and they broke the monotony.

     "The new pilot, Boris and they should have another unit," Uri said.

     "Five is good, six is better, but ten . . . !" Anna said excitedly.

     "I think you have a crush on Miss Tendo, she's so pretty," Sonya teased.

     "No.  Mr. Davis, putting such a bourgeois capitalist on a farm really is mean," Uri added, "And he's an American."

     "It's not like that!" Anna insisted, "Dividing the fighting load between two battle groups would make our job a lot easier."

     "Yes."  Natalia glanced at the others.  "We believe you."

     "Whom would they send?" Ivan asked, "Little Miss Nazi, The Bourgeoisie?  The would-be Bourgeoisie?  The unreconstructed Japanese Militarist?  The coward?  Or the silent One?  I wouldn't trust any of them to rescue a stale pirozhki.  Their machines, these could be of use."

     "Ivan doesn't want new friends unless they are issued by the state," Anna said, stuck her tongue out at the older boy.

July 22, 1947

     Nabiki walked through the hanger towards Unit 04.  She was glad she had descended into relative anonymity again.  The crew gave the occasional wolf-whistle or call for an autograph, but it wasn't serious, so she took it in stride.

     "Sailors!" she shouted back, "All you care about is how big her guns are and how fast she can steam!"  She let the laughter wash over her, content that she still had some control.  In Nerima, she'd been a whale in a puddle, then here she felt like a little fish in an ocean.  Now she began to realize, she was becoming a bigger fish virtually everyday.  With that certainty, she was becoming uneasy.  She wanted wealth and power.  She had all that and more.  To many, she was the face of postwar Japan, and it terrified her.  The outward mask of the certainty did not come easily, more feigned than actual.  She hadn't piloted in combat, so she was just support personnel.  Her entire reputation was like a piece of glass, the wrong stress and it would shatter.  Hurting who?

     Why am I worthy? she asked.  She knew the denizens of Nerima would be amused that the Ice Queen was anything except absolutely confident.  She was a little confused herself, but the world seemed so much bigger and she was so much smaller.  But the others didn't think so.  The Admirals and the Captains wanted a picture with her, the crews were respectful, the reporters wanted her to give them good news.  American Admirals, American crews, American reporters.  She wasn't a 'Jap', she was an EVA PILOT, and that scared her.

     She was beginning to wonder if Ranma's overreaction, Asuka's loud overconfidence, Raccoon's 'I know it all and I'm in control' were all because they were scared too, and just couldn't understand it or couldn't admit it.

     Up ahead, Raccoon was arguing with Ritsuko, always something to take her mind off her own problems.  The pilot stood on the spine of the EVA and shouted down to the scientist who stood on the hanger deck with Maya.

     "All I'm saying is it feels the same.  If I could describe it any better, I would."

     "That's not possible, none of the other EVAs have a second entry plug port," Ritsuko yelled back.

     "You two should go somewhere and hash out this lovers' quarrel," Nabiki shouted as she approached, both Ritsuko and Raccoon cringed.

     Good, she thought.

     "What's the problem?" she shouted up at Raccoon.

     "That this might be - might be - another spot for an entry plug and I want that tested."

     "It's impossible," Ritsuko added.

     "How difficult would it be to just do the test?" Nabiki shouted at both of them.

     Now I'm a referee to a pair of `adults`, she complained inwardly.

     "Well, not very difficult," Ritsuko admitted, "But wasted - "

     "As much time and energy as you two are wasting by arguing?" she told the pair in Japanese, "Being right isn't worth the agony, you two sound like Ranma and Asuka!"  She knew that was a low blow, but they needed to wake up.

     "Very well, it will only take a few minutes," Ritsuko grudgingly admitted.

     "Say 'Thank You!'," Nabiki yelled at Raccoon in English.

     "Thank you, Doctor Akagi," Raccoon said.  There was nothing Nabiki could put her finger on, not tone or phrasing, but it was clearly an insult.

     What is going on between you two? Nabiki thought as she walked to the tech crew that would run the overhead crane.

     Within a few minutes an entry plug was being maneuvered towards the spot Raccoon had marked with chalk.  Nabiki still didn't fully understand how an entry plug and pilot could coexist with an EVA's own body.  The place a plug entered may well have been called magic for all the weird explanations she'd heard.  Nabiki stood with Maya as the overheard crane and the crews swung the plug into position.  Ritsuko and Raccoon were glaring at each other like a couple of angry tomcats.

     "Your love is so touching!" Nabiki shouted at them in Japanese, "If you want to go somewhere private, we can do this ourselves.  It makes you wonder how he's going to explain his war bride to his parents."

     Both targets were now appropriately mortified, and the crews were concentrating on their work.

     "Miss Tendo," Master Chief Cole asked quietly, "They wouldn't . . . I mean - "

     "Haven't you had a teacher so smart and funny and so so wonderful!?"

     The chief smirked.

     "Well, Doctor Akagi will eventually grow out of it," Nabiki supplied.  The man wandered off, shaking his head.  Maya started coughing.  Nabiki shrugged.  "Nobody believes me."

     She watched in amazement as the entry plug slid into the spot Raccoon had indicated and disappeared into the EVA.  Ritsuko was stunned, Raccoon was magnanimous.  He climbed down the EVA's leg to the deck.

     "Now, that is why I was suggesting Maya and Captain Madison accompany us, or some diver who has the ability to access the systems.  We'll have technical experts immediately available, Maya in the front 'cabin', the diver assisting in the rear."

     "Wait a minute?" Nabiki interjected, "We're both going down?"

     "Someone has to stay with the EVA and someone has to be prepared to leave it.  We discussed this," Ritsuko explained, "The original plan was that both of you would go down in Unit 04, and if you could get the Angel quickly, you wouldn't have to leave the EVA.  If it was in a constricted area, then the diver on a tether would have to act as a pathfinder for the EVA, also if the tether for the EVA became tangled, you'll need a diver to free you up.  The EVA is more than strong enough to snap the tether."

     A lot of this was new to Nabiki, "When did all this happen?"

     "We've been discussing it," Raccoon said, "That's why they stuck us together in the plug."

     "Very lovely," Maya whispered to Nabiki, then smiled at the antagonists.  Both frowned at her, she was glad the nightmares hadn't continued.

     "Careful, she's got a rifle," Nabiki pointed out and she was still wearing the LeMat on her hip.

     "I do agree, in light of this.  We should discuss things with the divers and test their compatibility ratios, that's what workers have instead of sync rates," Ritsuko said, there was no argument.

Courage Tastes Of Blood

     "Why do I have to do this?" Maya complained as Nabiki fitted the A10 nerve clip on her and helped her to the edge of the entry plug.  Inside, the black tarry L.C.L. glistened and stank.

     "You're always telling us that it isn't bad as we imagine, now's your chance to prove it," Nabiki said happily, helpfully.

     Maya stuck out her tongue.

     "That's the spirit," Nabiki said as she picked Maya up and levered her into the plug.

     "Wait!  I don't want to!" Maya protested.

     "We have ways of making you talk," Nabiki reminded her as Maya caught herself on the edge of the plug.  Maya tried to scramble out, but Nabiki held her in place, and gave no warning of Raccoon approaching with a bucket.

     "Yeeeeauuuuk," Maya exclaimed as he poured it down on her face and in her mouth, "You're awful!"  The pair shoved Maya into the plug.

     Nabiki slid into the plug after her to make sure she would go through the transition all the pilots had such a problem with: breathing L.C.L. for the first time.  No normal person wanted to breathe something that smelled so awful.

     Nabiki took a deep breath of the stuff and held Maya under as Raccoon pried Maya's fingers loose.  Inside the plug, Nabiki quickly got used to the awful taste and smell.  "Come on, let's get it over with."  Due to the A10 nerve clip, Nabiki could see clearly.

     Maya was still holding her breath, looking around in amazement.  The A10 clip seemed to be having the same effect for Maya's vision in the plug as Nabiki's.  Nabiki pointed to herself, showing she was breathing normally.  Maya shook her head vehemently.

     Then the hatch closed and locked.

     Raccoon and Ritsuko, Nabiki guessed.  While Maya was staring at the hatch, Nabiki swam up and poked her in the side.  Maya was aghast, Nabiki hoped Maya didn't know how ticklish she was as Maya tried to evade in the small space of the entry plug while holding her breath.  Then Maya let out a burst of silent laughter as Nabiki's questing fingers struck home.  And she inhaled the L.C.L..  Nabiki was at her side, urging her to breathe and not throw up.

     Maya managed to get her breathing and gag reflex under control.  She was learning there were truly awful things you could live through.

     "Ritsuko, Raccoon, do you want to do a full sync test?" Nabiki asked as she guided Maya to the command chair.  Maya shook her head violently.  At least she was breathing.

     "Speak, think out loud and we'll hear," Nabiki chided.


     "Okay!" Nabiki told her forcefully, "You can do this.  The first time is always the worst.  After that it gets tolerable."

     "We'll do a basic sync test," Ritsuko told them, "When she calms down."

     "Oh," Nabiki said archly, "I supposed that's my job.  Well it's not as easy as embarrassing her, why can't I do that instead?"

     "Because I'm your mother and I said so."

     Nabiki froze.  She thought, hoped, Ritsuko was joking.  She also knew that it was more accurate than Ritsuko thought.  Kasumi may have mothered her and Akane, but she wasn't an effective disciplinarian.  She wouldn't push the way Ritsuko did, the way a real mother did.  Real mothers weren't nice all the time.  Sometimes a little kid couldn't tell them from Oni, until much later.  The one thing Nabiki couldn't do was disappoint her mother, because she always had, until she died and there was no `later` to make it up to her.

     "Yes, mom," Nabiki said as she settled Maya in the control seat and got her to relax, regulate her breathing.  Slowly she coached her through the meditation that was an integral part of synchronizing with an EVA.

     Jeff wandered into the infirmary, he was nursing the black eye he'd gotten from Captain Madison on the man's first contact with L.C.L..  He hadn't liked it a bit.

     Jeff spotted Ritsuko slowly going over the test results of the technical people and the SAR crew.  Both Jeff and Nabiki had been adamant that Maya and Capt. Madison be tested first.  So far, no one else had come close.

     "Maybe Hiroko's comment that pilots can see pilots wasn't just speculation," he said.

     Ritsuko's head came up, he could see she'd been crying.  "Huh?"

     Why is she afraid? he wondered at the odd color of the conversation block, as if he'd caught her at something.  He leaned close, stared at her, "Extensive lacrimation.  Engorged capillaries, now facial flushing, my diagnosis is something hurt and embarrassed you, and you're happy about it."  He hooked a chair with his foot and pulled it towards him so he could sit next to her.  "Do you want to talk about it?"

     "You think you can read me so well," she accused.

     "Well I did court you for years and we did raise a family."

     "In a dream," she said coldly.  But the conversation block showed fear again.

     He ran a fingertip across her jaw line, feeling her shiver under his touch.  "So it was accurate.  What's troubling you?  It can't be the end of the world, you'd be fighting mad about that."

     "Nabiki called me 'mom'."  She buried her face in his shoulder and started crying again.

     He was afraid she was going to snap him in half, then she eased off her grip around his shoulders.  Jeff hugged her back, ran his hand down her back while holding her shaking shoulders with the other arm.  As he had done a hundred times before, in his dream.  It wasn't anything new to him.  She cared about things a lot more deeply than she could admit, especially to herself.  He let her cry, words were useless at this point.  Again, evidence from his dream.  He sometimes wondered what who/whatever sent that dream had intended.  To torture him/them, to give her someone to turn to, something else entirely?

     He didn't know.  The all-wise, all-knowing, knew nothing, neither did any of his contacts, which embarrassed them no end.

     "I'm sorry," she said.

     "I'm not," he said, kissing her on the cheek, "You'd be a good mother.  Look at Shinji taking care of Misato.  If he could discipline her to stop catting around and getting drunk, then both would be a lot happier.  Nabiki wants to know someone cares."

     " 'Kids sometimes want to know someone will yank them back from the edge," Ritsuko quoted, "Admiral Simson."  She sniffed, tried to regain her 'aloof scientist' composure, it didn't work too well.  "What?"

     "I'm just wondering about how Sammi will react to her new sister.  Frown," Jeff said, because she normally would, "Come on, frown.  Frown!  You call that a frown?"  Ritsuko grabbed both his shoulders, then broke down laughing before she could shake him to pieces.

     After a few minutes she sighed.  "You are both ridiculous and infuriating."

     "Well, Langley would have called me a bastard as well."

     "I know better," she said as she released him, "I've heard what you've said about your parents."

     "True enough," Jeff admitted, "So having 'Nab-chan' call you 'mommy' isn't so scary is it?"

     "Yes," Ritsuko admitted, bowed her head, "It's every bit as scary, because this time, I said it first and she responded."

     That is a whole other kettle of fish, Jeff thought.

     "It still isn't fatal, for either of you," he reassured her, "I could joke about our first child, but that would get me thrown through a bulkhead."  He waited for her to nod.  "I think you should let things settle a bit.  She wouldn't have responded so quickly if she didn't believe it already."

     So that's what the girls' dream of rubble meant.  'Earthquakes after a waterfall of tears all signifying realization', I think I may strangle her next time I see her, except she'd enjoy it too much, he thought, remembering another of his patrons and their mysterious, random visits, I need a new job.

     "Thank you," Ritsuko said, "And don't tell me 'We've been through this before'," she added, "I haven't."

     "I don't have to," Jeff said, "Now about this."  He pointed to his eye.

     "I'll get an ice pack," Ritsuko said as she stood and walked to the freezer.

     He admired the way the lab coat couldn't hide her curves or her grace.  She's NOT married to you! he angrily reminded himself.  He waited until she'd arrived at the freezer.  "That's what I love about you, always running hot or cold."  He caught the thrown ice pack and ran from the room before Ritsuko could catch him.

July 23, 1947

     Ritsuko had the `finalists` in the pilots' ready room with the rest of the dive team and the technical staff.  It seemed a good place to deliver such a briefing.  Maya and Madison were up front with Nabiki and Jeff, the four were the most likely team.  "The newly discovered second entry plug `port` means that we will be sending four people down on the dive: two pilots and two technical experts.  The rear plug will contain the pilot who will be released to act as a scout and to deal with other problems.  The dive team member will accompany that pilot.  The technical staff member will accompany the pilot in the forward plug.  That person will monitor the EVA as we do during the sync tests.  They will also monitor the people, themselves included."

     "Why not do it remotely?" Madison asked.

     "Looking for a way out?" Ritsuko joked, "The tether will provide power and communications, but it is going to be kilometers long, the tether may be cut, or break.  The EVA must be completely autonomous."

     The people nodded.

     "The L.C.L. isn't as bad as it seems," Jeff told them.

     "That doesn't help too much," Madison commented.

     "The L.C.L. cushions the pilots from the shock of the movement and the impact of combat," Ritsuko explained.

     "Why does it have to taste so bad?" one of the divers asked.

     Ritsuko grimaced.  "The L.C.L. is oxygenated like blood, which is what the pilots breathe in operation."

     "What's the effect of pressurizing L.C.L.?" Madison asked.

     "As long as the pressurization is gradual, there should be no problems.  No oxygen or nitrogen problems."

     "Who is going to be the `driver`?" Nabiki asked.

     "Jeff has the higher sync rate in Unit 04 in the water, I'd recommend he pilot, but it's up to you two."

     "I'll flip you for it," Nabiki told Jeff.

     "You've been doing that in training," Jeff replied, massaged his arm.  Nabiki smiled at him.  The others laughed at the byplay.

     "The planned dive will reach a depth of 2500-3000 meters," Ritsuko said, paused while the amazed muttering and exclamations.  "The last point is the weapons load - "

     "As heavy as possible," Jeff interrupted, "With two pilots, we can cooperate in the use of weapons in combat.  Thirty-seven pairs of legs give more operators than one pilot can coordinate."

     "Except Ranma," Nabiki teased.

     "He can use them, but he can't utilize them," Jeff retorted.

     "I'll let you two work that out," Ritsuko said, "I will have a number of weapons installed.  Deck crews, that's you.  The power system will be the tether, the S engine and external batteries, the batteries are wired to only maintain emergency life support.  For four people that's only 14 hours, not 16 for one on emergency life support.  The EVA is slightly lighter than sea water, it can float up on its own in less than 14 hours.  But you'll have to discard any weapons and eject the tether."

     "Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Maya said worriedly.  Ritsuko agreed.

     "We don't know exactly what we will encounter on the sea floor, that's another reason why we'll have to have the ability to send a team out to maneuver outside the EVA."

     "E.V.A.," Nabiki said, "Extra Vehicular Activity."

     Ritsuko smiled.  "Yes.  Good."  She knew others wanted to groan at the awful pun.  "The place the Angel will be, is unknown.  So the EVA may have to search the area."

     "How was it initially detected?" Jeff asked, looking at her intently, "And can we use the same technique aboard the EVA?"

     "No, you can't use it.  But we should be able to guide you in."  Ritsuko noted his withdrawn expression.  He'd noticed that she hadn't answered the first part of his question.  She'd expect him to query later, and she'd have to tell him she wasn't going to tell him.  She could imagine how the kids would react to some of NERV's methods.

     "What are we going to do once we've got the thing?" Nabiki asked, "I assume we aren't going to dissect it on site."

     "No, we'll provide you with a containment system."  Ritsuko took a breath and prepared for the explosion. "And return it to the carrier."  She noticed that neither Nabiki nor Jeff were doing any of the shouting.  They glanced at each other, then turned to stare at her, waiting.  She almost wished that the others' argument would continue.  "The containment will continue aboard the carrier, the EVA will be standing by at all times, if the containment fails."  Again neither Jeff nor Nabiki reacted, they waited, their eyes boring into hers.  She knew they'd want a private discussion, very soon.  Definitely before the mission.  "You all had to suspect this when we talked about capturing an Angel, that we would indeed be capturing an Angel.  Equipment to do the job had been provided."

     "What size creature is the system capable of handling?" Jeff asked dryly.

     "We could handle something as small as a rat, at full extension, something the size of an EVA," Ritsuko explained, "The unit will be stored in the plug to prevent the Angel from detecting it.  It will be powered by the EVA's system.  Eject it if you can't safely return to the surface."

     Jeff and Nabiki nodded.

     "How about transferring the cage to the carrier?" Nabiki asked.

     "It will be a simple case of tying into the carrier's power system," Ritsuko explained.

     "What about the other ships?" one of the divers asked, "What do we do if one of the other nations decides they need it more than we do?"

     Ritsuko didn't grimace at the stupid question.  Who in their right mind would want the thing? she didn't ask.  "The United States Marines and Navy will protect us.  Any further questions?"

Their Mastiffs Of Unmatchable Courage

     Nabiki stood on the flight deck and watched the other squadrons as she marveled at all the interest.  Getting out of the L.C.L. for a while had been refreshing.  Maya and Captain Madison were the finalists.  After Jeff had gotten clobbered, they'd changed test methods.  'It wasn't as accurate,' Ritsuko had complained, but no one was within an order of magnitude of Maya's and Madison's compatibility ratios, so a little inaccuracy was acceptable.

     She heard Jeff approach, she thought the shiner he had was very close to the place where she'd slapped him, that had faded.  Thank the Kamis, she thought.  She wasn't how she would have taken that if it hadn't.  Madison was taking a fair amount of ribbing about the incident as well.

     "The large group is the British, based around the battleship HMS Vanguard and the carrier HMS Victorious."  Raccoon pointed out the squadrons.  "The smaller group is French, a couple of their tinclad cruisers.  Ranma or Rei could sink the lot of them.  That's the Spanish navy, since the Azores are Portuguese territory, like Japan used to be."

     "Will they stop us?" Nabiki asked.

     "With an Angel sitting off their coast?" Raccoon laughed, "Not a chance.  They're here as a representation of Spanish approval and to get us out of here as soon as we've got it."

     " 'Thank you very much, don't let the door hit you on the way out.'  Sorry about the arm," Nabiki apologized, she'd gotten a little rough in their martial arts practices, "I had a Ranma moment."

     "No autopsy, no foul.  Ritsuko was able to staple it back on," Raccoon commented breezily.  That cavalier attitude was beginning to wear on her.  She'd initially thought it was him just being gentlemanly, not bringing such things up.  She was beginning to realize he really didn't care about his personal safety and well-being.

     She'd been practicing with the simulated EVA weapons while he'd been getting Maya and Madison familiar with the operations of the EVA.  Yesterday, he'd even had both on board as he maneuvered around the hanger deck.  Both adults seemed very shaken by the encounter with the realities of the EVA.  She'd heard reports that Madison went out and got drunk, Maya had curled up in Ritsuko's lap and cried herself to sleep, yet still managed to keep a deathgrip on the scientist.  Nabiki's one attempt to tease Maya about it had earned her the knowledge that Jeff's boots were steel-toed.  When he kicked her in the ankle, he'd 'mistook her for Horseface'.

     Everyone was tense as they approached the goal.

     "We had an offer from the Admiral commanding from Victorious to dinner aboard her," Jeff told her.  Nabiki paled in terror.  "Ritsuko politely refused.  We should be in position early tomorrow and she wants us in bed at 1800 and rested for an 0430 launch."

     "Both of us?" she asked in a confused tone, "I thought she'd want you all to herself."  Nabiki forced herself not to smile at his distress.  "Once we get the thing, where do we go?" Nabiki asked.

     "Speed run for Boston," Raccoon replied, "NERV Mass has containment systems."

     "I can't imagine what they'd do with such a monster.  Do you have any idea what it looks like?"

     "I don't even know which one it is.  Dagon or Hydra would be vaguely humanoid, a Spawn of Cthulhu would look like a bat-winged, tentacle-bearded flabby humanoid."

     "Oh, lovely," Nabiki said.

     "They are mostly in the Pacific."

     "Oh joy."

     "You know, if you really want to end it all," he told her as he peered over the edge, "Jumping off the front of a carrier is a good way.  The wake drags you under and you probably won't surface for a half-mile behind."

     "Wouldn't the propellers -?"

     "Probably not," Raccoon said, "The buffeting would do some damage, but not too much."

     "That's something I really needed to know right now," Nabiki said dryly.

     "I'm always willing to help," Raccoon said as he turned away and headed for the stairs to the hanger deck.  Nabiki watched the gathering of naval power, and caught herself edging towards the rim to look over.  With an angry snort she turned on her heel and marched after Raccoon.

July 24, 1947

     Jeff hadn't gotten much sleep.  Sarah had contacted him and given him a rundown of the growing problems in the Severn Valley.  He knew from his reading both in this world and in the odd dream that the Severn Valley had several minor Great Old Ones, not the `first` or `second` teams, but definitely formidable.  The EVAs, all of them, would be needed to clean up that mess.  She also talked about some of the other things she'd picked up.  England, being closer to Switzerland than American or Japan, SEELE was real and a power in Switzerland, whether the Swiss citizens knew they were anything other than a group of eccentric financiers was questionable.  They never did anything even remotely criminal in Switzerland.

     Sarah also joked when was Jeff going to break the rest of them out.

     'One battle at a time,' he had told her, 'Besides, do you want to give poor Shinji a heart attack?'  Sarah had laughed at that and they parted.  None of his contacts could determine what the danger was that Capt. Rosatelli had warned him about, although it was clear that a cult of Shub-Niggurath, and a powerful one, was operating in Japan.

     Wouldn't it be nice to have an army of loyal cultists at my beck and call? he thought, But I don't.  And the spy network I do have doesn't get tasking orders from me.  "So goes the world," he complained.

     He returned to getting suited up and thinking about prepping Maya and Madison for the dive as he finished his own prep.  Maya can wear a spare 'Leather Goddess' suit and Madison has already tried out a 'Nauseated Skunk' suit and it fit, with a little adjustment.  Getting them plugged in and calmed down is going to be another chore.

     "Hey Raccoon," Nabiki called into the locker room, "Are you decent?"

     "I'm clothed," he replied, "If that answers your question."

     She entered in her plugsuit.  He goggled at her, tongue hanging out, which embarrassed her immensely.

     "Considering how you treat Ranko," he told her, "You deserved that.  What is the Japanese attitude on bisexuality?"

     Score another for Raccoon, he thought as she stared at him in horror.

     "You came in here with a point?" he asked innocently, watched her anger build up.

     "I was going to offer you the choice."  She raised her fist over her head.  "But I changed my mind."

     "We're going to decide this by rock-paper-scissors?" he asked, turning his back on her.  "I guess you don't want those magic lessons after all."

     "What!?" she shouted, "If I don't let you decide, you won't give me lessons?!"

     "No.  If you can't analyze the situation and come to the correct conclusion, you'll never understand the lessons.  I won't waste my time."

     She fumed a moment, glowering at him, plotting dire revenge.  He ignored her, or seemed to.  "Okay, you've got nearly my sync rate in Unit 04, underwater.  You can get more time out of the nominal 6-hour charge of the S type engine."

     "And the auxiliary batteries, in case we have to float up."

     "I'm stronger, and more flexible."

     "I'll bet you are," he said, he didn't need to watch her face to know he'd scored a hit.

     "Yeah, you're all crippled up with arthritis.  Okay, you pilot us up and when we get close.  I'll pilot us most of the way down, and do the E.V.A."

     "E.V.A. from an EVA, isn't that carrying repetitious redundancy a little far?"  He thought he'd better quit before she beat him unconscious with a locker.

     "Men!" Nabiki announced as she stormed out.

     He finished his preparations, both physical and mental, and left the locker room.

     "Okay, load up," Captain Madison said, he headed towards the rear plug with Nabiki, while Maya accompanied Jeff to the forward plug.

     "Did we have to load all those weapons?" Maya asked, clearly uneasy.

     "With two pilots, we can fight a lot more effectively using more of the arms and legs, as well as the bite and the tail," Jeff replied, "You're really asking if we're expecting trouble.  The answer is yes, but I hope I'm wrong."

     "Oh," she said as Jeff helped her up the leg of the EVA as they walked along the spine towards the plug.

     "I hate this stuff," Maya said as she stared at the L.C.L., "It smells worse than it tastes."

     "I have no sympathy," Jeff said, "I'll go first."  He cringed.  "You aren't going to hit me are you?"

     She laughed.  He slipped into the foul stuff and plugged in automatically.  Maya splashed down, he moved her to the command chair as she got control of herself.  He plugged her nerve clip into the system.

     "You don't need the chair?" Maya asked nervously.

     "Never have before," he replied as he floated at the front of the plug and called up life support monitors for all four occupants.  "Is everybody ready?" Jeff asked, waited for confirmation before he released the tether and carefully climbed to the flight deck to attach the much longer tether that would power them on the dive.

     "Okay Nabiki, the comm is yours take us out," Jeff said.

     "Still taking charge?" Nabiki's image appeared and teased, "Here we go."  He braced himself as they dropped off the side of the carrier.

     "Take us down slow," Madison counseled, "I know you can go fast, don't."

     "Yes, Captain," Nabiki replied, "Top side feeds?"

     "All transmitting," Jeff replied, "Are you getting everything?"

     "There's some distortion in the communication, but with that much cable, it's to be expected.  Inductive effect."  Ritsuko's voice was fuzzy, no image appeared.  "Four life support, visual, and what looks like sonar.  How's Maya?"

     "Marvelous, terrified, about normal for the first mission," Jeff said, got a wicked grin from Maya.

     "Nabiki, how is Captain Madison?" Ritsuko asked, her image flickered into existence.

     "Oh, feels nice."

     The image of Ritsuko slapped her face.  "I mean his physi - I mean - "  She stopped, took a deep breath.  "Is he reacting adversely to the L.C.L. and the EVA?" she asked, "He's also married."

     "No reaction to anything," Nabiki replied, gravely disappointed.

     Ritsuko's image shook her head.  "All indicators are good here, continue your descent.  I didn't mean that!" Ritsuko snapped.

     "What will we tell Ranma when we get back?" Jeff asked sardonically.

     "He should have let me in his entry plug," Nabiki commented.

     "I'm glad this is all in Japanese," Maya added.  Jeff agreed, he also suspected that the teasing was just to get at Ritsuko, who was more nervous than any of the four EVA-nauts.

My Little Spark Of Courage Dies

     The descent continued uneventfully.  The occasional strange fish happened into their view, but even sharks steered clear of the huge war machine.

     "You getting this?" Jeff asked Ritsuko as a strange glowing sheet moved past the EVA's eyes.

     "Yes, it's beautiful," Ritsuko said.

     Bet you wish now you'd gone and looked, he thought, A shoggoth could probably operate at this depth.  `Chasing` these fish was also to keep everybody awake, the dreams dreamt within an EVA were not to be believed.  The hours and the fathoms ticked by.  Nabiki steadily swam the EVA unvarying deeper, the cable trailing out behind them.

     "I should have brought a deck of cards."  The boredom pushed Nabiki to speak.  He could hear the strain in her voice, he didn't need the conversation blocks or the medical readouts.

     "Against you two sharks?" Madison exclaimed, "Not a chance."

     "I haven't played any games on board," Jeff replied haughtily.

     "Word gets around," Madison replied.

     "The bottom's coming up, Raccoon," Nabiki said, "Take over."

     "Got it," Jeff said as he closed his eyes and let his body drift away.

     "Suit up," Madison said, "These plugsuits really need a heater."

     "The warm fluid will help," Maya countered, "But it won't prevent hypothermia totally."

     "So that means I have to hurry," Nabiki said, "That's not a problem."

     Jeff saw the ruins of huge buildings appearing.  The angles of the buildings were alien to the human mind.  Basalt slabs and blocks piled atop one another, none of the careful interlocking that appeared on some similar human structures.  Merely mass and gravity to hold the structure together.

     "Some modesty would be nice," Nabiki complained.

     "That's not what you said earlier," Maya teased.

     "And how is your suit feeling?" Nabiki asked.

     "Children!" Ritsuko called over the tether line, the volume causing her voice to distort, "We have a job to do."

     The buildings were bare of coral, weeds, any kind of the growths that studded the nearby rocks and cliffs in profusion.

     "Jeff, You're slightly off course, about 4000 meters south-southeast," Ritsuko said.

     "Something's wrong here," Jeff said distantly, "This city was recently inhabited, something has been using this place.  Now there's nothing here."

     "What are you talking about?" Madison asked.

     "The place is clean, there aren't fish all over the place," Jeff said, "So it was recently used.  No debris of a panic.  Maybe they're all at the temple.  I don't like it."

     "At this depth, maybe there isn't much marine life," Ritsuko said.

     Jeff didn't want to explain how he knew that was wrong.  "Doctor, life finds a way.  Be fruitful and multiply is built into everything that lives.  This place was evacuated, and recently."

     He could see she'd connected the dots, and was as worried as he was.  "Proceed with caution," she urged.  The others' heart and breathing rates were elevated.

     Jeff checked the other instruments, they were all showing some erratic readings, from the magnetic compass to temperature meters.  The light from the EVA's eyes illuminated several columns, all covered with carvings of things that were not human, and some that made his eyes water just examining them.  "The temple is this way."  He had an awful feeling about the area, and it was worst in that direction.

     "I'm ready to go," Nabiki told him, the fear block belying her confident tone.

     "This place, do you think it was Atlantis?" Madison asked.

     "No, Cuba is the northern edge of Atlantis, this place is too old.  Maybe an Elder Thing city.  Whoever built it to last and when they pulled out, someone else moved in."  He thought that would satisfy most of them, he didn't want to reveal what he remembered, and had no idea where he remembered it from, and the evidence he saw in some of the frescoes supported it.  Neither Humanity nor the Elder Things built this place, the Flying Polyps had.  The great cities of basalt towers, he'd never heard of any Great Old One worshiped or respected by those creatures.  They warred with everyone and everything.  He wondered if something deliberately sank the city or if normal geological processes simply did their work.  He wondered if they still lingered, sealed away awaiting release. 

     "Keep an eye out for Burmashave signs."

     "Don't stick your head out, of you safe little shack, it might go home, as a monster's snack, Burmashave," Jeff suggested.

     "Yeah, but we'd never be able to read them," Madison complained.

     "What are you talking about?  That's what's printed over there," Jeff pointed and replied, "Properly translated of course."

     "You're joking!" Maya said, aghast, peered at the line of pillars.

     "Whatever gave you that idea?" Jeff asked.

     "Your lips are moving," Nabiki said, "It's a sea story."

     The temple that loomed out of the dark sea wasn't the source of the wrongness.

     "Oh Kamis!" Nabiki gasped, more disgusted then fearful.  The architecture was very different, the carvings and frescoes were obscene, alien things both eating and coupling with each other, or both.  Jeff cut Madison and Maya's external view.  He didn't bother cutting Nabiki's, she was going out there, maybe.

     "I think we found the back way in," Jeff said, "Do we tunnel through or send someone out?"

     "I'm ready to go," Nabiki said, he could see she was lying.  He was more inclined to tear the building apart, rather than expose anyone to what he was seeing.  Maybe she's immune, he thought, Like against the Inspector.

     And feeling, he thought, he could feel something out there.  Not as bad as Nyarlathotep, but noticeable enough to have guided him to this entrance.  Maya didn't seem to feel it, from the vital signs neither Nabiki nor Madison felt it.  He couldn't imagine they're feeling it and not reacting.  For him it had had begun as a tickle and was building to a full-body itch from the worst rash he'd ever had.

     "Jeff, are you all right?" Ritsuko asked, he noted his accelerated heart rate and breathing.

     "I can feel it, this place."

     "Nabiki just exited the plug," Madison reported, "All systems appear to be functioning normally.  This is weird, the pressure out there is unbelievable."

     "Everything is in a liquid, us, the EVA, the pressure is equalized, the pressure gradient is almost nothing," Ritsuko explained.

     "Nabiki, give a shout if you need anything," Jeff told their intrepid explorer.  She wasn't sending back any visuals, although her life support telemetry was coming in clear.

     He wondered how she could stand it, it was all he could do not to reel her back in and tear the place to pieces, then go back and demolish the entire city.  The entire place was wretched and vile.  Every sense, thought and instinct told him so.  He had the power to make it right, to wipe it clean, and no one could stop him.  Except himself.

     "You've got barfbags?" Nabiki asked, "The decor leaves a lot to be desired.  Seriously, keep those fish away from me.  I feel kind of unprotected out here."

     He moved the EVA closer, the fish scattered.  They're smarter than I am, he thought, as he searched the area for threats.

     "Keep giving us updates," Maya told her.

     Jeff glanced around, the targets he'd distantly sensed hadn't closed in.  The tiny figure trailing what appeared to be a hair-thin line disappeared into a small cleft in the rock.  His instinct was to charge in ahead of her, a gentleman didn't send a lady into danger and combat first.  He released two glaives and two prog knives, one mismatched pain in the foremost hands and the other into the rearmost.  He smirked about the changes Langley had insisted on, the original design couldn't handle this depth.

     In the background, he heard Maya and Nabiki conversing in low tones, he concentrated on any threat to the girl and was prepared to charge in.

     "If this is the tropics?  Why's the water so cold?" Nabiki complained.

     "All water is cold this deep," Madison said, "I'll explain more on the way up."

     "Oh good, a lecture.  Raccoon hasn't given one, I thought I'd escape," Nabiki said.

     "Maybe he's sick.  No, he's normal," Maya said.

     "Compare to what?" Nabiki asked.

     "Americans.  Your temperature is down a whole degree," Maya warned, "You'd better hurry."

     "If you were looking at what I'm seeing," Nabiki replied, "Your blood would freeze too.  I almost wish I had a camera.  There - these . . . things are hideous, they're also glowing, light in here almost makes it worse."

     "Have you encountered anything else, anything alive?" Madison asked.

     "Either these things are alive, or lava lamps are a Cthulhoid plot," Nabiki replied, "No guards, no worshipers, no traps either.  I'm worried."

     "Can you bring one with?" Maya asked.

     "Are you kidding?" Nabiki shouted in outrage, "I don't want to be near them, let alone touch them."  Nabiki's tone changed, "Raccoon . . . you said you could feel - well the thing . . . you can sense it?"  He didn't need his Synthesia to sense her distress and loathing.


     "Like . . . ants, crawling all over your body, under your skin and in your guts?"

     "Yes," Jeff could see her growing panic.

     "Well I've got it," Nabiki said.

     "Get clear.  I'll be there in a moment."  Jeff prepared to tear the stone temple apart.  His eagerness to destroy disconcerted him.

     "No, I mean I've got it," Nabiki said, "Madison, you go ride with Maya, or Maya you go ride in back with Madison."

     "Are you -?" Maya began.

     "Just DO IT!" Nabiki thundered back, "Pilots are immune to close contact with - these things.  The EVA will protect you."

     "Maya," Madison told her, "I'll come get you, Davis prep her for a dive."

     "Can you hold your breath?" Maya asked, "There's only one spare mask."  Jeff got the mask settled on Maya, then began checking the containment rig.

     "Yes, whatever this L.C.L. is, it seems to bypass everything I ever learned about deep diving.  Besides, I want the record for the deepest free dive," he tried to sound jaunty.  Jeff could see the fear in his voice.

     They're all afraid, and all I want to do is attack, he thought, tried to concentrate on te job.

     "Before you get too heroic, I can loop the back to give you a very short path surrounded by an AT field tube.  Ritsuko cut the top side comm links, unplug them."


     "Because I'm going to generate an AT-field and I don't want the power surge to blow out communications.  When the power drain drops, reconnect."

     "We're on it," Ritsuko told them, then vanished.

     "Hurry up," Nabiki insisted, horror warred with disgust in her voice.

     Jeff helped Maya open the plug hatch.  Madison was waiting, hovering in the middle of the L.C.L. filled tube.  "Don't touch the walls," he warned.

     "Why not?" Madison asked, he seemed shocked he could still be `heard`.

     "We use AT fields to disintegrate the enemy.  What would one do to a human in a conductive medium, I'd rather not find out."

     "Hurry up!" Nabiki added desperately, her voice rising and cracking with the strain.  Maya and Madison increased their pace.

     "Is it waking up?" Jeff asked, ready to reploy the field and go to combat mode.  All he could see was Nabiki, not anything she was carrying or dragging, he wondered if it was insubstantial or somehow invisible.

     "No!  I just want this over with!" she shouted at the edge of hysteria.

     Jeff finished readying the containment cage.  Maya and Madison were safely sealing in the rear plug before Nabiki approached the hatch, slipping her cargo into the cage with tightly controlled gestures performed as practiced ritual, like a tea ceremony.  She glanced at him as she finished, the expression . . . the disintegrating mask of self-control warned him she was past her breaking point.  She tore off her gloves and threw them inside the containment rig.

     The figure that practically threw herself at Jeff and wrapped her arms and legs around him was shrieking uncontrollably.  He suspected the shuddering wasn't due to the cold.  He sealed the hatch, checked the containment rig and settled himself and Nabiki into the command chair before he removed her face mask.  He wrapped his arms around the shivering girl, she immediately fell silent.  He began the slow accent, he'd already decided to expedite the rise to the surface.  He monitored the containment and didn't return the prog knives to their housings like he did with the glaives.  If it tried to escape, orders and no orders, he was going to slice it to pieces.

     "It's okay, Nab-chan," he told her as he stroked her hair, "You did it, you're safe now."  She burrowed into his arms but said nothing.

Deus Ex Machinations

     "This is it?"  Ritsuko stared down at 'it', the Angel the pilots had captured.  "It looks like a fried egg," Ritsuko commented.  It looked like a gray fried egg, an amorphous, slowly changing blob and a large off center mass.

     "Well, that's it," Nabiki rasped defensively, pulling the blanket more tightly around her.  Her voice hadn't fully recovered from her earlier screaming fit.

     Ritsuko softened her tone and expression, "I know that was what you found, and that you took the risk to bring it back.  I was expecting something more impressive."

     "That's all that there was," Nabiki said softly, drawing her knees to her chest and shivering again, remembering touching the thing with her gloved hands, feeling the awareness of a malevolent intelligence contained in the tiny mass of corruption.  She'd wanted to kill it with her bare hands, but managed to follow orders.  Worse was the screaming fear that made a mockery of 'Tendo Nabiki, Ice Queen and Master of All She Surveys'.  All she'd surveyed was this awful thing duty demanded she return to Rit-chan.  And the screaming need for human contact, she would have done anything to feel Rit-chan's, Ranma's, or Raccoon's arms around her, telling her she was safe, telling her she'd done a good job, that she'd been a good girl.  Such a show of weakness terrified her, that she'd gotten all she needed and more without any request for compensation worried her only slightly less.  In the old days anyone would have made her pay dearly just to keep the secret, leaving out payment for services rendered.  She knew none of those three would take advantage, her health and safety was payment enough.  But that was thought, the aching emptiness had driven out all thought and emotion.  Only the goal had remained.

     She hadn't handled it well.

     Whatever Ritsuko learned that helped them kill these things would be welcome.  "No golden trinkets, or jewelry.  Just that," Nabiki replied.

     "Where's Jeff?" Ritsuko asked.

     "Getting his ribs taped," Nabiki barely said, "I didn't want to let go, I didn't guess my own strength, as I should have."  I didn't want to let go, even when we were back aboard the carrier, she thought, full of shame at her weakness, terrified it could be used against her.

     "I doubt you hurt him," Ritsuko reassured her, "Or he would have said something."

     "While comforting a terrified girl?" Nabiki asked archly, "You have got to be kidding!"  She shuddered again at the memory, she'd already braced herself for the nightmares to follow.

     Ritsuko considered, "You're right."

     She turned back to the `sample`

     "There," the doctor finished taping his ribs as Jeff sat on the infirmary's examining table.  "I'd stay away from your girlfriend, nothing's broken but she popped a rib and bruised four others.  Does it hurt?"

     "Only when I breathe.  Ha," Jeff replied as he slipped off the table and gingerly pulled his shirt back on, "Thanks, Doc."  Jeff glanced at the Marine standing at attention at the entrance, trying not to stare.  Jeff ignored it, it was just a reminder of why he should always keep his shirt on.  And they think I'm just modest, he thought, Ha!  "How much trouble am I in Corporal?"

     The man snapped to attention.  "No trouble, sir.  The Admiral just wants to speak with you."

     Jeff didn't like that, any details about holding the Angel would better be addressed by Rit-ch - Ritsuko, or Maya.  Who is either getting drunk with Madison, or hiding under her bed, Jeff thought, then he considered Ritsuko with a new specimen, Yeah.  I am the only person he can talk to, he thought.  Just breathing hurt, walking pushed him to his limits, but Nabiki had faced the Great Old One alone.  He wasn't going to let on how badly she had hurt him.  He remembered his first contact with Chaugnar Faugn, that had been through the buffers of the EVA, not handling it with gloved hands.  He also had to admit he'd been flattered, having a pretty girl curled up in his lap and hugging him until his ribs creaked because of her certainty that he could protect her life and sanity.

     He was still tying his tie when he was issued onto the bridge and into the Admiral's presence.

     "Mister Davis," Admiral Adams acknowledged his presence, and dismissed the Marine with a wave, he continued to stare out the bridge windows.  "We're on course for Boston.  We'll drop your team and proceed to Norfolk for repairs."

     "Sorry about the dents," Jeff told him.  He glanced out the bridge windows.  The American battlegroup was arrayed around them.  Further out, the British group was pacing them.  The French and Spanish were beyond the horizon.

     "Can't be helped," Adams replied, "What about containing that thing, what danger to the ship?"

     "It's Cthylla, the daughter of Cthulhu, not one of the most extensively described entities.  But typically, mass has a great influence on power.  Something that small shouldn't be very powerful itself.  Castor and Pollux were destroyed by shoggoths who invaded.  If you keep the general vigilance and the speed up, we should be all right.  It's her guard I'm worried about."

     "Miss Tendo said there weren't any," Adams replied.

     "That's what I mean.  If Cthulhu were ever truly destroyed, he'd be reborn in Cthylla's womb.  If that was my ultimate insurance policy, I wouldn't leave it sitting unguarded.  There are lots of things besides the occasional human in the deep waters."

     Ritsuko found herself shaking.  Not even the Elder Things had been able to capture a Great Old One.  Killed Lesser Ones, but not capture one.  She'd approached this as carefully as she could.  Photos, non-invasive tests were all done.  But she was going to have to extract a sample, either by syringe, or cutting it loose.  The creature was still unresponsive, as if it were asleep, and it might remain so, until she made her extraction.  Then anything might happen.

     "Ah, Maya, I'm glad to see you up and around," Ritsuko told her arriving assistant, "I'm about to begin a closer examination."

     "Shouldn't we wait until it's in Boston?  Sempai?" Maya said as she approached.

     "Don't worry, the containment system will hold it," Ritsuko assured her.

     "The eye opened!" Maya gasped and jumped back.

     Ritsuko was a good deal less willing to proceed.  The `yolk` of the fried egg had parted and a yellow eye gazed out, the pupil jerked around, never fixing on anything.  Ritsuko's own eyes took in every element of the containment scheme.  All were still functioning within normal parameters.  She set her scalpel aside and watched the eye looking around randomly, dancing around as if everything were equally worthy of attention.

     "What is that?" Admiral Adams asked as the walls of clouds sprang up out of nowhere, around the formation.  He glanced at the pilot writhing on the floor.  "Medical emergency!" he shouted, "Get the corpsmen to get him to the Doc.  Order the fleet to stand by for a storm."  The Admiral watched a pharmacists'-mate and a Marine carry the shuddering pilot away.
     Ritsuko watched them carry Jeff and Nabiki into the sick bay, laying the two kids on the beds surrounded by curtains, then restraining them.  She and Maya quickly checked them over.  She could find nothing wrong, other than that they were unconscious and needed some curare to ease the muscle spasms.  the Navy doctor injected them.

     Maya was beside herself, "Sempai, what if they collapsed when the creature woke up?"

     Ritsuko froze for a moment.  She hadn't noted the coincidence, now it chilled her.  "I - " she wanted to deny it, but that wasn't a good idea.  "Don't know, I don't - I hope not."

     The doctor glanced around.  The distance from the armored truck to the door was less than a yard and a half.  The armor of the armored truck,the doctor thought about not leaving the protection of the modified Brink's truck.  The troops were deployed and they would guard him with their lives.

     The blow knocked the heavy truck on its side, the doctor was thrown against the side of the vehicle.  The guards desperately struggled to lift the door and close it.  He heard the screams and shooting, but it went on too long to assume the guards were winning.  He didn't believe that they had a chance, but it was their choice to die rather than run away.

     Fools, he thought as the last guard climbed inside and managed to get the door shut and shot the bolts.  The doctor glanced at the man, looking so confident, his pistol drawn.

     "They'll be here in a moment," the guard told him.

     If you believe they'll arrive in time . . . , he thought about the man's foolishness.  Twenty-five chemists, physicists, physicians, biologists and surgeons had developed the process.  Some died of old age, some got a conscience and had `accidents`, the rest had started dying recently, violently.  No precaution or numbers of guards could overcome the killer.  There could only be two possibilities, one was under close observation.

     He heard the blows against the `floor` of the truck, the bottom armor was the thinnest originally, so they'd added a layer of concrete and a metal plate to catch the fragments.

     One of the subjects is running around loose, he thought as he heard the concrete shattering.  The guard concentrated on that, intent on firing as soon as the target broke through.

     Water pouring in the air vents told them they had underestimated their foe.  The guard wrinkled his nose, reached down and collected some of the water to taste.  "Doc, that's sea water."

     The doctor looked around desperately.  Electricity came to mind, sea water was conductive.  He rushed to one of the tiny windows and looked out.  "We're in the Atlantic."  It better be the Atlantic, if it's the Pacific or even the Great Salt Lake the subjects are beyond any restraint possibilities, he thought.  The doctor realized the armored truck was underwater, he didn't know how deep.

     "We were nowhere near -"

     "I'm telling you we're underwater," the doctor shouted at the stupid man.  The water poured in until both men were bobbing in the water, then it stopped pouring in.

     "Don't drink the water!"  The doctor suddenly realized, drinking sea water caused all kinds of psychological and physiological problems.  Their enemy didn't want them dead, until they had gone mad.

     Or killed each other, the doctor thought.  He wondered if exhaustion, madness or what would bring the end.

     Shinji was swimming through the inky water.  Flying was a better description, the water was icy cold and it passed rapidly over his skin.  He knew that it was cold, but it didn't give him hypothermia, it should have.  The water and the darkness surrounded him, he shouldn't have been able to see anything, but he was aware of the huge buildings approaching him, basalt and twisted in strange angles and eye-watering shapes, some appeared to almost disappear from this world from one angle, and having a ponderous solidity from another.

     Suddenly warm, white wings enclosed him.  He turned to face Rei, she hugged him tightly, the feathers tickled him.  She smiled as they `flew` through the water, past the alien buildings.

     His target was in the distance.  Amid the squat, sullen black and gray buildings was what he had designed.  It had never occurred to him that he could build such a structure, building it underwater.

     The faintly glowing crystal, the thin almost ethereal structures so delicate and beautiful.  He looked at Rei who was entranced with the [beauty] of it.

     He didn't know how anyone had built it, taken his design and - he stopped.  Someone had seen this design, had taken it from him in fact, he wondered if . . . if he was dreaming or hallucinating.  He continued on to the central towers, the tallest building in the gently glowing city.  The tower was like a needle, reaching up and up.  He entered a window, now he understood why the building had looked that way.  Here everyone could swim or fly, stairs were unnecessary.  They swam up the open center, passing the galleries that lined the inner surface of the tower.

     The water grew lighter, slowly the diffuse sunlight overwhelmed the faint glow of the crystalline walls.  The surface of the water shown oddly, the pair broke the surface and ascended through the air, as they ascended the sun shown through the crystalline walls grew brighter, while the sky darkened, becoming midnight blue, then almost purple, before becoming black.  Finally they reached the top of the tower.  They stood on the platform, leaned against the delicate seeming filigreed railing and stared down at the huge crowd of people assembled across the world.  They raised their voices in shouts of triumph, then mastery over natural laws, their hands raised to complete the great work, their hopes rose to be free of the old gods, becoming like gods themselves, the entire race could ascend to the next level.  Abandon their cradle and walk among the gods and stars, not as subjects or even equals, but so far beyond them that they no longer mattered.

     They cheered those among them who pushed the work forward.  Asuka and Raccoon stood with the builders, Ranma and Ranko with the philosophers.  Nabiki stood with many of those who supposed the efforts by supporting the builders and philosophers.  He looked up, and the stars were falling, coming back to die in the oceans of their birthworld.  Shinji led the humans up and away from their home as the cities burned, as the oceans steamed and boiled as the stars landed.

     Some people had been left behind or had demanded to remain.  Shinji's heart went out to them, but he abandoned them to their fate as all the others rose to glory and he led them there.

Love Comforteth, Like Sunshine After Rain

     Ranma woke suddenly. He'd been in the firing range watching Megorofeld-chan and Rei blasting away at some unmoving paper targets.  Harmless, unmoving targets.  He hated guns.  Then it felt like something had hit him over the head.  Now he, she actually, was sitting in the crater in the side of a canal.  She could feel the traces of ki energy lingering.  It was similar to his ki projection, although of a very different base.

     She stood up and looked up at the blue almost cloudless sky, a few clouds were in a ring surrounding the sky directly overhead.  Ranma, she realized she was thinking about herself as Ranma rather than Ranko.

     Interesting, she thought as she walked out.  The place reminded her of something, it was maddening how familiar it all seemed.

     'Airen!'  She heard.

     Oh Kamis!  Raccoon's and Asuka's nightmares.  She looked in the direction of the voice.  The girl with the pants and shirt, with those curves it probably wasn't a boy, was charging towards her on a bicycle.  What was shocking was the figure had no face.  Not smoothed over featureless skin, but a void like a hole all the way through, no matter what direction you looked at it.  The hair and neck were there, but no face.

     Ranma jumped over the onrushing bicycle.  The girl was so shocked, she ran into a wall, demolishing it.

     Ranma stared at the girl, Maybe riding a bike is harder than I thought, she thought as she moved off, very quickly.

     'Ran-chan!'  Another faceless female called at a charge.

     Again Ranma dodged the outstretched arms.  This one passed by again, not expecting the dodge.

     Weird, Ranma thought as she faced the pair.  "Who are you two?" she asked, she had a horrifying certainty about the answer.

     "Cute Fiancee/Wife!" the two insisted, glared at each other, sparks literally flew from where their eyes should have been.

     Interesting, Ranma thought, No question about why I don't remember them, just a fight between them over their identity.  She continued on.

     "Ranma prepare to die!"

     She turned to watch another faceless one, the edges of this one's head were visible, the ears and the regions hidden behind the hair of the other two, he also saw it in the two girls, now that he could see them in profile.

     The boy dashed past the girls.  He's serious, he's going to hit me with that umbrella, Ranma thought, 'I'm going to kill you.'  Rei or Raccoon would have shot him by now.  He glanced at the arguing girls and mentally shrugged.  So much for my `wife` and `cute fiancee`, Ranma sidestepped the entire attack, hitting the boy in the solar plexus as he passed.  Ranma watched the attacker fold up as he continued.  Ranma had delivered a ki attack along with the fist blow.  It had homed in on the other boy's ki center and `detonated` there, disabling him without hurting him much.

     Ranma flogged his mind for the locations of the Tendo home from Asuka's and Raccoon's descriptions.  If Nab-chan was here, then she might find an ally, or she might be Ritsuko-Nabiki or Asuka as Nab-chan.

     That would be interesting, she thought morosely.

     Asuka raised her head, she thought someone had pounded it flat.  All around her was darkness.  Her arms and legs hung down.  Her body felt as if it was lying on something.  She tried to feel the edges of the platform, but couldn't find it.

     "Hello!" she shouted, and only because she knew she shouted did she know that she'd made a noise.  She didn't like the idea she couldn't see, hear or even smell anything.  She couldn't figure out how to stand up, nothing to press against.  She rolled off whatever had been supporting her.  She fell with a thud on the edge of something else, slid off and hit something else on the way down.  And something else, and another, and another.

     She was much bruised and battered when she finally struck the `floor`, there she could stand up.  She was surprised that the last thing she had landed on had disappeared.

     "Okay," she said, and again didn't hear herself in the darkness.  No source and no echo.  The floor was completely smooth she discovered as she scrambled around on her hands and knees, there were no seams, fittings or irregularities.  She stood again, her eyes could detect no difference in the blackness around her.

     No, she realized, That section is really dark red.  Unless I'm hallucinating.

     She headed off in that direction.  She knew this was a dream, she hadn't the faintest idea what this dream was about.  Dreams often made no sense, but they were often internally consistent.  She had to discover what it was.

     "Die sorcerer!"

     "And who is that?" Ranma ran towards the sound of the shouting.

     Ranma watched the blast of lightning that threw the tall, again faceless, bokken-armed young man out of an alley.  Ranma recognized the attack from rescuing Rei from the Mi-Go.

     Ranma charged around the corner and spotted a bewildered and bloodied Raccoon, this one had a face.  Ranko wanted to throw herself into the arms of a familiar figure, but she stopped herself.  He's hurt, Ranko told herself.  She pulled the first aid kit from Raccoon's coat pocket and pressed the bandage against the cut on his head.

     "You okay?" Ranko asked.

     "No," Raccoon said.  She was glad he had a face, that implied this was the real one.

     "We should get out of here!" Ranko suggested.

     "I was on the Coral Sea . . . no, the Bennington," he murmured.

     Ranko decided she wasn't going to get much help from Raccoon for a little while.

     "My pigtailed goddess!" the samurai-wannabe announced.

     "Protect," Raccoon said and thrust his cane into her hands.  She set Raccoon down carefully and turned to face the amorous moron.

     Ranma took the MacBane's Hanging Guard, narrowed her eyes at the openly weeping boy.

     "Oh, her beautiful eyes filled with such fire.  Come to my arms my - "

     The blow wasn't out of MacBane, Talhoffer or Hope, but it was one Asuka had taught her.  She was certain that just before contact, the stick suddenly weighed tons.  The man's eyes rolled back and his mouth opened wide, but no sound came out.  No mere sound could encompass all the distress he felt.

     Ranma carefully picked up Raccoon who was unsteady on his feet.  Ranma felt the boy's ki was scrambled completely, she wondered how he could still breathe, let alone walk.

     Ranko, you must have hit that jerk, Ranma thought, I'd never do that to another guy.

     "Raccoon, can you teleport us?" Ranma asked, it was awkward trying to hold the much larger boy up, and a fireman's carry was out of the question.

     "Too addled, a few minutes."  Raccoon actually had to stop walking to speak.  "We have to find Nabiki," he actually sounded more lucid, "She and I were closer, maybe the main target.  She's no dreamer."

     "We have to get you to safety," Ranma said, "Your cane can fly."

     Again they had to stop.  "Unwrap the hand grip, rope," Raccoon suggested.

     "Oh, tie you up," Ranma told him, "I'm not that kind of girl."  Ranma shook her head when Raccoon didn't comprehend.

     'Ranma die!'  Ranma knew he couldn't outrun that idiot with Raccoon in tow.  She felt the ki build up, suddenly Ranma had an idea.  "Raccoon, trust me," Ranma told him, "This is probably going to hurt."  She swung Raccoon in front and let her ki flow into him as filaments, making paths, like Asuka 'shaping' his body during training.  The ball exploded from the faceless boy's hands.  Ranma watched it hit Raccoon, felt it drawn along the paths into the vast voids where he `kept` his mana reserves.

     Raccoon stood up straighter.  "That's better than coffee."  Suddenly the charging boy's arms were windmilling and his feet lost traction.  Ranma lifted a manhole cover.  Raccoon somehow deposited the man into the open manhole, and Ranma resealed it.

     'Ahhh - ahhh!  Bweeee!' came from below.

     "Let's get out of here," Ranko said as she laughed.  The pair ran out of the alley.

     Nabiki stared up at the unforgiving sky, even with her eyes closed, the sun drove icepicks into her brain.  She couldn't even manage to turn over to get out of the sun.  Forget standing up,she thought, I can't even turn my head.

     She heard voices approaching, both familiar.  She couldn't shout for help, so she whispered as forcefully as she could, "Help!  Help!"  Pathetic, she thought.

     "Here she is," the voice said.

     "Is that English?"  Ranma leaned over her, in her female form.  A moment later Raccoon leaned into her field of view.

     He looks fine, the rat! she thought.

     "Miss Tendo, we're going to shoot you," Raccoon told her, "It worked on me, but Ranko will use smaller charges and an interval between to check - "

     'SWEETO!' she heard and couldn't even flinch.  Raccoon drew and fired his .45, then walked out of her view and fired several more times.  He walked back in view replacing his .45 in his coat.

     "To check the progress of revivification."

     Her eyes focused on the small gold ball forming between Ranko's hands.  Then it hit her in the stomach.

     She rolled up into a ball.  "That hurts!" she shouted at them.

     "Hey it worked," Ranko said proudly.

     She was debating hitting them sequentially or simultaneously.

     "What did you do to my sister you pervert?!"  A too familiar voice, "Ranma you idiot."

     Nabiki grinned as she saw the faceless girl advancing with a mallet and an aura of affronted righteousness.  The LeMat came out smoothly and the first shot blew the mallet right out of her hands.  "I was having mad passionate sex with both of them, with both of them.  Imagine Ranma as a girl, suddenly a little hot water.  Oh my!"  Nabiki wished the girl had a face to have an expression on, it would have been priceless.  "Since you'll never produce grandchildren for father, someone has to."  She turned her back on the stunned girl and took the hands of the two equally stunned pilots and led them away.  "Oh, I'll have to pay later, I seem to have forgotten my wallet."

     "We'll take it off our tab for last Thursday," Raccoon said, Ranko was completely lost or shocked.  "I'll never think of lamb chops the same way again."

     "Poof!" Ranko added as helpfully as she could, without exploding herself.

     A moment later they were across town on another high roof.

     "How'd . . . magic," Nabiki said.

     "Passionate sex with lamb chops?" Ranko demanded.

     "You obviously don't remember my sister."  Then Nabiki covered her mouth to hide her laughter.

     "I figured it out," Raccoon said, "When you wound up in Berlin and Ranma wound up in Boston, I had a horrible feeling my experience was an accurate description.  I think this indicates that NERV didn't really win.  Nearly indestructible and insane."

     "Happosai died rather thoroughly," Nabiki said.  She didn't like the implication that her home was the result of a Great Old One victory and amalgamation.

     "Will he stay that way?"

     "We'd better find Ranma," Ranko said, "He'll get into all kinds of trouble without us."

     Raccoon slapped his head.  "Good grief!  I'm still not thinking clearly.  Do you know where he is?"

     "Approximately, I'll go find him.  You and Nabiki make sure she's okay."  Ranko nodded at Nabiki.

     Ranko moved out, before she could yell at them that Ranma and Ranko were the same.  Raccoon had pulled a feline looking hand puppet from his coat pocket with a businesslike expression.  He placed it on her head.  "Meow."  Then on her shoulder.  "Meow."  Then on her stomach.  "Merraawww!"  Then he took the puppet off his hand, ignoring Nabiki's frown as he replaced it in his pocket.

     "Cat scan shows clean," he told her.  Mayhem was frustrated by Ranma's arrival.

     "Ranko said you were looking for me," he said.

     "Where is she?" Raccoon demanded.

     "Scouting ahead," Ranma said.

     "With the loonies this town abounds in, you let her go off by herself?!" Raccoon shouted back, confronting Ranma.

     "Hey, that's her problem," Ranma said offhandedly, "She can take care of herself better than you two can.  If she gets in trouble, she'll handle it."

     "Why you callous, unthinking - "  Raccoon advanced with murder in his eye.

     "HOLD IT!"  Nabiki had had enough.  "You two will not kill each other over Ranko!"

     "Well he - !" they said.

     "ZIP IT!" Nabiki shouted, "Ranma and Ranko are the same person."

     "Raccoon . . . quit laughing for a second and give Nab-chan your glasses," Ranma said, "She needs them more than you do."

     "I concur," Raccoon said as handed the glasses to Ranma.  Nabiki's glare prevented him from putting them on her.  Between laughs he told her, "Ranko is shorter, red headed, and her pectorals are prominent in a very different way.  Wider hips and narrower shoulders."

     "I can sing better," Ranma added.

     "I've never heard either of you sing," Raccoon commented as he brought himself under control and replaced his glasses, "Considering how lovely Rei-san's singing voice is, and how similar she and Ranko sound, I think she should be a lovely singer."

     "I guess she never had proper training," Ranma commented, "Asuka says everything is training."

     "HOLD IT!" Nabiki shouted, "What are you two morons doing?"  She was exasperated, she wanted a bath and a chance to lie down.  She still felt awful, and these idiots were acting completely nuts.

     "Just waiting for you to tell us where to go," Ranma said innocently.

     "Don't tempt me," Nabiki growled, "We can't go home."

     "Why not?" Ranma asked, "We toss everybody except . . . " Ranma trailed off.

     "Kasumi?" Raccoon asked.

     "Yeah her," Ranma said.

     Nabiki wasn't comfortable with that, Kasumi was as guilty as Akane and Soun in the debacle.  She didn't really want to set foot in that house again, as satisfying as letting Raccoon and Ranma loose on them without limits would be.  She shuddered.  No, I don't want to do that, even of this is just a dream, she thought.

     "I think we'd better find lodging elsewhere," she suggested.

     "How about a Love Hotel?" Ranma suggested, "No one would ever look for us there."

     It took several minutes for Nabiki to bring her coughing under control.  Ranma and Raccoon arguing about Ranko didn't help.

A Crown Is Merely A Hat That Lets The Rain In

     "Have you found Asuka?" Ranma asked Raccoon, he was worried.  If she isn't here where is she? he wondered

     "Are you getting sweet on her?"

     "No sweeter than you are on Raccoon!" Ranma shot back at Nabiki.

     "Nothing, out for 100 miles," Raccoon said as he stood up.

     Nabiki pulled the gag off Gosunkugi, she'd discovered it was hard to gag someone who didn't have an apparent mouth.

     Gos immediately began pelting the `wizard` with questions.  "It's all rubbish," Raccoon told the wannabe, "If you need it to cast spells, you aren't doing magic."

     Gos was shocked, he'd only let them raid his supplies in order to get `higher wisdom`.

     Actually because I threatened him and Raccoon intimidated him, Nabiki thought.  Gos had been shocked that Raccoon hadn't asked for any of the more rare or `mystic` ingredients, so was Nabiki.

     "So why are we all here, and she isn't?" Ranma asked.

     "I don't know.  She could also be in a heavily shielded location, although exactly how someone would have that kind of shielding, I don't know.  Japan doesn't have the mineral reserves for that kind of shielding to occur naturally."

     "She might not have come here," Nabiki said, "Gos-chan, you can go."  The boy scrambled away.  "I lived here.  I don't know why Ranma is here he . . . "

     "Arrived in a crater, I can guess what happened," Ranma said.

     Nabiki knew her guarded expression told him that she was still hiding a fair amount from him.

     She could see he wanted to trust her.  "Tell me when you can," he told her.

     The darkening sky clearly showed they would have to start thanking about shelter.  She heard Ranma's stomach growl.  And food, she thought.

     Ranma didn't even bother to hide his concern.  He was a bit hungry, but overall just fine.  Raccoon and Nab-chan were both rocky.  "What were you two doing?"

     "We'd recovered the Angel," Nab-chan said, "We'd gotten it aboard . . . I can't remember much after that."

     "Cthulhu's daughter," Raccoon said, "Legends have it that if he is ever truly killed, he will be reborn in her."

     "That tiny thing?" Nab-chan asked, then reeled.  Raccoon and Ranma moved, but not before she caught herself.  "I'm fine, just tired."

     "What about those . . . rest . . . aur . . . rants?"  The glare from the pair slowed Ranma's speech.  "Okay, bad idea, don't kick me," he said, "There have to be eateries beside those two."

     "There are, but prices are, well, expensive," Nab-chan said.

     "How expensive?" Ranma asked.

     "In our time, gold is $40 per ounce, in this time, gold is about $400 and prices are relatively higher as well," Raccoon explained, "Don't worry, I've got it covered."

     "How?" Nab-chan asked.

     "A gold double eagle is always valuable," Raccoon tiredly explained.

     The meal was spartan, Nabiki at nervous about the meal and the money for one week in the hostel, for all three of them, the hostel was also willing to supply meals for work.  She had little doubt that they would be able to return `home`, but she was unwilling to do that.  And neither boy would argue, so shewasn't going to be earning her meals, instead she was making demands on their resources.  The fact that nobody had a face bothered her terribly, but it also bothered her she wasn't contributing.

     Imagine, she thought, The Ice Queen of Furikan feeling bad about freeloading off two swains.  She had to admit her previous `freeloading` contributed money to the household.  She'd gotten used to earning her keep directly.  The room, really just a big closet, and cot weren't too private.  Most of the guests were backpackers traveling through Tokyo.  She lay alone in her closet, she'd hidden the LeMat, she was terrified it would be discovered.  She also wondered about Ranma and Raccoon, and the Nerimaniacs, including her dear little sister.

     Are those two safe? she wondered, How much trouble will they be in, if they defend themselves?  She also wondered about Asuka.  She didn't know what to do about the missing girl, or Rei or Shinji.  Perhaps they weren't drawn in, she considered, Only Ranma came with us because of his connection to us.

     She didn't know, the worries chased themselves until she fell into an exhausted sleep.

     Sammi spotted Rei nodding off in the infirmary room with Asuka.  She knew Rei wasn't crying, but she was tearing herself up inside.  "Rei-chan, are you all right?" she said as she stuck her head in the room.

     "Yes, Kraznyzamok-san."  Rei turned her head, remained seated with her hands clasped in her lap.

     "I don't think Asuka would approve of you making yourself sick sitting up watching her."  Rei gave her a curious look.

     "With Asuka, Shinji and Ranma unconscious, you are the only one available to defend the rest of us.  To pilot the EVA if necessary."

     Rei lowered her head.  Sammi knew Rei saw the logic.  "Mein Grosfeldmarschall would want the world protected."

     "But you're lonely and worried," Sammi told her, Rei was shocked by this.  "I feel the same, I'm supposed to be protecting them and they just collapsed.  Nobody knows why, and no one knows when they'll recover," Sammi explained.

     "I will accompany you," Rei said, standing up, kissed Asuka's forehead and followed Sammi out of the infirmary, and to Sammi's car.

     "You shouldn't feel guilty that you weren't affected as they were."

     "I am not . . . one of them." Rei said.

     Sammi knew how terrible that made Rei feel, the others had gone out of their way to make Rei part of their circle.  Even Asuka and her abrasive ways also included Rei in her orbit.  Now Rei was again alone, Sammi could easily guess how it made her feel.  Rei loved a certain set reality, she'd adapt to anything as long as it was regular.  A string of constant insults from Asuka was actually soothing to Rei.  Sammi had never told Asuka, because the girl needed to vent, and Rei made a convenient target and the regularity of that verbal abuse gave Rei a comforting feeling of consistency.

     Now she was suddenly alone again, she had to feel completely lost, and every seeming sense of normality would accentuate how different the situation was.  Sammi could establish a new paradigm to allow the girl a new puzzle to solve, rather than brood on what was lost.

     The fact you're terribly lonely has nothing to do with it, she accused herself, she smirked.  Erin had likewise invited herself to stay at Sammi's, 'So they'll only have to call you.'  She knew the kids would be mortified that a bunch of adults were reacting this way about them.  She also knew that the collapse was being kept from the public.  Being down to one pilot invited an attack by anyone who could throw together a heavy assault force.  The remnants of the last attack might be enough to defeat Rei in Unit 00.  What about Rei in Unit 02 or 01? Sammi wondered, she decided that scheduling the testing would be a good idea, telling Rei to keep in mind that she was protecting Asuka and Shinji respectively would enhance synchronization.

     Sammi let Rei into the lower level.  "You can take any room, I won't tell."

     Rei nodded and headed to one of the `guest` rooms.  She heard the shower go on, and she knew Rei would be a while.  Rei was scrupulous about keeping herself clean.  Sammi took the time to brew some tea.  She dug out the last of the cake that Jeff had baked before he left.  She realized she'd gotten a little spoiled.  If Jeff didn't cook, then Asuka insisted, later, if Asuka didn't prevent it, Ranma did.  She had their skill, she'd be cooking for Rei and Erin, Hopefully not long.

     She heard the shower cut off, Sammi gave Rei some time to dry herself and get dressed.

     Sammi carried the tea tray downstairs, then remembered Rei's habits and returned to her own room and collected a clean robe.  It was more a serape with a belt, without seams that itched and abraded her skin.  This will cover Rei like a tent, Sammi lamented as she picked up the tea tray with one arm, the robe draped over her other arm.  As she entered, Rei sat on the bed, on a towel, drying her hair with another towel.  She was blissfully unashamed of her nakedness.

     "You might find this comfortable," Sammi said as she laid the robe next to Rei and set the tea tray on the table.  Rei stared at the robe, reaching out and touching it warily, then running her hand over the key seams.  Sammi hid her smile as she poured tea for both of them.

     Nope, no seams or other hidden scratchers, Sammi thought as she offered Rei a mug of tea.

     Rei sniffed, sipped.

     That too is just how you like it, strong and sweet with just a little milk, Sammi thought as she smiled at the girl as she climbed into the robe, it did look like Rei had her head out of a small tent.

     "Thank you," Rei said quietly.

     "It isn't your fault that you weren't affected and they were," Sammi told her.  Rei had fallen like the other pilots, but a few moments later, she'd been up and around as if nothing had happened.  Sammi had only suffered a moment of dizziness.  The other guards had seemingly been unscathed, but there were reports of outbreaks of violence, insanity, breakdowns of authority.  The governments were getting a handle on the rioting and other disruptions.  Little had occurred near NERV.

     Rei finished her tea, stared at the cup.

     "You are allowed to ask for more, but you have to ask," Sammi told her.

     "More please," Rei said as she handed the mug back after making sure the handle was towards Sammi.  Sammi refilled it and handed it back, the handle of the mug towards Rei.  Sammi could see the telltale signs that Rei was sleepy.  In many ways Rei was as stubborn as Ranma.  She'd insist she was fine long beyond the time she should have let go.

     The other pilots aren't much better, Sammi reminded herself.  She took the mug from Rei and turned down the bed.  "Rest," her tone was gentle, but Rei recognized it was an order.

     Rei obediently let Sammi tuck her in and she was out like a light.  That was one thing Sammi couldn't do.  She closed the door quietly and headed back upstairs.  She'd have Erin collect Rei's stuff, one jeep load would be sufficient.  She hoped the others recovered quickly, Rei needed them as much as the world did.  Sammi also decided it would be necessary to ask Ramsey to contact the Azores mission and discover what was happening there.

A Wolf In The Fold, Rain On Ripe Corn

     It had been a long, tiring day.  Jeff trudged back from the showers.  He'd waited until there was no one else likely to use them, then he'd cleaned them all and used one, doing a cursory clean up after.  Today, he'd gotten some extremely unfriendly looks, interesting considering the universal lack of faces among the natives.  The postures were telling, he was unwelcome here.  But the girls were so fascinated by Ranma, his gaijin friend was most welcome.  The boys weren't so forgiving.  He'd hoped he didn't get jumped in the showers, anywhere except Nerima he would have been confident of his ability to defend himself.  He had many tricks to use, but most crippled or killed.

     The quietness of the dormitories worried him as he headed back.  His cane was a sufficient weapon, but if things were quiet, it could mean anything.  Typically it meant the sheep had been cowed into silence, or they wanted to hear what happened.  'Kuno's Samurai' had ambushed him repeatedly in the earlier dream, none of those worthies had gotten out of those fights unmarked.  Kendo was not an art for the street.  They didn't even appreciate the red shirts he kept sending them.  Some people just don't get cultural references, he thought as he walked into the ambush.

     He had his defenses up before the hands grabbed him and slammed him against the wall.  The fist in the gut encountered the AT field he had under his suit coat.  He still acted as if the blow had its desired effect, despite the man's broken knuckles.

     Nine boys, the most hostile, were packed in the small room he shared with Ranma, who was on the cot, sound asleep.

     "Well you can watch, and if you're nice, we'll be nice to you," the leader said as he unbuckled his belt.

     Well, I was wondering where I was going to get some extra spending money in a hurry, Jeff thought as he prepared.

     Now she was transiting orange.  Asuka had quit complaining as she crossed the midpoint of red, so assigned because the darkness behind and the orange ahead were equally noticeable.

     The march was boring beyond belief.  She did wish she had some shoes.  She could imagine the blisters she'd get on this march.  She wondered if all the colors of the spectrum would be represented.  She also wondered what the purpose was.  There was no day or night, so she slept when she was tired and marched when she was not.  If it was isolation, it would take such a long time until it would have a real effect.  Certainly longer than the time it would take to get through the entire spectrum.  She stared at the color in the distance and kept walking.

     Ranma was instantly awake.  He didn't know how.  He also didn't know why he was so frightened, or why he wanted to slap that silly grin off Raccoon's face.

     "Ha, ha," the irritating voice attached to the grin said, "I knew that would work."

     "What did you do?"  Ranma felt awful, he'd never drunk plum tea, green tea with pickled plums, nor was he ever going to again.  It tasted awful at the time, now it was worse.  But how many cups how fast told you how tough you were, and he'd beaten all the others.

     "You don't drink well," Raccoon told him, handed him a mug of plain green tea.

     Ranma drank it, he drank it all, he would have drunk a glass of L.C.L. to get the funny taste out of his mouth.

     "What did you say to me?" Ranma asked.

     "It isn't what I said, but whose voice I used," Raccoon told him.  Ranma remembered the lessons in mimicry Raccoon had given Ranko, it seemed like years ago.

     "Oh, Asuka's . . . "  Ranma fitted the pieces together.  " 'Oh Ranma!  We're due only a few weeks apart, one girl and one boy,'" Ranma said what Raccoon had, he shuddered at the idea of getting Asuka pregnant, and more at Asuka getting him pregnant.  Ranma was surprised he hadn't surrendered to the 'other' and wasn't hanging from the ceiling yowling his terrified head off.  "You're a rotten . . . "


     "I wish you felt like I do!" Ranma invoked a stronger curse.

     "Congratulations, now you're 'Misa-chan'."


     "You drank yourself into unconsciousness," Raccoon told him.

     "It was only tea!" Ranma flashed to anger.  "When I get my hands on - "

     "I convinced them to leave," Raccoon told him, "Once they understood, they were . . . very cooperative, and very apologetic."

     "You . . . you didn't . . . " he switched to a whisper, "Kill them?"

     "I dropped them off somewhere and pointed them away from Tokyo.  I'm not going to murder someone in the middle of Tokyo just because they slipped you a mickey finn, a drugged drink.  Good lesson, so you won't turn out like Major K."

     Ranma relaxed.  "So, what, you blackmailed them?  What did you blackmail them out of?"  Ranma knew he wouldn't let them off cheap.

     "Oh, the usual: jewelry, spare cash, and a few things we'll need for the moment."

     Ranma focused on that Raccoon wasn't wearing his suit and tie, even his ever-present fedora was gone, he looked more closely and realized Raccoon wasn't wearing his usual boots either.  "You sold your clothes too?"  The jeans jacket and slacks looked - alien, out of place - on Raccoon.

     "They're antiques," Raccoon explained, "Authentic from the war period, we're going to need money if we're going to get an apartment of our own."

     "We can stay here," Ranma said, "The manager said so."

     "The amount of work you and I put in yesterday would pay for a decent house.  If we were professional plumbers, carpenters, electricians - "

     "Steam fitters," Ranma concluded.

     "Anyway, there can't be much more to fix around here, unless you think we should rebuild this place from top to bottom."

     Ranma seemed to be considering, he was wondering when the floor was going to quit moving and whether his ears were really unscrewing from his head.


     "I'm - "  He pushed past Raccoon and managed to get to the lavatory before he threw up.

     Once he'd finished, he looked up and saw Raccoon standing there with a mug of water in his hands.  "You knew this was going to happen."

     "Considering all you drank, I wasn't expecting you to wake up, ever," Raccoon told him sternly.

     There was no evidence of a follow up rebuke, which made Ranma feel even worse.  "The last thing I remember . . . " Ranma sighed, "I don't remember much.  Why does Misa-chan do this?"

     "Because it dulls the pain, supposedly."

     "There has to be a reason for the alcohol they gave me.  You don't think it was just a contest like they said?"

     "No, they definitely had another end in mind," Raccoon said.

     "You aren't going to tell me, are you?" Ranma asked.

     "You are exactly right," Raccoon replied, his tone was gentler, "Get moving.  I saved you some breakfast.  We still have to check on those gas fittings in the kitchen and swap out the used propane cylinders."

     "Ranma Saotome, marital artist and plumber," Ranma griped.

     "And carpenter and electrician and steam fitter - "

     "All right!" Ranma shouted at him, Raccoon's cheerfulness was getting on Ranma's nerves.

     "Why isn't Nab-chan helping us - wait - I've still got the bruises, never mind," he said.  He remembered her attempts to `help`, he was fairly certain she wasn't failing miserably just to get out of working.

     "Besides, she's out apartment hunting.  I can't pass for Japanese and you can't pass for an adult, she can do both."

     Ranma grumbled a little, but grumbling wasn't going to get him breakfast.

     Nabiki looked at the place, small was the first word that came to mind.  Expensive was the second.  But it was far cheaper to stay in Nerima, and this place was equipped with a kitchenette, a shower, and several easy escape routes for Ranma.  The last she hoped wouldn't be necessary.  The owner demanding six month's rent in advance had been outrageous, but she had the cash and she'd been able to make sure none of it was a security deposit.  She was terribly glad he hadn't asked her if she was a martial artist or even if she was living alone.

     Maybe he thinks I'm a runaway and is trying to gouge me, then knock me out and sell me to the North Koreans, she thought, then she considered the welcoming party that would be waiting for anyone who tried that.  Raccoon had dealt with the group that slipped Ranma a 'mickey finn', she wondered how many elephant doses he downed before they . . . she shuddered at that.  She knew such groups existed, that rape was not just something done to women by men.  But there was a huge difference between what was known intellectually, and what was known through experience.  Still I am glad Raccoon had 'intercepted and dissuaded them', she thought.  She'd been shocked he'd left them alive, only that he'd 'escorted them out of the vicinity.'  It had taken additional threats given, promises extracted and pleadings done by her to not reveal anything to Ranma, that where he 'dumped them off' was twenty feet above the ocean, halfway between Tokyo and the Bonin Islands.  Giving them a chance, however slight, to be rescued. And a long, lingering death if they weren't.  And a story no one would believe if they were.

     She'd already sold many of their possessions, pawned a few more and with the cash Raccoon had given her, she could at least make a dent in the unfurnished apartment.  She had no idea what they were going to do when the money ran out.  Betting on illegal fights came to mind, and Ranma would probably always win, and Raccoon could protect her and their winnings.

     But there has to be a less sordid way, she thought, Cheesecake and blackmail are one thing, this is straight gangster stuff.

     She knew she and Raccoon could convince Ranma, she found it odd she really didn't want to.  She wondered if she were going soft, or if her long dormant conscience had woken up and was going to be trouble.

     Thirsty,Asuka thought as she trudged through yellow.  The blisters on her feet weren't helping, the entire ordeal was clearly one of endurance, without clothing, shelter, tools or the means to make any of them.  The last time she'd marched this far had been in dreams.  But there was no end in sight.  Now the time was passing without any noticeable benefit.

     Maybe Horseface would see this as useful, she thought,But I don't.

The Winter Is Past, The Rain Over And Gone

     "Come on you two," Ranko told Nab-chan and Raccoon, "We're all going to be fully clothed and besides it's freezing.  We only have a couple of decent blankets."

     And with your ki as messed up as it is, Ranko didn't say, A chill would kill both of you.  The temporary cure had failed.  Ranma had suggested the repair and a way to stay warm, but that would require a good deal of physical intimacy over a long time.  Ranma had suggested sleeping with them, then ran so deep into his mind Ranko couldn't do anything.  Ranko also didn't want it to sound too clinical, to make it sound like an excuse or a trick.  I'll tell them after they agree, Ranko told herself.  Nab-chan was wearing her usual shirt and slacks flannel pajamas, Ranko tried not to react to how Nab-chan was reacting to the cold.  Raccoon in a similar shirt and pants-style pajamas.

     The fact that Nab-chan seemed to start shuddering and tearing up for no apparent reason and immediately sought out a hug and reassurance from Raccoon had absolutely nothing to do with it.  After all, it made complete sense that Ranma would be jealous of Raccoon, but it was absolutely ridiculous that Ranko would be jealous of Nab-chan.

     Terrific, Ranko thought, Miss 'Grab-Anything' is nervous that I might do that to her.  Raccoon didn't seem to be having the same reaction.  The truth was Ranma had watched Raccoon patching the electrics, repairing and running steam lines, water lines, gas lines; all the while thoroughly explaining it to Ranma or Ranko, whoever was less likely to change if bad things happened.  The concept of flowing water Ranma grasped easily, that electrics acted much the same way was a surprise.  The differences of gas and steam to water was a real eye opener.  Ranma had drawn out various ways of plumbing, diverting and controlling water flow, had received warnings about steam lines and electrical lines.

     She couldn't heal their frazzled and tangled ki flaws, but if ki did flow like water or electricity, then she could establish the proper channels and levies and hydraulic jumps to get it flowing in ways that wouldn't be so life-threatening.  If she could manage that, she could leave the rest to natural processes.

     She was glad Raccoon took Nab-chan's hand and led her to the blankets and sleeping bags they'd gotten from the others at the youth hostel.  The whole collection would insulate them from the cold floor, and the blankets would go over the top.  The pair knelt on the bedding, keeping a very small distance from each other.  That was fine with Ranko, she slid in between them, facing Nab-chan, and pulled them down to lie alongside her.  Both were more nervous than if they were going into a fight.  Ranko gently stroked Nab-chan's hair, then her cheeks.  This frightened, then relaxed Nab-chan.  It also gave Ranko the idea of how to untangle the knot that would prevent Nab-chan from sleeping properly.  It would have the side effect of essentially sedating her for a few hours, but Ranko could protect them.

     "I won't hurt you, or take advantage of you," she told Nab-chan, it galled her to have to tell Nab-chan something she of all people should know, but Ranko remembered Asuka's warning about perceptions and reality.  She knew that neither Nab-chan nor Raccoon would try anything, it was the only thing that was keeping her from jumping out of her skin and following Ranma into the darkness.  Ranko kissed the tip of Nab-chan's nose, very carefully.  "Unlike a certain someone I could mention."

     That brought Nab-chan back to herself.

     "I detected a ki imbalance in you and Raccoon, that's why you were in such a bad way when you arrived.  I thought I fixed it, I didn't, now after two days watching the engineer fix that whole sick building, I think I can fix it properly."

     Nab-chan gulped, "You mean . . . will it hurt?"

     "No, but it will make you real sleepy."

     "Maybe we could ask . . . "  She shook her head.  "No, forget it, terrible - dangerous idea."

     "What?" Ranko asked.

     "There are other ki masters," Raccoon supplied, "All of them would turn us over to the Nerimaniacs immediately.  They'd never be an end to it.  Better to stay anonymous.  Tomorrow, I'll set up some wards and fixed defense spells to keep them from finding us.  Unless you want me to kill them all instead."

     "NO!" Ranko insisted, there wasn't enough space to turn and face him, "Absolutely not.  They're an irritant, and human, not the things we fight.  I don't want people murdered, just to make my life easier, even if they are just shadows."

     "As you wish," he said, leaned close, his breath tickling her neck, "Don't worry, there are ways of dealing with them.  Not permanent, but long term.  Ways that will make them loooong for the sweet release of death."  Raccoon running an icy finger down her spine didn't help Ranko's composure at all.  "But I won't allow that either."  He gave an evil laugh, until that point Ranko was nervous, then she relaxed.  If Raccoon was joking about it, then he wasn't likely to commit mayhem.

     Nabiki was also relieved.  Even if these weren't really her family and old victims, she wasn't happy about the slaughter that would result if Raccoon decided they were a threat to Ranma's and her, health and safety.  Pilots fought for the safety of Raccoon, Asuka, Shinji and Rei's entire world.  She'd felt the wrongness, the foul, festering malignancy of their enemy first hand.  These people were self-centered and thoughtless, exactly like their enemy, but without their global reach.  The deaths of a few in another world to protect to protect a third of the entire supply wouldn't even give any of them pause.  A few lives for billions.  She couldn't really fault their thinking, most people would make the same choice.  Few, besides Rei and Raccoon would make it so ruthlessly and carry it out in so remorselessly thoroughly a manner.  She'd watched the `invincible` Happosai's fate.  Her father and Genma were terrified of the old letch.  Raccoon had dispatched him in less than a minute.  She didn't know how, she didn't really carebut it wasn't something she wanted loosed on her once-sisters and used-to-be father.  She shuddered at that, then at Ranko running her hands over her arms.  She could feel a tingling, even though the material of her pajamas, which did nothing for her composure, or the fear of what would happen if the fiance(e) brigade, or worse, the two fathers, came crashing in.  Ranma in bed with Nabiki and another man.  They'd have her in front of a minister so fast, drugged and dragged, if necessary.  Later, they'd remember he was eta and she'd disowned them, old habits died hard.  She could imagine what they'd do to the gaijin, she could also imagine the retaliation.  Ranma's promise didn't touch Raccoon defending his own life.  The Wrecking Crew had never faced a real soldier.  They talked about death, war and vengeance.  But for all they really understood, they might as well have been talking about walking on the moon in ballet tutu and tights.

     No, not vengeance, dispatch, she thought again about handling that . . . thing and how she wanted to either kill it, or run away screaming.  She pulled herself away from those memories before she burst into tears again, and realized she'd grabbed Ranma in a Shampoo-style hug.

     "Nab-chan, you 'kay?" came the querulous voice from between her breasts.  Nabiki could feel Ranma's breathing and how rigid with fear the girl was.  "You may touch me wherever you feel is medically necessary," she assured Ranma.

     "That's nice, but I can't breathe."

     "Oh Ranma, I offer you raptures of the flesh undreamt of and you trouble me with breathing."

     "Who let Kuno in here?" Raccoon asked.

     Nabiki flinched at the comparison and swiftly released Ranma.  "Make sure you take his temperature.  I have a rectal thermometer around here somewhere."

     "What does 'rectal' mean?" Ranma asked.

     "It means she wants you to put it under my tongue," Raccoon supplied.

     Even Nabiki winced at that thought.

     "It should be a simple process," Ranma told her as he touched her here and there with an expression that wouldn't have been out of place on Ritsuko or Asuka.  She was still nervous about being this close to Ranma while in Nerima, and that the idiots might be out in force, searching for him.  She felt they should have been barring the doors, setting guards on rotation, laying out some kind of battle plan.

     Instead, she was staring into Ranma's pretty face all creased with concentration, doing what she could barely understand.  She impulsively touched the other girl's face, and didn't distract her or get the usual reaction she tried for.  So she lay back and tried to relax.  Maybe Raccoon's sorcery would give them an undisturbed night's rest and the `enemy` would storm their position at dawn tomorrow.  Or the idiots were still in disarray and couldn't launch an attack yet.  After all, Ranma would be at his usual haunts, right?  But Ranma no longer knew his usual haunts, and he had only Asuka's and Raccoon's stories about the Nerimaniacs to go by, and even Nabiki didn't think Ranma would want to tangle with the crazies that pair had described.

     She felt her eyes closing.  She missed her mother.  She missed Rit-chan too.  She wondered if Rit-chan was proud of her for what she did.  She knew her mother had never told her she was proud of little Nabiki. Only Kasumi who wanted to be mommy, and Akane who wanted to be daddy, never Nabiki, who wanted to be Nabiki.

     The city was rebuilt, and all the earth around it.  People did their jobs and still found their joy.  He worked very hard at doing as little as possible while he encouraged as much as possible, letting others discover their strengths and talents.  He grudgingly accepted that this was probably his father's intention, however artlessly he carried it out.

     Rei came towards him, Shinji was nervous about the expression on her face and that she was naked.  He knew this was all a dream, like the one he'd had months ago.  But what they did here still mattered, and the hunger and determination in Rei-chan's expression worried him.  She approached, walking enticingly, he'd never seen anything so beautiful before.  All the talk about Ritsuko this, Misato that, or Asuka the other, none of them was as beautiful as Rei-chan was right now.

     He was certain he was in no danger, but he knew something odd was happening.  She carefully gathering him in her arms, her soft flesh and warm body made him uncomfortable, he knew what he wanted to do.  He also knew Asuka and his father would kill him if he did.

     "Trust me," Rei-chan told him between kisses on his neck and throat.  He nodded.

     Her teeth piercing his neck shocked him.  She'd promised not to hurt him, or the other pilots, she'd just told him to trust her.  He couldn't escape the grip she had him in, her body twined around his, and her little licks as she lapped his blood tickled a lot.  He felt the life and strength draining out of him.  He couldn't fight her, she had started out too strong and she still was.  Now she was supporting his weight instead of restraining him.  His legs sagged and his vision dimmed. 

     Strange that I can smell her so much better, he thought.  He was aware of the intoxicating fragrance, the scent of her hair, the sound of her heart pounding.  He felt her lowering him to the ground.  Or, he thought, I'm wrong, I'm dying.  He remembered things from his life, half-remembered now returning with such clarity.  Remembering his father, a very different man, remembering his mother, and someone else . . . those memories remained elusive, as if they were running away from him.  He remembered being so young.

     He felt something warm and firm press past his lips, not sure if he was remembering suckling from his mother, or an experience in the present.  He felt Rei-chan's strong fingers tangling through his hair, holding his head tightly against her.

     The instincts and old memories took over, his mouth filled with the chalky sweetness, unexpected but welcome.  He continued to suckle, drawing strength in.  He risked a glance up at Rei, her head was thrown back and a look of rapture suffused her face, her fingers had stilled their roaming, holding him firmly to her breast.

     He felt stronger, stronger than he'd ever been, but he continued until she released him.  She looked smaller, shorter as he stood up.  She took his hands, pulling him down as she knelt.  He leaned close and kissed her, the coppery taste of his blood and the sweetness of her milk mixed in their mouths.  She broke off the kiss, her cheeks colored with embarrassment, her entire body was `blushing` as she reached around behind him.

     "This will . . . hurt," she said, "Please trust me."

     He nodded, the wound was gone.  So far, as strange as this had been, he could trust her.  He enjoyed the excuse to touch her and drink in her perfume.

     It felt that she'd slashed open his back, then a weight that nearly pulled him over backwards.  He looked at the wings now growing out of his back, like an immense bird's.  Snow-white feathers edged in darkest blue.  Rei stood up, helping him to his feet, her own wings extended, her head bowed with the effort.  Her wings were snow-white and diaphanous.  She looked spent as he took her in his arms, his wings enclosed her in an embrace, supporting her and drawing her against him.  He could feel her trembling from the exertions she'd made.

     She seemed so small now, tiny and frail in his arms.  He also knew what he had to do.  He looked up through the roof of the tallest tower in their new paradise.  The moon hovered above him, no longer a simple satellite, a half-light in the night, but a void, a seething, roiling canker to be excised and lanced.  He spread his wings, he knew she could not follow, she knew it too.

     He raced through the upper airs.  He could feel the maggot-ridden corruption pulsating beneath the silvery surface.

It Is Neither Shaken By Winds, Nor Ever Wet With Rain

     Damn, I think angrily, These ears can't flick.  Where is that fly?

     Don't move, don't move, just the slightest hint of claw.  SLASH!  Flick.  The fly is thrown across the room and hits the floor.  There it will spend some time quietly dying in agony.

     Serves it right, I think as I snuggle with the other tabby.  Even in her deep sleep, she reacts approvingly to my overture.  I will never understand their reticence, the tabby and the tom.

     No, that's not right, I admit, In a world where things-that-should-not-be must be killed, waiting until they aren't a threat before making kittens makes perfect sense.  Being afraid of any step that might lead to begetting kittens is craziness.  And I'm stuck with four crazies.  Snuggling with the warm bodies when the air is so cold makes up for it.  It should have been funny, how I was `released`, I think back.  The she-within found herself in a situation she couldn't deal with, so she ran away.  She'd put the tabby and the tom asleep after plucking at their strings and rivers, or whatever.  Did she expect the tom to make kittens with her in her sleep? I wonder.  The tabby stole all the skins and was still shivering, pushing the she-within towards the tom.  So when the she-within found herself cold, she got close to the nearest warmest thing available.  But even asleep, the tom felt a desirable tabby rubbing herself against him, and he reacted as any tom worth having would.  He was asleep, not dead! I shout at the two hiding within, Idiots, the both of them.  All he did was show his approval of the she, her attractiveness and her actions!  I can practically smell the disgusting fear emanating from both of them within.

     It's not as if the tom has hidden his affection for the she-within, I too approve of her playfulness.  I also know another thing, when the tom absorbed the squishy thing that was threatening cat-lover squishy thing, the tom made form and gender his personal preference.  It is now possible the tom could impregnate the she or the tabby, or be impregnated by the he.  Or both.  The fact is they could produce three litters at once if they chose.

     The she-within woke when the cold got too much and felt what she was pressing against, and panicked.  I agree with the noisy, sorrel tabby, I'm surrounded by idiots! I think at all around, Through four layers of skins, in a sleep, he's going to force you to make kittens with him?  You wrapped your arms and legs around him!  So the she-within retreated.  I woke, the first order of business was to wrap both the tom and the tabby in the skins.  They cling to each other, that partially solves the problem.

     Now I lie here, my back against the tabby's, wondering why they are both acting like they're cold.  Maybe the he-within or the she-within needs to play with their strings and rivers more, but I must do what I can.  My warmth can only warm one of them.  The tom seems less affected, so I can concentrate on keeping the tabby warm.  I do notice the tom reacts to the tabby as he did to the she-within, at least he has good taste in shes.  I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.

     Then I hear it.  Like a faint scratching coming from the thing that separates the inside from the outside.  The scratching continues.  I ready myself.  The tabby and the tom worried about this possibility.  Their plan was I would flee.  But I cannot abandon them.  The opening occurs, no one stands there, to my eyes.  I don't have to watch the opening, I can smell it.  Scent, not like the tom or the tabby in the skins with me or anything else I expect.

     Not human!  No, it is human, with many things mixed in, I think.  It moves across the floor.  The sound of the floor shifting under the weight of what it is, the smell preceding it.  It moves like it is trying to conceal itself.  Humans play and hunt in the light, dark is for sleeping, making kittens and worrying uselessly.

     Or attacking the sleeping, I think, A little closer.  My other form, dredged from the he- and she-within's nightmares of cats, was completely effective against those things that thought they could be both man and cat.  After they hurt my tom . . . NOW!  I change as I leap.

     Maybe it is just stupid, so my claws don't go deep, five pain-filled scratches.  It screams, high-pitched, fearful.  I roar to remind any others I rule here!  Even the walls repeat it back to me.

     Feh! I think, It voided itself while running.  I do not want that smell outside our refugee.  I hope it only soiled the skins it wore, not the floor or walls.  A bat of my paw sends the dying fly outside and a lash of my tail against the thing again separates the inside and outside.

     I turn back to - MY tom and tabby.  The idea is too fun, like a yipping dog that knows it's in a trap.  The extra skins for keeping warm, how about another?  Thickly furred and warm of its own accord.  Wrap it around the tom and tabby.  I can't restrain a purr at the thought, and how horrified the he- and she-within will be to doing this. The idiots deserve it, I think, All four of them.  I make myself thinner, wider, more softly furred.  Wrapping carefully around them, not so tightly they can't breathe, but tight enough, warm enough.

     This is the best cuddling, I think as I settle to sleep.

     Jeff woke quickly, somehow Ranko had changed to Ranma during the night and that Ranmawas hugging both Jeff and Nabiki very firmly to him, of course their six legs had become a Gordian Knot.  From his experiences in Nerima, now would be the time some idiot would charge in.  Which was why he'd typically do something to the same idiot to make them the laughing stock of the martial arts community as somebody who would picka time to break up romantic endeavors instead of going around back and issuing a proper challenge letter.  Being considered an insufferably arrogant boob was worse than actually beingone.  Being an 'enemy of romance' was usually a death sentence.

     How do I get out of this -? his thought stopped as he glanced down and looked at Ranma's opening eyes.  There was a terror there, beyond anything he'd ever seen on the boy's face before.

     Jeff removed Ranma's arm hand from his back and sat up, placing Ranma's hand down on Nabiki's shoulders.  "I'll start breakfast," he said as he stood and walked away.  He could feel the terrified gaze boring into him.  He was not going to tease Ranma about this.  Because I am such a pure and noble soul, he thought as he took a pose appropriate to such inherent nobility, Naw, because teasing Nabiki about arranging it specifically to embarrass Ranma will be so much more fun.  We still have to find a source of income, a good one.  The way Ranma and Nabiki eat, we'll have to have plenty of cash coming in.  He glance around, shivered.  And get a better place, he thought, smiled, I think I know the place.  He remembered how `Ranma` had gotten substantial cash for the Tendo-dojo and a few of his own projects.  Of course seeing Gendo with a hammer and nails, or driving a bulldozer made it all worth it, he added.

     Nabiki was feeling good, excellent in fact.  It only stands to reason,she told herself, With all the damage from the martial arts battles, it makes sense there'd be an agency to repair the damage, rescue the victims, and generally restore them to status quo ante.  Or people would have risen up in revolt long ago.  The agency existed, officially they were the Emperor's Service for Community Harmony, she wondered what they had done before Nerima became the epicenter of insanity in Modern Japan, although they had branches in Tomobiki-cho and Juban, the main offices and depot were here.  Nabiki was a buyer.  Her job was to take the registry of goods cataloged by the `listers` and find the best prices for suitable replacements, by picking the sale, or by negotiations.

     I can do that, she thought proudly, I just wish I'd paid attention to this earlier, my salary is ten times what I ever made as a loan shark, bookie, even though I'm effectively 'part-time' until my probation is over.

     She had her `homework` assembled before her, on the brand new dining room table.  That gave her a feeling she couldn't explain.  Since she was fluent in English and German, they had given her catalogs from American, Canadian, British, German and Swiss stores and manufacturers to peruse and come up with the best bargains.  She knew it was a test, but she'd pass it, this was her area of expertise.  The Search and Rescue portion . . . Raccoon had eagerly joined that, she couldn't bring herself to.  She shuddered again, not because of the events of July, but because of June 15th.  She wasn't ready yet, not even for double the pay.  And she wasn't even going to try with the construction teams.

     I bet they're still talking about Ranma and Raccoon, she thought about Raccoon with a nail gun and Ranma with his speed and accuracy, they'd laid out the wood for the entire frame of a house, Raccoon and his gun set the nails where they needed to go, Ranma nailed them together, they set the frames upright.  Ranma nailed them together, all in 20 minutes, all to a standard that matched the group's best carpenters.  'As good as a job as master carpenters could do,' the master of the construction teams had said.  Ranma had been practically glowing with delight.  Then as an added ego boost: since the major reason for the teams was the martial arts battles, much of the rescue work took place `under fire`, the team had its own martial artists to defend the rescue workers with their own unique styles.

     And did I think `Horseface` had thoroughly wiped out the entire deal, she remembered.

     "So, you wanna spar?" Ranma asked an old, gray-haired man who was the head of the martial arts division.  The man's facelessness didn't extend to his huge handlebar moustache, gray and waxed to sharp points.  Nabiki felt the sudden rise in tension among their soon-to-be coworkers.

     "Certainly," the old man said smoothly, gestured to an open area surrounded by dump trucks, bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment.  Everyone was piling out to watch, after all, this was the Ranma Saotome, the instigator of half their work in Nerima and a proximate cause for the rest.  Nabiki did note they took cover behind the heavy equipment, some watching the battle with periscopes.  Ranma bounced eagerly from foot to foot as the old man took a ready stance.

     "Ready when you are," Ranma called to his rival.

     "I have already begun," the old man replied with a smirking tone.

     Ranma instantly took a defensive stance, and waited.  So did the old man.  And waited.  And waited.  Ranma feinted left.  And waited, and waited, etc., etc.

     Nabiki noted Raccoon collected a handful of pens from the cup near the tool crib.

     "Excuse me!"  He waited until he had both combatants' attention, then launched one pen at Ranma, who dodged; and the rest singly and in pairs, at the old man and Ranma.  The old man exploded into motion.  Some projectiles he blocked, some he caught to hurl back to intercept others.  Thirty pens thrown with Raccoon's accuracy, not one even touched Ranma, or the old man if he wasn't knocking them down himself.  Raccoon gave the man a polite bow.  Ranma was looking at the man strangely.

     Oh no, here's where he blows it, goodbye better life, Saotome foot-in-mouth disease is going to get us tossed out of here on our ears, she lamented.

     "Can you stop bullets with that technique?" Ranma asked, "If you can't, I'm sure Raccoon here can whip up a buckler or target shield that would let you keep an area bullet proof."

     The old man stared at Ranma with his curious expression, the tips of his moustache twitching.  Nabiki held her breath.  Suddenly the man burst out laughing.  Raccoon and especially Ranma, had the good sense to join in.

     "I should have known," Nabiki said, "Why is it in a Great Old One's nightmare, Ranma can catch a break, but back `home` he couldn't with both hands and a catcher's mitt?"  Ranma's question made it clear he wanted to help, he wanted to learn.  His dodging protected himcompletely, but was useless for the area defense work that the job required.  The old man, and the other martial artists wanted to learn Ranma's speed technique in response to learning their defense techniques, Ranma was in Heaven.

     One of the masters asked Ranma how he could be so calm with 'Jefuri' shooting nails around him, Nabiki remembered and remembered Ranma's eager smile, ''Jefuri' shoots skeet with a Government .45, he doesn't miss . . . ever,' Ranma told them, then demonstrated his 'transformation.'  Nabiki was curious when it had stopped being his 'curse'.  Instead of the lustful advance that would have been typical, these people talked about the advantages and disadvantages of each side.

     Then Nabiki frowned and pounded the table.  "And AGAIN!  The universe found some excuse that Raccoon didn't see it!" she shouted in protest at the perversity of it all.

     Maybe the two of them arranged it on purpose, that thought broke her bad mood instantly, she chuckled.  "Who am I kidding?"  She sighed, they had jobs, friends, a reason for being and staying together.  `Ranko` had collected Raccoon to celebrate, Nabiki had begged off.  She had something else she'd wanted to do.  A bit of self-flagellation, self-torture, she knew neither Ranma nor Raccoon would understand, nor would they have approved.  They might even have tried to stop her.  So she hadn't told them.

     She'd arrived outside the Tendo homestead, and breathed in the delicious aroma of Kasumi's cooking, tempura, miso soup, daikon, pickles: all carried on the breeze, the most delicious perfume. All of it denied to Nabiki forever.  She had remained as long as she dared, then returned home to a dinner of cup ramen, Raccoon's pickles and an apple, a rare treat from her youth, now she could afford one every day if she wanted one.  It was getting late, and she was getting worried.  She'd been on a couple of `dates` with Ranma and Raccoon, fairly somber affairs, mainly educating Ranma on the intricacies of good manners.  And with Raccoon and Ranko, where Nabiki was the wet-blanket spoiling their fun.

     Considering the number of `dates` Ranma took any of his fiancees on, I guess I should be flattered they keep asking me, she thought.  But the trio always returned late, So I guess they're no later than the three of us would be, I'm just lonelier, she thought.

     The knock on the door brought Nabiki up out of the catalogs and her pages of notes.

     Ranma and Raccoon wouldn't knock, she thought as she headed towards the door.

     The apparition waiting was only recognizable in one aspect.  It carried Raccoon's walking stick held out as if offering it.  The facelessness Nabiki was almost used to.  From top to bottom the girl was a mess, she knew in Nerima clothes and hairstyle rarely defined the true gender.  The reddish hair stood out like a fright wig, bits were still smoldering.  The ribbons that had once held it were crumbled up crunchy bits.  The costume looked like a leotard but the lace and fake skirt eliminated Kodachi more than the hair color had.  Her feet had an old-style lace up boots that were in fashion at the turn of the century.  The girl looked like she was standing in a pool of metal that had been frozen in mid-boil.  The whole body tic was disconcerting.  The girl cleared her throat and raised the stick.  "Azusa-chan is - "  The tics became more frequent and violent.  "Azusa wants," the emphasis was almost painful to hear.  " - to return Constance to this place."  The tic which had partially subsided now grew worse again.  "To its owner.  And an apology for borr - for take - for stealing it."

     Nabiki could almost see the tears streaming down the girl's face, but after the P-chan incident, Nabiki had no sympathy, although she would have left 'P-chan' to Azusa's tender mercies.  But she could get a small measure of revenge for the trouble Azusa-`chan` had caused.  "Please put Constance on the breakfast bar."  Nabiki could almost see the girl's pleading eyes.  She wanted to be rid of the thing.

     Azusa bowed her head.  "Of course."  She tried to lift her foot, then stepped off the metal plate with her other foot, and followed with the foot attached to the plate.

     The molten and cooled remnants of her skates, Nabiki realized, I'll ask Raccoon and Ranko how they liked skating.  When they get back.

     The girl carefully, reverently, placed the walking stick down.

     "It's very beautiful, isn't it?" Nabiki asked.

     The girl started to nod, then - "AIEEHHH!"  Clunk-stomp, clunk-stomp, clunk- stomp retreated into the distance.  Nabiki gazed down at the dark wood, brass ball and hand guard and the dark-blue cord that made up the handgrip.  Maybe it was the place and her growing experience in reading emotions in the faceless, but she was certain the cane was smirking.

     "That was very cruel," she told it, "I didn't say she didn't deserve it, I just said it was cruel."  Nabiki shook her head about talking to a walking stick.  She closed the door and returned to her `homework`, determined to impress her new employers with her thoroughness and cunning.

     Asuka saw the horizon shifting violently.  She tried to stabilize and ended up stumbling.  Intellectually she realized she was hallucinating, but it seemed so real.

     Dehydration had become a serious problem.  She wasn't sweating and she hadn't urinated, so she didn't know where the water in her body had gone.  But lying there, she could recognize the symptoms.  Her stomach complained loudly at the demands placed on it without eating anything for days, or what seemed like days.  It could have been weeks for all she knew.

     Her attempt to rise triggered a series of cramps as her muscles joined the protest.

     It's not easy being green, she thought about her surroundings, green as grass.

     In a little farther the hue would change slightly.  The transition between colors had been very much sharper than the changes within the colors.

     Asuka considered just why she had kept moving instead of staying put.  Maybe I'm stupid and stubborn, she thought, I didn't even consider it.

     She rested a long while, lying there on the ground which wasn't as soft as grass.  Asuka let the muscles uncramp, let the horizon settle down.

     If the floor was grass, she thought, It would be better.  Some bread and cool water would be even better environment than that.  She raised her head to look around, and the horizon went back to shifting.  Well, if I can't walk, that doesn't mean I can't move, she thought as she got up on her hands and knees and continued to move.  At least my feet get a rest, she thought as she crawled onward.

Still Falls The Rain - Dark As The World Of Man

     It was raining, again.  Ranma sat on the windowsill and stared out at the rain.  The rain made him sad, but it also meant that he would have a quiet day.  They'd been here almost four months, since it was just a dream, he knew he wouldn't have to worry about how much time passed in the `real world`.  He had no real worries lately.  They had a larger apartment, a relatively reliable source of money and challenges.  The battles between and among the martial artists required extensive repairs.  The entire repair team was composed of three different groups.  The normal `fast` construction teams, he and Raccoon worked there, on a part time basis.  With Raccoon's accuracy and his - her - speed, they could do the framing for a house in a few minutes, leaving the experts for the delicate work, which typically happened.

     The Search and rescue aspect was Raccoon's specialty, and he was utterly fearless.  He'd go into places even Ranma felt apprehensive about, and got people to safely.  Raccoon explained it away for Ranma by talking about his AT field.  Of course Nab-chan worked with the logistics end, sending teams where they were most needed, making sure the supplies that were needed arrived, and that people got their stuff back.

     Nab-chan still couldn't bring herself to work in SAR.  No one blamed her.  Ranma often wanted to join the battle, instead he remembered his training and his duty.  He often acted as `point defense` for construction and rescue teams, keeping the martial arts attacks/weapons, and in some cases combatants from reaching the construction and rescue crews.  He was proud of his successes.  Yes, he had many challenges, respect of his teachers/coworkers and the affection of both his roommates.  He smirked at that, the few times they'd tried to sleep in separate places, the 'other' would physically drag them together.  Nothing had occurred except nervous sleeping and cuddling, but that wasn't the point.  Even the weirdos hadn't found him, or her, at home or work.  No one interfered, no one forced them to be anything except together.

     Once or twice the Nerimaniacs had located Ranma/Ranko with Nab-chan or Raccoon. 'Ranma prepare to - BWEEEH!', 'Airen - meorw', 'Ranma for your - QUACK!'  'Ranma you pervert I - ' poof/blam (depending on who shot first).  'Delinquent - ' poof.  'Ungrateful - Growf.'  'Pigtailed - ' poof/blam (ditto).  'Foul sorcerer - ' KRZAPT ' - sor - cer - er' clunk (always Raccoon he hates being called a sorcerer).

     What bothered Ranma most was what the activities of these `honorable martial artists` said about martial arts.  A typhoon didn't cause the damage their battles did.  A week didn't go by when the rescue teams weren't called out.  Few people lasted as long as the three of them had.  The crushing helplessness of it made you cynical, or you would attack one of the martial artists and become part of the problem.  So the team members were rotated out at the first signs of such stress, some to one of the other stations, or a paid leave of absence.

     Ranma understood this was all a punishment visited on them by an alien force.  The explanation didn't eliminate the creeping guilt and anger he felt.  Of course the destroyed property was replaced, but the heirlooms, pictures, memories all were destroyed and couldn't be replaced, but that didn't seem to matter to the combatants.  Although, the teams did their best.  He knew he could stop them, stop all of them.  With Raccoon to back him up, or just release Raccoon from Ranko's promise, it would stop them forever.  But that wasn't allowed, murder was still murder.  They didn't kill.  Drop a house on someone, that someone crawled out.  The people around here could soak up that kind of punishment.

     With one notable exception.  Ranma remembered the look of horror on the face of the combatants when they smeared Raccoon all over the pavement.  Of course he took it in stride after he recovered.  Although Raccoon had stealthily delivered 50 kilos of red gelatin cubes with bits of offal in them to each of his `murderers'` bedrooms.  Even 10 km away, they had heard the screams and laughed about it.  All three of them.

     But yesterday it wasn't one of the crazies, Ranma thought about the leave he'd been placed on, Ranma closed his eyes, Guys don't cry, guys don't cry!  Yesterday it had been a kindergarten.  Ranma neither knew nor cared why 'the Phoenix Prince' decided to incinerate the building.  Logic never seemed to apply.  The SAR team had rushed in, got everybody out, not a single loss.  Ranma and everyone else had let themselves get distracted and a kid wandered back in.  Raccoon noticed first and rushed back into the smoke and flames to get the kid out.  Ranma wasn't worried, Raccoon had a skill finding people and his magic and AT field meant Raccoon would emerge unscathed from the flames.

     Maybe the kid's death rattle of 'Rosebud' was supposed to be funny.  It wasn't funny to Ranma, he'd wanted to kill the arrogant bastard who suddenly realized a bunch of 'worms' had spoiled his fun, and brought the SAR teams under fire, literally.  Raccoon had tackled Ranma to keep him out of the fight.  But Ranma had been beyond reasoning, beyond any attempt to explain or cajole.  He wanted to kill the arrogant punk and was going to go through whatever was in his way.  Raccoon's blood and bone was the only thing in the way.

     Ranma hadn't killed him, he'd recover . . . Eventually, Ranma thought, How long that eventually is . . . that worried Ranma.  He'd never lost his temper that way, never lashed out at a friend to get at an enemy.  Raccoon would undoubtedly forgive him.  The rest of the team understood, it had happened to every single one of them, they all made sure to tell him that.  So Ranma was on paid leave, an enforced vacation.  If the rains kept up, he wouldn't be needed.  But instead of being happy that Raccoon survived, Ranma only felt ashamed.  Some of the worst martial artist offenders had disappeared.  It didn't take a genius to figure out who `disappeared` them, why and how.  But that was Raccoon's way, if he had to defend the people, he'd defend the people.  The ones who never threatened anyone outside their circle were safe, those that only hurt other combatants were safe.  Like me, Ranma thought.  The ones who reveled in collateral damage didn't last.  It shamed martial arts and martial artists.  It shamed him, then he brought shame to martial arts in one unguarded moment.

     The 'other' had been bugging him about 'kittens', Ranma wondered if it might be time to do something he'd always thought was unacceptable, even alien to his nature.  Agree with the 'other', and become a mother.  Ranko could propose to Raccoon, make the leave of absence unpaid and permanent, maybe figure out a way to open a school to run when the children were at school.  Teach potential martial artists not just the skills but the responsibilities and ethics of the martial arts.  Live up to those responsibilities and ethics himself.

     Ranma squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep the tears from falling.  He couldn't ask the others.  Raccoon would say he was making too much of it, and Nab-chan seemed terrified of the idea of motherhood, for many of the reasons Asuka worried them about.  Nab-chan wanted a career, she liked fighting as much as Ranma did, but she wanted to fight in the boardroom rather than in the streets or arenas.  Ranma also could see the joy the others on the construction crew felt when they built something, when they remade a home.  The way he felt when . . . it was ironic that he could access a whole other way of `building` something, something that mattered, something that would last longer then the temporary construction in and around Nerima where everything except feuds were transitory and life went on out of sheer inertia.  Just because the deeply flawed people who battled eternally here didn't want to accept the final conclusion, and seemed equally unwilling to accept the facts that deaths, growth, change and advancement all entailed hard choices.  That didn't mean he was like them.  He could do a lot worse than a family life.

     He decided he'd never return here, if the reality was anything like this, he had nothing in common with these people.  He'd seen and done too much to simply ignore the cost of his actions, his inactions and his failure to act properly.

     The other thing that Ranma was extremely worried about was the repair of Nab-chan's ki flaws.  The second treatment had brought Raccoon back to normal, he'd thought at the time that he'd managed to fix Nab-chan too.  Less than a week later, the problems returned.  The 'other' `smelled` them before Ranma detected them through casual contact.  He suspected one reason for the 'other' to insist on all of them sleeping together was that the flaws were easiest to detect while she was deeply asleep.  The treatments were fortunately getting further and further between.

     He and Raccoon also figured out the sudden grave chills Nab-chan got while she slept, while she seemed to be covered with sweat.  It took all the warmth Ranma/Ranko and Raccoon could generate by body, magic and ki to break the chill.  More frightening was Raccoon's assertion that is wasn't sweat covering Nab-chan during these episodes, it was sea water.

     Ranko and Raccoon had discussed this strange place, that only Nab-chan really liked being here.  Ranma could be comfortable anywhere, ditto Raccoon.  Despite everything, Nab-chan wanted to be here.

     The two of them dreaded that the reason for the scenario and Nab-chan's `illness` was that Nab-chan was the main target, the other pilots were hit as a side-effect.  The two anchors for Nab-chan, to prevent her from getting kicked off this plane of existence, were him and Raccoon, so they held her back and prevented her from being destroyed.  Their combined `inertia` landed the trio here, and since Nab-chan was the target, she'd been the most damaged by the transition.  Raccoon more so because of his proximity, Ranma effectively came along for the ride.  All in all it made sense.  It also bothered Ranma that either Nab-chan had reached out to him, or he'd reached out to her to prevent her from being killed.  He would have done it in a fight, but to `volunteer` while she was on the other side of the world . . . and all it meant about how he felt about her and how she felt about him, or both.  It really worried him.

     They'd avoided serious entanglements with any of his previous paramours, sometimes only by strenuous effort, usually by trickery.  Ranma still couldn't believe what worked on these people.  The agency's reports let him read about their activities, and he felt sorry for them.

     Of course the suggestion I get them all together to discuss things, he remembered the screaming match that had ignited, Then they didn't accept my statement I wouldn't do it.  They chained me to a bulldozer for three days, under constant guard.  While they fed him, gave him bathroom breaks, the rest of the time was a recitation of what fiance(e) destroyed what building, destroyed how much property over what insult: cooking, sewing, cuteness, bust size, ability to bear children.

     Sitting there in the bulldozer scoop, listening to Raccoon's long medical explanation was bad enough, Ranma thought, Under extreme, regular physical exertion, a woman would stop having her menstruation altogether, or it would become erratic.  No menstruation, probably no kids.  Ranma was shocked that evidently, some of his `fiancees` fell into that category.  So much of their body's reserves were called upon for battle, the body quit `wasting` effort to produce the next generation, since the effort would reduce the chance of this generation surviving.

     Knowing how important `kittens` are to the 'other', Ranma thought, I can imagine how that argument could escalate out of all control.  He'd kept any ideas about solving these people's problems strictly as insights into the nature of these people from then on, it was safer that way.

     Unfortunately it also gave him a clear view into the dark aspects of his own pride.  It was not a good reflection of him nor on him.  He could see why Nab-chan and Raccoon had reacted so violently to the suggestion. Why Asuka, Mein Grosfeldmarschall, and Raccoon held `honor` in such low esteem.

     People who really have it, don't talk about it, he thought, They cloak it in as duty, 'doing the right thing', into responsibility, and other words. He couldn't imagine Raccoon or Asuka fighting a duel that took out a dozen city blocks, even if they fought it in their EVAs.

     "But that's what puts a roof over my head, food on the table and clothes on my back," he said, most of the rest of his pay went to various charities to help the victims.  Although everyone told him the battles would have happened anyway, he, and she, was just an excuse.  He still felt responsible, the only part of him that really craved ease and comfort, found it every night with its two favorite cuddle-toys.

     He did understand if he should announce a wedding to anyone, he should have the entire Self Defense Force, ashore, airborne and afloat set up a gauntlet to run these people through.  It was a dark thought for a dark night like this one.  The alternative was withdraw the request he - she'd - made of Raccoon that first day.  He could eliminate the problems quickly enough.

     That wouldn't be the - 'other' - among the pigeons, that would be throwing the pigeons straight into a chipper/shredder.  The idea was to survive until the dream ended, not slaughter a bunch of people who hadn't been as life-threatening to his two friends as he had.

     Then he frowned about it, felt the tears make another sortie.  Until yesterday, when they might have been of use, then they were pathetic, he thought, They only made the little brat angry.  The battle still haunted him.  A god, or so he claimed to be, was exactly the kind of thing the EVA pilots should be fighting: slavers, murderers, people destroying those `lesser` than them out of sheer `fun` of it.  Instead what he fought didn't care about people, their lives, their cities, even when you were killing them they only felt astonishment.  He wished he could have faced the phoenix in Unit 04, it would have made him feel cleaner.

     "I could have taken that punk without Unit 04, or if I'd calmed down, listened, then Raccoon and I would have taken him later," he said, "But I didn't listen, wouldn't wait.  Our job was rescuing those people, not fighting the menace.  Bore him and make him go away.  Then hunt him down and take him at a time and place of our choosing.  But I didn't do that."

     He regretted it, but he often acted in haste and it gave him long periods alone to regret his rashness.

     Asuka fell.  All her determination, all her desire couldn't make her rise again.  She'd made it as far as blue.  Red and orange hadn't been bad, in yellow her thirst began to bother her, there was nothing she had here except herself.  The hunger pangs had been bad, but she was used to cramps.  The effects of dehydration had grown increasingly difficult to ignore.  Even crawling, she'd started stumbling repeatedly as the floor and the ceiling shifted suddenly.  Her palms and knees were inflamed and raw where they'd repeatedly touched the floor.

     Now she lay on the blue floor, surrounded by the blue `sky`, and the blue walls.  She wasn't thinking `blue` thoughts, she wasn't resting to make another effort.  Not moving eased the pain to a dull ache, now lying on the ground told her the jittering horizon was in her mind.

     She closed her eyes to prevent the incipient motion sickness.  I do not need to throw up, I feel bad enough as it is, she thought.

     "Okay," she croaked through cracked lips, "What am I supposed to do?  Pray?"  This is just a dream, she thought, I'm just going to wake up.  She was worried that it wouldn't be the way out.

     The tread of something heavy caught her attention.  She couldn't even raise her head to look, but the huge violet object walked around into her field of view.

     Unit 02, an odd violet in the blue light.  She'd heard rumors that the purple monster, Unit 01, moved on its own.  Unit 02 was too 'well-mannered' for that.  It reached down towards her, picking her up so gently.  She couldn't reach out her hands to her `old friend`.  It's manner reminded her of her mutti.

     "I have come to help you."  She heard from the EVA's speakers.

     "Wondergirl?!" she croaked desperately, "You aren't - "

Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 43 - Sturm und Drang signifying . . . nothing

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.

     At the welcome home party for Nabiki and Rei, the Azores mission is revealed.  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.

     To help Misato and Hiro's relationship, Asuka, Rei and Shinji throw together a Sunday in the park picnic.  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.  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 investigates the unusual way Jeff syncs with the EVA, she is terrified by the contact.  Later she realizes the spirits power the EVAs.  Nabiki and Maya train to operate firearms.  Nabiki adds hand-to-hand training with the rifle.

     Jeff and the Scholarly Dragon teach Nabiki about control of her dreams, the Scholarly Dragon prevents a dream attack by Usagi and company.

     The pilots and guards reminisce about the events of the previous weeks with Belldandy, Sora and Megumi while taking a cooking lesson.  The day ends with a bug attack on Keiichi's home being destroyed by the pilots and their guards.

     Usagi and company summon a strike force of Dark Young, dholes, shantaks and Hunting Horrors.  The Twins watches the summoning and draws its own plans against the EVAs, pilots and NERV.  For a short time the EVAs and the pilots are caught off stride.  Once they regained the upper hand they never released it.  The pilots go over Misato's head to participate in rescue operations.

     Nabiki continues to train in controlling dreams, concentrating on infiltration.  Bad dreams continue to plague her.  The Azores Mission heads through the Panama Canal, and the principals are treated to the effect of their celebrity.  Nabiki and Maya don't like it.

     The Russians go over a newsreel of the Azores team, and discuss their growing maintenance problems.

     The Azores group discover a second entry plug port in Unit 04 and begin select Maya and Captain Madison of SAR to accompany the pilots to the bottom.

     The recovery itself goes off without serious problems, Nabiki carries the Great Old One back to the EVA.  She is revolted and horrified by the experience.

     Something is killing the leaders of the project.

     What she has taken looks like a fried egg, Nabiki is ashamed of her weakness and terror in the face of a Great Old One.

     The creature awakens and the battlegroup is surrounded by clouds and all the pilots are plunged into a dream, Rei awakens, but the others do not.  Shinji dreams of a city deep in the ocean, and then to the city he designed in the dream challenge.  Rei is with him and they lead the human race of planet and to the stars.  Then Shinji heads off to battle an enemy on the Moon.

     Ranma, Jeff and Nabiki find themselves in a faceless Nerima duplicate.  They join the group who repairs Nerima from the marital arts battles.

     Asuka finds herself walking through the spectrum, eventually falling to hunger and dehydration.

     Rei and Erin temporarily move in with Sammi.

Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again,

Because a vision softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping,

And the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains

Within the sound of silence.

The Sound of Silence - Paul Simon

In restless dreams I walked alone narrow streets of cobblestone,

July 27, 1947

     "That was fun," Nabiki commented as the light ran red-hot pokers through her eyelids and out through the back of her skull.  She sat up, opened her eyes and immediately collapsed again.  "Please tell me I died."

     "Sorry," Maya said, "You're still alive, still aboard the boat, and we're still heading for Boston.  I think."

     " 'I' - I'm going to speak softly, it hurts less, 'I think.'?"

     "Yes, none of the navigation gear is - "

     The crash, that shook the entire ship, woke Raccoon, he sat up.  "Oh, that hurt."  And collapsed back down immediately.

     "Not - so - loud," Nabiki admonished, very quietly.

     Raccoon slipped out of bed, managed to remain upright for five full seconds, before sliding bonelessly to the floor.

     "You never change," Nabiki told him as he pulled himself up and back into bed.

     "I think we're in a lot of trouble.  It takes a lot of force to shake a ship this size," he told her as he pulled the covers back over his body.

     "We've been in trouble for days," Maya told them, then retreated from the pilots' gaze.  She must have realized the only way out was to tell them everything, "We've been caught in a hurricane, since both of you collapsed."

     "Oh God!"  Jeff pulled the covers over his head.

     "I'm sure everything will be all right," Maya assured them.

     "Don't stay that."  Nabiki struggled to sit up, managed to stay there on her third try.  "Anger, fear resentment?" she asked Raccoon, who pulled the covers down long enough to nod his agreement, then covered himself again.

     "Evidently family is one thing that holds, or at least a possible link to immortality," he said from under the blanket, "Can you turn down the lights?  They're so loud."

     "What are you talking about?" Maya asked, then more quietly when both pilots winced, "I don't understand."  She stood to turn off some of the infirmary's lights.

     "Daddy is not happy, but he doesn't want his baby girl harmed," Raccoon said.

     "I'll talk to the Navy," Nabiki said as she stood.  Just remaining upright took considerable force of will.  "You argue with Doctor Akagi.  She won't be willing to give up her specimen."

     "I'll do it."  Raccoon stood.  He was a nauseating shade of green.  Nabiki looked away quickly.

     "What are you talking about?" Maya demanded, easily restraining both pilots.

     "Our specimen is Cthylla," Nabiki said, "Cthulhu's blood kin."  She smiled at Maya.  "Daddy wants his little Princess back, and right the Hell now couldn't be too soon."

     Maya blanched and released both pilots.  "You'd better change clothes though."

     Nabiki glanced at her hospital gown and was glad these didn't leave you wide open at the back.

     Nabiki looked across the hanger deck, the front portion had collapsed.  Maybe that was the crash we heard, she ignored the damage control parties running here and there.  The EVA was in the middle of the hanger, where Raccoon had left it.  So they could still use it.

     The pitching and heaving of the ship made her queasy, she wondered how much of her unsteadiness was nerves and sheer terror, and how much was the heaving deck.  Oh don't say heaving! she admonished herself.

     "The storm's been tracking us?" she asked Master Chief Cole as he walked up to her, he looked even worse than she felt.

     "You're awake - I mean, yes ma'am.  The Group's been scattered, Brits and the Spanish too.  The Brit's battlewagon had the Frenchies in tow, they lost their bows, damn tinclads, beg pardon, ma'am.  In this weather you need a stout ship."

     "Would you say it's been trying to drive us back to where we were?" she asked calmly, she was fishing, she hadn't the faintest idea how to convince the Admiral of what was happening.  All she had were the memories of the scream of rage and pain that dropped her to her knees.  She hadn't been aware of anything in the real world, until she awoke with her current `hangover`.  The look of desperation on the Master Chief's face told her everything she needed to know.

     "You know how to get us out of here?" he asked worriedly, hopefully.

     "Or get us sunk, I can only hope," Nabiki admitted.  The Master Chief took her towards the stairway to the bridge, it was much noisier than she remembered.

     "We lost most of the glass on the bridge."

     "Lost?" she shouted her question over the growing noise.

     "A wave hit us broadside," the Master Chief explained.

     "That's 30 me - 100 feet easy!"

     "Yes, Miss Tendo, we know that."

     Nabiki decided making her case might not be as difficult as she thought.  Then she realized she didn't know exactly what her plan was.  She glanced up the stairwell and heard the storm raging along.  She realized that she had just that far to come up with what she wanted to do, and what she would have to do to threaten, cajole or negotiate with the Admiral, to get him to do what she decided they had to do.

     Terrific, she thought, I'm going to give orders to an Admiral.  It might be fun if thousands of lives weren't at stake.

     Her decision of what she wanted came as she walked into the teeth of a gale racing through the bridge's shattered windows.  Only a few officers in rain gear stood watch here, looking about with binoculars, and using the sound-powered phones.  She was instantly soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone.  She saw none of the escorting vessels around them.  No other carriers, no battleships.  The sea was so rough, she couldn't have seen a cruiser or destroyer unless she could look straight down on them.  She spotted her quarry using the pedestal-mounted binoculars.

     "Admiral Adams!" she thundered over the din, "We have to talk."

     "You are out of your mind," Admiral Adams shouted at her in his day cabin.

     Admiral Simson would have let me finish before he said that, Nabiki thought, she looked at the walls, enjoyed looking like she in control.  Ironically, she had the explanation, and the wedge to use on Adams.

     "I thought the EVAs were to kill these things, if one of them's gone crazy, we should hunt it down and kill it."  The man continued to fulminate, she let him go, let him use up his energy on useless anger.

     Nabiki debated revealing that 'Brother Jonathan' had told her some were enemies, some were threats, and some wanted to be left alone.  She doubted that she'd have any luck with those explanations, let alone justifying how she knew.  She took a different, far more effective tack.

     "Admiral, do you know how much power a hurricane represents?  About 100 megatons a minute, that means over a hundred of Hiroshima bombs a second.  This one is disordered because it's trying to herd us.  Now, we can oppose something that can control and generate that kind of power, or we can give in.  Someone told me military troops aren't suicide troops."  She paused to let that filter in.  "Of course, they could just sink us and loot the ship once we all drown, but they haven't.  The Castor and Pollux were sunk when some of their minions were able to slip aboard.  Speed was our defense and we don't have that now, do we?  How deep does the disturbance a hurricane makes go?  Could something say, swim under us and rip open the hull in a few dozen places, and let us sink?"  Nabiki had to remind herself that Admiral Adams wasn't a bad man, he just wasn't Admiral Simson.  The man was out of his depth.  She'd hammered him from one direction, now she'd hit him from another, and then give him an honorable way out.

     "Or worse, it lets us take this storm straight to Boston, then after it devastates that city, it turns south and destroys New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.  It was called up out of nothing and directed, doing the same over land would be trivially easy.  I don't see an alternative, if you do, tell me."

     She watched him struggle and fail to come up with another way out.

     "All right," he said in a beaten tone, "We'll do it your way.  I'll set things in motion."  He paused, stared at her.  "I don't like it."

     "Sir, I don't like it, neither of us has to like it, but we do have to do our duty.  The vow is 'protect and defend', not kill your enemies."  She nodded to him and turned away.  She figured Raccoon would either instantly agree, or laugh himself sick when she told him.

     If he wanted a particular outcome, she thought defensively, He should have told me beforehand.

'neath the halo of a street lamp

     "How are we going to convince Sempai to return the specimen?" Maya asked as they proceeded towards the lab.  She was hovering around him, he still looked ill.

     "With logic and reason," Jeff suggested, "If that doesn't work, I tear off all your clothes and you make passionate love to her while I run off with the specimen."  He headed down the ladder to the next deck.

     Maya stared in shock at him.

     "Well, would it also work if I tore all my clothes off and -?"

     "NO!" Maya insisted as she scrambled after him.

     "Okay, then you do it."

     She frowned at him.  "There are times I want to strangle you and the rest of the pilots," she told him.  Especially when you all think my crush on Sempai is `cute`, read to be exploited, she silently added.  "I'm certain it won't come to that!" she insisted.

     "Is that hope or despair?" he asked with upraised eyebrows.

     "Aren't you scheduled for a full physical and range-of-motion exam?" Maya asked carefully, "Do you want to be?"

     "Oh really, with high heels and everything?" he enthused at her, sparkling eyes and hands clenched under his chin.

     So much for intimidation, Maya thought darkly as they entered the lab.

     Sempai was standing next to the specimen, staring down at it.  The banks of equipment ignored.  A trick of the light made it look like her face was glowing an unnatural color.  The illusion vanished when she turned.  Maya drew back.  Sempai's face was blank, her eyes searching for something randomly, just like the specimen did.  Maya didn't know why she made that connection.

     "Sempai, are you all right?" she asked as she started forwards again, "Is there a problem?"

     Ritsuko whirled and picked up a gas cylinder and hurled it at Jeff and Maya.

     "Sempai!  Please stop!" Maya yelled as Jeff pulled her out of the way of a second heavy gas cylinder.

     "She can't," Jeff yelled at her, "She's being controlled."

     "She'll hurt herself lifting all those heavy pieces!" Maya stared as Sempai tore free a piece of equipment bolted to the floor.

     "Hurt herself?" Jeff asked, "We're on the receiving end!"

     Maya couldn't explain it, somehow she couldn't imagine Sempai trying to hurt them, scare her yes, but not hurt her.  The heavy desk missed them.  "She's trying to miss us, not hit us!"

     "Once that thing realizes that, it will direct her not to see us, just see a target!" Jeff told her as they dodged to a more secure position behind a heavy workbench.

     Now Maya was frightened.

     "I can stop her without injuring her, but I'll need a distraction, be ready to dodge when she doesn't see you anymore."

     "You promise she won't be hurt?"  Maya ducked as another piece of hurled heavy equipment bounced off the lab table they were now hiding behind.

     "She'll be surprised and embarrassed, but that's it.  I give you my word."

     Maya stood up and walked to Ritsuko, who had a liquid oxygen cylinder over her head, "Please, Sempai, you know me."  She saw the look of confused recognition, it held for a few seconds, then it vanished, but it was long enough.

     Jeff stabbed his hand against Sempai's back.  She paled, then became transparent, like a statue of water.  Then the water crashed onto the deck, scattering as droplets splashed everywhere.  Jeff caught the cylinder and managed a controlled crash on the deck.

     "You . . . "  Maya's mind was dropping through horror to despair.  "YOU KILLED HER!"

     "She's just stunned," Jeff shouted back.  The water was already turning black and bubbles appeared, becoming like semifluid pumice.

     "STUNNED!" Maya shrieked as she advanced in fury and anguish.

     Jeff stared right into Maya's eyes, there was something odd in his expression, something inhuman behind those eyes.  "Get a bucket and start collecting her, all of her."

     'Get a bucket and start collecting her, all of her.  Get a bucket and start collecting her, all of her.'  Maya heard the voice echoing in her head, saw the eyes boring into hers.  The combination drove all other thoughts, all other volitions out of her mind.  Maya bent down and collected the pieces of slimy, sticky black gel that pulsed and throbbed in her hands as she dropped them into a bucket.

     Maya felt the tears of sadness and rage streaming down her cheeks.  She couldn't give voice to her rage at the betrayal, He'd promised she wouldn't be hurt.  How could anyone recover from being reduced to this? she wanted to scream.  She looked up as a half-dozen Marine guards forced their way into the room.  She wanted to tell them to arrest him, shoot him, but the voice and those eyes bored into her mind, she could only do as the voice said, to keep collecting . . . Sempai.  Some tiny part of her mind watched all this, wondering why Sempai had attacked them, why Sempai hadn't screamed when she dissolved, she looked more surprised than anything else.  She wondered if Jeff hadn't betrayed her and Sempai, if he'd been rougher than necessary because he needed it done quickly.

     Like shooting at Ranma, Maya remembered, as her hands moved and her eyes searched without any input from her.

     "What the Hell is going on here?" the Marine lieutenant demanded.

     "Lieutenant, we need an open-topped drum, 55 gallons or so, a clean one," Jeff told him, in the same alien monotone he'd used on Maya, "Do you speak English?  Or am I standing on your beard?  Now move it, Marine!"

     The Lieutenant saluted, turned and ran from the room.

     "Help her police up these fragments, they look like tar or pumice, every scrap!" he ordered the others, the sense of alienness coming from him increased.  In an all-too-human gesture that seemed to accent his eldritch manner, he moved his hat forward.  "I have to go threaten our `guest`."

     Maya watched as the bewildered Marines helped her collect the pieces.

     "Maya-san?" one of them asked her, "What is this stuff?"  He lacked the vacant look she was sure her eyes showed.

     "Dr. Akagi," Maya told them tearfully, just saying it overwhelmed the voice and the image that had been dominating her for several minutes.  She broke down sobbing.

     The sergeant paled and sent two additional men after the lieutenant, echoing and amplifying Jeff's demand.

     Free of the compulsion, Maya watched Jeff walk up to the specimen, his mask of fury matched her own.  He held his hand over what they had taken out of the temple at the bottom of the sea.  The area between his hand and the specimen shimmered and fogged up, as if the air itself were trying to escape from between them.

     After a few moments, he relaxed and stepped back, falling to the deck in exhaustion.  "Where's that drum?" he asked woozily.

     "It's on its way," the sergeant told him, trying to make sure they had all the bits and pieces, "What happened?"

     "I couldn't let Dr. Akagi kill us.  When she escaped that - thing's - influence, she'd never forgive herself."  Jeff dropped to his hands and knees, peering into corners and crevices, searching for any traces of the pieces of Dr. Akagi.

     The bucket was more than filled, but the pieces seemed content to remain in the amphistylar pile they'd made of them.  It disturbed Maya how it pulsed and quivered, changing as she watched.  It was clearly alive, but it wouldn't combine and flow together, just separate bits all struck together, sitting there like a pile of jellied stones.

     Nabiki entered with Captain Casey and Major ggreg, they looked at the ruins of the lab.

     "What the Hell happened here!" the Captain demanded.

     "Dr. Akagi fell under the influence of that thing," Jeff said tightly, "We're waiting for a drum so we can put her into it," Jeff gestured at the pile of glistening, pulsing pumice they had in the center of the room.

     Nabiki turned to the Captain, "Sir?"  Major ggreg turned, turning green as he left.

     The Captain paled, then turned green himself, he looked ready to throw up.  "Get that thing off my ship.  I'll order the course change, we'll be at the site in three hours."  The Captain looked around.  "Do what you can for her!"  He turned and rushed from the room, covering his mouth with his hand.

     A few moments later, with a great deal of noise, a team of Marines and sailors brought in a tub that looked like they'd made it by cutting a steel barrel in half, top to bottom, and welding it together top to top.  They laid a tarpaulin inside, then carefully poured and placed the semi-liquid rocks into the long tub.

     "What happened?" Nabiki whispered to Maya and Jeff, in Japanese, when she got close.

     "Not here," Jeff whispered back.

     Maya was fretting as they all scoured the room to find every last piece and bit of . . . Dr. Akagi, and set it into the tarp-lined steel tub.  She also kept glaring at Raccoon, then looking away in shame.

     Nabiki dragged both of them over to a corner, "Look, I'll accept this silence for now.  There'll be a couple of hours during the descent, then I expect full and complete disclosure, or I'll beat it out of both of you.  Is that understood?"

     Maya was even more afraid of Nabiki's tone than she had been of Sempai and Jeff.

     They shooed the military out and sealed the door, then Maya gave full vent to her emotional typhoon, with a fury to match the storm raging outside.  "What are you going to do now?!"  She shoved Jeff into a corner.  "You said you wouldn't hurt her!"  Maya felt herself on the verge of tears and violence, and she was strongly considering both.

     "I told you she's just stunned, she will recover," he said carefully.

     "Then what are you going to do?"  Maya shook him.  "Recover, from being disintegrated!  From being reduced to a puddle!  No human . . . no human could survive that."  She covered her mouth and backed away, the obvious answer was too terrible to contemplate.  "No, no, no, no!  No!  NO! NO!"

     "I'm not, you are," Jeff told her sternly, "Or is all that 'sempai' stuff only for schoolgirl daydreams.  The EVA changes you, and she's been working with them longer and closer than anyone."

     Maya felt her anger override her horror.  How dare he!? she thought as she raised her fist, then she calmed.  She still felt miserable.  "What can I do?"

     "Provide a template, when the pieces relax enough to flow back together, climb in.  You'll provide a guide for her."

     Maya's eyes felt as big as saucers, she shook her head.  This is impossible, she thought in horror.

     "The liquid will be like oxygenated L.C.L., you'll be able to breathe it."

     Maya covered her face in shock at Jeff's suggestion.  "I can't," she whispered in dread.

     "You have to," Jeff replied, "She needs an adult female, that means you.  It's best that it's someone she trusts, who trusts her."

     "But . . . ," she paused, glanced at Nabiki who nodded to her.  She steeled herself.  It's for Sempai, she reminded herself.  "I have to, don't I?"

     "You could leave her like this," Jeff told her heartlessly, "Or trust she'd figure it out from a teen-aged boy or girl."  He changed to a more sympathetic tone, "We'll be with you for the start, then we'll take the thing back where it belongs.  Then we'll be back."

     Maya nodded warily.  "It won't . . . hurt her?"

     "She'll be fine," he continued in his sympathetic tone, he smiled at her, "A little embarrassed, but fine.  Just like I promised."

     "Okay."  She blushed.  "Do I have to take my clothes off?"

     "Only if you want to, but the liquid will penetrate everywhere."

     She squirmed at that, and worse at the pilots' 'friendly and sympathetic' smiles.

     "Pilots report to the EVA," the 1-MC blared, "All hnads make preparations to launch the EVA."

     Maya had been 'in the tub' for over an hour.  Nabiki and Jeff had been holding her hands, now she patted their hands, urging them to go.

     She'd felt very strange as the thick liquid had crawled all over her and into her.  She'd panicked slightly when it entered her lungs.  She had difficulty breathing, but she was still breathing.  She could hear the blood rushing in her ears, and the random pulse of the liquid . . . of Sempai, around her.  She was glad she couldn't see, the stuff was still nasty to look at, bubbling evilly.

     From inside, Maya thought, The bubbles tickle.  She tried her best to relax.  She always dreamed of being alone with Sempai, being intimate with her.  She'd even accidentally drawn her into one of those dreams.  But this wasn't what she had envisioned, not when it was life and death for either or both of them.  She knew Sempai would never intentionally hurt her, but the occasional increase in pressure, like a tentacle tightening around her leg, her chest, it alarmed her.  She hoped the pilots would be back soon.  She prayed Sempai would recover.

I turned my collar to the cold and damp

     The massive EVA descended through the dark water, Nabiki was `driving`, Raccoon would return that thing.  She couldn't bring herself to come in contact with the thing again.  The storm had been raging as they returned to the site, but the sea was smooth enough for normal operations.  Somebody wants this to happen, Nabiki thought worriedly.

     She had let Raccoon rest in the plug as they descended.  The dive captain wasn't aboard, and Maya was otherwise occupied.

     "What is a 'tinclad'?" she began, to lull the topside listeners into complacency, Raccoon could lecture endlessly and encyclopedically about seemingly anything.

     "The French Duquesnse-class cruisers were designed to be the fastest Washington Treaty cruisers, to do that, they had a maximum armor thickness of 30 millimeters."

     "Centimeters," Nabiki corrected.

     "Millimeters, 1.18 inches, maximum armor."

     "That's thinner than the armor on a Sherman!" Nabiki exclaimed, she didn't have to feign her disbelief.

     "Thinner than the armor on a Stuart," Raccoon amplified, "Hence the sobriquet 'tinclads'.  I take it they didn't do well in the storm."

     "The British had to tow them back to port," Nabiki explained.  She let the discussion of the relative values of the various solutions to the Washington Naval Treaty continue, she was confused that the French also produced the best, the Algerie, sunk at Toulon.  Lose the best, keep the worst.  I thought only Ranma had luck that rotten, she thought.  She winced at the commentary on the Mogami-class, even cheating they were weak.  I wonder if Kuno's ancestors were handing warship design? she wondered, she was now satisfied the surface monitoring crew would be bored out of their minds.

     "What happened?" Nabiki asked after she assured herself she'd cut all the communications with the surface.

     "A mapulo is used to control shoggoths.  This creature has a similar power.  Maybe it is the source of the control mechanisms."

     "Over humans?" she asked.


     "Oh . . . " Nabiki thought furiously, felt her throat tighten up.  Ritsuko-as-mother, had been as tender as Kasumi had ever been, but more stern with discipline.  It made it seem that Ritsuko cared about them more, of course Kasumi hadn't been preparing soldier/warriors.  Does NERV know the truth?  Rather, does Gendo, does Misato? she wondered.  She boggled at the contradiction, the warm woman who let Nabiki cry for her loss and pain.  She isn't human?  That can't be possible!  If she isn't human . . . what is she?  I can't believe she's a threat to us!  Shoggoth, isn't that one of the things that attacked Rei and me aboard the Coral Sea? her mind whirred through the possibilities.

     Nabiki finally decided to ask no more questions until they reached the cave, and the sepulcher.  There'd be more time for questions on the return trip.

     This time, finding it was no problem, creatures: shoggoths and things out of deepest nightmare; hung like a pair of parallel walls forming a perfectly square corridor straight to their destination.  An honor guard, was all Nabiki could think of, Leading us in.  I should be terrified of all these things.  But I feel nothing, maybe I should be afraid of that.  She didn't relax her vigilance, she did note that they didn't close in behind them.  The path to the surface was left wide open, the honor guard peeling off after the EVA passed them.

     They arrived uneventfully at the sea floor.  An immense crowd of alien . . . things arrayed around them, more like a concert or sports crowd than an attack group.  "You okay with this?" she asked Raccoon through the tether line as he swam out.

     "Yes, just be ready to get out of here FAST!" He sounded far too calm for her piece of mind.

     "Should I leave you behind?" she joked.

     "If it's you and the EVA or me, get out of here.  Suffocation is preferable to whatever they might have in mind.  Maybe we have amnesty, if we act in good faith."

     Nabiki lost sight of him as he entered the cave, "Be careful, two big . . . tentacled somethings - followed you in."

     "I see them.  They're avoiding the tether.  I don't think they want me getting lost," he still sounded a little too calm for events.  She'd be screaming, she wondered what was wrong with him.  She barely kept herself from striking out at the creatures surrounding her and her EVA.  She thought it ironic that once more she was in the EVA, and once more she was not in combat in the EVA.

     Nabiki heard something through the line, but couldn't decipher it, "Raccoon!"

     "It's okay.  They wanted the specimen.  I insisted I had to put it back myself," the voice on the other end of the line was icy cold, composed, somehow less human than the things around her.

     The problem as far as Nabiki was concerned, was they were thousands of meters deep in the ocean, all alone.  There was literally no help available.  Nabiki looked around nervously.  She couldn't see far through the darkness, but she could sense the motion around her and Unit 04 well beyond her visual range.  Something moving out there was huge, she couldn't see it clearly, but it was at least five times the size of the EVA.  She was getting nervous, and there wasn't just one of them amid the restive crowd of other indescribably things around her.

     She heard the plug's outer hatch open and the system cycled, "Lucy I'm home, I'm alone, get us out of here!" Raccoon told her, they'd agreed the first phrase was the 'okay' signal.

     Nabiki accelerated the EVA towards the surface, as the inner hatch opened.  She could feel the cold radiating off Raccoon, she remembered how cold she'd gotten during her brief dive that started this entire fiasco.

     "You're freezing!" she told him, she already had a counter to whatever argument he raised.

     "I'm fine," he said, disdaining her concern, "I - YAWP!"

     She didn't have to tolerate that, she dragged him to the command chair by the tether line and its attached facemask.  She pulled him into her lap and wrapped her arms around him.  He was shivering from the cold, she was shivering from the sight of the things of the `honor guard` forming a wall behind them.  Whether they were guarding them or waiting for a moment to pounce, was immaterial.  Nabiki was terrified.  She'd been in an EVA three times now, in each case she'd done little more than drive it to its destination.  She didn't know how she'd perform in combat.  Failure now would only kill the two of them, instead of the entire crew of the carrier, some 2500 people.

     She hated failure, No, I fear it, she admitted to herself, the cold of that realization matching the cold from the form held in her lap, That's always been my real problem.  Now I've lost nearly everything: home, friends, Hiroko, Ranma; without anyone really making a mistake.  What can making a mistake do to me that hasn't already been done.  She shivered violently with those thoughts, barely keeping the sobs that came with them in check.  Raccoon wouldn't say anything about her breakdown.  That he hugged her back was okay too.

     The force behind them dropped away as they entered the lighted waters.  Unit 04 broke the surface of a glassy sea, into a cloudless sky.

     "What the . . . " Nabiki looked around.  The very calm of it, after days of relentless, pounding storm, was more terrifying than the hurricane had been.  The other ships of the escort group bobbing there, more like toys in a bathtub than warships in the ocean.  Nabiki could clearly see the storm damage to the carrier, it was heavy and extensive.  Most striking was the collapse of the forward and rear of the flight deck.  When she'd gone over the side, she'd thought the damage aft had been a trick of the light.

     "Stand by to reboard," she told Raccoon, as he woke, still curled up in her lap.  She suspected she'd resurfaced too quickly, but neither the EVA nor the pilots were having any problems.

     Unit 04 leapt out of the water and landed on the deck, adding to the damage.  It wasn't as graceful as Ranma or Raccoon could manage, but she didn't break through the battered flight deck.

     "Let's get back to Doctor Akagi.  Maya is probably panicking a little at this point," Nabiki told Raccoon as she lifted him out of her lap.  Then she crawled Unit 04 through the deck lift to its maintenance spot at the center of the hanger.  The groan of the metal should have worried her, but at this point, she no longer cared.

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light

     Going from sound sleep to full wakefulness is never easy, doing so in midflight is difficult.  Doing so before you crash to the deck is probably a necessity.

     Jeff wondered why his mind took such strange turns when he was in danger of imminent injury.  He managed to get his feet under him as he managed a controlled crash.  Ranko and Ranma would have landed on their feet, he thought as he tried to attach the present with his last memories, of lying on a cot with Maya's hand in his, Nabiki holding the young woman's other hand as Maya lay submerged in the tub of still-fluid Dr. Akagi.

     Jeff hadn't managed to complete his analysis before an interruption by the scream of rage and betrayal, being hoisted into the air and thrown at a bulkhead by a very angry, naked Rit-chan.  It returned his attention to the here and now, and surviving the next few minutes.

     Ritsuko looked furious as she charged after her projectile.  Behind her, Maya and Nabiki were just awakening.  He doubted he could reason with Rit-chan, so he manifested an AT field.  It won't stop her, he realized as he scrambled to his feet, But it might give her pause.

     She tripped on the sharply-sloped field, grabbing its unseen edge for support.  Jeff was glad then frightened as he saw the transformation of her expression from rage to something else.  It told him his `little wall trick` had had an unexpected side effect, and he shouldn't repeat it.  A moment later, the rage returned.  She tore the field apart with her bare hands, then continued her charge.  Jeff felt incredible pain as the field came apart.  He ignored the cries from Maya and Nabiki, as Ritsuko was also doing.  He tried to retreat, but the smallness of the lab and the pain of his field's destruction offered little refuge, and he'd have to get past her to get to the door.  However angry she was, Ritsuko moved as if she knew that too.

     She covered the last yards with a wild spring.  He wound up flat on his back on the floor, staring up at her.  He glanced down, considering the absurd thought, Blonde with short brown roots is her natural hair color.  She drove her fist into the deck next to his head.  Rather than panic, he automatically relaxed, he `knew` that he couldn't fight her, even if she had been a human.  Knowing that he was probably going to die, gave him the steadiness he needed, his death he'd recover from.  He couldn't bring himself to do the things that he'd need to do to win a conventional fight.  He had other tools that wouldn't harm her.  Either they would calm her down, or she'd vent all her rage on him, the others would be safe.  He was also beginning to realize he'd hurt her quite a bit already.

     He closed his fingers around her wrist, caressing it.  If he couldn't fight, then he'd use another method.  He reached up past her heaving breasts, he knew what staring or touching there would induce right now, maybe safer later.  Instead he touched her jawline, running a finger along it.  Ignoring her other, upraised fist.  He knew he couldn't stop the descent once it started, all he could do was prevent the plunge.  His finger continued down her throat, her initial amazement at his irrationality was giving way to enjoyment of the touch and confusion about her own reaction.  His finger circled the hollow of her throat, and her back and neck began to arch in response.

     Suddenly she grabbed his collar and slid him away across the floor.  She shivered at her own reaction.  "What have you done?!" she demanded, "Are you insane?!  How could you?  I trusted you!"  She stood and brushed Maya aside.  "What did you do to me?!"

     It suddenly dawned on him that she wasn't talking about disintegrating and reintegrating her.  "How much do you . . . ?" he asked as his horror grew.

     "Remember?  Everything," she said miserably.  Maya took advantage of Ritsuko kneeling and hugging herself, to drape a lab coat over her shoulders and give Jeff a venomous look.  Ritsuko looked back into the two women's eyes.

     "I . . . I . . . "  The enormity of what he'd done plunged down on him.  He hadn't meant to, this was a disaster.

     "I know!" she shouted, "Don't you think I know?  You knew I'd never forgive myself if I hurt you or Maya.  You knew that you couldn't bring yourself to use that black crystal, or the other spells."  She sighed, drew in on herself.  "You didn't expect your AT field to have that effect on a nonhuman."  She sobbed as she knelt on the deck.  "But it did, as bad as Asuka, worse than her because it was more . . . intimate."  She looked up in him, looked totally lost.

     Jeff was torn between rushing forward to comfort her or running from the room.

     "Please stay," she said, smiled mirthlessly, "See.  I know, I also know you know."  She laughed desperately.  Nabiki carefully knelt behind her and put her arms around her shoulders.  Ritsuko put her head on Nabiki's arms and wept uncontrollably.  Maya stared at the others without understanding.

     "Asuka and I discovered a side effect of the AT field.  She climbed up on top of mine and rolled up her sleeves and exposed her legs to increase the surface area in contact . . . because the contact was so enjoyable.  But since Rei and Ranma have encountered the AT field Rei can generate, she didn't have the effect on him . . .."

     "You mean Ranma encountered the field Rei can generate, and it didn't have the effect yours did on Asuka," Nabiki said brittlely.

     Jeff gulped, nodded, wondered if he was going to get out of here alive.  "We also encounter the AT fields of our enemies all the time, so I thought . . . that it was safe to use a diffuse AT field to disrupt Dr. Akagi and free her from Cthylla's hold on her," he told them leadenly.

     "You were wrong," Ritsuko reminded him, "I got the full affect, maybe worse than Asuka's."

     "I'm sorry."

     "So am I," Ritsuko said, "I'm also sorry I didn't realize."  She raised her head, stared at him.  "You really did love her . . . me."

     "Yes."  He stared at the deck and wished he could drop through it.

     "And you are wondering if you subconsciously did this on purpose, to regain who you lost."

     "Exactly," he admitted, her automatic certainty unnerved him.

     "Well, put it out of your mind," she ordered as she stood, "You didn't, I know.  If you'd seriously considered it, you would not have done it."  She buttoned the coat.

     "I'll get breakfast for everyone," Jeff told them and left quickly.  He needed to escape, he had never considered he could screw things up that badly.

     "Coward," Nabiki said, staring angrily at the door.

     "No."  Ritsuko knew what was driving him.  It was terrifying for someone as private as he was, and as private as she was, suddenly realizing everything you felt, thought, knew and hoped was completely known by another person, even one you trusted and cared for.  It was that emotional nakedness that had made her so angry when she awoke.  She didn't want anyone to know her that way, even more, she didn't want the responsibility of knowing about someone else.  Previously, he had scrupulously not taken advantage of what he knew, because he dreaded someone might do the same to him.  Now it wasn't a remote possibility, but a definite probability.  He'd used a tiny portion of it to shock her enough not to kill him, to gain time for her to come back to herself.  She'd gloried in that touch.  If we'd been alone . . . perhaps - she abandoned that thought.  Ritsuko looked into Nabiki's and Maya's eyes, she still saw only concern for her, not the revulsion she expected.

     "So you saw," Ritsuko said bitterly.

     "Only what he did to you."  Maya stared daggers after Jeff, then hugged Ritsuko.  "I'm so glad you're all right."

     Ritsuko reluctantly returned her affection, then pulled her away.  "Maya, what you saw . . . he didn't 'do' anything to me, except render me unconscious and revealed to all of you - my true form."

     Maya, wide-eyed, shook her head.  "That can't be."

     To Ritsuko's chagrin, Nabiki replaced Maya hugging her.  Pulling her loose required more effort.

     "Don't you understand?  That thing, that was the real one, the real me.  That's what I am."

     "What you don't understand, Doctor," Nabiki said, craftily resisting being pried loose, "Jeff already told me.  I don't care.  Let me tell you what - who Doc - Rit-chan is."  She smiled at Ritsuko.  "Rit-chan is an overworked, lonely woman who without time or training, took in three near-orphans and tried to make a home for them," Nabiki told her, "Someone who was worried about grades, and if we were eating and sleeping properly.  About whether we were pushing ourselves too hard.  Someone who cared about, Nabiki . . . and Ranma, and even Raccoon and Shinji.  Not because she had to, but because she wanted to."

     Ritsuko sadly realized that they really didn't understand what the real problem was.  "Miss Tendo, what did he tell you that convinced you to give up your blackmail attempts?  On everyone?"

     "That he'd slit my throat."  Nabiki covered her neck with both hands and looked unhappy.  She hadn't realized how `Rit-chan` knew all about her 'Ice Queen' activities.

     " 'Slit your pretty throat,'" Ritsuko reminded her, enjoying her shocked reaction.  "How would you deal with someone suddenly knowing all 'Mercenary Girl's' secrets?  You'd run away too."

     Nabiki gulped, nodded almost against her will.

     "And the plans you had for Maya and me?"

     Maya gasped, but didn't run, then glared at Nabiki.  Nabiki looked like she wanted to run after Raccoon, or disappear into the steel around them.  Ritsuko didn't continue to press, she had no desire to be alone.  She put on the clean clothes someone had provided for her.  She wondered what she was going to do.  She wanted to run and comfort Jeff, she wanted to check on Ranma and Ranko, `the twins`.  She knew that `Ritsuko-Nabiki` doted on the eldest, Kyoko, who looked and acted like Nabiki, the next eldest, Sakai and Kairi, Jeff doted on.

     That explains how 'Raccoon' can resist Ranko, she is his `daughter`, she thought.  She shook her head, it wasn't fair, it was completely unfair.  She had wanted someone, had for so long, now she had them complete for the asking, and she couldn't ask.  She couldn't come up with a logical, rational reason, she just knew it was wrong.

     The memories of Samuel's death hit her.  She suddenly broke down sobbing, it hurt, just remembering.  She couldn't imagine surviving the pain of the actual occurrence.  Her loneliness was a drawn out ache, this was a railroad tie shoved in and twisted.  These weren't her memories, but reminding herself of that did nothing to alleviate the ache the memories brought with them.

     It seemed several minutes later when she recovered.  Nabiki had draped herself across `Rit-chan's` back like a cloak, hugging her, like Kyoko always did with mommy.  When she needed it or she thought mommy did.  That is going to take even more sorting out! Ritsuko thought bitterly.

     Maya, shier than the pilots, was holding Ritsuko's hands in hers and staring worriedly at her Sempai.  The image of a selfish, deeply frightened, hair-triggered girl who could barely cook or sew, Ritsuko-Nabiki's younger sister, the one Ritsuko-Nabiki and Jeff-Ranma/Ranko kept having to bail out of scrapes.  Ritsuko wondered how accurate the portrayal really was.

     "Are you all right?" Maya asked, clearly Maya, not Maya-Akane.

     "No, I'm getting ambushed by some of the worst and best memories.  Including memories of living in Nerima, courting and marrying a girl named Tendo Nabiki, and raising a family together."  Ritsuko wondered what Ranma would do when he learned all the things that `Raccoon` did as Ranma, both the incredibly violent and astonishingly tender and loving.  Ranko would be astonished, then laugh herself sick about the last, Ritsuko thought, then remembered Ranma and Ranko were the . . . Were not the same person, but transformed back and forth.  "You, rotten -!"  She clamped her mouth shut, it was one of the few mind games Ranma had to use on Nabiki and the others, she wasn't going to spoil it for him/her.  "It's a lot to absorb."

     Yes, three entire lifetimes, awake, which wasn't exactly uneventful; the Dreamlands, where I - he was a mage and a general, paperwork, yuk; and the dreams of Nerima, I can't believe those people could ever survive to reach puberty, especially the adults, she let the thought drift away as she shook her head.

     "Pilots have had a more eventful life than I have had," she told them, "And that's saying something.  Your sisters Kasumi and Akane, your father Soun.  He knows, the dreams where he married Ritsuko-Nabiki were very similar to the dreams you just had."  She felt a pang of jealousy at the time `Nab-chan`, Ranma/Ranko and Raccoon had shared.  That she knew all about it, all Jeff felt about events, the people, especially his roommates . . . bedmates.  I'm jealous that a `little girl` spent time with `my husband`, she laughed inwardly at that, It's not as if any of them did anything.  She wanted to tease Nabiki about that, then she remembered why they had spent every night clustered together.  She remembered Ranko's worries and the almost daily discussions with Raccoon.  She remembered her job.

     "Nabiki, please report to the infirmary, we need to run some tests, then to the EVA, we'll run a sync test," Ritsuko told her.

     That's as close to a test of your 'ki' as I can manage, she thought as Nabiki stood.

     "You're back to normal," Nabiki said sourly.

That split the night and touched the sound of silence.

     Weeks ago, they'd detected something odd in the region.  The reports that had caused the incursions were hard to believe.  A 40-meter tall manlike thing walking around? Anna thought, It could only be an EVA or an Angel.  And since it had been reported several times during the height of winter, they had to wait until they had better weather to send a team in.

     She'd volunteered, it was that or be volunteered.  Besides, I am Chief of Scouts, I'd like to think I still have some of my Dreamlands skills and inclinations in the Waking World.  She'd gone in, if the American Alpine troops had been caught, they were just chasing a runaway and she was just having fun leading her minders on a merry chase.  Then we found the footprint, she thought, With the ridges exactly like the upgrade that had been planned for Unit 02.  But by the time we were captured, it had been superseded by an American innovation.  Secret weapon by Goodyear.  So there are only a few people who should have known that design: me, Asuka, and Dr. Schikelgrubber.  I've been held by the Americans, Asuka by the British then NERV, the Doctor is dead.  So how did they get it?  The second, larger, incursion had been laid on in a hurry.

     Anna looked over the troops assembled.  She wasn't certain changing the force level from 'lost patrol' to 'training accident' was such a swift idea.  'Neither Dick nor Richard', she remembered, too many and too few, something to be avoided.  The weather had closed in so rapidly, so conveniently, they couldn't retreat if the Swiss defense forces came upon them.

     So here I am in the Swiss Alps, with French- and German-speaking American Alpine troops, she thought, And we haven't found anything.  Even a patrol sent specifically to where the footprint was.  Either the six of use were hallucinating, or somebody cleaned up the evidence.  Either way she wasn't happy, for a whole host of reasons.

     "I don't like it," Major Mason, her minder, said quietly.

     "We should get out of here," Anna agreed, "Hang the orders and the weather."

     "Orders are not to get caught," Mason said, laughed mirthlessly, "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes . . . I doubt we'll find anything."

     "Better question," Anna said, "What do we do if we do find something, or something finds us?"

     The man had no answer, Anna headed out from the shelter of the trees and into the storm.  Her `guard` stayed close.  She walked to a rock scoured clear of snow by the bitter winds.  She stood on the only high ground and looked over the camp.  It was the best that could be done.  There were too many to effectively hide, and too few to fight something serious.

     She felt something under her feet.  She knelt down and removed her glove, touching the freezing stone with her bare hand.  The vibration was faint, and only seemed random because it was several rhythms out of phase with each other.

     "Something's coming," she told Mason, "Several somethings."  She motioned him onto the rock.

     "Several big somethings," Mason agreed as he stood where she had and felt the vibrations, "Let's go."  They rushed back to the CP.

     The troops threw themselves into the slit trenches, others assembled the mortars they'd brought with.  Anna noted the line throwers were also being deployed.  Basically mortars that fired a grappling hook and heavy rope.

     To trip something, she thought as she stood by.  If the weather had permitted, they would have shipped her out, possibility even calling in a light plane.  It was impossible now.  She wouldn't have wanted to run away anyway.  She scanned the falling snow, saw no evidence of anything.  Her discovery had brought the scouts a few minutes warning.

     "Unit seven," a voice in French crackled on the radio, another disguise, "We've spotted something on the east."

     So much for sounding French, she thought of the bad grammar and wrong attitude.  She couldn't see anything.  Her guard mutely handed her his binoculars, his face slack.  She didn't try to read his expression, just adjusted the binoculars before looking at what he had seen.  She felt her own face go slack.  Not an Angel, but three EVAs in winter camouflage, barely visible until they moved, advancing in a standard overwatch pattern.  One leapfrogging ahead, then the next, etc.

     "I thought EVAs were scarce," she whispered, barely audible above the wind, she handed back the binoculars.

     "So did I," Mason told her as he took them.

     She considered, "If I can capture one, can I go to Japan?"

     "If you catch all three," Mason said, "I can arrange for immediate transport for all four of you."

     Okay big mouth, how do I take down three EVAs? she thought furiously, not just to rejoin Asuka, but to stay alive.  She stared, and saw the standard infantry in winter camouflage deployed with the EVAs.  The Americans began firing on the incoming troops.  The battle was destined to be one-sided.  None of the EVAs had a tether, but none were manifesting an AT field.  Probably that would attract too much attention.  But the light weapons we're carrying will have little effect on the EVAs' armor, she thought.  And all of them were moving very poorly, as if the pilots could barely control them.  Ikari did better on his first run, she thought, then smiled at the implication, they had a chance if all these things were . . . were just big, walking scarecrows.

     Several American teams had worked themselves into a position to fire the line throwers.  The propelled grapnels caught one EVA, tangling its arms and legs.  One line so entangled it, it went down on one knee.  But those gunners came under heavy fire from the supporting infantry.

     "Come on."  Anna had an idea.  The base would be overrun, but she could get some valuable intelligence.

     The spider hole was a bit cramped.  The line thrower was going to serve another purpose.  The hand grenades would be very useful.  She would have preferred a knife, but Anna Alice wasn't who she was in the Dreamlands.  She had to compromise.

     The infantry had passed.  The tramp of an EVA's footsteps approached.  She waited in silence.  She hoped it wouldn't step down too close, that would crush or bury her.  Her luck held, the machine passed, she popped up and fired.  The knotted line following behind the grapnel which landed and seemed well set.  She didn't think about it as she scrambled up the rope, looking at any details about the machine to report later.  She also concentrated on the exercises Asuka had helped teach her about syncing with an EVA, if she had sufficient surprise on her side, she might beat both of her other enemies.  Only the welded handholds on the arms appeared nonstandard, which was how they carried the troops.  The carapace over the entry plug was also slightly different.  She had only a little space to reach the hatch covering a nonstandard entry plug.  The end hatch didn't use the turn wheel but a simpler, quicker undogging mechanism.  She decided to recommend keeping the turn wheel and inner hatch, it would prevent what she was doing as she undogged the hatch, dropped two hand grenades into the L.C.L. and quickly resealed the hatch.  The blast pounded on the hatch.  She undogged the hatch again and climbed inside as the EVA stumbled and fell.  Inside the plug was the safest place to be.

     She removed the A10 nerve clip from the corpse in the command chair.  She was able to see the other EVA coming towards her as the third freed itself.

     Probably thinks it's coming to help a comrade, she thought, she could barely make the Unit move, but she was gaining more control every moment, Too bad.  She slammed the edge of the Unit's hand into the approaching EVA's throat as it leaned down.  It staggered back.  She knew that what the EVAs felt, the pilots felt, so the other pilots should be out the fight for a while.  She turned towards the third.

     Suddenly she was thrown against the control column as all the feeds went dead.

     "Ejection by remote, clever," she grunted as the g-forces crushed down on her.  They'd never gotten the remote ejection to work properly.  She knew enough to wait until the rockets cut out before trying to sit back, she hoped she landed in Allied rather than SEELE territory, she also hoped that disabling one EVA and driving off another bought the Americans time to escape.

And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more.

     Ritsuko sat in her cabin and considered her options.  She should have been angry with Jeff for what he had done, except she knew exactly why he'd done it.  She could work through and analyze every detail as he would and as she would.  It made it worse that way, she agreed completely with every step of his reasoning and his `choice of weapon`.  That didn't help her feelings of helplessness over the entire situation.

     Maya suddenly burst into the room and walked unsteadily towards her.  Only her falling back against the door as she staggered kept what followed private.  "Sem - pai!" she slurred, "We need t' talk."

     "You're drunk!"  Ritsuko realized as she stood up to confront her assistant and roommate.

     "Don' change th' subject," Maya insisted, one word per careful step forward, " 'm not that drunk.  Only some berumate."

     "Vermouth," Ritsuko corrected.

     "They tried to mix it into maratiniii with that awful gin.  So I dran' it plaiiiin," she `sang`.

     "How much?"  Ritsuko could smell the alcohol.

     "Third, fourth, fifth!" Maya told her.  Now she was practically breathing in Ritsuko's face.

     Ritsuko was glad she wasn't smoking, the detonation of all the alcohol fumes would have finished off the damaged carrier.  Ritsuko couldn't imagine downing a straight fifth of vermouth.

     "Wa I wanna know. . . ."  Maya reached up and tore her uniform open.  "Wa's wron'?  Huh?"

     "Maya," Ritsuko said as she tried to back out of the reach of Maya's questing hand.  Maya's other hand tore her own bra down around her waist.  "I don't think you should do this," Ritsuko insisted.

     "Why not?"  Maya abandoned her quest for Ritsuko's blouse and dropped her hand to Ritsuko's skirt and tugged.

     Ritsuko was glad she'd been practicing.  "That isn't clothing, that's part of me, attached."

     Maya's eyes lit up.  "May sem - pai walkin' 'round naked in fron' a all th' sailors."  Maya fell against Ritsuko and giggled at the contact.  "So ris - risk - Riskuto - risque!  And da - daring."  She tried the stretch up to kiss Ritsuko.

     Ritsuko leaned out of the way.  "Maya!" Ritsuko scolded, "Stop this immediately!"  She pried Maya's hands off of her.

     "Or wha'?" Maya asked as she pressed herself again Ritsuko.  "You'll sen' me 'way?  You' hav' me kill'?  You don' wan' me, you don' wan' 'efffri!  You' looonely, sooo sad!"  Maya caught Ritsuko again and sobbed at the pathos of it all.  "You - you're hurtin', 'gnore me, no one wan's Maya, do as tell, stay 'way.  No more mouse, kick or kiss, least you noticed."  Now Maya was crying.

     Ritsuko didn't know what to do.  She had limited personal experience.  You do have another set, the treacherous thought passed through her mind.  Another girl who looked like Maya, hair-triggered and deeply jealous of attention paid to others, and terrified of attention paid to her.  The gentle hand on the tiller was the way Ritsuko-Nabiki and Jeff-Ranma had dealt with her.  I can't do that, Ritsuko thought.  "Maya, you have to understand - "

     "I do I do!" Maya said eagerly, then her legs collapsed, Ritsuko had to let go of Maya's questing hands or wrench them from their sockets.  Maya held tight to Ritsuko's legs to stay partially upright.  She looked up.  "White's a good color."  Maya rubbed her cheeks on Ritsuko's knees while she laughed herself silly.  "I can look," Maya defended her peering up Ritsuko's skirt, "You looked all over.  You know I'm still virgin."

     Ritsuko froze, she knew she'd examined Maya and what she could reach of Nabiki and Jeff, minutely.  But she hadn't considered that, she was barely sentient until she awoke.

     "Save myself for someone special," Maya said tenderly from her position holding Ritsuko's knees.  "Wan' som'n smart, som'n special," Maya added quietly, "Want m' sempai who thinks she's monster.  Got her."  Maya's hand was gently stroking the back of Ritsuko's leg.  "Soft, 'n' smart, 'n' clean, wouldn't hurt me.  Knew it.  Eev - ven big-bad couldn't make Sempai hurt Maya."

     Ritsuko wasn't sure if she should comfort the girl weeping on her legs, or throw her out of the room and into the brig for her effrontery.  She knew she'd never tolerate this behavior from Misato.

     "Give Sempai children, know the biobibliology for that!" Maya declared.  Maya smiled and tried to stand, pulling herself up hand over hand on Ritsuko's lab coat.  "I know!"

     The breath was still as bad as Ritsuko remembered.

     "Don' cut off Rak-kunin, loves Sempai toooo."  She pushed off from Ritsuko stood there unsteadily, like a tree in a hurricane.  She threw her torn uniforn shirt on the floor, then ponderously turned to the door.  "I'llll get 'im, then it'll be all - all right."

     Ritsuko practically jumped to the door to block Maya.  "I don't think you should do that!"

     "Sempai wants me all to herself!" Maya announced at the top of her lungs, then slid to the ground.

     Ritsuko covered her face and wondered if they heard her all the way to Boston.

     Nabiki heard Maya's exhortation as she walked the corridors.  She was glad few of the Marines spoke Japanese well enough to understand Maya's drunken ramblings.  She'd heard Raccoon and Maya had been wandering aimlessly all over the carrier.  Maya had evidently gotten some 'engine room hooch' from the snipes.  On 'further inquiry' Nabiki had verified it wasn't as strong as what you could buy.  She doubted Raccoon had gotten plastered at all.  If he had, she thought angrily, Somebody ought to look after him. She was far too angry to even consider blackmail.  So physical violence would be her preferred tool, hurting someone else to make her hurt and confusion go away.  Best take it back to the source, she thought.  The problems were too reminiscent of the idiot plans the two fathers tried to spring on Ranma and Akane.  She couldn't believe what happened was anything except intentional.  He specifically told Maya and Capt. Madison not to touch the field, she raged silently, And he didn't expect any effect on Ritsuko?  Bullshit!  Even Genma isn't that stupid.  She remembered the comment on slitting her throat, so she ignored the potential for blackmail, out of self-interest.

     Raccoon didn't answer the knock on his cabin door, but she didn't feel like respecting his privacy.  She entered.  He was sitting on the floor, staring at the wall.  Not an intense gaze, just something to focus on.  He didn't seem to focus on her as she sat down in front of him.  His expression was slack.

     She put her anger aside for a moment, she could tear him apart later, she'd let him damn himself before she attacked.  She thought herself as a good judge of character, however she wasn't sure if he was currently sad, bored, plastered, or something else.  "You alive in there?" she asked with false joviality.

     His gaze didn't change, he didn't focus on anything.  "I'm not good company."

     "Did I ask?" Nabiki asked, "We saved Ritsuko, saved the world, saved ourselves, you look like someone - " She stopped as he stared at her.  She was fairly sure he wasn't angry, but the intensity of the gaze disturbed her.

     "Her name was Kyoko, she looked a lot like you, although she actually acted more like Asuka and Ranma: always arguing with her father, always pushing against every limit.  She was the eldest, but she didn't want to be the heir, she wanted to go out, learn from other masters, bring the techniques back to the dojo, back home.  Regale everyone with her stories of foreign places and people, and bask in their their respect and adoration.  Like you.  Sakai looked like Ranma, quiet and intense, like me, or Rei.  Everything was to be studied, analyzed, examined and mastered.  Superb technical marital artist, won every tournament, not as good as his twin sister in a real fight.  Kairi was the spitting image of Ranko.  She could fight like a wildcat or charm a butterfly into her hand.  Daddy's girl, had me wrapped around her little finger."  He paused, the intensity of the gaze faded.  "When it was all a dream, all my dream, it was just embarrassing.  My wife was named Nabiki Tendo and looked exactly like Ritsuko would at 17 years old.  We dated, fought, sometimes each other.  We went to college together.  I took and passed the exams a year early.  We'd been married two weeks when the Musk and the Phoenix People stole her and Gendo's wife, Yui.  Gendo and I exterminated the Musk, from the pseudo-dragon princeling to the lowliest peasant, then we rescued our wives and obliterated Phoenix Mountain.  We methodically killed any survivors of our initial - nuclear - attack.  It was all an illusion inflicted on me by a Great Old One or Outer God."  The intensity had returned and redoubled, Nabiki was afraid.

     "I remember, perfect detail.  I can tell you Kyoko's first word: goggie, doogie or mommy, Sakai's expression at winning his third consecutive karate championship, how my wife likes her coffee, and how I have to make it when she's pregnant.  You want to know Kyoko's reaction to Soun's emotional blackmail, of his 'do it or I'll cry'?  She threatened to sell him to Saudi Arabia as a water plant."

     Nabiki had to smile at that, miffed she hadn't thought of it.

     "As long as it was just mine, just a memory . . . I could put Dr. Akagi's attitude aside.  I knew she wasn't my wife, I knew she owed me no special attention.  It was all a joke, painful, but a joke.  Not anymore.  To keep Ritsuko from killing Maya and me, I used my AT field against her.  Just like how the EVAs destroy our enemies.  Except I didn't intend to destroy her, just shock her.  That she'd recover.  You're angry because you think I did it all on purpose, I should have known better."  He looked straight at her.  "You're exactly right.  Now if you want to tell me that falling on my sword will somehow make this all better, I will do so."

     "I think you ought to . . . ," she bit back her first response, anything to tone down that gaze.  So you blame it on `NERV school` not having the right curriculum on AT fields?  Once you don't have all the facts at your disposal you start screwing up? she thought.  Nabiki stood up and left, she didn't have a way to make it all better, not even by hurting him like she'd planned to do.  She paused at the door.  "If it's real to her too now," she let her bitterness show in her voice, "Maybe you should actually sit down and talk to her about it, instead of sitting here 'Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa.'"  She left before she said more, said something she'd regret.

     Nabiki thought the dreams were over, or should have been over when they returned Cthylla to her temple.  She'd found herself in the same situation: deep under water.  She'd thrashed to the surface while silently screaming in terror.  It evidently wasn't so silent in the Waking World, because as she awoke, Ritsuko and Jeff were both trying to fit through the door without touching or waiting for the other.

     She also wondered what it meant that she'd broken the surface as the dream faded out, if this was the last one.  If it was all over.

     "I'm fine," she told them as she stood, wringing out her nightgown, "If you two are going to wrestle or dance around, I'm leaving.  Are there any tests to determine if this is sea water or just sweat."

     "There is the sea-life in your bed," Ritsuko said, "I didn't think tentacles were to your taste."

     Nabiki stared back at the bed, turned on the light to see better.  Nothing there except the moistened sheets and dampened mattress.  "I'm going to get a shower," she told them, "Since you two are here, why don't you talk?"  She collected a clean change of clothes and headed for the shower.  Jeff was already walking away, Ritsuko following him.  Two sailors were removing the mattress and bedding.

     Coward, she thought as Jeff moved out of sight, pursued by Ritsuko.

People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening,

July 28, 1947

     Ritsuko tilted her head back to expose more of her throat to those passionate kisses.  Her hands roamed through his hair and over his body, she drove her hips against this, grinding into him, feeling his body responding eagerly.  His hands and lips touched all those places that excited her so.  She couldn't believe such ecstasy and wild abandon was possible.  Her mouth found his and the focus changed.  Playful, passionate teasing while she felt their body swaying and twining with the rhythms of her kisses.  She slipped out of her lab coat and skinned off his jacket.  As her hand pulled his tie off and reached for his belt, some rational part of her mind screamed the alarm.

     She disentangled herself from his arms and her own emotions.  As she backed away, she saw the look of disappointment on his face.  Then it became realization and shame.  She wanted to go to him, tell him it was all right, but she doubted either would be able to disengage if they gave in this time.

     "I'm . . . I'm sorry I -" he stammered, backing away.

     "No, stay!" she said firmly, "My fault."  It was this time, she'd thought she could tease him into talking the way Nabiki often did to get him out of his bad mood.  But he'd reacted very differently, kissing and caressing her back.  Things had rapidly spiraled out of control with both of them.  Like a pair of long lost lovers, she thought, disgusted by her lack of self-control.  The memories of how to please the other had come flooding back, the 'memories' of passionate nights and days together had also come racing back.  Only the knowledge of what they were working up to caused her to break off.

     She'd nearly submerged herself in those false memories.  They were wonderful memories, she would have loved to act on them as if they were real and had actually happened.  But it was just a dream and not even my dream, she reminded herself of what was fast becoming a mantra.

     But I know all those things, she lamented inwardly.

     "You didn't do anything wrong," she assured the stricken boy as he pressed back against the bulkhead.  She also knew how he felt about her, how strong and deep the passion ran.  She also knew how disgusted he was with himself and his actions right now.  If he'd been Nabiki instead, she could have offered a mother's comfort, but she couldn't separate things that well, and right now neither could he.  Where normally she could have cared less about most people, being the one and only beloved . . . that was a powerful aphrodisiac.  It was also extremely dangerous.

     "It wasn't your fault," she told him, again.

     "Then whose fault is it?"  The normally cold face was gone.  This raging emotion would be more typical of Ranma.  "I chose to do this!  Because I knew you'd be ashamed of hurting me or Maya, so I overlooked other changes and the possibility of this very thing happening," he was shouting now, "So how is this not my fault?  I'm so Goddamn smart, shouldn't I have figured out all the angles.  Or did I mess up your life because I wanted this to happen?!"  He turned and ran from her, leaving his coat abandoned on the deck.  She couldn't hope to catch up to him.  She hung her head, she didn't know what to do about it.  All the jokes about a 'war-bride' and all that would go with it cascaded through her mind as she picked up the suitcoat, grunted at the weight.  It all left a bad taste in her mouth.  She still thought of herself as what she was, a monster plodding along in the disguise of a human.  But as least now she saw and understood that Maya, Jeff and Nabiki saw her as who she acted like and tried to be.

     She let out a long sigh.  She sadly understood what would happen if she tried to give in and live the life she remembered, the more comfortable illusions she could share with someone who loved her.  It was the most exquisite torture - especially deciding to ignore the gentle illusion and try and live the `real` life.  She didn't know what to do, or who to ask to get the advice she needed.  She could guess Maya and Nabiki's advice on the subject.  She didn't even want to think about Misato's reaction.

     Am I avoiding what would be good because I'm stubborn?  Because I'm afraid?  Or because I don't want to be loved as completely and devotedly - or because I'm afraid I don't deserve it?  She left the passageway, she knew that with parents' permission, that marriage was possible as young as 12 in America, and he was an emancipated minor, and miracle of miracles, they were sailing straight to Boston where his principal guardians lived.

     She sighed again, she'd have to find him, preferably with Maya and Nabiki in tow, to discuss the situation with him rationally.  Who am I kidding? she thought disgustedly, I know what both of us want, and it is physical and emotional, not rational.

     Nabiki watched Raccoon charge past her at a run, she thought for a moment he was crying.  White man cry like we do!? she thought of her too-too-composed teammate as she dried her hair.  She didn't see what the big deal was.  In Japan, 12-years-olds could marry, he was an emancipated minor, the rest of her thought mirrored Ritsuko's.  She also knew they could telegraph the other parents about the situation and get their advice or blessing for the marriage.

     It's not as if I don't want `mommy` to be a spinster, she thought, laughing at the image, But they do go well together.  She wondered how much of this was her frustration at never being able to `fix` the Kasumi/Tofu situation.  Making people look ridiculous was tremendous fun, but those two were just painful to watch.  She'd looked in on them during the dream, and they were just the same.  And there was nothing I could do about it, she lamented.  She hung her towel on her neck and marched after him.  She hated being confused.  Best to selected a course and press forward into clearer circumstances.

     She concentrated on the problem before her, she could guess how it would all work, And to Hell with anyone who spoke against it, she thought angrily.  She stopped, slapped her head.  A shoggoth can take any form, she reminded herself, I've seen pictures of Rit-chan as a teenager, we just had a run-in with a Great Old One, the effect was worldwide.  If Rit-chan suddenly became, say 14 or 16 . . . that would eliminate half the problems right there.  Then it wouldn't be a `Christmas Cake` robbing the cradle, but a couple of teenagers dealing with their problems and getting married.  Of course there would be problems, but those could be ironed out later.  She smiled at her cleverness, trying to ignore it had taken quite a while to realize this obvious solution.  She wondered if Rit-chan should daily get younger and have the condition `cured`, or if there should be a `lab accident`.  She wondered if she should bring Adam and Major ggreg in on this, and if so when.  Well they were sent here to kill him, she considered, I wonder if being married will make him more suitable in their eyes or less? she considered as she jogged to find her quarry.  Why is this much more satisfying that being angry at him? she wondered as she broke into a run.  Nabiki Tendo wanted to hurt him for what he did, Nabiki Ritsuko's `daughter` wanted `mommy` happy.  I'm being as schizo as Ranma and the neko, she told herself.

     Maya was searching for Sempai, Jeff or Nabiki, in that order.  A hangover cure would also be nice.  Considering all the things that had been happening, she wasn't happy about being alone, especially at night.  She wasn't one of the pilots, she had no trouble with admitting she was terrified.  She walked through the hanger deck, in the work lights she saw the immense sections of the flight deck that had collapsed in the storm.  A tribute to the power of the creatures they fought.  She wondered why none of the others had exhibited such powers, if one could, they all should have.  That wasn't all that worried her, the media would no doubt ask all kinds of questions about what had happened.  They might even have someone who spoke Japanese, and they might ask her to explain what happened.  She knew it was silly to be worried about such a triviality when so much was happening, but it frightened her more than facing Sempai had, than remembering her drunken confession did.

     Getting squashed or exiled is less frightening than speaking in public, she thought, Talking is scarier than Angels.  She laughed at her own foolishness, but it did nothing to alleviate her fears.  She loved her job, and was well aware of the security concerns, a misspoken word would get her fired, Commander Ikari made sure everyone knew that.  She didn't want to leave Sempai, she didn't want to lose the money and good she sent home every week either.

     The other thing that bothered her was that the technique `Raccoon` had used on Sempai had other effects.  She didn't know if she should support their relationship, or should she encourage their mutual foot-dragging so she could have Sempai all to herself.  She was also terrified of the possibility Sempai would come to her of her own free will.  If - Sempai came to me, said she loved me, that she needs me, she thought, cursing her own cowardice, I'd probably fall apart, dissolve in tears, and that won't help anyone, not me, not Sempai, not the pilots, she wondered if there was a simple solution wasn't too uncomfortable, I might as well wish for a way to cook food in few minutes or wish for beer in cans that don't require an opener.  She laughed at the impossibility.

     If I'm going to be ridiculous, I might wish for a part of Sempai's love affair, she considered how she would handle being the `other woman` or worse, being both Sempai and Raccoon's `other woman`.  That was a particularly frightening thought.

People writing songs that voices never shared

     Nabiki gotten the details about the blow up between the two.  As she'd trailed her target, she hoped the tales were just sea stories or wishful thinking.  She wondered what would have happened if they'd just gone ahead and given into their impulses.  Like you did with Ranma? she couldn't believe she'd wasted four months of chances that way.  "I guess I'm not one to talk," she told herself.

     She had an idea where Raccoon would run to.  It didn't take genius to realize that.  She was beginning to wonder if the only thing those people in Nerima could do was fight, and if all other actions were either miscalculations or trying to 'get even' with some other person or group.  The pilots' briefing room was dark and empty, there was a hollow behind the lectern that would completely hide someone from prying eyes.  There weren't too many places aboard a carrier where someone could hide and sulk undisturbed, especially not one undergoing extensive repairs from storm damage, like this one.

     Ah ha! she thought as she stopped a short distance away from the lectern, peering in at the figure within, Non-Euclidean geometry, she thought about how anyone so tall could fold himself into the small place.

     She sat for a while, simply getting Raccoon used to her presence.  Then she started slowly moving towards him.  Patience, patience, she thought, it was the one advantage she had over all the Nerimaniacs, she'd not only settle for 'half a loaf', she'd settle for one slice now, and the rest of the loaf slowly over time.

     "I don't know why you're hiding," she said quietly from less than half a meter away, "Everybody knows about it."  She let the shock settle on him, his only reaction was to pull his legs tighter against him.  "You act like everybody doesn't approve," she said, "They don't know the details, speculation is rife, but everybody knows how pretty she is and that you started it, so all the sailors are cheering you on."

     "You aren't helping," he finally said.

     Ah, goal!  Communications.

     "Was I supposed to be making you feel better?" she asked innocently, "I thought I was just keeping you up to date.  You know, considering what she is, I have a plan to alleviate a lot of your problems."

     "You don't know what my problem is.  Start from a false premise, and your conclusion won't be valid."

     "Oh?" she asked, leaned a little closer, "Maybe I'm leaving something out . . . but I think Ranko will understand, you could send a radio message, or in a few days, a telegram."

     "Your jealousy isn't helping," he replied, "If you're so worried about measuring up, that you have to tear others down, you're no better than the others in Nerima."

     Nabiki hid a grimace and avoided squirming.  How did he know I was jealous of him and Ritsuko, and him and Ranko? she thought.

     "If you're so afraid I'll take Ranma away from you, then maybe I should concentrate on getting you two together, take your nimble, overactive, little mind off things that don't concern you," Raccoon told her coldly, staring at her for the first time.

     "Oh, I'm just bubbling over with helpfulness," she said cheerfully to hide the sting she felt.  There were plenty of opportunities she'd missed with Ranma, the last thing she needed was someone trotting out all her failures.  "So enlighten my nimble, overactive, little mind," she said, a lot more sternly than the light tone she had intended.

     "Fine, can you imagine how you'd feel if Ranma had walked into the 'pick a daughter', and he knew absolutely everything about your activities?"

     She couldn't help but blanch at that possibility.

     "And then he knew absolutely everything else about you, all - you - did - all - you - thought - all - you - hoped - for?"  He smiled at her.

     The idea was horrifying.  There were things she'd done and felt, she hoped nobody ever found out about.

     "Or better, if it was your sister who had that connection, and Ranma had the same connection with her?  And she still had her attitude towards 'BOYS!'?"

     Nabiki had to shake her head at that.  "It can't be that bad," she said.

     "Do you know - really understand what Ritsuko actually is?"

     "Yeah," she said instantly, "I saw."

     "But you don't know," he countered, "The Elder Things made surly slaves, but when they broke away, the shoggoths mainly wanted to be left alone.  They almost always attack anything that disturbed them.  So how do you explain Rit-chan's behavior?  Why would she tolerate the social requirements of Japanese society, why would she encourage the interaction with you, Ranko and Ranma?  Why would she feel so lonely?"

     Nabiki heard the barely controlled emotion in his voice.  She shook her head, then nodded to encourage him to continue.

     "She's an aberration or an experiment, to increase the tractability of the species.  They manufactured a more social version, perhaps they wanted a leader or administrator for projects that they didn't want to cover themselves, an arranger.  Sound familiar?"

     She nodded, it did sound a lot like her, both Ritsuko and Nabiki.

     "Well I had time to learn all the ins and outs, all the ways she'd want to be touched, all the words she'd want to hear."  He leaned close to her, she leaned away.  "All the ways she'd want to be treated.  Can you imagine how someone with so many secrets would feel about someone knowing all that?"

     She could, all too easily.  "But you didn't . . . do anything wrong," she said half-heartedly.  If Ranma had shown up with that knowledge, it would have terrified Nabiki, especially if he knew what she was and still `courted` her or chose her as his fiancee.

     "Not a problem yet?  Okay, now add this.  Now you know him, everything he feels, thinks, until you can guess whatever he'll do, and you get that all in an instant, including all the reasons he cares about you, his entire history.  All the secrets including all the things he's done to . . . for you."

     "That doesn't sound so bad," Nabiki said weakly, it actually sounded like a school girl's dream, a boy who knew all about her and still wanted her.  All it would cost was every secret she had.  Maybe not so good a trade, she thought.  "But - "

     "But when we were attacked by another improved-type shoggoth - "

     "You absorbed it!  Like the EVAs do!" Nabiki realized, she was horrified by the implication, "But . . . why?  How?!"

     "One practical reason, to gain their near invulnerability, similar to what you and Ranma enjoy."

     "So when she . . . splattered you all over . . . ?" Nabiki asked, appalled.

     "A loss of concentration more than an injury," he explained, "But you still don't know the real reasons.  Shoggoths, as big as they are, reproduce asexually like bacteria or yeast, splitting or budding.  They use meiosis, not mitosis, a single long-chain molecule, a collection of substituted aromatic bases: hydroquinone, phenylenediamine, aminophenol, tetrahydroxybenzene, phenylenetetramine, and their diazine, pyridine and metadiazine analogs.  All with different activating and deactivating groups making them meta or para directors, so reversing the orientation of the ring, providing it's not a meso-compound, anyway . . . despite the chemical differences, the effect is not completely unlike the amino-acids we use."

     Nabiki hadn't the faintest idea what he'd just said.  "Well it's clear you went to great lengths to research this," she said sourly.  He didn't seem to notice.  She let him talk.

     "Being a massive aromatic molecule, they're more stable than ours, inhibiting mutation and age related damage.  Her genetic code hasn't changed in millions of years, where as ours changes significantly in the century we live.  Their single chromosome is a palindrome, so it can loop back on itself like a hairpin and error check itself.  Preparation for a new cell for division, first the palindrome breaks into two equal pieces, next half goes with each cell, last the palindrome is rebuilt in the newly split cells and the process continues.  That's meiosis."

     And why is that important? Nabiki asked herself, Patience!  You wanted him to talk.  And he thinks it's important.

     "You don't see do you?" he asked, chuckled, "Humans reproduce sexually, they exchange genetic information, we're so big we have special cells and organs to handle the function, but in smaller organisms the transfer is much simpler.  We also use mitosis, the various pairs of chromosomes duplicate themselves and the old ones stays with the cell, the duplicate goes with the new.  I'm getting to the point."

     Good, she thought, keeping her expression neutral, Why do I need a primer on chemical nomenclature and cell biology . . . ?  He couldn't be - ?

     "Somehow they prevented the break up of her palindromes.  She has enough to maintain cell structure, but not enough for major growth or reproduction.  But that division wouldn't be necessary is something penetrated all of her cells, or enough of them, and provided the base materials to duplicate the existing chromosome.  Mitosis replacing the sabotaged meiosis process, enabling reproduction.  But aromatic compounds are toxic to humans, so to do that, you'd need something capable of doing both, having a chromosome structure that wouldn't interfere and supply the builder molecules to perform the mitosis-type assembly."

     Nabiki felt her stomach drop.  He did . . . KAMIS! she thought.

     "But only humans can do the mitosis and only shoggoths have the palindrome, so you'd have to be both," she said monotonously, because the implications took her places she did not want to ever think about.  "You'd also have to mix on a cellular level."

     "Congratulations, Miss Tendo, got it the first time."

     "But - why, and how?" she stammered, shaking her head violently.  No, it can't be! she desperately thought, trying to drown out the conclusions she was coming to.

     "Because a social creature was denied the ability to reproduce or interact with others, a person I loved.  Wouldn't you do what you could to alleviate that misery?" he asked, "They `fixed` her when they realized they'd created a dangerous subspecies, a creature capable of thinking, planning and acting in concert with others, not just her own kind, but with other species."

     Nabiki backed away, those weren't the implications she'd considered.  This was no mere shy schoolboy crush, or interracial, May-December problem.  He'd sought out a way to assuage her real suffering, and made the massive and necessary physiological changes in himself to carry them out.  He acts like it was easy, risking his humanity like that, she thought, Except he isn't human either!

     "So the operation the Elder Things did made sure there would be no more.  However, Chaugnar Faugn was an expert in genetic manipulation, and guess what, not just aminoacid/DNA genetics.  You felt the intellect of that thing when it was asleep and you held it in your hands.  Awake and dying, the knowledge and experiences try to earth themselves somewhere, hopefully intact, to coopt the new host.  In battle, the EVA's pilot is the only possible vessel."

     Nabiki gulped, the new conclusions were more shocking with each new realization she came to.  "You knew you could absorb that thing so you could cure Ritsuko's condition, or bypass it."

     "Good try, but not complete, remember meiosis versus mitosis."

     "Oh . . . my . . . kamis . . . you were going to merge with her . . . both of you broken into tiny pieces, merge with her to duplicate . . . "  Nabiki felt the wall touch her back, she hadn't realized she had been retreating, and that he'd been advancing.

     "Exactly.  It wasn't my plan to have relations with just her human form, but allow her initial form to produce offspring."

     Nabiki covered her mouth, she wasn't sure if she should be laughing or screaming.  It was incredibly thoughtful, and inconceivably obscene.  She wondered if even being able to think that way had something to do with absorbing part of the monsters they fought.

     "If you think that's funny . . . now Ritsuko knows all about my plan.  How I studied her problem, and why I did it."

     "W - w - wh - why?" Nabiki stammered.

     "Because I love her!" Raccoon thundered at her in fury, then withdrew to a safer distance.  Safer from her point of view.  "Haven't you ever cared about anything enough to throw away everything to help, to ease someone's suffering, to make them happy?!  It goes a little beyond a school crush or a little bit of infatuation.  When I was in the dream, I saw Ritsuko-Nabiki, Maya-Akane and Misato-Kasumi.  I fell in love with the girl who tried to make a difference, who tried to deal with the boy with the cloud of unwanted fiancees and rivals.  Maybe you've noticed I am not always the warmest and most open person.  'Emotionally controlled,' I believe I've heard you mutter, and worse, but then in that dream I had Ranma's emotional range, and I still have those feelings for the people from the dream.  Hate, love, despair, joy, all greater than I usually feel.  So when the woman I loved was in trouble, the cold calculating me took action to ensure she could be happy, to give her what I knew she most desperately wanted.  Now she knows my feeling, why I did what I did, and what I wanted from her as well."  He was shouting by the end.  Nabiki had wanted to draw him out, she had, he was confronting her directly as she tried to press herself back through the bulkhead.

     He sighed, mastered himself, returning to the morose tone.  "So, go ahead and laugh, it ought to be hilarious.  How stupid can I be?!  `Dumb` ole' Ranma would never think himself into a corner like this one.  Mister 'I am in control and I understand' blew it worse than the rest of you, and I did it all to myself.  Ritsuko at least has the solution she needs, well Maya or anyone else with a little chemical knowledge can provide it.  Why should she trust me?"

     "You don't know that she's . . . "  Nabiki couldn't put together the thoughts that would have helped Raccoon, or Ritsuko.  The problem was bigger than she ever realized, and the idea of bringing them together wouldn't solve it.  "If she knows you are . . . care that much - "

     "Oh, true love will win out?" he asked bitterly, "I always thought you were smarter than that.  I did that to her!  It wasn't an accident except in that it went farther than I intended.  I got the journey of a thousand miles in one step, this is what I really wanted, and she knows it!"

     Nabiki tried to say something, anything, but all the easy rationalizations or hurtful things she had bottled up inside that should have come so easily, all died before she could speak them.  She wasn't even sure how much of what he said was true, and how much was hysteria and despair talking, and she wouldn't know until she talked to Ritsuko.  Assuming she's rational about all of this, Nabiki thought morosely.  She moved away from him, standing and walking to one of the pilots' chairs.  She sat down and tried to collect herself.  Too many problems came up against her plans.  Part of it was embarrassment, part of it was shame, those she understood, they'd been good weapons in Nerima.  Now they were her enemies.  The idea that you'd give up your humanity for love, to help someone else, it seemed too much out of a fairy tale or romance of the kind she despised, it wasn't something she understood.

     The whole thing was suddenly too big a question and it wasn't something she could break into pieces and gnaw on.  She needed to discuss it with someone.

     The simple solutions won't work, she thought, The problems that would occur after a simple solution were the real problems, those would matter for a lifetime.  She remembered the warmth of the bodies holding her in the dream of only a day or two ago.  She wanted that, she wasn't sure what would happen if someone asked her to abandon all she was, more than just her family, more than just her honor and history.  She'd given up all she thought she had, now she had a clear chance with Ranma without any serious competition.  Yet she couldn't close the deal.

     What about Ranko? she wanted to ask Raccoon, What about me?  She really didn't want the answer to that.  She shook her head, 'if only he knew the real me', was the usual call, here they knew the real other, and it didn't help.

     "It's never easy," Nabiki said as she stood up.  She suspected Ritsuko knew what he felt, but Nabiki was going to tell her anyway.  Maybe Ritsuko will have an idea, she thought.

     She found a Marine sentinel before she started her search, he'd stand guard to keep an eye on Raccoon and see to it he was left alone.  She could almost hear the Marine's unasked questions, about all the rumors flying about.  'That monster can put things in your head, compulsions, entire other life times, she wanted to tell them, but she knew she shouldn't.

     The man paced the small office.  "Ah signore!  You-a wound me!  I-a bleed, you-a see how-a I bleed?" the man complained to the room's other occupant.

     "Luigi," Jeff said sternly, from his position leaning against the wall, "Save it for the tourists.  Your English is as good as mine."

     "Okay, Mister Davis.  But these nice ladies.  I don't see why I have to do this."

     "For the same reason you do the rest.  Being the best means occasionally having to prove it," Jeff told the man calmly, he'd reached a decision, action had to be taken, soon.

     "There's a lot more to this that you're telling me."

     "There are some special preparations I want made.  Special materials you'll have to have."  He handed over the list he'd produced.

     "This is some pretty weird stuff," Luigi said, looking over the list, "Are you sure about that, I mean is it really necessary?"

     "Absolutely.  I know them far better than you do," Jeff explained as he stood up, "You'll need everything on that list to do the job.  Do you know how to use it at all?"

     "I still have a few contacts from the war," Luigi explained as he seated himself behind his desk, "If I run into trouble, I can ask them.  Don't worry, I'll be discreet.  They won't know what happened until it's all over.  I still think my usual specialities will do the job."  He held up his hands.  "Since you are paying, I'll do it your way.  You also avoided my question, why?  One I can understand, but all three, all at once?"

     "Problems have arisen, problems I can't easily deal with given the current situation and resources.  You have a better chance of bringing this to a more satisfactory conclusion.  That's also why I'm here rather than doing the job myself.  Hard as it is to admit, you are better than I am.  Few are.  And, it's personal."

     "When it gets personal, hire a professional," Luigi said, "I take it you don't want me to simply walk onto the carrier, and do my job?"

     "No, of course not!  There are limits to my risk taking - how's the restaurant doing?"

     "It keeps me flush between paying jobs like this one."  Luigi shrugged.  "Right in the restaurant . . . they'd never expect that."

     "You want to try that?" Jeff asked, "Awfully big risk."

     "Life is risk.  I think I can manage it.  Besides, the blame will be yours, I suspect you have a plan for that too," Luigi told him with confidence, "I still think you're overreacting."

     "Gives me a background to plead insanity.  Trust me, you'll know different pretty quick," Jeff assured him.

     "Quick and unexpected, not the first time I've done this.  You've heard there's been trouble at the Institute, reports sound more like a mob war."

     "I don't know anything I can tell you, other than don't get mixed up in it."

     "Fighting at the Institute, you here ordering a special.  It feels like I'm already part of it," he said disgustedly.

     "How so?" Jeff asked.

     "Well reports put you aboard the carrier.  Yet here you are, in my office, talking business.  That's something to wonder about."

     "Reports can be faked, besides they call it an aircraft carrier for a reason."

     "Okay."  Luigi nodded.  "Keep your secrets.  I don't want to meet you unhappy in a dark alley some night," he chuckled, "Now about my fee, in advance if you please."  He smiled.

     "Of course.  I never thought otherwise.  Have you ever considered another line of work?"  Jeff counted out the cash.

     "Are you kidding?!  I love to see the look on people's faces when I tell them who paid.  It's almost worth doing jobs free to see those expressions."

And no one dared disturb the sound of silence.

     Nabiki wondered at the situation as she wandered the carrier, unable to sleep.  She had changed to work clothes, she gotten tired of questioning looks as she'd walked around in her pajamas.  Dreams, she thought, They never used to be important.  She remembered the dream she kept having had within the dream.  Immersed in icy water.  She was beyond drowning as the pressure squeezed the life and breath out of her.  The terror of cold, of dying alone.  Then she'd wake up, covered in sweat, in the arms of Ranma and Raccoon.  They'd never say anything, although the occasional bruise and the way they had restrained her made it clear she'd been thrashing violently in her sleep, as frantically as she'd been trying to swim to the surface.  As she relaxed, one would carry her to the shower and rinse her off in her pajamas then leave her to finish, while the other would be changing the sodden bedding.  She'd come out of the shower and there were clean underwear and pajamas in the bathroom to change into, outside were hot tea and concerned looks.

     She rarely talked about the dream, they never pressed her to.  The first times she'd been frightened by the implication that the two of them could have cooperated and - taken advantage of her - while she was lost.  They never had, they never even copped a feel.  They just held her immobile and kept her warm.  Later she worried about them getting tired of it and leaving her, leaving her to die alone.

     And sometimes waking up to find Ranma as a girl or boy, drawing lines on my arms, legs, on my back or face, she thought, Always with that look on his face.  She'd never understand.  It was a little disappointing neither boy took advantage of the situation, Raccoon never took advantage when `Ranko` snuggled up in his arms.  But I would have been terrified if either of them had tried anything.  And I probably would have screamed bloody murder if they tried something with each other, she thought and wondered if Ranma's reduced nervousness was due to the neko-ken being stronger, 'perversion' of him by absorbing the Great Old Ones, or something else entirely.  She was glad they had only gone as far as they had, and no further.

     She shuddered at the idea of being raped or molested while asleep.  And I used to think the Hentai Horde was funny, she shook her head, then smiled.  She could guess Ranma's or Raccoon's reaction to the Hentai Horde, no matter how either felt about `dear` Akane-chan.  " 'There are certain things that just aren't done!'"  She laughed at that, and the ridiculousness of her earlier plan.  The feelings and apparent ages weren't the real problem.  She kept turning the idea over in her mind, she found that reality interfered with her plans, and that offended her.

     The people and the universe should simply bow to my will and accept they should be together, she thought, and decided a Kuno-like pose would get her thrown in the brig, politely of course, More to work on.  Well maybe I found the weak point, and I'm not so happy about it.

     She also didn't like the portrayal of her home.  Or more correctly, the accuracy of the portrayal from the outside.  Maybe I don't like looking at things with my new eyes, she thought.  She did wonder why she was so intent on playing matchmaker, while she hated what he'd done to the person she was trying to match him up to, and why she didn't want him for herself.  Ranma was nice, both of them were better.  Yet, she also wanted `mommy` happy, and there was a way.  They seemed good for each other, if they really knew each others' mind and hearts . . . But it isn't working that way, she thought, I hate not being able to fix this! she thought as she marched through the carrier.  A few sailors took one look at her expression, and got out of her way.

     "Miss Tendo," Adam Smith approached.

     "I thought you would have left already."

     "In the storm?" he asked, implying the question was humorous, "I'm afraid you're stuck with us, and I must apologize for my curiosity.  Major ggreg told me some things, and the grapevine has said others."

     She was sorely tempted to tell him and get his advice.  But she also remembered his mission was to kill Jeff, if necessary.  She didn't know if she wanted that to happen just yet.  So she couldn't really trust him.  "I discovered two plus two equals four, went to the source, and they said two plus two equals orange, and I'm completely color-blind."

     "Frustrating.  But are you certain it's a math problem and not a psychological problem?" he asked quietly, "Or better, a question of faith, in people or destiny."

     "I don't believe in fate or karma or anything like that.  I believe in human action," she replied firmly, "People act, choose not to act, or fail to act, that's what really matters.  Outside forces can't change the person."

     "Odd, considering your experiences, even odder considering your fate.  Miss Ibuki seems very taken with her `sempai`, I can't say I approve of their relationship, nor will many people," Adam told her.

     Boy are you barking up the wrong tree, Nabiki thought but kept her features neutral.

     "Well, if you want to talk . . . "  He moved off.

     I do, I do, I just want to talk to someone I can trust, she thought, I'm just not sure it's you.  She stopped, sighed.  How do I contact Brother Jonathan?  Genus Loci, I should be able to figure that out, she thought.  She spotted Sergeant Kilrain and took off after him, she doubted that he'd understand why she was asking, but she'd get an answer.  I also have another way, she thought as she smiled to the sergeant, who was looking very worried, Mind and instincts . . . I have another source of answers.  If he's gone back to sleep.

Fools said I, you do not know, silence like a cancer grows.

     Nabiki walked half-asleep along the dark paneled halls, across the white rugs and in the diffuse white light from above, wearing her flannel night shirt.  The heat coming off the floor and through her slippers felt good on her bare legs.  The play of light and dark was as striking as always, it gave the house a surreal look, one of the reasons she and Jeff had designed it.  The smell of breakfast and coffee made itself insistently known, of course Jeff had made breakfast.  She walked into the kitchen, enjoyed the admiring look she got from her husband, even though she knew she looked terrible in the morning.  She headed directly for the coffee, or would have except for an intercept by a small missile with a potent warhead.

     "Mommy, mommy, mommy!"  A small redhead crashed into her, grabbing both legs in a powerful hug, nearly toppling her.  Nabiki grabbed the kitchen counter to steady herself.  In a detached part of her mind Nabiki surveyed her `attack` into Jeff's dreams, it was already twisting out of her hands, she hadn't imagined kids, or what appeared to be a stately mansion, still she would go with it, `memories` of this existence flooded her mind as she woke up to it.

     "Kairi, can mommy get her coffee?" she asked.  A blue-eyed Eurasian face looked up at her, full of mischief and love.  Kairi released one leg and hugged tightly to the other.  It made walking possible, and very difficult.


     She looked over to Jeff, who was wearing a smirk.  If I could get over there, she thought, I'd wipe that right off your face, one way or another.  "Can I have a translation?" she asked in her 'dangerous sweet' tone.

     "Maria is having the Three-Tailed Dragons at a party tomorrow, it's the latest band.  Kairi wants to go there, instead of Francine's sleep over."

     "NOT INSTEAD OF!  Please, mommy, please, please, please."

     "Maria who was supposed to have a pony at Christmas, Maria who was supposed to have movies for summer break, that Maria?" Nabiki instantly realized the fallacy of arguing logically with a 5-year-old.

     "That's why I want to go to Francine's after, please mommy, please." Kairi hugged her leg more tightly.

     "Isn't Yui going to be disappointed?" Jeff asked innocently.

     "Yui's going to Francine's?" Kairi shouted, "Never mind, mommy."

     Nabiki picked the girl up, "Well I don't know, you made a good case."

     "Nonononono, I want to see Yui." Kairi held on tightly around her neck as Nabiki walked to the table.  Scrambled eggs and a salad awaited her.  Separate from the large omelet for the rest of the family.  "Your father's sense of humor could use some work."

     "Maya said you needed more vitamins."  Jeff picked up a paper from one stack, scanned it for a second, then set it in another of several stacks.

     "There are pills."  Nabiki got an upraised eye brow for that.  Arguing chemistry with a chemist, she thought, How smart is that?  At least he made the eggs runny enough.  She dumped the eggs in the salad and mixed them one handed with a fork, the other arm holding Kairi.

     "Oh mom!  That's gross!"  A rangy twelve-year-old entered, opened the refrigerator, selected a quart of orange-juice and drank from the carton, "I'm not going to put it back, I'm going to drink the whole thing," Sam told his father, "What did you ever do to piss Toji off so much?"  He poured the rest of the carton in a large glass.

     "He was his training officer."  Nabiki sampled the egg/salad mix, reached for the pepper and salsa.  "I thought you hated Asuka.  You were complaining about her last week."

     "I hadn't met Toji yet." He dropped into the chair and shoveled a large helping of the omelet on his plate.  "Der Generrrl is a stickler and a martinet, but Toji is just crazy.  Being dead sure didn't mellow him."

     "At least he didn't beat you up, like he did Shinji."  Jeff smiled at him as the boy shoveled down the food.

     "He beat up the Director?" Sam asked, "Why?"

     "Shinji's first battle, ah, didn't go too well."  Nabiki set Kairi on the floor, the youngster immediately tore out of the room.  She looked at Sam shoveling down the food to fuel his latest growth spurt, he was already taller than her and would overtop his father soon.  She saw a lot of Tomiyo and Jeff in the boy's Amerasian features.  "We did pray for healthy children."

     "I told you, God has a sense of humor."

     "What's up with Yui coming here?" Sam asked, "NERV Japan should be able to handle anything, right?"

     "Not transference to the Dreamlands for full training and survey conditions, your parents are still the best way to do that."  Nabiki finished her meal, concentrated on her coffee.

     "So, the Director's daughter gets to go on the embassy," Sam grumped, "Why can't you pull strings for me like that?"

     "She earned a 98% on the readiness tests, you got an 85, you've got some catching up to do, mister," Jeff said without sympathy.

     "Yeah, I get tested out in two months."

     "Three, I pulled some strings."  Jeff hid the smile.  Nabiki kept her face strictly neutral while she drank her coffee, awaiting the exchange.

     "Three!  Yui's going to be ahead of me by three months!  She and Franz are never going to let me hear the end of it!  Thanks dad."

     "Remember what else happens in three months," Jeff cautioned.

     Sam's face scrunched up in thought, then brightened.  "The Rodia, its shakedown cruise!"

     "If your grades stay good, guess who's assistant to the deputy tactical officer," Jeff said nonchalantly.  Sam pointed to himself, not trusting his voice.  "Of course she'll be escorted by two EVAs, but they're old models.  Yui will tease you about her testing in a brand-new Unit 35, and you'll have to settle for testing in old Units 04 and 06."

     "WAHOO!!  Captain ggreg'll let me get plenty of time in those, WAHOO!  Thanks dad!" Sam left his empty plate behind as he went out punching the air and shouting.

     Jeff picked up the plate, took it to the sink.  "I know we ate like that, but did we act like that?"

     "We were at war, and had grown up in a war.  This is all a game to them," Nabiki remembered something.  She whispered as he returned, "Isn't the Rodia and 2d cruiser squadron going straight into a war game?"

     "Yes." Jeff sat down at the table, a big grin on his face, "He's going to be running around like a chicken with his head cut off."

     "And who is the aggressor force?"

     "Four of the new model EVAs, Scott Davidson commanding."

     "You're kidding!"  Nabiki nearly fell on the floor laughing.  "You are cruel at heart.  If Sam keeps his head and listens to Unit 04 or 06, he could defeat Davidson's force all by himself!"

     "True," Jeff said offhandedly, "That should put our Sam back on equal footing."

     "You're as bad as Asuka!" she denounced him, he shrugged.

     "I would point out." Jeff ran a foot up her bare leg.  "That both Sam and Kairi will be gone all tomorrow afternoon, and tomorrow night, Mrs. Davis."

     "I want a little sister this time."  Kairi had walked back into the dining room.  Nabiki caught herself before she spit up her coffee.

     "I told you that summers at the ranch would be educational," Jeff said offhandedly.  Nabiki considered strangling him, settled for a glare.

     "What makes you think mommy wants to get pregnant again?" Nabiki managed.

     "'Having the children six years apart enhances in-te-lec-tu-al devel-op-ment and sync rate', that's what Asuka-san and Maya-chan said, I'll be six in four months."

     "She's definitely our kid."  Jeff was as startled by the deduction as Nabiki was, especially because it followed the same logic they had used.

     "I want a baby sister," Kairi insisted.

     "We don't pick," Nabiki explained, "We let it happen."

     "Rei-san picks."

     "And Rei has a girl and a boy, just like us," Jeff told her, "We want to be surprised."

     "All right."  She sat at the table, disgusted with the idiocy of all adults.  "Can I name her at least?"

     "What if it's a him?" Jeff asked, making trouble.

     A father should be more mature than his five-year-old, Nabiki thought.

     "Let Sam name him."

     "No," Jeff explained patiently, "If you want to help with the naming, you have to pick boys' and girls' names."

     She sighed, looking forward to the dreary task like looking to her execution, "I'll do it."  Another sigh, chin on the breakfast table, a look of abject misery.

     Definitely her father's daughter, Nabiki thought.

     "Abby and Kyle."

     "Ah, we don't need the names for several months," Nabiki told her.

     Another long sigh at the foolishness of grown ups.

     "When do you have to be in Washington?" Jeff asked, clearing the table.

     "Eleven, I'll Travel in, I hate flying commercial.  If that jerk Kennedy tries to put the moves on me, like he did to Maya - "  Nabiki heard a utensil snap, Jeff stared apologetically at the broken metal fork in his hand.  She smiled.  "Relax, if he tries anything I'll be polite.  And ask him if he wants the bugs from Martin Luther King's house back, or if we should send them to the Washington Post."

     "Miss Kelerby says Kennedy's the greatest President and it's just like Camelot," Kairi quoted her favorite teacher.

     "Tell Miss Kelerby that she's right, and that she's never read the original stories," Jeff commented angrily.  President Kennedy, and especially his assassination, were a particular sticking point with Jeff and Nabiki, who knew what was his real legacy, not what Johnson did and Kennedy got credit for.  Let Goldwater win in '64 and never go to the moon, or let the martyrdom propel the U.S. of A. through the 60's, good and bad things.  She didn't agree they should do nothing that next November.

     Nabiki stepped into the bedroom, she loved the feel of sliding silk on her skin, she loved what this nightgown did to Jeff, that's why she wore it only on special occasions, she didn't want to spoil the magic.  Two layers of silk that iridesced when she moved.  So tight that only the elastic clips at the hip and shoulder let her move or breathe without tearing it.  Yellow silk decorated with wings under a nearly transparent layer of silk decorated with a red and a blue dragon that wound around her body, one head on each shoulder.  When Aratara had presented it to her at the bridal shower, Misato called them Rei and Asuka and she'd also warned that the dragon only feared the yellow bird.  Nabiki had dismissed it as Misato being silly, until Rei's ectopic pregnancy and everyone's subsequent panic over Nephilim.  For fourteen months, Jeff and Ranma had searched everywhere for answers, Jeff went as far as using contacts within Elysium itself.  Finally, he returned with the answer, the attitude of the parties conceiving had more to do with the child than genetics, essence not physical matter was the controlling element.  His seeming blaming of Shinji and Rei for the failure had started the first knockdown drag out fight between the pair of them that anyone had ever seen.

     Nabiki walked across the thick rug, towards where Jeff lay face-down on the floor.  A completely foolish position if someone had even the slightest hostile intention and any martial arts skills.  A blow to the base of the skull would `kill` him just long enough for something permanent to be done.  Comparable to the vulnerable position she had taken earlier when he washed her hair and anointed her with oils.  Against a man who could bend EVA armor in his bare hands and could concoct tremendously lethal poisons out of seemingly anything, such behavior was suicidal, even for one as durable as she was.  That was the point, Rei had admitted she and Shinji had been so frightened of the future, that they had wanted to conceive a child.  In retrospect, it was arguably the worst thing they could have done.  That admission, and Rei's liberal use of her natural abilities and skills, had calmed things down, eliminated the hostile feelings among the participants, but not the inflamed passions.  Yui, Nodoka, Franz and Sam had been conceived that night, metaphysical contributions from all the pilots went into the first four 'children of the Children'.  Officially all of the injuries were in response to the battle between Nabiki and Jeff, and not the enthusiastic participation afterwards.

     She stepped onto his back, feeling the muscles and bones shifting, relaxing under her tread.  Jeff enjoyed letting her `walk all over him`, she found it relaxing as well, digging her toes into the hard knots he always seemed to develop, proving there was something she could always fix.  Neither spoke.  Normally they teased each other with word and touch mercilessly, but not now.  Too easy to say what would kindle a resentment that normally wouldn't detract from the evening, or an action to put the other on their guard.  Tonight, like for Kairi and Sam, that had to be avoided.  Absolute trust, no stray thoughts, worries or concerns.  As Jeff lowered her on the bed, brushing open the clasp at her hip she touched its match on her shoulder and decided the world could go howl tonight.

Chapter 44 - Sturm und Drang signifying . . . nothing Denouement

Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again,

Because a vision softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping,

And the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains

Within the sound of silence.

The Sound of Silence - Paul Simon

Hear my words that I might teach you

July 28, 1947

     Nabiki withdrew her hand, listened for several moments to Jeff's steady breathing.  She'd done it, made the invasion, gotten the information she wanted and gotten out, all without waking him.  The technique worked.  Yesterday, or last week, she would have been shouting huzzahs and doing handsprings, but somehow the victory seemed secondary.  Her initial probe had been carried along by a current in his mind that was immensely stronger than she could have believed, she'd allowed herself to get lost in it.  Loving wife and mother, world-class and rightly feared mover-and-shaker, desired courtesan of a highly inventive lover, it was an intoxicating mix.  More so because the one she wanted, wanted it for her.  She wondered if Ritsuko knew what she was missing.  Oh course she does you idiot! Nabiki thought to herself, The question is why not take advantage of it?  The answer: because it is so powerful.  'Here's everything you ever wanted, freely given.'  There has to be a catch!

     She resisted kissing or touching him, leaving the rest of the dream as a gift.  She slipped out of his cabin.

     Ritsuko quietly watched Nabiki slip out and move discreetly to her own cabin.  She heard no disturbance in Jeff's breathing and correctly guessed he'd slept through whatever Nabiki had done.  She wondered at Nabiki's wistful expression at the doorway, unaware or not caring that someone might be watching.  She remembered smiling like that a few times in the dream, she doubted Nabiki was doing that, especially since Jeff hadn't woken up.  It was a mystery she'd never solve unless she moved quickly, in a day or two those two would talk it into knots.  She would see to it they talked about it, in Nabiki's case at least.  And what about you talking? she squelched that thought instantly.

     Their tendencies to machinations involving everyone are rubbing off on me, she thought, she could push them together as they pushed her to Maya, and Shinji and Rei together, It would solve some of the problems, she thought, and smiled at her new idea.

     Yellow bird. Nabiki lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling.  Next to her, the good doctor sat in a chair, waiting.  The dragon is only afraid of the yellow bird, could the dream have been any more obvious?  She retained few of the memories from her `alternate` existence, there were just too many to classify and correlate.  But `Rit-chan` had all of those memories and could recall them as if they were her own.

     Why is he afraid of me?  Or is he afraid of any lover?  What does he think the yellow bird will do to him? she wondered.  He was a house husband: raising the children, supporting her activities and publishing his own books, so it couldn't be gender roles.

     She clearly remembered the fight they had had, she was lucky Rei made her admission and intervened.  She'd finally gotten under all his reserve and tapped into the fury that made him and the others unstoppable in battle.  By any rational analysis he should have killed her that night.  He had plenty of opportunities, injuring Ranma and Kaworu to get at her.  But after he'd 'closed with the enemy', he hadn't 'destroyed' her, considering what she had done in response, his self-control was more than admirable, it had been unbelievable.  So it couldn't be that, she mental checked it off her list.

     Something, I'm trying too hard, it's something that wouldn't be obvious because it was so obvious, she considered.  She rolled over and closed her eyes to let her unconscious unravel the problem.  It would give her the answer in the morning, when she woke again at a decent hour.

     She reached out her hand and took Rit-chan's.  She deserved an explanation.  She'll get one, Nabiki thought as she drifted off.

     The sun shown on the school yard, a warm breeze slipped among the trees as the birds sang.

     Sari ran her beringed fingers through her silky, waist-length, auburn hair.  Her gold-flecked violet eyes twinkled with humor as the newest pilot looked down on her soon-to-be victims.  "Asuka will see who is the best pilot, Ranma will see who is the world's greatest martial artist.  And with that dishwater Rei and Nabiki out of the way, I can pick and choose which boys I want.  Even Misato will lose Kaji to me."  Her laughter tinkled like silver bells.

     Her head snapped back and then sideways, Ritsuko released the girl's long tresses as she slid to the ground.  Ritsuko removed her slide rule from its case on her belt, positioned it over the dying girl's heart and, with a grim joy, hammered it through her victim's chest and into the ground with a few strokes of her clipboard.

     She turned and looked at the thoroughly shocked Nabiki, who'd watched the entire episode.

     "This is what you've been doing?  Sneaking into Jeff's room over the last few nights?" Ritsuko asked.

     "Dream training."  Nabiki stared at the blood-spattered scientist, "Control what you dream and other elements in it."

     "Like sneaking up on the world's stupidest martial artist, and snapping her neck like a twig?" Ritsuko asked with a broad smile.  The blood drops on her face making it particularly gruesome.

     Nabiki nodded numbly.  She couldn't do what Ritsuko had so easily done.

     "Well, you did say it was all a dream.  I have been a little . . . frustrated by recent events."  Ritsuko brushed her hands off.  "I just remembered every stuck up `queen bee` of either gender I ever ran into in school, especially at college."  She smiled, took a deep breath as she leaned against a tree.  "I can't tell you how good that felt."

     A wide-eyed Nabiki only nodded again.

     "Well, well," the robed figure that suddenly appeared said, "Mother and daughter chatting, how charming."

     Almost two dozen other brown-robed figures had materialized out of nothing.

     "Oh Nabiki-chan!" Ritsuko said happily, "You shouldn't have!"

     Ritsuko wrapped her arms around the trunk and uprooted the tree she'd been leaning on.  She swung the tree like a grand baseball bat.

     Nabiki dove under the trunk as it swept by.  The targets had no such empty space as the crown of the tree crashed through them.  There were screams of pain, shouts of someone trying to cast a spell, and cries for mommy or mercy.  The tree descended on the entire group, again and again, like a giant flyswatter.  When Ritsuko lifted the tree high and cast it aside, the robed figures had all vanished.

     "That was fun," Ritsuko said as she smiled, "Anyone else?"

     Nabiki only shook her head.

Take my arms that I might reach you.

     Nabiki woke to the sounds and smells of breakfast, she remembered bits and pieces of the dreams, an entire lifetime was too much to remember.  She was desperately trying to blot out the dream of Ritsuko the Barbarian.  But she did remember parts of both.  She blushed at the memory, of children, of making love, of all the day to day trials of home and family.  She opened her eyes and looked at the boy delivering her breakfast in bed, as a peace offering.  He hasn't changed, she thought, He's still domestic.  And food is forgiveness.

     "Hi," she said, shyly, uncomfortable with the idea that anyone thought about her like that: wife, mother and lover.  She understood more of the problem between Rit-chan and him.  She could imagine feeling like this for the rest of her life.  'It was nice, but embarrassing,' `mommy` had told her.  Worse that you hadn't `earned it`, Nabiki added.

     "Good morning, Bess."

     She blushed more at his smile, considered how he was looking at her, guiltily thought about Ranma.

     "Relax," he told her, "Our strongest dreams are about things we want and know we can't have."

     Nabiki suddenly felt she'd been drenched with cold water.  "What?  What do you mean by that?"

     "In an ideal world, would I make a good husband and father?  I certainly hope so, I could undoubtedly be better than my own parents.  I'm a good match with your attitudes and opinions, and with Doctor Akagi's.  I'm flexible about the role of the breadwinner and rearing children.  So I could be a good match to a woman who loves her career.  Do I want you specifically, `that way` as Ranko put it?  No, well . . . not necessarily.  You're pretty and clever, and you have no problem doing what you want, and I assume you'd have no problem telling me how you want to be treated.  You certainly didn't last night."

     Nabiki blushed furiously at the reminder, she pulled the covers over her head.  She could never imagine Ranma being so . . . Akane kept calling Ranma a pervert, Nabiki thought, She's never met a gentleman.

     "Dr. Akagi's the same.  There are worse things to base a permanent relationship on."

     "I hear a `but`, a big one."  It's not fair, she thought.

     "For you, there's your feelings for Saotome, I'd have to be blind not to see them.  Although you can't figure out if he likes you, or any girl, for that matter.  For Dr. Akagi . . . I'm not sure how deep the feelings go, how she really feels about the entire idea," he sighed sadly, "There are also laws, across Europe and across the United States that make it illegal, it's called miscegenation, mixing races.  Boston has those laws, which would prevent Dr. Akagi from coming here, and which would prevent you from going to Harvard, which I have been arranging, for after the war."

     "Thank you."  A college education, even one from Harvard was cold comfort compared to what the dream had offered.  Despite watching Kasumi, she'd never considered the nuts and bolts of home and family.  He'd offered almost exactly what she wanted.  She wasn't strong enough to force them, he'd done it automatically, for her.  Altered the dream to accommodate her.  If one of the Nerimaniacs had done that, Ranma would have married her in a heartbeat, she thought.

     But she couldn't have it.  "I can understand the logic behind your reticence," she said bitterly, "How noble you are to love chastely."  She lay back, pulled the blankets up to her chin.

     "Oh I'm not that pure and noble, I have fantasies about Ranma not deciding, so to get around it: I marry my old friend Langley, Ranma marries you - after we all beat him into submission."

     Nabiki laughed at that, she suspected it would take that kind of violent directed action to get Ranma to act.  Once he was married, he'd do his best to be a good husband and father, but getting him to that point would take a major war, "And what?  A menage a qua?  All four of us?"

     "All nine, Rei-Shinji, Ranko, Ritsuko-Maya.  Menage a non," Jeff said, "My French isn't up to that."

     She laughed, climbed out of bed, hugging him from behind.  "So, you do love me," she teased.

     "Careful, that's how it started with Rit . . . Ritsuko," he said quickly, "As a friend, with all my heart.  Right now, I need a friend.  I haven't the faintest idea what to do."  He shook his head.  "I don't want to hurt you or Rit-chan, but all my ideas won't work.  This isn't a battle, or a technical question, or something I might have studied.  I . . . just don't know.  Ridiculous, isn' it?  If you need a laugh, I can tell you some of my ideas.  One was, let her simulate a loss of age to my age, isn't that silly?  As if that would solve anything."

     "So all we can be is friends," Nabiki pouted, only partially faking.  She wasn't used to this idea, someone caring for someone so much they'd put their happiness aside for hers.  Even if it was, just a dream, she thought.  The idea of being loved was a confusing one, she'd been feared, respected, needed.  Kasumi and Soun had cared about her as part of the family, she wondered if Akane loved anyone beyond her own image of herself, hating that she didn't and might never measure up to it.

     But Ritsuko, Rei, `Raccoon` are all hard, cold people, harder and colder than the Ice Queen of Furikan could ever hope to be, she thought And they loved me, in different ways, daughter, sister, lover/friend.  It was hard to accept, harder still to reciprocate, she kept expecting the hurt of loss, or a betrayal.  But it never came.  She wasn't sure if that was worse or better.

     "So, Asuka and Ritsuko are my rivals?" she teased, still holding on to him.

     "Langley's been a friend a long time, in the Dreamlands," he explained, "We've huddled together for warmth on the Plateaus of Leng, we've agreed and fought and argued.  We've been friendly rivals and allies longer than even Commander Fuyutsuki's been alive, but there's no romance there.  Ranko's pretty, but there's more fun teaching her.  Letting her grow into a confident, competent young woman.  When she realizes being a 'lady' doesn't mean being weak, the entire male population better watch out.  My cousin Jenny is a real lady.  I wouldn't want to fight her, or shoot against her.  I'd lose.  Rei . . . if Rei wasn't so smitten with Shinji, she might be a rival."

     Nabiki stood there, holding him, considering, Am I entertaining these thoughts as a way of making Ranma jealous, or am I reacting to an open and obvious declaration, and a safe alternative if Ranma never says or does anything?  Frankly, she wanted both of them, Ranma was better looking and he was Japanese, but he was no challenge to her intellectually.  She liked having someone around she had to really work at to beat, but who wasn't an enemy.  She also suspected that she or Ranma would have to give up too much to properly raise the children, to give them a home.  But that was `Raccoon's` passion.  He's more like Kasumi than I am, she thought.  The idea of homemaking didn't appeal to her, and she suspected Ranma would want time to go on training trips to visit other dojos to learn new techniques, that didn't match running a school or raising a family.  She didn't know when the laws he mentioned would be repealed, if that would make a difference.  She didn't know if Ritsuko and Jeff's relationship was based on something she couldn't offer, or if it was just her being jealous.  She did notice he hadn't answered that part of her question.

     Rei and Shinji had gravitated to each other almost as much as they were pushed together.  A place they could hide from the rest of us, she thought.  Maya and Ritsuko had been harder, but they were all working on it.  But what about me?  Am I not fighting because I don't think I'm worth it? she asked herself, Am I dithering with Ranma because I don't know for sure he wants me?  She was honest enough to discern that she wasn't used to this and all her intellect . . . wasn't what her heart was, and what it was telling her, and both mind and heart kept changing their opinions.  She chuckled at that.

     "Something funny?" he asked.

     She hugged him closer, "Just thinking about Ranma, his harem and his indecision.  I think I finally understand him, he finally had people who seemed to care about him and wanted him to think well of them.  I also think I understand you as well, you two are a lot alike, maybe too much.  He didn't decide because he didn't want any of those relationships to end.  Now I'm doing the same thing."

     "For all his faults, Saotome will still be a friend if you choose someone else, so will I.  We're much alike that way.  Besides," he reached behind, putting his arms around her waist, "I enjoy your indecision.  We don't have to decide, not yet, not any of us."

     She kissed his neck, "When we get home, I think I'm going to go climb into Ranma's bed, just give him a shock."  She laughed as she walked away.

     "Kiss him," Jeff suggested.

     She enjoyed the warm feelings.  There were heavy costs to letting people get close, Hiroko was one.  Feeling the pain that the others felt from their losses hurt too, but it was better than it had been, isolated, walled off, alone, and always wondering what anyone who approached her wanted, their motives.  And it was never friendship, or romance.  Here, she smiled as she thought about it, Here, it is so different.  Unfortunately it complicates rather than simplifies things. 

     "I don't think I can forgive you from what you've done," Nabiki admitted, "But I think I understand why you did it."

     "Really, then would you tell me?" Jeff asked, "And forgiveness isn't for me, it's about you not carrying that weight on your soul.  It also doesn't mean that you ignore what I did."

     "Do you have to turn everything into a lecture, do you have any idea how irritating that is?"


     Nabiki frowned at the Rei-like tone and posture.  "Would you like a free flight to Boston?  I think I can bounce you off the Liberty Bell.  Would that ring your chimes?"

     He remained silent, which Nabiki took as a good sign.  "I think you subconsciously blocked out the possibility, you want a family so bad, that you bypassed a likely consequence."

     "So that makes it all better, 'Fo'give this po' sinner, th' Devil made me do it'," he said disgustedly.

     "No," Nabiki said fiercely, "I was explaining, not excusing.  The only person who can forgive you is Rit-chan."

     He pulled away from her, stood a distance away.  The memories were rapidly fading, but Nabiki easily recognized that pose: 'Mulish Martyrdom', better to suffer than trouble others.  Ranma sometimes got the same way, it was childish and frustrating from either of them.  "You know she won't turn away from you, you know she won't reject you.  Hell, I bet she'll know what you're going to say before you say it."

     "Then - "

     "Because it's important for her to hear you say it and for you to actually listen to what she says in return," Nabiki cut him off, "Look, if you want absolution, go see a priest, if you want forgiveness go see Ritsuko.  If you want an explanation, and a warning, I just gave you one.  You're going to overreact when family is a subject on the table, and our enemies seem to know that and they can use it against you."  She vaguely remembered the dreams where 'little Nabiki' had played with and been with Rit-chan.  She could easily imagine that loneliness in others.

     Everyone wondered where the `Ice Queen` came from.  The truth was, she was always there.  Nabiki was always the outsider, even in her own family, even when everything was `perfect` while mommy was alive.  She could imagine someone using that against her in Nerima, it would have been the only weapon that would have pierced her armor.  She didn't like how schizophrenic she felt about all of this.  She wanted to hurt him for what he'd done to Rit-chan, she rationalized that the only thing holding her back was that it would be a relief for him.

     She also wanted that warm and safe feeling she'd had with him and Ranma cuddled with her.  It was the first time in her life she'd felt that special, that important, to anyone.  And it was to people who had no reason to stay with her, to want her . . . company.  They'd repeatedly made choices to keep her around, to stay together.  She didn't ask, didn't threaten, they did it because they wanted to, she'd heard them talk about it.  The conversation usually went 'Nab-chan won't like it', 'We do something else, right?' 'Yes.'

     She also wanted `mommy` to have that feeling family, but why Ritsuko rather than Nabiki?  Because Ritsuko needed it more, because Nabiki didn't deserve it, both, neither, something else too or instead?  It frustrated her how she could figure out anyone or everyone else, except herself.  She wondered if that was what drove the Nerimaniacs, that they didn't know their own hearts, they pursued impossible things so ardently because the pursuit was a way of avoiding the question of 'what do I do when I catch . . . ?'  "Fill in the blank."

     "Okay," Jeff said, "You find me as handsome as Gable, as witty as Mencken, as suave as Powell, and a military genius to rival either George.  And you're stuck deciding which feature to idolize first."

     "Let's not forget that you're also the modestest person in the entire universe," Nabiki replied, "Actually I don't know any of the people you were talking about.  I actually was wondering how to arrange for you and Rit-chan to get together, or if I want you to keep my house and raise my kids while Ranma and I travel the world and have grand adventures."

     "Don't forget Ranko, she'll want to go along too."

     Nabiki shook her head.  "Ranma is Ranko."

     "They aren't the same person.  Do you think Ranma could ever have done that healing job, that first night?  He would have been petrified at the thought of it.  No, Ranko had to do it."  He paused to consider.  "I have wondered why I've so rarely seen both of them at once.  You don't think Ranko is avoiding Ranma?  I know she's got a crush on him, maybe even loves him, but I doubt Ranma feels the same, he seems almost jealous of Ranko."

     Nabiki felt a headache coming on.  It was like talking to Kuno or her little sister.  Certain things transcended mere proof, it didn't help that Jeff had never seen the transformation.  "Do you have any idea what a migraine I get every time you bring this up?"

     "You brought it up, not I.  I still don't know what you have against Ranko.  She's vivacious and beautiful, she seems a little intimidated by you, but then so does Ranma.  Hey!  Maybe she's trying to make you jealous.  Carrying on 'Look what I can do with someone else!'"

     "She's got you all wrapped up!" Nabiki shouted back, furious at her lack of control over both her own emotions, and `Raccoon`.  Of course `Ranko` does it so effortlessly, she thought angrily, There is no way Ranma could do that.  She shook her head.  Now he's almost got me convinced, she thought resentfully, she couldn't believe Ranma was beating her at her best game.  But Raccoon seemed immune to most of her efforts and putty in Ran . . . ko's hands.

     The world hates me, she thought morosely, Either famine or feast.  She considered her options, discarding all the unreasonable ideas, and was still left with an insoluble problem.  Jeff's joke about a menage a non remained the only `simple` solution, and it would yield an incredible number of problems.

     "So, you're attracted to Rei, eh?"  Nabiki decided a spate of teasing would be a more profitable line of inquiry.

     "And Langley, yes."

     "But not Misato?" she asked quirked an eyebrow at his sour expression, "Definitely not Misato."

     "There's an exceptionally rude term: six pack, something you hand around to your buddies for a good time and an interesting diversion during halftime, but not worth missing the game over," Jeff said, "I've met only one woman who so clearly meets those criteria."

     "Ouch," Nabiki said in mock sympathy for their commander.  She found it amusing that none of the boy pilots was all that interested in the major topic of the other junior high boys' fantasies.  Shinji was her caretaker, Ranma couldn't be bothered, and Jeff hated her guts and the rest of her.  "So if she threw herself at you. . .?"

     "I'd still charge her a dollar for the opener," he replied, "I'd rather curl up with a giant rattlesnake, at least we could talk recipes."

     Nabiki had been the only `senior` member of NERV who could act as a spokesman.  She'd politely refused every request for an interview with Stars and Stripes or dinner or anything social with any of the Captains or Admirals.  'The aftermath of the Angel activity left some serious repercussions among the pilots and senior staff who'd come in close contact with the Great Old One', then she refused to explain further after assuring everyone there was no danger of contamination and NERV had the situation well under control.  It actually felt good lying through her teeth and `massaging` the truth.  The fact the military censors approved wholeheartedly, even encouraged her, was actually a bit of a disappointment, but she was still `being a good girl` even when she'd submerged herself totally in her old ways.  To the Admiral and his senior staff she still dissembled, a bit.  The Angel had done something, to all the pilots if NERV reports were to be believed.  Special weapons were used and that was it, but those weapons weren't without significant side-effects, hence their limited availability and the bizarre behavior that followed.  'Maya wasn't fully cleared and look what happened to her.'  The shiver from all they veterans told Nabiki she'd done her best, questions would be kept to a minimum, and they would go through her.

     No one was really satisfied with that and her former firearms instructors had gotten a reminder about things they hadn't been willing to do to train her, the embarrassing and painful things.  NERV couldn't afford such scruples against and Angel.  Those men went away to speculate.

     Jeff spotted Ritsuko, sitting alone on one of the few undamaged portions of Bennington's flight deck, just enjoying the wind in her hair.  He thought about how beautiful and happy she looked, serene even.  He hated the thought of disrupting that, as he walked towards her.  Jeff didn't want to fight with Ritsuko, but he didn't want to gloss over the things he and Nabiki had seen on their mission to return Cthylla to her temple, and he had to talk to her about something.  He suspected that Nabiki hadn't noticed, she'd wanted out as quick as possible.  She also had no real training as an engineer, except for the training she'd gotten from Major ggreg.  She also hadn't gone out that time, he had.

     The damage to the buildings had been recent, the breaks in the stonework in the temple were recent.

     "You knew what we'd find," he said, he took a tone that was not accusatory.  It had been weird knowing how someone would react in nearly any situation, but they didn't know you.  It was weirder knowing someone would know exactly what you would do, and you knew they knew, and they knew that you knew, ad infinitum.  If you were married, it might be Heaven, if you were trying to stay emotionally distant, it was Hell.

     "Maybe, what is your hypothesis?"  She wasn't trying to evade, she wanted to know all he had figured out, what she would have to tell him, what she'd have to correct.

     "The shoggoths told you they wanted freedom from their Deep One masters but they still venerated Cthylla.  So Cthulhu's deepest secret was revealed to you.  An Angel to study for a few days, they would launch their attack while she was `safe` aboard a human aircraft carrier, guarded by two pilots and an EVA.  Then you'd figure out a way to have us put it back.  That was an honor guard waiting for us, even Nabiki thinks so.  They weren't chasing us.  They were escorting us."

     "You object?"  Ritsuko turned to face him.

     "What benefit did we gain?" he asked, sat down on the deck next to her.

     "Are you saying that everything has to benefit NERV and the human race?"

     "That city . . . ," he realized, "That was where your rebellion started.  The Elder Things sank the city they'd taken from the Flying Polyps to try and forestall the beginning of the rebellion.  Was it Concord or Lexington?"

     She considered, "They didn't sink it, we did, when we took it from the Flying Polyps, and it was . . . Fort Ticonderoga, a source of weapons for our war," she suggested, her face screwed up, "I never realized I'd know such things, my knowledge of American History used to be poor.  It was important, maybe it doesn't do anything, but the Deep Ones are a bigger threat than an isolated cult of Shoggoths way out in an isolated area.  There also is the idea that the pilots can be negotiated with, the Shoggoths will explain it to Cthylla and she will feed the information back to Cthulhu."

     "So we might have another Great Old One opting out?" Jeff asked, he didn't disguise his admiration and understanding.  He hugged her carefully and released her very quickly.  "Okay.  I do think you should tell Nabiki, privately of course."

     "Of course," she agreed, smiled shyly, "It's tough, isn't it?"

     "Lusting after a beautiful woman I'm in love with?  What do you think?"  He frowned.

     "I think you don't have it as bad as I do," she replied, "I've always wanted to be able to trust someone.  I thought I could trust Rei, then I couldn't.  Now I can again and . . . "  She sighed.

     "And you can't have that person either."

     She smiled at him.  "You heard Nabiki's plan?" she asked.

     "Thought of it myself, turn you into a teenager.  How would Gendo react to that?"

     "Some problems can't be taken into account."

July 29, 1947

But my words like silent raindrops fell

     "Don't you understand?" Ritsuko asked as they stood, sat or paced, each according to their temper, in the empty ordinance room, "That thing that attacked you aboard the Coral Sea," she looked at the faces around her, "That's what I am!"

     "There were two, I engaged one, it eventually died," Jeff said, "You killed the other one, didn't you?  Who was it after?  Me and Shinji?  Saotome?  You tore it to pieces and disposed of the body."

     Ritsuko was mainly aware of the smiling girl hugging her tightly, and Maya approaching her coyly, more embarrassed than horrified.  Her demonstration hadn't created the raw and visceral horror it should have, Maya had actually started looking for a bucket.

     "I'm not something safe," Ritsuko said desperately, "I am a shoggoth," she hissed, was shocked by the continued lack of reaction.  Nabiki had `called` this meeting to clear the air among them.

     "First, they don't know the history of what that is," Jeff said.

     "Wrong."  Nabiki moved to arms length, still holding Ritsuko's hands.  "I don't care.  When . . . when Hiroko . . . I remember the people who held me.  Who let me cry like a baby or scream at the unfair world.  I remember who made sure that I wasn't abandoned by the world.  After all the weird stuff, that was more important."

     Ritsuko shook her head.

     "You seem to be the only one who doesn't understand that having two human gamete donors doesn't automatically make you a fully paid-up member of the human race," Jeff told her, "Doctor.  Ikari Gendo and Katsuragi Misato are good examples.  Despite their origins, they are less 'human' than you are."

     "I don't argue," Maya said, tears running down her cheeks, smiling broadly.

     Ritsuko looked at the insane people around her, the clearly insane people around her, they plainly didn't understand what she was trying to tell them.

     "The only one concerned about this - " Nabiki said, "Is you."

     "Not completely true, it will take some time to fully adjust," Jeff said, "But after how you have put yourself forward, we're willing to extend your tab.  We know who you are, now we know better what you are, but that's less important.  We do need a little time to absorb it, and get used to it.  But we aren't going to abandon you."

     "So says my husband and the father of my children?" Ritsuko asked, "I can't be that.  However much it would - simplify - things."

     "That isn't what I asked," Jeff replied, "I apologize for what happened.  It has been pointed out . . . "  He glanced at Nabiki.  "That I should make amends."

     "One loss and you're too rattled to make decisions?" Nabiki teased.

     "Nab-chan," Ritsuko said, "It isn't that simple."  She stared at Nabiki.  "Having opportunity and motive is not the same as committing the crime.  As your experience shows.  You had your chance, and did nothing.  Why, in your case?  Don't try to make up for that by pushing someone else."

     "Did you get that from him, or yourself?" Nabiki asked sourly.

     "Why - both," Ritsuko teased, ruffled Nabiki's hair.

     "The point is . . . "

     "The point is, I don't think punishment is appropriate.  More than you've already done to yourself, and incidently, the rest of us."

     That set Jeff squirming as he stood there.

     "The rest of us?" Nabiki asked a trifle too innocently.

     Ritsuko hadn't considered the effect that knowing approximately what Nabiki was thinking and feeling would have on her opinion of the girl.  She discerned that Nabiki was desperately trying to smooth things over, before they became uncomfortable to her.  Read personal, Ritsuko thought, Especially tender and private..  She'd never considered fear was even part of Nabiki's make up, let alone a major motivator.  "We can't go back to status quo ante, but we aren't going to walk around hating and fearing each other for a mistake that was a mistake."

     "Unless it wasn't," Jeff said morosely.

     "You really like drawing out your martyr complex," Ritsuko complained.

     "Humility does strange things to people," Nabiki said.

     "Why don't you try it some time?" Jeff asked her.

     "Children!" Ritsuko shouted, preventing WW3, "You and I both know you did the best with the information at hand.  I should have never gone alone into that room.  After you two collapsed I shouldn't . . . " She wanted to tell them she shouldn't have gone in to negotiate their release.  That she should never have expected mercy or understanding.

     "Tears."  Nabiki touched her face.  "A human reaction.  A nonhuman would have no need.  Someone asked you once.  'How close does a simulation have to be, before it is legally treated as real?'  What about emotionally?"  Jeff's arms encircled her waist, and he rested his head on her shoulder.  It wasn't the reaction of a lover, but a friend.  The others joined in.  The feeling was warm, it was what she'd really wanted.  Why am I frightened? she wondered.  Ritsuko had Nabiki and Maya holding her front, Jeff clinging to her side.  She couldn't understand it, she just gave up and accepted it.

     "I do understand why you made your deal," Nabiki walked with her two allies across the deck of the ordinance room, Ritsuko held among them.

     "But we put it back," Nabiki hadn't left her side and had Ritsuko's arm draped over her shoulders.  Jeff was also close, because Ritsuko had her other arm across his shoulders, and occasionally around the two pilots' throats, she wasn't sure if she wanted to thank or kill them sometimes.

     "I'll settle for both of you safe," she said quietly, looking up at the gray metal and lights.  She couldn't imagine the power necessary to change from hurricane to blue skies, the demonstration of dominance was obvious from the highest Admiral to the lowliest Seaman Recruit.  The severe but controlled damage to the ultimate expression of human power, when facing the capacities of an enraged Great Old One, chastened everyone.

     Maya stood away from 'mother and children' by a short distance.  When Ritsuko glanced back at her, Maya looked absurdly pleased with the tableau.  Ritsuko wasn't sure what to think, but she thought her charges deserved to know the truth and the parts especially important to her.  "I was . . . I don't remember when I became aware, a long time ago.  I began to resent being used as a slave."

     "You were part of the rebellion," Jeff added, for the others.

     "Yes, millions of years ago," Ritsuko said.

     "The war between the Elder Things and their created slaves, the Shoggoths.  The Shoggoths lost."

     "Many were destroyed," Ritsuko told them, "They had a special penalty for some of the leaders.  I was shattered, split into dozens or hundreds of pieces of various sizes.  I wasn't aware of the passage of time, not like humans are.  For a long time I spent much of my time dodging the other pieces of myself who had been sent out to destroy me.  Unlike the others of my kind, I couldn't absorb other pieces to grow larger, nor could I reproduce by meiosis, that is budding.  That was a more disturbing penalty than you can imagine.  It was a constant torture, that may be what enhanced or exercised my intellect, but I knew I would never be one of my own kind, not anymore," she chuckled, "Some of my `pieces` simply left, submerging themselves in other identities," she sobered slightly, "One even became a penguin."  She smiled at having tricked `Raccoon` so long.  I had to have some way to look after Misato didn't I? she thought to herself.

     Nabiki reached over and poked Jeff.  "Now your little revelation about hydroquinone and meiosis," she told him.

     "That sounds like fun," Ritsuko said.

     Nabiki sat in her cabin, in bed, staring at the ceiling.  I can't believe I'm still in this mess.  I got them talking, she thought, Now I need to get them together, doing something that shows the other that they can be trusted, by me, by each other.  All that work and only a baby step in the right direction, now Rit-chan is pushing me and Raccoon together. She covered her face with her pillow.

     You also need to understand what your feeling are, she reminded herself.

     "I am going to find you," Nabiki told this helpful little voice in her head, "And then . . . bwah ha ha!"

     Then the realization hit her, a pattern of behavior that had already been put in place.  She'd been unable to control the events, because she was the initiating element.  "You're right, I am an idiot," she said quietly.

     You're welcome.  Great now I'm talking to myself! she thought.

     She did remember that the boy who cried wolf didn't get in trouble the first time.  She took a deep breath, and emitted the loudest, most bloodcurdling scream she could.  She wrapped the blanket over her shoulders and stared blankly.  She faced the door, waiting.

     Ritsuko heard the cries from Nabiki's cabin.  She'd rushed to the room, this time, Jeff was close behind her.  Nabiki was awake and hugging herself tightly and shivering.  She looked at the pair of them with those eyes.  Jeff ignored the implied protest and sat on the edge of the bed, speaking in low tones and stroking her hair.

     Ritsuko had a different mission.  I'll have to admit it, she thought as she signaled the Marine Corporal of the guard, she needed another bed or cot delivered to Nabiki's room.  The Marine didn't speculate, he simply sent a man off to get one.  She returned quickly to Nabiki's cabin.  Nabiki was talking quietly about her nightmare, how it really wasn't a problem while she hugged herself and shivered.  She's lying through her teeth, Ritsuko thought, I can almost see the dark red 'conversation block'.  That was another disturbing thing, suddenly `finding` herself with none of the secondary and tertiary sense responses, it was like suddenly being blinded, deafened, and given anosmia.  She'd been tempted to `rewire` her sense organs to provide the additional information.  She'd decided against it.  Although it will be a fascinating subject for study, she thought idly as she watched Jeff with his hand on Nabiki's shoulder.  Now he listened to her, speaking only to draw the girl out further.  Ritsuko kept `remembering` her husband looking out for the kids, their kids.  The monsters under the bed got a thrashing with the fire poker from daddy as he climbed around there and hunted them.  But thunder, typhoon, and earthquakes got the gentle words and stroking the hair and the shoulder, usually while the child clung to mommy, until the child calmed and went back to sleep.  If it was bad, the whole family decamped to mommy and daddy's room to spend the night.

     She shook her head at the memory, but she had to admit, it worked and was working.  Nabiki had slept without bad dreams when she and Jeff were in the room.  Ritsuko wondered if she should simply move all four of them into a single large room.  Maya too had bad dreams, and 'Sempai' being close seemed to drive them away.

     The cot arrived, Ritsuko set it up and let Jeff settle in.  He still held Nabiki's hand as she drifted off.  Ritsuko thanked the sailors who brought the cot and sent them away, closing the door behind them.  She sighed quietly, desperately glad she didn't really need sleep, because she wouldn't have gotten much in the last few days.

     Ritsuko watched Nabiki and Jeffrey sleep.  She thought it would be perfectly reasonable to climb into bed and snuggle up to her husband and smother their daughter's fears.  She shook the thought away, because it wasn't hers.  Worse than the temporary contamination, which had diminished steadily as time passed, until almost nothing remained.  Her uncertainty and confusion had begun the instant she woke naked, with Maya on her arm.  Then the rage at what Jeffrey had done to her, followed by how he'd pacified her.  She saw the same apologetic expression, felt the same touch she'd felt a thousand times before, reminding her that she was safe and loved, even if he COULD BE SO IRRITATING!  Then she realized those memories and feelings weren't hers, they weren't truly even his, but part of a dream.

     But they seemed so real.  Not events but feelings, emotions.  The times they'd argued, even fought, the times she'd looked so awful, eight months pregnant, circles under her eyes, hair by mixmaster, stinking of sweat and soil, and through it all he still loved her, still looked after her . . . his beloved wife.  Now she had all these emotions, all his deepest emotions and spiritual secrets, the secret hopes and dreams, all the good and bad times in his life.  All cataloged and at her fingertips.

     It was worse than reading his diary/journal because she knew how he felt at each moment, less at the mundane times, mainly the peaks and valleys of his life.  The dream was the worst, normally cool and collected, during the dream his emotions ran riot, his feelings for his wife and children ran red-hot, and raw with their loss.  Even the knowledge it was an illusion failed to dim the vision, the strength of the feelings, or the pain of loss.  Now she felt it all.  What had been an interesting and humorous story, was as real to her as it was to him, and just as impossible to ignore.  It would have been an immense boost to her ego, knowing she could be loved like that, so completely.  That someone tolerated all her faults and still cared, saw her at her worst and stayed with her.  Would suffer all sorts of indignity and embarrassment, and count it as balanced that she was there with him at the end of the day.

     Also embarrassing and interesting, the memories of making love, her dominant with him as the seducer, which he'd used when she wanted to rip his head off for revealing her true form to Maya and Nabiki.  More embarrassing still were the techniques and tactics she'd used in the dream to seduce him.  She suddenly realized she'd been stroking his hair and yanked her hand away.

     This is going to be troublesome, she thought.

And echoed in the wells of silence

July 30, 1947

     Nabiki abruptly sat up and slapped her head, remembering Raccoon's photo album.  She saw Ritsuko's look of concern and felt Raccoon sitting up next to her.  "I'm a dunce," she told them, the silence and the two contemplative looks did nothing for her ego.  "Your photo album, everybody you'd cared about has been lost."  Raccoon frowned and flopped back down, turning away from her.  Nabiki turned to Ritsuko, "So of course he doesn't want to get close to you.  He's afraid of losing you too."  Ritsuko paled and nodded her head.  Nabiki shook her head.  "How stupid am I for not remembering that?"

     "I'd prefer if you hadn't," Raccoon replied.

     Nabiki wanted to do something about his feelings, while she considered the deeper question, How do I overcome that?

     "Yesterday, we talked about a rebellion.  You were on the losing side, and you were `designed` as an administrator, then you were probably an instigator or even a leader."  She waited for Ritsuko to nod.  "You feel you've betrayed your 'loyal followers'."

     Ritsuko confirmed Nabiki's suspicions by looking blank and turning away.

     So she betrayed those she cared about her, even by just surviving . . . she thought.  "What - a - mess!" she said quietly as she dropped back on her bunk.  Okay, she thought, How do I untangle this mess?!  She considered how to overcome the division between the pair.  Stupid Nabiki, really stupid!  Kuno-stupid!  Mousse-stupid!  Why didn't I consider that? she asked herself.  It was a much harder problem to deal with.  If she had a solution, she had both people right here to work on it, but she didn't have one.  Another opportunity lost, she hated that.

     In Nerima, even Ranma `betrayed` his allies without real concern, such trickery was considered an effective tactic.  Here, people make long-term alliances, the loss or betrayal of those arrangements would have a more serious and long-lasting effect, no 'all is forgiven and forgotten' that is a prerequisite for Neriman double-dealing.  They have to forgive themselves, before they can `risk` betraying someone else.  Until they do that, they will keep their distance to `protect` the other person.  The person they care about.  She sighed again at the mess she'd found herself . . . and her friends, in.  It wasn't like their attempts to make Ranma more comfortable with cats.  It wasn't as if she could get people used to being trusted by others without bad things happening.

     "Although I can point out that nothing bad has happened to you two over the last few months," she told them.  Unlike me, she thought bitterly.  "And Asuka has survived the years," she pointed out, "You both keep you distance not because you don't care, but because you do."  She suspected they both `knew`, but it was different if someone else told them out loud.  She almost wished for one of Shampoo's love potions.  Blindfold both of them, dose them, get out and lock the door behind her before they could see.

     Neither her companions, nor the walls made any useful reply.

     "Doctor Akagi?!" Captain Casey said loudly, waking Ritsuko.  She glanced around the room.

     "I do apologize," she said quickly.  She realized she was in the ward room, right where she was supposed to be.

     "We haven't started the meeting yet," Casey said, "You must have dozed off.".

     She nodded numbly.  She was stunned, she'd arrived some 20 minutes early to relax and get her thoughts together.  She'd closed her eyes for a moment, and found herself in a traditional dojo, confronting a black and white striped saber-toothed tiger.  It reminded her of the stories she'd heard after the weretigers had attacked.

     It had roared and charged.  She'd been so surprised that she hadn't been able to prevent it from knocking her over.  When the expected rake with claws or rend with teeth didn't come, she was even more confused.  No claws at all and the tiger's head butts avoided striking her with its fangs.  She'd gotten a firm grip on the tiger and tipped it over.

     The two of them wrestled, chased each other, seemingly for hours . . . Then I was back in the wardroom, she thought, I had a dream.  I've never had a dream of my own!  She composed herself to listen to the ongoing repair efforts to the carrier.  The hull damage was the principal worry.  She carefully pushed the idea of dreaming into the background.

     "NERV SAR has numerous divers qualified, and for external repairs, the EVA can simulate most metal forming techniques and can keep up with the carrier while it is underway," she suggested.  The Navy officers looked at each other with a mix of amazement and horror.  The idea a 'repair vessel' which could reach any part of the ship's hull and make repairs seemed an idea none of them were comfortable with.

     "Uh," Admiral Adams said.  Ritsuko realized the mere presence of the EVA and what they represented took the man out of his comfort zone.

     There are more things in Heaven and Earth, and aboard your ship, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, she thought, she smirked at that.

     "We'll take that under advisement, but most of the damage is above the waterline."

     "The EVA can help there too, if you need it.  I don't think you have the people to spare to continue the shooting and martial arts lessons."  She knew she had made her point, and Adams wanted to stick to the strictly conventional for a while.

     "Thank you, Doctor," Adams said oout of politeness, "I'd rather not try to experiment while we're underway, however, please have the pilots ready to assist if something goes seriously wrong."

     "Both pilots available are experienced in Search and Rescue, and will be standing by," she said, and let the matter drop.

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon God they made.

July 31, 1947

     Jeff stood on the damaged flight deck, watching the city appear on the horizon, their location clearer by the minute.  Nabiki had been watching Ritsuko watching Jeff.  It was an odd and faintly irritating tableau.  She felt a little like a voyeur, and she thought she should grab both of them and lock them in a room together.  The age would be one thing holding them apart, except they really weren't human, but they . . . it all ran around her head until it gave her a headache.  With the weather clear, the battlegroup had reassembled and were providing them an escort.  Despite returning empty-handed.  Nabiki doubted that anyone who actually listened to the reports would object to that.

     She was pleased about Ritsuko and Raccoon, she kept catching them looking at each other when they thought no one else, especially the recipient, was looking.  Or reaching out and suddenly catching themselves.  It was frustrating to watch, it was as painful to watch as the same antics in Nerima were amusing.  But they were advancing, a thing the Nerimaniacs never did.  What was torture was she wanted to do something about it, but even there she was frustrated.  She remembered the fathers' `plans` that regularly ruined any progress Ranma and Akane made.  She wondered if her impulse to do was subconsciously to damage any progress made.  She didn't know if she wanted then to get together as a couple, or if she wanted Jeff and Ranma for herself, or if she wanted to toss Jeff off the front of the carrier out of revulsion, or . . . or . . . or exactly what.  After the dream she had begun to realize what it would be like to be stripped naked like that, totally vulnerable.  Even if you knew that the other person would never use it, and was just as vulnerable to what you knew.  Her invasion had given her more answers, which proceeded to thoroughly complicate the question.

     The feeling of violation was the problem, for her as well.  That he'd trained her specifically to make such an intrusion didn't make her feel better about it, it still felt like rape.  That `mommy` had been subtly betrayed that way.  Then Raccoon forced Ritsuko to violate him made both of them very leery of each other.  It made the whole thing touchier than sweaty gelignite.

     Come ON! she thought angrily, You're the expert!  You made all Nerima dance to your tune, what's so different about these two?

     They aren't stupid, they aren't crazy, and you actually want Ritsuko and you to be happy.  Not merely entertained, her mind replied.  She considered digging that oh-so helpful bit out with a spoon.  Thanks, now give me something useful! she ordered.

     'Raccoon!'  Ritsuko started at Nabiki's call.  She looked around guiltily, wondering if anyone else had caught her mooning after her `husband`.  She watched Nabiki approach, she couldn't escape the image of Kyoko, and her intense pride at her `daughter`, her first born.  Tall, proud, resourceful.  That isn't any of it, Ritsuko wondered why she hadn't gone mad, why `Raccoon` hadn't.  Also missing was the intense aura of anger and betrayal that Nabiki had exhibited lately.

     "Are there any decent restaurants in that place?" Nabiki asked, gesturing at Boston.

     Jeff nodded.  "Some very fine ones.  I can take you on a tour of them, for as long as we're here."

     "Any good Japanese restaurants?" Nabiki asked.  Ritsuko edged over to where they were talking, something didn't feel right about the whole conversation.

     "Not that I know of, some good Chinese restaurants, some even better than the Cat Cafe."

     Ritsuko felt a chill as she remembered the quality of the place she'd never been.  She could hardly believe it.  She also could walk into the Dragon's Council Guildhall and give the correct password to be accepted as a full member, or at least a welcome visitor.  She looked up, found herself staring into those eyes.  Both she and Jeff looked away quickly as they made an unwanted connection.

     Telling him it wasn't his fault won't help.  He knows, but he still hurt someone he cares about, and I can't deny that it hurts, she thought, It hurts to look at him and it hurts to look away.  It hurts so much!  God Almighty what a mess!  She froze again.  She'd never had any truck with the `superstitions` of the people around her.  Now she could feel the comfort of believing in a higher power that wasn't hostile, uncaring, treacherous, or was going to eat you.  She still regarded the existence of any such thing as a fable . . . but. . . .

     She knew what she wanted to do, what nearly everybody had been suggesting in pointed and not so pointed terms.  Things that were more real and comfortable than some God of the humans.  But she couldn't do it, not because it was wrong, which it was, or because it was inappropriate, which it was, but because the basis was irrational, and it was manipulative of someone weaker than she was.  She refused to start down Gendo's road of seeing others like pieces to be moved around.

     "Rit-chan?" Nabiki's question drew her out of her thought chasing.

     "Yes, Bess?" she asked, enjoyed the momentary frown, swiftly hidden.  So serious.  So much like Kyoko.

     "When - we - dock - would you like to go to dinner with the three of us?" Nabiki asked in a clear tone of voice.

     "Yes, of course," Ritsuko said, "You, me, Jeff and Maya?"

     "Of course," Jeff said eagerly, the first real enthusiasm for anything since the . . . incident.

     And that for more people around to dilute things, she thought sadly, As well as potential rivals.  She wasn't blind to `Nab-chan's` confusion, which the girl transmuted into anger.  It seemed all four of them couldn't make these kinds of decisions.  She was beginning to think Jeff's joking comment about a menage a non was the simplest solution from an immediate personal standpoint, but the most difficult one to live with.  Manage a non, she thought archly.  She wished things could work out more easily, for all of them.

     Jeff and Nabiki were playing pool.  Ritsuko and Maya watched from a safe distance.  Ritsuko was glad the two pilots were acting out their rivalry/strain in a more civilized fashion.  She was also glad most of the sharks would `swim` close, realize how badly outclassed they were, and flee.  With Nabiki's skill and Jeff's experience, they had to ricochet the cue ball off at least two other objects before it hit its declared target.  Sinking a ball without doing that meant that Ritsuko or Maya would replace the sunk ball and the cue ball wherever they wished.  It yielded some very complicated shots, and Ritsuko hoped that Luigi's would open soon, before the confrontation between the pair escalated.

     Nabiki got three shots in a row, which allowed her to run the table.  The last three games had gone that way, a stalemate until one or the other got the rhythm, then they'd win.

     "You'll have to challenge Ranma when we get back," Jeff said.  Nabiki didn't miss her shot, although not by much.

     "I'd get a few victories," Nabiki admitted, as she lined up her shot, "Before he slipped into 'Ranma-cannot- lose' mode, and nobody'd ever beat him again."

     Jeff waited for her to line up another shot then, "Langley would."

     The ball missed her intended target.  She glared at Jeff as Maya placed the cue ball in a nearly impossible place.  Then both of them smiled at him.

     "When does that place open for dinner?" Maya asked as she stepped away and winked at Nabiki.

     "Six o'clock," Jeff told them as he studied how he was going to do anything, "That early we don't have to dress for dinner."

     Ritsuko checked her watch.  "Then this is the last game," she said, "I want to make sure we get a table."

     "We will," Jeff said as he made his shot, and accomplished nothing, "I know the owner."

     Sergeant Malkowitz wasn't taken by surprise.  He often wondered how someone supposedly so smart could have failed to notice the clues.  His surveillance subject had never let on that he knew that he was being observed.  Too many people could never see what was in front of them.  He'd learned that on Guadalcanal, someone assured him that 'Japs don't bother with landmines, and the engineers cleared all the boobytraps.'  Just before the man stepped on a landmine that wasn't made in the U.S. of A.

     The bone fragments cost Malkowitz the use of his legs.  He was still glad to serve his country.  The rifle he had might have made a difference against a human.  Not against the mad thing he was confronting.  He'd still emptied the clip into it, just to satisfy himself that it was useless.

     The blow hurled him against the wall.  He heard his bones break as well as the wheelchair.  At times like this, he wished he knew a lot less than he did.

     The next blow landed, and everything went dark.

     "Where'd you disappear to?" Nabiki asked Jeff as they entered the restaurant.

     Ritsuko thought it wasn't as elegant as it could have been, But it's kind of nice.

     "Taking care of some details," Jeff answered he spoke to the maitre d' in Italian.  From her knowledge of French, Ritsuko guessed he was confirming they had a table and the owner was aware they were here.

     Ritsuko was looking forward to some good food.  She noted that neither Nabiki, nor Maya, were as enthused as she and Jeff were.  She looked around, expecting a special evening.  Jeff seemed extraordinary calm.  "You must be homesick," she said.

     "Not really," he admitted, "I was the first couple months, but I got over it."

     "Not going to admit it," Nabiki said cattily, everyone was now speaking English.

     "Are you?"  He smiled at her.  "There's a simple solution."  She smiled back nastily.

     Ritsuko wondered, he seemed to be waiting for something.  She doubted anyone except her would have noticed.  The waiter came and took their orders, then bustled away.  She didn't want to drink, or the others to drink, but she wondered why the waiter hadn't offered a wine list.

     "Blue laws," Jeff explained to her unasked question, "No alcohol unless you specifically ask for it, and none at all on Sunday."

     Ritsuko nodded.  She noted that Jeff's air of expectation grew, he was carefully glancing around.  The waiter arrived with large trays, the appetizers she figured.  Another man approached as well.  This seemed to be what Jeff was expecting.  Ritsuko looked forward to seeing what surprises he had prepared.

     Major ggreg heard the gun fire from where he was heading alone in the Boston streets.  He pulled his Browning Hi-Power and ran towards the sound of the guns, fewer now.

     He arrived at his original intended destination, to a scene from an abattoir.  Soldiers slaughtered, the armored limo they had been guarding was blazing merrily, a blistered hand halfway out of the door.  The stench told him all he needed to know.  The girl with the long black hair staring at the scene told him even more.  Especially that he'd been wasting his time aboard the carrier when he should have been here.

     "Are you with them . . . or with him?" she asked.

     ggreg backed up a pace, then dove for cover behind a group of ashcans.  He wasn't sure what she was firing, but the ash cans fragmented, sending coal ashes everywhere, disguising his retreat.

     He fired into the cloud, not waiting for the girl to come through.  He switched clips and waited for her to emerge.  Some instinct caused him to turn, it prevented her from flattening his head with the pipe she swung.

     Her next stroke went wide, ggreg dodged, counterattacked with fists and gunfire.  A direct hit to the girl's head didn't faze her, a gunshot to the same point staggered her slightly, but by the time he changed clips, she was back.

     The blow knocked him flat and the gun skittered from his hand, it stopped and moved back, until the girl held it in her hand.  There was no madness in her eyes, she looked calm and poised as she took aim.  The look of a soldier.

     The bar of almost pure white struck her, surrounding her with fire.  ggreg took to his heels, favoring his ribs as he ran.  The fire died down quickly, but he had lost sight of her and he changed direction rapidly and randomly.

     He found himself at the waterfront.  He took no chances and dove in, he could swim to the Bennington from here.

     The men whisked away the metal covers from the plates they'd placed before them.  In front of Jeff was an odd sandwich, but in front of Nabiki, Maya and Ritsuko was a riceball and a bowl of miso soup.  Even the dried seaweed was correct.  The maitre d' gave Jeff a salute and moved off.

     "Thanks Luigi," Jeff said.

     "How did . . . ?"  Then Nabiki was speechless.  Maya was more practical.

     "Bean jam!" Maya said excitedly, showing the interior of the rice ball her bite had exposed, to Nabiki.

     "Oh, a magician never reveals his tricks," Jeff said airily.

     "He probably sent a radio message ahead," Ritsuko said, sipped the miso soup silently, Western-style.  It was excellent.

     "If you're going to reveal all my tricks . . ." Jeff grumped.

     "I do appreciate it," Ritsuko said.  Maya's and Nabiki's mouths were full.

     "I saw and heard all the comments about the bad food.  Luigi is the best cook I've ever met.  But I had to challenge him, and did he meet your expectations?"

     "Yes," Nabiki said, "I'm not ready to forgive you, but I have decided not to kill you without Ritsuko's permission."

     "Nabiki-chan!" Maya chided.

     "Oh, I don't mind," Jeff said, "I didn't mean to erase . . . well, I did want you to feel better."  He was the shy little boy again.  Ritsuko wanted to hug him.  She knew that it wasn't appropriate in the instance or the circumstances.  She knew what was acceptable in the situation.  "Thank you," Ritsuko told him in French.  He nodded.  The tension among the four reduced significantly for the rest of the evening.

     They walked home in the quiet.  The last vestiges of twilight illuminating the people just arriving to dine and party.

     "Lost in thought?" Ritsuko asked her charges.

     "Just wondering . . . why?"  Nabiki stared at Jeff.

     "All the questions about homesickness, the gripes about pretty good food.  I figured you could all use a taste of home.  I was getting one," he replied.

     "Still looking after us?" Maya teased.

     "Well of course.  You and Brown Bess are too young to be let out on your own," Jeff replied, then had to run ahead to avoid a poking/tickling attack by Nabiki.

     "It's good to see them like this, Sempai," Maya said.

     "Thinking about a course of action of your own?" Ritsuko asked.

     "No, Sempai, I think the best course, is no course.  Any decision we make here will have a different meaning when we return to NERV.  Major Katsuragi would never allow it.  I . . .I don't know if Commander Ikari would allow it either."

     "I don't think he would interfere," Ritsuko said as she picked up the pace to pursue the two kids, who were yelling and carrying on like two kids.

     At least he wouldn't with you and me, she thought.  "The rest . . . I don't know," she admitted.

And the sign flashed out it's warning, in the words that it was forming.

Aug 1, 1947

     Boston P.D. was a professional, big-city department, no shortage of war veterans meant most had seen quite a bit.  Lieutenant Sullivan was Irish, which in Boston meant he was a cop, so the joke went.  He'd seen action in the First World War, but even the WW2 vets hadn't seen this.  Some of the younger ones had lost their breakfasts down the hall.  Sullivan was covering his mouth with his handkerchief.

     "Poor bastard," he said quietly of the victim.  Harvard wasn't the place for a murder, especially one this gruesome.

     The NERV technician was looking at the body, he looked awfully young to be so immured to death, especially one as violent as this.  "Death was by blunt force trauma, all this - " He indicated the dead man's viscera spread all over the room.  "Was done post mortem.  Someone was extremely angry."

     "You want to sign the death certificate?" Sullivan asked, "Our coroner took one look and went out to get some air."

     "No, the Commonwealth pays him, so he works for them.  Besides, I have to tell NERV about this.  You know who Sergeant Malkowitz's roommate, until this March, was?  One of the EVA pilots."

     "Christ Almighty!" Sullivan swore, it would cost him a Hail Mary or three but it was appropriate, "Do they know?"

     "Unless you called them, no.  They're probably going to go a little nuts when they learn about this.  Be ready for lots of questions."  The man walked out of the room, removed the little slippers he'd worn over his shoes to walk across the blood soaked floor.  "And then be ready for the fit to hit the shan."

     Sullivan nodded, there was something creepy about a guy who could look at this, and not swear.

     Ritsuko charged up to the officer of the day.  Her expression would have made a veteran cower, the poor, brand-new O1 looked like he wondered if she'd let him make out his last will and testament.

     "What did the Sergeant of the Guard mean 'I can't find them.'  Both pilots signed out, I would have expected a company of troops to have been following them!" Ritsuko said as reasonably as she could manage.

     "We had no special orders regarding the pilots.  It was probably just an oversight," the man managed.

     "Ensign," Ritsuko said calmly, mainly because being calm at times like this scared people a lot more, "There are perhaps seven pilots in the entire world, that we know of.  Major ggreg was hauled out of the harbor after tangling with something he couldn't deal with.  He regularly dealt with the entire Nazi Reich.  Now they aren't expecting him to live.  You would think that should have triggered some restrictions on who gets on and gets off this boat, wouldn't you?"

     "I didn't have any orders, ma'am."  The man nervously flipped through the clipboard's contents.

     Probably hoping Nabiki and Jeff signed out before they found ggreg, Ritsuko thought.  "What has been done about a searching party?  There are 1800 Marines on this boat," Ritsuko asked pointedly.

     "I don't have that information."  The ensign looked like he wanted to crawl under his desk, or volunteer for an immediate combat assignment.  Getting shot at looked like a healthier situation than the one he was in right now.

     "Dismissed Ensign," Admiral Adams came up behind her.  The Ensign tried to break the land speed record while saluting as he left the office.  Adams closed the door behind the boy.

     "There won't be any search parties from this ship.  The Marines aren't carrying the requisite firepower."  He handed her several manila folders.  "The Army is preparing to look for Miss Tendo.  They've called up an armored division, and we'll be putting back to sea with Unit 04 until the crisis is resolved."

     Ritsuko stared at him, Adams didn't seem the kind to joke about things like this.  As she read the contents of the folders, she felt a cold seeping through her.  "Bastards," she whispered.

     "No need to be so polite," Adams agreed.

     Nabiki realized she'd made a mistake.  Raccoon's descriptions of Boston last night made her want to walk around its streets.  So she'd gotten a rare early start, and then just enjoyed walking and shopping.  The people she'd met had been friendly, if a little distracted.  It reminded her a little of Nerima, when the local populace realized a battle was in the offing and had evacuation in the back of their minds, she couldn't believe such an event was going to occur here.

     She'd let herself forget that Raccoon had been known here and also had friends in many places.  He was also a WASP and male.  Outside that protective shell, she was a 'Jap', they were rare in the U.S. East Coast, and while they had been defeated, there was still a war going on in `their` country.  This had been explained to her, usually at the top of somebodies' lungs from a distance.  She was beginning to regret not having collected a couple of escorts.  A couple of Marines would have been useful, both in protecting her in the current circumstances, and preventing them from occurring.

     She decided not to point out that as heavy as the casualties at Pearl Harbor were, they were easily dwarfed by the losses from the firestorming of Tokyo, of Yokohama, of Nagasaki, of nearly every industrial city in southern and central Japan, or by the starvation and disease that swept every island that followed the collapse of the Japanese government and way of life.  None of that was enough to offset the 'treacherous' tactics which 'everyone knew about'.

     She thought Kuno or Ryoga would fit in perfectly, with their prejudices.  She was heading back to the carrier at her best walking speed when she realized that she'd strayed too far off the beaten track, and somehow the crowd had gotten in front of her as well.

     This is going to be a problem, she thought, I don't want to abandon what I bought.  The money was unimportant, the time and effort of picking out the gifts and souvenirs, that she resented losing.  She glanced at the crowd in front.  Unless it is absolutely necessary, which is looking more and more likely, she thought, If I was Ranma I'd fight my way out.  And get reamed royally for doing it.  She suspected that Akane's anti-Hentai Horde techniques would work only until someone decided firearms were the appropriate remedy.

     I hate retreating, she thought, But it's already my only option.

     The car that pulled up, blocking her, brought the decision from eventually to right now.  The tall, blonde woman climbed out of the sedan and smoothly drew a pistol, fired into the air.

     "You have homes to go back to," she told them in a no-nonsense tone, holding a badge over her head, "I suggest you all do that."  There was murmuring among the crowd, but a good portion of it dispersed.  The hot heads didn't like the odds so well now.

     "Get in Miss Tendo," the woman told her, pulling a different badge, a NERV ID card, and showing it to her.  The picture was the typical unflattering one, the name was Lauren S.

     "Thanks," Nabiki told Lauren, "I could have handled it, but I'm glad I didn't have to."  She gratefully got into the car with her parcels.

     "Should I drop you at the carrier, or at Harvard?" Lauren asked, winked at her.  She knew Jeff's parents were at Harvard.

     "The carrier I guess," Nabiki said, "I guess I shouldn't have eschewed an escort.  I can't go wherever I want."

     "You might, in Frisco or Chicago, but not in the `civilized` East," she practically spat the word, "And especially not with what's been going on.  I'm surprised they didn't have a squad of Marines following your every step."

     "I didn't really tell anyone where I was going," Nabiki admitted.

     "Miss Tendo, with all due respect, that was incredibly stupid," she said as they drove away, "My dad is old enough to remember the signs 'dogs, Irish and Niggers need not apply' for jobs and housing.  The old Mayflower crowd wants only the best, read WASPs, and Orientals are decidedly not welcome.  They don't even like the Welsh.  So everybody has to have someone to dump the shit they get, on someone else."

     "My mom had me baptized Presbyterian," Nabiki said, "Would that help?"  Nabiki hung on tightly, Lauren seemed to have gone to the Misato Katsuragi school of offensive driving.

     "If it was stenciled on your forehead, maybe," Lauren told her, taking turns with squealing tires.

     "Thanks for the save then, a friend told me certain areas should have been safe."

     "The Irish and Italian areas I'll bet.  They aren't quite so rigid, and I'll bet your friend expected to go with you," Lauren said, seemingly unaffected by the angry horns and near collisions, she drove like an unstoppable force of nature.  "Something's been stirring up things, mostly at night, but everybody's on edge."

     "Since you already guessed who it was," Nabiki said, she didn't like games, the woman seemed to be trying to scare her with the driving and her lack of reaction to it.

     "I have an idea," Lauren said, "Tell him this is as bad as '45, and to keep whoever he cares about under lock and key."  They pulled into the Navy Yard, Lauren did stop at the guard shack, and showed her ID, then proceeded at posted speeds.  Nabiki hadn't realized she was this close.

     "Well, here's your stop.  All a float who's going afloat," the woman joked as Nabiki collected her parcels.  "Oh, and if you see your friend, tell him I'll be in the last place he'd ever look.  I'm glad to have met you, Miss Tendo.  I never met another girl with no shadow before."

     Before Nabiki could respond, the woman drove away.  Nabiki stood for a moment, staring at the car, wondering if she should deliver the message or not.

     "No shadow?" she asked, glanced at the sun over head, then straight down.  "Oh KAMIS!" she shouted as she stormed onto the carrier.

     Ritsuko stared at the few technicians - Few surviving technicians, she thought ruefully, The last ones cleared for the complete Chicago project.  Somebody has killed all the bosses, the last one died last night.

     "It was never our intention to let it get this far," the Lead technician, a nonentity called Jones, told her with a nervous laugh.

     The old man had arrived at Ritsuko's cabin, as she'd been preparing to leave to confront NERV Mass. about what was in the files Adams had let her read.  The man, a bird colonel chaplain, had given her a few more sheets to read and keep.  'That's shocking fare, the boy might need to know this, but I'll leave that to your judgement.'  What she'd read had horrified her.

     Just mentioning the codewords that classified the reports had been enough to arrange this meeting.  Now she was confronting the NERV staff survivors who were named in the reports.  She could understand why someone had been killing them, she just wondered why it had taken so long.  Ritsuko was sorely tempted to revert to her original form and tear these malignant little men limb from limb, except she couldn't absorb their thoughts, and she wanted answers far more than she wanted their blood.

     "The effect was never intended to be used this way," Jones admitted, the others nodded their agreement and whispered among themselves about how this or that might have gone wrong.  "We needed the weapons," Jones tried to fill the stony silence Ritsuko was radiating.

     Once they're allowed to talk about it, she realized as she glared at them, They're actually proud of what they've done.  She wondered if Gendo would be as disgusted as she was.

     "So how were the thirty chosen, or was it two hundred?" she asked coldly.  She doubted Jeff had lied to her, with her memories it would have been impossible, he was accurately reporting all he had found out.  The fact that what he had discovered was all a tissue of lies wasn't his fault.

     "The total with the British and Commonwealth subjects it was closer to 800.  The U.S. was a larger area, allowing proper security."

     "So what, the Wyoming base was where you kept them all?  And what happened to the others.  'Lost due to control issues' doesn't really describe things now does it?  The British officially lost six to EVA Unit 03, the American only had three and there is no official word on 'Commonwealth' pilots."

     "As the report said, they mostly died in 1939.  There was a revolt.  The subjects were always uncooperative, pressing the limits, well most of them were.  Some 30 stood against the revolt.  All but the last nine were killed.  We were designing killing machines who feared nothing," Jones said defensively, then wilted a bit under Ritsuko's stare, "Perhaps we should have had more levels of control."

     Like Gendo has with Rei? Ritsuko thought, But she loves and respects him.  Is that something he earned, or was it programmed into her?  Gendo, you think you're a bastard, you don't even make the first cut.

     "They were good at it," Jones told his comrades, getting nods and murmurs of agreement and approval, "But after killing all the other `children` they'd grown up with, there were . . . well, behavioral anomalies.  If they were human, we'd call it shell shock, simple malingering some said.  So we erased their memories of the actual events."  He smiled.  "We gave each one an interesting childhood, and one traumatic memory to focus all their free floating guilt on," he said cheerfully, "Then we placed them with trustworthy relatives of project members."

     "Samuel?" Ritsuko couldn't say any more.  Her own borrowed memories of the event were too close, too raw.

     "Made up out of whole cloth, I was particularly proud of the - subtle - touches . . . "

     Her stare silenced the man.  "I assume Sharon Lauren had such a suite of false memories."

     "Well, of course," Jones said defensively, "We needed a failsafe in case . . . well there was a repetition of the event of 1939.  We also established limiters to prevent that very occurrence."

     "And just who provided you with the information on these `limiters`, and did it ever occur to you that they might have provided you with something that they could reverse or sabotage at a later time?" she asked, barely restraining her temper.  I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that this is the `Inspector's` work.  Give these ivory tower idiots something they wouldn't care about the consequences, because they had `safeguards`! she thought in a fury, Did Gendo get the same deal?  With Rei?  With Shinji?  Or did he realize the other pilots and their needs were the layer of safeguards we needed for Rei?  Gendo, was that why you secretly lobbied for Asuka and Jeff, and not Sharon and Anna?  The ones with the more deeply buried flaws?  I owe you an apology Gendo, cold-blooded but not cold-hearted.  She glanced that the gossiping chickens around her.  And definitely not stupid, she thought.

     "The limiters appear to have failed with Miss Lauren," Ritsuko said, "How do we prevent a failure of Mister Davis's?" she asked coldly.

     They chuckled.  "I don't think there's any worry, after all, he hasn't manifested an AT field outside an EVA or anything like that."  More general nervous laughter, all the more nervous because Ritsuko stared stonefaced at them.

     Ritsuko couldn't imagine how Gendo had managed to keep that little tidbit out of any reports back to these clowns.  "I don't find any of this the least bit funny.  If you're through laughing at your cleverness, I need information on what I can expect if our forces have to engage Sharon.  Will conventional weapons suffice.  You certainly have to have had experience in '39, you have to have considered it.  Will the EVA be necessary?"  She noted how nervous and silent they all got.  "Two . . . THREE?"

     The men turned to stare at each other, whispering anxiously.

     Oh by all the gods and kamis! she thought in terror.  "I'll have the pilots man the EVA."

     "No!" a different technician piped up, "That - that may not be a good idea."  He glanced around nervously before continuing, "It may be possible for a subject without limiters to sync with an EVA . . . externally."

     Ritsuko felt the world slipping away.  It explained some of Jeff's odd sync behavior.  If he doesn't need to be physically present in a cockpit to control an EVA . . . we already know a 400% sync rate would bypass the need for batteries and external power, she thought, The only protection is that the pilot would dissolve into the EVA.  If a pilot would be able to operate an independent EVA . . . I can barely imagine the disaster that could become.  She wondered if that ability could also be developed for the other pilots, then discarded the idea.

     "What was the operation in Boston in '45?" Ritsuko asked, she had a terrible feeling about this.  The technicians looked at each other.

     "There was some concern that the subjects were losing their aggressive edge against their real enemies.  Since a minor one was here in Boston, a test was arranged," Jones told her.

     So you lured or invited Gendo here, maybe even wanted to see if your 'subjects' were a match for Rei, she thought, I'll have to ask Rei if it was Jeff, Sharon, or circumstances that killed her.  "What would have happened if they lost?" Ritsuko asked, and was shocked at the surprised looks.

     "They wouldn't have," Jones said, "Either Davis or Lauren could have taken it alone, together it would have been simplicity itself.  But we did have a battleship standing by if we needed it."

     And that makes it all right? she wanted to scream, So that's what the inquiry is all about.  If Misato knows anything about who helped her.  What would Jeff do if he realizes that it was all a test of him and his allies?  What will they do if they realize Nyarlathotep was probably pulling everyone's strings?  She didn't let any of her emotions show.

     "So, are you hoping Sharon and Jeff will destroy each other?" she asked angrily and was horrified when no one denounced her statement automatically.  That's what they want.  It would let them eliminate their problems all at once.  One goes nuts and their last problem dies honorably to save the world, she thought, They expect to bury the whole thing.  Except they don't know the facts.

     "Unfortunately we don't have the pilots to spare.  How do we stop her?" Ritsuko demanded.

     "We don't know," Jones admitted, "We thought the drugs we were giving her would continue to prevent her from being a problem."

     Again Ritsuko decided reverting to her true form and consuming all these idiots was a bad idea.  She might accidentally absorb some of their stupidity.  So why am I wasting my time talking to you? she wondered.  "Well, I need to rescue an EVA pilot from an insane monster, and you can only tell me nothing will work?"  No one answered her.  She turned and left, wondering what had they been thinking.

And the signs said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

     Nabiki rushed through the carrier towards where the pilots and senior staff were billeted.  Maya, Ritsuko and Jeff, nobody knew where they were.  She could only pray one of them was in their quarters, or nearby.  She entered her cabin and found Belldandy waiting for her.

     "I am glad you are well," Belldandy told her and smiled.

     Nabiki considered asking her where she had been the last few days, when she could have used someone to talk to, instead she had a more important question.  "Then maybe you'd like to tell me where my shadow went," Nabiki replied harshly.  Nabiki turned on the desk lamp, nothing fell on the floor.  Nabiki also wanted to know what had prevented her and seemingly everyone else from noticing.

     Belldandy paled, looked away.

     "So it is true!" Nabiki said in shock, "What did you do to me?"

     "It wouldn't harm you," Belldandy told her, it clearly sounded lame to her.

     "Harm me, so what change did you do, and for what ends?" Nabiki considered dragging the woman to her feet and pummeling her to get the truth.  Akane wasn't the only Tendo who was capable of extreme violence against the unresisting.

     "No normal human can encounter these creatures and remain sane," Belldandy told her sadly, bowed her head, "I do apologize."

     "What about the others?"  Nabiki couldn't imagine where her anger had suddenly disappeared to.

     Belldandy only looked guiltily at the deck as she drywashed her hands.

     "What about Ranma?" Nabiki demanded, desperation and cold fear ruled her now.

     "The neko-ken training gives him a level of resistance, his curse also protects him.  The three personae he uses dilute the effects, but you have no such defense, so you touch the world only lightly."

     Nabiki reeled back against the bulkhead.  'Touch the world only lightly,' rang in her mind.  "Is that why Ranma reacts to me that way?"

     "When you . . . molest him?"  If she was going to lecture Nabiki, the glare she was getting silenced her.

     "Yes, when I molest him," Nabiki said icily, her fury returned full force.

     Belldandy shivered as if the cold were real.  "He, he doesn't . . . doesn't connect with you as he does the others because . . . you . . . ."  Belldandy looked down at her active hands.  "I'm sorry, but it was necessary for your survival.  And your survival is necessary for his."

     Nabiki wondered if the closeness she enjoyed with the others, was due to the fact she didn't have a full effect on them.  What she did really didn't register, good and bad things.  She hated being taken lightly, but clearly this was what was happening.  That it was done to her infuriated her.  "So, you adjust your agent fighting these Angels to enhance her survival?" Nabiki asked.  She remembered that Lauren had said 'Someone else', someone else without a shadow.  Was she another of their agents?  Was the girl a failed agent and Tendo Nabiki was her replacement, and Belldandy was the replacement to whoever Lauren's handler was?

     "She wanted to talk to Jeff, why?" Nabiki asked distantly.

     "Who?" Belldandy asked, glad the subject had changed.

     "Lauren S., a woman I met, one who pointed out my lack of shadow," Nabiki answered.

     "Nabiki-chan," Belldandy said worriedly, "Lauren was Sharon Lauren, the other American pilot."

     Nabiki's mind raced.  She was the pilot, did what they do cause her to go insane when she linked with the EVA, or did that make her nuts instead of dissolving like Jason?  Why didn't I dissolve or go nuts?  Did they get the process right or did the others condition the EVAs so they didn't do anything permanent to me?  She glanced at Belldandy staring at her with a mix of hope and dread.  Did she know that might happen and they didn't tell me . . . or did nobody tell her?

     She narrowed her eyes and approached the girl.  "You did all these things so I wouldn't be hurt," Nabiki said sweetly, smiling the whole time, at the same time restraining herself for grabbing the girl's fancy dress and beating her against the bulkheads.

     "Yes," Belldandy said, relaxing at the less menacing atmosphere.

     "Well, guess what?" Nabiki smiled right in the girl's face.


     "You failed miserably," Nabiki said flatly, "Either you lied to me, which is bad enough.  Or you used me as a guinea pig without my approval, and maybe without yours.  So, after harming me worse than anything since the death of my mother, which are you?  A liar, unfeeling, or incompetent?" Nabiki asked sweetly, while the girl cringed, then burst into tears.

     A sobbing pretty girl would have the desired effect on Ranma, maybe even on Raccoon, but the Ice Queen was back.  She wanted Raccoon in her life, exactly as what was unimportant right now.  And Sharon Lauren would probably kill him when she found him.  And N O B O D Y took anything away Tendo Nabiki without her permission.  And anyone who tried was asking to pay a terrible price.  "You - owe - me!" Nabiki said calmly, "I want to know everything you know about what Sharon Lauren is, and what I'll need to beat her, and if it will take Unit 04, I want to know that part right now."

     The girl had been squirming and sobbing the entire time Nabiki had been naming her conditions.

     "I can't tell you all that," she said weakly.

     "Then I'll think of something to permit you to make up for what you owe," Nabiki said reasonably, "After you tell me ab-so-lute-ly everything you can think of that will be of use.  And if you are thinking of doing something foolish like erasing my memory . . . you'd better do a very complete job, and find all the places I've written it down."

     She looked straight into Belldandy's eyes.  "Or I will be very, very, very angry," with each word she dropped the pitch and the temperature.

     Belldandy visibly retreated into the chair from the smiling girl.

     Belldandy had been warned the girl was dangerous, likewise they had explained that her avariciousness would be necessary to stave off a disaster.  'Grab hold and hang on like a snapping turtle.'  She did agree with Tendo Nabiki on one point, she wished someone, anyone would explain why she had to do these things.  Especially the orders to come here, those were the most frightening.  They hadn't come from Kami-Sama, but directly from the One Above.  The Archangels had occasional contact with . . . but never one of her low station.  The message had warned her that Tendo-san would react exactly as she was reacting, with insults and threats, and every intention of carrying them out.  And that regarding what information to pass along, Belldandy was to 'use your best discretion'.  Her tears were not entirely due to the hurtful things Nabiki was saying about her, but her frustration over not knowing what to do at such a critical time.  So much was in the balance.

     Nabiki was deciding which enemy to destroy, Belldandy desperately hoped she wasn't to become that enemy.

     "There is nothing you can do to stop the girl, even with Unit 04.  Only Jeffrey can stop her, and he will," Belldandy said quietly, "Bringing the EVA in, could be very dangerous."

     "Why?"  Nabiki was trying to hide her fear.  Belldandy only saw it because her own fear mirrored Tendo-san's.

     "It may be possible for her to usurp control from an . . . "  Belldandy glanced at her.  "From an inexperienced pilot."

     Nabiki was clearly staggered by the possibility.  "Someone could control an EVA without being inside it . . . I heard stories about Unit 01, experienced it."  She shook her head and took a deep breath.  "That's a long way from active control.  What about our enemies?" Nabiki asked, retreating fully into the `Ice Queen` persona, to cover her horror and dread.

     "The pilots are the only ones who can interface with the EVAs," Belldandy said miserably, "We think."

     "You don't KNOW?!  You work for GOD!" Tendo-san shouted.

     "He doesn't tell us everything," she replied quietly.  Like why I have to do this, she lamented silently.  "It has never come up," Belldandy explained.

     "Very well," Nabiki said coldly, "What you did to me, and what did you do to Ranma?"

     Belldandy sighed, she was tempted to tell Tendo-san everything she knew and perhaps the two of them could make sense of it.

And tenement halls.

     Nabiki felt the cold fire of deep betrayal.  She'd been granted the wish, supposedly, allowed to come here.  But unlike Ranma, she wasn't really part of this world.  Little would change her as it changed the others.  It would be easy for her to slip back `home` when she was done.  Abandon Ranma, Rit-chan, Raccoon, Asuka, etc. to their inhuman fate.

     Once the job is done, she considered coldly, I was never meant to stay, I could look after him, but never marry him, have his children, grow old with him.  She made the sadness turn to anger.

     Her deal with Raccoon, about connecting her with Ranma, was so much ash now.  She'd watched Ranko carry on and get closer to Raccoon.  If things remained the way they were, those two would marry and raise kids, and while Nabiki would definitely be welcome, in their home, in their relationship, but she wouldn't really be a part of it.

     She decided, she didn't want to be an outsider.  Not anymore, not with Ranma, raccoon, Rit-chan, not even Gendo and Admiral Simson.  Belldandy would `arrange` things so Nabiki would stay, and the girl would find a way that Nabiki wouldn't need the `outsideness` to protect her, and Nabiki did not care how.  The others had welcomed her in, as long as they were willing to do that, not 'Touching the world lightly,' allowed her to maintain and strengthen that connection.  But the connections would no longer be so ephemeral, they wouldn't fade, the good and the bad things.  She would have to be on her best behavior for a while.

     She had to find Ritsuko, maybe together with Raccoon, they could deal with Sharon.  She was headed for the gangway to get off the carrier.

     "Where is Doctor Akagi?" Nabiki asked the O.O.D., Officer of the Day, a pale ensign who had suddenly grown a good deal paler.

     "Mmmmmmmiss Tendo, Iiiiii, I'm afffraid Iii caaaan't let you leave," the ensign told her, "We're caaaasting off,"

     Nabiki leaned closer, smiled.  "Where - is - Doc - tor - Akagi?" Nabiki repeated her question.

     "NERV HQ, Cambridge," the ensign said, too terrified to be afraid.

     Nabiki turned away from the gangway she'd used to leave earlier.  The Marines who fell in behind her were a liability now.  Her target was the deck edge lift.  She wasn't Ranma, but she wasn't porcelain either.

     "Miss Tendo."  Chief Cole was running across the hanger towards her.  "Please step away, we're getting underway."

     "Follow when you can," she called back and leapt off the lift to the concrete pier 10 to 15 meters below.  She stood stared at the amazed Marines and sailors clustered on the lift.  She turned back and marched off.

     "Is this the only way?" the voice asked, nearly scaring Jeff off the rail car.

     He recognized the voice, but he wasn't going to deal with it: the same thing he'd confronted outside Rei's apartment.  He steadfastly continued his preparations.

     "If you care for her, this won't be necessary."

     "You prepare for what may happen," Jeff replied as he climbed down the ladder to the ground.  She was at the bottom of the ladder of course, blocking his way.  "Don't you have someone else to pester, or am I particularly entertaining?"  He stepped around her and began cranking the pump.

     "I am here to help you.  We are not your enemy."

     "Pull the other one, it's got bells on, dandy thing too," he told her as he cranked, examining the piled stones for any signs that might betray what he was doing.

     "This is not the only way."

     "Look, you want to try the 'Peace, Love and Brown Rice' method, stick around.  It'll be interesting watching you get your head handed to you."

     "She does not trust us."  The girl hung her head and turned away.  It was an excellent attempt to engender sympathy, but Jeff knew a trick when he saw one.

     "Huh," Jeff said, "Imagine that?  Maybe she's not as nuts as I thought.  Or maybe if I kill her, either your lot or the other bunch will have to deal with her." If we even have souls, he added silently, he could feel her, searching for him, her anger growing, Just like the Great Old One Brown Bess encountered.  I wonder if I'll be in any condition to scream when this is over, curse or not, not withstanding.

     Maya was waiting for her beside an Army 6x6 truck outside NERV Mass.  Ritsuko marched for the truck, Maya pulled the cover off the back.  Inside the bed were bazookas, heavy machine guns, and flamethrowers.  The rest of the 2.5 ton load was ammunition.

     "You heard?" Ritsuko asked as Maya reclosed the cover.

     "I heard what Major ggreg described, and I've read Jeff journals," she jogged for the cab, to open the door for her Sempai.  "The only thing she's afraid of is fire."  In the cab were six double-barreled shotguns in a rack between the driver and the passenger positions.  "Jeff's parents had these prepared for him . . . in case it was Sharon."

     Ritsuko wanted to tell her the truth, but decided not to.  "You drive, if I have to shoot.  I'll take shotgun."  Ritsuko slid over to the passenger side.

     "Nabiki-chan left the carrier, told the Marines to follow when they can.  Admiral Adams has ordered her arrest," Maya said as she climbed in.

     "He's just covering himself."  Ritsuko broke open one shotgun, removed and shook the shells.  It seemed like such a pathetic thing to use against something that might be as powerful as an Angel.  "And we can't use the EVA against it."

     "What!?" Maya exclaimed as she drove on the correct side of the road.

     "Don't ask questions you really don't want the answers for."  She glanced back into the truck bed.  "Does that radio work?"

     "Yes, Sempai."

     "Let's find `Brown Bess`, I hope you two won't have to prove your training in fire arms."

     Maya only nodded and concentrated on the road.

     Jeff tossed the barrels of diesel fuel and the feed line aside.  He'd emptied the dozen barrels into the two fertilizer filled hopper cars.  He wished there was more, he wished that he could use something better than gravity and time to mix the material.  He prayed she wouldn't spot the dynamite, or the wires.  There was some time to get up to the water tank so he checked that the three sticks of dynamite, the booster caps were all in place, and the wires were all buried in the railroad roadbed, and that all of them were hard to spot.  The barrels just looked like a fuel dump.  He climbed the ladder to the water tower and waited.

     She would be able to feel him, she'd find him fairly soon.  His only advantage, was that he'd know she was coming before she knew exactly where he was.  Experience versus raw power.  He actually hoped the silly angel's approach worked, Sharon would be a valuable asset, and could be a good friend.  But he wasn't willing to stake millions of lives on an angel's delusions.

     Besides, he thought morosely, She'd be angry if I didn't take her seriously.  Is 30 to 40 tons of TNT equivalent serious enough?

     Sharon advanced across the small switch yard for the farm products warehouse.  She had tracked him here.  She scanned the railcars, he could be hiding with a rifle or a bazooka behind any of them.  She actually suspected the small switch engine at the end of a long empty section of track would be his favored weapon.  If he really understood what she'd become, that would be the minimum necessary to harm her.  But she saw no smoke and heard only the distant traffic.  She still dashed across that particular track.

     "I wanted to talk to you away from the others."

     She heard his voice and she headed in that direction.  "You always did talk when you should have been fighting, that's why I'll beat you," she shouted back.

     "I am curious, it is a failing at times."

     The voice, his voice, drew her forward.  She would catch him while he blathered.  "You really don't understand what you and I are."  She kept searching for the source.

     "I have an idea."  His voice was so infuriatingly calm, he always thought he was in control.

     "You don't realize what they kept from us, what we are being used for."

     "On the contrary, I know.  The EVAs and the pilots, they're the same."

     "Except they really didn't understand what we'd become.  They have such plans," she said disdainfully.

And whisper'd in the sounds of silence

     "You can escape their plans."  Jeff covered his face as that ludicrous angel he'd encountered outside Rei's apartment, stood atop the hopper cars and spouted platitudes.

     Sharon sprinted, at high but human speed, across the distance and sprang atop the hopper.

     "What are you?" Sharon asked as she peered closely at the angel, "You aren't one of us, you aren't human!"  Sharon circled this girl-looking angel.

     Jeff wanted to warn her, but he'd let her draw Sharon out.  Maybe Sharon had gotten her vengeance and could be negotiated with.  Failing that, she was exactly where Jeff needed her to be.

     "I serve the Lord," the girl laughed nervously.

     "A nun?!" Sharon laughed back, "Well run away little nun, this is not for you."

     "I cannot abandon a lost soul.  What we did - "

     Sharon's laugh interrupted her.  Jeff shook his head, the angel didn't seem to understand evil or insanity.

     "A lost soul, my soul never existed . . . you're one of them," she added in horror, backing away from the girl, "You let them make us without souls!  Your kind promised you could help me.  But when I needed you, where were you?  Where was your precious God when they had me in a cell filling me with drugs to test their new `restraint`?  Where were you while I hallucinated my . . . ?" Sharon touched her never pregnant belly and fell silent, stared at the girl.  "I know where you were, you'd already picked out my replacement.  Nice girl, but she knows the truth, the truth about you and your kind.  She knows now she isn't 'big picture', just a mushroom like the rest of us.  Except I'm not your mushroom anymore.  I don't have to worry about your God, your threats of damnation don't apply to me, only Humans have souls."

     "All have souls," the girl tried to sound reasonable, "You haven't lacked one, you've just gone astray we . . . "

     "Had to let them torture me, so I'd fall in line?  And they sent you instead of the other one.  Why, so you could admit you lost me because of a filing error?  If you're really from Heaven you'd have to be perfect, you wouldn't lose files."  Sharon seemed on the verge of violence, the girl seemed not to have noticed.  Then Sharon gathered herself in.  "I was started out wrong.  I'm a monster, they wanted monsters.  The sin of Cain?  How about multiplied a hundred times?  We tore their beating hearts from their bodies and reveled in the carnage!"  Sharon shouted at the girl.  "Now they want us to kill each other, the last two.  How's that for parental love, for a reward for our patriotism?"  She turned to look around.  "Are you there?  Too shocked to speak?"

     "He is here, he is listening," the girl responded, "He believes you can be saved."

     Sharon smiled.  "Why would I want that?" she asked, stood with her arms open wide, "Why don't you kill me if you can see me?  Why don't you try?  Why don't you show yourself?  Are you shy?  Are you afraid of me?  Worried about how I might react after being separated for so long?"

     "I'm here, and I am listening," Jeff called, still concealing himself.

     "Maybe I should prove I'm serious!" Sharon called, faced the girl.

     Get out of there! Jeff silently urged, but he knew she either couldn't or wouldn't listen.

     The girl never expected the blow, Sharon tore the girl's head from her shoulders, preserving the look of surprise and disappointment on her face.  The body and head vanished before they hit the ground.

     "We're alone now," Sharon told the empty surroundings, "No more gadflies, no more distractions!"

     "Why did you kill Malkowitz?  He couldn't have harmed you."

     "Why should I care?" Sharon answered, "He wouldn't tell me what I asked.  Besides, he was working for them.  Didn't you know?"

     "Did it occur that he didn't know?" Jeff asked.

     "He knew, his job was to track your `progress`.  He was spying on you for them, the doctors."  She paused.  "I'm not paranoid!  I made them tell me.  Over and over it was the same story.  Do you know what they had in mind for us?  For all of us?  We weren't to be forever, but we could have been, and that scared them.  We could go on forever!  We threatened their plans to move humanity to the next step, as if everything we've done in the past half million years were nothing.  'No changes in 50,000 years', as if evolution worked like that.  We weren't to be the next step, just a means, a rung, to reach it.  I decided not to be part of that, even the gods would marvel at what we could become."

     "They've already achieved the next step," Jeff replied, showing himself for the first time, "All your wishes won't change that.  As for the gods, who needs their admiration?  We're weapons, plain and simple.  There's nothing dishonorable or demeaning about that.  We serve, do what's needed instead of what's ordered, and then we get out of the way.  Humanity doesn't need us cluttering the stage either, they'll have enough competition."

     "Ha.  You think I care.  This place is an anthill, a dung pile for people like us.  We could soar above and beyond them until they'd never see us again," Sharon shouted, spittle collecting at the corners of her mouth.  "But they couldn't allow that, couldn't have any more competitors, they were to be the only gods."

     "One God, the old dream of Babel, one race all under one goal.  We were to clear the field for them.  So no, you aren't paranoid, but you are wrong.  The doctors and the other humans weren't the ones who were driving things.  Stepping aside isn't the same as dying.  There are places to go, places - people - like us would be welcome.  Places that would need people like us.  We could fight - "

     "Nyarlathotep?" Sharon sneered, "That fool thought he could control us through those idiots and their lies.  We'll break him too.  Antarctica is the key.  None of the others dare go there.  So they ready their pawns.  But we would be like knights, go and do as we will."

     "The Elder Things city there has many secrets," Jeff admitted, he was glad she seemed willing to remain atop the hopper cars.  Maybe it's the height difference, he thought, Atop the hoppers, she's `taller` than me. "But the Crawling Chaos doesn't give presents, unless they're poison.  For the body, mind, or soul.  Whatever he told you can't be trusted.  And how does doing a little service for our creators harm us.  It buys time and training to master what we are."

     "What I have - I took, I didn't bargain, negotiate or beg!  That's your way!" she told him disdainfully, "And I did check to make sure it is all true.  What you do with the EVAs, I don't need them.  All those enemies you've killed, I could kill without them.  I can take what I wish and none dare resist me!"

     "Misquoting Tolkien, I guess you steal what you like," Jeff replied, "Did it ever occur to you that we were meant for more than that?  That there might be a higher purpose?"

     "What could be higher than apotheosis?" Sharon asked, "The angels can't be trusted."

     "You're preaching to the choir on that one," Jeff replied, "But God didn't create humans to be angels, and we aren't supposed to be humans.  As for apotheosis, I don't relish becoming one of those oversexed parasites in bed sheets.  No kings and no other gods before me."

     "Then maybe you'd like to know what your girl friend is doing, she's working for them, maybe Ranma Saotome too.  It seems they want us to be under their control too.  Fancy being their lapdog?  I was, and what did it get me?  Betrayal, imprisonment, chemically-induced madness."

     "You killed all those scientists of your own free will," Jeff countered, "If you're going to be a god, a little understanding of human weakness - "

     "Such an attitude," she scoffed, "You'd never be a good soldier.  The first thing you need is obedience, and to make your enemies fear you.  That's what a soldier needs."

     "A soldier needs to remember what he's defending, and not become the enemy," Jeff replied calmly.

     "Those are the thoughts of a weakling," she told him, "Once you'd tasted blood, I thought you would have grown up."

     "I did."  He shoved the plunger down, heard the whirl of the dynamo inside.

     Nabiki stared out the windshield of the truck.  The column of smoke was reaching up towards the doughnut-shaped annulus.  "Atom bomb," she whispered in a horrified voice, the fear of that image had long been drummed into her, and nearly every Japanese of her generation.  The idea Jeff would even consider using one, would need to use one against Sharon.  Or that Sharon had used one against Jeff, and didn't care about the consequences . . . Nabiki didn't want to think about it.

     "No," Ritsuko said coldly as she drove the truck.  "Any sufficiently large explosion will create that pattern."

     "Sempai," Maya asked from between them, "How large is 'sufficiently large'?"

     "I don't know."

     Nabiki now worried that 'sufficiently large' might not be large enough.  She dreaded the idea of facing the girl alone.  There were weapons in the back of the truck, the truck itself was a formidable weapon.  But would any of it be enough? she asked herself, Or did he succeed.  Carried out the plan the others wanted, destroyed each other? That thought was almost worse than the other two possibilities.