Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 47-48 ( Chapter 22 )

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

Chapter 47 - When Free Is The Severest Price

We Are One And Indivisible

Not Recompense, But A Love Gift

It Does Not Grow As You Wish

Simplicity May Veil A Subtle Complexity

Lonely Roads, Long And Winding

Jacob And The Nightingale

I Cannot Grasp Why You Care

Acceptance Rather Than Understanding

On Doubtless Wings

Chapter 48 - They're Sharing a Drink They Call Loneliness, but It's Better than Drinking Alone

France is Alone, God is Alone

A Favorite Has No Friends

She Dwelt Among The Untrodden Ways

Something to Live For, Great Enough To Die For

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 47 - When Free Is The Severest Price


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 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.

Jacob's heart bent with fear, like a bow with death for its arrow; in vain he searched for the final truth, to set his soul free of doubt.

Over the mountains he walked, with his head bent searching for reasons; then he called out to God for help, and climbed to the top of a hill.

Wind swept the sunlight through the wheatfield; in the orchard, the nightingale sang, while the plums that she broke with her brown beak, tomorrow, would turn into songs.

Then she flew up through the rain, with the sun silver-bright on her feathers.

Jacob put back his frowns and sighed, and walked back down the hill, 'God doesn't answer me, and He never will.'

Nightingale - Judy Collins

We Are One And Indivisible

July 25, 1947

     Rei opened her eyes.

     I am Rei, she thought as she examined her hands and arms.  She'd expected something different, something more dramatic.

     The bodies strewn about her feet were the only real change.

     They live, she told herself, she knew that as well as she felt her fingertips.  Their memories were hers, their power was hers.

     "Not they, I," she said, and laughed.  Laughed at how ridiculous and how joyous the world was, laughed at all the tender and foolish moments that slipped effortlessly, automatically into place.  No longer just data, dry facts, events and dates.  But the feelings, emotions of all their existences.  She felt as she had before that terrible day.  The world made an awful, gut-twisting kind of sense, but it was comprehensible again.

     "Finally," she said as she surveyed her `kingdom`.  That too was worthy of laughter, and received a full measure.  She had foolishly believed that reducing complex things to their basic parts, and studying them individually would give her insights into their true nature.

     Now as facets of her she'd thought lost or unattainable slid by each other and into place, she understood that the pieces moving against and among each other was the key.  The key to all of it.

     "Now I must go among the others," she told herself.  There was no longer any hint of `they`, only she, one and unified.  She wished she could stay this way forever, or better yet, combine with the other pilots this way.  She knew she couldn't, it was not what was agreed upon and that alone would spark a rebellion, the others `Reis` would never surrender their individuality for any length of time.  Once the job was done and they separated, they could decide to reintegrate and leave separateness behind.

     The old man in the uniform and the G.I. pot helmet looked like he belonged there in the infirmary waiting room.  Except Tomiyo knew the man made a habit of looking and acting like he not only belonged where ever he was, but that when he arrived, he was in charge.

     "Father."  Tomiyo stood, bowed.  The man had been a good cop both before and during the war.  He had high hopes that his son would follow in his footsteps.  Now the old man worked with the U.S. Marines, because of his background and good English, and because they were about the only real `cops` still around.

     "You let them get away from you."  His father, Minayo, fixed his glare on Tomiyo, Sammi and Erin.

     "They weren't exactly kidnaped," Tomiyo said quietly.

     "And just who are you to be here asking questions?" Erin challenged.

     "I'm the translator assigned by Naval Intelligence to assist their investigations into who did this."

     "Cthulhu," Rei said as she walked by the door to the lounge.  It gave Tomiyo a little hope as Minayo jumped at Rei's pronouncement.

     "Young lady, Miss Ayanami, would you care to elaborate?" Minayo asked as he headed after Rei.


     "This is part of an official investigation - "


     "That's - Tendo Minayo . . . my father," Tomiyo explained.

     "Oh," Erin said.

     "Thank you for clearing that up.  Why couldn't I have stayed asleep?" Sammi asked.

     "Oh, don't worry," Tomiyo assured them, "It will get worse."

     Nabiki chuckled at the uneven contest.  She did not want to explain the neko-ken to Raccoon, but she could still enjoy Mr. 'I am In Control' getting dragged by the collar of his pajamas across the floor and into the `nest` of bedding they had.  Nabiki wasn't going to explain why Ranma was dragging him with his mouth and walking on all fours.

     The way his pigtail is lashing, it isn't as easy as it looks, Nabiki thought.

     Raccoon suddenly tried to sweep `Ranma-neko's` front legs, the cat dodged easily, but it prevented him from using them for traction.  Now that he had a slight advantage, Raccoon grabbed Ranma around the waist and picked him up off the ground.  Against a real cat, it might have worked, but Raccoon had placed Ranma into his art's specialty, the arena Ranma regularly trained in.  Ranma-neko twisted suddenly.  Raccoon shouted his surprise.  Both landed in the bed, Ranma curled around to take the majority of the impact, and to keep Raccoon's head and neck from suffering any impact or twisting.

     She watched Raccoon look around in shock, he'd traveled over 4 meters and arrived without more than a minor bruise or two.  Ranma seemed to hang in that pose, curled around Raccoon's head like a crash helmet, for quite a while, then he relaxed, slowly uncoiled and looked around.

     "Uh, um, what's goin' on - ?" he asked.

     "You don't know?!" Raccoon asked archly.

     "Uh, no, not really."  Ranma looked at her while he smiled nervously and tugged at his pigtail, she shrugged.  Raccoon stood up and took a step.

     "I wouldn't, if I were you," Nabiki warned as Raccoon approached the edge.  Nabiki didn't know why the Neko-ken was so insistent on them sharing the bed.  She'd only seen the Neko-ken before, when Ranma was terrified by cats, and it was an extremely dangerous combatant.  She'd never seen it spontaneously take control, nor fight in so rational, dogged and careful a manner.  She glanced at Ranma, who seemed utterly mesmerized by the other boy's indecision.  Nabiki wondered why Raccoon taking another step mattered so much.

     Raccoon decided, wisely, not to risk it.  He lay down so she was `sandwiched` between Ranma and Raccoon.  She decided she could probably trust them, if either moved alone, they would be facing her and the other boy.  If they acted together . . .  she thought, Yeah, right, knowing these two it could be very . . . enjoyable.  She could imagine how their competitive natures and their 'I don't hurt girls' attitude would - combined and enhance - things.  She smiled at that thought.  Not likely, she silently lamented, But I can dream, can't I?

     Gendo sat alone in his office.  The staff meeting had gone poorly, as was to be expected.  When no one really knew anything, they all guessed and hoped for the best.  He wanted Dr. Akagi to return.  She'd been a level head, and her knowledge of the ways and means of the Elder Things had been invaluable.  Gendo heard his office door open and close, then the soft foot steps.

     "Commander, I need to know about the Mi-Go, their base on the moon, and their capabilities," Rei said as she walked across the Sephiroth-incised floor, "And I need to know now!"

     Gendo turned to glare at her, and remind her not to take that tone with him or . . . then he looked into her eyes and the stare faltered, the words wouldn't come.  Her eyes were jet-black with the faintest hint of yellow, white, red and blue dots scattered through the ebon expanse.  He dragged his mind away from that yawning darkness.  It's like looking at a piece of deep space! he thought as he covered his eyes to avoid falling into that abyss again.  His other hand slipped into his pocket and the weapon he carried there.  "Why do you need to know?" he asked, desperate to buy time while he figured out what had happened, and what he could do about it.

     "Destroying them will return the pilots to where they belong," Rei told him, staring at him with her starscape eyes.

     Gendo nodded, he understood now, "The Mi-Go, or Fungi from Yuggoth are a race of interstellar plunderers, if they actually have a homeworld, it is not recorded," Gendo began.  The void of those eyes seemed to demand that emptiness be filled.

Not Recompense, But A Love Gift

     Ranko lay in bed.  She cuddled up next to Raccoon.  She felt the cold spot on his arm fade, indicating the spell was fading.  She ran her fingers over the area in little circles, adding Ki as she did.  'Healing spells redirect cell growth, repairing the damage,' Raccoon had explained to her.  The strength of the spell depended, or rather the power of the healing depended, on the energy that could be left with the cells.  Since Raccoon had used up all but a trickle of his power, he could only do a minor healing of the extensive burns he had suffered.

     But if I can add Ki to the cells, give them more energy, then the healing can be more complete, she thought.  So far it appeared to be working.

     'Gently,' Raccoon had told her when she'd tried to preprepare an area.  It required a painful level of Ki to flood the area.  She idly wondered if she should have taken this current approach with Asuka.

     "Don't you need to rest?" Nab-chan asked from her position behind and with her arms around Ranko.  The fear that the Nerimaniacs would find them had faded.  The other had made that clear to one interloper, and it `insisted` all three of them sleep together.  Ranko didn't trust it, although all it `demanded` was that they sleep in the same bed.  It only `suggested` they do more than sleep, suggestions that would make a sailor blush.  I don't know about that stuff, Ranko thought, How does IT know?  Like with Nab-chan pressed up and rubbing against her back, it took a great deal of concentration to keep doing what she was doing, and not change to Ranma and do something the other would heartily approve of.

     "Not really, this . . . helps," she explained, felt Nab-chan relax and cuddle tighter against her, which was definitely a test of concentration, whether Nab-chan intended it that way or not.  Ranko knew Nab-chan would soon be asleep.  Doing this did help.  The events today had traumatized Ranko far worse than it had Raccoon, healing the injuries he'd gotten helped that trauma far more than anything else.  So did having two people who cared about her surrounding her this way.

     Today had been a nightmare beyond all imagining.  Ranma had been waiting outside a burning building, an animal clinic.  Raccoon had ordered him to stay out, but was called away before he could explain why.  Ranko realized she should have guessed the obvious reason.  The nut with the laugh and the ribbon had broken off her battle with the baker's peel-wielder to attack, or attach, 'Ranma-sama'.  Said Ranma-sama had assumed jumping into the spray of a firehose would throw her off the trail.  It hadn't, and had added the nut with the wooden sword to the chase.  The surprise mauling Ranko got from the sword wielder was far worse than what Ranma had done to Asuka, and now Ranma could understand why she'd get so crazy about it.  One pervert and one homicidal maniac, the burning building looked a lot more attractive.  So she charged in.

     The idiots did not, and were quite vociferous about their explanations of their and her motives.  They never guessed it was to get away from them. Ranko thought as she hunted the next cold spot, running her fingers over the cloth of Raccoon's pajamas.

     Raccoon had passed her on the way out, carrying a couple of staff members.  Again he warned Ranko off.  Ranko headed into an area not affected by the fire and relatively clear of smoke.  A couple of men working on a locked/jammed door attracted her attention.  Ranko's luck was running true to form, as always.  Ranko easily smashed through the door, and landed amid the very heart of the abyss.

     Cats, she thought and shuddered, Raccoon tightened his grip on her and Nab-chan snuggled closer, although both were soundly asleep.  Frightened by the smoke, the strange noises, the cries of other animals and the damage to their cages, they had turned to face this new unknown.  They were as terrified of her as she was of them, and just as ready to attack.  If it had been a fight, she would have released the other.  But in a burning building, filled with smoke and other dangers, she didn't dare, she couldn't trust what it would do.  Even if it could successfully escape.

     Raccoon had appeared, clamped his SCBA mask over her face and slung her over his shoulder, completely blocking out the sight and smell of the room's other occupants.  [SCBA: Self Contained Breathing Apparatus]

     She still had enough steadiness of mind to cover the faceplate with the tails of his suit coat and hum real loud to block the sound.  Ranko had no idea how Raccoon or anyone else had managed to rescue the other denizens.  Since they had not harmed anyone, she couldn't imagine that he could leave them there or let them run loose into the fire.

     But when she'd regained enough emotional control, she had awoken in the safety of the medical tent.  The operation was over, and she was safe.  Raccoon had gotten badly burned in a few places, but had insisted on returning home.

     Typical, she thought as she added Ki to another fading cold-spot, This would be a lot easier if he just let me take off his shirt, she thought, What's he afraid I'll see?  Ranma's got everything he's got.

     Ranko guessed he'd used up most of his magic in the operation.  Although Raccoon healed quickly, but it was nothing like Ranko or Nab-chan did, unless he could use his magic.  And Ranko had clearly overheard the warnings to Raccoon by the doctors about the dangers of burns.  Ranko wanted them healed quickly and completely.

     It also helped her to know she could help him, that he wanted and welcomed her help.  It feels good, she thought of the warm bodies warming her skin, doing something to help a friend.  It helped drive back the terrifying memories of the day.  It wasn't giri, Raccoon would never accept such a thing, his giri was to protect Ranma and his/her 'hidden depths'.  If that was the case, Ranma felt he'd better damn well prove that he had them.  Making sure her 'knight-in-tweed-armor' survived to fight another day was a good step.  So while the other two slept, she hunted cold spots, and as they warmed, she added Ki.  Eventually exhaustion drained her, but she felt like she had accomplished something.

     Rei felt Shinji-kun's lips find her nipple and begin to drink hungrily.  The power she'd taken from him in his blood, she'd mixed with the power of all the other Reis, and now was flowing back into him, like milk into a newborn.  She idly wished she could have added the strength of the other pilots, but she hadn't been able to find them.  Her fingers tangled with his hair, holding him to her, she desperately wanted more than these moments, she wanted him inside her, she wanted some greater proof of their feelings for each other.

     But that is not our purpose, she thought as she grew weaker, her combining with the others was also failing, It will last long enough.

     The exhaustion was now physically painful.  Shinji-kun seemed to sense her weakness, he broke contact and looked at her.  She pulled his face towards hers.  He kissed her eagerly, she wanted that to continue, but she was running out of time.

     She broke off the kiss.  "This will . . . " she began apologetically, she hated this, but it was necessary, "Hurt, please trust me."

     She waited for him to nod before she continued.  She could feel the power massing at his shoulder blades, her power, their power, it knew what was needed.  She touched his back to release it.  She caught him as pain and the balance change disoriented him.  Then she helped him to his feet as his wings slowly spread and flexed.  He picked her up, his arms and wings holding her tightly against him, in size she was more his child than his lover.

     She was left behind as he raced towards the moon, his next battle field.  She thought it terribly unfair that he would go alone into such a pit of corruption.  She couldn't follow, she felt herself, themselves, returning from whence they came.

It Does Not Grow As You Wish

     "Do you know how to cook a frog?" Raccoon asked.

     "You always have the most interesting pillow talk," Nab-chan complained, as she lay between Raccoon and Ranma.  Ranma had admitted what had happened between him and Asuka on the roof.  He'd lost his nerve before he told them about the bathroom confrontation.

     "We'll just wait for you to go to sleep, so we can watch the striptease," Raccoon commented.

     Nab-chan blushed, pulled away all the covers and rolled up in them.

     Ranma still didn't understand why Nab-chan even bothered with pajamas or underwear.  More often than not, they wound up scattered all over the room.  Raccoon had even plotted which sleeping arrangements were most likely to induce the behavior.  Nab-chan in the middle, Ranko cuddled up with her head on Nab-chan's shoulder, Raccoon behind Nab-chan with his arms holding all three together, guaranteed not only would Nab-chan be naked, but she'd be wrapped around Ranko like a creeper.  Raccoon called Nab-chan 'Kudzu-kun' the first time it happened.  Nab-chan hid in the bathroom for over an hour the first time.  The next time, they made Nab-chan wear a bra, a belt with a very complicated buckle and boots, not the slip-on kind but heavy workboots with lots of eyelets and long laces.  Raccoon had tied the laces into nearly impenetrable knots.  Nab-chan managed to get loose of all of it, and wrapped herself almost as impenetrably around Ranko, all without waking either of her bedmates.

     Waking to that made Nab-chan hide in the pantry for two hours.  Getting her out from behind all the canned goods had taken another hour.  Ranma hadn't figured out why Ranko elicited that behavior.  Ranma wasn't sure if he should be happy a pretty girl crawled all over him, or that she only did it when he was a girl and there was another guy around.

     One that you like having around, `Ranko` added.  He couldn't figure out if Nab-chan was competing, showing off, acting out what she wanted, or what.  Nab-chan couldn't be made to talk about it and neither Ranko nor Raccoon had the guts to `accept` the offer or go any further, and Nab-chan seemed mortified by her actions.  Whether it was that she didn't want anyone knowing how much she wanted to be held, or that she obviously wanted a lot more than just being held, wasn't something any of the three of them wanted to investigate.  Nab-chan didn't want to talk about it, Raccoon had confided in Ranko that the behavior was a much younger child trying to get what it needed with a different set of tools.  Offering sex to get companionship, or just acting out against some standard that she couldn't oppose, were just two examples of many possibilities, too complicated for even Raccoon to unravel.  Ranma needed no reminder to let Nab-chan work it out herself.  After what had happened with Asuka, Ranma wanted to take it very carefully with Nab-chan.

     "What does cooking frogs have to do with anything?" Ranma asked.

     "Do you cook a frog by dropping him in hot or boiling water?" Raccoon asked.

     "I'd think he'd jump out," Nab-chan said from within the cocoon of blankets.

     "Exactly, you cook a frog in warm or cold water, and you warm it up slowly," Raccoon explained, "So by the time he realizes he's being cooked, he's already been cooked."

     "Fascinating," Ranma yawned, "What does that have to do with anything?"

     "Presentation and preparation.  You cooked your frog by throwing her in boiling water and standing on the lid until she quit trying to get out after battering herself insensate against the lid.  A better approach would have been to hold her hand, soothing that as best you could, and asked permission to go further."

     "And just let her suffer?!  You are supposed to be her friend!" Ranma angrily shouted at him.

     "Yes, because that lets her feel she still has some control.  I can't overpower you, but I can pile facts and informed opinion on top of a request until you agree to warming the water your froggy-self is in, a little.  Then I start again to get a little more.  Politicians and Radicals have been doing this for years.  'I only want that,' and when you give it to them, they come back with 'I only want this', until they've gotten nearly everything they wanted.  I know, you couldn't do that.  It's not in your character."

     "That's right."  Ranma was horrified that he'd suggest letting anyone, especially a girl, suffer like that, when helping her was something so trivially easy.  "She coulda got hurt real bad, and I was suppose ta sit there and allow it?"

     "No, but destroying the trust between you two, was it worth it?" Raccoon asked.

     Ranma didn't think it was, but couldn't see any other way out of it.

     "Zero sum game, how little can you lose," Nab-chan said quietly, "June 15th."  She turned away from both Ranma and Raccoon.

     Ranma shuddered at that.  I'll never forget the fighting that day, he thought, Then days later, finding out the real cost.  "So I have to live with it," Ranma said morosely, staring up at the ceiling.

     "Death is the only alternative," Raccoon said, "And I don't recommend that."

     Ranma frowned.  "I think I got that part."

     "Fine, you got it," Nab-chan said with her face buried in the pillow and the covers, "GOTOSLEEP!"

     "You know we outnumber her," Ranma said as he raised himself up on his elbow and gazed down at Nab-chan's cocoon.  A singled worried eye regarded him out of the wrappings, "And she does have all the blankets."  Ranma had practically heard Nab-chan's eyes snap open.  She wouldn't know exactly what they would do, but she'd be thinking about it.  All three of them knew how ticklish Nab-chan was, for example.

     "Ranma," Raccoon scolded as he mirrored Ranma's pose, "Don't threaten her.  We should get some sleep.  No matter how cold it is and how miserable we'll be, we can thank her . . . later."

     The eye disappeared, its companion was probably studying the other boy.

     Ranma smiled, he suspected that Nab-chan would be waiting for that punishment on tenterhooks, for days.

     Nab-chan gasped as both of them independently closed in on her.

     "Share the blankets - " Raccoon began.

     "And a truce until after breakfast," Ranma completed.  There was a very rapid shuffling as Nab-chan bought herself a decent night's sleep.

     Ranma remembered all the `lessons` about the little gifts girls liked to get, he wondered if Nab-chan would be happy to get - flowers, chocolates, stuffed animals, etc. - all delivered anonymously, for a couple of days.

     Nabiki stared at what looked like a Setsubun festival gone mad.  That it was Raccoon as the primary combatant was further evidence of the insanity.  Ranma sat at the edge of the battlefield, watching intently.

     "What's going on?" Nabiki asked the martial artist, then she suddenly realized the entire `defense` team were all sitting there watching as Raccoon shouted 'Good luck IN, BAD luck OUT!' as he pelted his targets with handfuls of beans from a wooden box.

     "Ranma," Nabiki said, as she worried about their roommate, "I think you'd better go help."

     "Which side?" Ranma commented, raised a plate to her, "Tea snacks?"

     Nabiki looked around the battlefield as a handful of thrown beans shredded a defender's shield, a huge paper umbrella, like a shotgun blast.  The unconscious bodies strewn about included none of the defense team, they were all the same wizened figures.  The wooden spoons sticking out of his coat and hat, and tea powder that made Raccoon look like a dusty porcupine, hadn't diminished his ferocity one little bit.

     "He's winning?" Nabiki asked with a mix of amazement and horror.  Ranko had been schooling him every morning and evening in the art.  Mainly as an excuse for a three-way tickle fight, Nabiki thought disapprovingly, She could at least try!  But this - couldn't be.

     "I ain't goin' out there," Ranma said, "Either I'm target, or I'm in his way."  Raccoon chased down one of the gray-hairs who wouldn't stand up to run, but remaining seated hadn't diminished her speed either.

     Ranma explained while Raccoon deluged his target with beans and the same shout, "I thought they had a pretty good Art, then Raccoon started tearing them apart," Ranma said, "Tea?"  he offered from a thermos.

     "This is delicious," Nabiki said as she savored the tea.

     "Spoils of war," he said as he sipped tea and munched snacks.

     "Until he runs out of beans," Nabiki said worriedly.

     "Oh, got the second grandmaster, the rest don't have a prayer now," Ranma commented expertly, "The box, naw, he should have emptied it a dozen times over, I don't think it empties."

     "Oh."  Nabiki sat down next to Ranma to watch, both Raccoon in combat and Ranma's rapt analysis.  Ranma seemed almost meditating as he studied the fighting, tactics and techniques.

     "I do think you could stop this fight," Nabiki said, she doubted that Raccoon would attack Ranma.

     " 'Kay," Ranma said quietly, obviously disappointed.

     "HEY YOU JERKS! Apologize and offer to pay damages," he shouted at the top of his lungs, "Especially his HAT!" Ranma bellowed louder, "THEN he'll let you surrender!"

     Nabiki took her fingers out of her ears, her head was still ringing.  "That isn't what I meant," she told him angrily.

     "You're welcome," Ranma said, smirked.

     "What kind of art is this?" Nabiki asked, she thought she knew, but couldn't believe it.

     "Martial Arts Tea Ceremony," Ranma said offhandedly, "Too many holes though."

     "Martial arts tea ceremony?" Nabiki asked, "Then he's throwing . . . ?"

     "Yeah, coffee beans."

Simplicity May Veil A Subtle Complexity

     Ranma looked at Raccoon lying in the middle of the floor, reading a book.  Part of what Raccoon had told `Ranko` was that you got someone used to something sllloooowwwly.  Like get them used to it piece-by-piece.

     He had tea and some cookies he'd just finished baking.  He stopped, stared around the kitchen.  I'm baking cookies to share with another guy! Ranma realized, then instantly and mercilessly crushed the protest and his revulsion at the idea.  He paused to analyze what Raccoon and Nab-chan had tricked him into doing, as he would a fighting maneuver.  They'd set the idea in his head with a series of suggestions, letting him assemble them, until he jumped to a conclusion without really thinking about it.  I guess it works, he sighed and admitted, then he continued his preparations.  So it should work on Raccoon.  He'd decided he needed to do something about the wary stalemate between the two of them.  He poured the tea into two cups, set them and the plate of cookies on a tray.  He walked into the living room, there he set the tray down at a point where he and Raccoon could easily reach it, then he lay down, resting his head on Raccoon's legs.  He closed his eyes and began meditating, and waited.

     He felt a slight rise in tension in Raccoon, a slight shifting to accommodate the weight, then only the sound of turning pages.  Ranma relaxed, he let himself drop deeper into meditation, extending his senses, to become `aware` of his surroundings without letting the data disturb him.  He'd picked this time because he knew an artillery barrage wouldn't disturb Raccoon when he was reading, a direct hit would be required and that was the last thing Ranma wanted.  Ranma heard the steady consumption of the tea, the cookies, and the book.  But no other noises.

     He waited, unmoving, trying to make himself, if not nonthreatening, then at least inoffensive.

     Then Nab-chan arrived.  He was about ready to speak when Nab-chan walked into the living room, spotted the tea, the L-shaped arrangement of her roommates, then she locked onto the cookies.  She flopped down on the floor and lay down on Raccoon as well.  Ranma froze, if Nab-chan had laid down somewhere `inappropriate` it would destroy the entire operation.  Ranma kept his eyes clamped shut, tried to act as if he hadn't noticed.

     "And what are you doing?" Raccoon's tone would have frozen a typhoon solid.

     Ranma risked a glance over.  Nab-chan had draped herself over Raccoon, lying face down across his stomach.  "Nobody's drinking that tea," she said nonchalantly, drinking the second cup of tea, "Seems a shame to let it go to waste."  She set the empty tea cup back, then settled in with her head on Raccoon's hip.  "Besides, Ranma's going to tell us something momentous," she said as she munched a cookie, "These are pretty good."

     "Yes they are," Raccoon added, "Thank you."

     "Thank you," Ranma replied and relaxed a bit.

     "Besides, throw pillows don't talk," Nab-chan ordered, "Speak, Ranma."

     From Raccoon's expression, Ranma guessed that another definition of 'throw pillow' was about to be unleashed upon the world.  Then Raccoon considered a better way to get his revenge, later.  "Very well, what is it you wanted to speak about?"

     Ranma relaxed, a bit, just because it wasn't a disaster now didn't mean it wouldn't be a disaster in a few minutes.  "I can't change back, in the Real World," he said.

     "All life can change," Raccoon replied, "Adaptation is one of the characteristics of living things."

     Oh brother! Ranma thought, he glanced at Nab-chan, who seemed equally disgusted, but she just shrugged at him.  Oh, he doesn't want to give up the game.  Well neither do I, he'll just have to keep up.  "I mean I'm stuck as a girl."

     "Well, it's about time!" Miss Tendo said.

     "Bess, please, can you imagine how traumatic it would be for poor Ranma to be stuck as, and I quote 'A weak and defenseless little girl' unquote?  Men making lewd remarks, people staring, pawing, groping."

     Ranma almost wished Raccoon had turned furry and started meowing instead, it would have been less frightening.  Then he considered his reaction to Ranko getting groped, etc., it seemed Ranko wasn't as afraid of it as `he` was.  And how scared Asuka was about the same activity.  It was definitely something to consider.

     "Do you suppose that had something to do with the incident with Langley?" Raccoon asked.

     "I don't see why not," Miss Tendo responded, "Run away, analyze the situation, then come back and attack it a new way.  My dad used to say that was a tenet of our family's art."

     "Makes sense," Raccoon considered, "I did some tests with Ranko, to examine the bleed over from Nyogtha.  She had some very limited stretching abilities.  Sure you were piloting, Ranma not her, so your abilities should be much greater."

     "What are you talking about?" Nabiki grilled Raccoon as she turned and sat up to stare aghast at Raccoon, then at Ranma.

     Ranma liked how cute Nab-chan looked when she was working out a difficult problem.

     "You mean piloting changes you?" Nab-chan asked, now she looked worried.

     "It's impossible to destroy the real substance of a Great Old One, or an Outer God.  That's probably true of an Elder God as well . . . no, bad thought, Saotome absorbing the essence of Bast, I don't want to think about it.  The explosion would wipe out half the human race, melt the polar ice caps, destroy the climate, and turn the rest of the population into obsessed, angst-ridden whiners.  No, too terrible to contemplate."

     Nab-chan wasn't willing to let go, or be distracted.  "Let's get back to piloting changing you!"

     "Piloting changes you slightly, killing our enemies are where the real changes come in."

     "That's why they came to kill you," Nab-chan breathed, then covered her mouth in horror, glancing at Ranma and Raccoon.

     "WHAT?!" Ranma shouted as he sat up, he could hear the 'other' yowling in fury, maneuvering to be let out to kill those interlopers.

     "A team was sent by the British to deduce my `reliability`, I passed, or I wouldn't be here," Raccoon said offhandedly, not even bothering to sit up.

     "Would you at least act as if getting killed matters to you?!" Nab-chan shouted angrily at him while poking his chest to emphasize her words.

     "No," he replied with unruffled calm, "Our job is to hunt and kill monstrous threats to the human race.  If I became one, shouldn't I welcome my death?"

     "No," she said angrily and flopped back down so she was next to him, not on him.  She crossed her arms under her breasts, a fierce expression on her face as she stared at the ceiling.  Ranma recognized the effort to sidetrack the conversation, as well as the nugget of information left in the open.

     " 'Nyogtha, ever-fluid, ever-changing,'" he said quietly, "That's about what she said."

     "Sounds about right.  Nyogtha was without fixed form," Raccoon said, "It makes sense you would have absorbed part of that, along with Unit 01."

     "You mean the EVAs absorb it too?" Nab-chan asked as she sat up again.

     "The original assumption was the EVA would absorb the powers, the pilot would absorb the intellect," Raccoon explained, "Although since that isn't true, I wonder how much of the intellect the EVA absorbs."

     "We're getting off subject," Ranma reminded them, "You're saying . . . I can change shape . . . that I did this - to myself?  But how come I don't change with water?  Or anything?"

     "What?"  Raccoon sat up to stare at him.

     That got Raccoon's attention, Ranma thought.  "Yeah, I'm getting splashed, left, right and center, hot and cold."

     "Both hot and cold, now that is interesting."  Raccoon stared off into space, fixed on the problem and the solution, somewhere in the distance.

     "Don't tell me now you believe in the curse?!" Nab-chan said in an annoyed tone as she turned her back on him.

     "I wouldn't consider being able to change genders at will a curse.  But doing it when you can't control it, that I would consider a curse.  Imagine that you're in your ninth month of pregnancy."

     Ranma would rather imagine wearing a suit made out of live . . . those furry things.

     "And you get splashed, do you still have the baby when you change back?  It's probably something that would bother Ranko, look how concerned Ranma is about it," Raccoon said as he pointed at Ranma, "After all, Ranko wants you to be the father of her children."

     Nab-chan obviously remembered the conversation with Ranko months ago, turning an extremely green color was a dead give away.

     "Nab-chan!" Ranma said indignantly, "Two-timing on me!  And with Ranko!  I'm hurt!"

     The clenching of her fists and the narrowing of her eyes told him that Nab-chan was back to normal.  He quickly changed the subject.

     "Anyway, yes, I've been getting splashed by water, hot and cold, and I didn't change.  Asuka went through a bunch of household chemicals, none of those made me change, although they were all hot."

     "Well, if you absorbed more of Nyogtha's nature, I'd say that for some reason you're using that power to remain a girl," Raccoon said, wearing an expression of intense concentration.

     Ranma was aware of a faint chill coursing through him that had nothing to do with his incipient murder at Nab-chan's hands.  Analysis spell, Ranma thought, then caught the faint shrug from Raccoon, He sees it, but he can't explain it, Ranma comprehended.

     "What does concern me is the water bit.  You'd think if you had this problem, I'd have used a spell or something to prevent that from occurring.  Getting drenched repeatedly is nothing to ignore.  It could result in colds, influenza, minor burns, a whole host of other medical problems, especially in combination," Raccoon continued.

     Nab-chan was frustrated enough to practically twist herself, or both boys, into the ground.  "I thought you said you didn't believe in the curse," Nab-chan confronted Raccoon face to face.

     He pointedly looked down the front of her shirt before replying.  "You ate all the cookies," Raccoon accused back, "Of course I believe in the curse!  Ranma becomes Ranko when struck by cold water.  Shinji-the-meek becomes Shinji-the-maniac when struck with L.C.L., Langley-the-Barbarian becomes Langley-the-Librarian when struck with math problems, the list goes on.  Immerse her in real responsibilities and people she cares about, and Tendo Nabiki goes from being a two-bit grifter to a young woman Admirals and Generals and Heads of State respect and admire."

     Ranma backed away from the pair as fast as he could, without attracting their attention.  He wasn't sure if Nab-chan was going to tear Raccoon into pieces, or burst into tears, she seemed to be seesawing in between.  Right now Ranma's money was on 'both'.

     Nab-chan settled for a frown at that, and at Raccoon's continuing smile.

     Ranma suspected that the war had paused, and it would return with a decision later.  Ranma was jealous of Raccoon's ability to drop a bomb like that and survive the aftermath.

     "If we dumped some Jusenkyo water on him, what do you think would happen?" Nab-chan asked angrily, but still on the verge of tears.  Ranma was confused.

     "I get the idea it wouldn't bother him.  BUT the point I'm trying to make," he ended up screaming at them, "Is what happened, and what do I do about it?"

     "What did Langley and Rei-san say about it?" Raccoon asked, ignoring Nab-chan trying to stare a hole in his head.

     Ranma told them, mimicking their voices and postures as he did.

     "That's weird," Nab-chan commented, shaking her head.

     "No it isn't," Ranma said in Nab-chan's voice and posture.

     "Knock it off!" she complained.

     "I think he does Rei-san pretty good, but Ranko does her better.  Rei-san also made some good points," Raccoon said, "Can you think of a reason why you'd want to be a girl, and don't think with just your instincts, read your body and everyone elses who knows about the change."

     Ranma bit back his first reply.  He concentrated on how people moved and reacted, first was Asuka, who went from being scared of `him` to nearly choking the life out of `her`.  Rei went from being standoffishly hostile to Ranma, to helping with Asuka's experiments, then putting Ranko through the wringer with `catch`.

     "Do you really throw each other off buildings, catch, I mean?"

     "No, the dragons carry humans up to a high altitude and try to toss them through a goal ring.  It's considered very bad form to injure them or each other."

     Ranma turned a little green at Raccoon's explanation.  "I thought you wanted to talk about your curse," Raccoon added, almost his last words.

     "THAT'S WHAT I'VE BEEN TRYIN' TA DO!" Ranma shouted in frustration.

     "Easily excitable?" Raccoon asked Nab-chan, "Isn't he?"

     "Not in useful ways," Nab-chan replied in a bored tone.

     Ranma closed his eyes, reminded himself that a true Martial Artist did not kill without a good reason, and the world wouldn't be that much better with their entrails smeared all over the walls.  Besides, he reminded himself, There's all that paperwork.  He `quoted` an oft-told joke at the rescue agency.  "Yes, there was a - very - significant - difference - between how they acted before, and how they acted after."

     "And their actions when you were stuck as Ranko, were they similar to how they treated Ranko before?" he asked, patted Nab-chan's hand, "He's thinking in complete sentences, we should encourage that."

     Nab-chan lay down so her face was on his leg, she tugged his coat partially over her head.

     Ranma considered, analyzing how his two current roommates moved, then switched back to how close the others in Tokyo got to and around Ranko before and after the `Incident.`  "They were a lot alike."

     "How much?  Almost unchanged, one or two significant changes only, slight changes in everything, one or two major changes and slight changes in most other things, which?"

     That's a tough one, Ranma considered, he sighed, closed his eyes and concentrated.

     "A couple of major changes, but I don't think they are significant, if anything, they seemed less nervous about Ranko now, than they did before."  Now that he'd said it, it seemed almost unreal.  Equally unreal was that he hadn't noticed the change, although he remembered the changes and Rei had mentioned it.  Making it into a pattern was the bizarre part.

     "Hey!  No biting!" Raccoon shouted and spilled Nab-chan out of his lap as he stood, Nab-chan was on her hands and knees growling at Raccoon, like a dog.

     Too much Ki last night, Ranma thought, he'd been working on the `dosage` to make the repairs permanent.  He'd used almost all his Ki last night, it made him sluggish and thoughtful, it made Nab-chan just this side of nuts.  Although she'd insist, she was just being `playful`.  There is an innocence to it, Ranma observed as Nab-chan played, One we so rarely see from her.  Raccoon was completely nonplused by her behavior, he couldn't figure out what to do.  Ranma wondered how much Nab-chan was acting like this because of the excess Ki, and how much was just she felt safe to act out around them.

     "That's it!" he shouted.  Frightening his roommates, so Nab-chan started barking at him.

     "Behave!" Raccoon commanded as he dragged her to her feet, "What is it?"

     "When I say 'I won't do something because I'm a Martial Artist', what do you think?"

     "Considering you and Bess here are the only Japanese martial artists, legal ones at least, if you two agree on something, that's the new standard."

     "What?!"  Nab-chan twisted out of the grip Raccoon had on her.  "You mean if Ranma and I agreed to do something, you think that would make it okay?"

     "If someone bases what is acceptable and unacceptable on the dictates of martial arts and Bushido, I only have to point out the War crimes trials to show what is acceptable: genocide, slave labor, conscripting `comfort women` to be prostitutes, need I go on?  All that was supposed to be part of Bushido, as it was actually practiced."

     Ranma had already taken the blow when Langley said much the same, there was no surprise for him, but Nab-chan looked like she'd been kicked in the stomach.  "You can't be serious!" Nab-chan insisted, almost pleading.

     "Yes," Ranma quietly interjected, "It's what Asuka told me."

     Nab-chan was completely serious now, she glared at Raccoon.  She looked like she was ready to physically attack him.  "It - is - not - true -!" she bit off every word.

     "By what evidence?" Raccoon asked as smooth and cold as Ranma had ever heard, "Major ggreg and Adam Smith were already prepared to destroy me if necessary.  You don't think that it's impossible that he might prove a threat?"

     Nab-chan fumed, too angry to say anything.

     "That's what I needed to talk to you about," Ranma said quietly, "I already told you about what happened on the roof with Asuka, but not what she said later."

     "I can't believe you'd - believe - such a thing!" Nab-chan shouted.

     "Why?  Because it makes him sound like Kuno?  Or Happosai?  Or Genma, or Soun, or any of the other `honorable` martial artists we have to clean up after?"  Now he was advancing step by step, driving Nab-chan back.  "Did it ever occur to you that letting Akane get attacked every morning is a training technique, or that Akane knows what would happen to her if one of those boys actually knocked her unconscious?  I can tell you in graphic detail the `date` those kinds of boys would take an unconscious girl on, especially when they have an authority figure's permission," Raccoon said, showing just a hint of anger, but backing Nab-chan against the wall, Ranma approached.  "If it was MY daughter, and neither the cops, nor the school nor their parents would put a stop to it, I'd go in there and emasculate every single one of them, in public, probably right there in the school yard.  So do I think that's the standard set by martial artists?" he asked Nab-chan, driving her back with the force of his anger.  Ranma put his hand on Raccoon's shoulder, Raccoon shrugged him off.  "Yes, it is.  I may not have grown up there, but my dream of Nerima is little different from what all three of us here have gone through here.  Those `honorable` martial artists attacked my home, not delivered a challenge and fought in the dojo, but struck the living quarters, time after time.  Until I had to kill them."  Ranma quit trying to intervene.

     Nab-chan blanched at that.  Ranma thought it was completely in character for Raccoon.  If someone challenged him to a battle to the death away from bystanders, he probably wouldn't hold a grudge.  If you harmed his family, you were a dead man/woman/thing.  No matter where he had to find and kill you.

     "Kuno . . . "

     "No, not the Kunos, they fell to more subtle manipulations.  I threw Shampoo at Tatewaki and a healing spell at Kodachi.  But Ryoga injured Misato-Kasumi the first time, claimed it was an accident, and he kept coming back.  His `honor` seems to mysteriously vanish once the fight begins.  Can you imagine him attacking a home with a child or children in it?"

     Ranma could, they rescued people from those kinds of disasters on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, and that was just collateral damage.  Now he did pull Raccoon away from Nab-chan by the shoulder.  When Raccoon stared at him, he just put his hands up, and moved away, but Raccoon didn't close on Nab-chan again.  Against a truly ruthless opponent who intentionally put innocents or family in harm's way? Ranma shuddered at the thought, If the actual target was in the home . . .   "I can imagine," Ranma said.  That I'd do my best to limit and avoid, if not prevent that kind of danger to others . . .  Ranma thought, Raccoon would rather eliminate the danger at the source.  He glanced at Nab-chan who had gone silent and shaking, and was paler than Rei.  He could see, besides the shivering, the slight motions she was making.  He tried to remember what she did the last time she was moving like that.

     She's thinking, and she doesn't like what she's thinking about, he realized, then he began studying the stances of the people arguing in front of him, ignoring the words.  They were in combat as much as if they were exchanging blows.

     "Then you think Ranma would do something like that?" Nab-chan said.

     All-out desperation attack, Ranma thought.

     "Listen carefully," Raccoon replied.

     Resolute defense, perhaps a spoiling attack, Ranma thought.

     "He has given us no evi-dence to disbelieve it, that his current behavior is not a ruse or a temporary aberration."

     "That doesn't answer my question."

     Trying to maneuver to find weakness, Ranma analyzed, The spoiling attack must have worked.

     "The answer to your question is, I am not sure.  What he says doesn't jibe with what he does.  So that leaves the question of 'WHICH is the truth'?  If I don't know, I assume and prepare for the worst."

     Double envelopment, Ranma remembered the term, A Cannae.

     With the battle clearly won, Ranma asked what he hadn't been able to bring himself to ask Asuka, "So what do I have to do different?"

     Tension, another fighter enters the arena . . . NO, he realized, A noncombatant has wandered onto the field, they want to keep fighting, but they don't dare, they no longer have a clear field of fire, he thought as he watched the glances and the subtle movements.  They called a truce, he concluded.

     "What is the real core of Saotome Ranma?" Raccoon asked, his posture disciplinedly nonthreatening.

     "You know I'm not good at explaining things," Ranma offered and watched the hostility between the pair drop further, but they also acted as if Ranma had landed a serious hit on Raccoon.  They're still doing `katas` to impress the other with their skill, but they don't want to hurt the newcomer and are watching the other to make sure the other doesn't become a threat.  It irritated him that they treated him as weak and fragile, at the same time he was glad they were working hard not to hurt him.  They could hurt me in ways I could never strike back, he thought.

     "I'm waiting."

     "You speak of honor, which is just a set of rules defined by people, and therefore are changeable," Raccoon said, "Character is who you are when no one is watching.  I wouldn't trust Bess here not to cheat an opponent out of his eye teeth, but she'll always keep a contract, because she gave her word.  You've seen what I do to lethal threats.  Why don't I apply that solution to any threat or inconvenience?"

     "Why?" Ranma asked.  He never expected Raccoon to kill indiscriminately, it seemed an impossibility.

     "Because it's wrong," Raccoon said.

     "That's it?" Nab-chan asked.

     Ranma thought he finally understood.  With his God looking over his shoulder, if there is something that's 'wrong' he'll automatically get caught and punished.  Raccoon always knew that somebody with a really big stick was watching him.  But they assume I don't have the same kind of limit on my behavior.  Okay, then how do I explain I do?  That I'd NEVER hurt one of them that way, the way they're afraid of.  Because it was wrong.  But I've got no nebulous All-Father to point to, and pointing to `society` would just get a laugh.  He was at a loss, he needed to tell them, but the words didn't seem to make it from his brain to his mouth as he intended, not like movement, not like Martial Arts.  Words were more like smoke, he couldn't catch and hold them, couldn't mold them to serve him.

     "How do I do that?" Ranma asked.

     "Why are you stuck as a girl in the Waking World?"

     Ranma was going to retort that the two had nothing in common, then he realized that Raccoon was saying they were related, and what Ranma had just been complaining about was the key.  But he couldn't find it.

     "Quit assuming that thinking is words and math, thinking is processing information.  Learning a martial art's move is as much thinking as Linear Algebra," Raccoon said, "Do you know what the verbal portion of your IQ is?"

     Ranma shook his head.

     "You got a 79, that's a fair degree of mental retardation.  But your spacial relation and . . . well, let's call it your eye-hand organizational skills, all those puzzles you did."

     "Yeah, real easy."  That had been the only part of the IQ test that didn't make him feel stupid.

     "Your score on those parts was better than mine, or Langley's.  You took half the time we were allocated to do the entire series, and neither of us even finished all those puzzles.  I also suspect that the proctor flipping the pages slowed you down."

     "Tell me about it."  Ranma remembered, it was the funnest `test` he'd taken, he could have gone faster if he could have seen the next puzzle faster.

     "Your composite score gives you a genius IQ 167.  My honest opinion is that Ranma Saotome is autistic.  I did the research I could on Autism and Asperger's Syndrome in 1947, Rei suffers from the later.  It's a disorder that inhibits your linguistic skills, use of the spoken word, but it enhances your mechanical skills."  Raccoon walked over to his briefcase, extracted a file folder.  "In this time, there's a lot more research.  In the DSM-III-R, it discusses the failure to form peer relationships, share others' enjoyments, interests, or achievements, use of stereotypical or repetitive language, and an inability to initiate or carry on conversation, a restricted area of interests with abnormally intense focus.  As well as a delay or diminished functioning in social interaction or social use of language, symbolic or imaginary play."

     Ranma had little idea what all of that meant, but Raccoon always talked that way, if he let himself go.  What worried Ranma was the way Nab-chan was revealing that she thought it was uncannily accurate.

     "So?" he asked, hoping Raccoon would wise up and translate it, or get to the point.

     "Ranko isn't," Raccoon said, "So if you could change back and forth between Ranma and Ranko, and you had the abilities of Nyogtha, even a small portion, and you were in a jam that only social skill could get you out of.  What would a master of 'any tactic to win' do?"

     That Ranma had no trouble figuring out.  "I'd become Ranko and stay that . . . way . . . "  Ranma stared at his two roommates.  He took a few moments to find his voice again.  "I did this . . . to myself?"  He still couldn't believe it, although this time he understood the how, and the why.  It was a good plan, he thought, And it seemsta work real good.  He was still more than a little horrified at his own `cleverness`.  He saw both Nab-chan and Raccoon rushing forward to catch him, then they jointly lowered him to the ground.  He overheard the two arguing, Nab-chan accusing Raccoon of teasing Ranma about the curse, or something like that, and Raccoon's comments about humoring Ranma, encouraging his abstract thinking and that it was Nab-chan, or `Bess` they were teasing.

     He was trying to imagine how he could - why he would - what he hoped to accomplish as a girl, in words, but they kept running through his fingers.  He understood the hows, the whys, but there was no way to explain it, no way to talk about it, no way to analyze it that the others would understand.  And most importantly how did he tell - himself - to change back?  He could feel the wordless thoughts swimming around, easy to catch, impossible to `land`, the plan made sense.  Asuka wasn't as torn up as she had been, Rei seemed bemused by the entire episode, Shinji just took it with his normal level of apprehension about everything.

     Maybe being a girl for a while is a good thing, or at least survivable, if I can still be a guy in dreams, he thought, Okay, for everybody except me, it is a lot better.  But how did I figure that out?  It's as sneaky as one Raccoon, Nab-chan or Asuka would come up with.  And why didn't I `discuss` it with myself?  Ranma, Ranko, even the other were all as shocked as anyone.  He shook his head, he still felt that it was too impossible.

     Nab-chan and Raccoon, with the noncombatant off the field, were back in full verbal/intellectual battle mode.

     "Shut up!" he shouted at them, his head was hurting enough.

     Both fell silent, looked apologetic and then separated.  Raccoon picked up Ranma and placed him in the bed.  Nab-chan put a cold cloth on Ranma's forehead and the two of them withdrew.  Ranma could feel them glaring at each other, despite that he couldn't see or hear them argue.  He let the coolness of the cloth seep into his overheated mind, and still the words would not come.

Lonely Roads, Long And Winding

July 26, 1947

     Sarah sat up, she immediately lay back down.  Everything hurt, even breathing, everything was too loud, too bright, it all stank.  She could hear the other noises of the old house, empty except for her.  She'd felt the same when all the Reis had separated and `awakened` in Reis' dreamscape.  She had moved then, as had all the others, and then thought better of it.  Awakening in the same condition a second time, gave her the chance to avoid the painful and disorienting mistakes she'd already made once.

     I hope Rei's plan worked, she thought silently, settling back into her bed, Because I don't want to do that again.  She got as comfortable as she could, then burst into tears.  The pain of separation and loss overwhelmed her, the Reis were closer to her than sisters, then having Shinji-kun with her, touching her, wanting her, now knowing she would probably never see him again.  She wanted to be with them again, and at the same time she treasured her independence.  It was a cruel dilemma, one she saw no solution for.

     "What is this?" Ranma asked about the strange table Raccoon had finished assembling.

     "A drafting table," Raccoon said as he adjusted the height and slant of the table.  Nab-chan carried in the chair that fitted into the table.  Then Raccoon brought out a number of very strange tools.

     "What's drafting?" Ranma asked.

     "Drawing," Nab-chan said as she carefully bolted an L-shaped ruler on an arm to the edge of the table.  While Raccoon set out a box of paper and another one of pencils, rulers, and a few erasers.

     "With your spatial intelligence, you should be very talented with this, and it also will let you make a very good living."

     "Not everything is about money," Ranma said.

     "True, but don't you want to do something to help Langley, or do something nobody is going to say isn't `intellectual`.  It's also a step towards drawing."

     "And I'd want to do that, why?" Ranma asked.

     "If you are going to pass on your knowledge, and you can't write well, a drawing of the move will allow the information to be preserved.  Also, drawings will communicate.  'A picture is worth a thousand words', although supposedly the Chinese value is ten thousand words, so it is even more important for teaching the Chinese," Raccoon told him.

Jacob And The Nightingale

     Ranko hurried about her task, but did not scurry.  She wanted this to be proper, dignified, a clear end between who she was, and who she would be in the future.  Raccoon had healed from the attack Ranma had made on him.  With 'remarkable rapidity', Ranko shuddered at the remembrance of the clinical tone the doctor had used about Ranma nearly murdering his teammate for the `crime` of not letting him race out and kill someone else.  And probably die in the execution, Ranko thought.  It took several long moments before her hands quit shaking from her current shame and her remembered rage.  She let the tears fall unhindered, girls were allowed to cry after all.

     Now he's coming home.  Bed rest was still indicated.  Ranko was still on her leave of absence.  Only Nab-chan was at work, she would not be here to interfere in events.

     The tanto was clean and purified, as was the kimono she would wear.  The paper for wrapping and writing, fresh ink and a brush awaited the contract, or the death haiku.  She smiled at that.  Her `penmanship` was much improved, the drafting/drawing was fun, and relaxing, and Ranma could sketch out something in less than a minute, a machine, an animal, or a person, and make it look like he wanted it to look.

     She felt as if she were preparing for a play, which in a sense she was.  Words would not serve well, they never had, she would have to show what she was saying and doing.  What she was offering Raccoon.  There were words that went along with the costumes, the makeup, the props and the setting, but they were only part of the message.

     She heard the car door, followed by the door of the building.  She knelt next to the low table with the tanto, brush and paper on it.  That would be the first thing he saw as he entered, then the beautiful girl in her white kimono.  Whether the white would have an Asian or a Western connotation would depend on Ra . . . on Jeffrey.  She was glad she heard no other voices, no other footsteps.  He was returning alone.

     The tread was slower and heavier than usual.  Exactly what this meant she would have to wait to see.  She stifled the urge to fidget, her hair, makeup and clothing were as perfect as she could manage, a last minute change in a state of near panic would not help.  She slowed her breathing and relaxed.  She knew she was a coward, the makeup just so to enhance her beauty, and the hair brushed soft and styled as Jeffrey liked it, was proof.  She was a bribe, to cheat Raccoon of the retribution Honor demanded.  Ranma should have simply met him on the roof and begged him to serve as kaishaku, the one who would administer the final stroke to prevent him from dishonoring himself by crying out during seppuku.  But she couldn't, she loved life, as painful and frustrating as it always was, she knew it would get better, and most of all, she didn't want to leave behind the joys she constantly encountered that made it all bearable, even wonderful.  So my experiences remain, and a different person can better enjoy and make use of them, she thought placidly, Let them enjoy the beauty.  Let me take the pain and end it.

     I am dead, all that awaits is my next incarnation, she thought to quiet her heart, That is out of my hands.  The thought calmed her, she knew which of the alternatives she wanted him to take, she didn't want to die, but she couldn't live with who she had been.

     She considered Jeffrey, and that she had, if not faith, she could trust him to do the right thing, to be fair and gentle with her.  So she sat and waited, feeling a calm she hadn't known, fear and expectation were gone, she was beyond all concerns and controls.  Waiting became more bearable.  The door opened, Ranko extended her senses.  She could feel Jeffrey extending his analysis.

     Probably had a hand on his gun, Ranko thought, for some reason she thought it was fitting.  He was prepared to kill, and she was awaiting death, yet perhaps not in the way either would normally understand.  Who she had been would die, by her hand, it was already accomplished.  Who she would be reborn as, was in his.

     He opened the door all the way.  Ranko had her head bowed, but she stared up through her bangs to see his expression.  There was none, not like Rei's expressionless expression.  This was schooled and disciplined, nothing would escape until he understood what was happening.

     She reached over and picked up the tanto, carefully unsheathing it.  "For what I have done.  My life - "  She swallowed, trying to keep her voice level.  "To take, to do with as you see fit.  My honor is lost.  I ask you to end it, one way or another."  She bowed low, the naked blade still in her outstretched hands.  She touched her forehead briefly on the ground, then sat up and looked him in the eyes.  It would insult a Japanese.  But he has a different code and culture, she thought, I hope I'm communicating clearly.  She felt the beginning of tears.  She would neither stifle nor encourage them.  Her life, her future were no longer hers, she could - she had to - let the events unfold.  She had let her instincts lead her, rather than thought or reflexes.  She knew that Jeffrey would understand the Japanese implications and would take her words as the meaning he chose for them.  The words and the sentiment behind them were true.  She prayed Jeffrey would see the direct interpretation as murder, and would not let her take that route.

     Jeffrey knelt before her, looking intently at the pretty girl.  "And you believe running away is the appropriate answer?" he asked softly, "Into death or servitude?"

     She wanted to turn away.  He has to understand! she thought as he took the tanto from her hand, then the sheath.

     "You have made a mistake.  The mistake of all mistakes," he said softly as he ran the tip of one finger over the sharp edge, drawing his own blood, as his reminder drew the blood of her soul.  She wished he'd simply driven the blade into her heart, rather than bring up her shame again.  "But here, now," he said gently, holding the finger, with blood welling out of it, in front of her.  "It is only a mistake, not the disaster you believe it to be."  The bleeding stopped, the blood was reabsorbed and the cut healed over.  "But you've made it.  Now you understand what we feared, now you understand what you feared.  Now you understand why it must never - never - never happen again."  His voice grew deeper and softer as he spoke.

     Ranko felt her heart trembling within her, she didn't know what to say, she didn't know what to do.  She wanted to abandon everything, to take the blade from him and just end her life.  Doesn't he understand?!  I want to make sure it never happens again!  She felt the tears coming, she let them flow.  Shame, remorse, anger, frustration all welled up from within.  This was supposed to serve as repentance for what she'd done, for what Ranma had told everyone who would listen, was impossible.  Yet, he'd done it.

     "The war does not end here, life does not end here," he told her, his voice barely above a whisper, as he cleaned the tanto.  He resheathed it and placed it back into her hands.  "You must take the experience, however painful, and learn from it, as a man does.  There has been a mistake, it will not happen again."  He rested his hands on her shoulders, waited until she looked into his eyes.  "We need you, Ranma and Ranko both.  I know your character, you will fight to the death to preserve and protect others.  You are, despite all that's happened, still an innocent.  Langley and I have treated you so poorly because we long ago lost our innocence.  Maybe we have been so hardened we can barely see it in others anymore.  I ask you to be patient, with both of us."

     "I will," Ranko said softly.  She moved closer to the boy, gathered him up in her arms.  "I forgive you," she told him.  She felt no tension from the contact or her pulling them together.  "I forgive you," she told him as he laid his head on her shoulder.  She felt cool, clean and refreshed, more alive than she had in such a long time.

     "I forgive you."  She'd forgiven the others for their slights and insults, their teasing, but she'd never told them.  It made a difference, one she couldn't put into words, 'good' seemed inadequate.  But she felt good, so good she thought she was flying.

     Maybe I did die, she thought, Just not the way I intended.

     The kiss was unexpected, not because of the tender ferocity of it, but because she was doing the kissing, and `Ranma` didn't seem to object.  Another rapidly followed, there was a third.  At some point, Jeffrey started kissing her back, tentatively at first, but soon matching her.

     "Do I even want to ask?" Nabiki said as she arrived home and found Ranko in a white kimono and Raccoon, in a rather languid embrace.  The lack of destroyed furniture and disarranged clothes indicated the embrace was probably as far as things had gotten.  "Were you two waiting for me?  Or are you two still too cowardly for . . . "  She cut herself off, offering a challenge to Ranma or Ranko's courage would have him or her rise to the challenge immediately.  She was glad none of the fiancees had ever considered the possibility, or accused him of being `unmanly` because he was so uncertain about that part of male-female relations.

     She did not want her first `experience` with Ranma to come out of a sense of aggrieved masculinity, nor was she certain she wanted her first experience with Ranma to be with `Ranko`.

     Ranko had raised her head from where it had been pillowed on Raccoon's shoulder, and Raccoon had raised his head off Ranko's arm on the floor.  Both of them regarded her, not vacantly, but without discernible expression.

     "Okay, I'm jealous," she admitted.  Why did I say that? she wondered.

     "Of?" Raccoon asked.

     "YOU - " she shouted. "Two," she nearly whispered, "All right?"  She understood why she'd said it.  She'd been slipping away to look at her old home, close enough to see and overhear.  She had done it today, and it twisted in her guts like a knife.  She had walked away, because of how they had treated Ranma, because it had offended her sense of honor.  She could have walked back in, swallowed her pride and let them welcome her back . . . home.  Then she came back to the apartment, where two boys who congenially despised each other, and a girl and boy who danced around their flirtations, all `three` worked to make her feel welcome, to make her feel wanted.  Worse, all they demanded was a laugh, a smile, or an insult that acknowledged they were there and making an effort.

     What hurt worse was that even between Ranma and Raccoon there was a level of trust and even intimacy that she couldn't find within herself.  Ranma and Raccoon knew what the other would do, would protect each other as they would protect her, but she kept too many critical pieces away from the others.  That Ranma wasn't instantly threatened by Ranko's actions towards Raccoon, that he didn't treat it as a death knell to his masculinity mystified her.  She couldn't let so much of whom she was go, even if it would be returned a dozen-fold.  So she was jealous, and lonely, surrounded by `three` people who would be happy to do as she asked, who would be delighted to make her happy.  She longed to be able to trust, as they trusted each other.  Despite all the opportunities they had to take advantage of her, they never had, not because they were afraid of reprisals, but because they valued her.  Even her family had not valued her so, she was the throwaway.  Mabiki, `thinning out`, a polite euphemism for throwing away unwanted, usually girl, children.  A cruel, and she hoped an unintentional, twist on her given name.  She hadn't been the lady-of-the-house, she hadn't been the heir, so she didn't matter in the grand scheme of things.  She was disposable, whatever would do good for the family, she was expected to do.  But not to `Rit-chan`, Raccoon, Ranma, or even the other pilots, not to those who only months earlier had bent their every waking thought to destroying Japan as a people and a nation.  To them she was `Nab-chan`, `Ice Princess` and `Miss Tendo`, valuable to them, respected, even slightly feared.

     Maybe that's why I can't let them love me, she thought, Those who `loved` me, didn't value me.  But I want both.

     She looked up at her roommates who were both staring intently at her, once she became aware of them, they glanced at each other and by silent accent, they stood simultaneously.  The unspoken communications and synchronization between the two, and between Ranma and Raccoon, was something she had envied, now it frightened her as they coordinated their surrounding her.  She tried to take a step back, and only succeeded in closing the door behind her.  She wasn't sure she liked the unreadable expressions on her roommates' faces.

     "Why jealous?" Ranko asked and smiled, "We share."

     The smile had Nabiki worried.  It wasn't one of her 'I'm a shark, you're prey' grins, nor one of Raccoon's 'I know it all and I'm going to make you ask' smiles.  The closest she'd seen was Rei talking to Gendo, the two of them smiled the way Ranko was smiling now, smiling at her now.

I Cannot Grasp Why You Care

     "Better?" Ranko asked as she idly played with Nabiki's hair.

     "Yeah," Nabiki breathed.  She was glad she'd let her hair grow out in back, keeping her pageboy-style sides, but growing a ponytail in back.  Ranko had that ponytail in hand and was delicately tickling Nabiki's shoulders with it.  It just caused her to nestle herself more tightly against Ranko, with her head pillowed on Ranko's breasts.  "Is nice," she commented on the foot massage Raccoon was still giving her.  Anything that felt that good had to be evil magic.

     The massage that Ranko had started had reduced Nabiki to putty.  Nabiki had been right about the roommates' competitiveness.  Ranko had worked on her shoulders and back, Raccoon on her calves and feet.

     Oh Kamis, had that felt good! she thought, she didn't care who heard her moans from that, nor did she care what they thought had elicited them.  She'd never felt that good in her life, and they'd only tapered off because 'I'm afraid we'll kill her', but they refused to completely stop.

     I doubt I'd care if Godzilla stepped on us, she thought as she ran her fingers through Ranko's silky, soft hair, I'd die happy.

     The only nagging doubt that hadn't been smothered by the fluffy cloud that her mind currently resided in was why they hadn't gone further, she probably would have said 'yes' if they'd asked, either of them.  That bit was silenced by the happiness that they hadn't.  While they had competed, it had been entirely about her.  She didn't have to do anything except enjoy it.  She drowned the rest of her doubts in the sea of contentment she rested in.  She could worry later.  Tomorrow, both would be gone on vacation, she'd have the long nights alone in bed to lie awake and worry about why they gave and gave, and didn't expect her to give back equal measure.  Or they thought she did.

     Nabiki lowered the binoculars.  Ranma and Raccoon were on their `vacation`, a train trip to Fukuoka.  Nabiki had expected Ranma to demand to walk there, or due to Raccoon's delicate condition, carry the other boy there on his back.  But they'd purchased a stateroom, and Ranko insisted on seeing 'Jeffrey' safely aboard and tucked in before returning to 'Nab-chan' as Ranma, and giving her not the good-bye peck on the cheek she expected, but a tonsil massage most of the fiancees would have killedto get.  Then he gave her the same clueless, befuddled smile as he walked back to the train.  She said a silent prayer that Raccoon knew what he had gotten himself into.

     She could carry out her plan without explaining it to them.  The deliveries were paid for with cash and thus untraceable.

     She'd seen the state of the house.  Kasumi had far more mending than the house ever had before, so she was taking in needlework to get money.  Her fat - Soun and the panda were cheating at shogi, not adding anything to the household.  Akane had her practice, homework, and of course, her social life, so she couldn't be bothered.  With anything like the mundane necessities of life, Nabiki fumed silently.

     Nabiki glanced at the heavy binoculars hanging around her neck, the finest German optics, the heavy things that cost 80000 yen, but she was earning enough that it was merely an extravagance, not a bank breaker.  She felt oddly guilty about doing this.  The trucks arrived, the delivery men were met by Kasumi.  The barrels of rice, soy sauce, and other large containers of relatively imperishable food stocks continued to arrive.  If Kasumi stretched it out, it was enough food for a year.

     Through the binoculars, Nabiki saw that neither Soun nor Genma helped the workman, or Kasumi, although they did salivate over all the arriving food.  Kasumi was initially nervous about the `wealth` being delivered, and was slowly approaching panic.  Nabiki kept watching through the binoculars, she wished she could read the lips of the various participants.  The delivery men couldn't tell her anything, Kasumi's growing worry and frustration were apparent to her younger sister.  It was an extremely subtle revenge.  Ranma and Raccoon had used the technique on her weeks ago.  They'd left her alone for almost a week of growing paranoia at their politeness.  She'd never underestimated Ranma's intelligence, when it applied to a battle.  Then, on her desk one morning, she found a pink stuffed bear with its arms around a coffee cup that read 'I wuv U', she didn't think calling the team's bomb squad was over the top.  They needed the practice anyway.  The fact that the ticking was a clock in the bear's stomach wasn't her fault, the coffee cup had hidden it from her.

     The arriving chocolate, flowers, balloons, etc. usually pink, all sickeningly cute, all anonymous, all eliciting an immediate 'KAAAAWWWAAAIIII!!!' even from otherwise reasonable and rational female coworkers, and even the men thought her having a secret admirer was `romantic.`  Raccoon and Ranma had both acted jealous.  Her counterattack had failed completely, so she had been . . . made the decision to . . . she ate crow.  While she planned her eventual revenge, she profusely and immediately apologized.

     Now she was finding out how effective it was.  Nabiki had arranged for a friend to make the order and pay, they didn't give a name.  So no one knew anything to point back to the source.  Kasumi kept fluttering about where to put all the food.  She knew enough to store the least edible where her father and the panda could get at it.

     She isn't stupid, Nabiki thought as she watched.  Finally the unloading ended, papers were signed.  Soun and the panda were celebrating, assuming they'd eat their way through half of it tonight.  I'd put them on plain rice and boiled cabbage for a month for saying that, she thought.  She could easily read the panda signs through the binocs.

     At last, she saw what she'd been waiting for, Kasumi putting her foot down about not being prodigal in using the gift.  Nabiki waited long enough to know they wouldn't argue her out of it, then she turned to head home.  She resisted the temptation to stop in at the Nekohanten or Ucchan's, even though she honestly had no idea where Ranma and Raccoon were at the moment.  They could have easily boarded the train to Fukuoka, and Raccoon could have teleported them to Perth for all she knew.

     What's special about Fukuoka, anyway? Nabiki wondered.  She couldn't have gone with them anyway.

     She nearly ran into Raccoon's walking stick a meter or two from where she'd been standing.  "Go away.  Shoo!" She gestured at the stick.  Great, now I'm talking to it, she thought.  It went from vertical to horizontal at about hip level.

     "I am not going to ride you home," she told it, then muttered, "Pervert."

     It swung around behind her, so she could sit down on it like a swing.

     "Oh, side saddle."  She sat down and almost expected it would dump her off.  Instead, the ride was steady and safe.  No marital artists were flying through the air to intercept her.  She didn't really resent Raccoon looking out for her by remote control, but she did wish he'd left something that wasn't so smug about it.

     Ranko scrambled over the loose stone and took in the view.  She spared a glance at Jeffrey as he stepped up beside her a moment later.  The Strait of Tsushima, the town of Fukuoka and the villages surrounding both laid out around them.

     Surprised about Jeffrey being able to keep up, Ranko thought to herself.  "You know how to climb rocks," she said after they had spent several silent minutes enjoying the view, and each others presence.

     "Wyoming is like this, biggest state in the Union, once you iron it flat," he joked, "I am curious why here.  Fuji-san is taller, and there are other tall mountains."

     She smiled at that, but she had her reasons.

     "And not Jusenkyo, I do know where it is," Jeffrey added.  They stood together for several minutes, just looking at the vista.  A few airplanes in the distance, but no other evidence of human activity.

     "I thought about it," Ranko said, "What's weird is . . . I can think better as Ranma, clearer, faster, but I . . . I can't get it out to others as well as I can as Ranko.  If that makes any sense."

     "I keep saying Ranma and Ranko aren't the same person," Jeffrey said as he put a hand on her shoulder, "Why doesn't anyone believe me?"

     Ranko stepped up beside him, resting against him.  The last few days of simply riding the train, climbing mountains, walking the trails, simply being, had helped.  So had the lessons on combining Ranma's Ki usage and Jeffrey's healing spells to bring him back to full health, and studying the shoggoth regeneration methods, and the beginning of the Ki techniques to duplicate the basic healing spells.  At night, in the tent, and more often than not in the same sleeping bag, Jeffrey and Ranko talked.  I talked, he asked questions, Ranko thought.  It had helped, she'd talked about all that had happened, all she was afraid of, how she felt she'd been treated, both well and unfairly.  Mostly she talked about the rooftop `incident` and about the Martial Artists and the damage they caused, the rescues they forced others to perform.  She'd cried herself to sleep more than once.  Then during the day's walking, Ranma would think about what was said the night before, and what would be said that night.

     But there's still one question I haven't had the guts to ask, she thought of the man beside her with the companionable arm on her shoulder, who'd shared a bed with both Ranko and Ranma for several months, Although neither of us had the guts to do anything about that either.  "Sleeping with two beautiful women, and you never took advantage," she said jokingly, then grew more serious, "You also didn't take my offer either . . . why?"  She wasn't sure if she was hurt or relieved by the `rejection`.  It frightened her now that Ranma had accepted what she planned, as she had.

     "What?  Take my choice of pointed objects and shove it into your body?" Jeffrey asked, "Either of the two immediate options would have killed Ranma."

     She frowned at his crude yet confusing phrasing, and at the implications.

     "I don't hate Ranma, I despise how he treated you, he disappointed me, he even worried me, he still irritates me, but I no longer hate him.  Most of the time he was like an active volcano who kept saying, 'Nope, I'm just a pile of rocks with the hiccups.'  Then where's all this lava coming from?"

     "So . . . it wasn't that you didn't like me - want me . . . it was . . . I'm not sure what I mean," Ranko admitted.

     Jeffrey knelt down so he was eye to eye with her.  That was one of the irritating things about him, he was so tall, it always made Ranma and Ranko feel like a kid when they had to talk to him.  "When I was researching Ranma's condition, I came across another one.  Schizotypal Personality Disorder is a pattern of social deficits, especially discomfort with, and a reduced ability to form close relationships, friendships, dating, and so on.  As well as certain cognitive or perceptual distortions, and eccentricities of behavior.  It typically begins in adolescence to early adulthood, say between 10 and 20 years of age.  At least five of the following symptoms are required for a clinical diagnosis.  That's the `dictionary` definition."

     Ranko nodded, swallowing.  "What's the translation back into Japanese?"

     "One, odd beliefs or magical thinking that influences behavior, and is inconsistent with cultural norms, such as bizarre fantasies or preoccupations.  Like someone who goes looking for powers from the Great Old Ones he's eaten, because he knows they're there.  Just because I was right, doesn't mean I didn't start from an insane premise.  Two, odd thinking and speech patterns, for example: overelaborate.  You can chuckle, I don't mind.  Three, Suspiciousness or paranoid ideation.  Just because they are out to get you, it doesn't mean you aren't paranoid.  Four, constricted affect, that means doesn't outwardly show strong emotion when it is warranted, staying apparently calm.  Five, behavior or appearance that is odd, eccentric, or peculiar."

     Jeffrey reached up and adjusted his hat on his head.  "Like always wearing a three-piece suit and fedora, even when going into a burning building or while hiking in the mountains.  Six, a lack of close friends or confidants.  Seven, Unusual perception, but I'm not sure if that one applies.  Do I sense all that weird stuff, or do I only think I do?"

     "I sensed it, when we were all mixed in with Rit-chan," Ranko said, wondered how any of that related.

     "You only really need five," Jeffrey reminded her, "The point is, I don't have a lot of friends or close relationships, except relatives.  But in the dream of Nerima, I wasn't me, I was you.  All the blocks were down, all your usual emotions were running around in my head.  I formed attachments with my wife, Ritsuko-Nabiki, and my kids, you, Ranma, and Nabiki, and others.  I still have those attachments, and they are a lot stronger than any attachment I formed on my own."

     "So, I'm your daughter," Ranko smirked at that, people had told her that, but she hadn't believed them.  "And incest, 'Is just not done', right?"

     "Precisely," Jeffrey said formally, "That isn't to say you aren't a beautiful, young woman, and under other circumstances I would be flattered.  I also thought you were running away.  Abandoning who you are without examining how you got there only leads to disaster.  The idea of purifying yourself by ignoring everything that went before is, frankly, dumb.  Like that fighting game you and Ranma like so much, going back to the last saved game does eliminate the mistake, but not the learning from it.  So, what have you learned?"

     "I . . . I'll have to think about it," Ranko said.

     "Do you want me to heat up some water?  Or use a spell?" Jeffrey offered as he stood up.

     "No, I'll think about it as Ranko for a while.  By the way, I've caught you playing that game too."

     "Guilty as charged, although I wish there were more options.  If I thought Aeris was going to wander off that way, I would have chained her to a tree."

     "Yeah, that was dumb," Ranko said, "So do you like her or Tifa?"

     "That's a very personal question," Raccoon evaded her question and her grab, "And dangerous, until I know who you see yourself as."

     "Neither, both mooning over the same clueless guy."

     "Not like you at all, declaring your feelings openly and honestly to me and Nab-chan."  Raccoon was running down the trail with an angry Ranko in hot pursuit.

     "You WILL tell me!" she shouted, "I have ways of making you talk!"  Finding a way to get you to shut up, she thought, That would be the real trick.

Acceptance Rather Than Understanding

     The dojo was in need of repair.  Ranko had cleaned up and was wearing a formal kimono.  Jeffrey, showered with a fresh hair cut, was in his best suit.  Ranko thought, outwardly, they made an elegant couple, inside she was terrified.  She'd come here on `vacation` without telling Jeffrey why here in particular.  Now that she was here, she felt like she was walking into a lion's den.

     "Are you going to challenge them, dressed like that?" Jeffrey asked, shocking her out of her worries.

     "No, I . . . you rather, are going to get us an invitation to speak with the teachers here.  If anyone challenges, it will be you.  Although you aren't at the standard of the Nerimaniacs, you'll acquit yourself well.  Good grief, now I'm talking like you!"

     "There are worse habits to pick up," `Raccoon` said as he rang the chime over the gate and opened it for her.  The sign had said to ring the chime and enter the Saotome-style Kempo school.

     Ranko examined the place, it vaguely reminded her of the Tendo homestead.  She knew Nab-chan would kill her for spying the place out, but she'd watched Nab-chan spy on it herself so often, Ranma had to know what the fascination was.  He still didn't know.  Maybe they're her descendants, Ranko thought, anything to put off thinking about this coming confrontation, Mommy Nab-chan looking in on her grandkids maybe.  Naw, even a wizened old lady would have the spine to set those three idiots straight.  The fact they also had another pair of idiots by the name Saotome as frequent visitors, did nothing for Ranko's current composure.  I mustn't run away, I mustn't run away, I mustn't run away! she reminded herself, she prevented herself from reaching for Jeffrey's hand.

     "Would you - like some tea?" the voice that started behind her, and was now below her, asked.

     Ranko stared down out of the tree she had leapt into.  She wondered how badly she had scared everybody, or embarrassed Jeffrey and herself.  The crowd that had come out of the home and the dojo were all staring at the now barefoot, kimono-clad nut in the tree and the elegantly clad gaijin who alternated staring down at her shoes, and up at her.  She noted a redhead or two among the observers.

     Jeffrey broke the dilemma by extending his hand up to her.

     Just pull me out of the tree and let me run away! she thought as she stepped down on his hand.  She felt the firm grip around her foot.  He's a lot stronger than I thought, she thought as he lowered her towards her shoes.  He positioned her so she could step off his hand and slip into her shoes as he straightened up.

     "Some tea would be lovely.  I and my companion have walked over the mountain and would welcome refreshment," Jeffrey Kevin Davis said, evoking some tittering among the younger girls who watched.  His Japanese was still letter perfect, but he had adopted some extremely feminine phrasings.

     Ranko took the hint and would also play `girly-girl`, although it was already clear she was no wimp.

     They led Ranko and Jeffrey into a large room of the house, centered around a long, rectangular table.  The older adults formed up on the two long sides while the short side nearest the door was where they were seated.  The speed with which they assembled meant they did this before, perhaps often.  Ranko knelt next to Jeffrey, kept her eyes downcast, although she glanced up through her bangs to observe their postures.  They were as faceless as the people of Tokyo had been.  The elders at the table gave nothing away.  The younger adults and teenagers who arranged themselves along the walls behind the elders were expectant.  It reminded Ranko of a military meeting, the generals and admirals at the table, their staffs behind.  The side opposite the pair remained empty.

     "What did you want?" the oldest male at the table asked.

     "Have you ever heard of Saotome Genma?" Jeffrey asked.  The metaphorical temperature of the room dropped.  Ranko didn't hide her worried glance around the room.

     "What has my idiot nephew done this time?" came a scratchy voice from behind them.  The facelessness denied Ranko a view of his eyes, but the man was a Martial Artist, despite his advanced age.  He sat down next to Ranko and Jeffrey, closer to Ranko.

     While Jeffrey carefully poured tea for the man, the man took Ranko's chin in his hands, turning her face this way and that.  The man's skin felt a little scaly from years of callouses from hard work and Martial Arts.  Ranko didn't shy away from the handling, but she didn't meet the man's `eyes`, keeping her gaze downcast.

     "I asked a question," the man reminded them as he accepted the tea from Jeffrey.

     "Have you heard of Saotome Nodoka . . . " Jeffrey asked, "And Saotome Ranma?"

     "We've heard about Inoue Nodoka, so, they finally got married?  And Ranma, they had a son?  Then who are you, little one?"

     "Ranko," she answered quietly, she suppressed the shivers, "And you are Saotome Eiji."

     The man didn't immediately answer.  "What does that matter to me?" he asked, not completely unkindly.

     If it hadn't been for Asuka and Raccoon's habit of asking questions everyone supposedly knew the answer for, Ranko would have panicked.  But like them, he wants the answer out where everyone can hear it, Ranko thought.  "I am Saotome Ranko, and I want to know my history, and if I have a family.  Ranma also wishes to know."

     "Then why isn't he here?"

     "She's cuter than he is," Raccoon said matter-of-factly.

     Ranko froze, and some of the others choked on their tea.  She wasn't sure if she should pound Raccoon into a thin red paste before or after she ran away.

     The old man's raucous laughter eased her mind considerably.  As the old man regained control of himself, he stood and walked purposefully to the far end of the table, taking his role as clan head, both in position and in stature.  Ranko had noted that while age had slowed the man, in his prime he would have been formidable, even aged, he was not to be discounted.  Ranko also suspected the old man's mind hadn't lost any of its quickness, he seemed to be ready to spar with words against the best Raccoon could offer.

     "What interest do you have in this, Mr. Tall American?" the old man asked, the joking facade gone.  This would be serious business.

     "In deference to the younger ladies present, I won't answer that directly.  Instead I beg your indulgence," `Raccoon` began.

     Ranko took Jeffrey's hand.  Whatever Raccoon was going to spin out of the facts, Ranko wanted it to be clear she cared for him, both to Jeffrey and to the others.  Again, `Ranma` is silent, she thought, Disturbing, does he countenance something more than just a pl-at-onic friendship.  I don't want that! she thought, unable to even think about 'making kittens' with him and Nab-chan, But I do like having someone around who I can trust, and who trusts me.  That he acts so differently from the pack of idiots who call themselves Martial Artists and fiancees . . .  Ranko didn't complete the thought, it still shook her too much, made her uncertain.

     "Genma had a rather unpleasant habit of selling a child for a betrothal, or just for a bit of food.  While no person with any decency would fail to accept the agreement, simply to get a child away from someone so obviously reprehensible, he always stole the child back as swiftly as he could.  However, that did nothing to eliminate the marriage contracts left behind.  I'll leave you to imagine the mess, which he insisted was the next generation's job to sort out.  It was family honor after all."

     Ranko risked a glance at the faceless `faces` surrounding the table, without lifting her head.  They were universally furious, although they disguised it to greater or lesser degrees.

     "Between my Sophomore and Junior years at Harvard, I returned to my family's ranch in Wyoming.  One evening a thunderstorm spooked the cattle.  While I and all the other cowboys were trying to turn the herd, everybody with a horse was involved.  My horse stumbled in the dark and slid into a ravine, with me beneath.  I spent the rest of that summer in traction, and most of my Junior year learning how to walk again.  After I completed my studies at Harvard, I went to Japan.  I'd hoped to find a solution to the problem with my walking.  On the ship, I encountered this young lady, in trouble, and Ranma.  I was able to deal with the problem, and she agreed to train me.  Her grace seemed to be amazing, perhaps I would learn enough so I would be able to walk more than a few hundred meters before the pain forced me to stop."

     Raccoon paused, sipped his tea.  Ranko could tell he had them.

     He continued, "Genma has never understood the real value of anything.  There's an old American saying, 'To get to Laramie, you rent a horse, you don't buy the road.'  Let's just say that my idea of hiring a skilled trainer, is closer to his idea of what's required to 'purchase the whole road.'  The young lady said nothing, because she already knew what I was contracting for.  I will not repeat what Genma recently accused me, and her, of.  As you all saw, I can walk quite well.  We even marched over the mountains.  I couldn't do that before I met this young lady.  When Ranma came to her defense, albeit crudely, stating that she'd never do such a thing, things rapidly deteriorated after that.  We didn't kill him - "

     "I made him promise not to," Ranko quietly interjected.

     "When I heard a little more, I regret having made the promise."

     "I doubt there's anything you could tell me about my nephew that I haven't already heard.  Not a month goes by when the police from this prefecture, from another, from Interpol, the American FBI, or some other group don't stop by to ask if we've seen him," the old man told them angrily, "After he stole some of his father's more advanced training scrolls, he was cast out of the clan."

     Ranko felt her heart sink, They are my relatives.  But I have no clan here.  She glanced at Jeffrey, who had opened his pack and was extracting several large metal tubes, each one was sealed with a screw top lid.  He put them in Ranko's hands with a nod.  She stood and took them reverently to the far end of the table.  She had a feeling.

     "We wish to return your property, we will trouble you no more," Ranko said, bowed low after she'd placed the tubes before the old man.  She turned to leave, Jeffrey was already on his feet, with both of their packs in hand.

     "Wait!" the old man commanded, "Please wait in the dojo.  There - there is much we have to discuss."

     Ranko bowed low, Jeffrey not as much, and they left the home, taking the stone path to the dojo.  "I don't want to know where you got those," Ranko hissed when she thought they were out of eavesdropping range.

     "It was a fair challenge.  I sent a challenge letter and everything."

     "Of course you did!  How else would you figure out where he kept the scrolls hidden?" Ranko shot back.

     "Well, I'd already found and replaced them with meaningless forgeries.  I did need verification.  After all he thinks he's such a good thief - "

     "I thought a Harvard man couldn't be a thief," Ranko said with exasperation, "And why didn't you tell me you had them?"

     "A Harvard man never goes beyond the rules, since Panda-puffs set the rules, I beat him at his own game.  I didn't tell you because I thought we were going camping and these would give you something to do while we were walking or I was resting, I wanted to surprise you.  Don't worry, I memorized them.  I'd seen them before in the dreams a few months ago, but too many of the details were fuzzy when I woke up.  This time I already made copies."

     "You really are crazy," Ranko accused, "What are we gonna do?"

     "We wait," Raccoon said as they entered the dojo and sat down.

     Ranko glanced at her kimono and decided doing katas in it, or in her underwear, was not a good idea, nor was changing her clothes or gender.

     "So the mercenary returns to afflict us with her presence?"

     Nabiki looked around.  Kuno, I guess my luck couldn't hold forever, she thought.  "Sorry, Kuno-baby, I don't have any - "

     "I attack!" Kuno bellowed at a charge.

     Nabiki silently thanked all the training she'd gotten from Cologne, Shampoo and Ranma.  She rolled out of the way of the first charge.

     "You deceived us ALL!" Kuno shouted as he swung around, "I falsely proclaimed that vile deflowerer of purity as a sorcerer, then I realized the Fair Tigress spurned my advances before he ever arrived.  Then my intelligence determined YOU continue to spy on the fair Akane!"

     There should be a law against Kuno and intelligence appearing in the same sentence, Nabiki thought as she maneuvered to keep open the distance between her and her ex-best customer.

     "YOU are the sorcerer who has denied me their sweet love and turned me against Saotome, who has suffered at your hand more than any other mortal!  I shall destroy you and leave him to his sword saint wanderings while I and my beloveds sip sweetly at the font of our love!"

     All the memories of tormenting Ranma, and the realization that even Tatewaki had discerned it, nearly cost her her head.  The cane moved on its own, parrying the bokken and shattering it.  Kuno paused to look at the shattered weapon, and the slowly turning piece of wood that had managed it.

     The cane was now pointed at Kuno, as Nabiki struggled to her feet.  The lightning bolt from the cane's tip hit Kuno, and continued long after Kuno's hair stood on end and he quit twitching.  As Kuno and his clothes began to smolder, it occurred to Nabiki that the cane was trying to find out if it was possible to kill one of the Nerima Wrecking Crew.

     "Stop it!" Nabiki commanded, and was ignored.  You're killing him, she thought, Except that's what you're intending.  She found Tatewaki irritating, but he wasn't the best candidate for a homicide, not with so many better, more deserving targets.  "Look you're trying to electrocute him," Nabiki told the cane in English, "Trust me, no amount of electricity is ever going to make him cute."

     The cane dropped to the ground and flopped there like a beached fish.

     "You're as bad as your master," Nabiki said angrily as she picked up the twitching walking stick.  She didn't want to think about the effect the stirred up memories would have on her tonight.

On Doubtless Wings

     "So how long do we wait?" Ranko asked.  It's a dojo, it's a dojo that needs repairs, so we should be practicing or repairing it, she thought.

     "About that long," Jeffrey said as he stood and bowed to the returning elders.

     As Ranko bowed, she wondered if she was reading too much into it that they were coming to her, rather than summoning her and Jeffrey to them.

     "I am Saotome Eiji," the old man told them, "But you may call me 'uncle'."

     Ranko would have hit the ground if Jeffrey hadn't rushed over to catch her.  Ranko felt him folding her at the waist, to make her collapse take the semblance of a bow.

     "You are welcome to stay at our house," Eiji told them.

     'We wouldn't dream of imposing,' Ranko heard Jeffrey insisting.  She couldn't get either her voice or her knees to respond to instructions.

     "Well, I guess I can't argue with that.  You registered at the Sea Mist Inn?"

     "Yes," Jeffrey said.

     "Well, at least the money stays in the family," Eiji said, laughed as he indicated one of the older women.  "She's the manager."

     Ranko managed to get to a semi-dignified sitting position.  "Repairs," she managed, she desperately hoped she didn't look like a complete idiot.

     "Oh, Ranko and Ranma suggested since we lately have made our living doing carpentry," Jeffrey said as he glanced around the decrepit dojo, "Perhaps you'd like a demonstration of martial arts carpentry."

     Eiji laughed, so did the others, "Okay, tomorrow, it will let you earn your breakfast."

     "Earn our breakfast," Raccoon said despondently as he hung his head, "I guess I can find the plans for the Taj Mahal somewhere."

     Ranko managed to stand and bow, without looking like a puppet with half its strings cut.  "Ranma will be here, instead of me," Ranko said, "I think I can convince him."

     Eiji bowed slightly, the other elders more deeply.  Ranko knelt and touched her head to the floor, she doubted Jeffrey came anywhere close.

     Probably a courtly, European thing, Ranko thought about the snickers she heard before she straightened up.  She hoped desperately that they hadn't been laughing at her, from Raccoon's smug expression, her guess was probably right.  Her next guess was that he'd done it on purpose, so any laughter that might have been aimed at her, automatically fell on him.

     They walked out, arm-in-arm, mainly because her knees still seemed inadequate to support her weight.  I have a family, and a clan, when I get back home, I'll have to thank Hiro, I can finally find out who I am! the thoughts tumbled through her mind almost too fast to register.  She also knew she'd never be able to really explain it to Jeffrey, no matter how eloquent she suddenly became.  Westerners, especially Americans, didn't value family and clan as Japanese did.  He'd never know how important it had been that Rit-chan had taken Ranma in, or that Hiro had located possible relatives.  But Rit-chan is still `mom`, she thought as she stumbled along in a daze, barely aware of the world around her, If this vision is even half-right, I still have a clan.

     "I should congratulate you?" Jeffrey asked her as they neared the inn, his voice barely penetrated the mental fog that surrounded her, "I never expected this.  You've become quite skilled at keeping secrets on purpose."

     "I didn't want to hope," she mumbled, she still felt numb inside, and guilty, and worried.

     "EEP!" she shouted as Jeffrey picked her up.

     "If you can't raise your feet enough to step up one step, I'll have to carry you."  As he set her down inside the inn.

     Ranko giggled at that.  "I think Ranma will be jealous."

     "Well, he can come talk to me about it himself," Raccoon replied and brushed his nose against hers, "Besides, with a simple spell, no one saw your terrible infirmity."

     Ranko giggled again, but said nothing else, she knew anything they said or did would be spied upon, and she also learned that old ladies were as bad about grandchildren as the `other` was about kittens.  So they would have to be careful.

July 27, 1947

     Rei sat with Mein Grossfeldmarschall.  She had verified that Shinji-kun was healthy, and she suspected as soon as he completed his mission, he would return, but not before.  She thought her best efforts should go to helping the others, she had decided to begin with Mein Grossfeldmarschall.  She believed she would have the greatest chance of success with her.

     "I have lobbied for a full field test.  You have repeatedly exclaimed that a full field test would best demonstrate Unit 02's capabilities.  I concur, my using Unit 02 will have the greatest benefit to NERV."  Because if the idea of 'Wondergirl' piloting 'your' Unit 02 does not induce your return, nothing I can do will, Rei thought, I do not believe you would rise from the dead to prevent it, as Shinji-kun has suggested, but this is less.

     Since her separation, many of the things that had been so clear had returned to obscurity, returned to disconnected data, rather than usable conclusions.  She did retain more of the emotional content of her early memories, especially her time with the Ikari family.  But she had lost the means of controlling her emotions, or expressing them.  She considered the trade off well worth it.

     "I did wonder if you had any suggestions how to best pilot Unit 02," Rei told the comatose patient, "Perhaps a permanent exchange could be arranged, if you have no objections . . . "  She waited several minutes before continuing, she glanced at Erin who paced outside the room.

     "Since you are going to be Unit 00's pilot, there are some operating quirks."  Krasnyzamok-san arrived while Rei was `briefing` Mein Grossfeldmarschall on the irregularities of Unit 00, and how she was glad Unit 02 lacked those problems.  "I would like to thank you for the transfer, I believe I will operate better in Unit 02."  Then Rei described her first field test with Unit 00, simply walking around and picking things up.

     Rei watched Mein Grossfeldmarschall moan in her sleep, she walked over to her bedside, never pausing in her story, and clamped down on the girl's arm, to prevent Mein Grossfeldmarschall from pulling out the IVs, or breaking off the needles in her arm.

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

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

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

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

     " - going to pilot MY EVA!" Asuka shouted as she tried to strangle the blue-haired witch who was trying to steal her EVA, all she could manage was a one-armed headlock.  She had no strength to take advantage of it.  She exhausted herself and slumped back in the bed.

     She paused to catch her breath, and Wondergirl relaxed her grip on Asuka's arm.  "NERV Infirmary," she croaked, her mouth was still as dry as it had been in the dream.  Misses Krasnyzamok and Carter were in the room, staring open-mouthed at her and Wondergirl.  Wondergirl placed a cold glass against her lips, she didn't care what was in it, she tried to drink it all, but Wondergirl would only let her take sips.

     "I said describing a test with Unit 02 would awaken her," Wondergirl said while letting Asuka drink.

     Miss Krasnyzamok stood to leave the room.  "You really are possessive, I thought she was joking," she told Asuka.

     "She was so certain that carefully describing the tests with Unit 02 tomorrow would wake you up.  We were all sure she was joking, trying to keep our spirits up," Miss Carter told her.

     "Great, rescued by Wondergirl.  Can I get a kimono and a knife, so I can disembowel myself honorably?"

     "I think you're exaggerating," Captain Ramsey said as he arrived, stared at the two of them, "Welcome back.  It's not like she'll ever bring it up.  Even to the others."  Asuka noted the rather strange smile on Ramsey's face, then she noticed how Wondergirl was sitting beside and cradling her.  She sat up suddenly, remained there only by pure force of will.

     "That's worse," Asuka grumped, "I'll know, she'll know, and I'll know she'll know."

     Wondergirl stood, Asuka lowered herself back into the bed.  Wondergirl handed her another glass of water.  As soon as Asuka took a drink.  "You have bad breath and you smell funny," Wondergirl said.

     Asuka choked on the water, and set the glass aside.  "What are you doing, Wondergirl?!" Asuka lashed out at her normally quiet colleague, "More of this make me angry so I feel happy stuff?"

     Wondergirl turned to the adults.  "I believe she has fully recovered."  Which ignited another verbal barrage, citing Wondergirl's parentage, grooming habits, and several recommendations for her future diet.  "I dislike meat," Wondergirl replied.

     Asuka couldn't figure out why Wondergirl stood there and took all the less-then-constructive criticism, and that Ramsey and Miss Carter were having a harder and harder time hiding their smiles that Asuka already detected despite the Captain's efforts.  Asuka rather quickly ran out of steam.  "What are you idiots grinning at?"

     "I am glad you are well," Wondergirl said as she left.  Ramsey nodded.

     Asuka flopped back in her bed.  "I'm surrounded by idiots."

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 48 - They're Sharing a Drink They Call Loneliness, but It's Better than Drinking Alone

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

     Jeff and the Scholarly Dragon teach Nabiki about control of her dreams, concentrating on infiltration.  Bad dreams continue to plague her.  The Scholarly Dragon prevents a dream attack by Usagi and company.

     The Azores Mission heads through the Panama Canal, and the principals are treated to the effect of their celebrity.  Nabiki and Maya don't like it.

     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.

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

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

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

     Something is killing the leaders of the project.

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

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

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

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

     Rei and Erin temporarily move in with Sammi.

     Rei merges with Sarah and the other Reis to send Shinji to the moon to battle the enemy there.

     Ranma and Jeffrey begin investigating the mechanism of healing spells, and Nabiki's reaction to Jeff and Ranma/Ranko's proximity to her in bed.

     Ranma reveals what he did to Asuka and gets advice to deal with it.  Ranma Also investigates why he locked himself in his female form.

     After nearly killing Jeff, Ranma decided to surrender his male identity or his life as redress, Jeff ask forgiveness for his actions instead.

     Nabiki anonymously delivers a large amount food to the Tendos as revenge for their treatment of Ranma.

     Ranko/Ranma leads Jeff to Saotome Eiji's home to discover if he has any relatives and a clan.

     Jeff and Nabiki return Cthylla to her temple.

     Jeff uses an AT field to disrupt Cthylla's control over Ritsuko.  He accidentally transfers all his memories, including the dreams from Nerima, to her.  Maya and Nabiki don't understand what to do.  Ritsuko and Jeff are disturbed by events.

     Anna Alise and an American Alpine troop encounter 3 EVAs in Switzerland, Anna captures one EVA and is ejected by remote.

     Nabiki learns the extent Jeff was willing to go to to assist Ritsuko, changes he made to himself and the studies he made.

     Nabiki invades Jeff's dream and encounters a family and children.  She later displays her talent to Ritsuko who controls the dream herself.

     The Bennington arrives in Boston, while Jeff, Maya, Nabiki and Ritsuko are having dinner, Major ggreg fights and escaped from something.  Ritsuko finds out the true about the project that created Jeff and Sharon, as well as others.

     Sharon Lauren kills Sgt.Malkowitz, then rescues Nabiki from an angry crowd, before revealing their `shadowless` existence.  Nabiki confronts Belldandy about it, Belldandy has no explanation.  She confronts Jeff, kills Belldandy, then Jeff detonates his prepared bomb.

It's nine o'clock on a Saturday

The regular crowd shuffles in

There's an old man sitting next to me, makin' love to his tonic and gin

He says, "Son, can you play me a memory?

I'm not really sure how it goes, but it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man's clothes"

Piano Man - Billy Joel

July 27, 1947

France is Alone, God is Alone

     Asuka had gotten the needles out of her arm, then taken a quick shower and changed into some clean clothes.  She wasn't ready to go home yet.  She also noted that Horseface was up and around.  That only leaves Spineless, she thought as she headed for the room they usually kept him in.  She found him there, and Wondergirl sitting on a chair, staring at him.

     "He has not awakened," Wondergirl, "It is my fault."

     "You didn't do anything wrong," Asuka told her, she was a little uncertain about the time Wondergirl had spent talking to her, to get her to wake up.

     Wondergirl stood up and stared at her, Asuka took a step back, the intensity of such a gaze usually presaged violence.  In normal people, Asuka thought, I have no idea what she'll do.

     Wondergirl walked past her, and yanked open a cabinet.  Asuka would have sworn they kept those cabinets locked.  The `ping` as Wondergirl yanked it open also implied that.  Wondergirl withdrew a scalpel with a blade.

     "What are you doing?" Asuka asked with as disapproving a tone as she could manage.  She also moved in.

     "I do not feel anything," Wondergirl said as she brought the blade to her arm.

     Asuka grappled with her.  "Horseface!  Get in here!" she shouted as she peeled Wondergirl's fingers loose of the scalpel, which dropped to the floor.  Asuka kicked it away.  Wondergirl began flailing around, not really trying to hit Asuka, nor trying to escape, just a machine that had jumped the track.

     Just reacting against any resistance, Asuka realized, She's just too strong.  Asuka had her arms under the smaller girl's arms, and picked her up off the ground to keep her from stomping the floor, Wondergirl's odd silence bothered Asuka, this wasn't a tantrum as she understood them.  "Get her waist!" Asuka told Horseface as `she` arrived.  Even she can't hold Wondergirl, Asuka thought as she watched Horseface catch one leg and get shaken off.  Wondergirl's flailing arms hadn't even landed a glancing blow, and her head was moving violently from side-to-side.  Asuka worried what would happen if she started flailing with her head, the safe point Asuka had picked would cease to be safe.  Aside from the rug burn I'm getting from Wondergirl's hair, she thought, then she realized that there was a pattern to the movement, her head and each limb had a different frequency and the range of motion changed, giving the illusion of random, frenzied motion, but it was all repetitive.

     The four guards and Stoneface Ikari all rushed in.

     "Saotome, get her around the waist," Stoneface commanded, "Langley, watch her head."

     "Yeah - I - got - that," Asuka told him as Wondergirl shook violently from side-to-side, not hard enough to hurt Asuka, but hard enough to hurt Wondergirl.

     With Horseface supporting her waist, Wondergirl's arms windmilled, her legs kicked, and her head shook.  Stoneface tried to find a way through to get to Wondergirl's head.  None of the guards could close to restrain another part.  Asuka was a little shocked at the elder Ikari gently but firmly holding Wondergirl's head.  The girl flailed around that way for several more minutes, only the flap of clothes and the breathing of those restraining her was heard.

     Once Wondergirl had calmed down somewhat, Stoneface told them, "I can take it from here, please leave."

     Asuka decided discretion was the better part of valor.  "She didn't do anything wrong," she told him as she left.

     She walked back towards her room.  She wanted to do something.  She glanced at Horseface-the-girl.  No, she thought and returned to her room to watch for old Stoneface leaving Spineless's room, then she could ambush him.  She thought she recognized Wondergirl's behavior, from when she was in Germany with Tatewaki and Kodachi Kuno, trying to get them healthy and comfortable with who they really were.  It had been a hard time for her as well, and not one she wanted to ever discuss again, with anyone.  But Wondergirl needs those memories, she thought, And I won't leave her like this.  'It just isn't done.'

     Her quarry appeared, and Asuka struck.  "Commander," she said as she closed, she ignored his glare, as `scary` as he was, she had seen worse things, she'd survived the `opening strains` of her own worst nightmare on the roof, and her second worst had been Wondergirl's way of waking her up.  There was little left to fear.

     She waited until she could speak privately.  "I was in Nerima of the 1990's, and into the early 21st century."  That got his attention, she thought, then continued, "That included some psychological research.  I might not like W - Pilot Ayanami, but I do want her to be dependable.  I believe I can help with that."

     Stoneface paused and stared at her, she weathered it without flinching.

     "She does not have autism in any form," he intoned, adjusting his glasses.

     He'd quit doing that, if he realized what an idiot he looks like when he does it, Asuka thought, waited for the rest of the profundity from on high, And why did he spe . . . oh, he looked into it as well, dummkoft Asuka.

     "However, submit a plan, I will approve it . . . or not."  Stoneface turned away.

     "Thank you, sir," she called brightly after him.  Returning to her scowl.  I'm not doing this to help you, or your robot, Asuka thought, I'm doing it because I owe her.

     Asuka was so tied up in her disgust at the situation, she missed the smile that appeared and vanished on Gendo's face.

     From her handstand on the bedrail, Ranko stared at the wall of the infirmary.  There were a lot of things to consider, a lot she didn't want to talk about, even to the point of abandoning what he was, and if it was related to the current condition.  Is he or she a question of how I look at myself, rather than how I look? she wondered.  All the blood rushing to her head didn't make thinking any easier.  The other thing that bothered her was how she, and he, had acted towards Nab-chan and Jeffrey.  It had felt right, more than that, it felt necessary.  Not just their Ki injuries, she'd taken care of Jeffrey's in the first week.  But why did Ranma spend so much time with him? Ranko wondered, We don't like each other.

     Ranma dropped onto the bed, stopped, considered the change, flipped back into a handstand to see if the position affected whether he was Ranma or Ranko, he stayed Ranma, in a redheaded girl's body.  He frowned, dropped into a position lying on the floor, and continued to think, this time in terms of motions that he, and she, took with Jeffrey and Nab-chan.  How they danced around each other . . . That's it.  Neither Nab-chan nor Jeffrey would close on the other unless they knew Ranma or Ranko were present! Ranma realized, then he exaltation faltered, And that tells me what?

     He rolled over, got another not-so-subtle reminder he was currently in female form.  Adding another question.  Why did I lock myself into my girl form? he asked himself.  "What was I hoping to accomplish, and when can I `tell` myself I'm done?" Ranma asked anyone who was listening to his thoughts.  Okay, why would they need someone else around to close with each other?  They seemed to get along, but they . . .  Ranma thought, wondering why he and she were drawn to them and they to him/her, as questions chased themselves through his mind.  No answer immediately presented itself.

     Asuka walked past Spineless's room.  Of course Wondergirl was waiting, sitting in there.  "Wondergirl.  If he hasn't woken up, you staring at him in silence isn't going to help."

     "I do not know what to say," Wondergirl said.

     Asuka shook her head.  "Look Wondergirl, when he wakes up, they'll call us."

     "I cannot leave," Wondergirl said.

     "Well, I could wait until you fall over and sneak you out.  I understand you stayed in one of the rooms at Sa - Krasnyzamok's apartment."

     "I will want to know when he recovers."

     Asuka marched over in front of Wondergirl and picked the girl up under her arms, so they were face to face.  "You aren't going to help him by making yourself sick," she angrily told her, "I can get Horseface and we can carry you out of here."

     "I . . . will go," Wondergirl said even more softly than normal, bowing her head.

     In shame or in defeat? Asuka wondered.  Asuka led her out of the room, past the nurse's station.  "We want to be informed as soon as - Pilot Ikari regains consciousness," Asuka told the head nurse.  The woman nodded and Asuka continued to half-lead, half-carry Wondergirl to the jeep waiting to take them home.  Asuka steadfastly ignored Miss Carter.  If I don't trust my own guard, Asuka thought, I'll have to depend on just myself.

     Asuka practically had to carry Wondergirl up the stairs to the apartment and into the room.  "Go to sleep," Asuka told her quietly, "Maybe you'll dream about him."

     "Jawohl," Wondergirl said quietly, closed her eyes and immediately went to sleep.

     Ranma had run to Ayanami's place.  Carter-san had taken some of her stuff.  Ranma collected the rest of the critical stuff, clothes, her violin, some of her books, there were a lot of those.  He nearly staggered under the load, but he stopped just outside the apartment to rig a chair to help wedge the door closed when he finished closing it.  He could help them `break in` later.

     The load was such that he couldn't run back, the wind resistance on the boxes messed up their balance, and his smaller girl frame meant his shorter arms prevented him from using one big box for everything.  If he'd been training, he could have let the boxes fall, but they weren't his stuff, so keeping them undamaged was more important than speed.

     If I could change back to a guy, I could carry this stuff better, he told himself, Nothing, still a girl.

     He continued home at a fast jog, a snail's pace compared to his normal speed.  He still hadn't figured out why he would have stuck himself as a girl.  Okay, he thought, glanced down at `himself`, No, I'm still Ranma, Ranko's . . . Ranko's all talk and cuddling with her friends . . . no, that's not fair or accurate.  He searched for the words that went with the image and behavior pattern in his head, of Ranko staying a lot closer to those she cared about, rather than leaving them to their own devices and taking the fight to the enemy, as Ranma would.  "I guess I'll have to Ask-a Langley . . . I've been hanging around Jeffrey too long."  When he arrived back at the apartment, he slowed down until he and his burden were absolutely silent.  No sense setting off `Megorofeld-chan`, he thought, By waking up `Wondergirl`.  He walked into the room Rei-chan was staying in.  Asuka's back was to him, she was holding a shivering, tearful Rei, telling her it wasn't her fault.  Ranma silently set the boxes down and Ranko began soundlessly rummaging through them.  Ranko paused.  The mental change had come instantly, smoothly, and as seamlessly as changing a stance or changing from a dodge to a counterstrike.

     I needed to be a girl, Ranko thought as her hand closed on the hairbrush and comb Ranma hadn't really understood he'd been looking for, And I am one.  Ranko knew if she needed to be `Ranma` again, the change would be just as smooth, but in mind only, bodily the change hadn't affected her.  Okay, overall I need to look like a girl, but not always be one, she thought as she sat on the bed, shocking Asuka.  "I brought some of your things," Ranko said quietly, holding up a hand where Rei couldn't see it and Asuka could, to urge Asuka to hold her protests within.  Ranko remembered how Shinji and Jeffrey had soothed Nab-chan, she carefully began combing, then brushing out Rei's hair.  It had worked wonders on Nab-chan, and a shampoo had nearly put Ranko to sleep.  Ranko had also tried stronger versions by massaging Nab-chan.  But this should work, Ranko thought.  Asuka had returned to what she'd been saying, ignoring Ranko.  Fine by me, Ranko thought as she combed through carefully.  She found the tangles with the comb, and carefully worked through them.  It also made it clear that Rei needed another shampoo.  Ranko waited until Asuka took a breath, she held up a small bit of Rei's frayed hair.  It's very dry, she thought as she rubbed the hair between her fingers.  Asuka simply glanced and nodded.  She understood, Ranko thought, she was amazed.  The communication, a complex message had traveled between them clearly, without the fog words always seemed to put in the way.  Asuka lay Rei back down on her bed, took Ranko's hand and led her out.  Although Ranko knew if she didn't go, Asuka would drag her.

     "Okay, so she's going to stay," Asuka said as she pulled Ranko upstairs to the kitchen.  "What's all this nonsense about she sent Spineless away?"

     "I don't know," Ranma answered, again the change was smooth, he noted the changes in how things seemed to interact, different from what Ranko noticed.  Asuka clearly wanted to fight, whatever had afflicted Rei as a first choice, anything handy as a second.  "Why are you asking me?  I was with Jeffrey and Nab-chan, in 1992 Nerima," Ranma said, keeping his tone submissive, although it galled him, it was an excellent tactic, Asuka got more angry, but not at him.

     "I was walking through the spectrum."  Suddenly she stepped away and hugged herself, and shivered violently.

     Ranma threw a flying tackle and a plethora of killing blows at the impulse to speak.  Emerging bloody, but unbowed, he said nothing, searching for a technique, not words, but a series of pictures.  He found one in an instant.  Now to remember the words that go with it, he thought, knowing that would be the hard part.

     Finally, he had it.  He put his hands on her shoulders, ignored her angry gaze.  "I have another problem I need your help with," he spoke the words of a `spell` Raccoon had used on Asuka repeatedly, with universal success.  It worked just as well for Ranma.  She let him lead her to the dining room table.  He was aware that `Ranma`-the-male would not have been allowed to do that after the incident.  As they sat down, Ranma recalled another set of movements, removing papers from a file folder.  "What do you know about Autism and Asperger's Syndrome?" Ranma asked.

     Asuka sat back and considered.  "You would have to bring up something I went over in a psych class at university, 15 years ago it seems."  She breathed in.

     Ranma watched closely as Asuka literally changed before his eyes.  Most people wouldn't have noticed, he hadn't really paid attention before, but now he was fully aware of the difference.  For an instant, she was older, and vastly more at ease with herself.  She also got a faraway look of longing.

     Asuka shook her head.  "Give me some time, I can't recall.  I might have come across something while Tate and Koda-chan were in Germany."

     "Tatewaki and Kodachi Kuno?" Ranma asked incredulously, his voice filled with disgust at any dealings with the mad swordsman and the deranged gymnast.  He saw the changes in Asuka's expression.

     "He was more of a man, more of a gentleman, more of a man of honor, than you could ever hope to be," Asuka replied coldly as she stood and walked off.

     Ranma let her go, and growled at himself, Why didn't I just keep my mouth shut?  He laid his head on the table, quietly so as not to further set off the other redhead, and not to start a cycle of pounding it on the table, for his ability to say the worst thing, in the worst way, in any circumstances.  My secret talent, he thought.

     The lieutenant was out of uniform, she was on leave after all.  She lowered her binoculars.  Someone from ordnance shouldn't be the one leading a combat team, she thought as her brigade commanders and the leader of the martial artist's people moved up.  The martial artist's people didn't eschew weapons, but they hadn't stockpiled them the way her people did.  My people, she thought, When did I become the leader?  She paused to consider.  Because I was first, she realized, I became leader when my team `captured` Ayanami Rei, me a glorified clerk in an ordnance company found an unconscious girl and took her to the U.S.S. Hope.  She hadn't understood why.  Later she'd understood everything, and she'd done all she could to help her, without revealing herself or her growing organization.  Tried to help the girl learning to be a woman, the mortal learning to become a god.  She'd left the books on the German language where Ayanami would automatically pick up and read them, she'd given Ayanami the silver bullets because of a dream.  She had led her entire force up here because of another dream.

     The martial artist's people had arrived soon after, offering help.  Now she commanded the equivalent of seven entire brigades of light infantry.  They had surrounded the small, shabby compound: small cabins in the tree-hung shade.  The martial artist's leader had the difficult job of keeping anyone from escaping.  The man was ex-Wehrmacht, many of the `soldiers` under his `command` were French, British, Czech, etc.  She understood how that worked, she knew how the Japanese/Korean and English/Welsh troubles were put aside in her own command staff, she could only attribute that to the placidness of their divinity.  However, placid was not something that could be applied to Saotome.  Now they gathered around the map on the ground, and adjusted the assault plan, as the reports of the scouts came in.

     Urd didn't think much of the truck driving into the compound, the speakers on top barely warranted her notice.  All kinds of trucks came in and out of the compound while they covered up the footprint.  Urd was alone in the temple, Belldandy was out with Keiichi, and Skuld was with her little friend.  The first promised bicycle waited to be picked up in the shed, and two others only had a few hours of work to complete.  She frowned, Skuld had threatened all manner of vengeance if Urd tried to `improve` the bicycles.  "It's not like I meant it to explode," she muttered, "Bicycles are supposed to go fast."

     When the speakers atop the truck started blasting out enka music, Urd didn't even have time to scream.

[A.N. Enka music became Polka music in the Dark Horse translation.]

     Ilyana Romanov glanced at her fellow MGB operatives.  Most were women, 'swallows', and the men 'ravens'.  Trained for seduction and intelligence gathering, not necessarily combat.  She could and had passed as a Swede across Europe.  She could speak Swedish like a native of Helsingborg, she even spoke fluent English and German, with a faint but distinguishable Swedish accent.  Her career had been seducing, usually disgusting, men for their secrets.

     After the end of the war, she'd been sent to an 'elite' school to learn the tricks to use on women.  Clerks and typists often saw as much if not more than their bosses, and were often more eager to talk about it, especially to an attentive, beautiful woman.

     The side effect of all this training was she could rarely if ever strike up a conversation with anyone that wasn't business.  Her fellow citizens could somehow sense she was from the Ministry of State Security, further she was recruited from SMERSH, so her MGB `comrades` all suspected that she was trying to get close to them only to ferret out their secrets and disloyalty.  She'd been trained by Mother Russia with skills that would put the finest French courtesan or Japanese Geisha to shame, and she stood as much chance of finding any warmth in this world, as a snowflake in a Siberia winter would.

     Then she'd been recruited again, by other swallows and ravens, to a new way.  A way of outward stoicism, of acceptance of what is, and working towards a better way, while the emotions and passions boiled within, they were let free only to those very few whom she could trust and who served the same cause.  The passion of those days and nights made up for it all.  Even if they were politely distant to each other normally.  Sometimes arguments, sometimes concerts, sometimes chess and sometimes lovemaking, the passion was there, its sole release.  The additional duties were slight, and did not threaten Rodina, the beloved Motherland, rumor had it, you had to be devoted to Rodina before they even approached you.  Even hunting trips like this served both causes.  The cult that met in this Leningrad apartment would be dealt with, for the Rodina and for the 'Gray Lady'.

     Urd woke in a pit.  She managed to glance up at the roof of a Quonset hut, high above, and at the one or two people in sunglasses, black suits and ties, at the edge, watching her, before the enka music filled her ears from the headphones she was wearing.  Unconsciousness came again.

     The doors burst open and the troops poured in, expecting trouble of any kind, and prepared for it as much as humanly possible.  Few of the denizens even looked up at the invaders.  Of the few who did look up, only a tiny handful, in all the bungalows, maintained eye contact for more than a few moments.  Those were the ones collected and quietly added to the few the assault force had found standing guard.  Twenty-seven individuals, some human appearing, others clearly not.  The lieutenant shivered at the appearance of those who weren't.  She managed the mask of stoicism her beliefs preached, as she stared at them.  Beyond the appearance, she could only think of how pathetic they were.

     "Kill us, let us go, there is nothing for us," one `woman` said.  Cleaned up and in decent clothes, she might have had a cruel beauty, all she looked now was filthy and wretched.

     "So you are the mighty Children of Nyogtha," the lieutenant said without contempt or pity, "How the mighty have fallen.  Your master is dead.  I give you the offer to join him, or join us."

     The others stared at them, as if trying to see what wasn't there.

     "You service those . . . puny things that destroyed . . . our master."  A misshapen thing bubbled in a ghastly parody of human speech, then it laughed.

     The lieutenant simply waited, she and her allies had time.

     "Us, stoop to serve those jumped up mongrels, they don't even know they are gods."  More laughter.  Several of the others joined in.

     The lieutenant noted the cruel woman trying to rearrange her ragged and dirty clothes into some semblance of dignity, then she stood.  The lieutenant waved the guards back.  "I will not serve you and your . . . god."  There were angry growls from some of her troops, she already knew what would happen to those who would not serve, it was happening all over the world: New York, Chicago, Paris, Kiev, Birmingham, Leningrad, Nanchang, Sydney, Lima, and her operation here outside of Tokyo.  Lead, follow or get out of the way.  They had found none who could lead, most would be gotten out of the way.

     "But I will follow you," the woman told the leader for the martial artist, the ex-Wehrmacht sergeant, who nodded once and turned to the lieutenant.

     "By your leave."

     She nodded, if he thought he could use her, so be it.

     They managed 12 more recruits from those they'd sequestered.  Most of the rest preferred death to serving the `usurpers` or doing anything at all, death they were given.  The more human in mind and body received the cold box, liquid helium temperatures.  Those who were inhuman in body or mind were destroyed by magic.

     "I still think this plan of yours is insane," the ex-Wehrmacht sergeant told her quietly, after they had withdrawn from their followers, to `confer`.

     "We have better relations with . . . other groups."

     "We have good relations as well, under certain circumstances.  But even manipulations as complex as this, don't guarantee anything."

     "Doctor Akagi showed us the way, while we can't follow precisely in her footsteps, we'll soon have resources you cannot match.  We will be equitable.  Most will be divided between our - groups, but some will go to the others.  We cannot and will not prevent them from seeking the truth as they see it."

     "Church shopping," the man said, and smiled, "An interesting way."  He bowed again.  "I'm glad you thought of it.  I hate waste."

     "As do I," she replied with a smile.

     Urd woke again, but gave no sign.  Until she whipped off the headphones and leapt . . . some 14 centimeters before the enka music cast its evil spell over her.

     As unconsciousness and gravity claimed her, she realized that headphones could keep sound out, as well as in.

     The celebration would have seemed sedate to some, but not to those who participated.  Joy did not have to be displayed in drinking, dancing or copulation.  Music, talk, games and food had their own joys.

     Ilyana opened the door for the man who waited outside.  A strange figure called simply 'The GRU man', some said because he was the template for the bland, but oddly effective agents who were the real core of the GRU.

     "I must congratulate you Ilyana Petrovich," he said warmly, "To locate such a band, so close to Moscow, my congratulations."  He took her hand, kissed it as he bowed.

     "A cult of - Azathoth - does no one good, Comrade Inspector."

     "True enough," the man replied, his wary smile indicated he knew that labeling something a cult of Azathoth sent the Politburo into a state of panic, any means or action became acceptable to exterminate them.  "Comrade . . . Major."

     "Major?"  She nearly lost the stoicism she tried so hard to achieve.

     "Yes, all of your people have been advanced one step in rank.  A poor substitute for the Order of Lenin you each deserve, but better to conceal the . . . legitimate concern of our fellow proletariats towards the . . . elements you found in our midst."

     Keep quiet about what happened, she translated, And that not only the Rodina can produce swallows and ravens, although ours are all humans.  And the appetites of the `great men` are not so different from those of our capitalist foes.

     "I could claim I never really left SMERSH," she continued with a truly dazzling smile. He answered with a wintry one.  "Actually, I have a favor to ask, in the name of the Rodina."

     "Ask," she shrugged, she idly wondered if he could be recruited, but it was rumored that only the Rodina was his god.  Which means, like me, he only gets the shit jobs, she wondered why that was so.

     "I will soon need four of your best, two men, two women, or rather, two boys and two girls, pretty, friendly and open-minded enough to . . . "  He left the comment hang.

     "Playful and curious?" she asked, "Inventive and charming?"

     "Just so, fluent in English, German and Japanese."

     "Trouble at Tunguska?" she asked carefully.

     "Ah, no, the plan is on track, and our soldiers and laborers are still acquitting themselves as true Soviet Men and Women."

     Dying like flies against an implacable enemy, she translated for herself.  "I had heard an additional 3 Motor Rifle and two Armored divisions are being sent, if things are going so well, need we fear General Borodin is setting up an empire of his own in the trackless wastes?"

     "Machines break down, besides, many are the T-44 and IS-4 tanks, better to assemble them all in one place to centralize the spares and logistics concerns."

     And some of the new T-54's, even though the design for the rest of the army is being revised, she added to herself, That's a huge amount of firepower, but more is needed?  She sought to retain her equilibrium.  "I take it you have some idea how to . . . accelerate the goals set by Central Planning?"

     "Just so," he answered, "Your help would also be useful in, reacquiring something that slipped through SMERSH's fingers at the end of the war."

     "They wouldn't be stupid enough to deliver that into our hands."

     "Never underestimate the usefulness or stupidity of useful idiots in the West," the GRU man chided and smiled.  She considered volunteering, but she'd never master Japanese in the requisite time.

A Favorite Has No Friends

     Ranma walked into Asuka's room, unannounced.  Asuka didn't even look at the other redhead.  Ranma carefully left the door open a crack and made certain he never got between the door and Asuka, so she would always have 'a golden path to retreat', as Sun Tzu said.

     Don't understand why I never learned that until Jeffrey and Nab-chan made me sit and read the whole thing, he thought, Should be a core book to understanding the Art.  Then he remembered the times he'd spied on Panda-puffs, and realized the last thing that man wanted, was someone capable of long-range planning.

     He sat down, just out of arms reach, the paths to the bathroom and the door to the living room were clear.  He had a strange suspicion, something he'd seen with both Nab-chan and Jeffrey.  But he hadn't seen it in Asuka, now he had the perfect opportunity to test it.  Why am I hesitating? he wondered, I know there's going to be an explosion, why don't I just set it off and be done with it.

     "I forgive you," he said plainly, and waited.

     "You - forgive - me?" Asuka said as she turned.

     Ranma couldn't get rid of the image of a battleship's gun turrets being brought to bear.

     "You refused to tell us what happened in Berlin, left it out where anyone could trip over it and hurt you," Ranma said the words Ranko and Jeffrey had practiced, until either Ranma or Ranko could recite them perfectly and effortlessly in their sleep.  "You used that ignorance to hurt yourself.  I don't like people hurting my friends, so I forgive you."

     Asuka still looked ready to launch a devastating verbal barrage, but couldn't seem to find the target.

     "Jeffrey told me what he knew.  What he found out through various sources," Ranma continued, the `attack` had to be relentlessly delivered, no matter the distraction.  "You and Anna Alise collected all the records of the EVA project that Doctor Schikelgrubber could assemble.  Then you rushed out to meet your father at the air strip, outside of Berlin.  He was to take you and the records to the Allies.  He stowed the records in the one-engined Bf110 he `borrowed`, while you and Anna painted the black and white Normandy stripes on the wings."

     Asuka's lips were quivering, her eyes shown with unshed tears, it made it nearly impossible for Ranma to continue.  The idea of a girl having a `good` cry was almost unfathomable, even though both Ranko and Nab-chan had had several during the dream, a cleansing release of emotions, a safety valve.  Only warning, training and his will to see this through let him continue.  'Like pulling a spear out of someone, it's going to hurt, or they're going to die.'  Both Nab-chan and Jeffrey had told Ranko and Ranma, each in their own way.

     "Then he left you there, sent you off on some pretext and took off without you."  He couldn't listen to her or look directly at her, or her tears and the little sounds she was making would distract him too much to continue, he was almost at that point now.  "You returned to the lab to find Dr. Schikelgrubber being interrogated, when he wouldn't tell where you two were, the Russians shot him."

     Now he paused, risked a glance at the tearful girl, then looked away and steeled himself.  Just thinking about it was tearing him up inside.  The treatment Panda-puffs had reportedly heaped on his `son`, which Ranma could see as effective though cruel training.  But to abandon your daughter to a bloodthirsty enemy for a buncha papers? Ranma couldn't imagine that without filling with rage.  "You escaped into Berlin, then watched that family . . . and the Russian soldiers.  But there was someone looking out for you.  Even if you didn't know, Anna did.  Somebody had contacted British Intelligence to pluck you out of Russian controlled territory.  So Unit 02 went to the Americans, so did Anna, while you were flown to a British Headquarters hospital to recover.  Do you want to guess who arranged it?" Ranma paused, risked another glance at Asuka, she'd covered her face so he couldn't see her tears, her shoulders shook with her quiet sobs.  Continuing went against every instinct Ranma had, as a Martial Artist, and as a man.  But he'd seen the medics working, and Ranko had an experience similar to the one Asuka was enduring.  Pulling a stake from your heart hurt, but it had to be done, and Ranma was the only one available to do it.

     "Raccoon, from clear across the Atlantic, was looking out for his friend."  Ranma took a deep breath and braced for the hardest part.  He hated doing something he barely understood, but he trusted Nab-chan and Jeffrey, and they had agreed.  "Your father didn't abandon you because you are a bad person, he did it because he is.  Too many others thought and think you are important for you to be . . . a . . . bad - "  The expression on Asuka's face was something he could deal with, what she would do in the next moments he could deal with.

     With a cry of inarticulate torment, Asuka threw herself at Ranma with every intent of inflicting maximum damage.  Ranma blocked and deflected the onslaught, rather than dodging it as he normally would have, even allowing Asuka's initial charge to knock him on his back.  There was no science or sophistication to the attack, just an immeasurable rage, a desire to inflict pain on another to alleviate it in herself.  Feeling her blows make contact was all Asuka cared about, the shouts of rage were animal snarls.  All she had was the desire to strike and hurt and kill, but it just beat on the rock of Ranma's defenses.  He let the blows fall on his blocks, all the time watching Asuka's aura and expression, leaving defense to his reflexes while his mind analyzed and absorbed.

     At some point he noticed Rei blocking the bedroom door, preventing Sammi and Erin from intervening.  Asuka's rage and energy wound down quickly enough, the blows falling now undeflected, on his shoulders and arms.  Blows fell along with tears, the tears hurt Ranma worse than the blows.  Finally, Asuka collapsed.  Ranma had little choice except to let her land on him.  He carefully took the larger girl in his arms and sat up.  Asuka was simply draped over `Ranko`, still sobbing and occasionally hitting Ranma's back, as if trying to continue her tantrum out of pure stubbornness, but there was no force behind the blows anymore.  Rei walked past the two redheads, after closing the bedroom door in Sammi and Erin's faces.  She returned from the bathroom with a comb and brush, and began duplicating the comb and brush out Ranko had done to Rei a few hours earlier.  Rei carefully eliminated the tangles in Asuka's hair, then began brushing.

     Asuka kept hitting Ranma, but the blows kept getting weaker and further apart, like a windup toy at the end of its spring, it kept going, but almost without purpose.  Her cries had also slowed, becoming sobs.  He hated doing this, hated hurting anyone this way, but he'd promised Nab-chan and Jeffery.  They'd shown him the necessity, taken him and showed him what could happen with an infected wound or an ingrown nail, and what had to be done before the injury could heal.  It had sickened him, what he had just done sickened him.  But he'd asked how to make things right and this is what they told him.  She'd hate him a lot more, at least initially, but it would mean she could move forward with her life, and Raccoon had guaranteed she'd beat him up for doing it.  Somehow, that made it better.

     "Knock knock, who's there?" Rei asked as she brushed rhythmically, "Impatient cow, impatient cow - moo.  How many Asuka's does it take to change a light bulb?  None, she just yells at Shinji-kun that it's dark and he'd better fix it.  How many Raccoons does it take to change a light bulb?  None, he's too busy asking you why you're so concerned it's dark," Rei said in her emotionless tone, repeating jokes she'd heard from others.  "Knock knock, who's there?  Little old lady, little old lady who?  Don't let Asuka hear you yodel, she'll get mad.  How many Horsefaces does it take to change a light bulb?"  Before Ranma could protest, Rei covered his mouth with her hand.  "Just one, but it's his fault it's out."  Ranma frowned at Rei, but noted that Asuka had stopped sobbing.  "A man walked up to Wondergirl and said he hadn't had a bite in weeks, so she gave him a dollar and directions to a cheap restaurant.  She dislikes meat."

     Asuka was shaking now, but Ranma could tell she was no longer sobbing, but laughing instead.  Ranma thought Rei's recitation of jokes was more like being hit repeatedly with a blunt instrument.

     "A man walked down the street eating a bag of oranges.  No one had ever seen oranges, so the mayor walked up and asked what the orange food was.  'An orange' the man answered, 'What do you grow around here?'  'Wine purples,' the mayor said.  The village idiot ran up to the man and asked, 'What's that blue thing you're eating?'  'It's an orange,' the man said, poor idiot, he must be fruit blind.  Knock, knock, who's there?  Violet, violet who?  Your Aunt Violet don't be cheeky let me in."  Rei continued relentlessly repeating jokes Asuka had told, never faltering in her rhythm of brushing Asuka's hair.  Asuka's quiet laughter shook her and Ranma, who still held her upright.  "Knock, knock, who's there?  Orange, orange who?  Orange you glad I didn't say banana?  Knock, knock, who's there?  Red, red who?  That's what Nixon and the HUAC committee are asking.  I have done a full spectrum of knock-knock jokes, I believe that you need rest.  And we will need you for the field tests . . . I will need you for the field tests," Rei said as she carefully gathered Asuka out of Ranma's arms and carried her to the bed.  Ranma rushed over and turned it down to allow Rei to set Asuka down in it.  Asuka looked terrible, eyes red and puffy, exhaustion lined her face.  She managed to give them both a frown as Ranma tucked her in.  Rei and Ranma left quietly, walking past Sammi and Erin as they returned to their own rooms.

     Ranma had his reasons for snubbing them, he guessed that Rei also had one.  He idly wondered why just talking, then listening to Rei's awful jokes made him feel so wrung out and exhausted.  The sleep that claimed him when his head touched the pillow was welcome.

     Urd awoke suddenly, this time she did nothing precipitous, except plaster herself in a corner as far as possible from the Angel Eater that was tethered in the pit with her.

     "I'm glad we have your attention," the voice through the headphones told her.

     Urd knew enough not to antagonize them, if they started the music, she'd be completely helpless against the Angel Eater.  A woman walked to the edge of the pit.  She was wearing a throat mike.  And probably a dead man switch, Urd reasoned.  "Why are you doing this?" Urd asked.

     "Because we can, anytime we want," the woman in the dark sunglasses, black suit and tie told her, "And so you will pass on a message, that is your purpose, isn't it?"

     Urd grimaced, but nodded, she would listen, until she could figure out a way to escape.  But I haven't seen one, she admitted, They might even have Keiichi or one of his friends as a hostage.

     "Your activities are not without consequences.  Personal consequences," the woman said.  Several other figures appeared at the pit edge, all female, all middle-aged or older, and dressed exactly the same way.

     So a show of skin would have no effect, Urd realized, she also suspected through other senses, that all of them either mourned their husbands or were still deeply in love with them.  That gives me no wiggle room with advice or suggestions, Urd realized she couldn't embarrass them like she did the kids at the college.  I've gotten lazy and sloppy.  I still don't know anything about them, she thought as she glanced around.  "That's it?" she asked.

     "That's it.  Please repeat it back, word for word."

     Urd did, and enka music filled the headphones.  Urd slipped into unconsciousness, uncertain if she would reawaken.

     Keiichi and Belldandy were enjoying the end to a busy day of food shopping.  Then the truck, a military truck, pulled up next to them and a number of soldiers climbed out.  One was the JAG officer who had investigated the EVA footprint in their yard.

     "Mister Morisato, I'm afraid you and your girlfriend will have to come with us."

     Keiichi wondered if they had found the Kyushu Shinden he had hidden.  "May I ask why?" he asked nervously.

     "Your housemate, Urd, was found in a very secure portion of the base.  She stepped in front of a truck.  She wasn't hurt," the man reassured him and Belldandy, "Although the driver is sure he hit her.  Maybe she pushed off from the truck."

     Keiichi glanced worriedly at Belldandy, he fervently hoped Bell and her sisters appeared human to a medical exam.

     "There are some questions we need you to answer," the man explained, "Don't worry about Skuld, we sent someone to pick her up."

     That did not reassure Keiichi one little bit.

     "Of course," Keiichi said as he climbed into the truck.  Two soldiers helped Bell into the truck, she gave him a worried look which did nothing for his equanimity.

     Commander Kevin Keller was getting home after a long day.  A security scare at the base had everyone running around like a bunch of chickens.  He was even given the job of driving a group of Japanese nationals back to the temple they all lived in.  Since he spoke no Japanese, he hadn't the faintest idea what they'd discussed so worriedly.  Then everyone was told to keep quiet about it.  His wife met him at the door with a hug and a kiss.

     "We waited dinner for you."  She leaned close.  "Margaret insisted on cooking, she tried hard, so please appreciate it, and she is getting much better."

     Kevin nodded.  He was still amazed at the transformation, his wife and teenaged daughter had spent most of their time screaming at each other.  Then they'd joined a theater club, and the change was amazing.  They still argued, but it was much more civilized.  He'd been afraid of the suddenness of the change.  But Naval Intelligence had cleared the group.  'Eccentric, but harmless,' they had told him.  So he'd dropped his worries about `girls day out`.

     "It smells wonderful," he said, loud enough for his daughter to hear.

     "Thanks dad!" came the shouted reply.  He winced at that, but let it go as a teenager's enthusiasm.  Even his wife merely chuckled and shook her head, instead of exploding, as she would have only a few months earlier.

     "So, what did you two do?" he asked.

     "Oh, just a lesson in communication," his wife said with a smile as she led him towards the table, "I also got to practice my Japanese, I'm getting quite good."

     "Me too," his daughter added as she sat at the table, obviously proud of the simple pot roast with potatoes and vegetables, it did smell good, "I also got to run the sound board," she said excitedly, "And I got to back up a truck!"

     "So, ready to join the Navy as an Electricians Mate?" he asked.

     "DAAAADDY!" Margaret said, as if he'd suggested she eat a handful of live worms.

     "Hard day?" he asked sympathetically.

     "You have no idea," both women said, then they smiled at each other.

     The Mi-Go did not dream as humans did.  The concept of a nightmare did not occur to their logical, mycoidal minds.  For millennia, they had tunneled deep beneath the surface of the moon, to alter the orbit and the resulting tides, to see to it that R'lyeh would never rise.  The servants of Dread Cthulhu raided occasionally, a reason the Mi-Go needed special weapons to combat such creatures.  Cthulhu was merely a legend.

     The appearance of a huge, winged, vaguely-humanoid biped elicited a preprogrammed response.  But none of the weapons long stockpiled, nor the tactics long practiced, slowed the advance of this ersatz Lord of R'lyeh.

     The figure marched to the stock of war machines awaiting deployment to Earth, to recover the Seed of Azathoth from the humans.  It passed its immaterial hand through the machines, and the controlling intelligences would die.  None of the preprepared weapons seemed to function against it, as it was drawn inexorably from one point to the next, without noticing the effect of the weapons, walls or other defenses.  The few Mi-Go who threw themselves at the creature, ceased to exist some distance away.  They burned away before they made contact.  The panic filled them as it destroyed decades of work, nothing they did could disturb its concentration.

     Shinji walked among the strange energy flows.  Since leaving Rei behind, he'd felt . . . odd, unreal.  So he'd flown to the target and had looked around.  There he'd found the minds, in canisters.  They begged, they pleaded for release.  Or they yammered and gibbered insanely, their rationality long lost to their long and alien imprisonment.

     There was only one kind of release he could offer, and he gave it to them.  He passed his hand through their prisons, then he watched their spirits depart.  He didn't feel as if he were killing them, although that is what he was doing.  He felt, and they felt, he was freeing them.  He cared nothing about the piles of metal and webs of wire that stood between him and the caged minds.  He ignored them as he passed through.  Likewise he ignored the myriad alien energies that struck and danced over the surface of his body, sometimes he watched them, marveled at how they interacted.  It was like watching fireflies, or ladybugs, as they flitted around.  Landing, pausing, and disappearing into the air again.  He wished he understood them better, he knew Asuka would be fascinated by them.  And furious that `Spineless` didn't pay better attention, he thought, I hope they're all right.

     Most of the time he listened, heard the faint cries of despair, and sought them out.  It was a surreal experience.  He'd thought there would be a grand battle, like he experienced in the EVA.  It was more like 'policing up' an area, collecting everything that didn't belong.

     He was content, at peace, he knew what he was doing might have been considered mass murder, but all of those who called out to him honestly wanted an end, or were in no condition to ask or refuse.  He always gave them some last opportunity, to turn him away at the last moment.  None took it.

     So he continued.  There were so many.  Some places had rows and columns, as if they were stacked on rows of shelves.  In such places, the cacophony was nearly deafening.  In others, a lone voice called out into the void.  In every case, he went to them, apologized that he could not return them to their bodies, then offered the only release he could.  And they eagerly accepted, sometimes he listened to their final statements.  Like what Nabiki had done, he remembered the names, the last words, to pass on to the families of the fallen.  The pathos of their tales saddened him, then made him angry.  He wished he could find these captors they all spoke of, but he'd seen not a trace of them, only their handiwork.

     Slowly, he ran out of the voices that sounded human.  Others were still imprisoned, Shinji could not leave those aliens trapped in the terrors the humans had related to him.  He suspected that the humans had been his `job` here, what Rei-chan had wanted him to do, what the dream had pointed to.  He could never live with himself, if he left these others.

     He gave these alien minds the same apology, the same offer.  Some screamed defiance as if they could eventually escape by their own efforts, most were long past any reasoning.  The small minority who understood, asked for release, even though they understood what they were asking for.  Some demanded vengeance, but Shinji had seen nothing to vent his or their desire for vengeance on, and vengeance was not what ruled him.  He knew there were others who could extract retribution, he would tell them and let them act.

     So he moved on, searching, deeper and deeper into the moon.  He also heard inklings of another place to go, another planet to visit once he'd finished here.

July 29, 1947

     Asuka couldn't believe she'd slept through an entire day, especially after being unconscious for days.  She'd woken occasionally during the day/night.  On the table next to her bedside, she always found something to drink and something to munch on before she fell back asleep.  They skipped the morning practice, as even Horseface slept late, and concentrated on eating breakfast.  All three pilots shoveling down food as if there was no tomorrow.  The knock on the door that interrupted this process was unexpected.

     "I'll get it."  Asuka headed downstairs, Miss Carter followed her, Asuka ignored that.

     She opened the door to Megumi, her brother, Dishwater and his girlfriend, Little Miss Happy, and three bicycles.  "Hey!  You got them!" Asuka said enthusiastically, "Wondergirl, Horseface, get down here!"  She admired the bikes.  "Looks good.  I see my lessons in welding came in handy."

     "Yes," Dishwater said, surrendering the bike he'd ridden to the apartment.  The gears appeared to be the ones Asuka had made all those years ago in Germany.  She scrambled to the others, and found the gear clusters were a close approximation or exactly the same, so close it would require a count of the teeth to determine the difference.  "You certainly earned your pay," Asuka said enthusiastically, she gave Dishwater a quick hug, then leaned over to Little Miss Happy.  "That's how you show you really appreciate his efforts," she whispered to Little Miss Happy, "You might try it occasionally.  Despite their denials, they do actually like it."

     Asuka stepped away from the furiously blushing girl.  "Well, I think I know what we're going to do today."

     "You are still under arrest," Wondergirl reminded them, Asuka froze, so did the others.

     "What did you do to get arrested?" Megumi stammered.

     "I threatened you," Asuka said quietly, "I shouldn't have joked about that, about an EVA stepping on your house, and someone did it for real."

     "But you didn't do that," Megumi said, "Rei-san said you didn't, it didn't have an EVA's tread."

     "I made the threat," Asuka said dispiritedly.

     "I'm sure an exception can be made," Miss Carter said.

     "No," Asuka stated, "I have to serve my sentence.  I can't ask for special treatment.  Horseface, I think teaching Wondergirl how to balance will keep you both busy."

     "What are you going to do?" Horseface asked as he accepted the bicycle from Megumi.

     "I've got some things to do.  Would you three care for some tea and cakes?"

     "Sure," Megumi said, she followed Asuka inside.  Horseface was standing on the seat of the bike, balancing perfectly.

     "I'm going to have to teach him to use the pedals and the gears," Asuka said.

     "Can't Ranko do that?" Megumi asked.  Outside there was a cry and a crash.  "I think she discovered the pedals.  When are you going to teach Ranma?"

     "Later," Asuka said, "Before Ranko kills herself."

     "Are you enjoying playing the martyr?" Miss Carter asked after the trio from the University had gone home.

     "I don't know what you're talking about.  If I say the wrong thing, I'll be punished; if I do the wrong thing, I'll be punished," Asuka replied, "Or have I missed something?"

     "Look!  We're sorry, we miscalculated," Miss Carter said.

     "Oh, don't trouble yourself, I've forgiven you," Asuka said brightly.  Imagine Horseface of all people teaching me that lesson, she thought disgustedly.  Then she lowered her voice, "But I will not forget."  Asuka walked away, she'd learned to ignore her minders before, let them fade into the background.  Miss Carter had tried to seem her friend, but had then betrayed her in the most fundamental way.  Asuka couldn't ignore that.  That they'd used Horseface-the-hapless as their instrument, that was nearly unforgivable.  She understood she would have to protect herself, not depend on others.

     Henceforth, Miss Carter wasn't her guard, she was only a spy peering at her life for the U.S. Navy.  She thought of the pistol, a bribe from an enemy for amnesty, now her only real defender.  That, and her other abilities.

She Dwelt Among The Untrodden Ways

     Asuka took some pleasure at cleaning and bandaging Horseface's badly scraped elbows, knees and hands in his bathroom.

     "You didn't tell me those things were so dangerous," Horseface muttered an accusation, "No fight hurt me this much."

     "Most people don't start out in the top gear.  Most people aren't strong enough to start in the top gear," Asuka replied as she cleaned the scuffed knuckles.

     "Rei-chan could," Horseface replied, while wincing at the Mercurochrome Asuka applied, thoroughly.

     "Most people aren't as strong as you two," Asuka countered with a winning smile, "And why didn't she get hurt?  Can you tell me that?"

     "I discovered the brakes," a completely undamaged Wondergirl told them as she stood in the doorway and watched Asuka patching Horseface.

     "Always messing up my lines.  I want to hit you, you know that?" Asuka yelled at her.

     Wondergirl stepped within reach, bowed to present her chin.  " 'You always hurt the one you love.'"

     Asuka frowned, then turned quickly to stare at Horseface, who was doing a very good Wondergirl impersonation.

     "Sometimes I wish there were two of you, then I could hit both of you at once.  And if you say 'You always hurt the one you love.'" She leaned close.  "I'll show you it's not accurate."  She added some more Mercurochrome to Horseface's knuckles to accent her point.

July 30, 1947

     Ranma woke and rousted Asuka and Rei out for practice.  Rei had told everyone that she was going to visit with 'Shinji-kun' before the field test.

     "Okay, let's do the basic katas," he told them.  He was glad he'd practiced all this in his female form, so he lost little now that he was stuck this way.  He let his mind flow, watching the others go through the exercises.  He walked among them, he didn't try to explain it with words, merely did the exercise slowly, correctly so they could watch, and leading them through the correct move.  It didn't get the message across perfectly, but he realized he needed to understand the individual names of the body parts to use words.  He wished Nab-chan were here, she'd know the names of the muscles and bones, maybe Rit-chan would be able to help break the correct movements into separate pieces.

     Practice the pieces, then combine them, he thought, Considering how out of shape Asuka and Rei-chan are, it isn't too bad.

     He did have some harsh words for the guards.  "Didn't you keep practicing while we were out?" he asked, trying not to sound confrontational.  The guards all looked guilty.  "I'm surrounded by idiots!"

     "That's my line!" Asuka protested.

     "I'm just agreeing," Ranma shot back.

     "Admiral?" Asuka looked at the man waiting outside the pilots' locker room, wearing civilian clothes and carrying an A10 nerve clip.

     "I'm going with you," Admiral Simson told them, "I know it's just a field test, but I should get an idea about what the EVAs, and more importantly, the pilots see and experience."

     "Have you ever been in L.C.L.?" Horseface asked on entering.

     "No, it can't be as bad as I've heard," Simson said as he followed.

     Asuka smiled at her fellow pilots, they glanced back at her.  Yes, this is going to be fun, Asuka thought.

     "God Almighty!" Admiral Simson `shouted` through the nerve clip, "I don't believe anything could taste so . . . "

     "Foul?" Asuka `asked` as she directed the Admiral to the rear seat of the two place command chair, before she settled in the front seat.  It was an odd construction, but it was better than two of them squeezed into one seat.  She had the highest sync rate, so she could easily overcome the `noise` of having another person in the plug.

     She was also going to be the leader.  Their target was a standard division, mixed armor and infantry, as well as artillery and air support.  They would have to play 'capture the flag.'

     Or 'flatten the command post', Asuka thought, remembering a game with the same kind of purpose.  One great big unit against a battalion of regular troops.  She loved that game.  Here she had the advantage of speed, and surprise.  They also had the last of the July storms drenching the area, ordinary soldiers would be more concerned about keeping dry, rather than looking for the EVAs, on the incorrect assumption that their opponents were as miserable in this kind of weather as they were.  Asuka planned to make them pay for that assumption, and she'd told both Horseface and Wondergirl to use the rain, and to punish the troops for letting them use it.  Horseface and Wondergirl, she intended to use as a diversion, unless one or both of them saw a weakness, then she would be the diversion, and they would be the real axis of attack.

     "No hints?" Asuka teased the slightly green admiral.

     "No, I'm strictly an observer."

     The trio moved out.  She directed the trio into overwatch tactics, as well as avoiding the `enemies'` recon vehicles.  There was nothing she could do about a lone man with a radio.  But those men were defeated by displaying the others at as many places along one flank as they could.  All the while, she maneuvered out of sight to sweep around the enemy's position.

     "They seem to be doing a good job," Admiral Simson told her as they monitored the frantic radio chatter, "I'd like to know how you broke the scrambler codes so we can listen in."

     "They follow directions," Asuka replied, "And if there's anybody better at making a spectacle of himself, it's Horseface."

     "Her, don't you mean?  And you didn't answer my question about the radios."

     "Him, Admiral, him," Asuka replied.  Asuka moved towards something that caught her eye.  A radio man taking a leak against a tree.  She had Unit 02 scoop up the backpack radio while she got Unit 02's head right behind, and waited until he turned around.

     "Boo!" Asuka said.  The man ran off screaming, Asuka let him go, she was busily connecting the pack radio to the communication system of the EVA, a handset that allowed the ground crew to communicate with the pilot.  Once hooked in, Asuka began broadcasting a series of panicked reports of where the EVA had been, while she moved on.  "Now you can't say I can't transmit on their frequencies," Asuka told the Admiral.

     Rei watched the reserves racing off to where Mein Grossfeldmarschall was reporting her presence.  The Fourth in Unit 01 was also attracting huge amounts of attention.  She wasn't as good as they were at being noticed.  One reconnaissance group had ignored the huge orange object crouching behind a line of trees.  She'd taken advantage and approached, as ordered.  Although she kept Mein Grossfeldmarschall informed.  She did wonder why Captain Ramsey and the Commander had issued no orders of their own.

     "Command post in sight," she reported.

     "Well, take it, Wondergirl," Mein Grossfeldmarschall told her, "The job gets done by whoever."

     She thought it was an unusual opinion, considering Mein Grossfeldmarschall's personality.  But who am I to understand her, Rei thought as Unit 00 broke cover and sprinted through the pouring rain towards the target, I barely understand myself.  She avoided the tents and parked vehicles, leaping a long distance to clear them, landing near the CP and not on anyone.  She bent over and grasped the top of the tent and pulled.

     The shocked crew stared up through the rain at the EVA.  Rei simply stared down at them.  "You are dead, we are victorious," she told them.

     "Good grief, Wondergirl," Mien Grossfeldmarschall complained, "You won, you just put down an entire division, show some enthusiasm.  Act like you're glad."

     "I wanted the exercise completed, so I can return to Shinji-kun," Rei explained.  All she wanted was permission to return to base and be with him.

     "You can't go until you celebrate."  Mein Grossfeldmarschall's image appeared, she pointed at Rei out of the image.

     "Hip hip hoorah," Rei recited.

     Mein Grossfeldmarschall covered her face.  "One of these days I'm going to understand you Wondergirl, that's the day I shoot myself in the head.  Admiral, I leave it to you."

     "I think she can check on him in a little while, but stay in your EVA, consider it a delicacy test."

     "Yes," Rei said, not showing her despair at the problem.  She could not touch him from within her EVA.

     Ranma had been dancing with a couple of armored battalions, then had spotted a collection of tanks on a ridge.  He'd been forced to avoid them, then danced back, while keeping the other tanks occupied, then discovering the ones on the ridge had been shot full of holes.

     With the exercise over, and plenty of time left on the S-type engine.  He had something he wanted to try.

     "The tanks on that ridge," Ranma said as he sent the image to Asuka, and hopefully, Admiral Simson, "They're targets, right?"

     "Can you give me a map reference?" Simson replied, Ranma could see Asuka, but not the Admiral.

     "Grid 43 by 90, the ridgeline in the northeast quadrant," Asuka said, then shrugged, "I studied the topography."

     "I'm sure you did," Admiral Simson said sourly.

     "Ranma, this is Captain Ramsey, sorry to interrupt Admiral, but yes, those are targets, and the order has been given to clear the area.  No troops are supposed to be there."

     "Okay," Ranma said.  He remembered the feeling of the healing spells.  Ranko had been able to duplicate the shape of the filaments of the healing spell that Jeffrey cast, but not the effects.  Ranma couldn't make the tiny filaments.  But tiny was relative, and the real purpose was a path to transmit power, like a pipe or an electrical cord.  Although this was technically more like a lightning bolt.

     He envisioned the mass of the AT field ball he'd created before, but instead of the whole mass shooting out, he sent out filaments, tendrils.  They moved too slowly for combat, but speed would come later.  Precision and multiple targets was what he was after, Ranma felt himself sweating under the plugsuit, concentrating this hard, maintaining tight control over that much energy, was hard work.

     "Are you getting all this?" Simson asked.  Asuka was feeding him directly what her EVA `saw` and it was a lot more than just the visible spectrum.

     "Of course," Asuka murmured, as deep in concentration as Ranko appeared to be.

     "We're getting both feeds," Gendo replied in a slightly awed tone.

     Simson returned to watching the tentacles reaching out of the mass Saotome had between the hands of Unit 01.  They quested forward, seeking the targets, avoiding the few treetops they encountered.  They seemed fully under Saotome's control, currently not usable in combat, except maybe a sniper weapon. Not Saotome's style, Simson thought.

     "Shit," Asuka said softly, then louder, "Horseface, tighten your concentration, you're dissipating."

     "Trying," came the reply, "Hurts."

     "Quit whining like a boy and just do it," Asuka replied coldly.  She quietly told the Admiral, "I noticed the problem at 1600 meters, at 2400 meters they'll be too diffuse to deliver a meaningful charge no matter how big the target is."

     "You did that all in your head?" Simson asked.  The frown from Asuka was his only answer.

     The tendrils vanished, both Saotome and Unit 01 sagged with exhaustion.

     "Didn't work," Ranko gasped.

     "Close to 2000 meters, take a breather and try it again.  Nothing works perfectly the first time," Asuka told him.  The exact words Simson had planned to say.

     "Getting ahead of yourself?" Simson asked her on the private channel.

     "There's always some cross-contamination between two people in the plug," Asuka explained, avoiding the actual question.

     "You mean, if I stay in here long enough with you, I could climb out and get a Nobel Prize in Math?" he asked.

     "Two," she replied.

     "Wondergirl?" Asuka asked angrily, "What are you doing?"

     Unit 00 was squatting near headquarters in the mud, rain pouring down, holding the headquarters' tent just low enough that some of the staff, mostly very junior officers, tried to leap up to grab it.  Only to have Unit 00 jerk it away.  Like a man teasing a kitten with a handkerchief.  One officer delivered a swift kick to the Unit, and hopped away clutching his foot.

     "Pilot Saotome explained the importance of taunting an opponent," Wondergirl answered, "A nonverbal method must be found."

     "Great," Horseface complained, "Blame your vicious streak on me."

     "Horseface, if you can talk, you can walk," Asuka told him, "And Wondergirl, you don't do it after the exercise is over."

     "I had considered the information incomplete," Wondergirl said as she draped the tent over the headquarters and walked a short distance away.

     "Pilot Ayanami, why don't you go check on Pilot Ikari as we discussed," Simson told Wondergirl.

     "Yes," Wondergirl said as Unit 00 picked its way through the bustling camp.

     "She needs to get out more," Asuka complained.

     "Are you volunteering?" Simson asked.

     "I'm still under arrest, remember?" Asuka replied brightly.

     Ranko stopped the EVA 2000 meters from the tanks.  She was getting a little worried about these constant mental shifts, but Ranma had done the hard part and `Ranma's` control of the AT field was a little better than hers, although no where near as subtle.  Subtlety, persuasion were her skills, he tried to brute force it.  Misato versus Rit-chan, she thought with a smirk, Funny, Rit-chan is a lot stronger, but she tries to persuade.

     The filaments were only as thick as a pencil now, instead of as tall as a man.  Also they clustered and twisted together, like a cable or a braid.  She couldn't get any more speed out of them, if anything, they were slower than Ranma's, but the advance was almost effortless.  It didn't resist and hurt the way Ranma's attempt had.  She was simply doing it.  About 100 meters from target, the filaments separated, she carved a very poor horsehead in the turret mantlet of each of the old tanks.

     That done, she relaxed, and caught the ground before it could rush up and hit her.

     "Horseface? You - I'm sorry," Simson's voice penetrated the fog, "Pilot Saotome, are you all right?"

     "I wanna nap," Ranko managed, she thought she might be able to crawl back to base.

     "Okay, you and Asuka head back to the barn," Simson said, "After your nap, you will explain how you did, what you did."

     Ramsey met Simson outside the pilots' locker room.  The Admiral had changed back into his uniform.  His civvies had been taken to be burned.  The pilots' locker room was the only place that had the cleansers that could remove the stench of L.C.L. from hair and skin.  Simson sniffed his fingernails and frowned.  "Still smell it, sir?" Ramsey asked his superior.

     "I can't really smell anything," Simson said, "Except L.C.L., Langley and Saotome say it goes away in a few hours.  So, what's the situation?"  He started walking.  Ramsey fell in behind him.

     "General Tomlinson is in the hospital, he hurt himself laughing at all the brown-nosers trying to catch the tent."

     "He deserves it," Simson replied, "Where the Hell was the air support?  I didn't see one plane!  If I'd known the new Air Force wasn't going to support the Army, I'd have given them Marine and Navy planes."

     "With the switch over to an independent Air Force, there's all kinds of new regulations," Ramsey said, "They should have it straightened out in a few days."

     "You tell them that if a real Angel shows up, and they don't do their damned job because somebody didn't fill out the right form, I'll have their balls on a platter and their whole family will watch them getting sliced off," Simson said angrily, "Assuming there's any of the Human race left.  They're still part of Task Force 7N, Tomlinson is my deputy commander, when he gives an order it damn well better be obeyed.  This was supposed to be a test of conventional forces against the EVAs.  That means all the conventional forces.  The ground pounders never knew where the EVAs were, until Ayanami was staring down on them.  She could have decapitated the whole division and been gone before anything heavier than a few rifle grenades could have been fired at her.  You're awfully quiet."

     "Waiting for you to take a breath, sir."  Ramsey smiled.

     Simson stopped and frowned.  "Langley was right, the people in the plug sort of rub off on each other.  I never realized how mad she got at things, especially people who didn't do their jobs.  Funny, she gets more mad if a capable person fails, than an incapable one."  He started walking again, so did Ramsey.

     "Don't mention the Air Force snafu, or is it a janaffu, Joint Army Navy Air Force , er, Foul Up."

     "I may, and leave her the floor for a few minutes," Simson told Ramsey, "What else?"

     "Well aside from Ayanami making herself a folk hero with the sergeants, who all want to buy her a beer, when she's old enough.  The team examined the tanks, and the photos are being processed for the meeting."

     "Let her stay with Ikari until Saotome is ready," Simson said, "After that little stunt with the tent, she deserves it."

     "Well, the tanks are an M-26 Pershing, two type 97 Chi-Ha, a Churchill, three Shermans: an A2, an Easy Eight and a Jumbo; and an M3 Stuart.  The same pattern was carved into the armor just to the left of the main gun, I mean the exact same pattern.  Also, despite the differing thicknesses of the armor, there was no evidence of any damage except to the armor itself.  Whatever Saotome used, it penetrated the armor, and stopped."

     "Precision over firepower, slow to use, but it does have its uses."

     "So, sir.  Enjoy your ride?" Ramsey asked, smiled.

     "It was . . . " Simson said thoughtfully, "I still don't know why more of the other officers . . . who can sync with the Magi," Simson said, letting Ramsey off the hook, "Why they don't take a test ride."

     "It isn't necessary," Ramsey repeated the oft-heard comment, "It's `beneath` them."

     Simson snorted at that.  He'd learned more about the personalities of the pilots in a 3-hour ride along than from all the reports he'd ever received about them.  "I do think you should take a ride, even though you can't sync with the systems, perhaps Pilot Langley can piggyback her data feeds to you."

     "Perhaps, sir, I still think Pilot Saotome might be a better choice.  It seems strange, that Ranma, and Ranko, seem so arrogant, but when faced with a powerful leader, especially a woman, his resistance seems to vanish."

     "I'd noticed that," Simson replied, "It's something we should consider.  Each of the pilots have their own dynamic.  I've watched Pilot Langley willingly surrender control to certain people, Pilot Tendo, Dr. Akagi, Pilot Davis, or dig in her heels and fight to the end against others.  I think today I've figured out why."

     "Maybe we should call Miss Alise back and return to the original plan of two teams."

     "With Langley running one and who, Davis the other?  I don't think that's workable anymore."

     Ramsey shrugged.

     Ranma stared at the ceiling of the locker room, while he rested on the benches.  Everyone had cleaned up and left, hurriedly.  Leaving Ranma and Ranko to consider things.  The `wire-guided` attack was good news.  Although sneaking up and assassinating something . . . that very much went against a lot of what Ranma stood for, even against their enemies, it was unacceptable.  But a faster attack would be useful, Ranma thought as he lay there, But shooting it face-to . . . well-whatever, that would be okay.  The different ways Ranma and Ranko had approached the problem was worrying Ranma.  Ranko couldn't have done the groundwork, Ranma wouldn't have been able to make the enhancements and corrections.  That something deep inside him could understand and use the different parts worried him.  Perhaps whatever it was would also switch the `other` in and out the same way.

     The other thing that worried Ranma was he almost had the answer to why he, and `Ranko` had acted that way towards Nab-chan and Jeffrey.  What drew out that part of both parts of him, that Ranma and Ranko were protecting them from something, something inside them.  So I was protecting them from some part of themselves . . . but what? Ranma thought, It makes sense, I'll do almost anything to win a fight, so did I do what I did to beat them, or to protect them?  Neither his ability to interpret combat maneuvers or Ranko's better skill with words got him any closer to defining the problem.  Instead, it kept escaping him.  It's important! he reminded himself.  He couldn't imagine how `Ranma`, even as a girl, could get close to a guy, except as a combat tactic.  But Ranko clearly felt differently, there was something important about it to her.  Something that led back to beating them and protecting them.  Anything Goes, Ranma thought mirthlessly.  Also, why did he want to get close to a girl who could be so nasty and callous, and why was he pushing them towards each other as well?

     He could define the effect, but not the cause.  He was frustrated by this, frustrated by the seeming facts that contradicted other things he `knew`.  It implied he understood himself less than he was comfortable with.  'Don't assume you understand any of the pilots, they're too complex.  Including Saotome Ranma,' ran through his mind.  He was also worried about the implication, that the dream was a distorted representation of where he actually came from.  The way the denizens of Nerima talked about him, like they all knew him, bothered him.  More than the nut with the wooden sword calling Jeffrey a 'sorcerer'.  All those girls claiming him, yet they seemed more interested in fighting each other.  And not one of them could answer more than a handful of questions about me, one fact, usually incomplete if not distorted or just plain wrong, and they build an entire world around me and them, Ranma grumped silently, Heck, Jeffery, Nab-chan, even Rei and Shinji know my favorite food, my curse, my honor, that I would always save anybody in trouble, that I am smart - in my own way.  Nab-chan and Jeffrey know I like to draw, that I . . . that I like being held, and holding somebody who trusts me.  And I really like being apologized to.  He smirked at that.  Maybe that's why I stay near them, he laughed inwardly.  Fighting seemed all they did.  Had any of the girls adopted Nab-chan's, Rit-chan's or Jeffrey's tactics, they would have been way ahead of the others.  Heck, with Nab-chan or Jeffrey's sneakiness, they'd figure out a way out of the conflicting claims, Ranma thought, Or they'd figure out a way to get two at once, and convince me it was all right, even honorable.  As good as he was, as good a training area as that dream was, he wanted to be home.  Here, an EVA pilot, not `just` a Martial Artist.  He wondered how they got all the weird ideas about him, like some of the weird ideas the people here had about him.

     "They sure were right about those peoples' `honor`," he said with disgust as he sat up, rubbed his eyes.  He knew as soon as he was `awake` they'd order Rei-chan back from Shinji's bedside.  He suspected that she'd rather stay there until the EVA's life support failed.  But he wanted to get Asuka's and Rei-chan's input on what he did, he also wanted to see if he could do it with his Ki attack.  He got up and headed for the conference room.

     "The diffusion didn't seem to follow the square or cube laws, but an initial zeroth, to sixth to eighth order reduction depending on the distance past the diffusion point," Asuka told the others in the conference room, "The diffusion might actually increase with distance from the initial point of discontinuity, rather than from the point of origin.  Perhaps the multiple waveforms in the braided version cancel the nonharmonic elements, making the whole self-resonant, until some critical, minimum signal strength is reached."

     "Perhaps," Rei-chan said.

     Ranma thought his brain was bleeding.  From the other expressions around the conference room, he wasn't alone.  "Can you translate that into Japanese from math?"

     "Of course," Asuka said, "Once it starts to break up, it breaks up fast.  By letting the strands twist and tangle with each other, the part that causes the break up is ground away.  Now, as far as the speed problem - "

     "In Japanese," Ranma insisted, he glanced at the others in the conference room, and their now merely glazed expressions.  She got them too, he realized.

     "Very well," Asuka grumped.  Ranko resolved to call her cute next time she did that in a private argument.  "You had to push the tips forward.  Your usual attack seeks out its target."

     "Makes sense," Ranko admitted, it had felt like that.  She glanced at Colonel Stedman, Capt. Ramsey, Adm. Simson and Commander Ikari, along with the pilots and their guards.  Only Rei-chan looked like she was keeping up with Asuka's analysis.  "So how do I get the strands to seek out their targets?"

     "I haven't the faintest idea," Asuka admitted.

     Ranko wanted to pound her head on the table, the sudden shift from Ranma to Ranko had nothing to do with it.  But a lot to do with how she did respond.  "Then why are we discussing this?"

     "Because we need to," Gendo intoned, as he pushed his glasses up.  Ranko thought it made him look silly, trying to boss everyone around, but he couldn't get a decent set of glasses.

     "Fine," Ranko said with frustration, "What did you want to know?"

     "How did you come up with the idea?" Ramsey asked in a reasonable tone.

     "Wires," Ranko said.

     "Okay, huh?" Ramsey said, "Can you translate that into Japanese?"

     "Certain German air to air missiles were wire-guided," Asuka said, "I bet he was using the same wire-guided concept.  The missile trails a control wire, allowing the firer to send control inputs and adjustments to the missile."

     "Actually, in the dream I watched a healing spell and it moved through the wounded cells like filaments, wires," Ranko replied, "I figured I could do the same, since the wires were only transmitting energy."  She looked at the confused faces around the table, except the other two pilots who were looking thoughtful, each in their own way.

     "Ah, yes," Admiral Simson said, "I believe Pilot Ayanami wants to check in on Pilot Ikari face-to-face.  Congratulations on not disturbing the hospital earlier, Miss Ayanami, very well done.  Ranko, please continue your experiments, and remember to document all your findings.  Dismissed."

     Ranma reached the door first, remembered his manners, and held the door for the other two pilots and their guards.  None of the military people had moved.  Ranma also did it to cover his surprise at the sudden change again, he was almost used to it, but not completely.

     Rei-chan moved off quickly, Asuka stayed near the door.

     "You were making all that stuff up," he accused.

     "And you weren't?  That's what a hypothesis is, Horseface.  You want me to show you the equations?" Asuka asked too innocently to be anything other than smugly self-satisfied.  Her posture was also a dead-giveaway.

     "What makes you think I'd understand them?" Ranma countered, "I think that 'Dismissed.' meant, 'We don't understand either of you, you're making our brains hurt, get out of here!'"  He stood there.  Asuka crossed her arms across her chest, and stared at him, he duplicated the stance, exactly.

     "Well?" Asuka asked.

     "Well, what?" Ranma asked, duplicating her tone.

     "Are you going to ask my help?"

     "Naw, I just wanted to see how long you'd just stand there."

     "ARGH!" Asuka threw up her hands and stalked off.

     "Rei-chan's right," Ranma called after her, "You are cutest when you're mad."

     Asuka whirled to face him, he could practically hear the spate of insults being loaded into their launchers.  Suddenly, Asuka turned back and started walking away.

     "You shouldn't do that," Sammi told him.

     "Why not, she enjoys it," Ranma commented, he wanted to head out to the rifle range to try out his new ability.  If he could duplicate it with his Ki attack, he could practice practically anywhere.

     "That's my point, she may take it as a marriage proposal," Sammi told him.

     Rather than being upset, Ranma remembered `his` Nerima suitors and told her, "Considering some of my options, that isn't as bad as you think it is."  At least she can cook and all she does is yell at me, he thought, In a language I can't understand yet.

August 1, 1947

     'Ranko-chan, I have such a cute fuku with bows for you to wear.  It will show off your figure adorably, but frilly panties -' Ranma heard in his sleep, then glanced down from the ceiling he was hanging on to at Rei, who was staring up at him.  Rei carefully replaced the book she had in hand, in her skirt pocket, then looked back at Ranma.

     "Why couldn't you do something civilized," he shouted at her, "Like douse me with cold water?  Or set me on fire?"  He shuddered at the images that were still coursing, or coarsening, through his mind.

     "If you are going to be female," Rei said indifferently, "You will require suitable clothing."

     "You just want an excuse to go shopping," Ranma accused while trying to pull his toes out of the plaster.  Once he'd done that, he released the grip his fingers had.  He had no idea how he was going to explain the holes in the ceiling.

     'They're in Boston,' Asuka heard as she woke.

     "Who?"  She identified it was Wondergirl who had spoken,

     "Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun are in Boston, they arrived safely, and will take a train to San Diego, and a carrier back to Tokyo."

     Asuka blinked, stared at Wondergirl's insipid face, so bright and chipper, for her, so early in the morning.  "Was it necessary to wake me for that?"

     "I am testing different methods," Wondergirl told her, it took Asuka's brain a moment to remember that Wondergirl woke her by suggesting she'd takeover Asuka's EVA.  "I hate you, Wondergirl," Asuka said as she punched her pillow, then made the mistake of looking at the clock.  She'd never get back to sleep before Horseface started the morning practice.

     Mourning practice, Asuka complained inwardly.

     At least it isn't raining, Asuka thought as she stared down through the windows, and watched Horseface race around on `her` new bicycle.  Wheelies, sitting on the handlebars to ride it backwards, even remaining perfectly still for what seemed like hours.  Wondergirl was shakier, she fell a lot, but landed on her feet and kept the bike from falling completely.

     "Like a kid with a new toy," Tomiyo said, "You, not them."

     She turned and frowned.  "Aren't you supposed to be watching Spineless?" she hinted at him.

     "Juri's taking a turn, she's been feeling like a fifth wheel since Pilot Tendo went on her ocean cruise.  So, what's up?  You and Erin used to be friends."

     "I can't trust her, it's as simple as that," Asuka snapped, and returned her attention to the two pilots and their new bicycles.  In truth, she wanted to be down there `playing` with them.  But she wasn't going to ask for or accept any charity from Miss Carter or Miss Krasnyzamok.  "Besides, it was Vice Admiral Simson and Commander Ikari who punished me, any 'special dispensation' has to come directly from them."

     "I think you're using this to punish them," Tomiyo said.

     "Shouldn't they be punished?" Asuka asked sweetly, "Violating two pilots' trust that way?"

     "You're exaggerating."

     "You can believe what you want."

     "What about forgive and forget?" Tomiyo asked.

     "Forgiveness is for me to offer," Asuka said, "It has nothing to do with not holding someone accountable for their actions, and not remembering they betrayed you once.  Forgive doesn't suddenly make you stupid, forget does.  Have you asked Horseface about his dream?  I understand he encountered the Tendo family, in 1992.  If you filter out the insanity of a Great Old One, it's an interesting take on the future."

     "Maybe I should, did he bring back the World Series winners?"

     "Ask him."

August 2, 1947 - Tokyo (GMT +9.0 hr)

     Keiichi heard the scream, like nothing he'd heard since the end of the war.  He was at Belldandy's door before he was even awake, or aware he was running.  He opened the door, Bell was curled up in the middle of her room.  The place looked like a hurricane had whipped through it, everything was disarranged and overturned.

     "Belldandy?"  He approached her, kneeling next to her, "Belldandy?"

     "Gone, lost, all lost," she stammered tearfully as she turned away from him, "I failed, I failed . . . "

     He wanted to comfort her, but Urd interrupted.  "Keiichi, you and Skuld fix some tea, let me talk to her."  She was using the tone she only used when she actually knew, instead of the cajoling tone she used when she was afraid of getting caught, he couldn't refuse.

     Skuld looked ready to chew nails.  "What did you do?"

     "I didn't do anything," he quietly protested.

     "Then . . . you should have done something," she insisted.

     Urd sat Belldandy up, she was immediately aware something was seriously wrong with her sister, far beyond her emotional upset.  "What happened?"

     "She . . . she killed me, not just the part of me on Earth, but almost all of me.  She blames us for Gwendoline's mistake, she's going to take it out on the pilots and then the world," Belldandy said in rapidfire, to get it all out before she broke down again.

     Urd wasn't feeling very secure herself, a group of ordinary humans had captured her.  Now this.  "Maybe the other pilots can stop her," Urd offered.

     "Only Tendo and Davis," Belldandy replied, with tears running down her cheeks, "And only one EVA."

     We could send in Ayanami, Urd considered, then rejected the idea.  "Tendo, who we brought into this, Davis, who was trained by Agenor, Achen, Menefelius, and K'naar?" Urd said soothingly, "They'll stop her.  Or they'll keep her occupied until a trouble squad can deal with her."

     "You aren't . . . to tell them."

     "I am going to alert them.  As if they don't already know."

     "I've worried you all, needlessly," Belldandy said, bowed her head in shame.

     "Not needlessly.  But you might want to tell Keiichi you're all right, poor boy looks like he saw a hungry ghost."

     "Yes," Belldandy said softly.  Urd left her and headed for the telephone.  She glanced at the kitchen.  "Keiichi go in there, she has something important to tell you."  The poor kid still doesn't understand, Urd thought as she reached the phone, dialed the number.  She ignored Skuld coming up behind her, her little sister probably recognized the number.  All she got was the signal that the circuits were busy.  Nothing for it, she thought, glanced around and decided this she had to report in person.  She passed Bell's room again, her sister had her head in Keiichi's lap and was fast asleep.  Keiichi just sat still and looked both happy and mystified.  Skuld stormed up to Urd as she reached her room.  "What's going on?" the youngest goddess demanded.

     "Sharon Lauren is free of all constraints and she hurt Belldandy in response to Gwendoline's failure."

     "I'll kill her!" Skuld said darkly.

     "You'd better be talking about Gwendoline, because if Sharon could hurt Belldandy, you wouldn't have a prayer."  Nor would I, Urd thought worriedly.

Something to Live For, Great Enough To Die For

August 1, 1947 - Boston (GMT -5.0 hrs)

     Lauren returned to wakefulness, and pain.  There was a perforated piece of sheet metal lying on her.  She found she couldn't push it off, her arms wouldn't work.  She couldn't kick it off either.

     Someone dragged it off her and tossed it aside.  She blinked at the sudden light.  Jeff stared down at her.

     "You really thought that would get me, that you could kill me that easily?" she shouted contemptuously.

     "No," he replied, smiling, "This is more like the story of the mule trainer.  When the mule didn't respond to commands, he clobbered it with a fence post,"  He pulled off the work gloves he was wearing and slipped them back in his inside coat pocket.  "First he had to get its attention.  Do I have your attention?" he asked, "A simple trick with a little planning, and I nearly got you.  A professional will get you."

     "I'll survive, I'll recover," she answered him.

     "Evidently not," he said, shaking his head.  "You're lying there, your legs were blown off and your arms are either gone or bloody rags.  I don't have a hair out of place, I've even still got my hat.  Being a few feet to 50 feet from that big an explosion shouldn't have made that big a difference."  He squatted down beside her.

     "All right," she said, she surveyed the damage, both to herself, which was considerable, and the railyard, which was if anything, far worse.  Her condition was exactly as he'd said.  She knew she'd recover, but he didn't seem to have been touched by the explosion he'd set up.  That infuriated her.

     "The human race is stronger than you are, stronger than I am.  Of course individual humans are all `squashies`, but the entire race will find a way to get you."

     "Is that why you want me to knuckle under and crawl?  Because you're afraid?"  She was disgusted by the display of cowardice.

     "This is like talking to those Third Empire idiots!" he lamented, "Why fight and bite and claw for what you want when it will all be given to you on a silver platter, with praise and affection.  And all you have to do to get it, is listen to them.  Smile and mouth some meaningless words.  And you know, they might actually tell you something that is useful.  Should I blow you up again?  I don't think you're listening yet.  My point is, that I intend to stand with the human race, not because I fear, but because I respect them and I choose to.  They still have a great deal to teach us.  All I'm asking, is that you bide your time.  Don't make enemies you don't need to.  Adding you and Anna Alise, we'll go back to the way it was planned, two teams, there are things about the EVAs and our enemies that put us so far beyond the realms you're talking about it's unbelievable.  Some of the skills you can learn from the others would amaze you.  The pilots and staff are good people.  You used to not have a problem listening to experts, have you suddenly become omniscient and beyond the need to learn new things?  That also completely leaves out what you can learn from our enemies.  You talk of vistas unimaginable, well guess what, I've seen what's on the far side of those vistas.  It's beautiful and it's terrible and it's awe-inspiring, but it would be better to go with friends."

     He sounds like such a Pollyanna, she thought, It's disgusting, he used to have guts and a spine.  'Peace, love and joy!'  "I am through serving them!" she told him.  Or anyone else! she added silently.

     "The project members were an aberration," he said soothingly, brushing her hair out of her face, "Most humans are decent enough.  They just want to raise their kids, live their lives, anything that keeps the monsters from the door will receive a little praise and a lot of benign neglect."

     "Why should I care about them, if they don't care about me?"  She jerked her head away from him.  I'm not falling victim to that trick, she thought.

     "I thought you were the one complaining about the limited world view of the others.  They won't worship you, if that's what you want.  It would be up to us to keep track of the bigger picture, the higher things, the greater vistas you were talking about.  I didn't disagree with you, but for each of us with our heads in the clouds, there has to be a platoon of people with their feet on the ground, making sure the streets are cleaned, the food gets grown, the mail gets delivered, etc.  The entirety of that, is what I'm suggesting.  Join us.  With you and Anna we'll have two battlegroups, Asuka, Rei, Ranko and I can do the deep investigation into the answers you're looking for.  You may even find the friends you've always been looking for."

     "A pack of Axis mutts?" Lauren laughed, "I remember when you were training to destroy the lot of them.  What could they possibly teach me?  To be weak, like you've become?"

     "Maybe enough that you'll be able to tell the difference between standing on your feet and negotiating from strength, and lying in a puddle of your own blood and stubbornness," he said harshly, "Be clear on this, I want you on my side, I don't care if you're the leader, the follower, the assistant or the gadfly.  But my job is to defend the human race, until they're ready to follow us, or until the threat is ended."

     "What do I need friends, or a leash for?" she spat back at him.

     "My friends gave me the heads-up that you'd escaped, so I had days to plan and consider.  My friends will be arriving soon to reinforce me, my friends have dragged me back from the abyss, by my leash if necessary, and will do so again.  They can arrive as your friends and allies, or as your executioners.  As for my `leash`, I've learned things that even you can't imagine.  I know who has been manipulating the project, the doctors, and tried to manipulate us.  The `leashes` you choose give you the things you need.  Freedom isn't about being without chains, freedom is getting to choose the ties you want, and what someone has to pay to put them and keep them on you.  You want power?  I've gotten that.  You want information?  I've gotten that.  You want other delights?  You can choose them, or the skills to make them yourself.  If you strike out entirely on your own, all you'll be is victimized - I'm not suggesting you completely surrender your freedom forever, just biding your time until you are strong enough to strike out on your own.  Better with allies to guard your back, to rein you in if necessary, to make you laugh, to help you cry.  You'll find being `independent` and alone is not as attractive as you think."

     "Trying to recruit or seduce me?" she asked disparagingly, "Ha!  I'm stronger, I'm better than any of them."

     "True, but not all of them, that's my point."

     "That's all hogwash," she insisted, he always could spin words around to make a web of gossamer, until you moved too late and discovered the cobwebs were real steel.  "I will not be a servant, I will not submit to your `friends`, or you, or your stupid dreams!  I have information you need, the real truth.  I have the power here, and since you are so willing to bend and twist and bow to those with power, maybe I should hold that over your head and force you to do my bidding.  I know how desperate you are to know all that is.  Holding that over your head should end your yammering about all this stupidity," she told him, exulting at his crestfallen expression.  He'd failed, she'd won.

     "You may know a great deal, but you still haven't gotten the most important facts," he told her sadly, "Something that you could only understand after being an EVA pilot, something that brings you to an entirely new level, one the project members didn't really consider.  But the Axis forces did."

     "Oh, murdering racial minorities?  Cruel and unusual experiments on the helpless?"  She smiled.  "We were a minority and we were pretty helpless, so nothing new and different there.  That's what humans are, vicious animals!  That's really something I need to be taught."

     "It's along those lines," he said as he placed his hand on her head, "It's that creatures like the Great Old Ones can't really be destroyed.  It also has to do with you being right about me having to know everything.  Wouldn't my first priority be finding a way to achieve that?  Great Old Ones can't really die, but can be devoured."

     Before Lauren could respond, she felt him tighten his grip on her skull as her eyes rolled up in her head.  Her eyelids started fluttering, she couldn't understand, she couldn't even scream.

     The girl turned gray, flaking to powder that blew away on the wind.  That was unusual, it normally sat there untouched.  He hoped she found peace in the next world.  Her knowledge flooded his mind.  Most of it dropped into expected `boxes`.  There was a good deal that he hadn't expected, as well as the outrage she had felt at being beaten, not so much at the betrayal, she had clearly expected that, but that anyone else was stronger than she.  Jeff shook his head, the whispered poison that Nyarlathotep had offered her, he recognized the Inspector's words and phrasings, had given her so many mistaken beliefs.  "If I was willing to die myself if I proved to be a threat, what made you think I would spare you?" he asked quietly, shaking his head, "Did you really understand me so poorly?"  The Crawling Chaos had actually convinced her she could go out, alone, and beat all of her foes.  None of the pilots were at that stage yet.  He considered what he'd done, to Sharon, to Ritsuko, to everyone and how they'd react.  "Well congratulations are in order, I guess I've really cut all ties now," he said.

     Jeff stopped, stumbled for a moment as some of the stolen memories meshed with things he already knew, or merely suspected.  "Staggering," he said as the revelations began exploding throughout his mind.  Consciousness fled in the face of what he had learned.

     Ritsuko drove through the flaming wreckage of the railyard.  She shifted rapidly, swinging the wheel back and forth to avoid barriers.  Overturned boxcars, some still on fire, rails and ties scattered as if the EVAs had been playing mumbletypeg.  Maya and Nabiki held on desperately, as Ritsuko dodged around these obstacles.  Maya gazed at all the damage, Nabiki was silent.

     "This was bigger than the bombs they dropped on us," Ritsuko said, as she slowed further to pick her way through the denser patches of debris.  The 6x6 truck Maya had commandeered could get over most obstacles, but not some of the tangles of wreckage that the explosion had created.

     "I don't think this was a nuclear explosion.  In Texas City, a few months ago, there was a fire and an explosion in a fertilizer ship.  The blast was larger than the bombs of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  If this was a feed and supply store, maybe they had a lot of fertilizer or dynamite around."

     "So, no radiation?" Nabiki asked, chagrined by her fear.

     "No, afraid of not having healthy children?" Ritsuko asked.

     Nabiki blushed and turned away.

     "You could always let Ranma have your kids," Ritsuko teased, then fell silent as Nabiki froze.  Ritsuko added that to the list of things she had to ask them, if and when they calmed down.

     Ritsuko drove into the exact middle of the disaster area, the crater proved that.  Shattered box cars, ripped up rails and ties, dozens of fires dotted the area.  She took the flamethrower, Maya had the bazooka, Nabiki took the backpack of reloads.

     "Do you know how to fire that?" Ritsuko asked.

     "Uh, no," Maya admitted.

     "Yes," Nabiki said, the pair exchanged glances, then exchanged burdens.  The trio advanced slowly.  Ritsuko covering Nabiki and Maya, then they covered her.  Ritsuko saw the pattern of destruction, the direction that things had been thrown by the explosion.  She figured the center of the explosion would be the best place to start searching.  What they would do depended on what they found, and in what order.  She didn't want to separate to cover more ground.  She doubted that nothing, except all three of them together, could deal with what they found.  Whatever it was.

     "There must have been some railcars full of dynamite," Ritsuko commented, only a few of the wheel/axle pieces remained at the blast center, everything nearby had been thrown away.

     "A couple boxcars of dynamite," Nabiki commented, "I hope it was overkill."

     "It must have at least wounded . . . whatever it was.  Or it would have come after us, right?" Maya asked nervously.

     "Probably," Ritsuko said, "Unless it ran away."  She heard the nervous laughter.  She was much more worried what they'd find if this had been a suicide attack.  She knew Jeff would get close, to make sure the attack would have maximum effect.  Ritsuko was actually more afraid of what Miss Lauren might have told Jeff, rather than what had happened here.  She doubted he would have taken his own life in despair, but she had no idea what damage Sharon's words would have done before they arrived.  "Where would he have been?" she asked herself as she looked around.

     "There," Nabiki said as she headed towards her goal.  "Look at these posts, all driven into the ground.  A tower of some kind, close to the blast center."

     "A water tower to refill the steam engines," Ritsuko said, "All right, let's assume the blast threw him in a line.  Let's head out in this direction."

     "You don't expect to . . . " Maya fell silent.

     Find him alive? Ritsuko thought, After what I learned.  I'd expect to find both of them alive.  She didn't know what they'd do in that circumstance.

     "There," Maya called, pointing.

     Sure enough, there he was, sitting out in the open, not a scratch apparently.

     "Only he could set off a bomb like this and come through unscathed," Nabiki complained.

     "Let's get the truck over here first, then we'll see if he's alive, last we can worry about unscathed," Ritsuko said as she ran back to where the truck was parked.  The others followed her.  She parked the truck near the fallen pilot.  She climbed out, taking a bazooka with her this time.  Maya climbed out and selected the heavy backpack flamethrower, she could barely stagger under the load.  Nabiki seemed content with her Le Mat pistol as she looked at everything except her comrade.  Ritsuko saw no evidence that Sharon Lauren had survived, she wondered what it had cost her charge to kill an old friend.

     Nabiki walked along behind the luggage cart that was stacked with her belongings, and his.  Raccoon was already aboard the train, so was Unit 04.  The last she'd seen to personally, piloting it off the Bennington, and to the railyard where the double wide railcar awaited.  Once she'd helped lock the Unit down, she'd cleaned off as best she could, before returning to the carrier for a proper and more thorough cleaning off of the L.C.L..  Maya had seen to getting Raccoon aboard, Ritsuko was elsewhere, doing something she refused to talk about.

     Nabiki felt empty, she couldn't imagine actually killing a friend, she would have given almost anything to have Hiroko back.  The idea of Hiroko doing something that would make Nabiki willing to kill her . . . Nabiki couldn't get her mind around it.

     "Miss Tendo," she heard Sergeant Kilrain call to her, "I was wondering where you had gone off to."

     "Pilots stick together," she told him, feeling a little less empty now, "Are you here to see me off?"

     "No ma'am.  Since Bennington is going to Norfolk for repairs, and probably mothballing, they decided to send all the nonessential crew to the Bunker Hill at San Diego, especially if they had any experience in EVA handling.  So they're adding locomotives at the front, and cars at the back to house us all."

     "How many is 'us'?" Nabiki asked.

     "About 1600 troops, don't worry, we'll behave."

     "They'd better," Nabiki said and gave him the best shark's grin she could.

     "Yes, ma'am," Kilrain said hurriedly, he gulped, "Oh, there is one other thing."  He pulled a box out of his uniform pocket, it was too big for a pocket watch, almost big enough for a wallet.  He carefully opened it.  Inside was a large arrowhead on a solid-looking gold chain.

     "If I may?" he asked, holding the chain open.

     Nabiki nodded and leaned over, letting him slip the chain over her head and around her neck.  She pulled her hair out from within the chain and lifted the arrowhead from where it hung.  It looked like a glassy mineral, it wasn't sharp enough to be real and seemed authentic Amerind or a good copy.  The metal plaque on the chain said it was 'From the Crew of U.S.S. Bennington, July 11 - Aug 1 1947'.  "It's lovely, thank you."  She hadn't the faintest idea what to do with the obviously heartfelt gift.

     "It's flint, Bess," Kilrain said, desperately keeping a straight face, or a strait face.

     Nabiki carefully placed the arrowhead between her teeth, and while staring straight into Kilrain's eyes, gave him her most evil smile.  I'm going to kill Raccoon, the moment he wakes up enough to properly understand what and why I'm doing it, she thought as she watched Kilrain, a long-service, hard-bitten veteran, pale and take a step back.

     "My, what - ah - big teeth you have.  Beg pardon ma'am, but you are violating the Geneva Convention."

     Nabiki removed the arrowhead from her mouth, letting it hang down over the hollow of her throat.  "Why certainly, Sergeant," she said as sweetly as she could, fluttering her eyelashes at him, "You only had to ask.  You can tell the others how much I appreciate your gift and the spirit in which it was intended."

     Only the maxim that an officer, or the man in charge, never runs away, kept him from bolting on the spot.  Instead, he saluted, turned on his heel before she could return it, and marched away.