Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 45-46 ( Chapter 21 )

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Sic Semper Morituri

Chapter 45 - Massaging the Situation

The Year's At The Spring

And Day's At The Morn

Morning's At Seven

The Hill-side's Dew Pearled

The Lark's On The Wing

The Snail's On The Thorn

God's In His Heaven -

All's Right With The World

Chapter 46 - Disenthralled From Inadequate Dogmas

The Truth Can STAY Out There

Fire Burn And Cauldron Bubble

The Magnificat Is Not A Feline

Trust Is Stronger Than Friction

The Cat Can Be Alive, Dead, Or Bloody Furious

Next Step, No Illusions

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 45 - Massaging the Situation


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 {Groae}.  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.

Have I inadvertently said some evil thing?

Phocion - Plutarch, Apothegms, Phocion, sec 10

Pippa Passes - Robert Browning

The Year's At The Spring

July 19, 1947

     "The important element is that you can disrupt the opponent's concentration," Ranma told the rest of the pilot and guard students as they sat on the roof around him.

     "Horseface," Asuka said while shaking her head, "Don't do Asuka impersonations.  Use your own words."

     "Insults," Rei pointed out, "That tactic would be of little value against our opponents."

     Sammi watched the pilots going through some of the less pleasant aspects of Ranma's martial arts techniques.  She suspected that Asuka and Ranma had had a long discussion last night.  She was impressed by their efforts.

     "I think that Horseface is teaching us how to deal with fighting more human enemies."  Asuka came to Ranma's rescue, again.

     She seems to know how to keep the tension at the right level, Sammi thought.

     "You may also find that the techniques - " Ranma almost stumbled over the argument, "There may come a time to use these against our enemies.  Like Shinji and I tricked our enemies last time."

     "I think you should understand the more playful insults you often use aren't appropriate," Sammi added, she knew Rei would need the clarification, "These are intended just to hurt your opponent.  They also will hurt if they are used on you.  So don't even think about using them on each other."

     "Should we reserve that for appropriate opponents?" Rei asked.

     Shinji smiled brightly, turned to Tomiyo.  "Cthulhu, your mother is stale sashimi, and your father dresses you funny."

     "Oh I may cry!" Tomiyo exclaimed as he reeled from the `blow`.

     "You wouldn't cry if they tear-gassed you in a diced onion factory," Erin told him, "It's probably genetic."

     Rei glanced at Ranma then turned to Juri.  "You should cease hiding your feelings for `Nab-chan` by modeling her desired behaviors on Raccoon, it's a futi - "

     "HEY!" Ranma protested as he stood, towering over Rei.

     "I think some of them have the general idea," Sammi said as she pushed Ranma back down, "Although I think we should work on that later.  Guards with protectees.  Rei, you with Shinji and Tomiyo.  I know this may seem a little odd, but it's all part of a complete, combat system."  She drew comfort from this too.  The master of martial arts, this boy/girl who made martial arts the core of his whole life, couldn't communicate that love to others.  Without help, Sammi thought, smiled at Asuka.

     "Ah, I think you all get that.  Let's start our warm ups," Ranma said and began the basic stretching exercises.  Sammi let herself feel the flow of her body, but kept her mind on any external threats.  It lessened the grace of her movements, but her first job was defending the kids.  The `katas` that Ranma and Asuka had developed went smoothly.  This time Ranma walked among the students, adjusting minor imperfections, asking questions, all under Asuka's ever-present, but unobtrusive eye.  The practice went without any serious hurdles.

     Other that Rei asking ten thousand detailed questions, which even Asuka and Ranma together couldn't answer, Sammi thought as everyone filed downstairs to get showered.  She wondered if this was helping the other pilots as much as it was helping Ranma.  She also wondered if Ranma realized the subtle lesson Asuka was teaching him, that he was part of a group.  Their survival and success were as much his responsibility as anyone else's.  Asuka was the most skilled pilot, although she'd be hard pressed to match Shinji or Ranma in an EVA battle.  She had taken over the role of war leader, which changed the dynamics.  Sammi hoped it would be enough when Ranma or Shinji caught up with Asuka's phenomenal sync rate.  While she was steadily improving, the two boys were improving much faster.  Sammi was actually hoping that Asuka was plateauing, a sync rate over 200% was dangerous, and Asuka was already there.

     Breakfast was an interesting affair: Asuka smirking, Ranma seeming to find every flaw in the lesson and his teaching technique.

     "So what did you learn from that?" Asuka asked, picking at her food, the picture of innocence.

     "What do you mean?" Ranma asked defensively, "Wasn't I supposed to answer all of Rei's questions?"

     "Were you?" Asuka asked, "Why did you answer them?"

     The Socratic Method, ask questions to get the student to engage the problem, Sammi thought, then glanced at Erin, who was ready to intervene if Ranma overreacted.  She was ready herself.

     "Because she asked," Ranma replied, not hiding his growing frustration.

     "Is that the only reason?" Asuka asked, "Note, I have not spoken a single insult.  I want you to answer my questions, even if the answer is 'I don't know'.  The key is: you have to understand, and especially understand yourself."  She paused, smiled as Ranma frowned, "What one thing must a martial artist master above all else?  Something you have predominantly failed to master?"

     "I don't know," Ranma replied with a glare.

     "A martial artist must master themselves.  You don't even understand yourself," Asuka accused while stabbing in his direction with her chopsticks.

     "Oh yeah?!" Ranma retorted.

     "Wondergirl may be right . . . "  Asuka looked at her hands.  "Huh, that hardly hurt at all.  She asked if Ranko acts that way because she wanted to show Ice Princess how Horseface wants to be treated."

     "I . . . Uh, I . . . "  Ranma paused, frowned.

     "Why do you do it then?  I'd be bouncing off the walls trying to answer a question there's no answer to!" Asuka shouted.

     "Because I'm not doing it!" Ranma shouted back.

     "Oh, Ranma," Asuka chided as she smiled at Sammi and Erin, "Did you know your nose crinkles up when you lie.  It's so CUTE!"  She left the table with her dishes.  Leaving Ranma contemplating homicide.

     "If she weren't a girl!" Ranma announced.  He was angrily clenching and unclenching his fists.

     "Maybe she's training you to hit girls," Erin suggested between sips of her coffee.

     "Why Erin," Asuka said as she glided by, collecting the others' dishes, "How perceptive of you."

     "Well, when I'm a girl, I'm prettier than you."  Ranma expected that would be the critical shot.

     "All that means is . . . " Asuka whispered the rest in Ranma's ear, he started getting redder and angrier, then turned white as a sheet as Asuka moved away.

     "They wouldn't," he said in a barely audible voice, his eyes vacant and staring.

     Asuka smiled.  "We should get Ranko a new hairstyle, something fetching."

     "NO!" Ranma gasped, he looked from Erin to Sammi and back, his eyes pleading.

     "And quit trying to convince her to wear bras," Asuka added thoughtfully, "Guys, well those kinds of guys, really like that pokey look, especially in cold weather and cold water."

     Now Ranma was staring daggers at his roommate.

     "Such is the cost of being the sexiest and the most beautiful girl in school."  Asuka sighed.  "I'm glad it's a burden I don't have.  Being the wittiest, the most intelligent I can bear.  Being . . . well a bundle of rampaging sex appeal, that isn't what I want for my life.  But I can't make your choices for you."

     Ranma's fists were opening and closing spasmodically, but he was clearly terrified.

     "Ranma," Erin said, "When it comes to insults, Ancient American Wisdom: 'don't bring a knife to an artillery duel.'  Besides, by ignoring the facts and appearances, you are making yourself vulnerable."  She gave Asuka a warning glance.

     Ranma nodded, relaxing slightly as Asuka entered the kitchen.

     "And before you feel too comfortable, Asuka," Erin said, "You have a meeting with Commander Ikari and Admiral Simson."

     "What?!" Asuka shouted, "Why?"  Now she was panicking.

     "It seems the Morisato house got an interesting lawn decoration.  An EVA footprint," Erin told her.

     "I never got anywhere near there," Asuka protested as she looked from one person to the next.

     "True," Erin admitted, "There was also no tread on the footprint.  Which means it was probably made as an AT field projection.  As the local expert, you're also the chief suspect."

     "That's ridiculous!" Asuka insisted as she stormed out of the kitchen to the dining room.

     "Oh, I agree," Sammi said, nodding enthusiastically, "But we can't show favoritism."

     "What about Wondergirl?" Asuka protested, still looking from one to the other for support, "She doesn't need an EVA."

     "She was in the control center, when she wasn't in the ready room."  Sammi sipped her coffee.

     "She could have run out there, and run back," Ranma said meditatively, "She really doesn't like that Belldandy.  I think Rei hates her more than she hates me.  But it is out of character for Rei."

     "Oh," Asuka shouted defensively and planted her fists on her hips to confront Ranma, "But it is in my character?"

     "Yeah," Ranma said, "Rei woulda just killed'em, you'd give a warning."  Ranma turned nonchalantly away from her.

     "I - DIDN'T - DO - IT - !" Asuka exclaimed at Ranma.

     "You still have to talk with the Admiral and the Commander," Erin told her.

     "It's not fair!"

     " 'Life isn't fair', someone told me," Ranma commented.  He could barely hide his nervous smile.

     Asuka glared at the back of Ranma's head, she did not see the worried expression on the boy's face.  Then she smiled, all sweetness and light.

     Get to the shelters, this one is going to be bad! Sammi thought.

     "I completely forgot that - Ranma - asked for a new hairstyle.  I think that's something we need to work on this afternoon.  After I get back."

     Any hint of Ranma's previous self-satisfied look disappeared, like a snowflake on a griddle.

     "No Asuka," Erin said, "We were supposed to pick up that equipment for the advanced training.  The last part is in, and we should pick it up."

     "You mean the - martial arts stuff?" Asuka asked, then a truly predatory smile lit her features.

     "I do indeed," Erin said, smiled, not quite matching Asuka's.  Sammi hadn't the faintest idea what they were talking about.

     "What martial arts stuff?" Ranma excitedly demanded, his caution of a moment ago thrown to the wind.

     "Special training gear," Saint Asuka said beatifically as she adjusted her halo, "Your technique has proven to have a major vulnerability.  One we simply must close.  So I ordered some special training gear and protective gear."

     "You mean like a steel cup?" Ranma asked worriedly, his hands drifting towards what he considered Asuka's likely target.

     "Oh no," the beautiful pilot cooed as she patted Ranma's cheek, "Nothing so dreadful.  And you'll thank us later."  Asuka actually skipped down the stairs humming a jaunty German tune.

     "I'm dead ain't I?"  Ranma watched the girl disappear from sight, then he hung his head.

     "Ranma, the life of a martial artist is fraught with peril," Erin told him, earning a frown from him.

     "FRAUGHT?" Sammi asked, "That's what I fraught you said."

     When Erin nodded, Ranma began, "Giant, alien monsters from before time, other martial artists, Misato's cooking, that is the life of a martial artist," Ranma intoned as if it was his death haiku, "Smiling Asukas, no one should have to face."

     "Ranma," Erin chuckled, "She isn't planning to kill you!"

     "Because it would be too merciful!" Ranma moaned as he put his head on the table.

     Erin grew stern, "Quit whining like a little princess.  You may have noticed, but for all she's done . . . she's gone out of her way to help you.  I would think a man would show a little appreciation.  Or stand up for himself and say 'no more'."

     Kraznyzamok Secret Technique - Diminished Expectations, Sammi thought as Ranma matched Erin's sternness, Although it works on all the pilots.  "Ranma," she cut off his reply, "If you are ever going to beat Asuka in one of these duels, you are going to have to do something completely unexpected.  Something she would think you'd never do.  Otherwise, her superior word skill will continue to beat you.  And if you use the insults you supposedly used the first time . . . you and I will go a few rounds, and we'll see who really is the better combatant."

     "I don't hit girls," Ranma mumbled.

     "Then I've already won," Sammi said coldly.

     Ranma slunk away from the table.  Sammi waited until she heard his door close, before she turned to Erin.  "What is it?  This 'equipment'," she made it sound ominous.

     "Guard-pilot privilege.  Asuka was right," Erin said, "It is a major weak point, one that desperately needs correcting.  It's non-fatal, inflicting mainly pride damage.  Although Ranma won't see that initially."

     "Hence my need to know, so I can work on him."

     "No, better you be surprised," Erin told her as she stood.  She headed downstairs to corner Asuka, then the pair headed off to NERV.  Sammi hoped that Asuka didn't get into any serious trouble.

     One more mystery, Sammi thought, Like the 'Ghost of Tokyo'.

And Day's At The Morn

     "Whiney boy!  Whiney boy!  Gonna run off and cry?" echoed off the walls of Misato's apartment.  The recipient's jaw tightened slightly.

     "Where'd you get that hair?  Where'd you get those spooky eyes?"  A narrowing of eye and clenched fists came in response.

     "Rei-san," Tomiyo said, "Try that again, you haven't mastered the changing up and down in tone.  For simplicity, just put special emphasis on the word most important to the insult."

     "Sensei," Rei began, "The emphasis changes the entire meaning."

     "So pick the meaning that will most likely get the results you want," Tomiyo explained, "Typically the part that hurts or angers your opponent most, so it makes them less effective in combat."

     "Where'd you get that hair?  Where'd you get those spooky eyes?" Rei asked Shinji.

     Tomiyo nodded, turned to the other `combatant`, "Shinji."

     "I bet your dad cares about me more than you!" Shinji accused.

     Rei sniffed, covered her face with her hands, made another small sniff.

     "Oh, Rei-san," Shinji stammered, "I . . . I . . . I'm so - sorry.  I didn't - "

     Rei's hand darted out, touched Shinji's nose.  "A victory," Rei said quietly, "Mein Grossfeldmarschall was most specific about additional tactics."

     Shinji frowned as Rei stood and smoothed her dress.  She went to the patio door and stood, staring out of Misato's apartment.  "Insults are meant to hurt.  Yet I have been Mein Grossfeldmarschall's target, and Shinji-kun - and `Horseface`."  She put her hand on the window she was staring out of.  Tomiyo realized she was also watching him and Shinji's reflection, while still looking outside.

     "Only those she cares about.  Others are ignored," Rei said quietly, even for her.

     "What are you getting at Ayanami-san?" Tomiyo asked, he'd been warned Rei tended to jump between thoughts without ever mentioning the intermediate steps, perhaps not even realizing she'd made the jumps in logic.

     "If she insults, she cares.  But the insults do not pain . . . as the Fourth's do."  Her brow knitted for an instant, as if she were wrestling with a thought she couldn't fit into her view of the world.

     Shinji looked ready to speak, Tomiyo waved him to be quiet.  He suspected that Rei was working up to her next statement.

     "A certain level indicates affection, a higher-level hostility."

     "And you want to know how to tell the difference?" Tomiyo asked.

     Rei turned to face them, and nodded once.

     "It depends on context.  Who is saying what to whom, when and where."  He saw Shinji's disappointment and suspected it mirrored Rei-san's nearly unreadable dissatisfaction.

     "When Roku-kun says something to the Fourth when a male, it means one thing.  When he says the same when the Fourth is female, in the same circumstances, it differs," Rei said, "Also, the Fourth, in varying genders, speaks to Roku-kun, it differs synchronistically."

     "What specifically bothers you Ayanami-san?" Shinji asked.

     Rei sighed, "The Fourth demands to be male, yet the . . . "

     "Ranko," Shinji interjected.

     Rei nodded once.  "She does not act like a male with Roku-kun, she acts very female.  She even smells female when with Roku-kun."

     "Smells?" Tomiyo asked in confusion.

     When all Rei gave was a nod, Shinji added, "Rei-chan's senses are very sensitive."

     Tomiyo wondered exactly how a female smelled different from a male, besides the obvious perfumes and colognes, etc., and how it could change in an instant while still in a female body.

     "So, why the difference?" Rei asked.

     "I don't know," Tomiyo admitted.

     "The reasons could be comfort, utility or advantage," Rei said, working through the problem.

     "You think she's more comfortable with being a girl?"  Shinji didn't seem to find that believable.

     "Does that action have a utility or advantage?" Rei asked.

     "If she was trying to drain all the knowledge out of him, maybe," Tomiyo said, "That would be an advantage."

     "The lessons are a side effect of her behavior," Rei told them.

     Tomiyo and Shinji glanced at each other.

     "A tool," Rei explained.

     Tomiyo thought about that and smiled.  "Why would someone who keeps saying 'I'm a guy' use a female form and flirt so much to get . . . what?"

     "Comfort," Rei said, as she returned to Shinji's side and took his hand as she continued, "He does not get it from Nabiki-kun as he - she gets it from Roku-kun."

     Tomiyo could hardly believe his ears, and that Rei had noticed it first.

     "They are dating," Rei said by way of explanation, "Seriously."

     Shinji merely shook his head.

     The photo the slide projector showed was clearly the right size and basic shape for an EVA footprint.  Asuka sat in her chair and watched the slide show.  She hadn't changed her initial opinion.  It couldn't possibly be hers or any other EVA, but she already knew that.  Her defense against her doing it by AT field manipulation was also set.

     "Well Pilot Langley?" Gendo asked as the lights came up, revealing the rest of the conference room and the four occupants: Gendo, Asuka, Erin and Admiral Simson.

     "I hate to admit it."  Carefully applied arrogance, she thought.  "I never got close enough to the place to do that.  My manipulations are all close range.  I don't know what my closest point of approach was, but I'd guess about three kilometers maximum."

     "Two point six kilometers," Erin said from her place at the conference table.

     "You're saying you can't affect targets at that range?" Ikari stared at her, very different from his son.

     She wasn't lying, trying to lie while Ikari and Simson were both staring at her, would have been too difficult.  "Not that I know of.  All my attempts have been a few hundred meters, I've tried longer distance, all to no effect.  All my constructions have also been limited by line of sight, I've never managed to create anything beyond visual range.  The only one who can do that is Ho - Pilot Saotome, and I'm not blaming him.  The subtlety of the application would require me, Pilot Ayanami or Pilot Davis."  She paused while considering.  "Perhaps Pilot Tendo, but that's moot in any case.  The only other possibility would be Pilot Saotome and a shovel."  Asuka managed not to gulp or shout, both bad things to do right now.  The two men stared at each other, then at her.  Long, probing stares.  Asuka wondered if her clothes had suddenly become transparent, she felt stripped naked before that penetrating, dual gaze.

     She had told them the truth, cooperated to the best of her ability, even kept her temper in the face of such false accusations and slander.

     "Tests indicate a tremendous weight was involved," Simson said, "Do you have any other possible suggestions of something that could create ground pressure similar to an EVA's?"

     "No.  Except Miss Ayanami can manifest an AT field without an EVA."

     "She was under observation the entire battle, and afterwards," Ikari said coldly.

     Raccoon might have returned and done it, or the Scholarly Dragon, she thought.  "I have no other explanation," she said, desperate to keep her temper in check.  I didn't do it, she wanted to shout at them.

     "Please wait outside Pilot Langley, Miss Carter," Simson ordered.

     Asuka opened her mouth to protest, but shut it at the warning glance from Erin, so she kept silent as they trooped out.  Asuka guessed Erin could practically feel the steam coming off her.

     "I believe she's telling the truth," Ikari told Simson once the doors were closed and locked.

     "Great," the Admiral lamented as he leaned back, "Another mystery."

     "Like the Ghost of Tokyo," Ikari agreed as he took his seat.

     "That's just someone playing bagpipes," Simson retorted.

     "In places no one can get to?  No one has ever seen the piper?  One that knows every time NERV has a major victory?  My prime suspect is approaching the Panama Canal.  I'll believe in the Ghost."

     Simson considered Ikari's words.  Their Scots-ancestored pilot had been his likely suspect as well, but the concert a few days ago seemed to have eliminated him from consideration.  "I'm willing to believe Pilot Langley's protests of innocence.  The question is, what do we do?"

     Gendo considered.  Simson appreciated the man's deviousness, but he wasn't good at hiding things from Simson.  Gendo Ikari always overcomplicated things, and that drew attention to itself, once you knew what to look for.  But for isolated applications, the man and his tendencies were very useful.

     "Leave her out there to stew for an hour, then call her in and refer to her as Miss Langley, instead of Pilot Langley.  Add a week of house arrest.  Since she doesn't go out much, it isn't much of a real punishment.  The name change will worry her far more," Gendo said.

     "Agreed," Simson said, "The Russian situation.  It has been growing steadily more serious, not just the provocation in Europe, but at Tunguska.  We'll need contingency plans to intervene."

     "The Vladivostok end of their railroad is incomplete, so we will have to land the EVAs at the Baltic or Arctic ports," Gendo commented after checking his notes.  "I am more concerned about the Severn Valley situation."

     "We'd better have contingency plans to intervene in both locations simultaneously," Simson said.

     "Our luck couldn't possibly be that bad," Gendo countered.

     "But our enemies are that clever," Simson said blandly and enjoyed the look of horror that replaced Ikari's normally implacable expression.  Ikari wasn't as immune and unflappable as he wanted people to believe.

     "But by all reports, the Tunguska situation is stable, at least for the moment.  We have drawn up plans to intervene.  The S2 engines would allow the EVAs to march the entire distance to the Tunguska site, from Vladivostok, Sevastopol, or Arkhangelsk.  That would mean Pilots Langley and Tendo," Ikari said, "I'm more concerned about the Severn Valley situation.  There have been too many unsubstantiated rumors that have lately received substantiation.  There may be as many as seven Angels in that one region."

     Simson nodded.  He'd let Gendo feel clever, it was necessary to keep the man working at peak efficiency.

     "The Coral Sea cannot support all four EVAs, and you saw the damage Unit 04 did to Bennington," Gendo pointed out.

     "Perhaps one of the British armored deck carriers, or simply dispense with the flight deck entirely, the hanger deck seems unaffected.  The U.S.S. Hawaii only really has room for one EVA.  The same is true of Alaska, or any of the battleships."

     "So you wouldn't want the Hawaii to take one, Coral Sea take two," Gendo suggested, "And leave one here as a reserve?"

     "With the cult who summoned those creatures still extant, it would be unwise to leave the base undefended," Simson agreed, "There's also the question of Unit 03, that one is in England.  Would an experienced pilot have a better chance against it than the novices the British lost?"

     Simson watched Ikari consider the possibilities.

     Asuka fretted and fumed in the waiting room, and she paced, getting madder and more worried with each passing moment.  Erin had the odd feeling the commanders were letting her hang like this on purpose.  Asuka was already imagining worse fates than would be likely.

     "Maybe they'll strap you to a chair," Erin offered as she watched from her seat, "Have Rei do a complete work up in Unit 02, while you have to watch.  Or worse, monitor her progress and efficiency."

     Asuka's entire posture and expression implied she'd been struck a hard blow to the head.  "They . . . they wouldn't!?  Would they?" Asuka asked worriedly.

     "Maybe they'll let you off with a written apology."

     "I DIDN'T DO . . . anything!" Asuka said as the doors opened.

     "You did make the threat," Simson said as he motioned them inside.  Gendo had remained behind, seated at the conference table, glaring at her over his steepled fingers.  "I managed to convince Commander Ikari that house arrest and a personal, unofficial, reprimand would be sufficient, Miss Langley," Simson confided to them.

     The last part stung Asuka more than the rest.  Erin saw the pattern, Gendo got to be the bad guy in control, Simson as the barely adequate, moderating influence.  It was an effective ploy.

     "For the next two weeks, you are to remain in your apartment, except for the practice sessions when you will be permitted to be on the roof with supervision," Gendo intoned as The Voice of Doom.

     Erin noticed they didn't mention tests, none were scheduled anyway, not until Dr. Akagi returned.  Nor had they mentioned battle, that omission would let Asuka's own imagination punish her far more than anything else.  All they were doing really was giving her the impression of punishment, and plenty of time to think about it.

     "As I said, the period of confinement is two weeks, there will be no reduction in pay during that time.  You made the threat, if you hadn't, we could have ignored this anomaly and blamed the recent Angel attack," Ikari continued in his act as a completely heartless monster, "Since the occupants believe an EVA was involved, we have to smooth things over."

     "Yes, Admiral," Asuka said, only the grip Erin had taken on her shoulder kept her from saying more.  Erin could feel the girl shaking with rage.  It didn't keep her from glaring at Commander Ikari.  In reply, the man let her see his slight grin.  Asuka bristled at that.

     "What about sync tests?" Asuka asked through gritted teeth.

     "What part of 'remain in your apartment' did I fail to make clear?" Ikari asked coldly.

     "An Angel attack?  You wouldn't let Wondergirl use my EVA!?"

     "Good day, Miss Langley," Admiral Simson said as he pointed to the doors, then closed them and the conversation.

     Hearing that, Asuka turned around and headed away from the doors and out of earshot of those behind it.

     "They'll let Spineless use MY EVA!  He'll make it as weak as he is!" Asuka shouted, "I'll have to have the L.C.L. flushed and have the whole thing steam cleaned!"

     "Your fault really," Erin said, "In the future, don't joke about the EVAs stepping on people's houses."

     "I didn't step on or near anyone's house.  I'm innocent!  I'm being falsely accused!" Asuka shouted.

     "Congratulations, Joan of Arc," Erin said, "It happens.  It'll give you more time to spend with . . . "  Erin sighed.  ". . . Ranma."

     "Oh joy," Asuka grumped, "Just kill me and get it over with."

Morning's At Seven

     Ranma noted that Asuka had arrived back at the apartment in her usual `good` mood, and immediately retreated to her room.

     "You feeling okay?" Ranma asked as he walked in on her.

     "Don't you knock?" Asuka asked, lying face down on her bed.

     "Sure, 'knock, knock; Horseface go away!'  I just didn't feel like going through all those steps."  He squatted next to the bed.

     She rolled so her back was to him.

     "Whatever it is -"

     "It IS that bad Horseface!  Now go away."

     When she moved, he could see how her motions indicated she was hurting, physically hurting.  "I just thought -"

     "If you touch me, I'll scream so loud your ears will melt."

     "You can't keep ignoring this."  He'd gotten his hand close enough to read her ki flows.  He really wished he hadn't.  Everything was all snarled up, frayed, constricted and strained to near breaking, between her chest and knees.  He couldn't sense more than that, but just scanning those abnormal mangles was maddening.  Just leaving them there when he might have helped seemed inhumane.  He didn't hate anyone enough to leave them in that kind of pain.

     "Yes I -"  She interrupted herself by leaping up and dashing to the bathroom.

     He followed her at a very leisurely pace, he wanted her to be finished throwing up when he arrived.  He wouldn't have put it past her to throw up on him to get him to leave.  Although it sounds like she isn't managing that, he thought.  "Problems?" he asked.

     She was half bent over the sink and had the water running.  But rather than retching, she was soaking a wash cloth in the water.  Then she wiped her face with it.  "No, I do not want to talk about this to a boy," she told him, the force of her scowl was ruined by her ashen color and look of real pain.

     He reached for the water.  She switched the water to full hot before he could get his hand under it.  "Whatever your shape, 'I am a guy', remember?" Asuka said angrily, staring at him with bloodshot eyes.

     Ranma wished she couldn't turn anything he said back on him.

     "You may have a girl's body part of the time, but it's perfect, no cramps, or other little defects," she said bitterly, "Your breasts will probably never sag.  Heck if you did get pregnant you'd probably pop the kid out after 10 minutes of labor, no stretch marks and you'd get your figure back in a day or two.  Real women don't have those advantages."

     Ranma was more than a little confused.  Never imagined somebody saying I'm not a girl would offend me, he thought.  "Are you mad I'm not a girl, or that I am?" he asked, trying to hide his anger and worry.

     "You are not a girl.  No matter what you've got Raccoon convinced of.  You tell everyone you are a guy.  And you're too perfect to be a real girl," Asuka said, being bent over the sink holding on through the dry heaves took a lot of force out of her argument.  "Hell, you're too perfect to be a normal guy either," she muttered under her breath.

     "Do you know how nuts that sounds?" he asked, "I'm not because I'm not and I'm perfect?"

     "The bottom line," she told him through clenched teeth, "Is you don't know enough to help, so go away."  She waved, dismissing him

     "It's just, I thought -"

     "No," she shouted at him, paused as pain wracked her, "You didn't think, you reacted like Pavlov's dogs, you don't even know how you were conditioned, you assume you're thinking when it's all programmed.  Poor, weak, little girl, big hero go help.  Well BUG OFF big hero, girly problem - no can help."

     Ranma decided he didn't want to argue anymore.  She didn't want his help.  'I don' want anyone's help!' he thought angrily.  "Do you want something to eat?" he called back, about the limit of the revenge he'd inflict on her.  Instead he walked upstairs where Sammi was doing more paperwork at the dining room table.

     "Who is Pavlov, and why am I one of his dogs?" Ranma asked as he sat down and put his chin on the table.  He kind of missed the lower Japanese tables, where you sat on the floor.  It was weird being up so high and still sitting.

     It wasn't often he managed to shock Sammi, but he'd managed it this time.  "Hang on a moment," she told him as she stood and headed for the upstairs bedroom she used as a store room/private office.  She returned with a book, Ranma could guess the title was German from the extra dots and squiggles on the Romanji.

     "Pavlov wrote about a way of training," Sammi said as she opened the book and showed him a picture of a dog getting fed when a bell rang and drooling, and the same dog drooling when just the bell rang.  "The dogs were trained to expect food when the bell rang and they reacted when the bell rang as if food was coming.  What did Asuka say?"

     "You didn't hear?" Ranma asked miserably, "I could see she was hurting, I offered to help and she yelled at me and called me Pavlov's dog."

     "What exactly did she say, her exact tone and expression?" Sammi asked.

     Ranma smiled mirthlessly, stood up, bent over and proceeded to exactly duplicate Asuka's entire performance, at a greatly reduced volume.

     Sammi watched carefully, he'd expected to surprise her.  That she wasn't, was a little disappointing.

     Ranma held up the card.  He was doing his best not to gloat as he faced his latest opponent over the dining room table.

     Asuka stared at the card.  "Man," she said.

     "Four."  Ranma turned the card over, letting her see the Romanji, "The box has four sides," he added helpfully.

     "What about the two curves inside?" Asuka asked angrily, "That makes six."

     "They don't count."

     "Thank you," she said sourly, then grinned and held up a card.

     She would pick one that has l's and r's, he thought.  "Rerner," he spoke in Japanese, "Learner."  I think, he added silently, all he was receiving was the blank stare of doom.  He had a few moments to avoid the dire fate she was planning for him for getting it wrong.  "Lernel."  Nope.  "Lelnel."  Nope.  "Relnel?"  Oops.  "Rernel?" he said.  The gaze of doom was eroding whatever confidence he had had.

     Asuka smacked her face with her hand.  "Can't you properly pronounce l's and r's?"

     "Yeah," Ranma said defiantly.

     "So you were just trying to irritate me?" Asuka asked sweetly.

     "No," Ranma said fearfully.

     "Then you were lying to me?" Asuka continued in the pleasant tone, that oh-so-sweet grin on her face.

     Ranma wondered whether any girl being nice to him, especially a pretty one, would always be a harbinger of doom.  He raced for an answer, some words that would get him out of this disaster.  He was proud that he found one so quickly.  "I can properly pronounce r's and l's, I just can't tell which is which."  He sat back, sweating more than he would have after an hour of sparring.

     "The word is pronounced 'lerner'.  With the l, the tip of the tongue touches the back of the top teeth.  The r, the tongue arcs towards but does not touch the center of the palate."

     "Let me see."  Ranma walked around the table and stared into her mouth as she repeatedly made the r and l sounds.  He knew Asuka didn't enjoy this one bit, but it was the best way for him to learn.

     He looked close from various angles, he wished he could skin her lips back the way Ranko could with Raccoon, that was a big help.  Asuka would fry me alive if I did that, he reminded himself and kept his hands to himself.  He felt his own mouth and tongue form the shapes that Asuka's mouth had made.  "L, l, l, l.  R, r, r, r," he said, "Lerner."

     "About time," Asuka said, "You know how much I hate you doing that weird bit."

     "I told you that's the best way to learn," he told her.  And I never touched you, he knew not to add.

     "For you," Asuka admitted, "I heard, and I agreed to let you do it.  That doesn't mean I have to LIKE IT!"

     "I just remembered something," Ranma admitted, "Raccoon made me write the thing, while pronouncing it, several times.  Maybe you should do that too.  Get used to the shape, the sound, the appearance all at once."

     "That sounds like one of his ideas," Asuka groused as she stood up.

     "Where are you goin'?" he asked.

     "To get some scratch paper," Asuka called over her shoulder, "Maybe your nails are tough enough to carve the table top, but mine aren't."

     Ranma smiled, it was nice beating 'Brains Unlimited' like this.  Of course it grates, her constant digs about me getting a much better teacher, and her having to 'soldier on' with a poor one, meaning me, Ranma thought.  He also expected some kind of retribution, eventually.  Ha, I can handle anything, he thought dismissively.

     Asuka looked at the weapons that Erin was passing out.  Ranma, henceforth known as the victim, waited for her on the other side of the door, on the roof.  He wasn't expecting all of them.  The pilots and guards had assembled at the stairway to the roof.

     "We need the goggles?" Wondergirl asked as she fitted them.

     "Yes," Asuka told her, "This is very important training for Horseface.  We're counting on your marksmanship."

     "Jawohl, Mein Grossfeldmarschall," Wondergirl said.

     "Are you sure about this, Megorofeld-chan?" Spineless asked.

     "Yes," Asuka told them, accepting her weapon, checking that it was fully loaded as she led them upstairs, the pilots and their guards.

     "Wait!" Sammi told them as they reached the last door, all that separated Horseface from his fate.  "Everybody remember your situational awareness.  There's reloads all over the roof.  Ready?"

     They nodded.  Sammi threw open the doors and they charged.

     Ranma heard the doors open and the cries of 'Banzai!', 'Charge!' and others, as his `friends` came at him with goggles and - "Squirt guns!?" he shouted and began dodging the spurts of water.

     "Soak him!" Asuka shouted as she fired.  Rei was kneeling and firing steadily.  Shinji charged screaming, firing randomly.  Erin was trying to emulate Rei-the-sniper.  Tomiyo and Juri were using the Shinji approach, trading volume of fire for accuracy.  Sammi, the traitor, was carefully setting another squirt gun and a thermos on one of the short chimneys, then walking away casually.  Even Ranma understood that there was a 20-meter diameter `kill zone` around the bait.  Sammi just waited for her quarry to come to her, with a big grin on her face.

     "No fair, no fair!" Ranma shouted, outnumbered and nearly outflanked, dodging continuously and frantically.

     "It's training!" Asuka shouted at the desperately dodging martial artist, "If you can't dodge water, you're in trouble."

     "How noble," Rei said, nailing Ranma's sleeve, but not him.  He stripped off his shirt to avoid the transformation.  He wasn't afraid of it, not as he once was, but it was a point of honor to put it off as long as possible, than he not fail.

     Rei's next shot got him in the back.  Sammi called a halt.  She picked up the spare squirt - rifle, from the size of it, and the thermos.  He was a him again, and he fitted the goggles over his eyes.  He couldn't figure out a good place to carry the thermos, so he set it down in a place where he could get in and get out fast.  He also discovered the rifle was empty, although jugs of water dotted the roof.  I'd wondered about those, he thought as he started towards the nearest one.

     "Now that you're a boy again," Sammi said, "And such a cute one."  He blushed with embarrassment.  "You can use your weapon to hold us off," she said as she got safely out of range, "Cry Havoc and let slip the Dogs of War!"

     Ranma figured it was a signal to start, so did everyone else.  Ranma sprinted towards the jug of `ammunition`.  Again he was dodging like mad.  Rei beat him to the nearest jug, and he had to use the chimney, the sawhorses and even the others as defenses while he tried to reach another.  Once he'd loaded, he tried shooting back, but his accuracy was terrible, and even hitting them didn't dissuade any of his attackers.

The Hill-side's Dew Pearled

     It seemed like hours later.  Ranko was laughing so hard her ribs hurt.  She'd been transformed back and forth so many times she'd lost count.  She'd also watched a few ambushes of the others.  Rei had been lining up a perfect shot on Ranma, when Asuka had shot her in the back.  Soaking wet Rei hit Ranma, then proceeded to concentrate on 'Mein Grossadmiral' for quite a while, hunting her mercilessly.

     Ranma had concentrated on Sammi, who was the most dangerous once Rei and Asuka were out of the picture.  They had stalked each other, or rather Ranma had tried, with everyone hunting him it was difficult.

     But it felt good, Ranko thought, And Asuka was right, I need practice dodging water.  She thought it was ridiculous, until some of the less likely shots nearly got him, or her after the first shot hit.  Either Raccoon's spell wasn't perfect, or it was fading, or something.

     "Well Horseface?" Asuka asked, she was soaking wet from her duel with the damp but not drenched Rei.  Nobody had intervened in that battle, on either side.

     "Yes, very good training," Ranko admitted.

     "You need to practice your shooting," Asuka teased the other redhead, "Even Spineless hit more often than you did."

     "It was very satisfying," Rei said, with a strange gleam in her eye.  Asuka still frowned.

     Sammi laughed at the other dampened-to-soaked participants.

     "I stayed dr - oh NO!" Juri said, then ran away as the new primary target of the evening, though no one had more than a few shots left.  Ranko, rifle long empty, still joined in the chase.  Asuka shouted orders to coordinate the motley group's attempt to surround the once dry guard.  Rei had recovered the thermos which was still nearly full.  Ammunition was more important than Ranma/Ranko's transformation.

     Admiral Simson was working late in his office.  The investigation into the last battle was getting nowhere.  The summonings of the forces involved would require multiple human sacrifices or dozens of large animals, or hundreds of cats and dogs sacrificed.  None of those were things that should have been easy to hide, but someone had managed.  The only conclusion was that none had occurred.  That only left the possibility of a ceremony of hundreds of members, which also hadn't occurred.

     "Admiral," his yeoman said as he stuck his head into the office, "On your line."

     Simson welcomed any distraction.  He knew he was missing something, but he didn't know what.  He picked up the phone.  "Yes - yes, sir.  MacArthur and the Emperor.  Yes, sir.  I'm sure the pilots will want to meet them.  Thank you for the heads up, Senator.  Good news about the Kentucky, sir.  I'd enjoy hearing about that tomorrow."

     He hung up the phone, then shook his head and considered how to break this to the kids.

     Ramsey stuck his head in the office.  "Problems?"

     "Only some VIPs want to meet the kids," Simson waved the man in to sit down.  "We also are getting a second carrier, sort of.  They've decided to complete the Kentucky as an EVA support ship.  U.S.S. Bluegrass State, they don't know the designation yet."

     "Well, all they need are the engines and the armored deck, the rest can be taken care of easily," Ramsey said.

July 20, 1947

     Ranma walked up the stairs to morning practice.

     "Ranma," Asuka called in a sweet singsong tone.

     Ranma winced before he turned around, he instantly knew he was in serious trouble.

     "I have some good news for you," Asuka said breathily, tugging at the collar of her shirt, which was unbuttoned a lot more than it usually was, at the top and bottom.

     Now Ranma was thoroughly mystified.  Terror returned, hot on the heels of confusion.

     "I know what you really want, what you really neeeed," she said as she walked towards him, her hips swaying.  Ranma felt his mouth go dry, he couldn't tear his eyes away from her.

     "I'm not heartless," she told him as she pouted and ran a finger over his chest.  Ranma backed up suddenly, and accidentally closed the door behind him.

     "I've been watching you . . . watch me.  Somebody else might misunderstand."  She leaned close, pressing against him as he tried to press backward through the door.

     He knew the injuries from walking through a steel fire door wouldn't compare with the injuries he'd suffer when Asuka came to her senses.  Some part of his mind told him this was an excellent opportunity to scan her ki flows.  Then he did a quick inventory of all the points of contact, and suddenly couldn't remember how to spell his name.

     "I know it isn't really me you're looking at," she whispered in his ear, her fingers drawing designs on his chest.

     "That's not true I -" Ranma's protest was cut off as Asuka carefully put her hand over his mouth.

     "I know what you think of me."  She stepped back, relieving the pressure on Ranma's body, and even more on his mind.  Until she stood and stretched.  Ranma noted places where her shirt and shorts got very tight, or failed to cover her at all.  "I should be so jealous of Ice Princess, you seem to warm her up, get her all melty," Asuka said as she slipped her hands under his shirt and around his waist.  "But I can teach you things, things that she'll be so happy that you know.  Things she'll be sooo happy when you show her you know."  She smiled and rubbed her nose against his.

     Ranma wasn't sure how the door was staying in the frame, considering how desperately he was trying to back through it.  It wasn't that Asuka scared him - Yeah, acting like this she doesn't scare me, he admitted to himself, She terrifies me!

     "But I will insist you learn some important things as Ranko too.  You know how she feels about Raccoon.  She just loves when she can make him smile.  What I'll teach you will definitely make him smile."  Asuka's hands in his shirt were massaging his stomach and chest, and they weren't relaxing him at all.  Only the heavy construction of the door and the fact he didn't hit girls was preventing him from retreating.  Although he was doing his best to back up and deflect the roaming hands.

     "You've been such a good boy lately," Asuka crooned, looping one leg around his and pulling it further out.  "You've done all I've told you without complaining.  I'm going to let you be bad.  I'm going to give you a chance I wouldn't give most others."  He was glad she'd unwrapped herself from him.

     Ranma gulped, as Asuka wrapped her other leg around his other leg and pulled it out of position, the only reason he hadn't fallen was his own superior sense of balance, Asuka's arms around his waist, and her chest pressed against his.  His breathing was faster because of nervousness, he was aware of the effect his breathing and hers was having on their contact, which completely disrupted his mental balance.

     "I know you don't feel that way about me.  I know there'll never be anything - personal about this," she told him as her lips brushed his ear, "But I do beg you to be gentle, and patient, think about me a little."

     "Ah, hamta, kanbanata . . . " Ranma said intelligently.

     "See," Asuka whispered, "A quick thrust isn't the end of it.  It takes more, your girl form will learn that too."

     If Ranma could have gotten his legs or arms to work, he would have jumped straight up, despite the concrete ceiling above him, and run for his life.  His mind was a mass of fog and cobwebs.

     "I don't mind just being a teacher, no matter what it costs me."  She leaned closer.  Ranma focused on her eyes and the mischief there, trying to blot out all the rest of her that was close to him.  "I can even tell you the greatest knowledge.  Knowledge that will please Ice Princess and Raccoon, when you show it to them."  She smiled, showing a dazzling set of white teeth, all Ranma could think of were sharks.  "Maybe you can show it to both of them at once."

     Ranma couldn't even frame the question.  His suspicions about this knowledge were enough to utterly destroy any ability to think he might have had.

     The swift knee from Asuka blew away the cobwebs and gave him all the focus he lacked.  A second knee he failed to dodge or parry increased that focus to the sharpness of a scalpel.

     With the insides of his thighs smarting, and the certain knowledge that Asuka hadn't missed with either blow, he heard her warning clearly.  "There's no such thing as cheating in a real fight, just winning and dying."  She stepped away, her tone and demeanor returned to normal teacher mode.  "You need to learn to hurt girls, I could have killed you, Horseface.  And for your information . . . "  She paused to make sure she had his undivided attention.  "Any girl who acts like that right from the beginning, is going to do exactly what I almost did, either physically or to get something out of you.  Your instinct to run away is exactly the right one."  She stepped away, returning to her normal persona.  "Pick up your sword and your jaw, we're going to try to work on your reticence about hurting girls, and to improvise some other uses of your weapon.  Let's go."

     Ranma stepped aside to let her open the door to the roof.  "So none of that . . . stuff -"

     Asuka laughed at him.  "Horseface, if I was lying there bleeding to death, I wouldn't want you manhandling me.  If I ever got slightly romantic with you, I'd probably throw myself off the building when I came to my senses."

     For some reason that made Ranma feel a lot better.

     Ranma held his scabbard, he was using it like a short staff, which he knew how to use.  Asuka was thrusting with the hilt of her weapon.  The weird part was, he couldn't dodge, only block or parry.  It felt unnatural.  "Why are we doing this?" Ranma asked, batting the wooden pole away.

     "If you dodge, you protect yourself.  This occupies the enemy, and you can protect those behind you," she told him as she feinted low, over feinted high and actually carried through a low attack.

     Only his speed allowed him to counter.  "Sneaky," he commented, "Since I need to hit girls, when do I get to attack?"

     "Not today, this is defensive, learning the parries and the other uses of your weapon, Anything Goes, right?  Later I'll teach you some of the uses of the sabre-halberd.  It's a lot more than a sharp piece of iron a long way off.  You may even need to talk to Mirei about some of the techniques in softball, about using the bat."

     Ranma parried an all-or-nothing attack with a swift wrist thrust.  As the weapons clattered off each other, Asuka cried out and dropped to her knees.  Ranma started forward.  She didn't call a halt or - he thought and jumped back, Or drop her weapon.  "You're still holding it!" Ranma said reproachfully.

     "I didn't call a halt," Asuka told him, grimaced as she clenched and unclenched her hand.  "Now I am."

     Ranma set the scabbard aside, and ignored Asuka's protest as he took her injured hand.

     She clawed at his face and pulled back.  "Never!" she hissed at him, "You haven't earned the right."

     He backed up, stammering an apology as he moved.  The others would be arriving, and he didn't have time to analyze all this.  A little while ago, she was crawling all over him, now she would have torn his eye out for holding her hand.  He could tell there was no damage to the hand, but he'd have to check it up to the elbow to make sure it wasn't the tendons.  He knew her pain had been real, and severe.  He wished she'd let him help her.

     "Now, do you feel like actually doing some work?" Asuka asked as she stood, she acted as if nothing had just happened, "We'll work on the sabre-halberd.  If you've ever used a nagitana - "

     "Naginata," Ranma corrected, got a glare, he shrugged.

     "Then you have a better idea how to use it."

     "Including that sword-trapping trick?" Ranma asked.

     "Eventually," Asuka told them, "Mainly, you need to learn what happens if someone gets too close or if there isn't enough space to use this.  It's an open-field weapon, a lot like your art.  In a confined space, you have to be more careful."

     "Yeah."  Ranma chuckled as he lifted the sabre-halberd, felt the balance, and swung it a few times to get the feel.

     "The key is improvisation," Asuka said.  Ranma thought she sounded wistful.  "In dealing with the length of the weapon, and the assumption that the whole thing isn't a weapon."

     Ranma nodded.  "So who taught you this?" Ranma asked.

     Asuka looked sour.  "Guess.  Stupid mage who was a natural with a sword.  But a knight who couldn't wield one . . . I thought he invented this thing," she grumbled.

     "Ah," Ranma said sagely, taking an unobtrusive step or two away from her.

     "Most of the Talhoffer lessons can be applied.  What you don't know is how much lighter this is compared to what it should be, the haft is thinner, stronger wood, the metal is lighter.  This is a weapon that uses speed, more than mass, to deliver the blows."

     "Girls aren't as strong," Ranma said.

     "Define strong," Asuka ordered.

     Ranma plotted a strategic withdrawal, despite the fact he had her weapon in hand and she was unarmed, he still felt distinctly outmatched.  "I didn't - " Ranma began.  A splash of water changed him to her.

     "Now you practice as a girl.  Feel the difference and understand that the strength is different.  Women lack the mass, but the endurance is different," Asuka told the dampened girl before stalking off a short distance, "And you still can't dodge water."

     "I think I could have figured that out."  Ranko wrung out her shirt.

     "Start with the stances, feel the difference between a sword and a polearm."  Asuka slapped her own face.  "SLOWLY!" she shouted, "Slowly, Horseface, slowly.  Let your muscles feel the changing balance, also, go through the stances holding the haft at the head, the midpoint and the far end.  Slowly."

     Ranko grumbled, but she did as she was told.  She didn't see the point of moving slowly, but she could tell how the weapon moved swinging it at normal speed.  The difference among the various distances along the haft amazed her.

     Ranko watched as everyone trooped down from the roof, tired, sweaty but pleased by their progress.  She was glad of all the lessons, she wholly understood why Asuka had instructed `Horseface` 'learn each stance, each attack' before he went on.  Because it wasso simple.  Less than twenty basic stances and maneuvers, and each one was an end or a beginning point in the 'flow you think is so important,' she'd told him sarcastically.  The flow would come, the path it took was entirely up to him and the others.  Only the end points mattered.  In an odd way, she could understand Asuka hadn't been teaching him a martial art, she'd been teaching him how a master teacher simplified things, and how another expert could teach those simplified lessons.  Despite the numerous, small successes that resulted from him teaching the others, it was an extremely humbling realization.  He was the expert Martial Artist, but he had been completely incapable of sharing that with anyone.  Not the grace, nor the joy of mastering your body, nor the confidence of knowing you couldn't be physically challenged.

     While it was his alone, it was worthless to the others.  In a way, he was worthless to the others.  That was perhaps the worst realization of all, that as long as his techniques were secret, they were worthless.  If he shared them with the others, he'd lose absolute control over what they did with them.  Only by risking `freeing` them, did he achieve what they were meant to do.

     And gain what? she wondered, Not disciples or students.  They'll never completely give themselves over to Martial Arts.  It would be just another tool to each of them.  Part of that she recognized as pride, she saw herself reduced from an artist to a merchant or master technician.  The others had seen it, even if they didn't understand it.  It was why they tried to teach him their scientific language and way of thinking.

     Because scientists were the chiefest technicians, the ones who understood instead of just making use of, she thought, glancing around at the others, they'd done their practice, now it was over until tomorrow.  For him it was never over.

     They thought I could understand Martial Arts with my head, instead of my soul.  Hope, they didn't want to take mine away, she thought as she caught up with Asuka at the base of the stairs.

     "What do you want, Horseface?"  Asuka faced her, hands on her hips.

     "Retribution," she said, glad she picked the right word.  With all these witnesses . . . she thought.

     Asuka paled, then glanced over Ranko's shoulder.  "That can't be!  Ranma don't look."

     She looked, then heard the sound of running feet.  Now it was Ranma's turn to smile.

     Ranma began gently massaging Asuka's hand.  He ignored the others clustered around them in the living room.  He didn't wantthis to be private, and not just to humiliate his roommate.  He could feel the slight disruption, and that there was more.  But I doubt this is a serious injury,he thought, But I can feel it's the tip of the iceberg.  There's a lot more, and she's hiding it.  He continued up her arm to the elbow, making sure the tendons were free and undamaged.  He also watched her eyes, he could feel the tension in her, his instincts told him she was one step from attacking him.  Why she felt that way, felt that way towards him, that he couldn't fathom.  The decision to do this in front of an `audience` was clearly the right one, although staying a girl might have also been helpful.

     "That's . . . "  Asuka seemed lost for words, she was trying to be nice, "That's nice."

     "Your hand?" Ranma asked carefully.  She slowly clenched and unclenched her hand.  Then thrust her other hand at him.

     He bit back the retort, 'Oh, now you want my help.'  He had learned a few things.  Her other arm was as tense as the first.  The others around them waited and watched.  From all their reactions, he might as well have been surrounded by paintings of fascinated people.

     "This is what I was offering, as much or as little . . . " he told her.

     "I wasn't joking earlier," Asuka told him as he finished, "I don't want beyond what you've done.  Ever."

     "Why not, I won't do anything."

     Asuka drew up as if to shout at him, she glanced at the others, then she relaxed.  She didn't want to be the entertainment.  "I just don't, accept that.  I won't be explaining it any time soon."

     "It's not like I'm -"

     "NO!" Asuka shouted right in his face, "Just drop it!"

     Ranma held up his hands to surrender.  "Okay.  It doesn't make sense to me."

     "There - are - things - you - don't - have to understand . . . understand?" Asuka asked angrily.

     "No.  Do you feel up to more language practice?" Ranma asked, this time he enjoyed it.

     "Yes," Asuka said as she pushed her way through the crowd, still grimacing.  Her kanji knowledge wasn't progressing as fast as his understanding of German.  She kept insisting that he had a better teacher than she did.  I wish I had a decent teacher on the subject of Germans, he thought.

The Lark's On The Wing

July 21, 1947

     Ranma had been watching Asuka all morning during practice.  Maybe the others haven't noticed it, he thought as they all trooped downstairs, But it's pretty obvious.  Asuka was in a great deal of pain.  She hid it fairly well, but it was obvious to Ranma that she wasn't getting better.  She's probably getting worse, he thought morosely, She's definitely worse this evening.  He wished he could ask Rit-chan about this, he was just too embarrassed to ask Sammi or Erin.  And forget asking Asuka, he thought, I can just see that: 'Hey Asuka, how long do you get cramps like this?'  All I'd get to see is how far Asuka can kick me.

     He watched her move, hiding the stiffness from the cramp or cramps.  The pain in her other muscles as she pushed those to the limit, even without having to compensate for the cramps, and disguise that she was hurting.  When he'd gotten close enough to examine her ki, however dimly, he'd been sickened by the tangles and snarls centered on her gut and spreading through all her major muscles.  He wasn't even sure how she could be alive with that kind of damage.  He easily understood why she was in pain.  He still couldn't understand why she wouldn't let him help her, or even just rest.  Theoretically all the cramps would go away in a few days.  Complete rest for a few days would have helped immensely, and given her body time to heal, even if she didn't heal as fast as he did.  Her hands and arms had been messed up, and he'd helped her.  He could at least treat some of the problem.

     Aside from where the core of the problem is, he realized, he knew enough anatomy from Rit-chan's talks to know what was probably the focus of the problem.  But I don't need to touch her there to help a little, he thought in frustration, But she won't let me help, even a little.

     He'd learned a lot, he had another way of dealing with some problems.  I don't have to find an enemy to hit to solve this, he thought, I can do this with a touch and a little work.  But she won't let me.  Why not?  She lets me walk around with sharp weapons, she lets me swing at her, but she won't let me touch her.  She'd rather have me punch her that just hold her hand . . . that's completely nuts.  Then he thought about how he'd prefer if she just beat him with a stick while he helped, rather than having her shy away and bear her pain, like she had been doing.

     It bugged him that somebody, anybody, was hurting that badly.  He didn't like harming people.  He hated when a girl was crying, and Asuka should have been howling in agony.  She's tougher that I figured, he admitted, I almost wish someone would just order me to help her, and order her to let me.  She couldn't really object to that, could she?  What could she do to me for both of us following orders?  Chop you into little bite-sized bits and feed you to the sea gulls, that's what.  He didn't think that would be as bad as continuing to watch her and doing nothing.

     Asuka was practicing, practicing the moves of the sabre-halberd and practicing ignoring the sharp twinges and dull aches her body was plaguing her with.  She also ignored the light rain, a `soft day` the English would call it.  The city had been spared any typhoons, this one was landing well south of Fujiyama, so all they were getting here was a persistent drizzle.

     She hadn't added the macelike counterweight to her sabre-halberd before.  I need to work on my strength, she thought, I'm out of practice and out of shape for using a weapon.  She felt the muscles tighten in her guts.  No! she thought.  She hated what happened this time of the month, this month had been the worst of all, Why does this happen to me? she asked silently, It's not like.  I'll ever have kids, why do I need that stuff?  If I can hang on for a few more minutes, I can go to bed.

     She forced herself to straighten up and continue the exercise.  She gritted her teeth and forced herself to keep working through the pain.  I'm not going to give in and look foolish -

     Asuka's cry of pain drew Ranma, Sammi and Erin.  She cried out again as Sammi caught her and prevented her fall, and accidently touched her abdomen.

     I won't pass out, I won't pass out, I won't pass out! she silently repeated to herself as she reflexively curled into a ball.  Pain was the only thing real to her right now.

     Ranma had rushed toward Asuka as she fell.  He let Sammi and Erin get there ahead of him.  He glanced around to make sure they weren't under attack.  He couldn't see anyone or anything that could be an attacker.

     "Ranma, come here!" Sammi's tone brooked no argument.

     He knelt next to Asuka as the girl squirmed slightly, Erin held Asuka's hands, her knuckles were white, although she was refusing to cry out further.

     "Right here."  Sammi pointed to Asuka's lower abdomen, even the chance of contact caused Asuka to writhe.  He didn't like anyone being in that kind of distress, and he knew, cramps hurt, especially when you kept moving the way Asuka kept doing.

     He was terribly nervous about touching a girl, down there.  He wished the rain were colder, then he would be a girl for this.  Even if he wouldn't be touching her . . . parts, which would deservedly get him beaten, any touching Asuka where he'd have to do any good . . . he'd have to sleep with one eye open for the rest of his life.

     "I can get to - " Asuka said as she tried to stand.  Instead, she turned white and her eyes rolled up in her head as she collapsed.  Ranma hoped that would convince her not to try to stand up when she revived.

     "Ranma, it's medical," Sammi reminded him forcefully, "And I'm making it a direct order, for both of you."

     Ranma could see Asuka with her eyes and lips clamped shut, if that wasn't a clue to her feelings, the tears at the corners of her eyes and the slight shake of her head were a dead give away.  He wanted to be elsewhere.  "I'll get some cold water - "

     "Ranma," Sammi said sternly, "Quit stalling, she's hurting a lot and we can't move her without making it worse."

     You got your wish, he cursed silently, Little good will it do you.

     Ranma tentatively reached out his hands, looked at Asuka's face before he made contact, on the sides, just where the ribcage stopped.  He'd never seen a look of terror on Asuka, or any of the pilots to match what he was getting from her now.  It cut him worse than if she'd kicked him . . . anywhere.  He hated this, I'm trying to help, he wanted to shout at her, Can't you see that?

     "It will start out hurting worse."  He wasn't sure if he was offering an explanation, or an apology, or an excuse.  Asuka looked like she would have run away, if she could had stood.  But then he got the throat clearing and the stern gaze from Erin and Sammi, he was disgusted that he couldn't do anything except obey.  He knew it was for the best, But . . .? he couldn't answer his own unspoken question.

     He touched her, eliciting a mewling cry.  He felt trapped, there was no good answer here.  None that he could see.  He felt the extent of the cramps, and the damage.  Asuka had the problem long before, and she'd been ignoring her body's warnings, to force herself to go on.

     What are you trying to be stupid?  Trying to match me? he didn't say, the instant he thought of it he nearly winced at the conjecture of six feet screaming at his shins.  Why are you trying to match me?  Do you like hurting yourself?  Another phantom shin attack.  Why are you doing this?  Hurting yourself.  Should I expect to be a math whiz in a week? this thought elicited little presumption of attack, and Asuka had opened her eyes.  As he worked the side muscles loose and was working towards the center, he asked the last question, got a look of pain and shame as the only reply.  He decided he'd shut up, she was overreacting.  It's not as though I could do anything without Erin and Sammi stopping me, he thought.

     He was having to press fairly deep to get at the source of the pain.  He also let his ki seep through his fingers into Asuka, orderliness in to bedlam, more `fuel` so she could heal herself.  He clearly sensed the damage over Asuka's entire body, it sickened him.  He smothered the flash of anger.  You've been hurting yourself to keep up with me, you don't have to do that, he wasn't sure if he was silently cursing her, or himself, You'd even stated that I am beyond normal, so you knew you'd never really be able to keep up.  Not just because you're a girl, but because I am  the best, stronger, faster, more athletic than `normal` people.  I never expected to match you or Raccoon with your Math or Science.  He felt a growing anger, at himself, at this mess, at Asuka for getting him into this mess.

     Why do you think you have to match me with Martial Arts? he asked Asuka silently.  He was also worried about an expectation one of the girls would hit, slap, punch or kick him for what he was doing, it was extremely disturbing that it wasn't happening.  Worse was Asuka just lying there like a corpse, staring at the sky.  She'd stopped squirming almost immediately, he doubted it was a good thing.  It's like she just gave up, he thought, That's not like her.

     He lifted his hands off Asuka, her knuckles and face were white.  She had no expression on her face, not pain or embarrassment, she just stared straight up at nothing, not even looking at the clouds above.  The rain made it look like she was crying, but he knew she wasn't even reacting that much.  "I'll have to do the legs as well," he told Sammi, "It was leg cramping that made Asuka fall in the first place."  He knew that the muscles in the thigh and back of the leg were the initial problem, but Sammi had made him fix the real problem first.

     If I don't do the whole leg Asuka really will kill me, he reasoned, watching Sammi and Erin for some sign of approval or denial, lack of condemnation or a rebuke, something.  He got a nod from Sammi, Asuka just lay there.  It would have been better if she'd bit her lip or squeezed her eyes shut or screamed at him.

     Ranma began to work on Asuka's legs, working from the outside of her hip down to her ankle.  First one leg, then the other.  He felt the cramps, the tiny muscle tears, and bruises that Asuka had been ignoring.  He lacked the skill to manipulate ki to actually heal the damage, but he could reinforce the efforts of Asuka's body to repair its own wounds.  There might be a way of learning those techniques, but not yet.

     As he finished, he noted that Asuka had `revived` from her corpse-like appearance and impersonation.  He thought he'd earned enough credit to press the issue, "I asked a question, I expect an answer.  Why are you doing this, to hurt yourself?  I could give you a list of your injuries, injuries you've been ignoring.  Should I expect to be a math whiz in a week?"

     "No," Asuka said softly, but said nothing more and gave no reaction as Erin picked her up.  Ranma had intentionally worked her muscles until they were practically putty, she needed rest and it was easy enough to arrange that.  He'd helped her, maybe saved her from permanent injury, but he felt awful for doing it.  He didn't know what Asuka would do to him, but somehow it couldn't be as bad as leaving her hurting like that.  He told himself that, but somehow it rang false to him.

     As he stood watching Erin carry her away, Sammi caught his shoulder.  "Let her go, she's frightened enough."

     "I didn't do anything wrong I -" I followed your instruction, he didn't add, Because I agreed, and thought it was right and necessary.

     "She's embarrassed because she got caught, she's frightened because she was afraid of being raped."

     He almost broke his vow not to hit girls, right then and there.  He restrained himself from punching Sammi for even suggesting he'd do such a thing.  "I - WOULD - NEVER - !" he couldn't say anymore, his rage was making him dizzy.

     "Ranma, she knows that, the same way you know a couple cats could never be a match for you in a fight.  But fear isn't rational."

     Ranma felt a flash of fear at the mere mention of the word.  He shook his head to clear it of the rage and fear that filled him.  They'd set him up, they knew about it and still made him . . . .  When he began, he had no idea why Asuka felt the way she did, he'd assumed that it was her disgust with everything Japanese in general, and him in particular.  Like Raccoon's disgust with Ranma.  If I'd known I . . . the thought died away, he didn't know what he would have done, caught between need and orders on one side, and a teammate's fears on the other.  He just wished he hadn't done what he just did.  Now he tried to think of a way to make it up to her, and nothing came to him.

     "She has been playing the game of 'nobody is better than me.'  Now she'll have to pay for it.  Better in small sips than to drink the whole bitter draught all at once.  Rei commented 'the Commander needs the disparate skills', I think she's right, none of you can do everything," Sammi told him.

     If that's supposed to make me feel better about what I've done, it doesn't, he didn't say, instead Ranma nodded and headed back to the apartment, Sammi walked behind him.  "I didn't mean to let her get hurt, she's a - "  He stopped, visions of Sammi tossing him off the building shouting 'I'm a girl too.'  He hastily searched for another word.  "She's no Martial Artist, not like I am."  Why am I making excuses? he asked himself, Why do I care what you think?  Asuka wanted to teach me to hurt girls, so did the rest of you.  Well congratulations, I learned.  He felt physically filthy and unclean in spirit.

     "I don't think there's anything on this planet that's a Martial Artist like you are," Sammi joked.

     It didn't make him feel like laughing.  He'd done the right thing, then found out he'd done something awful.  He didn't like being tricked that way.

     Ranma glanced at her, her expression indicated she'd caught his clumsy recovery from nearly choking on his own foot.  He decided to keep a lid on how he really felt.  "So what now?  Soak her in a hot bath for an hour or so then bed rest?"

     "How bad was the damage?" Sammi asked, finally getting serious about it.

     "Not bad, but it was all over the place," Ranma replied.  Sammi didn't ask how he knew, she never seemed to ask how any of the pilots did the weird things they did.  He wondered about that.  He also noted she hadn't asked how he or Asuka felt about what had happened.  He expected that kind of callousness from Misa-chan or Gendo.  It worried him, when it came from Sammi.  I guess I can't trust her either, he thought sadly, he'd liked her, now she'd done this to him and Asuka.  He couldn't understand.

     Rei hadn't figured out exactly what the pair had been doing.  Watching, as she had been for the last few days, from another nearby building, she'd seen and heard Mein Grossfeldmarschall go down.  From her interpretation of Mein Grossfeldmarschall's biography, especially the elements not in the `public` one, she could guess the likely outcome of the events she had seen.

     And what do I do? she considered, No enemy action would eliminate her usefulness to the Commander's plan so effectively.  She watched until they had taken her inside.  She had much to think about.  She hoped Shinji-kun would have some ideas.  She just couldn't figure out how to let him know about the problem, without forcing him to act to solve it.

The Snail's On The Thorn

     Asuka grimaced as she lay there in the tub in her bathroom.  Just a big carrot in the soup, she grumbled silently, Ranma to the rescue of poor, little Asuka.  She wasn't happy about breaking down that way.  It was a reminder she wasn't in as good shape as she needed to be.  She also couldn't get the image of those two girls in Berlin out of her head.  The platoon of Russian soldiers had caught them while Asuka and Anna were hiding on the roof high above.  Neither girl was much older than Asuka was now.  The Russians had dragged the girls and their father off the street.  Asuka and Anna had watched the soldiers tease, kiss and grab the girls, beating their father while he watched.  Their screams had become pleas, then they'd torn the clothes off one and taken turns with her.  Her screams had returned, and the soldiers had enjoyed it.  When she abruptly stopped screaming, they'd thrown the body out into a burning building, almost two hours later her sister followed her into the fire.  Then the Russians had done the same to the father, although they threw him in the fire alive.

     She and Anna had stayed on the roof, where they were hiding, through the day, not daring to make a noise and draw any attention to themselves.  They had listened to the laughter and the screams that seemed to go on forever.  Asuka had gotten pneumonia from that, but it was better than being raped to death.  She'd been unable to prevent Horseface from putting his hands on her.  That it felt so good, so soothing, he had a real talent.  That it made the pain go away and she wanted it to continue was a betrayal of her by her own body.  What would . . . could I have done if he went further? she asked herself.  She'd already realized Sammi and Erin hadn't stopped it, hadn't cared about her feelings.

     That Horseface had a perfect opportunity to do something perverted, and he hadn't, didn't change anything.  She'd been so terrified that he'd do something that she lay there helpless.  She couldn't even scream her protests or get away. 

     Of course the only thing Horseface is worried about is cats, Asuka thought ashamedly, He doesn't have to worry about anybody taking advantage of him.  The laughter of the Russian soldiers and the screams of the Berliners they'd caught were still seared in her memory.  Even before that, she'd never wanted the trouble of kids, or having to wait hand and foot on a husband.  She wanted to be her own person, those events made it clear, that anyone strong enough could take that decision from her, in any of a dozen ways, from crippling to rape to murder.  And Horseface was more than strong enough to do any of them in any order he chose, she couldn't intimidate him the way she had with Spineless, although encouraging his feelings for Ice Princess helped.  But she couldn't seem to get Ice Princess on the right track to keep Horseface fully occupied.  Maybe I should work on the Raccoon-Ranko aspect, she considered, smiled at that, It would also be good revenge.  Asuka had been able to divert him with martial arts, which he cared about more than anything else.  Then he'd offered so innocently after she could barely move.  He'd even taken his female form as if that made any difference.  She'd turned him down flat, and every time after that.  He never got the message.  He'd even cornered her with everyone watching, and did whatever the Hell he wanted, making her seem like a poor sport for not taking advantage of his `kind` offer.

     She thought of Tatewaki Kuno, her husband in that weird dream.  How she'd pushed him away, diverting him easily with visions of Onna Osage, his pigtailed girl, or Akane, his tigress.  Until Kaji had left, taking with him the pigtailed girl, and Akane had been affianced to Ryoga, who was much less tolerant of any improper attention anyone paid to Akane: Kuno, `Nabiki`, anyone.

     Suddenly she had been alone, and very lonely.  The Tatewaki who had found her, was so different from the idiot who relentlessly pursued Akane and the Pigtailed Girl, it was like night and day.  He hadn't displayed any of his hallmark, if not trademark, inanities: the typical, stupid things, or made any of the stupid pronouncements about honor and his nobility  Like the ones Horseface is so fond of, Asuka thought and shivered at the comparison.  He'd simply sat down with his back against hers, offering a windbreak and a source of warmth in the chill air.  She didn't remember how long they'd sat there, while Kuno talked of his mother, and the feelings of anger and betrayal at her `abandoning` him and his sister.  His father's growing madness and obsession, and his own realization that his sister and indeed he himself were traveling the same road.  He had not asked for her help, had not offered his, but the plea and the offer had still been made.  The biggest clown in Nerima had gone from slapstick to pathos, and the cold-blooded mercenary had found a warm, protected place.

     Their first `date` had been to conspire against his father, the principal.  Their second had been to escape the principal's wrath, when the plan had worked a little too well.  Kodachi had been an . . . interesting . . . chaperone.  The `Mad, Ribbon Girl` had been as desperate for affection and approval as her brother.  Asuka's honor had been protected the first night by Kodachi coiling around her like one of her ribbons, and falling asleep.  Asuka never figured out how even a Nerimaniac could bend and twist that way, let alone fall asleep in that position.  Tate' had stayed away, standing watch on the off chance that their hidey-hole was discovered.  They passed the night that way, in the morning Asuka had taken the next watch, Kodachi the afternoon.  As they awoke for the next watch, Tate and Asuka had been mortified to find Tate's head in Asuka's lap, and her sprawled on his broad back.  Of course there was Kodachi, with her halo askew, so both took it as her machinations, rather than anything else.  They'd spent the second night talking about swordsmanship and chemistry.  Neither Kuno sibling had imagined that the Mercenary Ice-Bitch of Furinken not only had an interest in subject of their fascination, but a fair number of opinions and ideas of her own.

     College, Tokyo University at the Kuno siblings' mutual insistence, then as exchange students to a number of German universities at hers, had been an experience.  Removing the Kunos from the pressure of Japanese society, and more importantly, placing them where psychiatric drugs and treatment were acceptable, had healed both of them.  The constant presence of the pair had also made her feel safer, their habitual contact, slowing growing more often and more intimate had brought her to the point where she could act spontaneously with Tate, and accept `Da-chan's` frequent ambush-hugs without freezing up.

     But today she'd just been lying there, her panic and her pain paralyzed her completely.  As fast as he was, as high up on her leg as he was rubbing . . . and he didn't do anything.  As uncouth as he was, he'd been respectful, professional even.  But that didn't make it right, he hadn't asked, had completely disregarded her repeated requests and warnings.  She couldn't have made it more clear and comprehensible, and he acted as if he hadn't understood.  Or worse, he had understood and just hadn't cared.  She shivered with fear again.  Just thinking about it again appalled her.  She didn't know if he wasn't really like that, or if he was biding his time, or if he'd follow orders to. . . .  She couldn't imagine Simson giving those orders, but Gendo might, especially if he needed new pilots, or something to experiment on.  She had thought all those things about Horseface, never gave him the benefit of the doubt.  Now he'd discounted all she'd told him, It's all my fault, she thought.  She grumbled again as she sank deeper in the water.

     Asuka noted Horseface's arrival.  He, or rather `she`, was carrying a plate and was actually trying to be `cute`.  As if that would fool me, Asuka thought.  She couldn't defend herself, so she waited to see what he'd do.  Erin had set her in the tub fully clothed, so there wasn't much for Horseface to see.

     "What are you doing?" she asked the he-in-she's-clothing.

     "Rit-chan said cramps are often caused by a lack of Po - Pot -"

     "Potassium," Asuka supplied.

     "Yeah, that stuff.  And Raccoon mentioned bananas are loaded with Po - ta - shi - uh - " Horseface knelt down beside the tub.  On the plate were two chopped up bananas and a set of chopsticks.

     "I'm - " the piece of banana at the back of her mouth ended conversation as she reflexively swallowed it.  Horseface's look of triumph as `she` twirled the chopstick across her fingers didn't make Asuka feel any better.  "You know feeding someone is a very intimate act," she cooed, then winced inwardly, she should not be giving him any ideas.  All she got was another chunk of banana in the back of her mouth.  She was glad he'd made the pieces so small that she could swallow them without chewing or gagging.  She frowned at `her`, got a beatific smile in return.

     "Thank you," Asuka said, covering her mouth with her hand, "I'll eat the rest myself later."  The `cute` act was wearing.  The faux girl was bloodcurdling.  Asuka didn't want to spend any more time with him than absolutely necessary.

     "Well, I'm not leaving.  You're supposed to stay in there for at least another 80 minutes.  Sammi also suggested I make sure that the water stays as hot as you can stand."

     "And what will you do if I - don't," her voice cracked before the last word.  She could guess what he could do, whether he would or not was another question.

     "I'm not going to hurt you," Horseface insisted, acting like he actually believed it.

     Not that that makes a difference, Asuka thought angrily.  "Because you're a martial artist and the code conveniently forbids it?"


     "And who makes the code?"  A piece of banana delayed her next point.  "All the teachers and scholars of Martial arts, correct?"

     Two pieces of banana before Horseface answered, `she` seemed to think this was all some kind of game.  "Yeah, that sounds right."

     "And you'd never do anything against that code - "  More banana.  "And if they mandated you had to do something, you'd do it, right?"  Asuka arranged the elements her attack, and Horseface didn't see what she was arranging.

     "Yeah, sure."  Horseface seemed a little confused now.

     She let Horseface drop in a couple of pieces, these she actually chewed before swallowing.  She had him, he just didn't know it.  "So if all the practicing martial arts teachers decided on some new code, your honor would require you followed it?"

     "Of course," `she` said, as if it were as obvious as the Law of Gravity.

     "How many Martial arts teachers, legal ones, are there in Japan do you think?" Asuka prepared to close the trap.  One strike, straight through the heart.

     "Hundreds, I dunno."

     "Since Ice Princess left, there is precisely - one - his name is Saotome Ranma."  She let that sink in.  "So you decide for all martial artists what the code is.  So you can justify any action you care to take, by declaring it as something a martial artist has to do.  Now tell me why I shouldn't be afraid?  Why I should trust you?"  Asuka settled back in the water, letting Horseface stew even as she was.

     Ranma sat back on her haunches and set the plate aside before she dropped it.  She felt awful, as if she'd been betrayed again, but this time, the only `betrayer` were her own words.  Asuka had laid out her `case` so clearly, even Ranma could easily follow it.

     "I - " she began, fell silent.  She felt sick.  Asuka wasn't accusing her of anything, exactly.  Just stating that Ranma's honor as a Martial Artist was no defense against anything.  No reassurance to the others, no proof of his goodness or restraint.

     'I would never do that.'  'Because you're a Martial Artist?'  But I define what a Martial Artist is.  That's why those guys at the college wanted to spar.  They weren't just testing their skills, or mine, they were testing me, to see if I was worthy to carry the mantle of Japanese Martial Arts.  What I say goes.  'Ice cream after lessons.'  There will be ice cream after the lessons, Ranma thought, more afraid of the implications of that than any of the enemies they'd faced.  It also explains Raccoon's and Asuka's behavior, Ranma thought, in horrified realization.

     "When did you think of this?" Ranma asked quietly.  How long have you been afraid of me? she wanted to ask.

     "About the time you announced you were a martial artist," Asuka told Ranma, "I don't know if I closed the loop for Raccoon, or if he'd already figured it out."

     Ranma sat down harder than she'd wanted to.  She couldn't deal with the hurt she felt, the confusion.  So that's what he's scared of, and you.  I talked about honor.  You'd already figured out it all looped back to me.  I'd decide what was honorable and what wasn't.  You didn't call me an idiot or a hypocrite, because I might `smite` you as unbelievers.  And it would all be `honorable` because I'd done it.  'I would never do that because I'm a Martial Artist', it must have seemed funny, and at the same time you were terrified.  She bowed her head, she wanted to curl up into a ball as Asuka had, but it wouldn't make the pain go away.

     "Do you really think I'd do something like . . . like what Sammi said you were afraid I'd do," she whispered, "You just shut down there.  Did you really think I'd hurt you?"

     Asuka had moved to the far side of the tub, as far as she could escape in the condition Ranma had left her in.  "You could that's the more important . . . and who could stop you?  Not you, if your . . . honor required something you'd have to do it.  Not any of the rest of us, you can out fight any of us."

     "I would never - "  She'd been shouting, she took a moment to center herself and continue.  Asuka cringing when she'd shouted had been like a knife in her gut, worse than any insult or injury she'd ever suffered.  "I would never do something like that," she said as softly as her raging emotions permitted.

     "Why?" Asuka asked tiredly, "Because you're a martial artist, because you're a girl?  We already discussed the first, and you're always saying 'I'm a guy.'  What better way to prove it?" she asked, paused long enough for those thoughts to seep into Ranma, "So what guarantees have you really given any of us?"

     "You don't accuse anyone else of that."  Ranma could barely keep her temper in check.

     "Then you haven't paid attention," Asuka said as she laid back, her tone was emotionless, like Rei's, as if she'd given up, she couldn't win so she'd just keep going, "What would Toji or any of the rest of those idiots do if they caught Ranko alone in the shower?"

     Ranma shuddered, she'd overheard the fantasies often enough.  Some of them made her want to go take a bath in boiling water, just to feel clean again.

     "Then why do you trust Raccoon and Kaji?"

     "I don't trust Kaji," Asuka said coldly, some of the old ferocity creeping into her voice.  "Jeff . . . 'Such things aren't done.'  He's convinced that being a Harvard man makes you some kind of plaster saint, so he tries to live up to that.  He'd kill you or torture you, but he'd never be so gauche as to enjoy it or be impolite."

     "How is that better?" Ranma asked.

     "Because if he asks, you answer, and if you are killed, it will be for the greater good.  If you are an innocent, he'll see to your survivors."

     "You talk like . . . he's . . . done - he has hasn't he?  And you watched!?"

     "One life for hundreds, the man volunteered once he understood, and the shot was clean, but he did it.  But that's off the topic."

     Ranma shuddered at that, she'd seen Raccoon in action, that way she didn't need a reminder.  "How does that matter?" Ranma asked quietly.

     "The standards are internal rather than external."  It was more like listening to a record than having a conversation for all the life or emphasis Asuka put into her statements.  Even the teachers weren't this repressed.  "That's character, not honor.  You are always appealing to something outside to control yourself, 'I won't do that because . . . ' follow the trail and it means you won't because you haven't given yourself permission, and you've never given me or anyone else any reasonable assumption you won't give yourself permission."

     One good thing about Asuka, Ranma thought morosely as she sat there, She's always willing to lecture.

     "Then you could drown me in this tub," Asuka continued in the same emotionless tone, "And never worry a bit, because `honor` demanded it."

     Ranma's immediate retort of 'I wouldn't do that!' died in her throat, but Asuka had pointed out aspects that she'd never considered.  He'd been so furious that Sammi would even consider such a thing.  Then Asuka had piled on, in a most horrifying way.  With it all laid out in a way Ranma could grasp instantly, she couldn't deny how all the pieces fit.  They were wrong about him, but his behavior, especially today, had just reinforced their mistaken belief.  Ranma knew she'd rather take a kick in the guts than believe someone was afraid of her.  Shinji's cringing act had driven him crazy, Nab-chan acting the same way had nearly cut out his heart.  A cold-blooded killer got nervous around him.  The Invincible Asuka Soryu Langley, who'd take on anyone and anything . . . was afraid . . . of what he might do.  No matter how unlikely, she thought sullenly.  She sat there, staring at the patterns in the ceiling tiles, trying to make some sense out of it.  The patterns gave no answers and couldn't make her thoughts fall into any pattern or structure, no questions she could ask so she might understand why this had happened, no focusing past the pain she felt.

     She had learned enough to understand the difference that Asuka had pointed out, not that Ranma would do this terrible thing, or even that it's likely, but that he could.  Asuka and the others wanted certainty, or failing that predictability, Ranma gave neither.

     "What am I supposed to say?  To tell you I won't?"

     "There's nothing to say that would do that," Asuka said flatly, "You can't just wish away that you do whatever honor demands.  What the rest of us want or need isn't just treated as unimportant, it's immaterial.  I've told you not to touch me.  But you had orders, so it was okay.  For you.  You even barge in here because you assume you can help, never considering that since you made sure I can barely move, it's the worst thing your can do."

     That Asuka was continuing to tell her all this in a quiet, reasonable tone, hurt worse than if she'd been screaming at her.  "You were hurt!" she said, desperately trying not to shout.

     "I wouldn't care if I was lying there bleeding to death," Asuka said reasonably, "I still wouldn't want you touching me, especially where you did."

     Ranma was disturbed by her lack of vehemence and venom, she hadn't yelled at or insulted her.  She was simply stating her opinions.  She doesn't want to offend me, she suddenly realized.  "That's crazy!" Ranma exclaimed.

     "Fine, ignore it then, go back to doing whatever you want, it's not like I could stop you in any case."  Asuka closed her eyes, and lay there, unmoving.

     Resignation, Ranma thought, I never thought I'd ever see her give up, on anything.  She put the plate where Asuka could reach it and left Asuka's room.

     Guys don't cry, Ranma thought as she felt the tears streaming down her cheeks.  She threw herself on her bed in her room, and sobbed at the indescribable pain she felt.  She desperately wanted Nab-chan or Raccoon here, someone who could explain this, someone who could make it right or understandable.  Someone who could make it hurt less.

God's In His Heaven -

     Sammi stood on the stairway.  She'd called to Ranma as the girl had rushed by.  Either Ranma didn't hear her or didn't want to talk.  Erin came out of Asuka's room.  "She's sleeping, fell asleep in the tub.  So I moved her," Erin told her, sighed and ran her hand through her hair, "She did eat the rest of the banana."  She shook her head in frustration.

     "That's some comfort," Sammi told her fellow guard, she didn't feel like a guard right now, she felt like an accessory.  She found that her ability to see both sides hadn't served her very well.  She knew Ranma was completely trustworthy, she knew how Asuka feared, and that Ranma's goodness would be obvious, even to Asuka.  She hadn't thought things would turn out so badly.  She hadn't counted on Ranma's integrity not being perfectly obvious to the others.

     She didn't know what had gone wrong.  Yes I do, she thought sadly, All the pilots have trouble communicating, with the world, with each other.  I thought I had it all set up perfectly, that it would make everything perfectly clear.  Yeah, clear as a brick wall.  She didn't know how to set things right.  She also knew that she might have permanently damaged Asuka's relationship with Erin, and with Ranma.  She didn't want to even consider how Asuka and Ranma would react to her after this incident.

     "So, what do we do?" Erin asked.

     "We let them sleep.  Maybe we can think of something in the morning," Sammi told her.  She could see her failure, she hoped she could find a way out of this.  With Asuka's, Rei's, Nabiki's and Jeff's minds and memories, I ought to be able to figure out something.

July 22, 1947

     Asuka wasn't in any shape to participate in the morning practice.  Ranma felt like panicking.  She'd always been there, backing him up.  He didn't feel secure enough to press forward, without her presence and help.  It was irritating, but it kept him from getting into more trouble.  His meeting in dreams with the Meliorist hadn't been helpful, informative, but not helpful.

     'Ranma, fears aren't rational,' she'd told him, 'Somebody's fear of small furry creatures who couldn't possibly hurt him/her, for example.'  It put Asuka's reaction in a proper perspective, but the Meliorist couldn't be more helpful.  'I wasn't in Berlin as a 12-year-old like she was.'  It wasn't helpful, but he couldn't get her to explain it more completely.

     He wished he could ask Erin or Sammi about it, but he could see how uncomfortable they were about the subject, and he didn't want to hear about other things, like what Asuka had brought up.  Talking to any of them felt more like walking through a minefield.

     The practice went without any serious problems.  All he did was go over the basics again.  He silently cursed his own cowardice for not advancing everyone, for not introducing some of the new concepts he had in mind.

     But without Asuka, Megorofeld-chan, backing me up . . . worse that she doesn't trust me . . . Ranma considered, he didn't want to complete the thought.  He hated how much that hurt.  It wasn't that she was trying to hurt him, she had been trying to explain her own fear.  Tell me how bad I hurt you with my arrogance and stupidity, he thought, And expect me to deal with it and go on with the lessons.  Great, now she's confident of my abilities, confident I can hurt her or the others at will.  He hated that he had anything to do with it.

     Breakfast was quiet.  Asuka was to remain in bed.  So he brought her breakfast, and while he'd cut everything into small pieces, she'd fed herself.  They didn't talk.  A quiet, complaisant Asuka was like a violation of the natural order, like gravity working backward or something.  He also could see from her expression and movement that it was probably an attempt at an apology, he could only hope she took his actions and silence the same way.

     He did know she wasn't apologizing for what she'd said or done, but that he was hurt by it, and she couldn't fix that either, probably mostly the last.

     As he was leaving Asuka's room, he felt a lot better.  Her 'Thank you', that would have counted as subdued even from Rei, had him feeling like he was walking on a cloud.  He still wished she'd just yell at him, hit him, hurt him in a way he could understand and deal with.  The fact she refused to, that she was frightened to, hurt terribly.

     "You mope anymore," Sammi said as he walked near her, "You'll sink through the floor."

     Okay, Ranma thought angrily, You started this fight.

     "Do you know what happened to Asuka?  Why she's so scared of guys?  Especially me?" he asked, and watched Erin and Sammi squirm.

     "Yes, we know," Sammi said, "We could guess what she'd feel, we - I - guessed wrong.  I'm sorry."

     "Then you ordered me to take . . . to do what she hated even though you knew how she'd react?"  Ranma felt his anger rising.  "So now she hates me, or she's afraid of me, which is worse."

     "She will still work with you," Erin said, her tone implied it sounded lame to her.

     "Is it necessary that everyone like you.  That's normal at your age," Sammi sounded like she was trying to divert him.

     "That makes it all better?" Ranma asked.

     "No, but it is something you would have eventually had to deal with," Sammi told him.

     "Well, thanks.  Thanks for using us to hurt each other.  I always figured Misato or Gendo would do it, but you two idiots beat them to the punch!  Did it ever occur to you that with Asuka trying to teach me to hurt girls, your little scheme would screw up?  Maybe I should tell her I still can't hit girls, or maybe now I can!"  He raised his fist and both women drew back.  Ranma returned to his room and locked the door behind him.

     Rei heard the knock on her door, the Commander had not informed her of any special circumstances, so she ignored it.

     The Fourth entered and called to her, "Hey, Rei, you here?"

     She ignored him, he was coming towards her anyway.

     "Didn't you hear me?" the Fourth came out of the hallway, "I - uh!"  And retreated back down the hallway.  "I didn' see, I didn' mean - I'm sorry - I - I - I didn't know you were naked."

     Rei wasn't amused by either the noise or the franticness.  She saw no reason to wear uncomfortable clothing in the privacy of her own apartment.  She also knew that Nabiki-kun and Shinji-kun had mentioned her preference to the Fourth.

     So he should have expected it, she thought angrily.

     "Can you put some clothes on?" he asked.

     Rei didn't even bother to answer.  He stumbled in, covering his face.  She considered tripping him as he stumbled, but decided against it, it would only prolong his stay.  She stood there, waiting to discover why he was bothering her.

     "I need your help.  Are you dressed yet?"

     "No," she told him, she wanted him to leave, doing anything that accelerated that process would be done.

     "Geez, Rei!  Gimme a break!"

     "No," she told him and wished he'd leave.

     "I need your help," he repeated, uselessly, she'd heard him the first time.  She waited.

     "I talked to Asuka about something, now she's not talking," he said.

     She waited, staring at him with his hands covering his face.  It irritated her that he felt no burden about walking around naked as a female, yet when any other female tried it, he began this irritating behavior.  It was another in the long string of double-standards and hypocrisy that so typified the Fourth's behavior.  The glaring inconsistencies were the most galling part of his entire personality, demanding of others a level of action he never attempted to match.

     She was curious about exactly what he'd done to Mein Grossfeldmarschall, she had her suspicions, but she wasn't going to ask him.

     "You've talked with Admiral Simson about things," he finally continued.

     "Yes."  She saw no reason to deny the truth, or restate what was common knowledge.

     "Well I need to talk to him.  Can you come with?"

     She stared at him.  "I will consider it," she told him.

     "Oh, you need time to think about it, I understand."  He backed towards the door, bumping along the wall towards it.

     I did not say that, Rei fumed at his obtuseness.  At least he was leaving.  "You can see the Admiral yourself," she told him, weighing telling the truth over his continued presence.

     "I want you to go with," he replied.

     She considered simply refusing, but decided to consider his request.  "When I have made it, I will tell you my decision," she told him.  Then he was to the door, and managed to get outside without maiming himself.  She was annoyed by the performance, a MARTIAL ARTIST! who could walk across a wobbling board, yet who couldn't navigate a hallway with his eyes covered was a further example of his foolishness.  Logically you would master walking a hallway before graduating to harder procedures, building one ability on the next.

     She made sure the door was closed before she completed her breakfast preparations.  She would call the Admiral and decide, based on the man's schedule.  She had her own project to work on, assisting the cause of the problem did not compare with repairing the effects.

     Ranma fell in alongside Rei, and she accelerated slightly to stay ahead of him, he sped up to keep up.  She sped up.  So he was at a dead run by the time they arrived at the Admiral's house for dinner.  He was panting with the effort of the sustained sprint.  Rei was staring at him, fresh as a daisy, not even breathing hard.  She simply stood there, not even knocking on the gate, going inside, or calling to the Marines inside.

     She glanced at her watch, then returned her stare to him, as he wondered if he was going to die.

     Rule One, even I can't outrun `Wondergirl`, he thought as he panted, bent over with exhaustion.  His side ached, his legs ached, he'd always considered he was in excellent shape, but Rei had kept just ahead of him, no burst of speed he'd been able to dredge up had let him pass her.

     "What - was - that - about?" he gasped between breaths.

     She answered with a stare.

     "Aren't we going in?"

     "We are early," she replied.

     "Why'd you run so fast then?"

     "I was not running fast," Rei replied.

     "You outran me," he insisted.

     "You aren't fast," she told him.  As she stood there, seemingly immune to the exertion that had nearly done him in, he tended to believe her.  Besides, he thought, I don't have the breath to argue.

     When he recovered, he rang the bell.  A Marine, who'd been standing there watching everything, opened the door.  Ranma could tell how badly the man wanted to smirk or smile, but his neutral expression might as well have been carved in stone.  Rei kept staring at Ranma.

     "Ladies first," Ranma said, remembering that much of the lectures about manners.

     "Danke schon," Rei thanked him, in German.  Ranma couldn't remember the correct reply.

     Rei walked through, Ranma followed.  He wondered how many of the other Marines had listened to, and understood, the entire exchange between them.  Rei paused at the front door another steward was holding open.  She removed her shoes and set them outside as she stepped inside, Ranma hastily did the same.  There were no slippers for guests.  An older woman, with gray hair, walked into the entryway.  She said something he didn't understand.  She realized he was confused, she pointed at her feet, she was wearing shoes.  Rei turned and recovered her shoes, and his, handing them to him as she put hers on.

     "Her Japanese is poor," Rei told him.

     He nodded, then followed the hostess into the dining room.  The smells were food-like, but very alien to what he was used to.  The Admiral was at the dinner table, waiting for them.  The woman said something to Rei, who bowed and thanked her.  Stewards seated both pilots.  The first course was salad, he'd never eaten a bowl full of raw sliced vegetables on a bed of lettuce, but he recognized what it was.  He remembered the lessons, glancing at Admiral Simson and mimicking his method of eating.  The bread and the main course, noodles with a sauce that looked like clotted blood.  It almost smelled the same.  Ranma couldn't remember having eaten anything like that.

     Rei got a separate dish of stuff, it smelled very different and Rei ladled it onto the noodles with relish, well, relish for her.

     "Spaghetti," Simson said.

     "Linguine," the lady replied.

     "I can't pronounce either of them," Ranma admitted.

     "Tomato paste and spices, Miss Ayanami's has no meat, ours does," the Admiral said, "My wife, Susan, practically had to put the cook under arrest to get into the kitchen."

     Rei and Susan were chatting, it sounded like English and German.  Rei was as shy as always, but Susan had a talent for drawing her out.  Ranma heard Susan mentions Shinji several times, each time, Rei blushed slightly.

     "I . . . well, Asuka told me not to touch her, but she was really hurting and Sammi ordered it so I - " Ranma blurted out.  "You already know all this, don't you?"

     Rei reached under the table with her foot and tapped his ankle.  "Tell them anyway.  Opinions and emphasis."  She turned to Susan and said something.  "He learns best through contact and repetition, non-verbal communication," she translated for him.

     Ranma frowned then explained the most important part.  "Asuka told me not to touch her, then I was ordered to because the cramps paralyzed her," he said, stared at his hands in his lap, "She told me she'd rather bleed to death than trust me to touch her again."  He then described what he knew about Asuka's injuries.  Rei seemed to be giving Susan a running translation.  Susan and Admiral Simson listened silently, nodding occasionally to encourage him to continue.  The food was forgotten.

     As Ranma finished.  "I read her biography, today.  I didn't understand a lot of it, but none of it explains what happened, why she reacted like that."

     Susan and the Admiral discussed the subject, in English, from Rei's expression, she couldn't understand.  He'd heard Asuka and Raccoon talk that way, it was practically a private code.

     "Asuka had a very bad experience in Berlin, while she and Anna were dodging the Red Army.  It would probably have been better if you had refused the order and instead called a doctor to deal with the problem, especially after she told you specifically, twice."

     "I realize that," Ranma said, "Now."  He glanced around, noted Rei translating again.  "I thought it would be all right . . . how do I fix it?"

     Admiral Simson glanced at his wife, she told Rei something.  "You can't, you betrayed her confidence . . . trust.  Like many others have, she's never forgiven them for that.  Not even her father."

     Susan said something else.  Rei translated, "You will have to live with it."

     "But I didn't do anything wrong!" Ranma protested.

     "You followed orders," Simson told him, "That's not the same as not doing wrong.  You decided to avoid displeasing Miss Kraznyzamok, and ignoring what Miss Langley specifically told you.  You did what you `knew` was right, rather than acceding to Miss Langley's wishes.  You didn't trust her, now she doesn't trust you.  Now you're going to have to live with the consequences of that decision."

     Ranma was going to say something, but he noticed Susan was talking, Rei listening.

     Rei began translating, "A woman, which you sometimes turn into, can be very fearsome . .  fearful of being attacked . . . violated that way.  Only trust of a man prevents that fear of him.  You ignored her request.  Why should she take your word that you would go no further?"

     "On my own," Rei added, "There was no reason beside yourself to take the action you took."

     "What was I supposed to do?"

     "Let her suffer," Rei said.

     "And just leave her in that state?" Ranma protested.

     "Allow her to either change her mind, or recover on her own," Rei told him sharply.

     "Miss Ayanami is correct," Admiral Simson said, "You `proved` you don't respect her, and you'll do as you wish.  That's a terrible thing for someone like Miss Langley, who has never had much control over her life."

     "Except among the other pilots.  Now that is lost," Rei added while she translated for Susan.

     "True," Admiral Simson agreed, "It's a situation where you couldn't have pleased everyone.  You had to choose, I'd suggest you chose badly.  In the future, consider who is going to be guarding your back in combat, and think about keeping these people happy.  You can't fix it, but you can decide not to make the same mistake in the future.  You need to consider the consequences of actions before you take them, and consider which consequences you can live with."

     "So she's afraid of what I will never do."

     "What you could do," came through Rei from Susan, "Have you ever been so frightened you cannot . . . could not - think correctly, even afterwards?"

     "I told her yes," Rei added.

     Ranma frowned at that, picked at the food which had grown cold while they talked.  "So there's no way to reassure her I wouldn't . . . "  He couldn't use the word, but the others seemed to understand.

     "There is a great difference between certainty about an impossibility, and fearing a rare inevitability," Rei said.

     "Like getting struck by lightning.  You don't live your life in fear of it, but you don't stand out in an open field with a lightning rod in a thunderstorm," Admiral Simson `translated` Rei's statement, "Ranma, you have to understand, every single one of the pilots can do things no ordinary person can do.  The only guarantee the rest of us have is your word.  Do you believe you could stop either Miss Ayanami or Mister Davis if they got orders to kill you?"

     "Not a chance," Ranma admitted.

     "So why wouldn't they?" Susan asked through Rei.

     Ranma glanced around.  "I don't know, I think they wouldn't," he admitted.

     "So you act to make sure they don't get those orders," Admiral Simson said.

     "I haven't thought about it," Ranma admitted.

     "Asuka did consider, asked you not to," Susan added, "You are going to have to consider things like that.  That people who look at you in awe may also be afraid of you.  Most people have to plan for what people can do, not what they're likely to do.  You can't assume just because you think the enemy doesn't have a submarine in the area.  You can't proceed as if it is a certainty."  The Admiral frowned at her example.

     "I don't like it," Ranma said.

     "Like it, no, live with it, yes," Admiral Simson said.

All's Right With The World

     Asuka lay in her bed, she was getting tired of resting.  She heard the door to her room open and close.  She glanced over and saw Wondergirl standing there.  Asuka turned her back on the other girl.  Wondergirl ignored the clue and sat on the bed next to her.


     Asuka ignored Wondergirl touching her.


     Asuka ignored her.


     Wondergirl water torture, Asuka thought.


     One-thousand, she silently counted, Two-thousand, three-thousand, four-thousand, five-thou -


     Asuka restarted her count, One-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand, four-thousand, five-thou -


     One-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand, four-thousand, five-thou -


     "Would you cut that out!" Asuka told her.


     Asuka tried to ignore Wondergirl.


     "EEE-NOUGH!" Asuka shouted as she jumped out of bed at Wondergirl.  Unfortunately, Wondergirl caught her around the waist and began spinning around.  Asuka watched her room whirl around her as Wondergirl held her tightly around the waist, singing a song.  Even her growing nausea and dizziness couldn't dim the beauty of the strain Wondergirl sang as she spun.

     Asuka couldn't believe Wondergirl could maintain the speed she was managing, without getting too dizzy to stand or hitting anything as Asuka's limbs were drawn straight out.  Once Asuka was too dizzy to move or complain, Wondergirl slung her head-first under the covers.  Asuka couldn't figure out how she avoided crashing into the foot of the bed, or getting severe rug burns from the sheets.  Asuka lay there, wondering how darkness still managed to spin.  She thought she could hear the little swirlies in her tightly closed eyes.  Wondergirl sat on the bed next to her.


     Asuka kept her head on the mattress, unwilling to raise her head and enhance her vertigo.

     "Same gap, what are you?" Asuka managed.


     "An escapement?" Asuka completed her question.


     Ignore.  Ignore.  Ignore.


     Ignore.  Ignore.  Ignore.


     "ARRUUGH!" Asuka shouted as she jumped up to attack, not bothering to disentangle herself from her bedding first.  She managed to uncover her head as she crashed into Wondergirl and went crashing down on top of her.  She found her lips pressed tightly against Wondergirl's.

     "Oh ick!" Wondergirl said in a monotone as she pushed Asuka away, "Sour Kraut germs."  She marched straight into the bathroom as Asuka picked herself up off the floor.  "Bleech!" she heard from her bathroom.

     I kissed Wondergirl, eewwww! Asuka thought.

     "No Sulfuric Acid!" Wondergirl called from the bathroom, "Hydrogen peroxide must suffice."

     Asuka threw off the covers tangled around her and marched into the bathroom where Wondergirl was gargling.

     "What are you doing?" Asuka demanded.

     "Step 7, subsection 3," Wondergirl told her, after she spit out the water she'd been gargling with.  She fished a notebook from her skirt pocket.  She scanned it and showed it to Asuka, flipping through the plan.  Over a dozen of the pages were covered with Wondergirl's precise Kanji.  Asuka might as well have been looking at Egyptian hieroglyphics.

     "That doesn't tell me anything."

     Wondergirl replaced the book in her skirt pocket.  "You are more effective when you are angry."

     "So you threw together a plan to make me angry?"

     "It required all night and day, and extensive research."

     "Is it working?" Asuka asked sweetly, smiling so widely her cheeks hurt.

     Wondergirl stared at her, considering her question.  She pulled the notebook out, consulted a particular page and ran a finger down the page.  All the while Asuka's cheeks went from smarting to stinging to real pain.

     Then Wondergirl dropped to the ground hugging Asuka's knees.  "Whip me, beat me, make me invade Moscow in winter."

     "GET AWAY FROM ME!" Asuka shouted as she pulled away.

     Wondergirl let her go, as she stood she let out a sniff.  "My liebling hates me, I'm sohappy," Rei continued to deliver such lines in her typical bland tone.

     Asuka made an inarticulate snarl and returned to her bedroom, throwing herself down on her bed in disgust.

     Wondergirl wandered in a moment later, picked the bedding off the floor and dropped it over Asuka.

     "Poke me again, I'll break that finger off and feed it to you!" Asuka threatened.

     "I dislike meat," Wondergirl reminded her.  Once Asuka had snarled again, Rei added, "I also have seven others," Wondergirl said as she sat next to her on the bed.

     No poke and no comments came.  "Oh no, the silent treatment!" Asuka exclaimed in mock-horror, "I'm so scared."

     Wondergirl stared at her.

     And stared at her.

     And stared at her.

     And stared at her.

     "Why don't you go pester Spineless or Horseface?" she asked as she turned her back on Wondergirl, who got up and walked to the other side of the bed to face her as she sat down, and stared at her.

     And stared at her, and stared at her.

     Asuka rolled over and Wondergirl got up to move, Asuka rolled back, Wondergirl reversed course.  Asuka turned, Wondergirl changed course.

     Asuka flipped back and forth, with Wondergirl seemingly content to keep up the game until doomsday.  Asuka settled for lying face down with her head buried in the discarded covers.  Wondergirl sat besides her, saying nothing.

     Asuka sighed, a stone couldn't outwait Wondergirl, she knew she certainly couldn't.  "What do you want?" Asuka asked in resignation.

     "For you to be angry, so you can again be happy."

     Asuka sat up and was about to launch on the girl about how stupid that was, suddenly she just didn't have the energy.  She flopped back down, staring at the wall opposite the foot of her bed, not really focusing on anything.  "That isn't it.  Did Horseface tell you what happened?"

     "Yes, I read the reports of Anna Alice about the escape from Berlin, and your subsequent rescue.  I also discussed the problem with Susan Simson, the wife of Admiral Simson."

     "And what conclusion did you come up with, besides making me angry to make me happy?"

     "That upon being sufficiently aggravated, you will tell yourself the solution," Wondergirl told Asuka, "You have called me aggravating, and Roku-kun when he tells jokes.  I had hoped the combination would prove more rapidly effective.  Knock.  Knock."

     Asuka floundered at that, she'd forgotten what a keen observer Wondergirl was.  But she tended to put ideas together in a very skewed manner.

     "Who's there?"

     "Knock.  Knock."

     "Wondergirl that's not how it works, you - "

     "I'm deaf," Wondergirl interrupted, "Are you aggravated enough?"

     Asuka considered hitting the girl, but worried what response Wondergirl's script would call for.  Probably getting naked and doing something extremely embarrassing with or without Asuka.  "Anyway.  What do you think is the problem?"

     "You expect the Fourth to rape you if ordered to."

     Hearing it stated that plainly shocked Asuka for a moment.  She nodded.  "That's the crux of it.  You might be able to stop him with your AT field.  What am I supposed to do?"

     "WE," it sounded strange Wondergirl strongly emphasizing any word.  "Cease trying to convince him that this - " Wondergirl drew her Scholfield.  "Is an effective weapon.  You will keep yours with you at all times."

     "You're saying be ready to shoot him at all times?  What about comrades in battle and all that?"

     "Would you survive his attack?"

     Asuka shuddered, drew her legs against her chest.  She remembered the roof in Berlin, and then how helpless she felt on the roof a day or two ago.  "I'd rather not."  Even destroying their enemies didn't make her feel as unclean as the thought of that happening to her.  She could beg and plead, and she knew it wouldn't do any good, she already had seen it wouldn't.

     "Then treat it that way," Wondergirl said clearly.

     "That's pretty harsh, even for you, Wondergirl," Asuka told her.

     Wondergirl got up and walked into Asuka's line of sight.  "Is your life valuable to you?"

     "Of course."

     "Then it is your responsibility to defend it."

     "Because we're all necessary for Gendo?" Asuka asked disgustedly.

     "You are necessary for the Commander's plan," Wondergirl told her, paused, considered, "You are valuable to the other pilots, even the Fourth."

     "So I should forgive and forget?" Asuka asked sourly, "Is that it?"

     "No.  But allow him to learn," Wondergirl told her, "Perhaps it was foolishness."

     "I'd figure you would be calling for vengeance."

     "Romans 12: 20," Wondergirl said as she turned away and stood.  She collected a bible off of one of Asuka's bookshelves.  She opened it to the correct page as she returned, holding the book open to allow Asuka to read the passage.

     " 'If your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is thirsty give him drink, for by doing this, you will heap burning coals upon his head.'  Bury him in burning coals, eh?" Asuka asked Wondergirl, who nodded once.

     "My fee," Wondergirl said.

     "What's that?" Asuka asked.

     "Recompense," Wondergirl said as she sat next to Asuka.

     Asuka sat up to face her.  "I know what a fee is, Wondergirl.  You're charging me for your advice?"

     "Was the advice worth a critique?" Wondergirl asked.

     Asuka parsed the sentence.  "Constructive criticism, that's what you want as payment?"  Asuka waited for Wondergirl to nod once.  "On what?"

     Wondergirl gathered Asuka into her arms.  Asuka froze a for moment, then relaxed as Wondergirl laid her chin on Asuka's shoulder and began stroking her back gently.

     "Is this appropriate for comforting both males and females?"

     "For Spineless."  Asuka put her arms around Wondergirl's shoulders.  "If he does something like this, yes, it's fine."

     Ranma stared at the ceiling, trying to figure out what to do, trying to figure out what if anything to say.  He'd done what he thought best and right, and everybodytold him it was wrong.  Even he saw how it was a mistake, one he'd never make again.

     He'd seen Rei come in.  He'd half-expected her to chop him into bitty pieces, but she'd just given him the sickest, most exaggerated smile he'd ever seen from anybodyCreepy, he thought that didn't even cover it,Unearthly, monstrous, yeah, evil.  He'd retreated back into his room, and wondered if Raccoon left a shielding spell on the place, one that could stop Rei-the-Mad.  Now he was thinking, planning, and not really getting anywhere.  His first instinct was to apologize, but the lessons 'Say Nothing' kept ringing in his head.  It was more than that he did the wrong thing, he just failed to do the least wrong thing.  It was the idea that Erin and Sammi had ordered him that really bothered him.  They should have known better, shouldn't they? he asked himself, Were they trying to get me to start questioning orders?  Or did they make a mistake, one that I'm caught up in?  He also remembered what the Scholarly Dragon had told him, that there was one of their enemies who would grant one request as payment for 'getting out' of the war.

     Ranma was wondering if the offer could be trusted, the Dragon seemed to think so.  And if so, Ranma thought, What would I have to do to live up to my end?  Would what I wished for even work?  If I wished it never happened it might mean Asuka got killed in Berlin or that she'd died on the rooftop yesterday.  Or I could wish that she wouldn't be mad at me, and she would stay in that near-corpse state like when I touched her.  None of those sound very good.  He couldn't figure out even if he did wish, how could he word it, and could the `god` be trusted, and could the `god` understand how to do what he asked?  Also, if he only had one, did he use it here, or hold onto it?  It was unfair that it was all so confusing.

     If it was a fight, he'd know what to do, but he hadn't had any choice, they'd ordered him.  Worse, he'd seen the need, and had agreed with the directive, basically.

     I'm supposed to follow orders, he thought glumly, Then Admiral Simson said I'm only supposed to follow lawful orders.  But those were lawful orders, weren't they?

     He rolled off the bed and into a handstand.  It was crazy, he told his body what to do and it did it, he didn't worry about what it might do.  But that's what Asuka was afraid of, what I might do.  To her, he thought.  He hadn't done what she was accusing him of with Nab-chan; Raccoon hadn't ever tried it with Ranko, but both seemed unconcerned.  He wasn't afraid Raccoon would force Ranko to . . . So why is she so nervous about me?  Not Shinji and not Raccoon, it's not fair, he thought, It doesn't make sense. He stared at the walls as he held his handstand.  Neither the room nor the universe gave him any answers.

     Damned impolite, he thought as he changed to one hand.

Chapter 46 - Disenthralled From Inadequate Dogmas

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 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.

     Ranma begins teaching the others the insult techniques that are part of his art.  He also senses Asuka growing injuries, cause by ignoring her own limitations and trying to keep up with him.  He disobeys her demand, and heals her injuries.  She accuses him of using his Code of Honor to justify any action he cares to take.  Ranma attempts to discover a way make things right, while Rei tests methods of returning Asuka to normal.

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.  We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves.  No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us.  The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.

Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress -- Concluding Remarks December 1, 1862

July 24, 1947

The Truth Can STAY Out There

     Asuka was angry.  More than that, she was furious.  Lying in bed being angry, especially this angry, was better than lying here with the helpless crawling feeling she'd had the last couple of days.

     It was why she felt angry that really infuriated her, and that Wondergirl would heartily approve of her being this angry.  Being angry felt better, felt right.  It gave her the clarity to see how messed up and stupid the world was, and still have the energy to go and fix it, instead of lying down in despair and giving up.  That Wondergirl had figured that all out, without a Ouija board and a set of stone tablets from Mt. Sinai, and that Asuka hadn't, frustrated her no end.  And being frustrated made her mad, which fit into Wondergirl's plan, which made Asuka even more angry, which enhanced Wondergirl's plan even more . . . and so on and on and on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

     I don't mind being out-thought, and being manipulated by an expert just rankles a little, Asuka admitted, that part didn't hurt, she knew the next would, But that WONDERGIRL of all people managed both in one fell swoop!  Asuka screamed about the intolerable state of the universe into her pillow.  She knew she should have been shouting it from the rafters.  All that restrained her was that was exactly what Wondergirl wanted, that was exactly what her carefully crafted plan called for.

     Asuka raised herself off the bed and screamed.  "AUUUUGGGH!"  Then she pummeled her pillow into submission and buried her face in it again.

     Outsmarted by Wondergirl, she lamented silently, My life is over!  "Just kill me now, Lord!" she shouted at the ceiling in German.

     "Hello Asuka," Spineless said as he entered her room, without knocking.  "Rei-san said you were feeling better and that I - "  He took on a Wondergirl-like pose.  " 'Thanks to your revelation, she is recovering.  You should go, see, and talk with her, to verify this.'  I can hear you're feeling much better."

     Asuka glared at him, but she didn't have the strength to back it up.  "You figured all this out?" she asked anemically.

     "Well part of it," Spineless admitted, as he shifted on his feet and chuckled nervously.

     Asuka stared at the ceiling again, shook her fist at it.  "Couldn't you have come up with a faster way than this?!"

     Spineless outsmarted me, Asuka thought as she flopped down, The way my luck is running, if I threw myself off the building, I'd catch my collar, or probably my skirt, on a flagpole and just hang there for hours.  Giving the perverts a free show.

     "That was German," Spineless said, "I've heard you've been helping Ranma with his German.  Rei-san suggested you could help me with mine.  She taught me to count to ten: eine, zwei, dritter, vier, fÜnfzig, sechs, elf, schnitzel, lyoner, ärgerlich," he said proudly.

     Asuka had winced at the mispronunciations and each wrong word, every one like a spike being driven into her brain through her ears.  She wondered if the wrong words had been Wondergirl's idea, or an innovation Spineless had come up with on his own.  I really don't want to know, she thought.  "Don't ever speak that to me again.  I don't know what that was, but it wasn't German!"

     Spineless stood there smiling, bathed in the light of her best glare, seemingly immune.

     Maybe he stole some of Little Miss Happy's pills, Asuka silently grumped as she rolled off the bed, stood up and closed the range.  She was delighted when his smile faltered as she approached.  Spineless was sweating a bit now from the effort of holding the smile.  She closed to within a few centimeters, switched from a glare to a bright, happy smile, just like the one Spineless had been wearing.  Spineless was really sweating now, the ends of the smile twitching, his eyes darting occasionally to either door in the room.

     As if escape to the outside or locking yourself in the bathroom would help, Asuka thought.  "HA!"  Asuka smiled as Spineless jumped.  He hastily recomposed himself, but Asuka had seen the truth.

     "Maybe with Yumiwashi, we could get together and play some chamber music," Spineless suggested with a nervous laugh, "We'd have the three violins and my cello."

     Asuka brightened at that.  "That's not a bad idea, except I'm grounded.  Remember?"

     "Well, Rei-san did suggest I remind you that you haven't been practicing lately," Spineless told her as he edged towards the door, "Now you can take all the time you need to practice."

     He dashed out the door before Asuka could retort.  She stood there fuming, silently screaming her frustration at being outmaneuvered by Spineless, working to Wondergirl's plan.  She threw up her hands in frustration.  "The world is coming to an end."

     Spineless stuck his head inside again.  "I'm glad you're feeling better, back to normal," Spineless said, "Well, almost."  He got his head clear and the door closed before Asuka could throw something at him.  "Some room for improvement."  He called through the door.

     Now Wondergirl is insulting me by remote control, she thought, shook her head, I've really got to pull myself together.  Wondergirl arranged all of this.  I'd have a hard time arranging all of this.

     "I can't believe she played, is playing - me!" Asuka shouted, then realized her anger was all part of Wondergirl's plan, which frustrated her all the more, which . . . 

     Rei knew this was 'bearding the lion in its den', but with Shinji-kun and Tomiyo-san waiting for her in the jeep, she felt confident.  Besides, she wasn't here to see them, Megumi was her target.  The girl got off work and came here at this time.

     As Rei walked through the gates of the temple, she saw the crews.  Navy CB's and Army Engineers were filling the hole, the footprint, with cement.  She still didn't understand how it had happened.  Without any tread on the bottom, it couldn't have been on EVA's footprint, and only she could generate an AT field outside of an EVA powerful enough to create such an artifact.

     Perhaps those who summoned our foes also created that, she thought, she knew that the pressure to compact the dirt, rock and macadam driveway exceeded the ground pressure of an EVA, or several.

     Rei didn't see any of the nonhumans, and she could hear the activity in the shed some distance away from the main house.  That was where she headed.  Inside, Megumi and her brother Keiichi were hard at work.  The bicycle frames were there, in pieces.  The elements of the drive train were no where in evidence.

     "You have a problem," she told them from the doorway.

     Both of them jumped, along with the youngest of the trio, who had been concealed by the door.

     "What are you doing here?" she asked in horror.

     Rei paused to look across the courtyard at the footprint, then she spoke, "Checking your progress."  It was the truth and it also made them slightly nervous.  "The footprint could not have been made by an EVA.  There were no tread marks.  Perhaps I grew to immense size and stepped down."  She raised her shoe to show she was wearing flats without tread or even the slightest heel.  Then she showed her teeth, a poor parody of a smile, but enough to tell the two humans that she was joking.

     The other one was not willing to leave it at that, as Rei had intended.  The Fourth's techniques seemed ludicrously effective, "You did it?!" she shouted.

     Rei silently stared at her, a tactic that had infuriated Mein Grossfeldmarschall.  She suspected it would also work here.  "There is a problem," Rei repeated herself.

     "Yes," Megumi answered, "We need some welding supplies."

     "I told you I can take care of it!" the young one protested.

     Rei covered her mouth, said and did nothing.  If what the Fourth and Mein Grossfeldmarschall had taught was correct, this should automatically be interpreted as an insult.

     "You don't think - " she shouted, then quieted down, "You don't think I can do it."

     "I said nothing," Rei said truthfully as she dropped her hand.  Amazing, Rei considered, she was shocked at the effectiveness of the techniques, and the rapidity of the effect.  She turned to Megumi.  "I require your assistance."

     "What can I do?"

     "Follow," Rei told her.

     The little one raced around, blocking the way.  "What do you think you are?  Coming in here?!"

     "A monster, an aberration, an offense to Man and God," Rei said, the insults she expected would be thrown at her, another of the odd techniques, this one Tomiyo-san had pioneered.

     The little one glared with impotent rage.  Tomiyo-san had explained, taking the weapon away was often as disruptive as laughing, as an effective attack.

     "I'm sure she wouldn't say those things," Megumi told her.  Her gestures seemed an attempt to placate them.

     Rei needed no placating.  "We must go," Rei said as she stepped around the little one.  Megumi followed her to the jeep.  "Please tell Shinji-kun what supplies you require," Rei told her, as she helped Megumi aboard.  Rei was glad that Shinji-kun had survived his confrontation with Mein Grossfeldmarschall, not just that neither had hurt the other, nor that her plan seemed to be sound, and working.  But that Shinji-kun had gained confidence in himself.

     Tomiyo started the jeep and headed out.

     Megumi followed Ayanami-san from the jeep to the apartment building, it seemed almost like magic.  The pilots could get almost anything it seemed.  The price was to sacrifice their lives, their sanity, for the world.  It was not an exchange Megumi would have been comfortable with.  She wanted a home, a husband and kids.  The pilots gave up any real chance of that, so everybody else got that chance.  Could I have made that decision? she wondered as she headed up the stairs after Ayanami-san, If I was in their place?  She considered herself brave, but not that brave.  "I'm sure that she didn't mean those things."

     "She objects to my relationship with Ikari Shinji."

     "Oh . . . " Megumi couldn't think of anything else to say.  They were both such sweet kids, more like K-1 and Bell than anyone else Megumi had ever met.

     "I was raised by his father and his mother."

     "So, you aren't really related."

     "Not by blood," Ayanami-san told her as they walked up the stairs.

     It makes sense that some people would make the wrong assumptions, Megumi thought, But Bell never seems to be one of those.  She always seems to think the best of everybody.

     "I'm sure if you explained it . . . "

     "Her relationship with your brother has no problems?"  The flat way Ayanami-san said it, made it sound so hopeless.

     "Uh," Megumi said as they reached the corridor.  Megumi concentrated on what Ayanami-san had told her about Asuka-san.  That she needed a friend, an engineer who was also a woman.  Megumi could only speculate, and she was also a little intimidated. If the stories floating around the University are correct, Megumi thought, Asuka Soryu Langley had designed the sonic glaives the EVAs use.  That's some engineering well beyond my work with K-1.  She had no idea what she could offer the girl, and Ayanami-san was not the most communicative person.  She spoke too precisely and concisely to really call it conversation.  Each word selected for maximum effect and precision.

     She reminds me of K-1, both try to do right, Megumi thought, And it tears them up when they can't.  She realized she was guessing about the pilot, but it seemed to fit.  "I suspect you expect me to fix something you can't"

     "No," Ayanami-san said, "I could fix this."  She stopped walking, looked at the floor, then over the balcony edge.  "I could not fix it as well or easily."

     "What really happened?" Megumi asked, after a few moments of Ayanami-san's explanation, Megumi wished she'd never asked.  "I .  . doubt that's all of it."

     "You are correct.  There are still secrets," Ayanami-san told her.

     Megumi gulped.  "What do you expect me to do?"

     "Who you are is sufficient," Ayanami-san assured her, and began walking again.

     I wonder if Bell knows how much I hate when she does that, Megumi thought of the 'I have faith in you' attitude, It always seems like a dodge to my question, no matter how good it makes me feel.

     The scream that sounded out, changed the girl instantly.  Ayanami-san rocketed forward to the door.  Megumi remembered how stout that door was.  As the petite, frail-looking girl lowered her shoulder, Megumi's shouted warning to Ayanami-san died as the petite pilot smashed through the heavy door as if it were tissue paper.  Megumi ran after her.

     Now the scream became understandable as 'I can't change!'  Repeated over and over with greater desperation.  Megumi ran to the destroyed door.  Inside she saw Ayanami-san, pistol at her side, and another girl, a redhead about as tall as Ayanami-san.

     The redhead was naked, only a few soap suds adorned her, and they did nothing to protect her modesty.

     On impulse, Megumi checked the door.  It was locked and bolted, but Ayanami-san had torn it and the door jam loose when she'd hit it.  Megumi wondered how strong the small girl really was.  If it had been unlocked . . . that would have been embarrassing, Megumi thought as she stepped into the room the redhead was racing around in.

     "I can't change!" the redhead shrieked in terror.

     Asuka-san poked her head out of her room and turned distinctly green when she saw Megumi.  Asuka-san rushed to the other redhead, then Megumi realized the little one was Ranko Saotome.  She does look a lot like her brother, Megumi thought as she wondered what to do.  I can imagine how much some of the guys at the University would pay to be in my place right now, she thought, while she sincerely wished to be elsewhere.

     Ayanami-san had taken off her own shirt and was trying to put it over the girl who was still racing from one place to another, crying all the while about not being able to change.

     Suddenly, Saotome-san made a break for the stairs.

     "STOP HER!" Asuka-san shouted as she took after the girl climbing the stairs.  Ayanami-san again moved so fast Megumi wondered if she was hallucinating after a long night shift, but even Ayanami-san could barely restrain the girl.  Asuka-san closed in on the pair at the top of the stairs, with Megumi barely a step behind her.

     Samantha-san had caught Ranko-san, while Ayanami-san dashed away to the kitchen.  Impossibly, the huge woman couldn't seem to keep a decent grip on the petite redhead.  As Ranko-san squirmed free, Asuka-san hit her with a flying tackle, Carter-san joined the one-sided wrestling match.  Megumi grabbed a leg and held on for dear life.  It was like holding onto a grease-covered snake, powered by a locomotive.

     Nothing could be that strong, Megumi thought as she got another grip she knew she couldn't hold, Or that slippery!  As Ranko-san squirmed free again, Megumi glanced at Ayanami-san in the kitchen, in front of the stove after dumping out the tea kettle.  The blue-haired girl looked like she expected to face the entire Leyte invasion force single-handed, and wasn't planning to lose.  Megumi dove back in the pile and grabbed whichever limb presented itself first.

     Ranko-san finally quit struggling, dissolving in sobs instead.  Thank the kamis, Megumi thought, I don't think more than two of us had a decent grip at any one time.  Megumi checked herself over, she thought she should have been one big bruise from head to toe, but for all the girl's frantic movement, she hadn't actually hit any of them.

     Asuka-san helped Megumi to her feet.  She looked utterly exhausted by the battle.  Megumi guessed she looked the same.

     "I was supposed to help you," Megumi said.

     Asuka-san glared at Ayanami-san, then smiled tiredly at Megumi.  "You did, thank you," Asuka-san said as Megumi helped her to a dining room chair.  Megumi hadn't been as `engaged` as Asuka-san had.

     Ayanami-san walked out of the kitchen and glanced at Ranko-san, who still crying and being held by the two older women.  Neither Samantha-san nor Carter-san seemed likely to be releasing the small redhead they held any time soon.  Ayanami-san continued to the dining room, buttoning her shirt as she approached, then sat down across from Megumi and Asuka-san.

     "I don't suppose you want to tell me what's happening."  Megumi looked from one pilot to the other, and laughed nervously.

     Asuka-san was about to tell her something.  Probably about security or keeping quiet, Megumi thought, when Ayanami-san spoke up.

     "Have you ever seen Pilots Saotome Ranma and Saotome Ranko together?" she asked.

     Megumi hadn't, in fact she'd only heard of them being together once.  "Only that publicity still from the Coral Sea."

     "They are standing far apart, with Pilots Tendo and Davis near them, correct?" Ayanami-san asked.

     That was the one Megumi had seen, she nodded.  She glanced at Asuka-san who had clammed up completely, after muttering 'Wondergirl'.

     "Can you guess what that means?" Ayanami-san asked quietly, then stared at her until she came up with an answer.

     Megumi didn't make her wait long, and it all made perfect sense now.  "They're both telepaths!  That's why both of them are the Fourth Children, you don't see them together.  What one sees, the other sees, what one knows the other knows.  So when Ranko was bathing, she suddenly thought she was Ranma and . . . had her episode," Megumi said and saw the matching stoic expressions on Asuka-san and Ayanami-san, "Pilots Davis and Tendo can block it out, but they're both off on a mission," Megumi added. It all makes sense, Megumi thought, No wonder they had to leave the ball game.  Ranma-san must have had a similar episode when he caught that ball.  They must be able to draw on each other's energies.  That's how they can both do such amazing things.  Megumi glanced at the two silent pilots, virtually mirror images of each others coloring, but exact duplication of their expressions. I wonder who else knows? Megumi considered.

     Asuka-san opened her mouth, shut it again, glared at Ayanami-san.

     "They are not telepaths," Ayanami-san said levelly, "I can neither confirm nor deny the rest of your speculation."

     Asuka-san looked like she was about to have an attack of apoplexy.

     "I know, I can't tell anybody," she assured them, "You'd probably shoot me and anyone I told," she said, tried to laugh to lighten the mood, it didn't work.  She didn't want to lose her link to the pilots.  That they were rich and didn't mind sharing was a tiny part of it.  They were all genuinely nice kids, as odd as they all were, she liked being around them.  As much as they argued they seemed like a family.  Also Megumi had seen more than enough of the Angels, anything she could do to help the `war effort` she do welcome eagerly.

     "Poison is preferred," Ayanami-san said, "Quieter, harder to trace.  Others might torture you for what you believe you know."

     "I understand," Megumi said.  She glanced at Ranko-san.  "Poor thing," she said with real sympathy, "I dreamt I was a car once, the dream seemed so real."  She frowned at the memory.  "I must have cried out in my sleep, because my brother, or maybe Skuld, made tire tracks in the tea room.  That wasn't the least bit funny.  Has this happened before?"

     "It isn't happening now," Asuka-san warned, friendly-like, with all the teeth of NERV and the U.S. military lurking behind it.

     Megumi nodded, she got the message loud and clear.  "Well, you're partially recovered," Megumi joked, "Ayanami-san suggested that you might need to talk to someone."

     "Really?" Asuka-san asked, stared at Ayanami-san the way Skuld sometimes stared at Urd.  Megumi could practically see the lightning bolts passing between them as Ayanami-san stared back.

     Yep, Megumi thought, Just like sisters.

     "What page and section is that from?" Asuka-san asked, smiling all the while.

     Smiles like that, Megumi thought, Should come with evacuation routes attached.

     "It was a synthesis from several sections and subsections, specifically the bicycles," Ayanami-san replied smoothly, then considered, "You should thank me properly, would you prefer a cleaver, or a baseball bat?"

     "I think I'll feed you some of Misato's sushi," Asuka-san said sweetly.  Megumi started edging her chair back out of the away.

     "I dislike meat," Ayanami-san replied.  Then she clasped her hands together and placed them against her cheek.  "She is so cute when she's angry," she said in her unexcited voice.  Megumi wondered when the explosion was coming, diving out the window was becoming an attractive option.

     "Believe me," Asuka-san continued in a thoroughly disgusted tone, "After she gets through with it, it isn't meat, or fish.  It's charcoal."

     "Uh . . . Asuka-san," Megumi said carefully, she didn't want to set off either girl, "Sushi is served raw."

     "Yes," Asuka-san said calmly, "I know."

     "oh," Megumi said in a small voice, adding that to the list of things she really didn't want to know.  She noticed the byplay had calmed Ranko-san down, and that Samantha-san had left to get Ranko-san a shirt or something to cover up.  Carter-san remained close and on guard.

     "She is having welding problems," Ayanami-san reminded her as she left the table.

     "Oh, welding's easy," Asuka-san said with real enthusiasm, as Ayanami-san returned with paper and several pencils.

     Megumi got a lecture on welding she suspected was better and more thorough than anything K-1 or the motor club ever got from their teachers at the college.

Fire Burn And Cauldron Bubble

     Samantha-san and Carter-san finally released and finished clothing Ranko-san.  Megumi's head was still spinning from all the facts about welding Asuka-san had poured in there.

     "Hi, Megumi-chan.  Sorry about this," Ranko-san told her as she bowed.

     "I can imagine.  I've had . . . a few weird experiences myself.  Some that couldn't possibly have happened, but they seemed really real while I was in the middle of them," Megumi told Ranko-san, smiled at her, "I'm glad to have finally met you.  I can't wait to meet Tendo-san and Davis-san, I bet they're special to you."

     "Uh, yeah," Ranko-san responded, blushing furiously and completely flustered.

     Big sister and a lot more than a big brother, Megumi thought and hid her smile.  She didn't want to further embarrass the girl.  Megumi remembered her first schoolgirl crush.

     "Oh, they are so scary," Ayanami-san said in a flat tone, as if ready for a speech, then she stared intently at the far wall.

     Megumi started laughing, the others joined in.  "Okay, I get it Ayanami-san.  That's pretty funny.  I think you and Ikari-san should ignore what people say.  I'll tell Belldandy the truth."

     "Please don't," Ayanami-san said, it wasn't a plea, but it might be like one.

     "I don't understand," Megumi admitted.

     "Someone else is handling it," Ranko-san said.

     "Oh," Megumi said, not really understanding at all, but understanding she didn't want to know.

     With Shinji and Tomiyo arriving back with the supplies, Megumi left with them to work on the bicycles at her brother's shop.  A construction team had already replaced the door.

     Asuka watched Megumi leave, and Wondergirl returned.  Asuka wasn't sure what part of her plan asking Megumi over had been, but she had felt better after helping the girl with a solvable technical problem.

     Asuka walked over to Horseface.  "If this is some stupid trick to play on my sympathy," she told the distraught martial artist, "It's a cheap ploy, and it won't work."

     "You think I'm doing this on purpose?" Horseface shouted, as she stood and confronted Asuka.

     "It proves you aren't a girl," Asuka said coldly, "You should be happy about that.  If you were a girl, getting stuck as one for a little while wouldn't be such a hardship."

     "I didn't do this!" Horseface insisted.

     "I didn't step on anyone's yard," Asuka replied, "And I got a week's house arrest for making a joke.  Don't tell me there's no justice in the world."  Asuka turned and started to walk away.  She stopped and said in a strange voice, "Nyogtha ever-fluid, ever-changing, possessed of such characteristics . . . the host embodied these peculiarities already."  She shook her head, turned back to the others as if ready to speak, then ran down the stairs to her room.

     Ranma stood there staring, Asuka had changed for a moment.  Ranma had always recognized people by how they moved.  The person had been Asuka, but . . . more.  As the Meliorist was Asuka but more, this person had been a thousand kilometers down that same road.  Then Asuka had returned, and was terrified by the sudden change.

     "I said, 'What have you tried'?" Sammi asked, shaking Ranma out of her analysis.

     Ranma looked at Sammi, there she saw something, something not human.  Ranma shook herself, it had been nonhuman, but not whatever Ranma had felt when Asuka had spoken.  Ranma didn't quite know what either had been, but she knew neither were completely what a human was.  She wished that Nab-chan and Raccoon were here, she wanted to be with them.  Somehow they could get her out of this mess, get her some answers.  "Never mind, it's not important," Ranma said, "Sorry to bother you."  The redhead walked away, headed down the stairway.  She had so much to think about.  Both what Asuka had said, and all that happened to both of them when she said it.

     "Answer my question."

     "I'm sure I can still pilot," Ranma told her.  She suspected that Sammi would charge after her.

     Instead she overheard Erin's whisper.  "We blew it a few days ago.  Now we have to prove we can be trusted . . . unless you want to go Misato's route."

     Even Ranma shuddered at that.

     "Okay, we blew it," Sammi said as Ranma eavesdropped, "Who do we hit to make it right?"

     Ranma frowned at that.

     "I've always wanted an excuse to beat up Ikari senior," Erin joked, "Okay, right after lunch -."

     Ranma lost the rest when she closed the door to her room.  Her head hurt from all the weird stuff going on.

     The ringing phone interrupted the two women's discussion.  "Yes," Sammi said into the hand set.

     "Good, Miss Kraznyzamok," Captain Ramsey, "If Miss Carter is there, please relay this to her as well.  We have some VIPs who want to meet with the pilots this evening.  Have the pilots at the shooting range at 20:00 hours.  It might be a late night, so have them get some rest during the day."

     "Are you sending over any drums of sedatives?" Sammi asked.

     "No, just concrete and hammers," Ramsey replied.

     "I hope they don't want to meet Ranma, Ranko won't tell us where he's gone."

     "I see," Ramsey said, "I'll send some people over.  I knew things were going too smoothly."  He broke the connection.

     Smoothly he says, Sammi complained silently.  "Nothing's gone smoothly," she added.

     "Relax," Erin told her, "Being tense won't help.  Besides, Nabiki and Jeff are going to get that Angel, or are getting it as we speak.  If we're having `bad luck`, once that tension is relieved, maybe things will start going smoothly for us.  Remember, neither Ranma nor Asuka will admit it, but their best friends, both untested warriors, are out there doing something both Asuka and Ranma privately feel they could do better.  Once they get word those two are safe and on their way home, things will get better."

     "From your mouth to God's ears.  Although I doubt it."

     Asuka walked into Horseface's room with a tray of equipment, and Wondergirl following.  She set the tray next to the bed `she` was in.  The ersatz girl was sprawled face down in it, watering the pillows.

     "Don't you knock?" Horseface asked without lifting her head off the pillows.

     "Sure, 'knock, knock; Megorofeld-chan go away!'  I just didn't feel like going through all those steps."  She set up the stand she'd carried on the tray, then the alcohol burner, a collection of thermometers and a clipboard, then she left again with the tray.  She noted Horseface's glance at all the thermometers as Wondergirl examined them closely, one at a time.  Asuka headed to the kitchen to get the pot of water that was gently boiling on the stove.  She nodded to Miss Carter, but said nothing.  She wasn't in the mood to talk to her, and since the conversations invariably turned to the subject of the 'incident', which she didn't want to talk to anyone about.  She had more than ample reason to get her burden and get out.  She carried the pot back downstairs and headed into Horseface's room.  The he-in-she's-clothing was running `her` hand over the flame while Wondergirl watched closely.

     Typical, Asuka thought, Give him a destructive opportunity, and he takes it.

     "I thought it had to be wet to have any effect," Asuka said.  She was surprised she'd surprised Horseface.

     "Oh - it's - just - I - thought - "

     "Alcohol has a hydroxyl group, so you might get some hot water from the flame, but not enough."  She set the pot on the burner's stand and took the lid off, releasing a cloud of steam.

     "I don't want to parboil myself!"  Horseface retreated off the far side of the bed.

     "Relax, stupid, water is the easiest way to get a high, uniform temperature.  Boiling water is 373 K, and stays there until all the water boils away.  Besides, I bet you only tried water."  She removed a pair of tongs from her skirt pocket.  She didn't want to admit to Horseface what an intriguing problem this was.  She knew that Horseface had probably done something dumb.  Now it was up to her to a) figure out what it was, and b) fix it.  She doubted anyone except Dr. Akagi or Raccoon could do as good a job.  She also strongly suspected that Horseface was doing this to get attention.  She disliked the manipulation, but she also figured that Horseface had messed up whatever he had originally planned to do.  She could get plenty of revenge by rescuing him from his own stupidity.

     I hate to admit it, Asuka thought, But Wondergirl was right, being `nice` to him while he's expecting me to destroy him is a lot of fun.

     She extracted a jar from the slowly boiling pot.  "Finger here, now, quick in and out, it's very hot.  Wondergirl get a cup of cold water to cool off . . . its finger to prevent burns."

     Wondergirl headed off to the bathroom while Horseface made a quick stab, long enough for the transformation to occur, if it was going to occur.

     "Okay, no effect vegetable oil.  Next is salt water," she told Horseface as she removed another jar.

     "What did you do?" Asuka asked Horseface after Wondergirl had seated herself next to him/her/it on the bed, she held out a cup of cold water.

     "Water - coming out of the tap - it was actually hot," Horseface said as her, definitely her, composure cracked, she added in gasps, "I checked - I really did!"

     "What happened?" Wondergirl asked quietly, "Exactly and in order."

     "Well," Horseface sniffled, "I woke up as a girl, and decided to change back.  But the hot water didn't work!" she ended in a wail.  "I'm stuck this way!"

     It was all Asuka could do to keep her teeth from grinding.  Once again, Horseface was beating them all over the head with the inferiority of girls, the tragedy of the `curse`.  Maybe Raccoon treating it as only a joke we were playing on him, Asuka thought, Is the best way.  He takes serious discussion of it with forced politeness.  Rather than taking offense.

     "Hypothesis: the Fourth's actions demand punishment.  He retreated into female form to avoid criticism," Wondergirl told them.

     "Well, if Horseface is feeling persecuted, then why take `Ranko's` form which he hates?" Asuka asked Wondergirl, while she pulled the jars out of the hot pot and held them out for Horseface to stick a finger in.  "The punishment doesn't fit the perceived crime."

     "Guilt results in strange actions," Wondergirl added, "Without escape or admission of error, while criticism remains.  Retreat.  The punishment becomes self-inflicted.  No one else judges."

     Asuka wasn't dismissive of the whole idea.  It made sense.  Horseface refused to admit the error, and kept the punishment internal.

     "So, I'm doing it to myself?" Horseface asked.

     "If that's the case, then it's psychosomatic," Asuka said.

     "I didn't do anything somatic!" Horseface shouted back.

     Asuka had no idea what `she` meant.  "Maybe you should just stay that way!  Learn what it feels like!" Asuka shouted back at `her`.  I'm losing my temper, but . . . , Asuka thought, glanced at Wondergirl staring at her instead of Horseface, But, he makes me so mad.  Fine you win, Wondergirl, again!

     "Well, I don't want to disagree with you two," Asuka said, "Having Wondergirl on the warpath is bad enough without also adding Horseface.  It's no wonder Ranma's hiding."

     "I'm not afraid of anything," Horseface stood up and announced

     "Except cats," Asuka and Wondergirl chorused.

     Horseface shivered at the word, his ailurophobia was less, but not gone.  "Yeah, well maybe . . . cats," she sheepishly admitted, shuddering at the dreaded word.

     "Well, at least that's something," Asuka said quietly.  As she held out another pot of hot liquid for Horseface to dip into.

     Several minutes later they were done.  "Bleach: no, three kinds of cooking oil: no, motor oil: no, salt water: no, ammonia: no, ethyl alcohol: no, methyl alcohol: no, fish oil: no, beef tallow: no, paraffin: no, gasoline: no.  Well, if it was a chemical change in what triggered your curse, I can't find a new trigger with just household chemicals.  So, do we go back to bed, or continue with this glorious day?" Asuka asked, Wondergirl and Horseface glared at her.

     "Well, that answers that question."  She made a show of burnt fingers as she collected the jars and thermometers.

     "I'm going back to bed."  Horseface laid back and covered her head with a pillow.  "Thanks," Horseface murmured.

     "I'm trying my best," Asuka shot back angrily, yanking the pillow away, "How am I expected to accomplish anything under these conditions?!"

     "I was trying to say THANK YOU!"

     "Who wants your thanks?!  I'm trying to do my job!" Asuka shouted in Horseface's face as she gripped her collar and shook the martial artist, "Without Dr. Akagi here, who else is going to make sure you are still combat capable?"

     "Is now the time to kiss and admit your love?"  Asuka didn't know who looked more nauseated by Wondergirl's question, her or Horseface.

     "No Wondergirl, here's where I give him a tanto, a white robe and tell him to do the honorable thing.  Since girls are weak and helpless, little things who are only good for birthing sons.  Horseface must end the pain of her tortured and useless existence."

     "You're choking me!" Horseface croaked.  Asuka dropped `her` back on the bed.

     "I will get paper and brush for the death haiku, before you kill - her," Wondergirl said as she left.

     "See, we all just want to help."  Asuka left Horseface to his/her troubles, leaving the room with the pot and burner.  She headed back to the kitchen with them.  While she dumped out the jars into the kitchen sink, she thought about the possibility that Horseface was doing this to punish himself.  It's a good play, she thought, Only a few people know Ranma is Ranko.  The pilots know and so does the staff.  But the offense took place among the pilots, to a female.  The problem is, that this requires a certain amount of magical manipulation.  I don't think he could manage.  And Raccoon isn't likely to do something like this.  She glanced around at the two guards at the table.  Then comes the problem of how to reverse the situation, she thought.  She rinsed her hands and headed back downstairs.

     If this is to get me to forgive him . . . or is he hiding because he is just feeling picked on, his denials not withstanding, she considered, They don't tell us what the truth is.  Asuka sighed.  More problems, she thought.

     "So what are you here for?" she asked Wondergirl, who waited at the base of the stairs.  Wondergirl consulted her notebook.

     Oh God in Heaven!  Not her PLAN again! Asuka thought.  "Wondergirl I - "

     "Major Katsuragi suggested mad, passionate sex," Wondergirl told her, "Should I bring Shinji-kun here, or should I use the Major's toys?"  Wondergirl stared at her, as if expecting an answer anytime in the next century.

     Asuka suddenly realized that while Misato might have suggested such a thing, especially in her drunken state, Wondergirl was not seriously suggesting carrying out the advice.  I pray she's not serious, Asuka thought hopefully.  "How do you come up with this stuff?" Asuka asked.

     Wondergirl flipped through the pages.  Asuka wondered if running away was even an option, considering how fast Wondergirl could run.  Wondergirl examined an entry, decided against it and selected another.  "I like to watch."

     Asuka decided that she wanted no more to do with this conversation, its implications or its initiator.

     "Are you aggravated?" Wondergirl asked, as Asuka walked away.

     "No, terrified," Asuka said, more frantic page flipping.  Asuka headed for her bedroom, Wondergirl walked beside her.

     "A selection of German drinking songs?"

     "No, Wondergirl."

     "The complete history of bird watching?"

     "No, Wondergirl."

     "Selected passages from the Book of Numbers."  Wondergirl peered at the entry.  "You enjoy math."

     "The Book of Numbers is not about math!" Asuka stopped and shouted at Wondergirl.

     "It is about multiplication."

     Asuka threw up her hands in frustration.  "Yes!  I'm aggravated!  Are you happy?" Asuka shouted at Wondergirl, she was considering punching the girl.

     More page turning.  "That is my line."

     "Is that whole book dedicated to 'making me angry so I can be happy'?" Asuka asked, she could barely restrain herself from grabbing the book from Wondergirl, and tearing it into confetti.

     "And this one, and this one, and this one, and half of this one," Wondergirl said as she removed other notebooks from her skirt pocket.

     "And you've covered every possibility?"  Asuka was horrified.

     "I believe so."

     Asuka pinned Wondergirl against the door to her room, pressing her body against Ikari's robot.  She was a little disgusted that Wondergirl blushed and wriggled at the contact.  "So if I say I want you.  I've never seen a girl so perfect and beautiful."  She stroked Wondergirl's hair.  "That my lips hunger for yours."  She ran a finger down her neck.  "That my soul longs for perfect union with you," Asuka said as quietly and tenderly as she could manage while being thoroughly disgusted by Wondergirl's reactions to it all, "What would you say to that?"  She slipped her arms around Wondergirl's waist, as the robot stared first into her eyes, then over her shoulder.

     Flip.  Flip.  Flip.  Suddenly Wondergirl dropped all the notebooks and grabbed Asuka's head with both hands and pressed their lips tightly together.  Asuka struggled to break lose before Wondergirl did something really weird with her tongue.  Behind her she heard Horseface's door slam.

     OH CRAP! Asuka thought as Wondergirl released her, she was embarrassed by how she'd felt with Wondergirl kissing her.  She had never considered Wondergirl could react to anything with that kind of passion.

     "It was that, or 'take a number'," Wondergirl explained, "Was that the correct selection?"

     "Don't do that again!"  Asuka wiped her mouth.  She wondered if Wondergirl had ever done that with Spineless, and if so, how he survived.

     Wondergirl pulled yet another notebook from her pocket, and a pencil stub.  "Subject extremely agitated by openly expressed affection."  She underlined it after she'd written it and crossed off several other entries.

     Asuka was about to tell Wondergirl that girls didn't act that way, but remembered some Japanese schoolgirls did.  She shook her head.  "So what if I told you I wanted to watch you and Spineless perform?"

     "According to the Major, I would make sexual suggestions, I believe, instead, I should return here with Shinji-kun, Yumiwashi and our instruments."

     Asuka narrowed her eyes in suspicion, "You didn't look at your notebooks," Asuka commented as neutrally as she could, the books scattered behind her.  She was still intensely uncomfortable both with Wondergirl's impassioned kiss, and her own reaction to it.  She was glad it wasn't her first kiss. That would be too embarrassing, she thought, If I was suspicious, I'd say Wondergirl set this all up, just to have an excuse to kiss me.  But this is Ikari's robot I'm talking about!

     "I have memorized all the contingencies and the decision trees involved."

     "Then why were you referencing the pages all the time?"  Asuka was mystified.

     "Because - "

     "Because it aggravates me."  Asuka completed the thought and hung her head.  "Thank you, Wondergirl.  I am thoroughly angry now.  Excellent work as always."

     Wondergirl leaned down and picked up one notebook and flipped through it.  She looked up from her squatting position.  "Then can I have a kiss?"  Anyone else would have made it sound plaintive, not Wondergirl, she sounded like she was reading.

     Asuka shoved Wondergirl over with her foot, then walked through her door and slammed it behind her.  She quickly slipped a chair under the knob to block it closed.

     "Is that a yes?" Wondergirl quietly called through the door.

     "AUUUGGGH!" Asuka screamed at whoever or whatever had set Wondergirl to piddling on her entire existence.  That Wondergirl's plan was working well, made her angry which . . . 

     "This hurts me more than it hurts you," Wondergirl called quietly through the door.

     Asuka wondered if strangling the girl and throwing her off the building was a viable option.

The Magnificat Is Not A Feline

     Ranma walked through the streets of Tokyo, as a girl.  Nothing he'd been able to do had returned him to his male form.  That Asuka and Rei thought it was all some kind of trick, galled him.  As if I'd do something like that, he fumed.

     But water so hot it burned and ice had no effect on anything, nor had anything Langley-the-Brain had tried.  He stayed looking like a girl, he wondered if there was some higher force specifically messing up his life just to amuse itself.  Come down here where I can get my hands on you, he thought, We'll see how funny it all is.  The infuriating thing was that it had had one good effect.  Asuka no longer ran away from him at every opportunity.  Although is getting beaten up and yelled at really an improvement? he wondered.  Sadly, he thought it was.  The idea of Ranma trapped as a girl had pried the other redhead a little way out of her shell.  Although all she admitted was . . .  Ranma abandoned that thought, it was too painful.

     "Saotome-san!"  Ranma heard, he turned to see Hiro, Misato's boyfriend, walking towards him in a nice suit, carrying a briefcase.  "I'm glad I caught up with you.  I want to tell you the good news, well, I've got some great news and I'd like to share it with someone."

     Ranma was pleased that anyone had anything to be happy about.  One reason he'd left the apartment to go walking was all of them had gotten so grim, it was as if all the light and laughter had been sucked out of their lives.

     "Takemono-san - "

     "You can call me Hiro," the man said, smiled, more than his usual scar-induced grin, "Everybody does, when they aren't calling me fat-head, lazy-bones, ash-sniffer, or just plain stupid."

     Ranma smirked at that.  "What do you know about Ranma?"

     Hiro considered as they walked.  "Well, there's his official biography, but much beyond that is all speculation.  I don't even know exactly whether you're his sister, his cousin, or if you aren't blood relatives at all.  But I did do a fair amount of digging, heaped on top of some speculations."  He stopped and opened the briefcase he'd been carrying.  "One thing I did, was from the way both of you speak, there's a lot of Chinese and Korean influences to your word choices and phrasing."

     "How'd you know that?" Ranma asked.  He'd also noticed that `she` wasn't getting the lewd glances from Hiro that `Ranko` often got from most males.  That at least was reassuring.

     "I was a radio expert, I could decipher accents, even do them myself.  Trying to sound like an American or British soldier or officer, I got pretty good at hearing the accents of their troops, and ours.  So, I figure either you two grew up around Japanese speakers in China, which isn't really likely.  Or you two grew up on the coast near the Tsushima strait where there's a lot of fishing villages and trade going on.  From your hair color and both of your eye colors, I would guess you've both got foreigners somewhere in your bloodlines.  Probably back to the Tokugawa era, rather than the time after Commander Perry and the Meiji Restoration, because it was more looked down on than back in the Tokugawa era.  So that also points to sea coast or trading port ancestry.  Your name: Saotome, means Rice-Planting Girl, that would mean farms.  So I and a few agents of mine - "

     "Agents?" Ranma asked.

     "People hired to do a job, a show business term from the States, sorry," Hiro explained, "They aren't cloak and dagger spies, although they were spying on someone."  He located what he'd been looking for in his case.  "Take a look at this."  He handed Ranma a photo, a 3"x5" color print of a man, who could have been Ranma's older brother, except he had the deepest green eyes Ranma had ever seen.

     "Who is this?"  Ranma was fascinated.

     "Saotome Eiji, he's a fisherman in Fukuoka.  Before the surrender, he used to help occasionally at his brother's dojo, where they taught Kempo."

     Ranma couldn't breathe, he almost couldn't see, the blood seemed to be rushing around him, doing little good for either his muscles or his brains.  I might have family, these might be my family, I might have family, these might be my family, I might have family, these might be my family, I might have family, these might be my family, I might have family, these might be my family, I might have family, these might be my family -

     "Ranko!"  Hiro had his shoulders and was shouting at him.  "Breathe occasionally.  Good, I thought I'd lost you."

     Ranma was breathing, the enormity of what Hiro had just told him dwarfed everything else that had happened lately.  Everything around him was still spinning.

     "I thought I lost you there for a second," Hiro said, releasing him.

     Ranma noticed he hadn't tried to grope `her`, as some others would.  I'm getting as fearful as Asuka! he thought.  "That could be my family!" he insisted.

     "Ranko," Hiro said soothingly, "These are just speculations.  I could be wrong about it, about all of it.  From what I've been able to get out of Admiral Simson and Commander Ikari, nobody knows who your family is, who you are."

     "Then why'd you look into this?" Ranma asked.  It has to be them, it's just too perfect, it's just so right!  It feels right!  It sounds right! he thought desperately, felt the world shifting beneath him, as if some great machine was offering to offset everything bad that had happened, as if the scales of his karma were balancing.  He'd done something bad, now he was sincerely trying to make up for it, and they awarded him with something good.  All those thoughts raced through his mind.

     "That's what I wanted to celebrate about," Hiro said as he replaced the photo in the briefcase and closed it up.  "I got permission from the Admiral and the Commander to put a team together to do a documentary about you pilots."

     "Us?" Ranma asked, he'd never heard anything more ridiculous in his life.  "Who'd want to hear about us?  Fighting the Angels, yeah, my Martial Arts, yeah.  Asuka's college, maybe her engineering, but that's it."

     "That isn't it," Hiro assured him, "They want to know all about you, how you feel about what you're doing.  What your home lives are like, how you get along with your fellow pilots, that kind of thing," he spoke rapidly as though he'd never get the words all out in time.

     Ranma could see how excited he was.  "Uh, now might not be the best time," he admitted.

     "I said they'd let me assemble a team.  I know, I know, they'll censor and massage anything I put together.  That's okay, at least we'll show the world the Japanese film industry isn't completely dead, that we have directors that could stand up to Ford, or DeMille."

     "Yeah?" Ranma asked, he was beginning to think Hiro-san was pulling his leg, "Who?"

     "Well, the director we're going to have lunch with is my first choice.  He did a version of the 47 Ronin during the war, and he actually managed to make it a protest against the policies and the censorship of that time.  If anyone can slip the real story out, while not appearing to, it's him."

     Hiro stopped, took a breath, "So, are you up for lunch?  My treat?"

     "Sure," Ranma said, he never turned down free food, and if this director was so smart, maybe he could help unravel the problems Ranma was having at home.

     Shinji watched the Senators `grilling` Misato-san.  He hoped he'd never have to remember any of his missions in this kind of detail.  He did notice it was more like a final exam than anything else.  They were relentless, but they were drawing out answers, then they would ask the same question a different way a few minutes later.  They would pounce on any inconsistencies and mercilessly question which statement was accurate.  While it was confrontational, they seemed to be searching for the facts, rather than getting ready to trying to prepare a case against her.

     He did wonder where Rei-chan was, she'd told him she had some 'reinforcing' to do.  He still didn't understand what she meant, but after the incident with Ranma being stuck as a girl, it could mean anything.

     He wondered if it had anything to do with the questioning Rei-chan had given him and Tomiyo about Asuka, then she'd asked Misato-san similar questions about Asuka.  She'd written down all the answers and gone home.  He didn't know if he should warn Asuka about it, especially Misato-san's advice, which was universally lewd, or just ignore it.  Rei-chan seemed to be acting very strange about Asuka lately.

     When will things ever get less crazy? he wondered as the Senators called a recess.  Misato looked close to tears as she sat with her counsel.  He hated seeing her like this.  Something Hiro had said kept coming back to him.  'Does someone push you away to avoid pain, or because they need to know you'll stay with them?'  He also thought of all the questions about Asuka being angry or irritated that Rei-chan had asked both of them.  He decided he should walk down to Misato and . . . say or do . . . something.  He just didn't know what.

     Don't' be so spineless, Spineless!  Just do something!  Anything!  You'll screw it up anyway, so it doesn't matter what! Asuka's voice in his mind shouted at him.  Thanks for the vote of confidence, he thought back.

     "What are you sorry about?  Are you all right?" Tomiyo asked him, "You looked like you'd been shot, then you apologized."

     "I heard Asuka yelling at me," Shinji admitted.

     "So you apologized by reflex.  I think you're imagining things.  She's loud, but not that loud," Tomiyo assured him.

     "Where's the coffee?" Shinji asked, he'd made a decision about what to do.  Well, Rei-chan's asking about angering Asuka, he thought, smirked at that, She even asked me to help aggravate Asuka.  And I survived, would Misato-san be any worse?

     Ranma had enjoyed the lunch, and the conversation.  The director that Hiro had been so enthused about had been useful.  Ranma wasn't sure he was happy about his new abilities to talk about and around a subject.  Using `Ranko` as an independent and third-person reporter of events had also been useful.  "Does the universe hate me or something?" he asked.

     "Just because someone spilled ice water and hot tea on you . . . doesn't really mean the universe is out to get you," Hiro said, then stopped, "At least I don't think so.  Why didn't you just dodge them?  Supposedly you can dodge arrows, a little water shouldn't be a problem."

     "I can't dodge water!  Okay!" Ranma shouted at him, more angry at his failures than at Hiro.  You'd think now that I'm stuck as a girl, he thought, This problem would go away.

     "It's okay," Hiro said, backing away, "It makes you a more interesting character.  Perfection is boring.  Too bad you and Ranma don't do anything really weird, that would be great.  Asuka's got her problems and weaknesses, Davis has a boat load of them, Nabiki watched her family die, and Ayanami-san, she's got to have a lot of secrets."

     "But I'm perfect," Ranma said despondently.  Why does the idea of people thinking I'm perfect bug me so much? he asked himself.

     "Aside from the manners and the water, and the fact you act more like a boy than a girl," Hiro said, "No offense."

     "None taken," Ranma said, relaxed a bit.  At least somebody thinks I act like a boy, Ranma enjoyed that thought, reveled in it.

     "If you're worried about the truth of who you are getting out," Hiro said, "If it doesn't make it into the documentary, he'll probably put it in a movie."

     "Yeah, I can see that."

     "Maybe he'll make a western.  Or maybe make a samurai movie."

     "With all SEVEN of us?" Ranma asked, not hiding his disbelief, "I can't imagine that."  Ranma started walking again.

     "Well, if any director could pull it off, Akira-san can."  Hiro headed off in another direction.

     "Hello Misato-san," Shinji said, as he approached with a tray and several coffee cups.  He could feel Tomiyo's eyes boring a hole in the back of his head.  What's she going to do?  Kill me? he silently asked his guard, You're supposed to prevent that.  He set two of the three coffees he carried before Misato-san and her counselor.

     "What are you doing here?" Misato-san stammered.

     "The hearings are open to NERV personnel, and I wanted to see what was happening," he admitted.

     "Thank you," Misato-san's legal counsel, a man from the JAG office, said in English after sipping the coffee, "This is delicious."

     "Has anyone else come?" Misato-san looked around in a panic.

     "Rei-san," he said, then added in a disapproving tone, "The others aren't interested.  I'd think Nabiki-kun and Raccoon would insist on being here to support you."  He smiled.  Misato-san seemed confused, the JAG officer just rolled his eyes and savored the coffee.

     "I wish you hadn't come."  Misato-san picked up the coffee, took a sip.  Shinji kept his smiling expression as Misato-san reacted to the cold, too sweetened, battery acid tasting coffee.  "Dulack phagh!"

     "I could add more sugar," Shinji offered.  But I don't think any more would dissolve, he didn't add.  He was sweating as Misato-san stared at him, but he kept smiling.  "See, there are things worse than being questioned by the Senators," Shinji suggested, "I think they are looking for something.  As soon as you can give it to them, they'll go home and you can return to your duties."

     Misato-san was still trying to get her tongue to respond to the assault Shinji's coffee had laid on it.  Shinji picked up the coffee he'd given to Misato, set down the other cup in front of her.  This one was the same as the JAG Officer's, drinkable.  He smiled and walked away, Tomiyo fell in behind him.

     "Walk faster," Tomiyo warned, "As soon as she can speak again, she's going to tell everyone you tried to poison her."

     "I didn't," Shinji protested, but picked up the pace anyway.  He wondered if he could duplicate that coffee for when Misato-san returned home tonight and was drunk again.  He suspected he could get Megorofeld-chan's help and possibly Rei-chan's in the `proper` formulation.

     Sammi knew that lunch would have drawn Ranko back out of her room, but she had slipped out before lunch and hadn't been found until the late afternoon.  This late arrival led to a discussion about how to deal with the possibility of Ranko being female for a while: Clothes, feminine hygiene, etc.  Sammi could see Rei was quietly enjoying listening in.  She also noted that Asuka was actually being fairly kind and supportive of the neo-girl.  Although she did look like she was doing herself an injury by not pounding `Ranko` or mercilessly teasing the hapless Martial Artist.

     Sammi didn't eavesdrop, and while Asuka never said it openly, she deflected any comment from either Sammi or Erin.  Oh so politely, Sammi thought, I don't have to guess about that.  My senses are good enough to pick up all the whispered comments without appearing to eavesdrop.  Sammi knew she probably deserved that anger, but the sudden complete lack of confidence in both her and Erin, not just from Asuka, but from Rei and Ranko as well, it hurt.  Sammi felt very alone in the room.  Asuka had been learning too, she'd mastered the Japanese tactic of the infinitely polite brush off.

     "The problem is the Fourth does not know these behaviors," Rei commented, "And must understand the underlying purpose.  I find this curious."

     "I'm glad you are being entertained, Wondergirl," Asuka said sweetly, "But you really are saying to me, that I have to tell him how to wipe his - nose."

     "Among other things."  Rei nodded.  Ranko looked like she wanted to crawl under the rug.

     "Look," Asuka said tiredly, "It's a question of keeping things clean.  Surely Dr. Akagi explained this to you."

     "Yeah, I just didn't listen too much.  I figured I'd be a guy again soon enough.  So . . . I . . . "  Ranko fell silent at the force of Asuka's glare.

     "You - mean - you - already - know - all - of - this?" Asuka asked so carefully, Sammi could practically hear the mayhem that was coming.

     "Uh, um," Ranko said while desperately glancing around for some escape route, "I sorta forgot, but you reminded me."

     "Do you want to remember how eating all your meals through a straw feels?" Asuka asked as she stood up.  Her politeness had all been used up.

     Rei stood up and moved, apparently to be out of the path of destruction.  Except she brushed her hip against Asuka's.  "There are Misato's toys," Rei offered.

     All the color momentarily drained from Asuka's face as she stared at Rei, who stared back for a moment.

     "Run," Rei said to Ranko, then stared at Asuka again.

     Ranko didn't pass go or collect $200, she probably did pass the sound barrier and collected the land speed record.

     "The Fourth is necessary for the Commander's plan," Rei explained, "Do you no longer fear `him`?"

     Asuka drew a breath to shout, then paused with a confused look on her face.  Rei stood and stared, and waited, apparently content to remain that way until the sun went out.  The only sign she hadn't been petrified on the spot, was the occasional blinking of her eyes.

     Asuka's face on the other hand, was more then mobile enough for both of them. Her expression changed from confusion to fury to sadness, the full gambit of emotions she usually displayed, and a few she rarely did.  All a symptom of the debate raging inside.

     Finally, Asuka threw her hands up in the air.  "Wondergirl I hate you!" she shouted as she stormed down the stairs and into her room, slamming the door to remind everyone she was angry.

     Rei stood rooted to the spot for a moment.  The ghost of a smile flickered across her face as she turned to follow Ranko.

     "Do you have any idea what just happened?" Erin asked.

     "I think `Wondergirl` just plumbed the depths of Mein Grossfeldmarschall, and really likes what she found."

     "God help them both," Erin said.  Sammi hoped that would be enough.

Trust Is Stronger Than Friction

     Ranma, Ranko, she corrected herself, was seated on top of the apartment.  She'd come up here for evening practice, not just to get away from a furious Asuka, but she didn't feel like practicing Martial Arts.  That was a new experience.  Martial Arts was always the one thing that Ranma, and Ranko, could turn to to gain comfort and stability in a seemingly insane world.  Except Asuka said that my always referring to Martial Arts is why they don't trust me.  They figure I can beat them up, or steal their money . . . or other things . . . anytime I give myself permission, Ranko thought, It's not fair.  Raccoon's a killer, `Wondergirl` too, if she ever got the chance.  Why isn't anybody afraid of them?  Why aren't I?

     The crunch of the gravel behind her drew her attention back to the here-and-now.  "Yes, Rei, what do you want?"

     "To see the Commander's plan for this war through to success.  To marry Shinji-kun, raise many healthy children and grandchildren with him as we grow old together.  I have come here to demonstrate Mein Grossfeldmarschall's favorite game, in hopes that you will understand her better.  It is called catch."

     Ranko was too stunned, by the long and heartfelt speech, to keep Rei from tossing her off the building.  Ranko quickly reasserted control, only to realize Rei had thrown her UP rather than out, and she was still moving up.  Seventy-five meters easy! Ranko thought as she slowed, Okay, 90 meters, plus the eight stories, not enough for me to go splat when I hit, but enough it is really going to hurt when I hit.  I thought catch was a game played with softballs, she thought, then she landed on a smooth, invisible surface.  She slid along the slope as she tried to get a purchase on the slippery, featureless and invisible surface.  She'd long ago figured out that a major part of the Art she knew was staying in the air as long as possible.  She doubted this was what was intended.  She reached a wall, made of the same invisible substance, which stopped her slide, rather abruptly.  With her head ringing from the impact, she noted the entire article was tilting downward.  Ranko searched her memory, she'd seen an object moving like this, and Rei had been with Ranma when he'd seen it.

     "PINball!" Ranko cried as she accelerated upward, the sudden force making movement or shouting almost impossible.  She more than made up for the last as she sailed free of the `flipper` and sojourned through the upper airs, at a continuously diminishing speed.  She knew it would only be a matter of too short a time, before small became negative, and she headed down again.

     As the down started, she encountered a long curving slide that twisted this way and that.  But it was still heading generally down.  The end curved sharply up, and although Ranko clawed at the edges, she couldn't get a decent grip.  She flew unsupported through the air, she glanced down and spotted Rei standing on the roof, staring at her.

     Must be Rei's AT field, Ranko realized, Now I have to wonder if Rei's as mad as I think she is.  Sheesh!  Even her eyes are glowing red!

     The soaring, swooping ride continued to be punctuated by moments of extreme terror.  The worst was what Ranko was sure was going to be the end.  Rei had arranged Ranko to be descending and spinning.  As the rate of descent slowed, the rate of the spin increased, until Ranko realized anyone could survive the impact of the landing, and the only thing that was clear was straight down: the waiting mouth of a chimney.  Ranko knew that with the heat, no one was burning any coal in the building's furnace, but getting out of the chimney, after falling down head-first, was going to be a long and dirty job.

     Feeling the surface underneath her that wasn't Rei's AT field or a soot filled chimney relaxed Ranko.  She squeezed her eyes shut, because they were reporting that she was slowly traveling in a straight line, while all her other senses were reporting that she was still spinning like a top.

     "I also want to torment you," Rei said, "That is Mein Grossfeldmarschall's favorite game.  It is entirely about trust.  You are no good at it."

     "Waruhunitsu!" was all of the protest that managed to get from Ranko's still spinning brain to her mouth.

     "Mryow," came the reply.  Ranko cringed for all she was worth, to get away from one of those things.  The world was still spinning, and she felt sick and disoriented.

     'Mrrooowrft.'  She heard it, it was close, but she couldn't focus on anything.  If the world would stop spinning for a moment, if she could get her bearings, she'd know where to escape from, if not where to escape to.  But she continued along in a straight line, while still seeming to spin.

     Rei was as good as her word, Ranko thought sourly.  Her first thoughts as some semblance of consciousness and control had returned.  Next, a body inventory she'd hoped would tell her where she was and where the floor and ceiling were.  Instead they'd reported, in order, 'Bra', 'panties', 'slip', 'dress'.  This wasn't a report of what she was seeing, but what she was wearing.  She leapt up to get out of Asuka's bed, and made a mental note to the inventory team to tell her things like that FIRST!

     Her progress to and through the door was blocked by an absolutely mouth-watering knockout standing in Asuka's doorway.  For an instant she thought it was Asuka, same hair and eyes, but Asuka never had that fire and determination.  This girl was beyond beautiful, this girl -.

     The effect was spoiled by Asuka and Hikari, sitting together in the far corner of Asuka's room, absolutely splitting themselves with laughter.  Ranko glanced over and saw even Rei was smiling, an actual grin with teeth showing, measurable in seconds and still continuing.

     "I think she got a nosebleeeed!" Hikari honked between gales of laughter.

     Ranko glanced back at the door, saw it was closed and the looked at frame surrounding the girl.  "A mirror," she said as she looked closely.  Asuka, Rei and Hikari had really gone to town.  Her long, lustrous hair was loose and brushed out with a little curl at the tips.  The makeup was understated but it enhanced her natural beauty.  The dress was plain, and a bit sexy in an elegant way.  Ranko stared at this beautiful girl, who stared back equally intently.  She saw the girl's `friends` laughing at her confusion, saw the sadness in her eyes than only served to enhance her beauty, giving her a look of vulnerability along with the determination she'd seen earlier.

     Ranko could understand why Asuka had said Ranko wasn't a girl.  `Ranko` didn't look anything like what this girl looked like.  Ranko had to beat amorous jocks off with a stick.  This girl would demand the attention of gentlemen, and could drive the ruffians off with a disdainful sniff or a coquettish glance at her suitors.  Ranko stared at the image, was secretly glad the girl behind the glass looked happier.

     She ignored the laughter of the children behind her.  She'd take their `gift` and turn the world on its head with it.  She opened the door and marched out with her head held high.  Ranko Saotome didn't lose either.

     The elegant gentlemen waiting outside were a shock, especially the shortest one who bowed, formally.

     "Shinji-kun?" Ranko asked in a stunned tone, he looked as stylish as Raccoon usually did.  Ranko wondered whose closet he'd raided to get the tuxedo.  "Wow," she said softly.

     "Wow yourself," Shinji replied, he offered his arm for her to take.

     "Isn't he adorable?" Misato said as she walked up and tousled his hair.  Ranko had never wanted to kill a girl so badly in her life.  Shinji looked like he agreed, as he stepped away and tried to restore some order to what had been nearly perfect.

     Misato's advance on Ranko was halted by the arrival of reinforcements.  Ranko didn't know what the three girls' expressions were, but Misato blanched and retreated.  All that Ranko saw when she turned around were pleasant smiles from Hikari, and alarmingly, Rei, Asuka actually looked penitent.

     "You left before we could give you your handbag and fan," Asuka explained, desperately hiding her smile, trying to look merely contrite and not to burst out laughing again.  The purse was a lot heavier than it looked, and the strap was a thin, but strong, metal chain.  The ribs of the fan were hard metal, nearly 2 centimeters wide and sharp as razors at the end.  Asuka stood there, looking superior and all-knowing.

     Ranko snapped the fan open and fluttered it in front of her face.  "A lady must not be without her fan?" she asked coquettishly.  Hikari looked furious, Asuka looked sick, Rei merely looked.  Ranko was glad the fan hid her triumphant grin.

     "So who are we meeting with?" Ranko asked charmingly, fluttering her fan.  She smiled at Asuka.  Turned it back on you, didn't I? she thought.

     "General MacArthur, his Imperial Majesty, some people from Pearl Harbor and the United States," Asuka replied equally charmingly.

     Ranko's smile froze.  The Emperor wants to see . . . me? she thought, panic forming, And I look like THIS?!  Ranko wanted to be sick.

     Rei aimed carefully.  Fired, recocked, aimed and fired.  It was relaxing, the simple, repetitive action.  She was slightly jealous that Mein Grossfeldmarschall was so close to Shinji-kun.  It was a similar exercise, except her pistol was empty, Shinji-kun was 'dry firing' to practice.  Aim, squeeze the trigger, recock.  Mein Grossfeldmarschall was standing in front and to one side of him, watching his eyes, to see when he blinked.  If it was after the gun fired, that was acceptable.

     Standing in a corner, out of sight and seemingly out of mind, was the Fourth.  Rei had to admit that Hikari and Mein Grossfeldmarschall had done an excellent job.  She was truly beautiful, and elegant.  Rei had wondered about the Fourth, she seemed to drop into the role of an elegant and charming young lady, as if she'd always been one.  Yet, when male, the Fourth insisted on being crude and insulting.  `He` seemed to be proud of how abrasive he could be, yet `she` was kind, cultured and even a bit demure, every bit a cultured lady, a match for Mein Grossfeldmarschall at her best.  Rei could not understand it.  If hauteur was desired, they had all seen the newsreels of the Panama Canal crossing.  Whatever Roku-kun had told that officer had frozen his target in place, even those Captains and Admirals around him reacted to the calculated insult.  No sound was provided, so Rei had no idea what the exchange involved, but she knew it had been devastating to the target.  Yet the Fourth, as a male, never attempted to duplicate Roku-kun's demeanor.

     But `Ranko` could, Rei considered, Confusing.  She filed the entire line of thought away for later study.  She had been correct, the Fourth had expected to be forced to participate in the shooting practice.  Now they left her alone.  Previously they had pressured the Fourth to use and master firearms, now that was not the case.  Rei wondered what was going through her mind.  Was the Fourth relieved, or did she realize she was being ostracized?  It seemed an ironic turn that they were punishing the Fourth by not forcing her to do something she hated.  Rei was confident that this plan was succeeding.

     "Weapons down," Captain Kuroda, one of the Search and Rescue divers who had remained in Tokyo, called out.  She set her Schofield down on the stand in front of her, carefully pointed it down range.  Shinji-kun and Mein Grossfeldmarschall had set her Peacemaker down the same way, and stepped away.  Like Rei, they removed their hearing protection.

     "I just got the word," Kuroda told them, "It's absolutely official, Tendo and Davis got the Angel.  It's safely aboard the Bennington, and they'll start running tests on it as they return to Boston.  They are getting checked out by the doctors, but nothing serious to report so far."

     Rei noted Mein Grossfeldmarschall's relaxation at the news, as well as the Fourth's.  All of them had been worried about the success or failure of the mission.

     "Any word on when they'll be back?" Shinji-kun asked.

     "I don't think the plan's changed," Kuroda explained, "They'll drop it off in Boston, pick up another carrier, and be back here sometime between the 12th and the 20th, depending on how fast they go."

     "They'll miss the first weeks of school," the Fourth commented archly, "That will just break their hearts."

     "No, they will enjoy the escape," Rei corrected her.

     "Rei-san," Shinji-kun said, "I think that's what he meant."

     "No," Rei said firmly, "Too sophisticated for Ranma." But not for `Ranko`, Rei thought, as confused by this as by her other recent revelations.

     "Hey!" the Fourth complained, "I'm as sophis - ticated - as anybody."  It appeared that `Ranko` had reverted to being the Fourth.

     "Of course you are," Mein Grossfeldmarschall said in soothing tones, "Rei was merely trying to be amusing."

     "I meant no disrespect," Rei piled on, seeing the discomfort in the Fourth's posture and on her face, "It was cruel of me to suggest such a thing."

     Rather than stoking the fires of the Fourth's overweening ego, the girl actually looked disturbed at the groveling.  Which is what was intended, Rei didn't say.  Instead she bowed, noting that Mein Grossfeldmarschall was doing the same.  That seemed to affect the Fourth as if the floor had suddenly become too hot to stand on, she shifted nervously from foot to foot.

     "Okay that's enough," Kraznyzamok-san told all the pilots, "You can kill each other after they leave.  In the me - mean - "

     Rei felt as if her head had been placed in a tightening vice and simultaneously someone was screaming in both her ears.  Rei watched as the floor raced up towards her.  Nothing she could do could arrest its approach, cushion her from the inevitable collision, or call out a warning to the others.  Her voice, arms and legs were failing to function.  She was dimly aware that the others were falling as well.  The screaming, a sound of raw rage, continued.  It repeated the same phrase over and over again.  Rei idly wished she knew what it meant.  What would make it stop?

The Cat Can Be Alive, Dead, Or Bloody Furious

     The blow hit all of them.  The female-within flees from the call of a predator/power greater than she.

     Just as the he-within had fled from what he had done to the sorrel tabby.  Idiots, I think, Surrender, and submit to her for punishment, she will forgive, once she believes she has some power again.

     I listen carefully to the cry that felled the others.  There is another note, far weaker, despite being a chorus of two.  A cry of despair rather than anger.

     NO! I shout as I race along the `terrain` of the shout, a strong solidity for a concept. Let the others analyze, I remind myself, The pursuit!  Onward, towards the weaker cry, distance slips away, nothing else matters.  The tabby and the tom were in danger, the tabby's voice stills and the tom's increases in anguish.

     The predator turns its attention towards me.  I lash out with all my strength.  The predator retreats, it is much more powerful, but I've made it understand a battle would cost far too much to win.  The sound of the cries draws me away.  Neither I nor my foe remain where the battle was fought.  The cries have become the mewling of kittens, so lost, so frightened, so hurt.  I overtake them and gather them in.  All of us are now falling, I purr to them, hold them to me, let them know I am here.  But they are too far gone, too far elsewhere although much of them is still here.  I pursue the missing piece, that which the enemy would have sent too far away.

     I - will - not - FAIL.

     Rei heard the shout, was amazed it resolved itself.  Not into words, but the implications were very clear.  What had been done, would have to be undone, and there would have to be a reckoning/offering to compensate.

     Rei hated the idea of submitting to anyone or anything, except the Commander.  But I must consider it, she thought as she lifted herself on her hands and knees.  She looked around at the others, who remained on the floor.  She heard the muffled calls from the guards for medical teams.  She suspected that without Dr. Akagi, the medical response would not be as effective.  Rei felt the footsteps of one of them approaching her.  She stood hurriedly, she did not want to be touched right now.  Her senses were too raw, her emotions too jumbled.  She needed time away from the noise and confusion to reorient herself.  To quiet her mind and regain full control.  She walked after the medical teams carrying the other pilots.  She ignored the offer of a stretcher, she hated the canvas that abraded her skin even through her clothes.

     She passed a number of officers and civilians, all in fancy dress.  She remembered her manners, despite her desire to be away from here and alone.  She curtsied rather than bowed, and followed her fellow pilots to the medical wing.

     She wondered why all the sounds seemed so muffled, why everyone seemed to be moving so strangely, why the ground felt so unsteady under her feet.  Her ears tickled in a most unpleasant fashion.  She reached up to brush her hair away from them, and her hand came away wet.

     Not water, she thought as she stared at the red liquid on her hands, Blood.  I hate this color.  I hate what it represents, what I can never be.  It changed to gray as she watched.

     Rei noted that the room had darkened sharply, she could only see in steadily darkening shades of gray.  As it went black, something struck her.

     Sammi was beside herself.  She'd heard the cry, but had been able to screen out most of it. Then the kids had all dropped like flies, and there was nothing she could do except apologize to the VIPs and rush the kids to the hospital ward.

     Now she waited.  She had no more idea what to do than the man on the moon.

     "Report from the Bennington, Tendo and Davis are down, and they're in the middle of an honest-to-God hurricane," Kuroda said as he arrived, while Tomiyo handed out tea to those who waited, Sammi and Erin.

     "Thanks," she said numbly. She'd noticed that Asuka had been referring to her and Erin as Miss Kraznyzamok and Miss Carter, respectively.  Ranma's transformation into Ranko, at least temporarily, had reduced the friction between Asuka and Ranma.  She couldn't fix that either, although she preferred the pilots get along with each other, rather than get along with their guards and hate each other.

     She had a feeling about the `sound`, that something very powerful was extremely unhappy.  She wondered why she and Rei had been affected so little, while Asuka, Shinji and Ranma stayed down.

     "We should take shifts," Erin suggested, "It won't do any good if we are all exhausted and they need us."

     "Then I'll take the first shift," Juri arrived in the infirmary waiting room, "I've had a chance to rest, while you've been dealing with this."

     Sammi stood, she didn't want to leave, but she was asleep on her feet as well.  "Tell us the - "

     "I will," Juri assured them, "Just go."

     They trooped out.  Marines, grim sentinels, stood guard at regular intervals.  Sammi could almost feel the disapproval radiating off them, in response to the guards' failure.  The fact their brother Marines couldn't guard Nabiki or Jeff didn't help her mental state.  She entered a room and lay down on the bed, but as exhausted as she was, sleep did not come.  She lay there, restless, exhausted, all her insecurities and failures marching through her mind for inspection and analysis, followed by all the second guesses, hindsight and recriminations.

     Captain Ramsey walked through the streets of Tokyo.  The `temple` he was looking for he hoped would give him the answers he needed.  In deference to the fact the man had come to see him first, he was headed towards Nabiki's temple, 'Kernal Sustained'.  They might have information the Navy and their `specials` didn't have.  He removed his hat as soon as he entered.  Being in civilian clothes seemed strange, considering he was on government business.

     What he walked into, felt like a funeral.  Not exactly wailing and gnashing of teeth, but it was pretty close.  One of the acolytes recognized him and escorted him off to the side, and into the offices upstairs.

     The aura of the `bishops` here was as funereal as the regular worshipers down below.

     "Captain, you come at a time of crisis we cannot . . . we cannot feel her," the high priest told him tearfully.

     "She and Davis were in the Azores to capture one of our enemies.  We don't know all of what happened," Ramsey told him.

     The high priest nodded sagely, "I suspect someone overestimated their strength, or underestimated the strength of their foe."

     "Probably the latter," Ramsey admitted, "You don't know what happened to her?"

     "She is beyond our range.  We can only hope, and pray," the high priest said, "I know you don't believe as we do.  But whatever you believe, prayers are all we can offer now."

     Ramsey excused himself and left.  Perhaps one of the others might have answers to some of the questions of the day, Ramsey thought, he also considered the wisdom of bringing the hierarchies together to see what they could come up with together.  But for the moment I'll let them stabilize themselves, he thought.

     Sarah woke to the odd ceiling of the infirmary.  In the distance, she heard Arty and Morgan arguing with someone.  Adam Smith and her father, Major ggreg, were still aboard the carrier, so it couldn't be either of them they were arguing with.

     She sat up slowly, checked herself over.  She was still wearing the St. Michael's School jumper with the crest embroidered on it.  She smiled at that.  Since the schools' Motto was 'Who Dares Wins', and the initials were S.M.S., everyone in the village joked that they were a branch of the SAS.  The usual response was that since the Special Air Service jumped out of airplanes to blow up things, often other airplanes, and the SBS, Special Boat Service, jumped out of boats to blow up other boats, what did the M in the school's initials stand for.  Or what would they jump out of to blow up?

     She thought of her two friends, Arty and Morgan, the brother and sister pair, although they couldn't have been more different.  One was even more petite than Sarah, which was saying something, and the other was as big as some full grown men.  The two mismatched siblings had adopted 'Snow White', her, soon after she arrived at the school, which actually was everything the locals joked about.  She'd earned her nickname because of her blood-red lips, pale skin and jet-black hair, as well as her marvelous singing voice.  She remembered explaining her and the school's camouflage to Rei-chan, on one of their infrequent meetings, that it was possible to lie without saying one untrue thing, and that you could misdirect someone by simply not refuting their mistakes strongly enough.  Sarah doubted the other girl would ever really understand.  She is so literal-minded, Sarah thought as she sat up.

     The medical officer came in, his face lined with concern.

     "It seems I let the side down," Sarah said, "All ready to score the winning goal and I go down."

     "I think allowances can be made," he said, glanced over his shoulder at Arty and Morgan, standing in the doorway and practically straining at unseen leashes to get in.  "You two may assist me, as long as you stay quiet."

     The two were at her side as if they'd used a travel spell.  "So what happened?" the officer asked.

     "I heard a shout, and collapsed," she said, considered the thermometer the man stuck under her tongue.

     He asks me to talk and sticks this in my mouth? she thought she'd never understand doctors.

     "Woke up h'r," she finished, without dropping or biting through the thermometer.

     "That isn't very helpful."

     "S'rry, s'r."

     The doctor removed the thermometer and checked the reading, then took her pulse, he seemed to think everything was acceptable.  "You may return to classes when you're ready."

     "Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir," she said as he left.

     "I bet it had something to do with the Azores Mission!" Arty said excitedly.

     "You have quite an imagination," Morgan said, the dark and mysterious voice of reason.  Quite odd considering the only mage Sarah had ever met who was more skilled than Morgan, was Roku-kun.

     I guess once you reach a certain power level, you quit being eccentric and become too normal to be believed, Sarah thought.  Morgan eschewed all the mystic airs, and candles, and wands, and black clothes that even some of the teachers seemed to wear as a uniform.  Morgan did carry a quarterstaff, and was good enough with it that Arty quit trying to spar with Morgan.  If it was magical, no one knew, and Morgan wasn't telling.  Sarah wondered how Arty and Morgan would stack up against Asuka or Roku-kun as weapons users.  Ranma could take on the entire student body and faculty in hand-to-hand, and never break a sweat.

     "This time . . . "  Sarah paused as the world seemed to spin for a moment.  "I think Arty may be right, I should check up on them.  See what's happening out there." 

     She was glad both Morgan and Arty helped her to her feet, with her mismatched `crutches`, she had a reason to believe the whole world was out of kilter.

     Rei woke slowly, her head was still ringing and she felt dizzy.  Her ears were bandaged, she could feel no other bandages, casts or other such things, just I.V.s.  She glanced up, the bottles fed blood and fluid into her.  From past experience she had learned to stand and move without breaking the needle off in her arm.  With her free hand, she carefully pulled the I.V. stand out of the bracket and walked unsteadily out of the room.

     She walked to Shinji-kun's room, she knew where it was, they always put the pilots in the same rooms.  'So they'd wake up with a familiar ceiling.'  She wished they would have picked a different color for hers, the gray made her feel ill, even if she'd felt fine before looking at it.  She vaguely heard someone call her name.  She ignored it.  She entered Shinji-kun's room.  She walked over to his bed, and set the IV holder in the bracket there.  They hadn't given him any IV's yet, which meant they were holding out hope that he would recover soon.  She idly wondered if he would be all right.  She had a way to check on him, except she knew if she fell asleep here, they would put her back in her room.  She just wanted to be with him for a while, to assure herself that he was alive, that he was not lost to her.

Next Step, No Illusions

     "Any luck?" Admiral Simson asked an exhausted Captain Ramsey, still in his civvies.

     "If you mean bad, sir?  Yes, sir, lots.  All they could tell me is that Tendo and Davis are far away, Saotome is tracking his packmates, makes him sound like some kind of wolf, sir.  Young Ikari's people were rejoicing, saying 'The Great Battle has arrived' and they agreed to pray for the safe return of the others.  Seems they aren't worried.  Ayanami's people . . . I couldn't find them.  Even the ones in military service, they all applied for three day to one week passes and are gone.  I haven't the faintest idea what they are doing.  Maybe they had a prophesy like Ikari's people, maybe they are all going on a retreat . . . who knows."

     "I was afraid of that.  Did the rioting give you any trouble?" Simson asked, waved his subordinate to a chair.

     Ramsey gratefully sat down, almost collapsing in the chair.  "No, but I think I had shadows from all the temples to keep my path clear.  Considering how loud the rioters were, it was easy to avoid them."

     "Well, we've got the city on complete lock down, dusk-to-dawn curfew, armed patrols in the streets, looters to be shot.  It's as bad as when we first got here.  It seems the pilots weren't the only ones affected.  I feel sorry for the people in New Delhi.  The rioters there . . . well the Indian Army has its hands full, and is refusing any help from the British, the religious wars have broken out.  Peace and Goodwill to All my ass."

     "That's what you get for not believing in evil," Ramsey replied, "The main thing the Japanese are mad about is we didn't clamp down sooner, they understand evil and insanity.  As for any good news, we watch, and we wait."

     "At least we aren't aboard the Bennington.  They and the entire group are caught in a hurricane.  CINCLANT ordered the escorting carriers and cruisers to break out, and the battleships are having a devil of a time trying to keep station.  The Brits have the French under tow back to port, and the Spanish took one look at that hurricane, sent their condolences and hightailed it back to port as well.  Can't say I blame any of them."  Admiral Simson noted Ramsey hadn't moved a muscle since he sat down.

     "Must have been a shock to Admiral Adams."

     "Why's that?" Simson asked, "I never met him."

     "Imagine General Tomlinson, then multiply him about a dozen times.  The only reason he's commanding Bennington and her group, is that he's an excellent group navigator and he has some experience with the Spanish and Portuguese governments.  He's not a very - flexible - thinker.  Angels and EVAs and instant hurricanes probably have him scared shitless right about now."

     "At least Dr. Akagi is there to advise," Simson replied, "She's got a good head on her shoulders.  And she's been at this longer than you and I have, that's for sure."

     "I'd prefer if Davis were there," Ramsey said, "I've never met a slipperier mind than his."

     "What about Tendo?" Simson asked.

     "I think she's too much of a realist."  Ramsey stood.  "She believes in what she's seen and felt.  She can play on others' fears and imaginings, but she's still rooted to the world."

     Rei found herself in the dark.  It was clammy and cold, as if she were in deep water rather than air.  Something darker but warm rested on her shoulders.  She vaguely recognized those telephone pole-sized fingers.

     "Gently, Little One," came the gravelly rasp, "He's hurting too."

     Another figure resolved itself as a different patch of darkness.  Vaguely humanoid, only the eyes were visible.  They glowed faintly with power and intelligence.  Even with their EVAs and the Scholarly Dragon to back them up, they would stand no chance against the one who stood before her.  She could not speak his name, the word stuck in her throat, but she realized where she was standing.

     "R'lyeh," she breathed.  This was not a dream shade, or an illusion, she was here.  She didn't know how she wasn't frozen or crushed or suffocated by the tons of icy water all around her.  The Lord of R'lyeh was making sure she understood who was the power here.  Even the `goddesses` are not strong enough to reach me here, Rei thought, Should I even mention this to them?

     Another figure appeared, this one glowing brightly with an inner light.  She recognized it, him, immediately.

     "Shinji-kun!"  Only the dragon's restraining hand kept her from rushing forward.

     "Only a seeming," the dragon counseled, "As you see him."

     She blinked away tears, he was so beautiful.  She could see all her hopes and dreams adorning and embodied within him, the true heir to the Commander's plan, the best hope for all of them.  She forced herself to relax, tried to calm her whirling mind and raging emotions.  Neither of the two titans, who awaited her return to equilibrium, seemed eager to rush her.

     The Lord of R'lyeh raised an arm, pointing upwards.  High above faintly glowing was the moon, a great black stain spread across its face.  Rei squirmed as the seething mass further befouled the silvery surface.  The `kingdom` of the Moon represented an enemy of both humanity and the `people` of R'lyeh.  That she understood.  Something would have to be done, that she understood and agreed.  She didn't like the implication that Shinji-kun was threatened, unless this was done.  Suddenly, the huge creature gestured and Shinji-kun flew straight at the moon, Rei watched him arrive/impact a moment later and the stain abated and vanished as they stood watching it.

     "Thereby concluding this simulated testing of our latest weapon," the Scholarly Dragon rumbled, "The boy will know enough to return what was taken.  Back to status quo ante.  It's up to you and young Ikari to offer recompense.  I'd take the deal if I were you."

     "It isn't a command?" Rei asked the massive reptile behind her.

     "He isn't that powerful, but as a first offer, it's not out of line," the dragon replied.

     "Then we will do it . . . If we can discover a way . . . " Rei added despondently, she had no idea how to accomplish what needed doing.

     "That's something I wanted to talk to you about," the dragon said.

     Rei turned to look at him, and the all-knowing smirk he wore.

     Sarah waited, she and . . . I hate thinking of her or any of them as Rei number X, Sarah thought, They are individuals, not pieces off an assembly line!  The girl who had been the dummy plug, and Sarah, had assembled and corralled all the other Reis, although holding them there hadn't been much of a chore.

     Maybe they knew, maybe they're waiting, Sarah considered.  She had felt she needed to be here, so she had skipped school.  Considering her `attack` and the fact her father was in grave danger, everyone took it as a good idea she was staying home and in bed.

     Rei, the currently active Rei, arrived and glanced around with a thoroughly mystified expression.  Although few others would have been able to read the deep confusion on her face.  "The blood is the key," she said, as if only understanding the words, and not the meaning behind them. "All of us together are stronger than any of us apart."

     "So what are we to do?" the girl from the dummy plug asked.

     Rei approached the girl.  "Where there were many, there will be just one.  Where there is a 'we', there will be only an 'I'.  I do not believe that the 'I' will remain."

     "Are you suggesting we all commit suicide, or consume each other the way the EVAs do the Angels?" Sarah asked.  That is not what I signed up for, she thought.

     "No," Rei continued in her mystified tone, "Our memories and all associated with them will remain here, safe, separate.  What moves us, what truly matters, will continue on together."

     "You do realize you aren't making much sense," Sarah told her.

     "Yes . . . wonderful isn't it?" Rei replied in a dazed voice.

     Sarah decided Rei wasn't going to be able to tell them, and make it clear, it was better if she let the other girl demonstrate.