Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 51-52 ( Chapter 24 )

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


Chapter 51 - Familial Relations      

     
You Can Choose Your Friends

     
You Can't Choose Your Relatives

     
Home Where They Must Take You In

     
Blood Is Thicker Than Water

     
What a Marvelous Place To Drop Ones Mother-In-Law


Chapter 52 - Filthy Gaijin

     
Mislike Me Not For My Complexion

     
The Hate of Those Ye Guard

     
Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense (Evil Be To Him Who Evil Thinks)

     
I Do Begin To Have Bloody Thoughts

     
I Am Free Of All Prejudice

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 51 - Familial Relations

Author's Note:
I'd like to thank Pat Hennessy for her assistance in checking out standard education of the time.

Disclaimer:

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

E-mail: dan_s.comments@comcast.net

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ftp ://ftp.cs.ubc.ca/pub/archive/anime-fan-works/Ranma/Sic-Semper-Morituri/

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(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.

     Ranma begins teaching the others the insult techniques that are part of his art.  He also senses Asuka's 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 Azores group discovers the Great Old One, the creature awakens and the battlegroup is surrounded by clouds and all the pilots are plunged into a dream.  Jeff and Nabiki awaken and return Cthylla to her temple.

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

     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 truth about the project that created Jeff and Sharon, as well as others, and about Jeff's history in particular.  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.  Belldandy returns from her murder by Sharon with a scream, while Keiichi comforts her.  Jeff gives Sharon a last chance, then absorbs her and falls into a coma.  Ritsuko, Maya and Nabiki arrive at the blast site and investigate, they find Jeff, but not Sharon.

     Ranma, Asuka and Rei awaken, Shinji remains unconscious.  Rei has a tantrum in reaction to the mission she sent Shinji on.  Ranma wonders why he's locked himself in female form.  Asuka and Ranma take Rei home with them.  Asuka and Ranma discuss the odd dreams they had.

     Rei's and Ranma's cults assault the last of the Children of Nyogtha.  Another group of Jeff's cultists capture Urd and threaten her with an Angel Eater, and the knowledge she can't defend against them.  The Russian cult of the 'Gray Lady' assault a cult and Children of Nyogtha, then celebrate their victory.  The GRU man recruits several of them for an upcoming operation.

     Ranma confronts Asuka over the events of August 1945, Asuka physically attacks Ranma while Rei prevents the guards from intervening.  Then Rei began telling jokes until Asuka laughed.

     Shinji destroys the Mi-Go's moonbase, but cannot see them and isn't affected by their counterattacks.  He releases many of the minds in their containers.  On Yuggoth, he meets with Jeff and Sharon, getting some insights into the real nature of the pilots.

     Keiichi delivers the bicycles, Ranma and Rei begin learning to ride them.  Admiral Simson accompanies Asuka, Ranma and Rei on a field exercise.  Asuka lays out her plans and leads the EVAs' attack.  Ranma develops a new `wire-guided` version of his AT-field-ball attack, he discovers the Ranma and Ranko are subtly different in this regard.  Also Rei, Asuka and Ranma analyze it completely.  Simson learns that two people in a plug begin acting like each other for a while.

     The troops of the Bennington, who will accompany NERV forces to U.S.S. Boxer, give `Brown Bess` a flint to put between her teeth.

     The cultists attempt another incursion into Nabiki's dreams.  They are repulsed by the rattlepated scenario the Scholarly Dragon sets up.

     Ranma's `other` torments and terrorizes the Scholarly Dragon, while he and the Red Dragons are moving into Leng.

     Ranma begins developing individual arts for each pilot to incorporate their natural inclinations, strengths and weaknesses.

     The Scholarly Dragon and Jeff are thrown out of the Council of Dragonmages for their plans to teach Nabiki.

     Toji has a nightmare just before the school day begins.  Rei investigates the school, diagrams the security aspects.  Misato is pardoned, ending the Senator's inquiry.

     Nabiki infiltrates Jeff's dreams, first she is defeated by the Urchin and the Monolith, then she sees Jeff becoming a Master mage, she goes deeper into his past to learn the breakthrough that enabled him to achieve Master.  Lastly Nabiki and Ritsuko relive and are traumatized by the murder of Ritsuko-Nabiki and Jeff's massacre of the Phoenixi.

      Several of the students are revealed.  The initial meeting between the pilots and Usagi's group does not go as Usagi planned.  Rei is also shocked that some students insist she is the pilots' leader, her shock deepens as Asuka facilitates the error.  Rei then confronts and defeats Tomoe using Ranma's tactics and training.

     Ranma tells Asuka that he's sensed something new, something he doesn't understand, he also admits he can't live up to people's expectations.

I grew up dreamin' of bein' a cowboy, and lovin' the cowboy ways.

Pursuin' the life of my high-ridin' heroes, I burned up my childhood days.

I learned all the rules of a modern-day drifter, don'tcha hold on to nothin' too long.

Willy Nelson, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

You Can Choose Your Friends

     Jeff slowly woke from the stupor.  Nabiki appeared in his field of view.

     "Welcome back from the Dragon Palace and Mount Phoenix," Nabiki said bitterly, "That's what you get from talking to turtles.  We're outside of Roswell, New Mexico, I've been here before."

     "Hmm?" he said intelligently, trying to bring his brain back on line and trying to put his memories back in order.

     "We thought you'd be out cold until the train reached San Diego," Nabiki told him, her anger coloring her every word and gesture.

     I hardly need the `conversation blocks` to tell me she's pissed, he thought.  He sat up slowly, painfully, to face her.  He saw the railroad berth around him.  He heard and felt the movement over the rails.  He tried to force the memories of Ritsuko-Nabiki's death and return back into the proper mold.  It hurts too much to examine those memories.  Her comment about Phoenix Mountain explains why I dreamt of those things, he thought, And one reason why she's so angry, she must have infiltrated those experiences.

     "All you need to do is learn some songs, and learn to sing," he told her.

     She gritted her teeth and stared angrily at him.

     He closed his eyes and determined to take a chance.  "You are a very pleasant sight to wake up to."  He felt something sliding over his head, thin, cold and metal.

     "Your glasses were destroyed in the explosion, even the spares in your pocket," she told him in a singsong voice, but her fury was obvious from the color of her words, "We had these made, and there's a Navy optometrist waiting in San Diego.  Bye, now."  The `happy` tone and smile would have fooled anybody else.  The door closed carefully, Jeff began a countdown to detonation.


     Ritsuko saw Nabiki close the door to Jeff's cabin carefully.  Ritsuko considered delaying her trip to see Jeff's parents, she sighed and followed the girl as Nabiki clenched and unclenched her fists and stuck out her tongue at the door.

     "He's awake," Nabiki told her as she stormed past, "I'm going to get something to eat, some tea, and a nap.  BECAUSE THE ALTERNATIVE IS WRINGING HIS SCRAWNY NECK!"

     "You always hurt the one you love," Ritsuko shouted after her, Nabiki hunched her shoulders as if Ritsuko had hit her in the head.

     "That's not funny!" Nabiki muttered quietly as she stomped away.

     Forgot how good my hearing is, Ritsuko thought to Nabiki, then looked at the cabin, Just what did you say to her to set her off?  Even the armed Marines got out of Nabiki's way as she stormed into the dining car.  There are things even a combat veteran doesn't want to trifle with, she thought.  The Marines waited until the door closed before shrugging at Ritsuko.  She replied with a 'what can you do' hands-up gesture.

     "Jeffrey, Jeffrey, Jeffrey, if you think you're driving her away, you have a lot to learn about Miss Tendo."  Ritsuko considered checking in on Jeff, then returned to her cabin instead.  I didn't see him wake, he's still asleep.  I want to confront them without that distraction on either side.  I do wonder how the interaction of my three charges will work out, she thought.


     Nabiki stomped into the dining car, glowing with fury.  A Pullman steward, an older, black man, escorted her to a table with two other officers, a Marine captain and an Army major.  She noted in retrospect, that everyonehad gotten out of their way as she'd walked down the car after the steward.  She frowned inwardly at that.  Armed soldiers practically diving out of my way,she thought trying to school her face and apparent attitude, They aren't just being polite.  The steward handed her a menu and introduced her to her waiter, clearly the steward's own son.  Was this the time that the black railroad workers got no pay, but they got room and board and free rides for their families, or was that only Pullman porters?  She tried to release the tension, putting her anger aside.  I don't even know why it makes me so mad,she thought, Especially Jeff's and Ritsuko's last comments.  I shouldn't care, I only care about Ranma, but . . .

     "Are you all right, Miss Tendo?" the Marine asked nervously.

     "I'm frustrated by Pilot Davis," she said calmly, "I was unaware that the Americans had a kamikaze streak."

     "Ah," the Major said, then studied his coffee.

     She had wanted to seem, and people to perceive her differently than they had in Nerima.  Now she had that seeming and perception, it served.  I know as far as Davis is concerned - our contract to attach me to Ranma - that doesn't mean I . . . she thought, the thoughts coming almost too fast for her to process.  "That's what he's doing," Nabiki said under her breath, her anger returning full force.  It cooled almost as quickly, as she sought an answer to her unspoken question 'Why is he doing it?'  He's not so knot headed as Ranma is, about keeping his promises, so what is he trying to accomplish? Nabiki wondered.  She placed her order, hamburger, fries, soda and coleslaw.  Coleslaw is the closest thing to Kasumi's pickles I've been able to find in America.  Forget the `pickles` around here, she thought disdainfully about the salted cucumbers that masqueraded as pickles, I haven't had a pickled plum in a month, I'm going into withdrawal! she thought, laughed at her own silliness, then looked at her table mates.  "Low blood sugar, I'm just tired," she explained, they nodded and left her to her thoughts.  She examined again why she was obsessing over food, of all things, as well as why her fellow pilot's behavior so infuriated her.  'Taste of home', she remembered, then tried to work out why the lines of thought were so terrifyingly interconnected.  Home, she realized what the connection was, He's been home . . . or has he?  Or was his time in the dream with `Ritsuko-Nabiki` the only real `home` he's ever known?  He and Ranko sure worked hard to make our apartment in our dream `homey` . . . and it felt like home, more than what the house with Kasumi, Soun and Akane had become.  Food, a warm bed, people who'd listen to me; is that all it takes to buy me off? she asked herself quietly while she waited for her order to arrive.  There are other elements, I just have to find them, she thought, And figure them out.

     "Miss Tendo," the Marine Captain spoke up, "If you don't mind a bit of advice?"  He waited for her to nod.  "Relationships in war . . . get confusing, because part of it is whatever you're actually feeling, and another part is just that you survived, and that somebody who's been looking after you survived too.  It doesn't mean a romance, just that you can trust somebody and that you both lived."  The man stood, nodded and walked off.

     "How do you tell the difference?" Nabiki asked quietly.

     "You don't," the Major said as he also stood and left.

     She got the hamburger, three kinds of cheese on the side, pickle chips which she removed to eat separately.  She'd given up trying to figure out why they served them like this, she ate the cheese separately, then started on the hamburger.  Why does the thought of home and my . . . irritation with being shoved away by Raccoon, why are they all tied up together?  In the dream, I was so jealous of how Raccoon and Ranko carried on, even how Ranma and Raccoon interacted.  It seemed so free and easy.  And so intimate, she mentally added sadly, They let me in, but . . . I wasn't part of the initial group.  So was it me who made sure I had to be included in, instead of being part of the original group?  She stared at the half-eaten hamburger, and the waiter replacing the empty container of coleslaw she hadn't noticed eating.  "Thank you," she said.  I want Ranma! she thought fiercely, But who does Ranma want?  Me, Raccoon, neither, both, does Ranma want one and Ranko another, or has Ranma even thought about it?  What will I do if Ranma doesn't want me . . . and if Raccoon doesn't either, and they want each other?  She sighed.  I'm missing something . . . that something is Raccoon's relationship with Ritsuko-Nabiki and his relationship with Sharon, she concentrated, If the relations among the pilots of NERV Tokyo are any indication, all those kids who'd walled themselves off from the world in general have opened up to each other, the relationship between Sharon and Raccoon would be cordial with a pervasive subtext of desperation.  She snickered at that, then sobered.  And how much of that applies to Tendo Nabiki as well?  Do I `need` Kasumi, then Shampoo, then Ranma, Raccoon and the others to invite me in?  Despite what I make myself and others believe about my desire to be separate, independent, etc., I've always wanted to be the center of attention when I chose, and then not, when I chose that.  But there was always somebody who ignored that and showed their affection despite what I `wanted`.  Kasumi, Shampoo, even Ritsuko, but Ranma isn't like that with me, Raccoon is, but we're just friends.  Ranko is that way with Raccoon, and so is Asuka.  Friend, but something more.  She wanted to throw up her hands and scream in frustration.  I'm not solving anything!  I'm just confusing myself more! she thought in fury, immediately burying it deep within her, Okay, so what does the gap imply?  When I lost Hiroko, who was also able to ignore my on-off signal, I didn't try to beat people off with a stick, I practically crawled into Rei's lap and camped out there.  Because I knew that she wouldn't reject me either, ever.  She wasn't sure if those memories of `emotionless` Rei comforting her should warm or terrify her.  As warm in an odd way as Kasumi.  She didn't just tolerate me, she cared about me.  I needed that, I wouldn't have survived if I couldn't have had a safe person to be with, a safe haven.  Raccoon knew what I'd do, and he stopped me without acknowledging what I was doing.  So what is he trying to do?  Nabiki asked herself, as she stood and left a tip.  I can't head back to my cabin, I have to go back to his, she thought.

     She walked in unannounced again.  Let him speak first, but I am going to encourage him to speak . . . as if he needs any, she thought.

     He lay with his back to the door, practically cocooned in the bedding.

     She remembered Ranko's way of approaching him.  Great, I'm taking people lessons from Ranma, she wondered, Is that enough to indicate the imminent end of the world, or do I have to wait for the advice to actually work.  She sat next to the bunk, there wasn't much space, but she fit in easily.  She reached up and began carefully massaging his neck.

     I'm not as good as Ranma, she thought, But I do know the therapeutic techniques.

     "Please go away, Miss Tendo."

     One point for me, Nabiki thought.

     "I thought you might be hurt," she explained.

     "I am, and you're making it worse."

     Nabiki removed her hands.  "Sorry," she apologized, then she considered another approach.

     "Why don't you, ah . . . you know?" she asked.

     "I used all the power I had to simply wake up.  I won't have any more for a time."

     Okay, logical, she thought as she knelt next to the bed.  "I'm not that experienced with this stuff."

     "I can't teach you anything right now, give me a few hours to rest and heal.  I appreciate the repartee, but I'd rather be alone."

     "I'd think after being asleep for days, you might want something to eat, or hear what's going on."

     "Miss Tendo," he said frostily, "Two old friends arrived to kill me, if necessary."  He rolled over to face her, his expression made Nabiki take a step back.  "Then I turned around and lured an old friend atop 50 tons of explosives and set it off.  You are now well aware of how I dealt with the Phoenixi.  So who is the real bastard?"  He paused to let her respond, but she had nothing to say.  "It might explain why I don't care what you think of me.  Good day to you."

     Nabiki felt the alternating hot and cold surges of raw fury.  I want to hit him, hurt him, do something . . . to assuage my anger.  She mercilessly stomped down the impulse to storm out.  That's what he wants, she thought, I know how to manipulate people too, and how to drive people away.  And I know why I drive people away.  Because I don't want them to hurt me.  If I let them get close, then they could hurt me where it would really hurt, where I can't defend myself.  She focused past the hurt.  He wouldn't be lashing out if I couldn't and hadn't hurt him, because that's exactly what I would do.  Funny, the flaw in Anything Goes that Raccoon pointed out was extremely close combat, letting someone get too close.  Both Ranma and I have the same vulnerability in ourselves, letting people get too close strips away all our defenses.  Isn't that ironic?  I want to get close to Ranma and I'm terrified he'll get close to me in the process.  Then to add insult to injury, I'm trying to get close to another person and we keep hurting each other and lashing out when we get too close again.  She sat there trying, to calm down enough to do some good.

     All I have to do is swallow my pride, she thought as she waited silently, My not inconsiderable pride.  But I can outwait him.  My experience with my own pain tells me that too.  I remember Asuka's comment about the 'Hedgehog's Dilemma', but a hedgehog's spines go down when they relax.  All I have to do is get this one's . . . these two's . . . to relax, and hope neither his nor mine were poisoned.  She found she was looking forward to the challenge.  It's easier to lash out, she realized, I got suckered in by Sharon, that had to infuriate him with her.  I'm not going to be suckered into being uselessly angry by my own teammate.  And he doesn't want to hurt me as badly as he can.  He didn't simply obliterate the Phoenixi the first time they threatened Ritsuko-Nabiki.  If Ritsuko-Nabiki kept her distance, she wouldn't care how badly hurt he got, or the horrible things he did to keep her and the others safe.  But I don't want to not care about a fellow pilot, she thought, It would be too easy to let that extend to others, eventually to Ranma.  She sighed.  Besides, it would be too easy for them to reciprocate, or worse, put me in their debt, with no way to repay them.  Ranma/Ranko and Raccoon already did that, and it was the worst feeling, since Hiroko's death.  I'd like to avoid that, she thought while she waited.


     Nabiki was furious, "You just killed them.  What's all this 'forgive and forget' stuff, all that Christian mercy?"

     Jeff looked up from the project he was working on in the train's machine shop.  Nabiki had noted that the other workers had cleared out soon after the argument had started.  Jeff's placid acceptance of the events they had both relived was grating on her.

     "Being a Christian isn't a suicide pact.  As you obviously know," Jeff told her calmly, "I made a good faith attempt to negotiate a peace, not just a truce, but it doesn't work if the people you are negotiating with don't regard you as a person.  Every attempt made merely emboldened them."

     "Why not kill Saffron and take over!?"

     "Oh yes, after all, Akane, Kuno and Ryoga learned lessons so quickly and thoroughly.  A batch of inbred mental defectives would of course be educatable to a new and more civilized way.  With the Amazons 'Obstacles are for killing' did you think any of the other tribes in the Martial Arts Balkans would be any different.  Maybe the other magic of Jusenkyo is that it attracts the violent and hopelessly stupid, after all Genma and Ryoga were both drawn there like a magnet, maybe Kuno isn't as stupid as everybody seems to think, he's managed to avoid it.  I didn't want to bring my wife out to the back end of beyond and raise my kids in a shooting gallery.  Remember, until the end, I never went back after Jusendo.  But after Jusendo, they launched their attack, traveling twice the length of Japan through hostile territory to make their attack.  Does that sound like a rational action?"

     "No," Nabiki had to admit, "That doesn't give you the right to kill them all!"

     "What gave them the right to attack me and my family?" he asked, calmly.

     Nabiki had no answer.

     "So you can exterminate - "

     "As they exterminated the Amazons?" Jeff cut her off.

     Nabiki blanched at Jeff's suddenly intent stare.  "That doesn't make what you did right."

     "I never said it was 'right'," Jeff replied coldly becoming more calm instead of more angry, "They'd just killed my wife and son, for a political advantage over their partners in the extermination of the Amazons.  They didn't kill Ritsuko-Nabiki to prevent me from reproducing, but so they could enslave me and my offspring to be used against the Musk.  They had just reduced the major players to two, from three, lying, duplicity, etc. were all part of their acceptable way of dealing with outsiders, i.e., anyone outside their little clique.  So even if I had agreed to their terms, or conquered them, there is absolutely no guarantee they would keep their word, or serve faithfully.  So since they had `said` that was an acceptable way to treat their enemies, I took them at their word and mirror-imaged what they were planning to do to all their foes."

     "That's . . . "

     "Repulsive, disgusting, unfair, Old Testament?" he asked, "The saying 'Judge not lest ye be judged' doesn't prohibit evaluations, but proscribes hypocrisy, if you judge, you'll be judged by the exact standards and harshness you used.  I didn't start this, I tried to end it peacefully, but once they crossed the line at assassination and genocide, that made them acceptable tactics.  If I could do it better, too damn bad, that's why you don't cross certain lines," he said, then added with contempt, "I was mean to them."

     "Yes."

     "Get over it, someone tried to kill me, I killed them back," Jeff said coldly, "I don't start these battles capriciously, you and I returned Cthylla, because our enemy was willing to make a deal and abide by it.  And that from something whose views have as much in common with humans' thinking on contracts and jurisprudence as ours does with a spider's.  I tried to avoid conflict."  He suddenly leaned close and coldly told her, "Cthulhu, the Great Old One, was more reasonable than a pack of . . . I don't have strong enough curses to use on them.  My point is, at some point, you - quit - being - nice.  If a cow births a two-headed calf, you drowned the calf and burn the body, you don't even eat it.  If that cow produces a second two-headed calf from a different bull, you drown the calf and the mother and incinerate both of them."

     "People aren't cows," Nabiki protested hotly.

     "They were 3000 years ago, and that's the reality these people live in, that's what they understand.  So no incursions by the Lucky Gods Martial Artists, no attacks by the Origami Kingdom, or the PuppetMasters, or any of the idiots living in that region.  My family could be raised in the relative peace and security of my home.  They saw what happened to the Musk and the Phoenixi . . . maybe they were taught in a language they understood, maybe they were too busy fighting each other over the bones of the Amazons, Phoenixi and Musk Kingdoms, I don't know, I didn't care!  I had my wife's trauma at her murder to deal with.  Maybe I did act out of anger, but they decided my family was an acceptable target.  At that point there were no noncombatants on their side either.  And before you say 'the people had no say' they could have left anytime they chose, except they didn't, they were ready to stand by Saffron during the good times, they could share his downfall."

     "I can't ever forgive you," Nabiki said.

     "Miss Tendo, with all due respect," Jeff told her, "Your forgiveness is irrelevant."

     Nabiki frowned at that and the way he returned to his work.


     Nabiki had finally calmed down a bit as she watched Jeff working on the second of a pair of 'new projects'.  I'm really watching him avoid me,she thought as she watched the barrel, the mock-up of the mechanism and the stock slowly take shape.  Earlier she'd watched Jeff mixing and measuring, and they started arguing. Me screaming, him replying with greater coldness,she thought, disgusted by her loss of control, I'll do it better this time.  Maintain control of my temper, thus maintain control of myself and the conversation.  "What is that you are working on?  Besides a huge rifle?"

     "A completely new weapon, or isn't it obvious that the current weapons are insufficient," he said as he walked around her.  "I made a superior version of the dust we use to give the regular forces' arms and artillery an effect on our enemies.  The existing material doesn't have a broad enough spectrum of targets, the new mix will be better."

     Colder that usual, she thought, He's trying to `behave` as well, or set me off.  "Can I help?"

     "Thank you, no," Jeff replied.

     "What is your problem?  My finely trained instincts have determined your being an even bigger asshole than usual, and that's a feat.  Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed and hit your head or something, or are you always this grouchy in your home country?  Is there something else to which I owe this miraculous effort?"

     "It isn't me who has the problem.  I've already dealt with the immediate problem.  Asshole, eh, useful just not discussed in polite company, I can live with that," he said as he stared at her, "You work for them," he said so coldly that Nabiki retreated a step, "I'm feeling pretty stupid that I ever trusted you."

     Nabiki stiffened.  "What's that supposed to mean?"

     "You're dead, you just haven't fallen over yet.  I've lost enough friends.  I don't care to continue a friendship with a walking corpse."

     Nabiki froze at the unthinking callousness.  He's not being intentionally cruel, she thought, He's just giving me the facts.  She stared daggers at him as he returned to his work, having dismissed her from his mind.

     "I know whom you work for.  You're a spy, for them, so too was Sharon, they let her go insane when they replaced her with you.  I will give you the lessons I promised, because I gave my word, but now I know you can't be trusted, because your patron's can't be trusted," he told her, "Maybe you'd like to ask your dear friends why they're hounding Miss Ayanami."

     Nabiki felt sick. "I thought the angels were good guys."

     "Angels, and demons for that matter, are little more than robots.  They do what they're told.  They aren't God and they can fall, or redeem, that is switch sides, that is where demons originally came from: Angels who've jumped the tracks.  They never told Sharon her help was no longer necessary, they just picked the time she most needed help, but because they had a superior replacement, they left her to the Project's doctors, and Nyarlathotep.  Don't make the assumption they won't abandon you when you're in extremis, they might even drop you into a mess just to get the rest of us to jump the way they want us to go.  Maybe you should remind them Sharon and I discussed a number of things before I - killed - her."

     "She was your friend," Nabiki stammered at his cold tone, and the revelations.

     "She would have killed all the pilots, then the world.  Funny, that her ex-patrons didn't help her when she most needed it.  They told her not to do something, she disobeyed.  Seems that when she really needed them . . . poof, gone.  Sharon was destroyed in that EVA simulator the next day, my friend died in that thing, I only finished off what was walking around using her body."

     "So why are you blaming me?" Nabiki asked, hating the coldness of his expression, he was resigned, not angry  Like when Ranma got hit, he is expecting it, she thought.

     "I'm not blaming you, I'm warning you.  You'll be their spy and their Judas Goat if they wish, and they'll lie to your face, because they believe what they've been told."

     Nabiki could only stare at him.  You can't mean that! she thought as she felt her gut tighten.  "I thought they were good guys."

     "They are good, but good also includes Abraham being asked to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, good includes the Book of Job.  Good doesn't mean nice, or even easily explained."

     "I know you, you aren't someone who can accept limits.  I bet you already pushed way too far," he said gently, almost tenderly, "I'll look after Ranma, if that's what you want.  I can't say I'll ever like him, but I will look after him."

     Nabiki wished he'd just punched her instead of saying what he said.  He stepped around her and continued with his work.  I was mistrusted back in Nerima, she thought, But being mistrusted by a Christian because I'm working with angels, that hurts.  She stepped back out of the way and went back to just watching him.  "Thank you," she said, and meant it, "Giving the condemned one last request?"  She watched him stare at her and ignore her poor attempt at humor.  Damn, it's not fair!  I bet Belldandy is laughing at me.  I would get involved with someone who hates my patrons.  Well that simplifies things.  I can concentrate on Ranma, she thought, And will they abandon me when Ranma most needs me?  Or if Jeff needs me, that might fit things?  I get my cure for 'Touching the World Lightly' just as he most needs me to touch the world lightly.  They'd have a good laugh about that, 'does the selfish girl sacrifice her chance at happiness so the boy she can never have gets a chance at happiness with someone else?'  Yeah, that would be a good laugh.  He thinks - he knows I'm already dead, if Belldandy does what Sharon's `control` did to her, she thought, I did push, I pushed too hard, not like me, especially not for me.  Big mistake.  Fatal mistake.  She sat down heavily.  "Thank you," was all she could say.

     "Do you know what Sharon's `terrible crime` was?" he asked.

     Might as well know, she thought numbly as she nodded.

     "Her control found out that Jason was going to die in the EVA simulator the next day," he said grimly, "So she ordered Sharon to break off their relationship, not to give him clarity so he might survive, but 'to spare herself pain.'  Well, Sharon, being Sharon, decided to make Jason's last night memorable: dinner, a movie, dancing, all appropriately chaperoned of course, but a memorable evening.  Jason died, but he had one bright memory to take with him.  Sharon's control dropped her like a hot potato, and Sharon fell soon after."

     He knelt in front of her, smiling.  "Now, if you've never done or do anything like that, of course you'll be perfectly safe."

     "Ha ha," Nabiki told him.  Only a little more, she thought, Like a million times.  "You're exaggerating," she said, paled at his harsh stare.

     "They are machines, immensely sophisticated, composed of alien, Heavenly elements, but they are just cogs in the great machine, they have a purpose and any human-seeming aspects are there to serve that purpose.  Don't make the foolish assumption that cost Sharon so much, that 'because she's so nice', that she has your good in mind.  These creatures may like humans individually, but they only love God and take a macroscopic, long-term view of humans and the human race as a whole.  A baby born to a mother and neither baby nor mother survives the first week, but it ennobles the spirits of everyone even peripherally involved with the hopeless struggle, gives them all the strength to face and conquer greater spiritual trials ahead, 'eh, let the kid and his mom die', they'd say, the hundreds saved in the future more than balances things out.  The good of the many outweighs the good of the one, especially if the one dies in a state of grace.  And they can espouse such things with a smile, because they know they're right.  Of course the demons claim they're right too, so sometimes it gets hard to tell them apart."

     "So, from where do you know them?" she asked.

     "I worked for them, and the demons, during the early part of El Nureenen's War.  I was a hunter for them, me and 59 others.  Walking dead men who - "

     "I thought you were a Christian," Nabiki said.  I'm grasping at straws, she thought, And I know it!

     "God loves us, angels have lusted after us, but I don't remember angels saying they loved us.  Just because a valentine has 'I WUV U' printed on it, no matter how heartfelt the sentiment, it doesn't change the paper's opinion of the recipient.  Why do you think that when a real angel shows up, the first words out of its mouth are 'be not afraid'?  They are reflections of God's awesome power and glory, not his love for us."

     "Ah," Nabiki said, feeling her heart sink.

     "They taught me a number of tricks, because it was in their best interest, but after we served their cause faithfully, and we could have used a little of their help after their mission was complete, they couldn't be bothered.  After all," he added in a mocking tone, "They'd already `helped` with what was 'truly important'."

     "You don't sound convinced."

     "I wasn't," he finished assembling the piece as he spoke, "Now to have a full-sized mock-up made, then a working prototype."

     "You mean this isn't full-sized," Nabiki said, "It's huge."

     "Hopefully, this weapon will affect many more of our enemies that are immune now," he told her, "As I said, the powder will also have a broader spectrum of targets, but if you can pack more into a bullet, it will be even more effective."

     "I see," Nabiki said, trying to lighten her dark mood.  Worse, I was mad because I thought he was mad, he just made a logical, reasonable choice based on his previous knowledge and his trained intellect.  Wisdom, experience, and logic all blending hand-in-hand, the bastard! she thought angry at him and at herself.

     "Do you hear that?" Nabiki asked of a distinct rumble followed by several others.

     "No . . . yes, thunder," he said as he cocked his head, "It almost sounds like an earthquake, it's artillery!"  Alarms sounded throughout the train and station, and the sound of gunfire.  "There's probably more to it, but I can't hear it.  Come on!"  He waved her forward as he turned and ran.

     "Where are we going?"

     "The EVA," Jeff said as he opened the door to the next car.  A Marine rushed in.  "We're under attack, we need you two to - " the Marine collapsed.  Standing in the doorway was a creature that looked like a Buddha wearing an elephant's skull for a head and carrying a short, bent staff.

     Jeff drew and fired, blasting out each of its eyes.  The creature collapsed.  "Or not.  Here," he shouted as he tossed her a box of ammunition.  She caught the box, then watched the creature start to get up.  Jeff stepped up and shot it twice more.

     Jeff slammed the door and took off back the way they'd come.

     "Let's get to the EVA, there's more of them."

     Nabiki slipped the box into her pants pocket.  They ran down the car, Nabiki caught glimpses of men firing at the elephant Buddhas, too many of them.  "What is that?" Nabiki asked as she ran beside him.

     "Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn," Jeff shouted, "In the end times, he was supposed to return to their lair and consume them."

     "You killed him with Unit 04!" Nabiki shouted as they exited the machine shop car and continued into the barracks cars, "Wouldn't they be grateful?"

     "You'd think so, wouldn't you."


You Can't Choose Your Relatives

     Ritsuko shifted nervously in her seat at the small air port.  I have to meet with these people, she reminded herself, Find out what they really know about all of this.  A soldier ran up to her, saluted and held it until she returned it.  "Yes, corporal?" she asked.  I'm a civilian, she thought, Why suddenly doesn't that matter?

     "Ma'am, ten minutes ago the train came under attack," he told her breathlessly.

     Ritsuko looked at Maya who blanched.  "What's the situation?" she asked calmly, while inside she wanted to panic.

     "I don't know ma'am, but I have orders to get you to the rally point and tell you that a counterattack is already underway.  The relief force is assembling and should be ready by the time we get there."  He gestured to the command car they'd arrived in.

     The `relief force` will be mostly National Guard, police and local deputies, she thought as she headed out, They aren't up to fighting anything that would give an EVA a run for its money.  "Lead on," she ordered, she glanced at their escort.  Great, now I'm thinking like him, best tactics for an inferior force to employ to engage and defeat a superior one, she thought, It's funny, but not 'ha ha' funny.  As soon as Maya was aboard, the convoy raced off.


     "She insulted me!" Yuki whispered fiercely to Usagi as the teacher droned on and on about some kind of math.

     "All she said was she wasn't interested," Usagi tried to calm her ally, so she could go back to daydreaming.

     "Then she called me those vile things!" Yuki insisted in an angry hiss.

     "In German!" Usagi insisted back, "Only you, she, and everyone you're translating them for knows what she said."  And if it had anything to do with your sexual habits and taste, in practices and partners, Usagi thought, It was probably mild, no matter what she called you.

     "Tomoe Usagi, Yamajima Yuki, buckets, outside, now!" the teacher told them sternly.

     Usagi growled at her colleague before giving the teacher her most dazzling smile.  He didn't say they had to be full, she thought as she collected the empty buckets and went outside.  Once there, her smile vanished.

     "This is what I was talking about," Yuki continued the argument once they were both outside, "I could have gotten both of us out of this, so could you!  You're soft on them."

     "I am trying to welcome them in," Usagi countered angrily.  How many times do I have to explain this? she wondered, prayed to the Goddess for patience with her loyal, but stupid followers.  "They are not other people," Usagi explained patiently, "They are gods, already.  You saw what Rei did to Tomoe, only a superb martial artist could do that, and Rei has never shown interest or skill with martial arts.  What?  You think Ranma trained her during the entire break?  Even if you subscribed to that laughable idea, how could she learn so much so fast?"

     "They need to learn who is in charge," Yuki said flatly, giving Usagi a sullen gaze.

     "Yuki, if I am able to bring them in," Usagi explained patiently.  "THEY will be," she shouted, then returned to whispering, "They will be gods and goddesses under the tutelage and protection, and in the service of the Goddess.  If you can't wrap your mind around that, then maybe you should take a vacation until we're through.  Because I intend to bring them into the Goddess's service."

     "I thought the idea was to break them down," Yuki said.

     Usagi sighed, tried to forestall the growing headache and a screaming match that would result in a visit to the principal and a `conference` with the principal and her parents, They've been getting better at sending clues, she thought, I'll have to be careful.  "We break them down to get close to them," Usagi explained patiently.  Why don't I just kill her and leave her bleeding corpse as an offering to Miss Langley? Usagi wondered as she wrestled with her temper, It would solve so many problems.  "You're best effort is to apologize to her, tell her that you were using her to get to Ranma, or Kaji, then leave her alone, I'll assign someone else."

     "I'll leave her alone all right," Yuki muttered as the bell for the next class rang.

     This is going to have to stop, Usagi thought as she headed back inside as the teacher left.


     The collection of police cars, personal cars, pick up trucks and men waited in a tangle.  Half of them shouting or blowing their horns at each other.  There was almost no sound of gunfire, and all of that very distant.

     Follow the cigar smoke, fat men there! Ritsuko `remembered` the Indian rule for finding the white officers.

     "There corporal," Ritsuko told the driver of her car who aimed the command car at a particular knot of men.  Even almost getting run down doesn't disturb the arguments, she thought, Have to get them all aimed in one direction.

     "We don't have authorization, we've got a General coming in," one man in a National Guard uniform was shouting at a police officer who was shouting back and poking the soldier in the chest with an unlit cigar.

     "NERV is taking over," Ritsuko announced loudly as she got out of the army command car.  She walked towards the collection of eight angry men: two police, a volunteer fire chief, a politician by his lack of uniform, two Guardsmen, a Marine and soldier from the train, both junior to the senior Guardsman.  She shoved a big Cadillac out of her way without breaking stride, and marched up to them.  With the armed escort, her escort, following close behind her.  Suddenly, only slack faces stared at her, or at the heavy car she'd pushed out of the way with such a piddling effort.

     "I want you to begin assembling teams to begin evacuating the wounded," she told the fire chief, "Commandeer the pick ups to get them to the hospital.  We need to assemble search parties for the casualties and the enemy.  Where are the pilots?"

     "Beg pardon ma'am," the Marine, a major, snapped off a salute that she returned just as crisply.

     "Yes?" she tried to sound and look like Commander Ikari.

     "The pilots engaged the enemy, they seemed to be the only ones having any effect.  We lost sight of them when the ammunition car went up.  But the gunfire continued, moving south and south south west."

     "The entry plugs?" Ritsuko asked sharply, she noted the locals were shying away from her.

     "They blew all three, we've sent a request to Las Vegas to get more, I don't know when they'll arrive."

     Ritsuko desired to set off in pursuit of the pilots.  But I can do more good getting these people organized, she thought, cursing her own decision, I have to be an officer, not a mother.  She turned to the Fire Chief.  "Wounded to the hospitals, MOVE!" she told the man, who scampered off.  "What kind of weapons and terrain do we have here?" she asked those who remained.  At least the politician ran off when he had the chance, she thought as she followed the police officer to a car that seemed covered in radio aerials.  The Guardsmen were ordering up maps.


     Maya walked around, examining the site.  Wounded men were being treated and collected for transport.  The dead were being covered and left where they lay.  I've seen this too often to be bothered by it anymore,she thought sadly, The `big men` have Sempai's full attention, but I should be doing something to help.  Something of use.

     The cars near the ordinance car looked like the remains of a toy train that had suffered from a child's tantrum.  The huge EVA was lying in an awkward pose, but appeared unmarked.  Unfortunately, the three entry plugs all suffered severe damage.  Useless, she thought, Unless . . .   She ran from one plug to the other.  One was opened like a flower at one end, the second had been broken in half, the third had the end blown off.  Maya glanced from the second to the third, and smiled.

     "Sergeant Kilrain," she asked the Marine accompanying her, "Can you get a mens to cut the end off that there plug and that there one?  Then weld them pieces back to into one right plug shape?"

     "I'll order up an oxyacetylene cutter," he ordered a private off on the mission, as Maya stepped into the damaged plug.

     Only the hatches were really damaged, she thought as she found herself smiling, Inner and outer.  It looks like there was no real damage to the electrical or hydraulic systems.

     "You NERV people learn that smile in school?" Kilrain asked, "It gives me the willies."

     Maya smiled, a friendlier smile.  "We fix, then EVA can smile at our enemies, is good?"

     "Gets my vote," the sergeant said as Maya walked to the second plug to begin inspecting it.

     She stumbled over something in the dirt, and glanced down.  I won't scream, I won't scream! she thought, staring down in horror at the elephant skull with ears like a bat's wings, as she stepped away from it.  "This you were fighting?" she asked.

     "Yes, ma'am," Kilrain said grimly, then something she didn't understand, "No effect, even the special rounds."

     "Bazookas, flamethrowers?" she asked in a small voice, her eyes wide with horror.  She covered her face for a moment, then forced her hands to her sides.  I have to be strong, she admonished herself, Nobody is shooting at me, and all I have to do is fix the EVA.

     "Yes."

     "No effect?" she asked in a tiny voice.  I'm a NERV officer, she thought, I should act like it.

     "It made them mad," Kilrain told her, "That's about it."

     "We get running on work, then we see them liking EVA, or not," Maya said fiercely.  The kids are out there, getting chased by these damned things, she reminded herself, taking strength from her anger, I won't let them win.

     "Yes Ma'am," Kilrain said as he smiled.


     Ritsuko had left the ongoing operations to the Colonel from the Guard.  She'd outlined the responsibilities of each group.  I've done all that I can, and the initial shock is wearing off,she thought, They'll soon `notice` I'm not a uniformed American officer and quit following my `orders`.  But it lasted long enough.  She joined Captain Madison and several others from the NERV force and the Bennington's Marine contingent.  "Let's go after the kids," she ordered.  She still had the shotguns she'd gotten from Jeff's aunt and uncle at Harvard as well as the huge shotgun that Jeff had prepared for his own foray against Sharon, all the weapons were still loaded and in good condition.  As long as `anti-Sharon` weapons have full effect against the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn,she thought.  She looked over the team, a mix of NERV SAR, Marines and seamen from Bennington, a platoon of troops all told.  All following my lead, and I'm comfortable with that,she thought, I guess I did pick up more than I figured.  I know the ways to sweep an area like this, and the words and gestures to command and direct troops.  I don't think I'll get used to this,she thought as she passed out weapons and ammunition.

     I heard the occasional gunshot, usually four at once.  We'll head towards those, she thought, Not the periodic flurries of gunfire that petered out.

     "You think the kids are okay?" Madison asked, as he walked beside her.

     "You hear that?" Ritsuko stopped and commented on four closely spaced shots, then silence, "I'd bet good money that's Jeff and Nabiki combating those things.  What I am worried about is why the other weapons aren't having any effect."  She started walking again, so did the troops.

     "I watched one take a hit from a 105, it flew back and got back up," Sergeant Armstead said, "Damn strange."

     Damn worrying, she thought as she glanced at the darkening sky, It won't affect my vision, but once we lose the light, we lose any chance of an air search or ground support aircraft.  In these canyons and arroyos, the other search parties could pass within a dozen meters of the kids, or the enemy, and never know it.


     Rei stood in the school atrium and tapped the plaster filling her outside shoes.  For that much plaster to have hardened and cooled, would have required several hours,she thought, Was the insistence that we eat lunch in the classroom part of the plot?  Or was it a coincidence?  Or did someone merely take advantage of the occurrence?  I have no answers.

     She glanced up to see Mein Grossfeldmarschall approaching with a worried expression on her face.  "Oh, they got you too?"  She tapped the plaster in the shoes Rei still held.  "They put manure in Hikari's and stole Horseface's backup thermos.  I haven't talked to either of the Stooges yet, even money they got hit too.  A real welcome."

     "You believe it was a coordinated action?" Rei asked, genuinely curious.

     "Maybe not coordinated, but definitely concerted," Mein Grossfeldmarschall said angrily, for her, "Do they haze all the student this way, or are we just special?"

     "We are special," Rei told her, she didn't understand why Mein Grossfeldmarschall frowned.

     "Do you have to be so literal?"

     Rei paused, considered.  "Yes, although I would choose to be."  Rei didn't understand Mein Grossfeldmarschall's deepening scowl.

     "I meant are they hazing us and our classmates more than a regular group of newcomers?" Mein Grossfeldmarschall asked Rei carefully.

     "Hazing?"

     "This kind of low-level terrorism/sabotage, that kind of thing.  Like filling your shoes with plaster, or Hikari's locker with manure, that's what I mean," Mein Grossfeldmarschall explained impatiently.

     I have no answer, Rei thought, disappointed with her inability, But I may have an answer if we treat them as we would . . . if they were Angels.  "I believe we have sufficient unity and resources to perform a counterattack," Rei said, that also seemed to appeal to her fellow pilot.

     "Targets and good intelligence, that's what we need."  Mein Grossfeldmarschall smiled, then frowned.

     I envy her ability to easily express her feelings, Rei thought idly.

     "Ice Princess and Raccoon were running the intelligence gathering operations."

     "Natsumi Matsuda and Aida were senior members, they should be able to reactivate the network," Rei suggested.

     "You think a bunch of school kids are the same kind of threat a cultist is?" Mein Grossfeldmarschall asked.

     "Would you ask that question, if they had struck next week and destroyed your violin?" Rei asked.  That has been my concern since Mein Grossfeldmarschall mentioned sabotage.  My violin is precious to me, a gift from the Commander.  As hers is to her, for reasons I do not know, nor care to know.  Shinji-kun's cello is equally precious to him.  That importance would prove a poor shield against what was done here.  "Juri Kun can be placed to guard our instruments on the day of trials," Rei said quietly, noticing her own whitened knuckles for the first time.  She stared at them while she spoke, "I am certain the Navy would provide additional security forces, if we should request them."  She turned her hand, still holding the shoe, this way and that, some plaster poured out as dust and small chunks.  She stared at them, then back at her hand, her knuckles were no longer white.  She stared at Mein Grossfeldmarschall who was staring back with equal intensity.

     "I think you're right Wondergirl," she said, glancing down at the small heap of plaster bits, stirring them with her foot, "Usagi invited me to a tea party, private, with just her."  She paused to consider.  "I think I will bring Erin, and my Peacemaker.  I think that's why I didn't get hit."

     Rei felt an alarm she couldn't put into coherent thoughts or words.  "I would advise against it," Rei quietly gave a completely inadequate warning, "There is something wrong with Usagi Tomoe, Tomoe Tomoe and the rest of their coterie."

     "Coterie, you really think they're a coterie and not just friends or sycophants?" Mein Grossfeldmarschall asked with interest.

     "Jawohl, Mein Grossfeldmarschall," Rei said, looked for the sour expression that statement had always elicited.  Disturbing, she thought, It did not occur.  She didn't know why she treasured that sour look, but she did, so she used the name occasionally.  This lack of reaction left her at a bit of a loss.

     "I think we'll need to analyze what we know.  After meeting with Usagi, we'll meet at Sammi's apartment," Mein Grossfeldmarschall said, looking exactly like the Meliorist for a moment, "Then we'll plot some strategy."

     "I will inform those I can find," Rei said, "It has security from observation."  She returned to her ignored status.

     Mein Grossfeldmarschall sighed and headed back the way she'd originally come.  Rei took off her 'inside' shoes, considered.  Then she put them and her 'outside' shoes in her bag and headed off.

     Whatever plan is developed to deal with this attack, Rei thought as she walked out onto the school grounds and began looking, I will also inform the Commander, Security should inform him automatically, but they have been unforgivably lax in doing such things for too long.  Perhaps they are merely incompetent.  Their incompetence cannot be intentional, as has been suggested.

     She found Aida-san with Suzuhara-san, the latter was comforting Hokari-san.  "Mein Grossfeldmarschall has developed the idea that the 'accidents' were intentional actions," she said, watching Suzuhara-san and Hokari-san grow angry, but they said nothing.

     "That's awful," Aida-san announced, "Why would they do something like that?"

     "Many reasons," Rei told him, "For power, for enjoyment, they were under orders.  Their motivations are unimportant."

     Aida-san nodded, Hokari-san and Suzuhara-san shook their heads.

     "The plan is to assemble at Kraznyzamok-san's apartment.  Aida-san, assemble the available members of the network that Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun assembled.  I will locate Matsuda-san and transmit the information to her as well."

     "Assemble all that are available," she enunciated each word even more clearly than she usually did, taking a step closer with each word, as she'd seen others do.  The effect was successful, Rei thought, as Aida-san gulped and nodded.  Rei paused and considered Hokari-san, who quailed at the stare.  "You two also had a group of allies, fellow class presidents."

     "Only two - or three - " Hokari-san fell silent as Rei took one step towards her.

     Suzuhara-san stepped between them.

     "She'll get them," he said.

     Your confidence is forced, Rei thought, she turned and ran off to find Matsuda-san.

     "What's got her worked up?" she heard Suzuhara-san ask.

     "You need to ask?" Aida-san asked in reply.


     Ranma stared at the boy he had pinned against the wall with his foot.  His other foot moved randomly, as if ready to deliver another kick at any time.  The boy's feet dangled off the floor as Ranma pressed both of them into the opposite walls of the small room.  He was very much aware of his smaller and female body compared with the boy, who would be larger than even his male form.  He was also aware that his superior skill and his opponent's arrogance made victory assured.  I can't let what he tried to do make me angry, and I'd make a mistake,Ranma reminded himself as he suppressed a shudder.  He stared at the boy, trying to keep his emotions in control, and his face as expressionless as Rei's.

     "You are going to tell me," Ranma said as he slowly tore the cast iron skillet into pieces, each 'ping' of metal accenting a word, "It is merely a matter of time."

     The boy's eyes rolled up in his head and his entire body sagged.

     "Crap!  Now I have to wait for him to wake up," Ranma cursed.


     "Nabiki!"  Ritsuko charged out of the darkness straight at the creature and unloaded the shotgun right into the back of its head at powder burn range.  A second shot finished it off when it began to turn after taking the first round.  Well, at least these work with regular shells, although it takes two not one,she thought.  She knelt down to Nabiki, who was a mess.  The bone sticking out of her leg worried Ritsuko most, but both of the girl's hands were bloody as well.  The other blood stains and tears on her clothes were not as apparently life threatening.

     "Here," Nabiki said as she handed her Le Mat, butt first, to Madison, as Ritsuko applied a tourniquet, "It's empty, has been a while.  Jeff gave me a box of ammo, used it all, plus my two speedloaders and the ten rounds I started with."  Nabiki's head lolled as she gasped out her emotionless report, "He had two boxes, plus his usual load out, you see the problem."

     "Oh no," Ritsuko said, "You said there were sixty of them."

     "That's what we saw," Madison said.

     "What's the problem?" Sergeant Armstead asked, "You talk like it's the end of the world."

     "50 rounds in the box, three boxes, 30 rounds Nabiki was carrying, four clips plus one up the pipe Jeff was carrying," Ritsuko said, "209 out of the 240 needed, we got three so it's only 228, that's still short."

     "I didn't get all of them with just four shots, I missed occasionally," Nabiki admitted, the rescue leaving her drunk with fatigue.

     "So unless we catch up, he's going to run out of bullets before he runs out of those things," Madison said, earning a glare from Ritsuko.

     "Beating them up hand-to-hand didn't get me anywhere," Nabiki admitted drunkenly, "Right now, I'd like to get these wounds treated.  Ritsuko, the arrogant - gentleman - led them away, they followed him in favor of anything else."

     "So he's drawing them away from everybody else," Ritsuko turned away and cursed in Japanese, "Dammit!  That's not what he's supposed to be doing!"

     "Tell him that," Nabiki said, "He led the last one into a killing zone and blew it up with a couple dozen tons of explosives.  I think he's hoping to do the same."

     "We don't happen to have a battleship handy," Madison admitted.

     "But there is an air wing at Roswell," Nabiki brightened, then fell back.  A medic gave her a syrette of morphine, made a note on her forehead with a marker. "'S not an 'F' is it?" she asked worriedly.  The medic shook his head 'no'.

     "They can't get into the air until the morning," Ritsuko told her as she helped the stretcher bearers put Nabiki on a blanket, "We already thought of that."

     "Nightfighters," Nabiki said as they lifted her by the blanket she lay on, "Let their radar see if they can pick the things up."

     "Corporal," Ritsuko barked to the radio operator.  Once she had the handset she continued, "Colonel - "

     "Chambers" the corporal offered.

     "- Chambers, can you contact the Air Force group at Roswell and have them send their nightfighters out to help with the search?"

     "No, but I will," came the reply.

     "We have a pilot casualty, we'll be sending her back to get treatment."  Ritsuko watched them lower Nabiki onto the stretcher, then wrap the blanket around her.  The blood from her wounds soaked through the blanket almost instantly.  Get a grip, Ritsuko reminded herself, Screaming with rage won't help Nabiki, Jeff, or the people who know their jobs, and know the importance of their jobs!

     "We'll have transport available as soon as she gets here," Chambers replied.

     "Go," Ritsuko told the stretcher party and the escorting squad, as soon as she'd given the leader Jeff's shotgun, "How much .45 ammo do we have?" Ritsuko asked the remnants of the platoon.

     They came up with 400 rounds.  Ritsuko and Madison split the load between them.

     "If Jeff's pistol is still working," Madison said, "It should have full effect."

     "I think the clips are compatible with standard Government .45 clips," Ritsuko told them as she headed out.  Now what? she wondered, Am I strong enough to kill one hand-to-hand if it comes to that?  Why are you heading out?  Why not fort up somewhere and wait until help comes?  You two drew them away from the main body, but too far means no chance for rescue.  What is it you two had in mind?


Home Where They Must Take You In

     Asuka knew a seduction when she saw one.  Kaji fooled me for so long because he was very good, she thought as she accepted the tea offered, He could make himself believe the person was important.  Once you could fake sincerity, the rest was easy.  That, and I was lonely . . . maybe too lonely.  I'm not that lonely anymore.  However, I am curious, all these girls running the school.  It was an open joke at the old school, then they were part of Ice Princess's plans.  These girls are neither, they control everything and nobody raises a fuss.

     "Connections . . . are the most important things," Usagi offered her cream, not milk, and sugar as they sat in the dining room of the Tomoe house.

     Asuka accepted the cream, not the sugar.  Asuka glanced at Erin, who was in the living room with Usagi's mother.  The fancy dress I understand, the white gloves are a little extreme, she thought, But I do want to get to the bottom of this.  Something about all of this gives me the creeps.  As though some ill-defined threat looms on the horizon.  Wondergirl urged me not to go, that was shocking enough, then I explained my reasons, Wondergirl accepted and went away.  I don't know which worried me more, that she accepted my reasoning, or she argued in the first place.  Something's gotten into her, since Spineless went into his coma.

     I do wish I'd brought somebody else, she thought quietly.  "Perhaps I should have brought Ranko with me," Asuka said with a smile, "She's such a charming young lady, at least when there are no boys around.  I think she believes she has to be more of a boy than the boys, so tragic really."  Like throwing a horse turd in a barrel of wine, Asuka thought of Usagi's reaction to her suggestion.

     "Connections decide who is promoted, who gets hired, who succeeds.  You understand," Usagi tried to continue as if Asuka hadn't spoken.

     "Of course," Asuka said.  Like a recording, or a religious service, can't break the pattern, Asuka thought.  "I had always understood that Japan considered connections with outsiders . . . perverse, or distasteful," Asuka replied as she appeared to sip her tea.

     "There is a certain reticence," Usagi answered, sipping her own tea, "But considering the unification, or perhaps globalization of the world and interests, it is important to make connections with those you might not have previously considered.  You do intend to return to Germany when the war is over?"

     The girl sounds almost hopeful, Asuka thought.  "The opportunities available will dictate that.  German firms may want someone who can speak the language and knows the ins and outs of the culture.  As well as engineering skills.  There may be Japanese firms who expand into Germany.  The same applies."  If you think I'd really work for a pack of two-faced, head-bobbing, ever-smiling . . . Asuka thought through a saccharine smile, You've got another think coming.

     "Then we are agreed," Usagi said with an equally happy smile.

     There is something not quite right about that girl's eyes, Asuka thought as she smiled, Not just how they look, but how they look at things.  "In principle," Asuka agreed to be sociable, "But details are always the thing that hold things up."

     "Oh, of course," Usagi said enthusiastically, "I guess that's what these kinds of meetings are necessary for.  We all have to be sure that we're 'the right sort'.  Dealing with people who don't stand up for themselves, who are afraid of new experiences, can be . . . tedious."

     First flash of real anger, Asuka thought, Again, the eyes aren't right.  "So you have met Katsuragi Misato."

     "Your - "  Usagi gave a knowing smile.  "Commander?  No, I've heard about her, good and bad things.  They do say she's a . . . free spirit."  Usagi smiled sympathetically.

     "Oh, she's free all right," Asuka agreed.  Nobody would pay for it, or take it home, Asuka thought, but kept smiling.  "She does perhaps, not keep up with her appearance in private, or a distinct lack of pride I would say."

     "Regrettable," Usagi agreed, "Pride is a fine balance, too much makes one foolish, too little and one is a coward, no better than a beast in the field."

     That's Misato, every day is mating season, Asuka thought, as she nodded sagely, Of course, drowning yourself in booze helps, someone who does that is as good as dead anyway.  And this little girl knows enough to push my buttons, either she's got a spy network to rival Ice Princess's, or a skill to match Kaji's, or some combination of the two.  Congratulations, but I'm back on my guard, you overcommitted.  Misato is a military genius and would be the dream of any teenager to have as a guardian.  Not that it's true in any part, but it is the common mythology, you shouldn't know any different.  "You've given me much to consider," Asuka said in a friendly tone, setting her tea aside, "I hope I have done the same for you, I do enjoy dealing with someone who . . . speaks my language, if you take my meaning."

     "Oh, I do, I do indeed."  Usagi stood, clasping Asuka's hands.  "Although, I'm sure our next meeting will include a more free exchange of ideas," Usagi told Asuka.

     "Thank you for the tea and conversation."  Asuka stood to take her leave.

     "Of course.  Do you play chess by any chance?"

     "No, I'm sorry.  I never could understand why all the restrictive rules.  Draughts, or as the Americans call it checkers, is a more interesting diversion," Asuka said, "Enticing an opponent into making a mistake that lets you win the game in one stroke.  Much more entertaining."

     "I hadn't considered that," Usagi said, posing and being cutely confused, "I thought it was a children's game."

     "All games can be children's games, and all games can be games for experts.  'The blame is not within our stars, but in ourselves.'"

     "So true."  Usagi smiled cutely again.  Asuka thanked God for her immunity.

     Asuka left.  Erin fell in behind her before they left the house.

     "Okay," Asuka said, "Don't play silent and inscrutable.  I get that from my `fellow pilots`."

     "Not here," Erin told her in German.

     Asuka moved out smartly, she saw Wondergirl detach herself from the shadows once they were clear of the house.  Okay, you followed, what would you do if help was needed? she wondered, Like the thing that pursued me through the Dreamlands, why do you chase after me here as well.  I've never been `nice` to you, or your `beloved`.  So why follow me?  Half the time I want to kick you down the stairs just to have you actually make some noise that hasn't been crafted and polished for ten minutes.

     "There was something wrong there," Erin told Asuka as Wondergirl fell in behind, close enough to be part of the conversation, "Something, I'd guess that woman is terribly afraid of something."

     "With those daughters, she has every right to be afraid," Asuka agreed.  She noted that the sounds beyond their little circle seemed muted and distorted, as if underwater and far away.  She glanced around covertly, but ignored it.  I'm imagining things, she thought.

     "You should not return there," Rei said.

     "You're worried about me, Wondergirl.  I'm touched, but I can take care of myself.  Unless you know what it is, I'm going to keep looking into it."

     "They are . . . wrong," Wondergirl told her.  Asuka stopped and stared at her.

     Wondergirl seems frustrated by her inability to . . . what? Asuka wondered of her usually quiet fellow pilot, Her inability to communicate her - concerns, fears?  What?  "Can you be any more vague?  We need something concrete and quantifiable.  Unless you can give me details, I'm going to keep this up.  I can take care of myself."

     "No," Wondergirl said, "You can't."

     She actually does seem worried, Asuka thought, Strange.  "Well in case you didn't notice, they want nothing to do with you, or with she-Horseface, and they keep wondering if Spineless and he-Horseface are going to come charging in and be either too much or not enough of what they're looking for.  One interesting thing, none of them, not one ever mentions either Ice Princess or Raccoon, not in passing, not directly, not even alluding to them, did you notice that Wondergirl?"

     Wondergirl blinked and cocked her head.  "No, I had not," Wondergirl admitted, she cocked her head in the opposite direction and stared at Asuka with an odd expression.

     "So that leaves me," Asuka said firmly.  I'm not about to admit to Erin or Wondergirl how creepy Usagi seemed to me, Asuka thought, stifled the urge to reach over and tousle Wondergirl's hair, Now that they're creeping out Wondergirl by remote control . . . I still have a few tricks I learned as the Meliorist.  I think I may have to fully reactivate Raccoon and Ice Princess's eyes and ears to seek out the facts I need.  They could be harmless, but I am not going to bet on that.


     "So Tomoe."  Usagi let her sister out of the closet where she'd watched the entire conversation.

     Tomoe cogitated a moment.  "Risky, if you can bring her around, we'll have a powerful ally, if not . . . it will cause complications."  She shrugged.

     "You sound jealous," Usagi accused.

     Tomoe frowned at Usagi.  "I'm not afraid she'll be a powerful aide to the Goddess, I'm not afraid she'll be more powerful than I am.  I am - concerned - about failure."  Tomoe put her hands on her hips and stared back at Usagi.

     Usagi turned to Tomoe.  "My question was about what you thought of her potential, you are supposed to be the expert.  Or is that just luck?"

     "I would advise breaking this off.  We can't trust her," Tomoe said through gritted teeth.

     "And let her poke around our business?" Usagi asked seriously.

     "There are ways of dealing with her," Tomoe said, "Two or three more days at most, and we'll be ready.  Maybe we should allow Yuki's plan to go forward, with or without our blessing."

     "True," Usagi said and smiled.


     He heard them, felt them, three.  Spread your spirit out over a large area,Jeff thought, They never figured you could hide using this technique, because it makes finding someone too easy, notwithstanding that it made localizing them completely impossible.  He looked into the fabric of his hat which covered his face, while dirt and loose rocks buried him in the walls of the arroyo.  Passing, searching, but passing, he thought, These aren't like the first.  I should have killed them hand to hand, and absorbed them, and incidentally, saved my ammunition.  He considered his dwindling supply.  They've gotten too smart too fast for that.  Damn my leg hurts, what are they using?he thought and tried to ignore the aches he'd received in the fighting, They resist healing and do they hurt!  I shouldn't have assumed that one was a straggler, it was bait.  I should have realized, because they are the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn, servants and lesser versions of the one I `ate`.  I can remember the original's rage at their rebellion, but Chaugnar Faugn never was strong enough to destroy them all.  He returned from memories that weren't his, and considered his current enemies, I suspect they are trying to avoid their `Eldest` Brother's curse, that he would destroy them all, starting with the 'youngest' and the inferior, once the White Disciple came.  I wonder if that's me?

     I feel like Joseph, except I don't think my `brothers` will let me go, he thought as he waited for them to complete their fruitless search and move off, there were none behind them.

     He unburied himself, pulling his hat off his face and grimacing at the dirty mass of wounds on his leg and arm where their weapons had caught him.  The leg wound still oozed blood.  No idea why neither healing nor my shoggoth-stolen abilities can close it, he thought, Maybe a special effect of their weapon, one shot certainly doesn't have any effect on them.  Bet the Elder Things would have loved weapons like that to use on their slaves.  Have to warn Ritsuko . . . when I see her.

     He sighted on the rearmost of the trio and fired rapidly four times, his target stumbled and fell as he ran off down a tributary of the wash, replacing the half empty clip with a full one as he scrambled.  How many of you do I have to kill before you give up? he thought as he turned and fired.  Eight shots, four to a target, eliminated his pursuers.

     They're immortal, why would they be so casual with their lives? he wondered as he reloaded the two clips, slid one home then released the slide and topped the clip up.  He looked at the empty box.  I'm almost out of ammunition and I doubt going hand-to-hand, or hand-to-trunk and claw, is a winning proposition at this point.  He climbed out of the wash and proceeded over the desert floor.  Enough moon to see by, he thought, Enough moon to be seen by.


     Nabiki let them load her stretcher into the hearse.  Bad joke if there ever was one.  I guess this is the best they've got, and Nabiki Tendo desires and deserves the best,she thought, trying to avoid laughing at the lame joke, because it hurt too much, Why am I worried about him?  He made his decision, he should have to live with it.  She looked at the EVA and the teams surrounding each of the ruined entry plugs.  All I want to do is get out there and make those bastards pay for what they've done.  But not just what they've done to me,she thought as she lay back, But what they did to all the others too.  But he's the one who's sure he's going to lose me, but I'm the one being evacuated and he's by himself out there.  Or is it that I don't want him to die until we hash this out, I was never able to explain anything to mother before she died, too much left unsaid, too much I didn't know what to do about.  She wanted to cover her face with her hands, so no one would see her cry from rage, pain and worry.  But I'd mess up the IV's,she thought of the bottles of blood pouring into her, I wish they had given me more morphine, side effect of a Nerima constitution: pain killers only make you loopy and weepy, they don't kill the pain a whit!

     She chuckled, then groaned as they closed the door.  "I've gotten more beaten up in a few months here, than in five years in Nerima, only my mother's death compares with what I've gone through in the last few weeks," she complained in Japanese to the empty confines of the hearse, "It isn't right and it isn't fair.  If I meet `my angel` again, I'll beat her senseless if she doesn't answer all my questions.  Nobody plays me for the fool and gets away with it, not the Inspector and not some angel."

     She closed her eyes and enjoyed the hearse's smooth ride over the rough roads.  "Hope they get me fixed up soon," she said, "I hate being hurt and helpless, somebody is going to pay dearly for this!"


     She had felt them.  Six of them,Rei thought, It is ironic that Belldandy has found herself at the place the trap will close.  She sought to chasten me, no doubt.  How will she resist?  Or is she just here to prevent me from using my full abilities?  Rei watched as the six large boys surrounded the two of them.  Odd, they do not seem to be the same as the cultists, they . . . feel different,she thought.  She narrowed her eyes and waited, analyzing and absorbing all the data.

     "Rei Ayanami," the largest of the six said dully.

     "Yes, I am me," Rei said.  I am not the fighter the Fourth is, but I can fight adequately, she thought.  "She is not with me," Rei said as she pointed at Belldandy.  It is the truth, but it should cause them to include her as a target, Rei thought, I have learned much from the Fourth, perhaps he is not completely useless.  Better they attack me, than Mein Grossfeldmarschall, now she will have the proof she requires.  I am pleased.  It will also be enjoyable watching the `goddess` deal with those who do not seek the light as she believes all do, that is even more pleasing.

     "Ain't that sweet, protecting her friend," one boy said with the same curious lack of expression, "We won't beat you up, we'll just have some fun."

     No grin, Rei thought, That would be standard, to display their belief in their own power, and contempt for their enemy's power.  "They are planning to rape you," Rei told Belldandy, "Repeatedly, perhaps until you die of it."  I should not enjoy this, she told herself as she took in Belldandy's horrified expression, But it is the truth, and she still does not believe this can happen.  Not to her.  Humanity must survive, your foolish rules cannot be allowed to prevent that.  I will not allow your foolish restrictions on me to prevent it.  It is against the Commander's plan.  It is against common sense, it is against what I desire for myself, and for all the other pilots, she thought darkly, If you do not understand.  I will allow humans to punish you for it.

     "You are in the battle," Rei told her another truth, "Whether you wish to be or not.  Are you prepared to inflict or receive pain?"

     The goddess looked from face to blankly, leering face, searching for something she was unlikely to find.

     I will not use my full abilities to defend her, Rei thought, Unless she requests it.  Mein Grossfeldmarschall has counseled that when you have the enemy's `full attention` you make the rules.  From the Fourth's discomfort with that assertion, I suspect she did not relate the original quote.  Rei paid no attention to the angels soft words, on humans they would have been the right words.  But these are not human, except in appearance, Rei realized, Why can she not see that?

     Belldandy went down in a heap from the boy's first punch, she looked up at the looming figure with utter surprise, as if the impossible had happened.  Rei waited, watching Belldandy for some sign that attacking, in Belldandy's defense, was permissible.

     "This one likes to watch," one of the boys said, again expressionlessly, as he tried to stomp down on the angel, "We'll make it good to watch."

     Rei watched another boy aim a kick at Belldandy, the angel rolled out of the way, and kept rolling until she was out of immediate range.  Rei allowed herself a brief smirk.  One of her Heavenly distinction is ill-equipped to deal with hostile humans, she thought as she remembered the points and methods to strike, that the Fourth and Mein Grossfeldmarschall had drilled her on.  "This will not hurt me as much as it will hurt you," Rei told them, giving them a chance to escape, as she'd been instructed, "Flee."

     Rei moved, not using her full strength, but using her full speed and precision.  Striking hard at the points instructed, the points that would disable to prevent pursuit.  She finished and jogged in her bare feet to her apartment to get new shoes.

     Did the angel learn her lesson? Rei wondered as the buildings sped by, That humans can be evil.  She believes it is not so, I know that is a delusion.


     Maya flinched at the cutting torch.  Despite the welding mask and the heavy gloves, the sparks of molten metal worried her.  "Okay, the rest of cut straight to start point, go do now," she shouted in English to the welder, over the noise of the oxyacetylene torch.  "I probably sound like an idiot," she added quietly in Japanese.

     She shifted the mask and saw the man nod.  She removed her mask, walked out of the plug, and sprinted over to the second team who'd cut the end off the entry plug, the end that would be welded to the plug she'd just left.  All those cars with their headlights just to illuminate our work site, all I asked for was some lights, she thought as she reached the plug end, she checked the smoothness of the cut.  For a moment, her anger nearly overwhelmed her, Once we get a pilot, we'll sic an EVA on those things, how will you like that?  You - you . . . monsters!!

     She looked over at the crews and switch engine who were already reassembling the train, and putting cars back on the tracks.

     "Okay," she stepped away from the undamaged end cap, "This part easy put back.  Here, here, here, much hard to cut, very much hard put back.  Extra metal on inside to hold, no liquid escape very much trouble avoids," she told them in her questionable English, "With here, here, here, not weld together, wires and pipes all burn.  Must find . . . " she fumbled for the right word.

     "Cement," one of the NERV civilian workers said in Japanese, then babbled something quickly to the others.  He glanced at Maya, held a piece of metal near the main A10 nerve junction, where it fed into the EVA's system.

     Maya reached over and moved it down a few centimeters.  "Weld, weld," she said in Japanese, as she pointed to several spots, then pointed to the edge, "A coffer dam, cement plug."

     "Yes."  The man smiled while nodding frantically.

     "Do!" Maya ordered in English, pointing to the other plug section.  The men picked up the end section and carried it over to the rest of the plug.  Maya helped them fit the braces in place while other men brought lanterns and work lights to illuminate the inside of the plug.  "Electricants!" she called and several of the electrician mates from the Bennington and others she didn't know arrived.  She pulled the electrical blueprints of the entry plug's cabling and wiring.  Thank the gods and kamis that these are universal, she thought as she indicated the sections that would need rewiring, before the EVA would respond to the pilot.

     Sempai, I'm working as fast as I can, she prayed, Be safe.


     Ritsuko looked down at the mouldering corpse, soon only the elephantine skull would remain.  "How many is that?"

     "Thirty-two, four shots in a tight pattern," Madison said, pointing to the four holes that nearly overlapped each other, "I'd guess the bullets diverge once they hit, probably no exit wounds, just like the others."

     "Doctor!  Captain!" one of the soldiers called.

     Ritsuko and Madison walked across the wash to him.

     "Do they bleed red?" the soldier pointed his flashlight to the bloody spot in the earth, ants already feasting on it.

     Suddenly he looks younger than any of the pilots, Ritsuko thought.  "No, only humans bleed red.  Unless they caught an animal in a crossfire."  That patch is good sized, she thought, looking around, How soon would the ants be over such a mark?  "Any shell casings?"

     "Beg pardon ma'am," the soldier stammered, "You're practically standing on them."

     Ritsuko looked down at the four pieces of brass, she picked them up, sniffed them, turned them over.  When were you fired? she silently asked the casings, How close are we?  We've heard no gunfire for nearly an hour.  When will the sun rise?  When will we get help?  She handed the bullets to Madison who played his flashlight over them.

     "Primers are all punched the same way," he said quietly, "One gun fired all these.  I think this was an ambush that didn't quite work."

     Ritsuko could see it clearly.  Jeff waited in one arm of the wash, she thought, Let the last one get close, he popped up to fire four shots and turned.  But another one who'd passed had doubled back to ambush him when he took the bait.  "There should be another one that way," she said and gestured, "Have any of you heard any more gun shots since the last?"

     The men all shook their heads.

     We all keep hearing the sort of slithery zap of the `Brothers'` weapons, but they keep shooting, she thought, If they got him, they'd stop.

     "I think we continue on this way," Ritsuko said, she checked the map, they'd be at the original outer perimeter in an hour or so.

     "As long as his ammunition holds out," Madison said, "He should be fine.  Probably not shooting in the dark."

     Except his nightvision is as good as mine, Ritsuko thought and glanced at the man, Especially in the moonlight, but asked, "What kind of forces were on the perimeter?  The outer perimeter."

     "Mixed," the radio man said, "Some infantry, some armor, some artillery."

     "Towed or self-propelled?" Ritsuko asked, she felt she was near the solution.

     "Two batteries of M7 Priests scattered about.  Why?"

     "Because vehicles carry submachineguns for the crews," Ritsuko said, the light dawning on the others.

     "And hundreds or thousands of rounds for them," Madison said as he saw it, "So he heads out to the borders and lets them bunch up where he's got more ammo than he could shake a stick at."  Madison smiled, chuckled.

     Yes, that's what I hope too, Ritsuko thought.  "How many soldiers are there out there?  Other search parties?"

     Madison caught up with the radio man, then hurried forward to where Ritsuko was walking, searching for the other corpse.

     "No other infantry is this far out, but there should be an armored troop, tanks, armored cars and artillery, they should catch up to us in less than an hour."

     "What force level?" Ritsuko asked as she stared at the moonlit, star-filled, desert sky.

     "Three M8 Greyhounds, two M5 Stuarts, 2 A1 Shermans, another M7 Priest," Madison reported.

     "In short, nothing that could take these things on head-to-head," Ritsuko said, sighed as she considered other options.  She nearly stumbled over the dead `Brother`.

     "Damned inconvenient," Madison said, "Taking four shots, full clip and one up the pipe, you can't engage more than two without changing clips."  They stared at the skull of the enemy.

     "Let's hope those tanks can catch our pilot, cuff him to something solid, and make a run for it," Ritsuko said, momentarily furious at the pair who'd taken such a risk.  But who else could have done it? Ritsuko considered, I'd like to get my hands on one of those `Brothers` and see it survive being torn into tiny pieces.  "They'll also have additional ammo for the .45 he's carrying, and some armor plating to hide behind."  She dragged the skull out of the sand and stared at it, burning every contour into her mind.  Let me get my hands on you and we'll see what we can see, she thought angrily.

     "They could just open the breech and let him shoot down the barrel," Madison offered.

     She smiled at the image of Jeff firing down a 75-mm gun.  But it's not funny, she thought.  "I hope they have a medic with them."  She threw the skull against the wall of the arroyo.


     The group had assembled in Sammi's apartment.  Asuka had assigned Natsumi and Stooge-Aida the job of interrogating the various members, to determine what had happened, and the time periods when it might have happened.  Asuka contented herself with watching Horseface and Hikari make snacks.  Even doing `girlie` stuff, he's got to be the best,Asuka thought, shaking her head.  I didn't want this kind of job, I'm no cloak and dagger expert, I wait until somebody else locates the enemy, then I charge in and destroy them, then harry the survivors in pursuit,she thought, I wish I had a chalkboard and an easel, so I could block out the times and locations myself, as the reports came in.

     "What happened to you, Wondergirl!?" Asuka demanded of the slightly disheveled robot stumbling in.  "Suzuhara!  Get her a chair, Horseface get a towel and some ice!"  Both hopped to their tasks.  A moment later she applied the cold pack to Wondergirl's swollen lip.  "This is going to sting," she said, Wondergirl didn't react, "I asked you a question, what happened?  You cleaned Tomoe's clock."

     "It . . . was something else," Wondergirl said, staring straight ahead, "I am not certain what it was.  I did not see it clearly.  It was not one of our cataloged enemies."

     "Of course you had to attack it," Asuka said disgustedly, "Who do you think you are?  Horseface?"

     Wondergirl stared at her.  "No.  I am who I am."

     Juri nudged Asuka aside so she could hold the icepack, Wondergirl showed no inclination to hold it herself.

     "We'll talk about this later," Asuka told Wondergirl, who nodded once in response.

     "It looks like they probably moved during homeroom," Sammi said as she organized the reports, "They'd need that much time for all this to have occurred."

     "Any manpower assessments?" Asuka asked, then lowered her voice, "And any chance of getting a guard for everybody's favorite robot?"

     "Thirty plus targets, call it two entire classes, maybe three, you'd need that many to do the jobs, provide recon, and covering forces," Sammi explained, then lowered her voice, "Officially - no."

     "That's 75 to 90 students," Asuka considered, "That's a lot.  That implies the administration either knows or turns a blind eye."  She nodded to Sammi.

     "Or it wasn't that many," Wondergirl supplied, "And they were disguised some other way."

     "What - invisibility?" Asuka asked.

     "Of one form or another," Wondergirl replied around the icepack.

     "She's got a point," Sammi admitted, "If they have the support of administration and the teachers don't act against them, they wouldn't need anywhere near my projected force levels, perhaps 30 to 40 people, just one or two people to each target.  Less if they doubled up on targets.  I'll look into who has lockers and classes close to the ones that got hit.  The school has volunteered to replace all the damaged possessions."

     "It would break the bank if they had to replace my violin, or Wondergirl's, let alone Spineless's cello," Asuka considered, "That may be the warning they're trying to deliver, since Wondergirl was approached to join the orchestra, it's to tell her to keep away."

     "I will not," Wondergirl said.  Asuka thought she detected a trace of anger.

     "Can't disappoint all your loyal fans?" Asuka asked, raised her eyebrows.

     "Nor could you, Mein Grossfeldmarschall," Wondergirl replied levelly.

     "She's right Horseface," Asuka said, "In insults, you really can't compete."

     "You remind me of the worst parts of Yuki and your favorite officer!" Horseface shot back, "OW!  I was just practicing!" Horseface protested to Hikari, who put down the spoon she'd bopped Horseface with and instead picked up a skillet menacingly.

     "Don't kill her," Asuka warned, "And don't bend the skillet."

     Hikari frowned but replaced the frying pan on the stove, much to Horseface's relief as she rubbed her head.

     "Ranko-chan!"

     Asuka winced as Mirei arrived, Erin let in the girl and her `pet gorilla`, a behemoth of a man who gave Sammi a nod and surveyed everything, while staying clear of the pilots.

     Professionals, Asuka thought, I wonder how many we could `borrow` on short notice.

     "What happened!  It's terrible!" Mirei gushed at Horseface as she took her hands and then hugged her, "I've heard some cruel things, but nothing like that."

     Horseface looked terribly nervous, but relaxed as no death descended on her.

     Of course not, Asuka thought, Hikari thinks it's cute, so does Natsumi, the guys could care less.  She-Horseface is off limits, and neither I nor Wondergirl care.

     "They did some dumb stuff," Horseface replied soothingly, "We really don't have to worry."

     "Yes . . . you do," Mirei said quietly, her gaze swept the room, "I heard some girls on the softball team talking about 'putting them in their place', I thought - it was about teasing us newcomers, then I heard what happened."

     Erin pulled up a chair to Horseface and his fanclub.  "Mirei dear, what exactly did you hear?"

     Mirei bowed to the guard.  "Usagi-san, the team captain was talking to Tomoe-san.  Tomoe-san was saying that people need to know their proper place.  I thought they were being snooty like always.  Then Usagi-san said 'They can hardly be held to account for that, if no one has told them their place.'  Then, I thought they were talking about softball positions, I didn't think.  Some of the teams are just awful, no team work, just a bunch of prima donnas and - "

     "Mirei dear," Erin said sweetly, "Why do you think that applies to what happened?"

     "We - I - they've joked about Hikari-san and the others running the school, some of the things they said about Tendo Nabiki were just terrible!"  She glanced at Horseface, dropped her eyes and blushed.  "I'd rather not repeat them."

     Asuka nodded, this was all circumstantial, nothing you could hang your hat on, but it did firm up Asuka's resolve to confront this Usagi again, directly, whatever anyone, including Erin or Wondergirl said.


     Sammi looked over the notes the kids had assembled, the kids were downstairs eating and looking over something with the other guards.  Sammi had already made her decision, she prepared the notes for a report to the Navy, if it was just youthful high spirits/bad judgment, then putting a little scare into them would be useful.  If it was 'enemy action', And that is looking more and more likely,Sammi admitted to herself, Then there will have to be some knife work.  Sammi wasn't eager to do the latter.  Killing kids is a taboo to me,she thought, But the pilots are more important than a few high-spirited kids.  I'm just glad it isn't my decision, or my responsibility.

     She glanced up at Mirei's `gorilla` escorting her upstairs to get more snacks.  The huge man paused at the table where Sammi was working, where he could watch Mirei in the kitchen and the rest of the kids downstairs.  "They aren't what I expected," he said in low tones, "While the elites at the school . . . this isn't the first time . . . watch your back," he added quietly as he escorted Mirei back to the get together down stairs.

     Now, wasn't that ominous? Sammi thought, before returning to her analysis.

     It amazed her that the pilots and their coterie had assembled information of this depth and thoroughness.  It exceeded what NERV Security seemed able to put together.  The laxity of security, she thought, Nothing seems to get them off their butts for long.  She hadn't figured out why Gendo defended them and why he tolerated Kaji taking off for long periods.  She quietly suspected, One more serious failure, and the FUBENS will be eliminated as an organization, if not as individuals.

     I won't shed any tears, she thought, their animosity towards the 'close-in' guards was growing, It is unfortunate but it is also unavoidable, the FUBENS are acting like they are an end to themselves, rather than as a resource for the pilots.  She wondered, Was Ritsuko thinking of this when she made me?  I know I could no more be disloyal to the pilots than I could live on the surface of the sun.

     The others have the same feelings, these are good kids, she thought, Juri hated being left behind when Nabiki left.  But I have plenty of work for the woman to do.  But it is an odd connection to a kid, one you were sworn to protect.  Our mandate is to die before letting harm befall them.  All of us can imagine the trouble all of us might actually get into, if we guards have to get the kids, especially Ranma and Asuka, out of the danger zone.  The kids would probably want to stay and help, she thought, Neither is comfortable with the idea that their life is more important than someone elses'.

     Asuka might talk a good game, but she lived by the axiom that 'Danger invites rescue', and Asuka believes that nobody could be a better Rescuer than Asuka Soryu Langley.  I'm glad they haven't gotten that deep into trouble yet, Sammi considered Nabiki's reaction to the death of Hiroko, Then the other kids' reaction to the `loss` of Nabiki.  I know Rei and Raccoon had been badly hurt by those events.  Not that either would ever admit it, without resorting to thumbscrews or an order from Commander Ikari.  And my job is to prevent that from happening again.  But it might come at the cost of a guard's life, even my own, although . . .   She had a hard time imagining anything that could permanently harm her.  But there are things, that's what the EVAs are for, she thought confidently.


Blood Is Thicker Than Water

     Nabiki felt the hearse slow, then stop, only when they had completely stopped did their escorting police car shut off its siren.  Nabiki Tendo, she thought, Police escort, and not to prison.  She chuckled at that as she listened for anything going on outside.  The Nerimaniacs would never believe that, she silently added as the rear door opened and air force troops removed her stretcher from the hearse.  The injured leg, the painkillers and monotony had allowed her to ignore, now again made its presence felt.  She hissed at the sudden stabbing pain, and twisted, instantly reigniting all the other aches and pains chemicals and lying very still had damped down.

     "Sorry, they can't give you another shot just yet," the general she'd seen at her first visit stepped into view.

     " 'S okay, reminds me I'm alive and want to get back in the fight," she said with a bravado she didn't feel.  She felt sweat beading her brow, as she struggled not to scream.  Enough others doing that, she thought of the background noise around her, Orders and pain, not a good mix.

     "I always seem to see you when you're wounded.  Of course the way you pilots heal, you'll be up and around in a day, or less," the general said.

     "Just get me well enough to get in the EVA, that's what I really want," Nabiki said as the airmen carried her towards the medical center, the general walking beside.

     Respect for a lady, a pilot, or a casualty? she wondered as she noted the man's bare head, 'Uncovered' so nobody has to salute.

     "You're probably impatient, but rest, they have to fix it first," the general told her, then lowered his voice, "At night, we can't really help, we lost two nightfighters for no return, and we can't find infantry on rough terrain, so I ordered them back.  But when the sun comes up . . . what are we dealing with?  We've had entire armored platoons call a warning, then go silent.  What are these things?"

     Nabiki sighed.  I remember the battle through the train cars as we tried to reach the EVAs, she thought, Raccoon called them 'the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn', but that won't help.  "No conventional weapon had any affect, even with the special ammunition, even heavy artillery," she told the general softly, "A hit by an artillery shell just drove them back.  A bomber or a strafer won't fare any better.  You'd be better off using them as observers."

     "Aerial command post," the General said, frowned, "We'll give you something more effective for the pain and get you patched up, you'll be fixed up and ready to go before the EVA is I'll bet.  In the meantime rest, you've earned it."

     "Thanks," Nabiki said as the General moved off and the airmen carried her inside to get treatment.  A corpsman injected her with more morphine.

     Nerima stamina has a down side, she thought as the increased dose barely took the edge off the pain from her leg.  "You want me out cold, either give me more of that stuff, or wiggle my leg around," she told the corpsman, "The first way's quieter."  She chuckled at her hilarious joke.

     "That's the max safe dose for someone of your body weight," the corpsman said in confusion, he glanced at the bottle.

     "It's morphine, just roll me into the fender and body shop," she said firmly, "Can't be seen by my admiring public looking anything except perfect," she confided in him, "Bad for morale."

     "Yes ma'am."  He shook his head, then gestured to the airmen to carry her to an alcove that could be closed off for privacy.

     What are you doing? she asked her fellow pilot, once she was alone again, What am I doing?  I know what's going to happen when I pilot . . . I'll eventually turn into something like you.  And I might not be able to play the role as well as you do.  I bet you're just getting clear of the press so you can use what you used on Saffron.  Nuke the bastards?  Are the rest of us just in your way?  Rei acts like that, especially with Ranma.  Will I act like Rei, or will I act like you? she asked herself as a pair of female nurses entered and began cutting away her torn and bloody clothing.  She glanced down at her broken body.  Worse hurt than I thought, she thought as she surveyed the injuries, Nobody's telling me that the broken bone's just an accident, that she didn't mean it.  "Have her stripped, washed and brought to my tent," she murmured.

     "Something funny dear?" one nurse asked her.

     "Yeah, me, I'm ridiculous," she said as she stared at the ceiling chuckling.


     Maya watched the crews holding the two sections of the damaged entry plugs together.  Dozens of men strained to hold the heavy parts against each other.  I want to start the diagnostics, but walking around in there would just disrupt things,she thought impatiently, I don't even know enough about welding to supervise.  She looked at the men who were following herorders, through the filter of Navy Chiefs and Marine Sergeants.  All it takes for us to work in harmony, to ignore race, color and creed, is a Great Old One breathing down our neck,she thought despondently.

     Master Chief Cole approached, "Any reinforcing has to go on the inside, right?"

     Maya mentally translated the statement from English to Japanese.  "Yes, extra strength go on inside, but away from places of careful cutting, welders know this.  Must slide easily, the plug, tight fit."

     "Yes, ma'am."  He saluted and marched away before Maya could return it.

     She stared at the other teams.  They collected the wounded, now they're collecting our baggage to load it on other rail cars, she thought, shivered, I'm not sure I like sailors and Marines packing my and Sempai's clothes.  Get OVER it! she chided herself, You are doing the most important job you can.  Let them do what they were ordered to do.  She looked at the sky.  The moon had set, she tried to guess when it would be light enough to get the Air Force up to help.  I'm nervous for the pilots, and Sempai . . . and me.  If those things come back, we're all dead.  The beauty of the clear, starlit sky was lost on her.  How long until help arrives? she silently asked while she waited, and tried to look as calm and in control as her Sempai always did.


     Ranma was out riding.  He enjoyed the bike.  Now that I know how to use it,he thought as he raced along, faster than he'd ever run before, and powered by his own muscles.  The jeep following him labored hard to keep up through the NERV campus.  The long concrete road Ranma rode on was normally only used to deploy the EVAs.  No chance of getting stepped on,Ranma thought as he raced along, his red hair streaming behind, I'd be doing the stepping.  He considered that, and the other half-formed thoughts in his mind.  He needed this aloneness, with the wind on his skin and his muscles moving fully, to think clearly.  Easy enough in a fight,he thought, Not so easy in `polite` company.  I don't know . . . I don't understand all of what's happening,he thought, Asuka-chan and Rei-chan seem to be fitting in, I . . . Ranko is fitting in.  The girls in class are nicer to me, to her, than they ever were before, even if half the questions are 'When is Ranma going to come back?'  Hikari and her little group aren't looking at me as stir-fry ingredients anymore, who'da thought girls would talk about that stuff, they're worse than the guys.  'Cept they don't believe me when I tell 'em stuff.  'What is Toji-san thinking about?'  At 11:55?  'Lunch, you want his attention right now, give'em somethin' ta eat!'  Nothin' hard to guessin' that!  Course, why they're nicer to me than they ever were to Ranma - he considered, Yet those girls . . . they seem to hate anyone being nice, to anyone they don't approve of.  Even th' others weren't so mean to me as those girls are.  Mirei doesn't have to tell me they're giving her a hard time, I can tell by the way she walks.  And I can't just beat them up, it wouldn't fix anything.  That Tomoe girl didn't get in trouble for her fight with Rei, I know Rei didn't get in trouble, though she talked to the Admiral and ole' Stoneface for a couple hours.

     He rode on for several minutes, letting his mind wander while his body went through its disciplined motions, testing how tightly he could turn, slowing down, speeding up, leaning the bike down to make turns easier.  When he did come back to the real world, he ran through an imaginary slalom course, then another tighter one, practicing, mastering this new set of skills, thinking how to mesh them with his existing skills.

     Yuki is the danger, she hates anyone getting more or better `admirers` than her, Tomoe hates anyone better at violence, Usagi hates anyone who can outsmart her or shows her up with brains, Ranma considered what irritated the `queen bees of the class`, But there's something else.  Something that goes . . . beyond.  Ranma raced in a straight line for a while, to assist his thinking, I wonder if they realize how - silly -   Ranma stopped, set the bike down and walked a short distance away from it.

     "They are afraid of someone better than they are, someone making them . . . unspecial.  But the pilots are afraid of what they might do.  Because we do pick up things so fast, all of us.  They get mad at me because I do things . . . that they do, and they don't like doin'em.  They don't want me picking up their bad habits," Ranma said, then laughed out loud.  "DO AS I SAY NOT AS I DO!" he shouted at the top of his lungs and laughed again, ignoring Sammi's worried look.  He waved to her that he was okay.  After a while he felt the grip of this farce slacken and he could slow his laughter.  "Sorry," he told Sammi as he regained control, his face and his ribs ached worse than they had from any fight he could remember.

     "Would you care to share?" Sammi asked cautiously, "You stood there laughing for almost ten minutes.  I thought you were having an attack.  I could use a good laugh myself."

     "An attack of clarity," Ranma admitted as he sobered.  They don't yell at me, or complain about me or think badly of me because they hate me, but they like, maybe even love me, he thought and then laughed about that, Maybe it doesn't feel so bad, but boy does it feel weird!  "Sorry, can't really explain," he said.  Too embarrassing for all involved, he silently added as he picked up the bicycle and started riding again.  I wonder how 'Mein Grossfeldmarschall' would react if the next time she `attacks` me, I start smiling? he thought, The bruises would be worth it.  He circled the jeep and Sammi as fast as he could, before tearing off in a straight line at flank speed.

     Got it . . . he thought delightedly, I think I understand that they're trying to protect me, not well, but that's what they're trying to do. From the mistakes they have made, of course they don't realize they're doin' it wrong, he laughed at that, That 'Horseface' figured it out, and they haven't!

     Suddenly he slammed on the brakes, front to start, release, then full rear.  As he sat there balancing on the immobile bike, he stared at the woods that hid the road from the perimeter wall.

     "Trouble?" Sammi asked worriedly as she parked the jeep next to him, placing it and her between him and whatever he was staring at.

     "I don't know . . . " Ranma said distractedly, "Have you ever heard your name, but there's no one around?"

     "Not really, my name's kind of long for that," she replied, slipping out of the jeep and pulling her heavy rifle out.

     Ranma stared at the woods that separated sections of the NERV campus from each other and from the outside world.  Ranma peered, willing his eyes to invent a new technique that would reveal the enemy or what was bothering him.  I'm not going to stop, just because I look `silly`, he thought, There is an enemy out there.  I know it.  If I could just see it!

     "Something is out there," Ranma said distantly, "It's trying to hide."  It's succeeding too, he silently added.

     "Can you give me an approximate vector . . . point the direction?" Sammi asked, fitting a rifle grenade to the end of the rifle.

     Ranma wanted to shout his frustration.  If I could see it - I'd be going after it myself! he thought, then reined himself in, That's what the others would do, get hung up on details.  I can't see it, but I know it's there.  Relax, where is it?  He closed his eyes and raised a hand, let his instincts point to where the impression was the strongest.  It's vague, he thought, surrendering to instinct.  "There," he said.

     There was the sound of a rifle grenade, and a distant explosion.  Ranma opened his eyes, as he felt the hunch fading.  "You didn't get it, but it ran away," Ranma said, brushing a strand of red hair out of his face.

     Sammi loaded another rifle grenade and called in on the radio for reinforcements.

     "I'm going in," Ranma said.

     "Not yet you aren't," Sammi warned.  A moment later an M8 Greyhound, with a flamegun replacing the main gun, trundled into the woods.  "No, let them go first, if I say 'run', get back to the jeep."

     With you under my arm, Ranma didn't say.  "Agreed."


     Nabiki winced as the female medic cleaned the wounds on her arms and legs.  The nurses had cut away her pants and shirt, so she was wearing an odd cross between her usual `Nerima-casual` clothes and Ukyo's attire: short shorts and well-bandaged ribs.  Then another doctor had bandaged her sprained wrists.  Her entire body ached.  More for a desire to do something than any real pain OWWW!,she thought, Liar.

     They come in, do one thing, then leave, she thought wearily, Are they slipping me in between more serious cases?  Do I want to know?

     "General," she hailed the man as he entered.  She smirked as he averted his eyes.

     "Good to see you're feeling better again, Miss Tendo," the man approached, shook her hand carefully, "The observation planes are up - "

     "Any luck with the air search?" she sat up and asked urgently, the medic made her lie back down, the sudden stabs of pain over her body gave the medic an effective ally.

     "Always to business?"

     "Takes my mind off being half naked and all bloody," she said, trying not to show the pain, "Better than a lot of the poor men who tried to stop those things, I'm betting."

     "Well, we're giving our B-32's a real workout," the general said, "They were supposed to be testing equipment for the B-36's.  Now they are our new support aircraft, some 16 20mm cannons, in automatic turrets.  No bombs, just plenty of ammunition."

     "Have you ever considered electrically-driven Gatling guns?" Nabiki asked, "That would have a rate of fire of two to six thousand rounds a minute."

     "Where do you come up with this stuff?" the general chuckled while smiling.

     Nabiki looked around, then bent her finger in the American-style beckoning.

     The general leaned over her.

     "I've spent a lot of time in the 1990's," Nabiki said confidently, nodding as the general and the medic started chuckling.

     "I think you've had enough morphine for a while," the general said, "Once the moon went down, we lost any real chance of seeing anything.  Except when they shoot at us, of course we shoot back.  Once the sun comes up, we'll start up again.  After what you and Doctor Akagi told me, I've been tempted to start para-dropping containers of .45 ammo."

     "Not a bad idea," Nabiki agreed, nodding.

     "We'll get you ready as soon as possible," the general said, "Don't go running off anywhere."  He left.

     "Great, everybody thinks they're a comedian," Nabiki complained.

     "No comment," the medic said with a straight face.


     "Commander?" Rei called softly as she entered his office.

     "I'm afraid he's not here," Admiral Simson said as he walked up behind her, "He's in a conference.  You wanted to tell him about the people who attacked you, or the sabotage to your's and the other pilots' possessions?  How is your bruise, does it still hurt?"

     "Yes, healing, 'my pride is worse hurt'," Rei said, nervous in the Admiral's presence, "How did you know?"

     "I have my ways," the Admiral told her.

     "I . . . " she began, "I do need to speak with him."

     "Would you feel better writing a report rather than giving a spoken report to me?"

     "Yes," Rei nodded, "It will also be good practice for my written English."

     "The girl you hit," Admiral said, "Did you get the data you were after?"

     "Yes," Rei told him.

     "I'll let you set up in an office," the Admiral said, "Please follow me."

     Rei fell in behind him.

     "Do you think that pilots Davis and Tendo would serve as effective bridge officers?"

     "I believe they would serve diligently in any capacity," she relaxed, being asked for facts, rather than analysis.

     "I was also considering rotating the pilots, keeping four active and allowing the other two to take up temporary status, as bridge officers, researching the EVA and syncing with it, and so on."

     "There will be resistance," Rei told him quietly.  I would rather be in my EVA, so would Mein Grossfeldmarschall, the Fourth would take convincing, Shinji-kun might welcome it, Rei thought.

     "Are you saying it would be a bad idea generally, or that the pilots would prefer retaining their combat status, or that some would be the first option, others would be the second, or fourthly some other option?"

     "The third, some would, some would not," Rei said, "We cannot implement it now, we lack one of the four we have EVA's for."

     "Is there anything you'd like to tell me about that?"

     "I am confused by it," Rei admitted, "There is no reason for it."

     "I heard that Pilot Davis also could not be awakened.  Perhaps they are off fighting some enemy in dreams, or the spirit world.  That is not an unreasonable assumption, is it?"

     "No, it is not," Rei said as they entered the office.

     "If you encounter a word or concept you can't express properly in English, go ahead and write it in Japanese, we can have people translate it when it is typed up."

     "I cannot type," Rei admitted.

     "You won't be expected to," the Admiral reassured her.  "I do think you might try out for the orchestra, if it interests you, it will let people see that NERV isn't all about war machines.  I'm sure the Commander would agree that NERV needs a good reputation.  It will also allow you to express yourself without words."

     "Thank you," Rei sat at the desk and began writing.

     "The Commander was very pleased by your diligence, if he forgets to tell you.  He did mention that to me," the Admiral said.

     Rei felt for a moment she could fly.  The Commander approved, she thought happily.  "Thank you."

     "You're welcome."  He closed the door behind him.

     Rei had to calm herself for several moments before she could write.  The Commander approved.  I was afraid I had `exceeded my mandate`, she thought, But he approved.  I am so glad.


     Ikari faced the monoliths.  Finally got your little rebellion under control, eh Kehl?Gendo thought as he sat at the desk, Or are you concerned that I've coopted your spy?

     "There has been a problem," the monolith labeled '01' said.

     Kehl, Gendo thought.  "Not that I am aware of.  Or that the recent incursion constituted a disruption," Gendo said, "It was only cultists, testing our defenses for a greater assault later."

     "The trouble occurred in Europe," monolith '04' whom Gendo did not recognize, spoke, "There was a report by U.S. Army Intelligence of an EVA-sized creature on the Franco-German-Swiss border."

     I can practically hear Kehl's teeth grinding, Gendo thought.  "Perhaps the French have repaired their Unit," Gendo threw them a bone.

     "We've been convincing the government to seek U.S. funding and technical support," monolith 05 said.

     SEELE France, or I should say SEELE Paris, Gendo thought dismissively.  "They aren't interested.  They've made no attempt to activate Unit 03, and instead are building new Units themselves," Gendo said, "Admiral Simson intends to deploy at least two as soon as possible, for the pilots currently in reserve, that will allow him to deploy four EVAs overseas, and keep two to defend Japan.  With additional Units for other secondary pilot candidates."  How many of our secondaries will we need to completely match your hidden EVA force? Gendo considered.

     "That is not as grave a concern, as the possibility that some EVA-class threat is loose in our backyard," '01' said.

     Let slip where you actually are?  So they don't know you're building your own EVAs! Gendo realized, but kept his expression intent on the monoliths, giving nothing away.  "Does this have any connection to the Severn Valley conditions?" he asked.

     "How do you know of that?!" monolith '07' demanded.

     "I have access to much of the American Intelligence on such things."  Gendo frowned, and hid it a little too slowly, so they could see it.

     "Why has this not been forwarded to us?" Kehl demanded.

     "Because I cannot remove or duplicate the files from where I view them."  Because they don't exist, Gendo thought, The Admiral briefed me on it, Gendo thought, And we have developed several contingency plans.  "To transmit the information, I would need a secure communication system, independent of the mail or Navy communications."  Which you'll never allow, for fear of what I'd do with it outside your control, Gendo thought.

     "We do not squander such resources," '07' replied.

     "Of course," Gendo said deferentially.  Now you know I can't give you the information, he thought, So I don't even have to try.

     "The situation in the United States concerns me," Gendo said, "If the Americans killed off their other pilot candidate, we have only Anna Alise and some much less acceptable candidates.  No other Allied pilots have been made available to NERV, it is worrying that only Germany, Japan and the U.S. have pilots serving."

     "That isn't your concern," '05' told him, "The project is your primary concern."

     "Keeping it out of our enemies' hands is also my concern," Gendo replied calmly, "Despite it not being part of my charge.  If the enemy waits for our perfection, only to sweep in and snatch victory from our grasp at our moment of triumph, it would undo all of our work.  There also is still the question of the sacrifices that would allow us to get the treasure in the first place."

     "We have no need of a lecture about the goal from you, Ikari," '04' told him.

     "I have to provide the proper sacrifices, I have to advance the project, yet I am kept in the dark about any possible reinforcements.  Perhaps the committee needs to remember that I cannot simply drag vagabonds off the street, the toll requires certain characteristics, they must be fostered, which is delicate work."

     "All that is required is the blood," '05' insisted.

     Except it cannot be taken, it must be given and there are limits to what orders can achieve, Gendo thought, Idiots, you are too used to spineless fools who bow when you snap your fingers.  Saotome, Davis, Tendo and Langley would never bend as you would need, they will only bend so far.  But they could be led to solving the problems themselves.  He kept himself from laughing.  Simson's lesson was correct, if I play by any rules - even my own - I become too predictable, as predictable as you fools.  But I can provide some data and let them draw themselves to my desired conclusions, and neither I nor you will know how they will arrive at the solution, at spilling each other's blood to save the human race.  More importantly, neither will our enemies.

     "We will have to consider the English ineptitude in containing the Severn Valley situations," '05' announced.

     Not that you'd understand that the Navy is the one who decides what will be done with the EVAs, Gendo thought.  "The French Foreign Legion is available," Gendo said, "Perhaps the Church has some additional resources."  He ignored the cacophony as the monoliths reacted to the mention of the 'religious extremists', 'going beyond the defunct God', and so on.  He waited unsmilingly, until Kehl managed to get them all calmed down.

     "They will be allowed to deal with the problem on their own," Kehl announced.

     Read, that you want them to expend their own national resources, he thought, If they make a successful plea to the Admiral, I won't fight it effectually.  "Might they request deployment of Unit 03?" Gendo asked, setting off another useless argument.  He assisted Kehl with a promise to help take Unit 03 out of British hands.  That will also take one old unit out of your hands, he thought, It would be useful to me, if you would only use it to destroy whatever pilots you do have.


     Nabiki stared at the ceiling, waiting for the plaster to dry so they could waterproof her cast.  Stupid.  Stupid!  Stupid!she thought, sighed, Me, him or both?  That's the real question.  She was frowning as the general arrived.

     "They are expecting to have the EVA repaired within an hour, so they are going to send you out to pilot it.  We'll have some of the aircraft up, so you won't be going in blind."

     "Thanks, I prefer knowing what's happening," she replied crisply.  Pain's mostly gone, she thought, If I don't move.

     "Trouble?" he asked, taking a fatherly, rather than a military tone, "I won't repeat anything, security you understand?"

     Nabiki smirked.  "Let's just say that Pilot Davis and I were having a rather . . . heated discussion at the time of the attack.  We did not part amicably, and the method of our parting would have become yet another piece of evidence in my case."

     "Quite the politician, you should run for the Diet, that's what they're calling your Congress, right?" the general asked, and waited for Nabiki to nod before continuing, " 'Sent him off with a curse not a kiss?'  My grandmother said that was the surest way to get a man to stray, but I'm betting it is something a lot more."

     Nabiki frowned.  I've got to remember these people aren't as stupid as the idiots in Nerima, she reminded herself.

     "You told him you never wanted to see him again, or that you didn't care if he came back, or some combination, and you feel responsible for him being out there on his own."

     "Something like that," Nabiki admitted angrily, then muttered in Japanese, "Stubborn idiot."

     "Poppycock.  Those things took off after you pilots, they practically ignored the defenders once the embarking plugs and the ammo car went up."

     "Entry plugs."

     "Thanks, then they went after him in preference.  I know, because they've ignored both infantry and light vehicles, even ground attack planes, that have been pursuing some of them.  They are doggedly pursuing something, guess what."

     Nabiki didn't have to.  "So it's not my fault."

     "I didn't say that, but it isn't entirely or even mostly your fault.  Get over it.  Young men do all kinds of stupid things to impress pretty girls, and there are several to choose from traveling with him."

     Nabiki considered.  "I think it's more like he wanted to keep us safe," she said, "As if we couldn't fight for ourselves."

     "I think you're expecting that there's no bullet out there with your name on it," the general said, "Typically it's one of the million bullets addressed 'To Whom It May Concern' that gets you.  He thinks you and the others are more valuable than he is.  That's not something you can change."

     "Thanks," Nabiki replied, as she flopped down on the bed, reigniting the aches she'd been ignoring, "That really helps."

     "You'll get the answers," the general told her, "Once you start asking the right questions."  The general left.  Nabiki briefly considered throwing her pillow at him.

     The right questions?  What the Hell are the right questions? she wanted to scream in frustration, Ranma can't see in front of his face that he's in danger.  Raccoon sees it and doesn't care.  And where Shinji charges in, even Angels fear to tread.  They're all a pack of complete and total idiots!  That's the answer.  Why should I care?  That's the question.


     Jeff heard the small plane.  He then watched it get shot out of the sky.  The fire is from some distance away.  So I'm `safe`,he thought, For the moment.  He slipped across the desert.  I would have thought I would have cut the perimeter and found the armor that was supposed to be out here,he thought as he glanced at his empty pistol and the lightening sky, I should carry more ammo next time, and a lot more water,he reminded himself, Once that sun is up, this place is going to be like walking through a frying pan, and I'll bet those things can take the heat better than I can.  The cold hasn't been a problem, so far.  He winced at the twinge of his leg, and his other injuries that resisted both his spells and his natural abilities to heal.  Sun stroke and blood loss, not the best way to go,he thought as he pressed on to where the armor should have been.  If I can cut their trail,he thought, I can back track.
     Asuka sat on her bed and stared at the ceiling, she'd become the leader, again.  Damn you Raccoon,she thought, Running out on me when you're most needed!  She didn't want to coordinate things, to wait while others brought her reports, rumors, and no action.  The Meliorist always tried to let the Scholarly Dragon take care of the paperwork, now she had no other choice.  Ice Princess will have a fit when I turn it all over to her without a fight,Asuka thought happily.  She enjoyed frustrating Ice Princess's efforts to understand Asuka Soryu Langley.  She wasn't sure what she was going to do.  The first impulse is to smash Usagi and her group, do to them what Ice Princess did to the student mafia at the other school.  But Raccoon arranged that,she considered how she would duplicate that, or if she would need to, How do I arrange an invite into the spiders' community web?Asuka asked herself, So I can kill them all where they feel all safe, and superior, and overconfident.  Pay no attention to the red circles and dot, it's not where the bombs are aimed.  Really.  She wished she could take someone along, aside from Erin and Sammi.  There are no civilized people to take along.  Even Ice Princess would be a welcome support,she sighed as she ruminated, I'll take Erin and meet with the girl privately again, and again I'll go armed.

     Not the sabre-halberd! she reminded herself, Killjoy!

     I've already decided not to take my violin, even if I can get the instrument its own guard, she thought, However, I convinced Wondergirl to do the opposite.  "So much for me trying out for the school orchestra," she lamented, "I can get Wondergirl in at least, something to interest her besides NERV, EVAs and Spineless."  I resent someone messing up my plans.  The `pranks` had been destructive, meanspirited and petty, she wondered, Why did they bother with the `demonstration`?  Most of the newcomers had been shunned by the bulk of the school population.  I'll never figure it out, she thought, It would be easier to accept Wondergirl's belief that they are just wrong.  Terrific a pack of psychopaths.


     "Crap!" Captain Ramsey shouted as he stood and began pacing.  Admiral Simson let the outburst go, even if it was his office.

     "Sir, I'm just reporting my suspicions," Erin repeated, glancing at the floor.  Simson knew Juri Kun was watching Asuka, Erin felt she had to report what she had seen and heard.

     "We covered this up once, it isn't going to work again," Ramsey said as he paced furiously.

     "I'm more concerned about how we separate the pilots from this," Admiral Simson said calmly, nodding to Erin, "For the moment both young Mr. Ikari and Saotome, both parts, have escaped their interest."

     "For how long?" Ramsey wondered aloud.

     "My consideration is my principle," Erin said carefully, glancing from the Admiral to the Captain, "What am I supposed to do?  She is very determined, and she is very clever."

     "We could always leak her a copy of the KJ-1 plans.  Let her help the Army," Simson suggested, eliciting a quick smile from Ramsey.

     "I know, except it wouldn't work, but I suspect it would take something like that," Ramsey said, "Besides, she'd probably figure out all the bugs and have them ironed out in less than a week."

     "That still doesn't address the problems, sirs," Erin reminded them quietly.

     "I can't give you any special advice," Simson said, "If you have to, take her out of the city, out beyond the NERV base.  Go `look` for something, admit it's probably a wild goose chase, but get her out of the line of fire."

     "That may not be an optimum solution, unless you can sterilize the area while we're gone."

     "No, I'm not sure we can cover this up as we did the first."

     "Kids playing with that stuff . . . what are they thinking?" Erin asked while she shook her head.

     "When you were that age, wouldn't you have given anything to avoid being picked on?" Simson asked.

     "No, I picked the worst bully and put him in the hospital.  Nobody knew it was me, but word got around, bullies are cowards," Erin said fiercely, "Hitler and Tojo proved that, sending kids to get killed instead of them . . . sorry, sir."

     "If one of these kids ever invites me along on a mission, it'll take a battalion of SP's to keep me out of that cockpit," Simson explained, smiling to Erin.

     "And don't think I wouldn't send them, sir," Ramsey added, "The days of commanding from the up-front front are over."

     The Admiral turned to stare at the Captain in amazement.  "Are you telling me you don't want to at least try it out, Captain?" Simson said.  He was aghast.  Why not?  It's like being at the Right hand of God, or being His Angel of War, Simson remembered, Nothing can harm you, and nothing can stop you.  For all their other troubles, none of the kids has tried to take advantage of that.  God help us all if they do.

     "Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full, sir."

     "You've been hanging around the Marines too long, Captain," Simson joked, "Miss Carter, that might be your answer.  Take her on a tour of the emplacements.  Where the weapons are, what they are, that kind of thing.  Take some officers from `Festung` Command.  Tell her it's a test."

     Erin nodded.  "That might work," Erin admitted, "Thank you, sir."  She stood.  "I'll have to consider the details of transport and who will accompany us as guides and security," she said as she left.

     Once she was gone, Ramsey and Simson exchanged glances.  "So, another scorched earth?" Ramsey asked, "Wipe them all out?"

     "No, we had an ongoing investigation to cover it last time.  Not this time," Simson answered, paused and considered his options.  "This time we'll have to be far more surgical.  I doubt we'll be able to get all of them at once.  That was too much arrogance and a bit of luck, we won't get that again."

     "Use Langley as a way in?" Ramsey offered, then frowned and shook his head.

     "No chance.  The pilots are dangerous enough as it is," Simson said, "Add to it, increase their instability, no.  There's also what hit Ayanami, and I haven't forgotten somebody dropped a mortar attack on the pilots a few weeks back.  We haven't caught them either.  I think you have resources to deploy, it's time we quit treating this as a big war, and start treating this as a guerrilla war."

     Simson and Ramsey sat down to consider their options.


What a Marvelous Place To Drop Ones Mother-In-Law

     "Dr. Akagi," the radioman called to her.

     She took the offered handset.  "Akagi here, over."

     "Doctor," the air controller told her, "One of the spotters saw something unusual, before he got shot down.  Grid reference two-seven-November-Juliet-fifer, can you say again, over."

     "Two-seven-November-Juliet-fifer, got it, over."  Ritsuko pulled out the maps.  "Figures, we're ahead of him," she said disgustedly, then over the radio, "We'll check it out, over and out."  She handed the handset back.  "Sorry troops, we did a little too well.  We'll have to back track to catch him and the armor reinforcements are ahead of us.  So they'll be even slower closing in."

     "I thought joining the Navy meant I didn't have to walk everywhere," a sailor complained as he shouldered his rifle and followed the Marines and soldiers, Japanese and American.

     Ritsuko fell in with them, sharing the map coordinates with Captain Madison.

     "The coordinates are where he's headed, they aren't where they're supposed to be," Madison said, "I have an awful feeling that our enemies had a deeper plan than I thought."

     "What are you thinking?" Ritsuko asked.

     "If only his pistol and Miss Tendo's would affect them, I'd draw them out, use up their ammunition, dangle a resupply in front of them to draw them into a killing zone."

     "Those creatures are long-lived, they wouldn't sacrifice themselves that way," Ritsuko said.  I know of what I speak, she thought.

     "Assuming that there isn't a deeper plan," Madison said, "The EVAs absorb bits of their enemies, the pilot absorbs the rest."

     "Who told you that?" Ritsuko exclaimed.

     "I have eyes, Doctor.  I watched Miss Tendo leap 30 yards out and 10 down, and not smash herself to pieces.  I walked through that crater in Boston, and Davis only had a few scratches on him.  The buildings nearby were in worse shape than he was.  So I, and every one of these men, know that the pilots aren't Government Issue.  So, my point is, maybe these things are getting stronger as their numbers decrease, and pilot Davis is the last.  Then we have to deal with Chaugnar Faugn reborn.  I hope we'll have the EVA before then, because I doubt even these pistols and shotguns will have much effect."

     "We better hurry, because Unit 04 was the one that killed the big guy," she said as they headed off at a jog.


     Toji hadn't expected the odd situation he'd encountered when he went to sleep.  Shinji had been waiting for him, urging him to hurry.  They had rushed through a `landscape`, like clouds strung with pearls that glowed with every color of the rainbow.  He had thought each one was a world all of its own.  He'd thought that was ridiculous, then they'd entered one and found a huge plain with a single old-style building.  They hadn't landed, they just stood still while the plain building rushed towards them.  Then they were standing on the ground.

     Weird, Toji thought.  "Where are we?" Toji asked.

     "Protecting Ranko," Shinji said in a forbidding tone.

     Toji thought that he'd never seen Shinji so grim, he also knew from his friend's tone that there would be no further discussion.  So he waited dismally.  I don't really understand where we are, how we got here, he thought, Or why Shinji has changed so much.  Even in the EVA in that other place he hadn't been this stern.  I don't know why we have to defend Ranko, but I am willing.

     The shadow overhead, and gentle thump behind them, made Toji turn around.  There's nothing there, he thought as he searched the terrain, Dojo, rocks, nothing!  I can't imagine how something so big could just disappear.

     The appearance of the hooded figures was as surprising, but suddenly they were there, and they were solid.  Everybody can do that except me and Shinji, he thought, glanced at the dour warrior who'd replaced his shy friend, Okay, maybe just me.

     "Begone boy!" the voice said, a girl trying to sound like a man by making her voice deeper.

     "No," Shinji said quietly, acting as he only acted in the EVA.

     One of the twenty brown-robed figures extended her hand.  Toji stepped in front of Shinji as the ball raced from her hand towards Shinji.  Toji swung the bat he'd desperately wanted, but hadn't had a second ago.  He fired a line drive back at the `pitcher`.  Okay, I can do it too, Toji thought as he smiled as the pitcher leapt out of the way, as did the others.  The ball exploded in the distance.  The leader raised her hand, summoning a horde of small, eye-watering, clouds of teeth and claws and screams.  The things chittered excitedly.  Toji wanted to run.  He glanced at Shinji who merely looked intently at the creatures.  An anvil dropped from the sky, flattening one creature.  A rain of more anvils pulverized the region the creatures occupied.  The booming laughter that echoed off the distant rocks ran an icy finger up and down Toji's spine.  Toji turned to glance at the huge, black creature he'd seen once before, when it faced the planet Ghroth.  Up close, it seemed too frightening to be real.  Jet black, except for twin yellow eyes that seemed to penetrate everything.  The laughter seemed both mirthful and cruel, laughing at the foolishness of humans and their absurdity.

     "Fool girl, I would not be you for all the worlds!" the huge creature's voice boomed without mirth, filled with derision.

     Toji only wanted to cower under that voice, as the gaze changed from penetrating to wrathful, "You have done what others could never accomplish, and summoned your own doom!"

     Toji cowered as the creature surveyed the landscape.  I'm not going to break down, he promised himself, I'm not going to cry, or fall down and beg for mercy.  'Cause I know it wouldn't work, pride be damned.

     The creature spread his wings, seemingly to the edges of the horizon.  Then one flap launched it into the air, creating a brief hurricane that swirled Toji's hair and seemed not to touch Shinji at all.  Shinji stood glaring at their foes, who shrieked and flapped in all directions, dodging the rain of anvils and the dust and debris that swirled up.  The dust devils pursued the girls, cutting at their clothes and any exposed skin until they were moved out of range and vanished.

     "Is it over?" Toji asked as he nervously looked around.

     Shinji turned back to him, his shy friend was back.  Shinji laughed nervously, "I guess I went a little too far.  They just made me mad."

     The field pockmarked with anvil craters seemed to make his comment the model understatement.

     "Do we stay or go?" Toji asked, there was a brief flash of the other Shinji, the EVA's Shinji.

     "And when Raccoon figures out you were peeping on Ranko?"

     Toji backed up worriedly, "Sour Kraut said that was a skit!"

     "Have you seen them since?"  Shinji smiled, enjoying teasing his friend.

     Toji realized his friend was setting him up.  "Why you!" Toji growled as he tried to grapple his smaller friend.  Shinji laughingly parried and avoided Toji's attempts.  Toji stopped, "You have been studying with Ranma," Toji realized as he stepped back to consider.

     "I've been learning a lot of things," Shinji admitted, then he stopped laughing, "A lot of it wasn't nice.  You're lucky, you'll live your life and never have to pilot.  There are . . . things you don't want to know, things I have to know."  Shinji hung his head, looked ready to cry.

     Toji paused, then acted as if he hadn't heard, "What does she see in him?" he complained.

     Shinji stared at him, then understood.  "He expects more of her, and demands to get it," Shinji said.

     Toji frowned, the idea that Ranko would choose that . . . it irritated and disillusioned him.  "I'm a much better catch than he is," Toji said proudly.

     "But you aren't a catch," Shinji told him.  Toji deflated as his cruel friend continued, "She could practically trip over you.  She wants to chase something that at least tries to get away.  What's the fun of chasing, if it isn't a chase?"

     "You know how to hurt a guy."

     Shinji suddenly sobered.  "Yes, I know . . . I know."  He turned away from Toji.


     Jeff found what he had been looking for, an M7 Priest and the rest of the outer perimeter armor.  Most of the vehicles were collections of burn marks and shrapnel, the mobile howitzer lay on its side, the blackened area around the top of the piece indicated the vehicle had been tipped over and then the rounds had cooked off.  Jeff looked across the open ground from where he had concealed himself.  I can dig through that ground to find what survived . . . he thought as he looked around at the open spaces he'd have to cross and considered all the snipers that could be concealed, Or . . . accept that whatever cooked off the ammo was thorough enough to get the .45 ammo, the 105mm, and all the powder.  All the other heavy vehicles too, same treatment, same fate, same lure.  He looked at a Sherman with its turret sitting a short distance away from the hull.

     "Quit thinking predictably," he told himself as he scanned the carnage for something he could actually use, his eyes fell on a jeep, Crew must have dismounted or been dragged out and killed, but it appears undamaged.  Okay, time to move more efficiently, he thought as he slipped towards it, found one man lying dead next to it, most of his head gone.  Jeff rifled through the man's belt and pockets.  "Ah, ammunition," he said as he reloaded his pistol and one extra clip.  Some instinct made him turn.  Three of the Brothers had appeared.  Jeff took cover behind the jeep, using its hood to assist his aim, he dispatched the first two, changed clips and fired four shots.  The Brother staggered and fell, then slowly pulled himself up.  Jeff emptied the clip into it before it was fully upright.  Not cricket, he thought as it fell and lay still, But they did set the rules as 'ambush and kill'.

     He started the jeep and drove over to the corpses of the Brothers.  "Now that I've got a jeep . . . " he grunted as he lifted the oversized `pistol` into the jeep, "With work I could mount this on the jeep's tripod," he added as he hoisted the second weapon into the jeep.  Once he had the third he went tearing away from the scene.  "Too heavy to carry, but not too heavy to drive," he said, "Now if I were the rest of the reserve armor, where would I be."  He frowned.  "Now's the time I wish I had a radio.  Idiot mage!  Invent a radio spell!"


     Ritsuko watched the jeep roar off.  I don't believe this!she thought as she shouted 'Jeffrey!' after the fleeing vehicle, and Captain Madison tried to get him on the radio.  The rooster tail from the jeep continued to shrink in the distance.

     "Somebody has to be plotting against us," Madison said, "He's got no radio."

     "You think?" Ritsuko snapped, "At least now we know he can outrun them.  And he can carry some of their weapons."

     "You don't think he's going after them do you?"

     "Now that you mention it," Ritsuko said disgustedly, "Come on."  She started marching after the jeep.


     As the sun began lightening the sky to the east, Maya watched the men swinging the entry plug into position.  More than a hundred men were on the lines supporting the A-frames that held the plug in the awkward position that the odd hunched-over posture of the tumbled EVA required.  Only a dozen men were required to keep the plug moving in the right direction.

     "I prefer the heavy equipment at home," Maya murmured in Japanese as she directed them with English cries of 'left', 'right', 'up', and 'down'.  The bulldozer was an attractive option.  Except it would damage the surface and impair the interface, so a poorer sync rate, she admitted to herself in frustration.

     Finally, they had enough of the plug inside the entry port so it could be slid the rest of the way in, without the A-frames.  As the plug stopped after it slid home, a thunderous cheer erupted from the men.

     "Well done," Maya called, remembering the Navy's usual congratulations, "Very well done."  The sound of a police siren announced Nabiki's return.  Maya rushed over to the military command car carrying the pilot.

     "You arrived just in time," Maya told Nabiki in Japanese, glad she could speak and be understood in her own language.  Nabiki looked terrible, the cast and the bandages, and the wrung out expression.

     "You aren't kidding," Nabiki said, pointing to the horizon where a mushroom cloud appeared, "You're coming with," she told Maya tiredly.

     "What?!" Maya yelped at the idea of getting in the L.C.L. again.

     "It's the most protected place," Nabiki told her, "Besides, I can't really move with this cast on my leg."  Nabiki waved several airmen forward, one helped Nabiki limp onto the stretcher they were carrying, then a pair carried her towards the EVA, another `escorted` Maya after her.  "You can coordinate with the air and ground forces," Nabiki added, "They'll be up in force with the sun."

     Maya felt her stomach churning at the thought of the L.C.L., the taste, the smell and the slimy, alive feeling of the liquid.  "It makes me feel like I'm being eaten," Maya complained.

     "How do you think we feel?" Nabiki asked.

     Maya merely followed.  Follow, or be dragged or carried, she thought sourly, Politely of course. She smiled at the airmen and walked to her doom.


     Ritsuko heard the sound of normal gunfire and the odd sounds of the Brothers' return fire, as her force approached the ridgeline.  She threw herself down, and crawled to the ridge top to peer at the battle.  Figures he'd drive into the middle of a firefight,she thought as another explosion and fireball raced into the sky.

     "I think he found the reserve armor," Madison called from further down the ridge, "And they aren't doing well."

     "I think so."  Did he go that way because he's riding to the rescue, or because he wanted to be rescued? she wondered, With any of the pilots, it's a tossup.  Even with her insights into Jeff, she wasn't sure.  She glanced at `her` troops, and knew they were at the end of their endurance, running around all night had taken it out of them.  She returned her gaze to the battle.  It's spread out.  Blue lightning marks the Brothers' weapons.  Answered by the 75's and 76's of the Shermans and Wolverines, she thought, trying her new skills on the scene before her, As well as rifles, machineguns and rifle grenades.  There!  She spotted a blue flash going towards the Brothers, focused in on Jeff down behind an overturned 6x6 truck, firing his captured weapon back at its owners.

     Seems almost as ineffective as anything else, she thought, then looked more closely, Almost being the critical word, it seems a dozen shots and six becomes five.  She watched the Brother fall and begin mouldering away.  She figured the troops, her troops, had had an adequate breather.  And we've got the only weapons that will work, she thought as she crawled backward to where they waited, I hate getting filthy like this.  "Come on," she ordered as she advanced at a trot towards the pilot, as the reserve armor tried to flank the remaining Brothers.  Who were only too happy to let them.  The Brothers seemed more concerned with encircling the only one who was more than a mere nuisance.

     Ritsuko dropped to one knee, took aim, and fired four times.  The Brother kept moving, now angling towards Ritsuko's group.  Ritsuko took aim and hit the monster twice more.  It fell and remained down.  "They are getting tougher," she called.

     Madison had recovered one of the weapons from the Jeep Jeff had used.  The man could barely stagger under the weight.  He aimed at another, after bracing it on a truck.  When he pulled the odd trigger, he was knocked flat by the recoil, as was the Brother who'd been standing only a foot away.  "Okay, that's why he was bracing it inside the wheel well," Madison moaned, as the Brother struggled to its feet, "He's bracing it against the truck's mass."

     "Let's get out there where we can help," Ritsuko said as she exchanged weapons with the Captain, and gunned down the recovering Brother, "That will give us a little more firepower, and a chance to pull our lost lamb back."

     "Ma'am, EVA's on the way," the radioman reported, and ducked an answering shot from one of the Brothers.

     "Better and better," Ritsuko said grimly, "Smoke!"  She pointed towards Jeff.

     The soldiers laid down a smokescreen as the force leapfrogged forward.  They reached Jeff's position.

     "Davis we need - !" Madison accepted Jeff's .45, passing back the fully loaded Le Mat, another soldier took the Brother's weapon from Jeff, braced it and aimed.  Madison loaded a fresh clip.

     "There."  Jeff pointed into the smookescreen.  "They'll come from there."

     "Stay down until they show themselves," Ritsuko ordered as the other soldiers took cover where they could, and took aim with the shotguns and the last of the two Brothers' weapons.  "Prepare to fire, pistols only.  Hold the shotguns until you have a clear target," she ordered.

     She glanced down, a soldier had taken the Le Mat from Jeff.  The pilot offered no protest, and a medic was tending the pilot's wounds.  Jeff didn't protest that either.  It wooried Ritsuko.

     Two Brothers walked side-by-side out of the fading smoke.  Ritsuko fired as did the two Marines who'd braced their weapons against the jeep they had taken cover behind.  The pair of monsters each took four or five shots from each of the hand cannons and almost a dozen shots from the pistols before they fell and stayed down.  Ritsuko looked around for the last two through the fading smokescreen.  She saw the last one, it had eviscerated its brother and now walked towards a damaged M20 scout car.  "Scatter!" Ritsuko shouted as she realized what would happen next.  The armored car sailed through the air and smashed into the truck many had been hiding behind.  The medic and the radio man had grabbed Jeff and carried him away at a run.  Ritsuko saw the last Brother standing amid a fusillade of fire.  She knelt and added her pistol's fire to the deluge of metal and explosives striking the creature, seemingly to no effect.  Even the handcannons they'd scavenged had little effect.

     The last Brother advanced straight towards the fleeing medic/radio man/pilot trio.  One shotgunner slipped in behind the creature and fired both barrels into it, before rolling away to avoid the counterstrike.  The Brother continued to march, the other shotgunner fired straight into its face.  The Brother ignored both men, it's only target was in front of it.

     Damn! Ritsuko realized, It's gotten all the others, it's only missing one.  A Wolverine hit it with a round, then the tank destroyer charged and crashed into the creature as it stood up from where the impact had thrown it.  The Wolverine's engine raced and its treads sprayed dirt and rocks, but it still moved backward.

     "Set up here!" Ritsuko ordered as the Wolverine rolled over on one side.  The Brother surveyed them all as it walked patiently after its prey.  Ritsuko fired as it approached.  The soldiers, from the pistoleers, to shotgunners, to hand cannoneers, all fired as fast as they could.  The blast of a bazooka sounded, and the explosion of the round dropped the creature to its knees, then it fell onto its face.

     Ritsuko saw Jeff kneeling next to the bazooka team.  He held up a bottle.  "It works!" he called.

     Damn showboating, she thought.

     They turned as Unit 04 appeared.

     "It's over there!  Cover it!" Ritsuko ordered as she headed towards Jeff.

     "Is . . . is it dead?" he asked tiredly as she knelt next to him.

     "Yeah," she told him, sitting down next to him.  The bazooka team moved off.  The pulverizing sound, as Unit 04 ground the creature under its foot, confirmed it.  "Yeah, it's dead," Ritsuko gulped and said as Unit 04 examined its handiwork.  She looked closely as he seemed to sag and draw in on himself.  "Are you all right?"

     "Just give me a moment," he replied, he looked at her and smiled wanly, "At least something worked, right?"

     She shifted next to him, putting her arm around his shoulder and pulling him against her.  "Take whatever time you need."

     He seemed to relax as he leaned against her.  The soldiers moved around, searching for any other targets.  A few glanced at the immense warmachine that stood in their midst.  They are realizing the war is right here, Ritsuko thought, On their home soil.  Other soldiers maintained a perimeter around Ritsuko and Jeff.

     She felt the young man breathing slowly, relaxing as he accepted that he was safe, so were those he cared about.


     Nabiki looked over the scene and felt a stab of jealousy that hurt worse than all her physical injuries combined.  I know it's unworthy . . . but that should be me down there,she thought as Jeff huddled in Ritsuko's arms, But I didn't want anything to do with him.  Because I was repelled by the things he's willing to do to defend the people he loves.  I got what I wanted, he sent me off.  Because that's what I said I wanted, and he believed me.

     Nabiki clenched her fist, and released it as pain shot through her wrist, then she realized she was unconsciously causing Unit 04 to exhibit her emotional turmoil.  Great, she thought, Let the machine show you're having a temper tantrum in here.  Be happy for him, he's with a woman who loves him.  But . . . would Ranma ever accept being vulnerable and cuddling . . . that closeness I want.  She sighed.

     "Any sign of the others?" Maya asked.

     "None that I can see," she replied, glancing around the battlefield, but her eyes kept returning to the scene of a man and a woman in each others' arms.  Not kissing, no `romance`, she thought hungrily, But comfortable with and trusting each other.  Congratulations, you won what you said you wanted, you lose.


     Nabiki looked down out of her wheelchair at the body of her fellow pilot, as he lay in his bunk.  She tapped her cast.  "Quite a pair, more weight in bandages and plaster than in the bodies inside."  She waited for him to react, when he just lay unmoving, she continued, "You know, for someone so certain I was going to die," she said tightly, "You sure look awfully like a blood sacrifice practice dummy."

     "Dummy's right.  I never ran out of ammunition before," Jeff replied as he opened his eyes and looked at her, "I guess that's why normal people are always so nervous."

     "You gave me a third of your supply," she told him as she drew herself up as haughtily as she could, and tried to hide her wince, "You didn't have to do that.  You knew they'd be after you, not me."  Her leg ached, and other stirrings were bothering her, the smell of his blood and hers not the least of them.

     "No, I knew they'd be after me in preference to you, but I didn't expect near exclusivity.  That's why I gave you one box, not two."

     "You could have let me die," she told him, struggling to keep her voice from breaking.  Dammit, she thought, Stay in control, we're just talking!

     "I'm not them, I have no right to do that," he said tiredly and covered his face with his arms, "I am sick to death of watching people die, of losing people.  I've seen too many go, always questions in their eyes, of 'why?', 'why me?', 'what's next?' as if I were some oracle, as if I had some idea besides what every religion has already written on the subject.  So, I decided to be an idiot again.  Fine, I don't care anymore.  Better me than you."  He turned and lowered his arms to stare at her.  "I don't care what you or anyone else thinks.  I'm tired of it all.  I can't go home, I can't return to the past.  And I can't just let it all go."

     Nabiki nodded.  Why can't I tell him what I feel?  He knew they were after him, and he intentionally drew them off, off the soldiers, away from me, purposefully.  I should be angry at his chivalric chauvinism, or all melty that 'my knight sacrificed himself', but that's not what I feel, it isn't even close.  I fought them as long and hard as I could, and it wasn't enough.  That seems to be the mantra around here: 'Your best isn't good enough', she considered.  "So what about the lessons?" she asked.  Just to have something to say, she thought disgustedly of her inability to say what she wanted to say, to act on any of the conflicting impulses that were plaguing her.

     "Tomorrow, in the meantime, I'd like to rest," he said, "My magic can't fix these injuries and letting them heal naturally is taking a toll on me."

     "Okay," Nabiki said and rolled out.  The Marine guards braced as she rolled past.  "As you were," she said almost without thinking, so they wouldn't offer to push her.  I don't know where I want to go, she thought, No, I know exactly where I want to go, I just don't know what I should do when I get there.  She sighed and dreaded the `walk` through the barracks car.  Brown Bess will roll through the barracks car, I think I left Nabiki Tendo, the Ice Queen of Furiken, somewhere in Panama.  I had to get out of there.  Watching him lie there nearly helpless, smelling his blood, and mine . . . part of me wanted to tear his chest open and feast on his beating heart, part of me wanted to . . . show my subservience in some unmistakable way.  The human parts of me couldn't decide if I should be furious because he `saved` me, or overjoyed he'd recover and teach me magic.  She sighed and rolled into the barracks car, it was a makeshift infirmary for the injured NERV personnel.  I'm hurt worse than some of these people in here.  But I'm too stubborn to just lie in bed.  I can feel the looks, the keen interest, she thought, Not in a pretty girl, but in `Brown Bess`, warrior, planner and killer of foes.  The flint arrowhead at her breast seemed to weigh her down as she nodded to a technician here, a word to a soldier there.  Each happy that `Bess` knows their names, a little about them, she considered, Same tricks I used in Nerima, yet to such a different effect here.  I have changed.  More than I had ever thought possible, more than I wanted to.  I can't go home either, I know that, I'd never stand for all the nonsense that made me so much money.  I'd hate it.  Nabiki, like `Bess` is just an identity, but like the people I helped rescue and locate, I was to 'hold until relieved', except I was that relief.  I was hope, and the certain knowledge that help was following right behind.  I never thought anything of my actions, I just took them.  Despite a compound fracture of the leg, two sprained wrists, popped ribs and a dozen other injuries, I just couldn't turn away.  The others, kids not much older than me, they were ready to stand until dead, I couldn't do any different.  I couldn't let so many be `better`, braver, than me.

     She exited the barracks car and continued to her cabin/berth.  And this, it's a different car, yet I know all my stuff will be laid out exactly like it was in the other cabin, and if I can't reach something, a soldier will get it for me.  What have I done to deserve that?  Acted out of anger, stubbornness and pride?  Worse than Ranma at his worst.  Worse than Ryoga or Genma or Kuno.  I acted out of offended pride.  I wanted to get revenge on the ones who hurt me and my friends.  So when I had the chance, when I had my enemy at my mercy - I didn't just kill him, I ground him into hamburger underfoot.  I would have slaughtered a hundred, if there had been a hundred.  Even if . . . exactly what Raccoon did.  All my accusations, and when the tables were turned, I acted the exact same way.  I'm a hypocrite, not a hero.  An angry, scared kid who wanted to hurt the ones who'd hurt me.  When did that become noble?

     In front of her cabin was a Marine, female and armed.  She looks like she'd be a match for anyone outside of the Nerima Wrecking Crew, Nabiki thought as the woman saluted with her rifle.

     "Thank you. ma'am," the woman with the nametag 'Smith' said as Nabiki went into her room, "If you need anything, I'll be here."

     "You're welcome, Corporal, and thank you.  I'd really like a hot bath and a good stiff drink.  Neither are available to me." Nabiki replied with a smile as she closed the door behind her.

     Any vestige of `Brown Bess` fell away as Nabiki rolled to a stop, gripping her good leg tightly against her chest, ignoring the twinges from her ribs.  She let the events of the day descend on her en masse.  The Ice Queen doesn't cry, she thought as her tears wetted her knee, At least I can keep quiet.  She let herself silently cry until she could deal with the enormity of it all again.

     Not fair, not fair.  I thought I could trust . . . but who can I trust?  Ritsuko and Maya? Ranma?  A boy who's sure I'm going to die?  I might have died, if not for what I was, she thought, But what I was, isn't what I've now become.  She pulled the arrowhead necklace up so she could stare at it.  "What I was, isn't what I am," she said bitterly, "My friends keep spoon-feeding me little doses of reality, just enough for me to get used to the taste, but not enough to qualify me as one of the `adults`."

     She pressed the arrowhead's sharp edge hard into the heel of her hand.  The edge is sharp enough to cut paper in the air, she remembered that last trick she'd tried with it.

     He wasn't dead, she thought as she pressed harder, drawing the blade over her skin, Dozens of bullets and blasts, and he was just stunned, until I ground him under foot.  Me, Nabiki Tendo, 5th Children, pilot of Unit 04.  Each one we killed, made the rest stronger, that one was the last, it had the strength of all the rest.  She looked at the flint arrowhead dimpling her skin, leaving not a bruise or even a pale spot to mark its passage.  And no blood, not a scratch, she thought as she ran a finger over the unblemished skin, I killed him, a helpless foe the others had nearly dispatched, a victory handed to me on a silver platter.  The accumulation of all the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn.  A thing nearly as powerful as what Raccoon faced on his first sortie, faced without my training, faced without my experience, yet he defeated something as ancient and as terrible as that.  Then he had to deal with its memories, thoughts and feelings, and its powers.  I got it all too, but I didn't earn it.  I only killed it after the others had ridden it into the ground.  I made a deal with Belldandy and didn't look beyond the obvious, now it's going to hang over me, no wonder she knew I couldn't disobey, as soon as I did, I lost her protection.  Of course, now I have my own.  And all the filthy, unclean feelings and memories crawling through my mind and soul to go with it.  And Maya's the cock-of-the-walk because she got the EVA ready and helped to lead me in, Nabiki thought, I wonder how much of that thing she got, or is it just the Children who absorb these things?

     Nabiki shifted herself into the bunk and pulled the covers over her battered and sore body.  She stared at her unmarked hand, then at the ceiling.  So now I'm one of them, she thought, But I didn't earn it.  I'm going to earn my magic, and my place with the others.


     Sarah looked over at her friends Arty and Morgan, the entire teaching staff from the Primary and Grammar schools were in their full robes, the schools' students were in their best uniforms.  Shined and polished,she thought, I just wish I could wear a robe instead of a uniform.  The seams and woolen cloth abraded and irritated her skin.  You'd think with magic and everything else they teach here, they could invent clothing that doesn't itch so much!  At least with a robe I could get away with wearing the clothes underneath inside out, put the scratchers on the outside,she thought as she concentrated on the people around her, rather than the constant irritation of the clothes.

     The professors were all in their robes and mortarboards.  The noise dominated the room.  That even the most senior teachers were adding to, it worried her.

     "The Lord High Executioner seems as lost as the rest of us," she mentioned the Assistant Headmaster's flustered expression to Arty.

     "That's not all Snow White," Arty replied, "Some of those are ex-pupils, not regular profs."

     Sarah nodded at her nickname and looked at some of the other students, some friends, some rivals, some she didn't have contact with.

     Then a silence swept through the room.  Sarah was shorter than many of the students, she couldn't see the reason for the sudden hush.

     "It's the Headmistress," someone murmured in awe.

     "Be seated," the woman commanded quietly.  The students and teachers sat in unison.  The woman was a figure of legend at the school, often spoken of in whispers, but rarely seen by anyone.  The question of how a woman could be Headmistress at a mixed school had been answered by those two words.

     I don't think anyone could argue with her, Sarah thought, This isn't a spell, it's just her personality.

     It was always a friend of a friend who met with her or spotted her, Sarah remembered as she looked at the woman, the aura of quiet power radiated out and subdued the crowd, She's old, but how old is impossible to tell.  Sarah shuddered as the woman's eyes rested on her for an instant, before traveling on.  She saw several dozen others similarly affected.  Sarah noted the single blue stripe on her sleeve, from her shoulder to her wrist, unlike any of the professors.  She wore no school tie, so her alma mater remained a mystery.  The woman finished her survey of the crowd, walked to the lectern and stood behind it. Careworn, Sarah thought, But still able.

     "Despite admonishments to pupils . . . and faculty . . . some of you have found out, others of you may have guessed, but I'm officially announcing . . . the Severn Valley situation is deteriorating."

     Conversations erupted throughout the hall.  The Headmistress allowed the outburst.

     Sarah had already suspected as much.  You can't hide having two senior teachers and twelve Fourth-form students under constant sedation for two weeks, she thought, But we all thought they put the Severn Valley back to sleep.  Not that they failed!

     "The information is of course, restricted," she began again, and the entire assembly fell silent, "I'm afraid I have a dreadful request to make.  We have limited our . . . field trips to teachers and senior-most Grammar forms.  Now we are going to have to draw in our strongest, regardless of school or form, I would like any volunteers . . . "  She looked at the entire student body as they stood and raised their hands, the only teachers who hadn't also raised their hands were too infirm to make the trip.

     "Thank you," the Headmistress told them, "Be seated.  It is very gratifying.  Any of you who are not selected, it is no reflection on your abilities, or your bravery."  There were murmurs, but no protests.

     Sarah kept silent.  I think I can get some real help out here, she thought, Not just stop-gaps.  She wondered about getting an interview with the Headmistress.  And how do I avoid giving away too much?  She glanced at her friends and forged a plan.


     "Miss ggreg," the Headmistress's greeting was cool, but not unfriendly.

     Sarah dug her nails into her palms, to keep from glancing around the office while she waited for permission to speak.  Sarah couldn't keep isolated images out of her peripheral vision, just bits and pieces: a bit of planking, a Tommy's uniform with the gas mask, a war chariot in the background.  Keep staring at the floor!  Keep staring at the floor! she told herself, she could feel the pain from her hands warring with her curiosity, Not fair, Rei got and gets to look at and examine everything, I can't even look at an older person without permission.  No, that's not accurate, it just seems that way.

     "Miss ggreg, please glance around.  Before you injure yourself.  You also have not used your telepathy outside of your lessons, an admirable self-restraint."

     "Yes, Headmistress," Sarah said, utterly mortified at having been found out, now she needed no help in keeping her head down.

     "Also our conversation will be distracted, if you are attempting to catch glimpses while we are speaking," she told Sarah in an amused tone, "Please look around, it must be quite a problem to be 'eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity'."

     "Headmistress, I apologize, I've . . . " Sarah stammered, "I have never been in here, I have heard all the stories."  The whole collection looked like a museum crammed into one large room.  From pre-Roman times to the Spitfire, she realized.  In the middle of the Headmistress's desk was a stand with small flags.  The Union Jack at the center, the flags of the Empire, but the United States' flag was also in the set, with its 48 stars.

     "Yes, a magpie's hoard of an old woman's memories," she said and smiled, which relaxed Sarah.  "You are here to make a suggestion, I am here to hear it. Please make it," she said with a hint of sharpness.

     That snapped Sarah back.  "Headmistress, I have friends among the EVA pilots.  I am certain I could convince them to take our case directly to Admiral Simson," she said respectfully, "I believe the EVAs, or pilots for Unit 03, would recover the Severn Valley situation.  My friends are with the mission crossing the United States right now.  Perhaps they could be diverted here."

     "Perhaps you should check with your friends, Miss Tendo and Master Davis, on their availability at the moment," the Headmistress told her.

     "I . . . I do not know that for certain, Headmistress," Sarah said, "With respect, Headmistress, they might still make the attempt to be our advocates, if I asked them," Sarah said, still staring at the edge of the desk.

     "Very well, prepare your letter, and return here with it.  Good day."

     Sarah knew she'd been dismissed, she gave a bob and backed out of the room.  She closed the door behind her carefully, before she nearly collapsed.  The Headmistress has called me back, and is going to go over one of my letters?! she thought, Trying to pilot Unit 03 myself doesn't sound so bad.

     "Wake up, Snow White, or no apples for you."  Arty had found her.  "Isn't your dad flying in today?"

     "You're right! I - !"

     "Have to calm down, my family's car is waiting," Arty told Sarah while smirking.

     "Fine."  Sarah frowned at her friend.  "For the apple, I'll send the dwarves after you. Once I've changed."

     "Right-o," Arty told her.



Chapter 52 - Filthy Gaijin

The character Janice Berkley was created by Rory McLean, and is used with his full permission.

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.

     Shinji destroys the Mi-Go's moonbase, but cannot see them and isn't affected by their counterattacks.  He releases many of the minds in their containers.  On Yuggoth, he meets with Jeff and Sharon, getting some insights into the real nature of the pilots.

     The troops of the Bennington, who will accompany NERV forces to U.S.S. Boxer, give `Brown Bess` a flint to put between her teeth.

     Ranma begins developing individual arts for each pilot to incorporate their natural inclinations, strengths and weaknesses.

     The Scholarly Dragon and Jeff are thrown out of the Council of Dragonmages for their plans to teach Nabiki.

     Toji has a nightmare just before the school day begins.  Rei investigates the school, diagrams the security aspects.  Misato is pardoned, ending the Senator's inquiry.

     Nabiki infiltrates Jeff's dreams, first she is defeated by the Urchin and the Monolith, then she sees Jeff becoming a Master mage, she goes deeper into his past to learn the breakthrough that enabled him to achieve Master.  Lastly Nabiki and Ritsuko relive and are traumatized by the murder of Ritsuko-Nabiki and Jeff's massacre of the Phoenixi.

      Several of the students are revealed.  The initial meeting between the pilots and Usagi's group does not go as Usagi planned.  Rei is also shocked that some students insist she is the pilots' leader, her shock deepens as Asuka facilitates the error.  Rei then confronts and defeats Tomoe using Ranma's tactics and training.

     Ranma tells Asuka that he's sensed something new, something he doesn't understand, he also admits he can't live up to people's expectations.

     Jeff awakens from his stupor on the train, he and Nabiki tease each other. Nabiki is feeling extremely homesick. She is also extremely uncomfortable with the insights she's gotten into her fellow pilot.

     Jeff begins developing two new weapons to use against the Mythos enemies when the train is attacked by the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn, lesser versions of the Great Old One.

     Ritsuko and Maya race back from an aborted meeting with Jeff's parents to organize the resistance, the search for the pilots, and the repair of the EVAs for later use.

     The tensions between the pilots in Tokyo and the cultists begin ratcheting up. The cultists haze the pilots and their allies, and pilots plan to strike back, including Asuka going head-to-head with Usagi, the cultist leader.

     Ritsuko leads a rescue force, recovering Nabiki and searching for Jeff. Nabiki has been severely wounded, but desperately wants back in the fight. Nabiki unease about how she is perceived versus the reality begins to grow

     Rei detects that another force is intervening in the ongoing conflicts. Later Ranma detects the same enemy and helps Sammi engage it.

     Sammi realizes that situation is more complicated, the enemy is more sophisticated and there are possible allies she hadn't considered.

     Admiral Simson begins taking a more personal interest in the pilots and their development.

     Toji and Shinji repulse an attack on Ranma's dreamscape, both show unexpected aptitude.

     Sarah, in England, learns that the situation in the Severn Valley has deteriorated beyond what she had known, she offers her services to bring the pilots to aid operations, her offer is accepted.

Undertaker - They say he isn't fit to be buried there.
Salesman - What?  In Boot Hill?!
Henry - There's nothing up there but murders, cutthroats and derelict old barflies, and if they ever felt exclusive, brother they're past it now.
Undertaker - They happen to be white, friend.  And old Sam . . . old Sam was an Indian.
Henry - Well I'll be damned.  I never knew you had to be anything but a corpse to get into Boot Hill.  How long's this been going on?
Undertaker - Since the town got `civilized`.  Oh it's not my doing, boys, I don't like it, no sir.  I've always treated every man the same, just as another future customer.

The Magnificent Seven - William Roberts

Mislike Me Not For My Complexion

August 7, 1947

     "The key to using magic is the application of power," Jeff told Ritsuko, Nabiki and Maya as the four of them sat within the protective circle, "The Great Old Ones used a series of mental disciplines and attitudes to generate certain effects.  The spoken words of most spells are mnemonics to create these mental attitudes automatically.  The problem is that humans aren't Great Old Ones, and neither are dragons, that's one reason that magic isn't the great, grand showy thing you read about in novels."

     "They aren't compatible," Nabiki said, "But you touched the source of all magic."

     "So did you," Ritsuko said angrily, "That's why you nearly died!  Both of you!"

     "That means you two both received close encounters second-hand, so you have no excuse not to master the entire process," Jeff replied.

     Ritsuko squirmed and stared daggers at Maya's swiftly hidden giggle.  "That explains why I'm here," Ritsuko asked, "Why is Analyst Ibuki?"

     "He wants to see if the lessons give Maya a chance to learn," Nabiki said.

     "No, we need someone who isn't experimenting, to keep an eye on us all," Jeff said, "For reasons which should be obvious."

     "I won't let anything happen to you, Sempai," Maya said, taking Ritsuko's hand, causing the scientist to blush furiously.

     "And don't give us any of this 'I can't learn' business, just because shoggoths aren't typically spell casters," Jeff said, "Universitè Renè Descartes issued a diploma to Ricardo Akagi, so while Misato and Kaji were in Germany, you were in France getting your doctorate, disguised as a man."

     "Very well," Ritsuko said, "How did you find out?"

     "Spirits, deals," Jeff said, "SEELE has left a path of dead bodies as they manipulated things, many of those killed were left with business undone."

     "So you did their business, so you can give SEELE the business," Ritsuko said, "So how do you avoid that?"

     "Don't leave people willing to do you some last injury when they die," Jeff said with a shrug.

     "Why is everybody looking at me?!" Nabiki shouted at the others as they stared at her.  She frowned at all of them in turn.

     "I invoke the protection of the 5th Amendment," Jeff said, Ritsuko and Maya nodded.

     "Are you sure the Constitution isn't a suicide pact?" Nabiki asked sweetly as she cracked her knuckles.

     "Do you know how to cause your teeth to spontaneously detonate?" Jeff asked, just as sweetly.

     "No."

     "I - do."

     Nabiki gave them a tightlipped smile.  "Okay, I won't kill you," she said, "Until we're back in International waters.  Isn't that generous of me?"

     "The lesson here is a simple scrying spell," Jeff said, "Being able to view things and people at a great distance.  Or hear, or smell, or even taste, but that's going beyond the limits I want to deal with this time."

     "That would be one way to see if a restaurant really lives up to its reputation," Maya smiled and suggested.

     "The reason I called you all here at 22:30, is that I had one thing I think all of us would like to look in on," Jeff said.

     "Ranma and the others," Nabiki said eagerly.

     "Exactly," Jeff said and nodded.

     "They are going to a new school," Ritsuko said, "Can the spell compensate for the distance?"

     "The spell will home in on people we know, rather than a set location," Jeff explained, "So we don't have to know their coordinates."

     "Let's try it," Nabiki said, "How do I cast it?"  She rubbed her hands together eagerly.

     "You don't, I do," Jeff said sternly, ignored Nabiki sticking her tongue out at him.  He began making passes and speaking words none of the others recognized.

     Maya covered her ears and hunched her shoulders.

     "You okay?" Nabiki asked quietly, leaning towards Maya.

     "Something about those words is just . . . wrong," the woman admitted in frightened tones, she lowered her hands, but still looked uncomfortable.

     "Okay, school's coming up.  It's raining."  Between them a large sphere formed, hazily showing the sights of an afternoon in faraway Tokyo.  "It will take a moment to clear up, then . . . "


     Ranma hit them first, eight men clustered around Asuka.  Sammi and Tomiyo hit them right behind him.  Mirei and Hikari held back at the edges of the fray, with Rei ready to move where she was needed.  Erin lay on the pavement, her hair stained red, the red patch beneath her spreading in the rain water.

     "What's happening?" Maya asked, looking from face to grim face around her, faces both here and in Tokyo.

     With the guards' arrival and victory, the crowd that had gathered, turned their attention elsewhere.  Ranma had finished three opponents by the time Sammi had finished two, Tomiyo a sixth.  While one of the more foolish had seen the three girls hanging back, and decided he needed a hostage.  Rei had taken exception to this.  Even through the sphere, his screams indicated he'd more than learned his lesson.  The last of the eight men still held Asuka off the ground by the throat.

     "Where are the guards?" Ritsuko growled, seemingly ready to leap through the sphere and into the fray.

     "Back off or she suffers!" the man bellowed.  Asuka's blackened eyes, torn school uniform, and bruises told them all that she'd already suffered.  Ranma growled, Rei advanced, drew her pistol and calmly pulled the trigger.  The few stragglers of the crowd scattered.

     "Where the Hell are the minders?" Ranma shouted as he lifted Asuka, who was trying her best not to cry or react.

     "They were . . . they said . . . "  Asuka shook her head, covered her face.

     Maya saw the fury on Jeff's face, his hands clenching and unclenching, his ferocity was mirrored on Nabiki and Sempai.  Thousands of miles separating them from any ability to affect the events.

     A jeep drove onto the scene.  "NERV SAR, Janice Berkley," the woman said and held up her ID, before she climbed from the jeep.  She looked as terrified by the expressions of the guards and pilots as Maya was.

     "Let's get back to NERV," Janice told them as she pulled a wirebasket stretcher from the jeep.  She gestured for Hikari and Rei to follow her to Erin.

     Asuka had burrowed into Ranma's shoulder while he looked around for something, anything, that might be a threat.  Sammi and Tomiyo also scanned the area with their eyes and their weapons.

     "Get her into the jeep," Janice ordered as she positioned Mirei and Rei around Erin, "ON three, lift.  One, two, three."  They placed Erin in the stretcher.  Hikari looked on the verge of hysterics.  She kept looking at the blood she was standing in, even as the pouring rain washed it away.

     "NERV Headquarters," Sammi ordered, while the other pilots and guards piled into the jeep.  Rei moved to stay, once she had set the stretcher in its mounting points.  Mirei gently pushed her back into the jeep.  She pulled her hand back as Rei stared sharply at her.  Mirei glanced at her own guard, who had stayed out of NERV business.

     "We'll do that later," Mirei promised.  She looked frightened by the mood of the NERV people.

     Maya looked desperately at the stricken faces around her.  I'm as scared as the girl, she thought, Look at them.  What can any of us do?

     "Shinji wouldn't do anything, Ranma will just beat them up," Nabiki said as she icily analyzed the unfolding events, "But Rei, Jeff and I - we play by an entirely different set of rules."

     The girl's tone terrified Maya even more.  The four of them silently watched the pilots and guards ride in equal silence.  Only Asuka's occasional whimpers broke the quiet in both places.

     I don't know why she doesn't cry.  I would be sobbing by now, Maya thought, she looked around again, and found no emotion, except anger.  She tried to shy away from all three of them, It's confounding.  I guess they remain silent for their own reasons.  Rei is Rei, Sempai and I don't know what to say.  Jeff and Ranma seem to be caught between fury, and tenderness to Asuka.  Ranma made the girl comfortable, Jeff longs to, but both are simply smoldering, Maya thought, I too wish I could do something, both for them and us here.

     No people awaited the group at the public entrances to the NERV med center.  Maya watched Asuka insist she could walk. But she didn't divest herself of Ranma's arm, Maya noted silently, She's still leaning on it while they walk, and poor Ranma doesn't know what to do, except what she's doing.

     "That's it I won't watch anymore."  Jeff broke the spell and charged from the room.

     "Jeff, Jeffrey!" Sempai leapt to her feet and raced after him.

     Maya glanced at Nabiki, who stared hatefully at where the images had been.  Maya decided not to say anythingWhat are you thinking? Maya wanted to ask, but held her tongue.


     The arrival at the medical bay caused a controlled madness.  Ranma objected to being separated from Asuka.  He and Rei were quickly interrogated about what had happened.  As soon as they were released, Rei ran off at her best speed, before Ranma could escape, he was caught again.  Misato was furious that the girl had left.

     "What did you think you were doing?  You are supposed to remain here!" Misato reminded him.

     "Why?!" Ranma shot back, "Your Security really helped us today."  I don't care what she says or does, Ranma fumed as he marched away, I want . . . I want to charge out of here, hunt down those bastards and drag them back here for Stoneface to work them over.  He stopped walking and glanced around. But even here, I can't trust Asuka will be safe, he thought in frustration.  He looked around, tossing his mane of red hair, he took a long deep breath to calm down, Since I'm stuck as a girl, I can stick close to Asuka, and hope whatever Rei is doing works.  I wish Nab-chan, Rit-chan and Raccoon knew about this, they'd know what to do, this is their kind of fight, not mine.  Ranma stormed through the halls, circling where Asuka was being treated.  On one pass, he spotted Rei's pistol and her NERV I.D. card. She left them behind, he realized.  The .45's cylinder was empty, and the pistol's action was open neatly, almost aesthetically place alongside her I.D..  What are you doing? he angrily demanded of the missing pilot, Such a simple, quiet day.  Bored in school, again.  Ranma remembered that the only harassment had been classroom cleanup duty for the pilots all together.  Except Asuka traded a day with Hikari, so she left early, he thought morosely, I thought she was going to go watch Rei get into the orchestra.  Something about Asuka not being with us bothered me, but I thought the guards would be ample protection.  They always said I'm stupid, proof-positive today.  Can't trust them, can't trust any of them!  He looked at the new divots in the concrete walls, then down at his dusty knuckles which fit perfectly in the dents.

     Then I heard the scream, Ranma remembered as he resumed circling, looking for any threat, anything that would hurt Asuka anymore, something to vent his frustration on.  I almost wish something would show up.  But on the off-chance I couldn't stop it, better nothing happens.

     I wouldn't bet I heard Asuka's scream with my ears, but I heard it clear enough.  We dropped what we were doing and ran out, the cleanup job half done.  Rei plotted the course, speeding ahead of the rest of us.  I thought they hated each other, but the way Rei was moving - there was nothing going to stop her.  We ran to the rescue.  Asuka and the Meliorist's lessons, us attacking with perfect coordination, without any signal as soon as we came in sight.  We did it perfectly, she might have been proud.  Didn't do her much good though.


     Ritsuko's search found Jeff sitting next to Unit 04.  She wondered, When did those macabre monstrosities become a source of comfort for the pilots?  He simply stared out into the darkness, not watching the terrain race by.  Most others would have missed him in the darkness, Ritsuko thought, But not me.

     She approached carefully, looking for some signal that she was welcome or unwelcome.  I've got a plan to deal with either reaction, she thought as she closed in step by step.  She sat next to him, he didn't react to her presence.  Might as well be a statue, she thought.  She raised a hand to touch him, then dropped it back to her side.

     Instead, "There's nothing we can do, until we're back in Tokyo," she said flatly.

     "Of that, I am aware," he replied without emotion.

     "Other than the bruises, and the bad hair cut, I doubt she was seriously hurt," Ritsuko said.  You've got plans, just not one that would work without too high a cost, she realized.

     "Erin will be dead within the week," he replied quietly, "And Asuka will blame herself for that.  There remains nothing I can do about that either.  I certainly can't change the hearts and minds of those who merely stood by and did nothing.  I must say, it does graphically explain how the militarists took control."

     "I don't think that they did anything wrong," Ritsuko said.  What I'd like to know is where was NERV security?  Under no circumstances should they have allowed the pilots to walk into that ambush, and the pilots and their personal guards shouldn't have been the only available rescue force.

     "They did nothing, except enjoy the show," he coldly replied, "While all I could do was watch.  Somehow it doesn't balance."  He dipped his head to his knees.

     "It isn't your job to protect her from everything."  She put a hand on his shoulder, wishing she could draw out the emotional poison in him

     "Ha!" he said mirthlessly as he looked at her, "You should know different."  He extended his hand.  "As I sat in a hospital bed in Wyoming, I stretched forth my hand and plucked her and Anna out of Communist-held Germany."  He closed his fist on the empty air.  His smile became a frown as he stared at her in the darkness.

     I know he did this, from my memories, Ritsuko thought, And I know how he longs to do it again.  But he can't, and there's nothing I can say to make it better.  Even if we were there, there's nothing we could do, except what appeared to be going on.

     "This time I can't fix it.  No spell, or stolen memory, or ancient power, or ally can undo what was done.  So the idea these powers are for anything other than fighting and killing . . . just another stupid idea I had."  He stood up suddenly.  "I don't feel like talking, I want to be left alone."

     She reached out, but he easily evaded her grip and headed back `inside`.  She glanced at the EVA.  "You certainly were a help," she complained as she stood. And being alone is a terrible idea, she thought as she stood to pursue him.


     Maya walked behind Nabiki as she rolled.  It's so strange, I know it happened thousands of miles away, but because I watched it, I've got this irrational desire to call out security, she thought as the girl in the wheelchair sat unmoving outside her cabin, Is she afraid to go in?  Or does she want to do something?  As I do.

     Why can't I just say something, anything? she thought to herself, Say something!  "I don't understand why Asuka was attacked."  She nearly slapped her own face.  That was stupid, she thought.

     "They did nothing," Nabiki said coldly, as if discussing a newspaper article, "I suppose because she is different."

     "You mean, the guards . . . or the crowd?" Maya asked carefully.  I've got lots of experience `being different`, Maya thought, I got 'the tallest nail is hammered down' speech I don't know how many times.  Until I started to believe it.  Then I met Sempai, the Commander . . . and you pilots . . . you all would break the hammer, then beat up the wielder.  Maybe it isn't the best way, but it's a different way.

     "The crowd . . . our countrymen," Nabiki said, "When they needed her . . . when they didn't . . . "

     "You're taking this to heart, I don't think you should.  We don't know all of what transpired," Maya said.  That sounds foolish even to me, she thought, What could Asuka have possibly done to face off against eight, large men?  Why her and not someone else?

     "You're right, we follow orders," Nabiki said, "That reminds me, I need to be at the Teikoku Bank in Shiinamachi at 15:00 on January 26, 1948."

     "What's going to happen?" Maya asked in shock.

     "A bank robber is going to walk in, identify himself as a public official, fill the staff's teacups with cyanide, and the employees of the bank will drink it, as ordered, and die."

     Unfortunately, I can see too many people I know who would go along with that, Maya considered as she pushed Nabiki along, Most of my family would.  Maybe that's why Major Katsuragi has such trouble with the pilots.  Only Rei might go along with such an order, if the Commander gave it, even Shinji would resist automatically.  "How do you know about this?" Maya asked as the initial shock wore off.

     "I'm one of the Children," Nabiki told her, waving her hands theatrically.


     Rei knelt in the alley where they had fought.  It was still raining, harder now.  None of that affects the tracks I am seeking, she thought as she opened herself to the world unseen.  She noted that Mirei and several `gorillas` as the others called them, waited.  As soon as Rei had arrived, one walked over and unfolded a large umbrella to keep the rain off Rei.  Rei had thanked him and gotten on with her work.

     I write my findings in my notebook, she thought as the paths left behind led her to the answers, My powers have revealed to me the names of the attackers, and linkages to the people attacked.  She glanced at the guard.  "What has occurred is Secret."

     "I only stood in the rain, seeing nothing," the man answered nervously.

     I know he will not reveal what he saw and heard, Rei thought as she stood, No one would believe him, and the Commander's reputation for 'plugging leaks with lead' is not unfounded.  "I will require a telephone directory," she said to him, "To complete my investigation."  And to have targets, she kept to herself, They will be destroyed.  They have impaired the Commander's plan, they have damaged the Second Children, they will be destroyed!  She stood in the rain, shaking with rage, unable to react to anything, even Mirei leading her under an overhang out of the downpour, did not penetrate the maelstrom that consumed her entire being.

     When she came back to herself, she was aware of a blanket draped over her shoulders.  An old threadbare, itchy thing, she considered, But warm.  She focused on Mirei holding her hands.  "My thanks, you took an unnecessary risk," she told the girl.

     "I think it was necessary," Mirei told her, "I had to do something . . . after I couldn't help Langley-san."

     "That is not your job," Rei explained to her, glanced at the huge and very frightened man with a telephone directory.  He is much larger than I, he is armed, she considered, Yet he is as full of fear as I was of rage.  I must control myself, or I will be of no use.  To the Commander, or anyone.  Why am I doing this?  Why am I not assisting Security, or Nabiki-kun, or Roku-kun?  All I can do is observe.  I cannot collate, I cannot analyze . . . I cannot trust those who should.

     She glanced around, at Mirei in front of her, at the girl's guards standing scattered around, a dozen meters away, all watching her.  "I have recovered, enough to continue.  Why did they take her hair?  The hair shorn from her head?"

     "Souvenirs?" Mirei offered quietly, "It was all gone by the time I got more men here.  I'm sorry."

     "That will not help," she told Mirei, "But you have done what you could."  I have too little skill at reassurance, and I will soon need all I have, Rei thought, nearly losing herself to a vortex of anger and uncertainty.  She took a moment to focus on what she knew, rather than on what she felt.  I have resources, my memories, the actions and words of others, she reminded herself, That will have to be enough.  But I am frightened, and alone.  Who and what I have depended on, has been chipped away, now I am alone.

     "Do you know for certain what they were doing?" she asked coldly, loudly enough for the men to hear, as she stepped out into the rain.  The rain seemed not to touch her, as if it feared her anger.

     "Vengeance," one man told her, he tried to disappear as Rei looked at him.

     Then that is my guide, not vengeance, but justice, Rei told herself.  "I require answers.  This was not supposed to happen, it should not have happened," she told the men, the wind and the rain, "I need to know why that which failed, did so, to prevent it from happening again."

     "Is that why you killed him?" Mirei asked warily, leading Rei back under the overhang.

     "Perhaps," Rei said grimly as she stood and gathered her wits and control.  Mirei nodded.


     Misato looked at Ranma, and the guards who were waiting with varying degrees of impatience in the briefing room.  Dammit Rei!  Where did you run off to?  Only the promise of news got Ranma to sit still in here, she thought, He . . . she's ready to go charging off, but to where?  Where Rei is?  Somewhere else?  "She doesn't have any broken bones, and all they did was bruise her.  She has been asking to see you, Ranma."  Ranma stood silently, her pretty face a mask of rage.  She headed to Asuka's room with Tomiyo in tow, with an expression that said she'd go through any obstacle: wall or human.

     "She wasn't raped, was she?" Sammi asked pointedly, once Ranma was gone, "They were threatening that, when we intervened."

     Misato scowled, then squirmed under the larger woman's intent gaze.  Ritsuko should be doing this, Misato thought sourly, Not me.  Just thinking about it makes me want a bath.  "There was no evidence of that.  They apparently wanted to inflict fear, not damage."

     Sammi and Juri nodded, then glanced at each other, cutting Misato out of their silent conversation.

     No questions about their colleague, Misato noted, Do they already think she's dead?  Or are they fixed on something else?  Kaji wouldn't even answer the phone, this place should be swarming with Security, instead we have Army, Marine and even Navy troops at practically every intersection, Misato thought, None of them are talking, and I want some answers.  "Why would they do something like that?" Misato demanded.

     "She's a filthy gaijin, that's what they said, and the locals seemed to agree," Sammi said flatly, "And the FUBENS did nothing.  I'd like to know about that.  If it takes thumbscrews and hot irons, so be it."

     Now Misato shifted uneasily at the larger woman's fury.  "Ah, where's Rei?"

     "Doing Security's job, I'd bet," Juri murmured, staring at Misato.

     Doing your ex-lover's job, Misato interpreted from the stare.  He's not mine, and I never could control him, Misato thought in her defense, And it's not my job to look after him.


     The car pulled up near them as Rei made notes from the phone book.  Mirei's guards tensed instantly, several taking defensive positions.  Rei ignored it, finishing her work.

     A man climbed from the car.  "NERV Security, please come with us."  The man held up a proper I.D.

     "If what you found is true," Mirei bent close to Rei and whispered urgently, "Don't trust them."

     Rei was again lost.  If this is the truth, she thought urgently, Then who can be trusted?  My connection to Mirei is through the Fourth, tenuous at best.  The Commander is not here . . . there is another source I can trust.

     "Or what?" Rei asked, looking at the men, she freed the anger that had so frightened Mirei's guards.  She let them see it, took a step towards them, and the men of Security retreated a step.  "You did such a good job this afternoon," she intoned flatly, her gaze on them, ignoring the rain and the others.

     The Security men gave ground and stared at each other in utter bewilderment.

     "Don't make us force you," the first man said desperately and reached into his coat.  He froze as a dozen weapons were suddenly leveled at him by the `gorillas`.

     Rei wanted to scream, You can no longer hold us by respect, or by reason.  So, you think you need a gun to arrest me.  Betrayers!  The thought enraged Rei more than she believed possible, I serve the Commander's purpose, not the whims of those who have failed it, she wanted to shout.  This was not the random battering that drove thought from her mind.  She had the clarity she always strove for, and so rarely achieved.  I know what I must do now.  For that, I thank you, and gift you with your lives.  She turned to Mirei, handing the girl her notebook.  "The names of all the attackers.  All of them have a brother, cousin, or father in NERV Security."  She could see she was frightening the girl with her rage.  "That is not a coincidence, that is a conspiracy.  I choose not to participate.  The Commander must know," she paused, considered, then added, "I trust you with delivering this - to - the - Commander."

     "Yes."  Mirei nodded as she shielded the book from the rain with her body.

     Rei left, walking in the most direct route towards her next destination.  A Security man grabbed for her, his hand closing on air.  The man stared in amazement.  'I would have sworn I grabbed her shoulder' is practically written on his face, Rei thought.  He moved to pursue.


     Mirei watched Rei depart, as Mirei stepped into the waiting car, "Contact Major Katsuragi.  Nobody is going to reason with or capture Ayanami-san, except the Commander or Ranma-san."

     A Security man pursuing Rei into an alley, came sailing out at shoulder-level, he descended and rolled into a stop in the middle of the street, he got up very slowly and painfully.

     "Nobody at all I think," Mirei said as she glanced at the book.


     Ritsuko was not happy about this.  Security will have no answer why they had failed to protect Asuka, or to maintain surveillance on the Children, she fumed at the excuses they would offer, And for some reason Gendo will protect them yet again, why I wonder? she thought as she moved through the train, Jeff didn't go to his cabin, and I have a guess of what he could do if he decided to.  The question is: will he?

     "What am I doing?" she asked herself, "I don't even know what I'm going to do when I find him."  She'd turned out the Marines to locate him, and assigned Maya to stay with Nabiki in the girl's cabin.  Because I didn't know what else to do, she thought in frustration.  Through the window in the door of the barracks car, she spotted a Marine outside the armory car.  The man saw her and waved her forward, but put his finger to his lips.  She nodded, as he opened the door, the man pointed to a corner blocked by several of the sonic glaives.  Ritsuko nodded and stepped inside, closing the door behind her.  Once she was alone, she walked the distance, stopping a short distance away from the figure huddled in the darkness.

     "If you want to sleep in here," Ritsuko said in a flat tone, "I can have a cot set up."  She looked around, with practiced nonchalance.

     "Thank you, Doctor, I don't think that will be necessary," he replied in English.

     "Do you want to talk about it?  I want to talk about it.  Talking about it is the only thing we can do . . . unless you want to send Asuka a telegram," Ritsuko offered.

     "I can't fix this with words.  And what actions can I take?" he asked without emotion.

     "You could tell me what is really bothering you," Ritsuko suggested as she sat down.

     "About what?  Should I apologize for polluting your sacred soil?"

     Ritsuko went pallid at Jeff's tone and gaze.

     "Even burakumin are above gaijin, aren't they, Doctor, and only Koreans and Chinese are below Americans, right?  Although we have the same stupid kind of thing here, do you realize the word `quadroon` refers to someone who is one-quarter Negro, there are even words down to one-sixty-fourth, you have to be pretty psychotic to insist on separating people by that fine a gradation.  I was actually disappointed in Boston when I found out the water fountains marked 'Colored' dispensed the same water as the ones marked 'White'.  Only the recipients were different, supposedly," he said without emotion, "That's why they beat her up, just a loudmouthed gaijin, put the uppity, fool-foreigner girl in her place.  Doesn't matter who or what she is, all comes down to what they assume she is."

     Nobody cares about that, she wanted to tell him, but with the total failure of NERV Security, it died before she could say it, Neither of us know what happened, neither of us can fix it, and I will need to check on the events that occurred.  But that isn't my primary concern.

     "Thirty-five people, civilians, stood around and did nothing.  The eight were conspirators, the 35 were merely coincidence, random bystanders, ordinary citizens.  She's a good friend, sometimes I don't like Langley's mouth either.  However, nobody deserves what happened to her, Doctor.  Thirty-five civilians, you'd think somebody would have called the police, you'd think the Security troops would have been there or called for reinforcements, if Search and Rescue hadn't had a worker stationed, there would have been no ambulance either.  It didn't happen.  As it was promised, contracted if you will.  If some batch of yahoos can simply take out a pilot, why continue the illusion of a normal life?  Why bother trusting any of our `protectors`?"

     "They have to be looking into it," Ritsuko replied, it sounded weak, even to her.

     Jeff continued to stare at her, he wore a faint frown.  "Oh yes, that makes me feel so much better.  What are you really concerned with?  That I'll do something stupid, like going after your countrymen?  That a stupid gaijin cowboy will carry out a little Wild West justice?"  He stood and walked away from her, "These aren't the Phoenixi, I'm not going to let it loose, and let it nuke Tokyo, if that's all you're worried about."

     That's not fair, and you know it, she thought.  "It's not like that," Ritsuko replied.  Although that one reason I'm is why I'm here, she thought, But I do know you'd be more selective.

     "Yeah." Jeff turned away and covered his head, "Just leave me alone, or hit me over the head and take me back.  It's not like I could fight you effectively."

     Ritsuko felt a flash of cold, then anger at the unspoken implication.  She was torn. I should drag you back to your berth, or leave you where you are!  No, my job is to protect the pilots, she thought as she stepped away to give both of them some emotional distance, Relax, I can outwait him.  Normally he's more patient, but if he's acting like this, I might be able to wear him down with time.  He's just striking out, as I want to.  I keep forgetting they are all kids, incredibly mature most of the time, but occasionally they will act their age.  After the stresses of the past weeks, they're both at the end of their rope.  She waited and wondered.


     Misato was out in the rain, in her car.  She worried that the world had come off its axis.  I don't believe what the Commander told me: Rei discovered that the attackers were all relatives of NERV Security; that she clobbered several of the agents who tried to take her in.  That had to mystify those agents, it certainly mystifies me.  What's gotten into her?  She never used to act like this, she thought as she searched the road she'd guessed Rei was headed down, Now it's my job to find her and return her to NERV.  Maybe sounding an alert?  Rei would come running, and when she found out it was a fake, then what?  The white blouse of Rei's school uniform practically glowed in the headlights, the rain had soaked Rei to the skin.

     Misato pulled up alongside her, "Hey, little girl!  Want a lift?" she called in a jaunty tone.  From Rei's expression, Misato immediately realized it was the wrong action to take.

     "Thank you, Major, but no thank you," Rei replied quietly as she walked.

     "Aren't you worried about walking in the rain?" Misato asked, tried to remember something that might sway her, "If you get sick, you won't be able to pilot."

     "The weather is warm, so I will not catch cold," Rei replied evenly.  "Security failed to protect Mein Grossfeldmarschall, so I am in no greater danger out here alone.  I have yet to hear an alert, have I forgotten anything?"

     "Maybe you want to talk?" Misato asked brightly.

     "No," Rei replied with some vehemence.

     "We're looking into the failings with Security," Misato told her as she drove alongside Rei as she walked.

     Rei stopped so abruptly, Misato had to stop and back up, "That is not sufficient."

     "It's all we can do," Misato replied.

     "Yes," Rei said and turned away and began walking again, "It is all you can do.  I am not so limited."

     Misato was flabbergasted by Rei's casual dismissal not only of Misato's orders, but of Misato herself.  "Then maybe you'd like to tell me what to do," she said as she started pacing Rei again.

     "Tradition requires a meaningful apology."

     Misato felt incredibly queasy at Rei's behavior and her suggestion.  She can't mean seppuku! Misato thought, But . . . maybe she does.


The Hate of Those Ye Guard

     "You took action without my approval!" Usagi insisted as she confronted Yuki in front of all the girls of the 'innermost' circle as they met at Usagi's house.

     "I released SEELE operatives, a sleeper cell they had planted that could have been used against us, once we took control," Yuki replied calmly, disdainfully, "There is no connection to us."

     "Are you certain?" Tomoe shouted, "If we were dealing with humans, I'd agree, if we hadn't just riled up a hornet's nest.  For weeks they'll suspect us no matter what we did.  But I have the bruises to prove we aren't dealing with mere humans!"

     "We will not be implicated," Yuki insisted far too calmly, "They will concentrate their efforts on SEELE, not us.  We all know that SEELE has other sleeper agents, that will be the focus of their search.  We have no reason to be concerned.  They will be so busy searching out further moles, that if we offer sympathies and apologies," she said mockingly, "We will vanish from their radar so quickly . . . they won't be seeing anything of us.  You wanted to bring them in," Yuki told Usagi condescendingly, "Now is the perfect time to do it.  Even if they suspect anything, if we put even a hundredth of our powers and connections at their disposal, we win.  Our pranks, while hurtful, are trivial compared to this attack.  This is far beyond anything they would consider we would do."  Yuki smiled to the other girls, swaying them to her side.

     "Because it is!" Usagi insisted as she struggled to keep her temper.  You've overstepped your bounds this time, she thought, This wasn't a misinterpretation, this was and is a mutiny.  There will be a reckoning at a time of my choosing.  If you cannot serve as a worshiper, there are other ways.  "This action will make them clamp down on all possible threats.  The plan was to strike once, then play good, little girls and lull them into a careless state.  Then and only then, strike with full force before Tendo arrives.  With this, they may even expedite her return.  Your action has cost us options and it has cost us time!  Even the Goddess cannot grant us more time," Usagi didn't shriek, however much she wanted to.

     "You haven't borne the brunt of her insults," Yuki raged, then mastered herself, "Besides, she wasn't seriously hurt.  Her only serious injury was to her hair.  That's hardly enough to launch a vendetta."

     Usagi noted many of the other girls touching or stroking their own hair, proving Yuki's assertion was a lie.  "You launched one due to your pride," Usagi bit off each word, "You think they will not react the same?"

     "Aren't you the one always telling us they are gods and goddesses?" Yuki asked innocently.

     I should just kill you, and leave your broken corpse on NERV's doorstep! Usagi thought as her fists clenched and unclenched on empty air, instead of around Yuki's throat.

     Yuki turned to the others.  "I say now is the time to move against them!" Yuki insisted.

     "WHAT!" Usagi shrieked as she took a step towards Yuki, intent on murder.

     "We can break their pride now," Yuki announced, directing her comments to the others, ignoring Usagi and the threat she posed, "We can bring them to heel.  Force them to be OUR servants, not us there's!"  The others nodded sagely.

     "They are to be an offering to the Goddess!" Usagi insisted, "We aren't strong enough - "

     "We are right now!" Yuki countered smoothly, "They are weak and confused.  If we attack their weakest member, the whole rotten mess will come down!  Ranko managed - "

     "Ranko managed to repulse our attack!" Usagi shouted.

     "Those simulacra drove us off, but Ranko never dared come out.  Ranma should be our target.  One of his women was hurt, he will be blaming himself and unable to counter a decisive attack," Yuki continued as if Usagi hadn't interrupted, "We can take him down, then Ranko, then we finish Miss Langley, then Ayanami, and we'll be ready for Miss Tendo and `Raccoon`.  When we hand them over to the Goddess, they will be amenable to control."

     Usagi hung her head when she saw the others nod among themselves.  They would be a greater gift to the Goddess if they came to her willingly, not dragged to her on a leash, Usagi silently lamented.  She raised her head, her expression fixed and defiant.  "What say you all?" Usagi asked, making it seem she was still in control.

     "All for my plan?" Yuki insisted.  There was near universal acclimation.  Usagi noted that Tomoe wanted nothing to do with it.  "Very well.  Yuki, you will lead them into battle.  Neither I nor Tomoe will interfere, you clearly are beyond any argument against you."

     "That's right, I will not be swayed," Yuki told Usagi confidently.

     "Then go with the Goddess's blessing," Usagi intoned and watched her once-loyal followers, her one-time friends troop out.

     "Are you out of your mind?" Tomoe asked, once the others were gone, "This is nothing more than an attempt to seize control, and you know it."

     "Yes," Usagi said tiredly, "Perhaps Yuki's plan is blessed by the Goddess and I have been too cautious."

     "Or her ego and cunt are getting the better of her!" Tomoe insisted while pacing furiously.

     "Yes, perhaps, but I will let the Goddess make that determination," Usagi said passively, wrung out by the battle and her failure, and the abandonment.

     "You know something," Tomoe probed, "What?"

     "Those were no simulacra," Usagi told her.

     Tomoe's mouth dropped open.  "You set them up!" Tomoe realized.

     "Perhaps not," Usagi replied smoothly, sighed and hung her head, "Perhaps the Goddess will smile on their foolishness."

     "I somehow doubt it," Tomoe said as she paced and frowned.  "What happens when none of them come back?" Tomoe asked.

     "We will elevate some of the other girls.  I will console Miss Langley and you will make peace with Ranko."

     "Like Hell I will!" Tomoe confronted her sister.

     "You will, you will ask her to help you deal with your anger.  Her ego will not allow her to refuse.  Once we have Ranko and Miss Langley, we will have the others.  Patience.  It is the lesson you've never understood."

     "Patience Hell.  I'd rather go hit something."


     While she waited for the Marine guards just outside Asuka's room to check her I.D, Janice gingerly assayed both Asuka's surface thoughts and deep emotional aura, while she apparently paused in thought.  Then she waited for the Marine guards to verify with her boss that she was authorized.

     Asuka stood by and watched out the window, watching the rain come down and the world go by.  Janice probed beneath the seemingly placid surface.

     'I'm not vain,' Asuka thought, 'But I hate looking like this.  I hate not being as `pretty` as I was.  I hated being leered at, but I don't want to be stared at as a freak.  I am a freak, to these people, that's why they attacked me.  Can I kill them?  Would they have raped me if they'd had more time?  If Horseface and the others hadn't intervened?  Has Erin died?  Has Erin died because of me?  What can I do?  Stay here and hide?  Ask to go home?  Give up being a pilot?  I couldn't live if I wasn't a pilot, but do I want to live any longer?  Who can I trust?  Did they come charging in to rescue me, or because an enemy was before them?'

     Janice broke contact with the stream of consciousness and quailed as the magnitude of the task that faced her: the warring emotions within Asuka, all the dangers it involved.  As it all became clear to her, her gestalt shattered.


     'She will require this,' Face explained to the others.

     'You just want to meet her again,' Ear complained, 'We should wait.'

     'We should be going after the ones who did this,' Main `shouted` at the others, 'You stopped me from attacking them, I could have slain them all.'

     'We would have been discovered,' Ear replied, 'An AT field powerful enough to have done any good would have been detected.'

     'You just couldn't decide on how to do what was necessary!' Main told them.

     'We shouldn't ignore how this affects the others?' Face asked them quietly.

     The mental silence descended as they all `looked` to Poll, who was the final arbiter, and the only one the other three all respected.


     'We will go ahead with Face's plan, but we won't ask Asuka to have ice cream,' Poll told them, 'We can also find out a little about the people who attacked her.  But our most important mission is to restore Asuka to the best of our ability.  We'll need her, so will the plan.  Face be charming, but don't be too charming.  Main, if anything comes at us, no holds are barred.  It could be blamed on a subconscious manifestation of Asuka's powers.  Ear, listen, analyze.  I agree with Main, we need a target, to attack or to defend against.  Agreed?'


     Janice opened her eyes as the gestalt reasserted itself.  She nodded to the Marine outside the door as he finished checking her I.D., and her purpose, while another checked through what she carried.

     Chasing out `Horseface` wasn't the smartest thing.  Especially after you asked for him, Janice thought, But you want to be alone, but you need someone around.  And Horseface gave in to your demands, even if you didn't really mean them.

     "Yeah, it is my fault," she heard Asuka say as the girl pulled a short length of her hair and stared at it.  "Stupid thing to be worried about," she said, she shuddered as soon as she said it.

     Janice looked through the opening door.  "Miss Langley?" she asked as the Marine held the door for her and the kit she carried.

     Asuka turned, back in `character`, her anger and fear invisible, for someone she didn't know.  "You were the woman on the jeep," Asuka said as she stared, "Search and Rescue."

     "Yes," Janice said, nodded, "I saw your hair -"  She froze as Asuka did.  "I thought you might want someone to even it out.  That's all I'm suggesting."  Please accept, she thought desperately, while hiding her own nervousness.

     "oh," Asuka said in a small voice.  She sat in a chair, her lip trembling, before she mastered herself.

     I know you're hiding, Janice thought as she unpacked the clippers, scissors and combs, laying them out on a table, Maybe I should have suggested to Rei that she do this, but I think she's got her own ideas.  "Now Milady Langley," she said in German, "How about a perm?  She would be so adorable in curls - "

     Asuka turned and stared at her.  Even Main quailed at that gaze.

     "That explains where they got the idea for the Schwerer Gustav, couldn't they have just let you stare at the Maginot Line?" Janice asked, chuckling anxiously.

     "I wasn't born yet," Asuka replied as another Search and Rescue member brought in a basin on a stand and a reclining chair.  "I take it you had this planned," Asuka accused and got out of her chair.

     "In Search and Rescue, we have to be ready for anything," Janice told her as Asuka sat in the reclining chair, "Thank you."

     Asuka didn't reply as Janice began wetting her hair to begin shampooing it.

     Janice felt the slight fading of the gestalt as Asuka relaxed under her fingers.

     'This is not normal,' Face commented.

     'This is not correct,' Main replied worriedly, 'She should not have acquiesced so swiftly.'

     'She desires the safety, and the contact,' Face countered smoothly, 'She merely required an `excuse`.'

     As Janice returned from the brief discussion, she noted the subtle movements Asuka made.  She keeps glancing at the Marine to make sure I don't do anything untoward, Janice thought, I doubt she'd trust the FUBENS like that.  I still wish I knew what they were doing instead of what they were supposed to be doing.  "At the daily SAR briefing, I received a report on the Azores Mission," she said, "It seems that a group called the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn attacked them and were destroyed.  While pilots Davis and Tendo were injured, they finished off the last ones together."  She watched Asuka's reaction carefully, examining and analyzing every aspect and nuance, to guide her next action or word.

     "How badly hurt?" Asuka asked fearfully, looking at Janice.

     "You might be able to sign Miss Tendo's cast, but a broken leg couldn't keep her out of the fight.  Mister Davis has some scrapes and burns, but Dr. Akagi and the doctors with Search and Rescue expect a full recovery before they make it back, for both of them."

     "At least that's some good news," Asuka replied quietly, again sitting back in the chair, "We could use the help."

     Janice finished rinsing Asuka's hair and set the chair back upright.  "This is going to get me stared at again," Janice said, "But I could style it with a braid like Ranko's."  She paused as Asuka twisted and glared at her.  "I'll take that as a 'no'.  I'll also assume a pageboy like Miss Tendo's is not an options."

     "I'd rather have it cut like Raccoon's," Asuka murmured as she turned back.

     "I can bob it, with a bit of feathering," Janice offered.

     "Sounds okay," Asuka replied listlessly.

     Janice worried about the normally fiery pilot as she carefully cut and styled the girl's hair.


     "What happened?" Commander Ikari had personally interviewed Pilot Saotome, the only pilot available.  And got a good and surprisingly descriptive idea what had happened.  Despite the fact it was more gestures and impersonations than explanations, Gendo thought, And none of it was usable in any court of law.  Now he and Commander Fuyutsuki were looking at the security guards, who were supposed have been performing overwatch for the Children and their close-in guards at the time in question.  Rei has never lied to me, Gendo thought, hiding his thoughts even from Fuyutsuki, If what she discovered is even partially true, this is a disaster beyond imagining.  How thoroughly are we infiltrated/compromised?

     He listened to their explanations, shades of half-truths and face-saving evasions.  The guards have no explanation for Asuka Langley getting away from them, he thought angrily, The others simply had not expected the Children to bolt, and they'd lost them.  And they have no explanation for the guards posted in that area simply being 'gone.'

     "Then why, once you'd reacquired them, didn't you call for transportation?"  You didn't reacquire them until after the Children arrived back at NERV HQ, he thought, Without NERV SAR, they would have had to have walked back, or Saotome would have run carrying Langley with Rei as close support.  "You will be interrogated under truth serum.  Your final dispositions have yet to be determined."  The guards left, escorted by Marines.

     "Without Pilot Saotome's combat skills and the training he has given the others, we could have had a disaster," Commander Fuyutsuki said as he shuffled the reports, trying to force sense out of the insanity.

     Ikari agreed, "If the Children trust and need NERV for nothing, we lose the vestiges of control we currently have."  Ikari turned to face his old friend, "We must have answers and we must neutralize this threat in a way that sends an unequivocal message to the Pilots and everyone else."  He stared at the Sephiroth incised in the floor, it seemed to be mocking him.

     Fuyutsuki spoke, "Commander, you are worried that Rei might be the next logical target, and that she shot one of the attackers.  There is no report of a body, or that she shot any except the one.  Although she did resist Security's attempt to return her to here."

     I can only hope she's still loyal to me and the plan.  Her loyalty to NERV may have been damaged, he thought carefully, It seems that the Admiral's suggestion is also a warning.  How do I deal with the possibility that Rei will act in what she believes is in my best interests, without orders?  What do I do if she acts in my interest, in opposition to someone's orders, including my own? "I am also concerned what we will tell our `masters`," Ikari joked.

     Fuyutsuki nodded grimly.


     Misato stared at the white shirt in the rain. Bored, bored, Bored, BORED, BORED, she thought, Following Rei for nearly half-an-hour and she's been walking steadily in the rain.  For what?  The headlights illuminated the spotless white shirt some 75 meters ahead of her.  She's probably expecting me to run her down, Misato thought angrily, And after what happened to Security, I'm not getting into a wrestling match with her.  Suddenly Rei darted off the road and into the woods.  Misato slammed on the brakes and shut off the car.  She looked into the dark woods.  Staring at that white shirt killed my night vision, Misato thought angrily, She could be 20 meters away and I'd never see her.  She knew it, she planned it!  Outsmarted, by Rei, I hate being outsmarted.  "I should have dragged you back to the base and to Hell with the repercussions," she growled quietly.

     "Rei!  Get back here," belatedly she added, "That's an order!"  As if that would do any good, she thought.  She got back in her car and drove back to NERV headquarters, there she found Ranma waiting for her.

     "Well?" Ranma asked.

     "She ran away," Misato told him as she marched into NERV.

     " 'She ran away'," Ranma repeated, "I think we've got a problem."  She turned on her heel, leaving her red pigtail lashing like an angry cat's tail as she marched away.

     I should point that out, Misato thought, Just to spread the misery.


     Ranma caught up with Sammi as quickly as he could.  "Let's go to Rei's place, we can pick up a spare set of clothes for her and her school books."

     Sammi stared at him.

     Ranma shook his head.  "Look, I don't know where she is, but I know where she's gonna end up," he paused.  It's obvious, but . . . how do I put it in words?  "When someone gets attacked, they retreat to somewhere they feel secure.  Asuka can't retreat to Germany.  But Rei can make here seem secure again.  I don't know how, but I know she'll do something."  He looked at Sammi.  "What are you grinnin' about?" he asked in anger and confusion.

     "Your analysis, and faith in your fellow pilots," Sammi said, still smiling, "Imagine Ranma the loner, actually being the team player.  And being subordinate to Rei of all people."

     Ranma frowned as he considered that.  I don't have a crush on her, Ranma wanted to shout, But I know she's got a plan, all I have to figure out is how to help her along the edges.

     "The Naval Base!" Sammi realized, "Rei probably made her break close to the base entrance.  I bet Misato hasn't even considered that."  Sammi's triumph was short-lived.  "What would she need on the Naval Base?  Captain Ramsey and the Admiral are here."

     Ranma shrugged.  "Who knows?  She's got cars and trucks, if an alert sounds.  Clever really."  Ranma smiled evilly. "Wonder why Misa-chan didn't order her into her car and drive back here?"

     Sammi grimaced.  Ranma smiled in reply.  Sammi explained, "I think I know that, let's go."  They got to Sammi's jeep and raced back out of the headquarters.

     "So what do we do after we get the stuff from Rei's place?" Sammi asked.  She glanced back, so did Ranma.  A small truck with a pedestal mounted .50 and a small tank fell in behind them.  When Ranma looked forward, another small tank was leading the way.  "I can make plans too," Sammi told him.

     "We set up a hospital room for Rei, near Asuka's," Ranma said, he saw Sammi's confused look, "Rei has always tried to - I don't know - look after Asuka."

     "Rei seems the one who needs looking after," Sammi replied.

     "I know, just because you need something yourself, that doesn't mean you don't want to do it for someone else . . . if that makes any sense."

     "Perfect sense," Sammi said as she drove.

     Ranma couldn't understand Sammi's continuing grin, for a moment.  "You just can't figure out how I figured it out," Ranma said angrily, "I'm not stupid."

     "Right on both counts, I hope you understand your methodology, so you can replicate your success."

     "Can you repeat that in Japanese?  I don't speak `Asuka` so good."

     "Can you do it again, on purpose?"

     That is the question, Ranma considered, It just came to me, seeing patterns of behaviors, like a kata, and applying them to something else.  I'm not sure I could do it again, I think I can.

     "Look," Ranma began, "All the pilots - "  Except me, he silently added.  " - are important to Rei.  She'll defend any pilot with her life, they're more important to her than she is.  So wherever she's gone, it's to get the means to defend Asuka, and maybe the rest of us."

     Sammi nodded as she drove.


     "Two clubs," Mrs. Simson told her friends, and hoped her partner understood.

     "Three Diamonds," Mrs. Samuels, another bridge-fiend, bid, "Does anyone know what's going on?  Gerald and I were supposed to be going out tonight.  Suddenly there's an alert and poof, and he's gone to the office."

     "Four clubs," Mrs. Martin replied, eliciting a faint mou from Mrs. Simson, "Something involving NERV.  You must know, it is your husband's command."

     "Five Hearts," Mrs. Witter said, "The entire base and base housing is under heavy guard, would an Angel attack cause that?  I haven't seen one yet."

     "Believe me," Mrs. Simson said, "You'll know an Angel attack when you hear one.  Pass."  There was a knocking at the door before Mrs. Samuels could bid.  "I'll get it."

     She walked through the house to the Marine who'd let the girl in.  Rei Ayanami, soaked to the skin and looking positively furious, stared at her.  "I am here to discuss being raped," she told Mrs. Simson, "Something I have no experience in."

     "I should hope not," Mrs. Simson said, "Please come in, we'll get you some dry clothes and something hot to drink."

     "I require the information," Rei told her, not moving, but shaking, almost imperceptibly.

     Not with cold, poor thing, she thought, But with rage.  I've heard this girl is hard to `read`.  But it's not too difficult, compared to any other teenage-girl, you have to pay attention.  She glanced at the girl staring strangely at her.  She's used to orders and logic, she thought, According to my husband.  "You will do it my way, it will enhance the information transfer and ensure you are healthy enough to utilize, not just use, the data received," she told Rei imperiously, "Now, why do you require the information?"  Mrs. Simson led her to the bridge party, who had overheard enough that they were all pasty-faced at the possibilities.

     "It is a simile to the attack on Pilot Langley," Rei said flatly, "Lacking an effective counter, I came here to learn one."

     "Well, Darlene," Mrs. Simson addressed Mrs. Samuels, "Since you're the psychiatrist's wife, I'll let you start, while I get the tea."

     "Thank you, I could use some," Mrs. Samuels turned to face Rei, she smiled, when Rei's intense, nearly-blank stare continued, she dropped it, "Tell me exactly what happened, don't leave out any detail that might be significant."

     That was a mistake, Mrs. Simson thought as she listened to Rei relating the tale.


     Maya followed Nabiki out onto the railcar, where the EVA was stowed.  Even though it's double-wide, she thought as she looked over the car, and the desert racing past in the darkness, I'm still afraid of falling off, or her rolling off the edge.

     They stopped beside the EVA.  Nabiki wedging her chair within the arm of the huge war-machine, relaxed Maya's worries somewhat.  "How did you know?" Maya asked.

     "I followed him on one of his late night walks.  There's a tavern that has a piano," Nabiki explained as she sat, running a hand over the armor of the EVA and staring at it, like petting a large animal, "He played there for almost an hour.  He had dozens of rough, tough soldiers and sailors crying in their beer from the skilled playing and the songs he chose.  Real sorcery.  Ha ha.  'Have I ever heard him play the piano?'  If I only knew."  Nabiki chuckled, then added wistfully, "Tam's Tavern, the sounds of a piano dominated all the other sounds.  The strains of American, British, Australian and Canadian patriotic songs rang forth, impassioned piano.  For a little over an hour the piano played, the voices sang.  The final tune was a cacophony, the same piano but the voices disagreed on the words, alternating between 'God Save the King' and 'My Country Tis of Thee'."

     Nabiki laughed mirthlessly, " 'Langley' got beat up, so he ran back to the 'States and found out the same could happen here."  Nabiki turned to face Maya.  "Tell me, if it was your family, what would you want to do?"

     Maya nodded, "I thought so.  So we keep an eye on him?"  She looked at the darkness around them.  "We'll send him to `school` with you in the morning?" she asked, "The lessons will divert him.  More important, do you want to talk?"

     "About what?" Nabiki asked.

     "You know.  We aren't in the friendliest territory.  What happened in Boston - to you - with that crowd.  And we are both 'Japs'."

     "I think we're both combat soldiers," Nabiki said calmly, hiding all she felt, "Somehow, that makes us part of the soldiers' fraternity.  We may look funny, but we're part of the prevalent `us`, `them` are people like Gendo and Misato, REMFs, civilians.  No, what worries me is the same thing that worries him: who is there to help?  If I was there, would - could I have made a difference?  It isn't worry, it's guilt.  I can't imagine anyone actually doing that here, trying to hurt either of us, any of us, without a dozen Marines tearing the attackers apart.  At home, the same should be true, it shouldn't have happened, but who should have stopped it and who failed to stop it?  How do you think the troops around us are going to react?  They are going to wrap us all in cotton batting and anything short of a Great Old One or an EVA trying to get at us will be shot, chopped to bits and stomped on."

     "Then they'll get nasty," Maya added.

     Nabiki nodded.  "We have to let him be.  He's safe, more important, he feels safe.  It's the guilt that we have to deal with."

     Maya glanced at Nabiki.  She could barely see her expression in the faint starlight/moonlight.  But I know what it looks like, she thought, It isn't just him who is feeling guilty, it's you too.

     "Perhaps we could arrange for a German Beer Hall for one night," Maya suggested, "To let Asuka feel at home, when we get home?"

     Nabiki smiled for a moment, teeth flashing in the darkness, but it was quickly gone.

     "You're convinced he's safe, at least for one night?" Maya asked, "Sorry, early morning."

     "Not really," Nabiki said and started rolling across the flatcar towards the door to the barracks, "But I don't think I want to challenge both you and Ritsuko.  Or you'll sedate me, until we arrive in Tokyo."

     "Wise," Maya said stepping behind Nabiki's wheelchair, in case she was needed.


Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense (Evil Be To Him Who Evil Thinks)

     Wondergirl walked into her room, Asuka sat in the middle of the bed and just ignored her.  She didn't feel like dealing with Ikari's robot and her stupid questions.  Asuka was surprised when Wondergirl took her hand in both of her own hands, and placed it against her cheek.

     "Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.  Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes," Wondergirl said.

     Asuka yanked her hand loose and backed away across the bed.  Wondergirl knelt on the bed, and peered at Asuka who stared back in confusion.

     "Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck.  Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.  Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?"

     Asuka slid off the bed and backed against the wall, fear slowly overwhelming her confusion.  "Have you gone insane Wondergirl?!"

     Wondergirl smoothly slid off the bed, blocking Asuka's quickest route of escape, but didn't close in.  "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed."  Then she took a step towards Asuka and stopped.  "Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.  Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green.  I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.  As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters."

     Wondergirl took another step towards her.  "Get away from me!" Asuka shouted, "What do you want?  This isn't funny."

     Wondergirl cocked her head in seeming confusion, then continued her uninflected recitation, "Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions harken to thy voice: cause me to hear it."

     "You're nuts!" Asuka shouted at her. This can't be happening, she thought.  Asuka pointed at the door.  "Get out of here now!" she shouted, her voice quavering.

     "My beloved spake," Rei replied, "And said unto me, 'rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away'.  For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

     "Yeah, be nice to the turtle!  It may take you to the dragon palace.  But if you come any closer - " her voice trembled.  Asuka raised her fist.  "I'll send you there air express!"  Wondergirl took a step closer, Asuka swung, Wondergirl caught her fist with both hands, and softly rubbed it against her cheek.  Asuka's flesh crawled as Wondergirl's expression at the contact became sentimental.

     Then she continued her toneless words, "Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks.  O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.  My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her. The daughters saw her, and blessed her; yea, the queens and the concubines, and they praised her."

     Asuka felt her flesh squirming at the monotonous recitation and Wondergirl rubbing her fist against her cheek.  She couldn't pull her hand free, so she kicked out at Wondergirl as hard as she could, but like the fight against Tomoe, Wondergirl wasn't there when the blow landed.  Asuka let off a long string of curses, in every language she knew.  Something's got to offend her! Asuka thought desperately.

     "Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.  Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.  How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!" Wondergirl intoned dreamily.

     Rather than continuing to fail to pull loose, Asuka instead closed, trying to hit Wondergirl with her free elbow, or knee the other girl.  Wondergirl ducked and twisted, and the pair went down on the floor in a tangle of limbs.  Wondergirl pivoted so she took the force of the landing, protecting Asuka.  Asuka found herself lying on top of Wondergirl, her nose on Wondergirl's breastbone, Wondergirl's arms wrapped around Asuka's shoulder and waist, holding her in a protected position.

     "How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!  This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.  I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples;"

     In terror, Asuka tried to headbutt her crazed, fellow pilot.  She managed was to receive a chaste kiss on the lips from Wondergirl.

     "And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.  I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, 'Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.'"

     "Let go of me!" Asuka struggled but only managed to roll both of them under the bed, with her winding up underneath Wondergirl, who laid her head on Asuka's shoulder.

     "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.  Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame."

     "AUUUGH!" Asuka finally arranged the leverage to wrench herself free, she scrambled out from under the bed and stood, backing towards the door.  She cast about for a moment, only the decanter of water presented itself as a deterrent to Wondergirl who'd stood up slowly.  Asuka drenched the other girl, who clasped her hands under her chin.

     "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be condemned."

     I recognized that, Asuka suddenly realized, I recognize all of it!  "Wait a second!" Asuka shouted suddenly, fury boiling up and advancing on Wondergirl, who stared curiously back at Asuka.

     "Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices."     

"Knock it off!" Asuka shouted at Wondergirl, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her, "That's all from the Song of Solomon!  You've been quoting the Bible at me!"

     She nodded.  "Yes," Wondergirl said, back to normal and apparently no more poetry forthcoming.

     "What the Hell have you been doing?" Asuka shouted right into Wondergirl's face while she shook her, "What were you trying to prove?!"

     "I still love you."

     Asuka felt a cold shudder course through her as she released Wondergirl, and took a fearful step away from a very serious-looking Wondergirl.  "You . . . I'm not that kind of girl!"  Desperation had returned full force.

     "Nor am I," Wondergirl said, walking over to sit on the bed, "Are you not worthy of being admired, and loved?"

     Asuka relaxed ever so slightly, the distance between them making it possible.  "So . . . what kind of love are we talking about?"

     "I do not desire sexual congress with you," Wondergirl said, "But you are comforting."  Wondergirl bowed her head.  "Very comforting."

     "All I do is insult you," Asuka said quietly.

     "Yes, and insist I be `better`," Wondergirl countered, "I am afraid that I have disappointed you."  Wondergirl slipped off the bed and stood next to Asuka, taking her hands.  "I have admired you . . . for a long time . . . since we first met.  Your first act was to save my life.  You did not know me, you saw . . . what I was, and you comforted and defended me, when I was lost, and alone, and very frightened."  Wondergirl had stepped slowly towards Asuka, she stared into Asuka's face.  "I have loved you since then."  She stepped back, pulling a numb Asuka with her.  Wondergirl sat back in the middle of the hospital bed, pulled Asuka up to sit facing her, only then she released Asuka's hands.


     "I remember," Rei reached up and touched the Second's much shortened hair, "A knight, my savior.  I remember the hair, the feel of silk, the color and scent of warm cinnamon.  I thought it odd, the mage with a sword, the knight healing my wounds."  She could see she had confused Asuka, and intrigued her.

     "Like so many of the moments that changed my life, it was a dark and stormy night," Rei began.


     Rei looked up at Gendo-kun, he and Fuyutsuki-san looked so tall.  She wondered, Will I ever be as tall as them. Or as pretty as Yui-san?

     Gendo held her hand, to keep her from getting lost on the bustling streets of Celephias in the Dreamlands.  She used the grip to jump over the mud puddles.  The whole street was muddy, but Yui-san had always scolded her when she jumped in mud puddles.

     She's gone, but I didn't like being scolded, Rei thought.  She pulled her cloak down over her head a little more, to keep out the rain.

     But there are so many things to see! little Rei fumed inwardly.  I'm six, she thought, I'm a BIG girl, I'm six!  She still held on, Gendo-kun knew best.  That included the spell to change her hair to black.  She didn't understand, Why do only I have blue hair?  That makes me special, like Gendo-kun and Yui-san said.  Doesn't it?

     "So, Ikari and his pets, where's the other one," a man stepped out in front of them.

     I don't like him, Rei thought instantly.

     "Probably got lost," another group of men had stepped in behind them, "You've really gotten ahead of yourself."

     "Get ready to run," Gendo-kun told her quietly, she knew from that tone that she shouldn't say anything.

     The moment dragged on, Rei saw the sweat on Gendo-kun's face, and on the other men's.  The flash of lightning was the trigger.  The men pulled swords, Gendo-kun and Fuyutsuki-san spoke words that hurt her ears.  I have to run, she thought as she darted down a narrow alley and away.  She had gotten lost a few times before this.  But Yui-san or Gendo-kun had always found me, she thought, So I'm not worried.  He's something to worry about.  The man with the knife who was squeezing through the alley after her, spurred her on.  She ran.

     She knew there were places she could hide, except there seemed to be these bad men everywhere!  They didn't expect her to be so fast, that was her only advantage.  The forest of legs flashed by as she ran.

     She soon found herself at the doors to the Knights' Hall.  Gendo-kun told me they would provide sanctuary, she thought, I learned the English word, its meaning.  Now she pounded on the door.  "Sanctuary!  Sanctuary!"

     Her answer was a crossbow bolt that missed her head by a handsbreadth.

     She didn't wait for the cursing man to reload, she ran, looking for someone, anyone to help her.

     The knife which lashed out of the darkness was not what she expected.  It cut through her cloak at the shoulder and cut her to the bone.  Her shoulder blade had saved her from a fatal wound, but the pain and bleeding meant she couldn't run much farther.  She stumbled, a hand grabbed her cloak.

     "No where to run little girl," a rough voice told her.  "Red eyes!  A monster!"

     She released the throat clasp and left the man holding just the cloak.  She ran on.  Getting tired and dizzy, she thought as she stumbled again, Muddy roads slippery, thunder hurts my ears.  She ran as fast as she could.  Her lungs burned with fire, matching the ache in her shoulder.  She stumbled again, rolled to avoid the downward arc of a sword, and scrambled up to run again, her feet slipping on the mud.  She could see more men had joined the chase.  She knew she couldn't outrun all of them forever.

     She stopped before she could slam into the wall that made this alley a dead end.  She turned, more than a dozen men closed in, drawing their swords.  A flash of lightning lit the upraised sword.  A dead end, she thought, Soon I will have a dead end.  She felt the tears streaming down her face for the first time.  I failed Gendo by failing to escape, she thought as the tear fell, another drop in the rain, Now I am failing to be brave.

     "STOP!"  One word that seemed to have the force of Universal Law.  The man stopped moving, the men behind him looked around with uncertainty.

     Strong hands gripped Rei's waist and picked her up.  The woman's angry expression should have frightened Rei.  But Yui-san sometimes looked like that, Rei thought, touching the woman's face and her expression softened, When she was mad, but not at me.  One arm supported Rei's weight, the other held her tightly against the woman's shoulder.  One finger traced the cut in her shoulder, the pain eased, Rei could feel the wound closing.  Then the soft hair closed over her, as if it were a third comforting hand.  Warm, soft, the look and smell of warm cinnamon, Rei thought quietly as she snuggled into the woman's arms, This woman isn't mommy, but she saved me.

     Rei heard the words, she didn't care to turn and look at whoever spoke them.  He sounds so mean, she thought.

     "This is no demon, you have spilt her blood for no reason."

     "I have warrants, diplo - ," her attacker said.

     "You can lie to others," the voice took a tone that make Rei shiver in fear and nestle herself more tightly in the woman's arms, "But not to me, death comes for you now, are you immune to that?"

     "Easy little one," the woman who held her murmured, as she gently rocked Rei while holding her firmly, "His bite is worse, but - " then she raised her voice clear and angry, "She is under my protection."

     Rei glanced up, brushed the soft hair away for a moment.  She saw the beautiful, stern face, the eyes like sapphires in color and hardness, and high above . . . dragons, looped and played in the lightning far overhead.  Rei's attackers were glancing up at the dragons and muttering among themselves.  Rei buried her face in the woman's neck in fear, both of the dragons and her attackers.  The woman continued rocking, crooning a soft song in a language Rei didn't recognize.  The angry murmurs and promises of retribution faded.  Rei felt a cape close over her, dry, warm, and safe, she slipped into sleep.  She was aware of a comment from the voice, in a very different, almost friendly tone.  From the woman carrying her, the comment elicited a growl, then delightful laughter that eased Rei into sleep.


     Rei looked at Asuka, who was staring back at her in amazement.  "You were that knight who saved me, and Roku-kun was the voice."

     "That's why you followed me all those years?!" Asuka asked in a soft voice, clearly amazed, but bereft of fear.

     "Some, I had orders . . . some, I wanted to," Rei admitted, embarrassed by the admission, "I was with the rescue force at Valarion Rock, I am very good with a crossbow," Rei blushed at that.

     Asuka nodded, "Thank you," she said, obviously remembering the sudden death of an archer who would have killed her, if he had lived an instant longer.

     Rei moved close again, saw the flash of wariness as she took Asuka in her arms.  `Mein Grossfeldmarschall` will not permit herself to cry, Rei thought, Not with me in the room.  But her fellow pilot laid her head on Rei's shoulder.  "I do not think you are any less beautiful than when I first saw you," Rei said, remembering how she had held and soothed Nabiki-kun, "Or that you are any less worthy than you were when you rescued a little girl you did not know.  Please allow me to continue to love you, the magnificent Asuka Soryu Langley, my Mein Liebling Grossfeldmarschall."

     Asuka snorted in laughter at that, as Rei intended.  "You are nuts."

     "As are you," Rei replied more seriously, "Or you would not desire to pilot.  I cannot undo what has been done.  I cannot guarantee it will not happen again, but I will do my best to see it does not."

     "Thank you."

     "I ask that you do not send me away.  Strike me, say what you will, demand my excellence, if that is your need, but do not abandon me."

     "You need to bask in my magnificence?" Asuka asked.

     "You are . . . warm, in a way I cannot understand," Rei admitted, "In a way I lack and need."

     Asuka was silent for a while before she broke the hug.  "I could have hurt you."

     "Only by sending me away," Rei assured her, "I will be in my room across the hall."  Asuka appeared perplexed.  "The Fourth established it, most curious."  Then she said softly, "If you need to speak, or an audience while you throw things and yell - "

     "Why you - !" Asuka began and was interrupted by Rei kissing her on the nose.

     "I like apples," Rei said as she slipped off the bed, "My room is across the hall."  She walked out of the room through the door, closing it quietly behind her.  She didn't know if Asuka would seek out her companionship, or anyone elses'.  I had felt terribly alone in that alley, enemies on all sides.  Then I needed a safe rest, she provided all, Rei thought, It was a debt I had to at least try to repay.

     She entered her room and found the Fourth waiting for her.  "Is she okay?" the Fourth asked as she dropped out of the handstand she had been doing.

     "No," Rei answered, "This process will require time.  Rather than Nabiki-kun, who required sympathy and reinforcement, Asuka requires diversion and problems or puzzles to solve."

     " 'Asuka'?" the Fourth asked.

     "That is her name," Rei replied.

     The Fourth retreated, waving her hands placatingly.  "Gahhh!  I didn't mean anything by it!" the Fourth offered desperately.

     I have a use for you, Rei thought, Better to have you within the plan than outside it.  "You will play the clown," Rei told the Fourth, "You are both well-suited and highly skilled."

     "Gee, thanks," the Fourth said with a smile, "I think."


     Misato drove by her apartment.  She had discovered Asuka had not pestered the medical staff into letting her out of the infirmary, and had chased Ranma out.  Yet both Ranma and Rei remained close to Asuka.  Nobody's explanation of what had happened made any sense.  Rei remained behind, just outside the room, Misato thought as she looked around the garage, peering into the shadows for any threat, Probably as much by her desire as Commander Ikari's request.  What's she going to do?  I don't know.  Maybe Rei thinks she's 'flying close escort' for Asuka.  But what about Ranma?

     As she headed up the stairs, she considered what little she had learned and what little she could do.  "Ranma should already be at Sammi's apartment, once they checked it out, and since Ritsuko and company won't be coming home soon, a quick sweep of her place is all that's needed there.  And I spend the night alone in my apartment."  I should turn it into a party, she thought, but was too glum.  She opened the door and saw Penpen looking downright grim.  And how did you find out what's happening? she wondered as she closed the door and swept the empty apartment in case there was a surprise waiting for her.

     "Misato-san, I'm going to bed," she said in a tone like Shinji's.

     "It's still early!" Misato replied in her own voice as she went to the refrigerator and extracted a beer, sat at the table in the darkness and drank it.  She looked at the illuminated clock, then headed towards Shinji's room.

     Misato looked at the dark, empty expanse, feeling only a void.  Then at the empty can in her hand.  I want more, but I have a job in the morning, she thought, All morning, and probably all day.  "You'll stay in my room tonight," she told Penpen as she stood, "Maybe I should call Hiro.  I really don't want to be alone tonight."  She walked to her room.


     Rei walked slowly through Asuka's dreamscape.  I wanted to speak with her, she thought, Privately, but this . . . She glanced around at the carnage.  The neat little workshop/library that had always been both the Meliorist's and Asuka's sanctuary, had been destroyed.  Tools, books, papers lay scattered with bits of the outer walls that had enclosed them.  The landscape was more like a moonscape: barren rock, gravel, all hard planes and sharp angles.  She glided over it with a delicacy she singularly lacked in the Waking World, with each step she seemed not so much to touch the ground as abide above it for an instant, before moving on.

     "Something exploded within.  I believe I know who," Rei said, and listened for the echo. In this barren place, there should be one, but there is not.  I know who, but I do not know how or why.  She walked through the ruins.  A slight breeze stirred the occasional loose page, but no other sound came to her.  My senses normally assault me with too much, here there is almost nothing.  Faint sounds, no smells, even the wind is almost too faint to feel, she thought as she picked her way through the tumbled masonry.  She breathed deep, trying to smell the charred odor that should have lingered after such a blast.  She smelled nothing.  As she passed among the tumbled boulders that had once been the outer walls, she struggled to keep her footing on the shifting gravel.  It is wrong that there is so much emptiness and so little to feel, she thought, the beginnings of fear began to gnaw at her resolve.  She considered retreat, What would I do then?  Return with the Fourth?  Wait for Shinji-kun to return?  No, that is not an answer.

     One rock, in particular, drew her eye and her curiosity, and where her curiosity led, all of her would necessarily follow.  I do not know why, she thought as she approached it slowly, Perhaps because it is the only large structure to have escaped destruction.  Yet . . . it is oddly compelling, yet I feel I should avoid it, even as I feel it would provide all the answers I require to this mystery.  She edged towards it, examining it minutely with her mundane and supermundane senses. It is stone, sculpted to appear as a half-finished copy of Rodin's 'The Thinker', half hewn from the stone.  What does it contemplate? she wondered as she stepped in front of the statue, Some complex thought, some memory of time's past, some new and profound philosophical insight?  Or as the Fourth insisted, are you merely considering lunch?

     But I can also feel . . . it does not belong here, it is alien, wrong.  Was it left here? she wondered as she made her tentative approach, her growing fear focused on it, gnawing at her, A trap while Asuka lamented her lost refuge.  She felt the anger welling within her, altogether replacing the fear, she knew she did not, and had not, shown either.  There must be something I can do! she thought as she approached.

     In a flash, its eyes opened, twin balls of fire.  Rei couldn't suppress the memory, of Nyogtha facing Cthugha, after the Elder Gods had driven away the latter's reason.  There was the same fiery, all-consuming madness in those eyes.  Rei forced the memory down, and stepped back from the unfolding figure.

     "You are not Asuka, nor are you the Meliorist!  You are an invader and unwelcome!" Rei said as she drew back, back in fear and from the growing heat.  The creature did not crack and ooze as lava would, but moved with smoothness as Fire would, expanding and growing with each step.

     Rei dodged the first blow, and ran at her best speed.  The now colossal figure vomited forth a bolt of pure heat, destroying stones, masonry and other debris, everything it touched and setting everything nearby ablaze.  Rei changed course randomly. To present as difficult a target as possible.  I do not need to turn and watch, she thought, I can feel its approaching footsteps.

     A mad cry of rage echoed across the debris, the first echo Rei had heard.  A blast landing directly ahead, forced her to turn, another in her intended path and one behind her denied retreat.  She looked around desperately. I have never died in dreams, she thought of the huge creature whose outstretched arms seemed to reach from horizon to horizon.  She watched as its mad eyes fixed on her.

     The madness in those eyes held no anger, they only sought to destroy by fire.

     "I will not so easily fall before you," Rei told the creature of black, veined with fire.  Then as it drew back to strike, she began to sing.


     Ranma was in a quandary.  They were all masked, so he hadn't been able to see who they really were, nor could he yank the masks off.  An attack during my sleep isn't unexpected, he thought as he glanced around the city he was in, But this isn't my dream dojo, it's a street.  It doesn't help that all my opponents are girls.  The tight leotards they all wore made it clear they were girls.

     He danced out of the reach of an armed opponent and tried to dodge towards those who only attacked hand-to-hand.  In a normal fight, all of them together wouldn't have had a chance, he thought as he bobbed and wove through the battle field, But they're all girls, and some can twist dreams better than I can.  I doubt the Meliorist or the Dragon will be here.  One of them got a weapon in close, and he was on the defensive.  But I know more about fighting than you do, he thought as he maneuvered, getting two of them close enough, and angry enough, to hit each other, while he got out of the way, That is acceptable.  One girl went sailing away from the fray.

     Another touch by one girl on another, not even a solid blow, and the victim went sliding across the pavement.  That's going to hurt a lot, he thought without sympathy.

     "Keep it up!" he teased, "Two down, eighteen to go!"  He backed towards another girl as his target charged.


     Yuki came to a stop, from Harumi's blow, at another boy's feet.  He stared down at her with placid eyes as he leaned against the building she'd almost crashed into.  Yuki winced at the injury the blow and the `road rash` had inflicted, it had torn her sleeve and the skin beneath.  In the real world I would be horrified by the damage, in dreams I can repair it.  Given some time, she thought as she looked up at the boy in a uniform from another school.  "Aren't you going to help me up?" she asked the boy, extending her hand, "A gentleman would help a lady up."

     "You hurt Asuka," he replied in a controlled tone, staring down, making no effort to move.

     Yuki stood up on her own, cursing her unsteadiness.  She towered over the boy, he gave ground slightly, pressing against the building.  "Yeah, she's a loudmouthed, arrogant, self-important bitch who needed to be taken down a notch.  So I did, and there's nothing you can do about it."  She poked him in the chest, he drew back a little from her actions.  Then she recognized the boy as she stared at him.  Ikari Shinji, she thought, He's as wimpy as I was told, yuck, his girly can have him!  "I haven't touched your precious Rei, so there's nothing you can do."  She looked him over.  "Especially considering how important it must be for you to hold up that building."  Ikari smiled and stepped away from the building.


     Shinji watched 10 floors of brick facade descend on the girl, who'd orchestrated the attack on Asuka.  No, I don't love her, Shinji thought, Sometimes I hate her, but Asuka didn't deserve what happened to her.  The faint moan from beneath the bricks told him he'd done enough.  Rei or Raccoon might have finished you off, he thought, But I'm not a killer, yet.  "Enjoy healing those injuries though," he told her, then turned to look at the fighting, "I think Ranma just needs one little change, then he can win."  Shinji closed his eyes and concentrated fully.  The truths he had learned on his journey coursed through his mind.  Not that I fully understand them, he thought as the environment changed at his order, But I am learning.  And I am eager to talk to the others about what I have discovered.  He opened his eyes and examined the remade world.  I doubt Toji will be happy about it, he thought, And Kensuke will feel left out.  But he's the lucky one.


I Do Begin To Have Bloody Thoughts

     Ranma heard the scream from behind him.  He turned in time to see the face of the building drop on one of the girls, like the fist of an angry god.  Shinji stood there, he waved at Ranma and vanished.  Another odd, pitch-changing scream from the girls around him returned Ranma's attention to the present.  The skin-tight leotards revealed the truth.  The girls were girls no longer, they were clearly guys, who were discovering their clothes were tight in the worst possible places.

     Shoulders too wide, they'll bind up on you and slow you down, Ranma thought as he cracked his knuckles, That's why I wear loose clothes.  He prepared to `explain` things to these `boys`.

     Stop, he told himself, As fun as it would be . . . that isn't what I have to master.  If I'd finished my work on the martial arts for the others . . . but I think I can give them a nightmare.

     "DIE FOUL SORCERER!" chorused from a dozen throats, ringing through the alley, along with the ring of drawn steel.

     "Go get'em big guys," Ranma said as he strained to maintain control over the apparitions he'd created, and was ignored by the advancing wave, as he intended.  They, who he'd summoned from another dream, passed by him as if he weren't even there.  "Let's see, what or who do I send in next?"  Difficult to hold, but . . . that's what training is about, he thought as he strained, shutting out the screams, both the idiotic warcries, and the pain that followed them.


     "Listen Spymaster Tendo," Maya told her as she tucked her into her bunk, before climbing into the upper bunk, "It wasn't your fault what happened, nor is it your fault that you are here on a mission, instead of there.  Who knows what would have happened if it had been one of the others, instead of you two.  They might have tried to fight it out."

     "Analyst Ibuki, it wasn't the failure of Security, or the attack itself that hurt him, and Asuka.  It was the thirty plus onlookers who wanted to see the show, that is what hurt them.  Thirty or so otherwise normal, law-abiding citizens, who couldn't wait to see a white-skin get beaten up and raped.  Thirty people, just like the ones around you and me every day, every hour, every minute.  Think about that, Analyst.  Think about suddenly being surrounded by enemies, who smile and bow, and hate you with every fiber of their being."  It isn't true, she thought tiredly, But I bet that's what it feels like to them.  It's a feeling I know a bit too well, lots of the people back home would have loved to see me in the same situation.  Humbled, humiliated, beaten, even raped, as long as they could watch or listen.  Nabiki sighed, pulled the curtain aside and stared out the window, "Concentrate on why the attackers had a connection with Security, that's the only way they could have gotten so close without being cut to pieces.  That's the other factor.  Here you and I are, surrounded by U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy, safe.  Until that same guarantee can be extended to the pilots in Japan, you won't get them back, you won't get their full trust."  'Get them back,' Nabiki thought, Even I don't know if I mean revenge or the trust of the pilots . . . or both.

     Nabiki was exhausted, but still wide awake, listening to Ritsuko and Jeff talking quietly in Jeff's cabin.  She lay there until she couldn't hear them.  I wonder what's going on, Nabiki considered, Is it mother and son, or chaste lovers?  And why am I jealous?  What I really wish was that Ranma was here, so I could protect him, and I could feel better.


August 8, 1947

     The footfalls were heavy, swirling the dust and ash as they fell.  Claws scratched through the debris, yellow eyes searched the utter devastation.  Where have you gone? the Scholarly Dragon asked of the Meliorist, wherever she was.  I know what has happened, he thought, But if you disappear, I can't help you.

     Eyes are useless, nothing to see except ash and stone, ears only good for hearing my footsteps, he thought as he raised his head above the drifting dust and ash, and breathed in, slowly, deliberately.  Mixed in the melange of burnt paper, scorched wood, molten metal and calcined stone, there was the odor of seared flesh.  . . . and tears, he wondered as he headed in the direction his nose led.

     He tried to step down as carefully as he could, to stir up as little as possible.  A gnat flying over this would stir up fly-ash, he thought, trying to let his nose guide him, Trying not to sneeze.

     The lump was nondescript, as gray and ash-covered as everything else.  But it's different, he thought as he reached down and nudged it lightly with his armored nose, Resilient, not rock or a pile of ash.  He breathed on the lump, just warm air, rather than his much more potent breath weapon, sending the ash flying, leaving more details revealed.

     The ash-gray face turned towards him, staring.  The tear-filled, blue eyes stared out of the ash-gray face.  Even her much-shortened, red hair was so covered with gray ash that it blended seamlessly with her skin.  She said nothing, looking away in shame.

     He breathed on her again, again just air, sending more of the ash and dust flying, enough so her tears could cut through some of the layers of grime.  She turned to look at him, staring into his eyes, something most people assiduously avoided.

     "You did not kill her," he said quietly, wishing he was the boy instead, being more comforting, he also noted the places where the ash had caked.  Ayanami was not the only one wounded it seems.  "She did flee," he continued, "But she was very much alive."

     "She . . . she said - " Asuka flickered, shifting among Asuka's, the Meliorist's and a baby-Asuka's forms, before settling as Asuka.  "She said she lo - "  She bowed her head.  "And I hurt her.  I was so . . . angry . . . I just wanted to hurt someone back."

     "I could carry you to the front lines.  There are reports of the spiders massing, driving the men of Leng before them."

     "I could, but I hurt her," Asuka whispered, "She tried to help, and I hurt her."

     "Then it is forgiveness you need.  To give it for her not getting out of your way quickly enough, and to receive it for what you did after," the Dragon said as he picked her up, unwilling to accept any excuses or refusals.  Not that she is capable of resistance on that level, he thought as he cradled her form and leapt aloft, winging his way between the dreamscapes again.

     The vast field of glowing, opalescent pearls failed to interest Asuka as it always had in the past.  The one dead, gray sphere, like a missing tooth, still bothered him.  But I have a different destination, and no time to mourn what has been lost, he thought as he entered a sphere and landed among the cutaway drawing, half-buildings and many incomplete concepts that littered the place.  He picked up Ayanami's scent, the `active` one's.  He carried his package in that direction, walking on three legs, Asuka cupped in his remaining hand.  He set Asuka down, as the others, dozens of Reis of various ages, came out of their places.  Some followed along, some reached over to touch Asuka's hair or her hands as she walked.  One or two of the `older` ones ran to some place and returned with buckets of soapy, warm water and bundles of soft cloths.  They walked alongside, gently wiping away the grime and soot from Asuka as she walked.  Poor girl doesn't know how to take that, the Scholarly Dragon thought as he followed the throng, Have to be ready to restrain Asuka should she break and run.  But I think she's too frightened even to do that.

     Instead, Asuka suddenly fell to her knees, buried her face in her hands, broke down and cried.  The cloud of Reis knelt with her, taking the opportunity to lay a hand on her, look at her with curiosity and sympathy.  The youngest Rei sat in front of Asuka, looking at her with rapt intensity, as if seeing who and what Asuka was for the first time.  Asuka couldn't look at her.

     Two more Reis approached, operating together rather than as the independents that surrounded Asuka, touching, washing or staring at her.  Constant movement, constant activity, but little noise and no talking.  Asuka's quiet grief mingled with the sursurrations of the Reis' movements.  The pair stood at the perimeter, looking at Asuka, looking at the Scholarly Dragon, as if unwilling to break the tableau, as if understanding that Asuka desperately needed the attention/affection, without strings, without remuneration or reciprocity expected.

     The cloud of Reis drew away, leaving Asuka somewhat clean and wrapped in a clean sheet, as Rei approached with her mirror-image companion.

     "Are you all right?" Rei asked as she knelt before Asuka, exactly where the littlest one had.

     "Am . . . I . . . ?" Asuka whispered as she looked at Rei, then looked down at her own hands on her legs.  "Am I . . . ?  I thought I'd killed you."  She looked up, gave Rei a wan smile.  "It seems there is a side-effect of the 'Make me mad to make me happy' operation."

     "Yes," Rei agreed, "The dosage and application must be monitored more carefully."

     "I . . . I'm sorry.  I didn't . . . actually I did try to kill you," Asuka said, "But I . . . "

     "You did not succeed," Rei said, "I fled and was not injured.  You failed, but do not regret it," Rei added, "Something to consider."

     "Yes," Asuka said, smiled for an instant as Rei often did, "I guess my first failure wasn't as bad as people warned me it would be."

     "I am pleased it has not destroyed you," Rei commented, "I did not realize you were the statue."

     The other 14-year-old Rei knelt behind Asuka, wrapping her arms around Asuka's waist and shoulders, then laying her head on Asuka's shoulder.  Asuka looked as if she'd been stabbed and the knife was twisting in her now.

     By slow stages, Asuka relaxed again, Rei watching closely, the Rei behind her neither tightening nor relaxing her grip.  Asuka grew used to the figure just holding her.  Asuka looked up at Rei who looked back passively.

     "After all I've done to you," Asuka asked quietly, "Why don't you hate me?"


     Rei considered the question in confusion.  "Why should I?" she asked.  There is neither purpose nor point, she thought as she considered the question further, And many contraindications that occur frequently.  Rei was still mystified by the question.

     "Because I . . . " Asuka began, then fell silent.

     "You attempted to hurt me?" Rei asked, trying to probe the tangle further, "You did not succeed."  Rei thought again, I do not understand.  But Mrs. Simson suggested looking at the problem from a completely different `agnal` to gain additional insights.  "You were angry," Rei said quietly, "There are times when my rage consumes me, reason flees and all I can do is stand and let it burn itself out."

     "You get angry?" Asuka seemed completely shocked, her tone, expression and cocked head indicated that.

     "And then I must be still," Rei admitted, "Or I fear I will lose myself - forever."  In reply Asuka simply stared at her with her eyes and mouth wide.

     All you could do to truly anger me, Rei thought Would be to take Shinji-kun away from me.  It seems I have already accomplished that.  If he were to return, I would again be complete.  She noted the other Reis returning, approaching in fits and starts.  Like a school of fish, or a flock of birds.  I will not react to them, Rei thought, I will let Asuka react as she wills.

     She noted that some closed on the Scholarly Dragon, who shied away.  Perhaps that is the answer to the impasse among the Fourth, Nabiki-kun and Roku-kun, she thought as she watched the huge creature step gingerly out of the `trap`, then take to the skies.

     "Interesting," Rei murmured about the fleeing monster, then returned her attention to Asuka, who seemed to be studying her with equal intensity.  The other Reis closed in on Asuka, slowly, carefully as if fearing to frighten her away as they had the Scholarly Dragon.  Those who were closest, laid a single hand on her, again, extremely carefully.  As if they fear she will shatter or flee, Rei thought as she watched patiently.

     Then the littlest one began to sing, a song Rei recognized and had taken great pains to learn. The one you first sang to me, Rei thought of Asuka.  The little one wove a Song of healing into the music, a feeling of peace and safety was picked up by each Rei in turn.  A Song to heal Asuka's battered body wove in and out, undetectable as one Rei then another took it up and relinquished it.  The touches also soothed the fiery redhead, the song Asuka had sung to another frightened little girl long ago brought her to tears.  Tears of joy and nostalgia, which Asuka wept unashamedly.


     "Are you asleep?" Maya asked.

     "No," Nabiki answered, uncharacteristically laconic.

      She doesn't want to talk about it, Maya thought, She doesn't want to think about it anymore.  But I have to talk to somebody about it.

     "What happened, what really happened?  I haven't read the reports yet, but what do you think is going on with Asuka and Jeff?"

     "They aren't safe and nobody but the other pilots gives a damn," Nabiki told her, "Not Security, not the crowd, not you, not anybody at NERV.  It's not accurate, but a couple of coincidences make me suspicious, and I'm not likely to be the next victim.  Raccoon would be, Ayanami and Asuka are.  I, I'm protected by distance and the color of my skin.  Oh joy.  That isn't the truth, but I bet that's part of what's going through their heads.  And who is there for them?  Stoneface?  Our resident lush?  The Admiral?  No, just each other, the pair most poorly suited to subtle human interaction.  And you wonder why Raccoon has been beating his head against the walls."

     Maya shivered at the emotionless recitation.  I've been through the mess of proving myself as an officer, instead of being just a woman, Maya thought, I still have to prove myself continuously.  My family still doesn't understand why at my age, I'm not married with a bunch of kids.  Sempai and the others at NERV ignored that out of necessity, especially with the pilots.  'The Children' was the singular and collective noun used, we never separated them into groups by gender or nationality.  I guess that's bothering me too.  I do have a bunch of kids, two on this train, four more in Tokyo.  If I was there instead of here, I could help.  Asuka has been valuable property, first to the Axis, then to the Allies; Jeff is an American, who are kings of the world if you listened to some.  To have that shattered and their difference and defenselessness thrust on them, must be jarring in the extreme.  I'm not in the command hierarchy, I don't have to maintain the separateness the Commanders, the Admiral, and Major Katsuragi do.  I can be `big sister`, like I have for Nabiki and Raccoon.  "What do we do?"

     "Is there anything you can do?" Nabiki replied, "They had trust, and it hurt them.  We non-Aryans didn't keep our word.  Asuka's no Nazi, and what's left of Jeff's hatred is political, not racist or cultural.  The hatred of unreasoning hatred, that's what the war was about in his mind.  Asuka hates anyone better than her, regardless of race, color or gender.  But she strives to make sure they're close to her skill level.  She's surprisingly open-minded, the whole world is equally beneath her, and should try to catch up.  Now they get this: Langley isn't good enough to protect herself, Jeff couldn't protect her and . . . "  The silence dragged on.

     Nabiki can't bring herself to say it, Maya realized, 'It's just words, no it's the thought that drives them.'  "They, the pilots, put their lives and sanity on the line for the people at home, and it didn't matter, doesn't matter, not to anyone."

     "Just dirty gaijin," Nabiki said flatly, "What happens tomorrow?"

     "What about it?  Lunch for us, it already is 'tomorrow'.  We go where we're ordered to, not as if we have a choice to jump off the train."

     Nabiki was silent for a while, as if considering, "Rei and Ranma are the wildcards.  Has she ever disobeyed direct orders?"

     "Never."  Maya couldn't conceive of Rei going against orders.  And it's hard to imagine her acting without orders, Maya thought.

     "Then I guess I'll have to run interference for him, and pray there's someone for her."

     "For what?" Maya asked.

     Maya heard Nabiki shaking her head, "Think about it in military terms.  His ally has been driven from a secure location, flanked on both sides, what do you do when that happens?"

     "Counterattack, retreat or dig in somewhere," Maya told her, "If you can."

     "That's what happens when it's you getting hit.  What do you do when it's somebody else?  We can't do the first or the last.  We can't 'march to the sound of the guns' either.  That leaves retreat, or waiting.  Which do you want to do?" Nabiki asked innocently.

     Maya considered, I don't have an answer.  I can only do what I can.  She rolled over and went to sleep.  Her dreams were distinctly unpleasant.


     Shinji watched, feeling the inevitable approaching.  I don't want to understand what's happening, he thought sadly, People . . . I shouldn't know when someone is going to die.  But . . . I do know, I can see it.  He watched the sheet covering the wounded woman's chest rise and fall.  The oxygen tent assisted her shallow breathing in keeping her alive.  But it isn't enough, Shinji thought, Something is wrong, I wish I could describe it.  Raccoon couldn't, but we both watched Sharon go through it.  And the rest . . .

     "Shinji?" Erin asked as she sat up.

     Part of her sat up, he thought as he took a step back.

     "I thought you were unconscious," Erin said, as she frowned in confusion.

     He was disturbed by her slowly increasing transparency.  "I am," Shinji replied, "Sort of . . . I'm not really but . . . it's . . . complicated.  I . . . I don't think you really want to understand it."

     "Then . . . oh God," she sobbed as she covered her face.

     He wanted to comfort her somehow, but he had no idea how.  "I . . . I'm sorry," he stammered, "I just . . . "

     "It's all right.  It's all right," she told him, tears still streaming down her face, "I just . . . wanted more out of my life, not that I regret what I've done.  I just wanted more."

     "Yes."  It's all I can say, he thought in his misery.

     "Please tell Asuka it wasn't her fault.  I volunteered.  I knew what the risks were, and have Admiral Simson wire my folks.  See if the wild child - " she stopped, fading slowly into transparency, when she began again, it sounded as if she were miles away.  "Tell them that I served my country, and I hope I made them proud."

     "I will," Shinji promised, but he knew she wasn't there anymore.  She found her own way, he thought, I didn't have to lead her, that's something else I wish I didn't know.  Damn you Raccoon, I don't need to know any of this!  "Paradise, punishment, or a new life," he murmured, "But I know that's forever closed to me, to us, to the Children.  We will live or die, and that will be the end for us.  Suddenly, it makes a difference."  He got up suddenly, and marched to his next destination.

     It was a railcar he found himself in.  Very different from my dream, Shinji thought, And this time I'm not alone.  "It isn't your fault," he said.

     Shinji smirked as Raccoon started and stared at him in shock.

     Raccoon exhaled.  "Okay, I'm dreaming, not daydreaming.  I keep forgetting what fast learners the Children are," Raccoon groused, "One time and suddenly you're an expert.  What brings you here?"  He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.

     "Asuka," Shinji replied, watched Raccoon freeze and his face darken.  Shinji took a step back.  "She - "     

"I know," Raccoon cut him off with a word and a wave, "I picked that time to teach Miss Tendo a scrying spell, I watched - I felt - the whole thing.  And what can I do, teleport the distance?"  Raccoon stood and paced.  "And do what?  Spend a month locked up explaining how I got there, before I saw her?  Kill whomever did it?  As if that would help anything."  The room expanded to accommodate the two boys.

     Shinji watched Raccoon warily.  I got that angry each time the Angels attacked, every time I fought them, he thought, But I had a target, he doesn't . . . except maybe me.

     "So there is precisely nothing I can do that won't make it worse.  Except wait.  That's the same as doing nothing," Raccoon fumed and fulminated.

     He's acting more like Asuka than Asuka usually does, Shinji thought and hid a smile.  "You could trust Ranko and Ayanami-san," Shinji suggested quietly, then felt Raccoon's stare practically burning a hole in him, "That wasn't what I was going to ask about.  Those thrones.  One of them has my name carved in it, in a language I didn't recognize or understand, until I laid eyes on it, now I understand it completely."  I'm glad I've got him working on a puzzle, Shinji thought, It means I'll probably live through this.  "Asuka's name is carved on another.  I'm guessing the decorative carvings on the others are all names, some I can read, although I don't recognize the names, some I can't even recognize as words.  What are they?"  He watched Raccoon continue to pace.

     The question seemed to have sapped the anger out of Raccoon.  "Yes, you would ask me to solve one of the deepest mysteries of the universe first thing in the morning."  He stopped, stared at Shinji.

     "Sorry."

     "And that makes it better?"  Raccoon's temper flared for a moment, but as subtly and furtively as Rei-san's.  "You say 'sorry' when you step on your own shadow, and you expect an apology would make the slightest - "  He stopped speaking, frowned and took a deep breath.  Then he drooped as if he couldn't sustain his anger, however deeply he tried to hide that he was angry.  "I am sorry . . . Asuka is . . . my oldest friend, the only one left from the old days.  Do you . . . no, you don't know how rare that is.  She's in trouble . . . and there's nothing I can do."  He paused to let himself calm down again.  "I in no way mean to take it out on you, if I have, or I do, you have my sincerest apologies."

     "You even apologize better than me," Shinji teased, smiling "She does have friends in Tokyo too."

     Now Raccoon looked embarrassed, as he rolled his eyes.

     Odd, now I'm not afraid of him, Shinji thought as he watched the other boy start pacing again, Once I knew he wasn't mad at me.  I hope this goes away when I wake up, it's too weird guessing how people will react, and always being right.

     "It's my responsibility, not theirs," Raccoon said as he walked past Shinji.

     "You should let it be their responsibility," Shinji suggested and backed away from Raccoon's seemingly innocuous stare and frown, because he somehow knew it wasn't.  "The chairs," he suggested to change the subject.

     Raccoon threw up his hands.  "Nobody knows.  They and the rest of the tower were here before the universe, supposedly they'll be here after it's gone."

     "With our names on them?"  Shinji grimaced.  I don't like what that implies, he thought, As if all this is fixed and fated, and we have no say in the matter.

     "My name isn't there," Jeff corrected, "Although maybe I just can't read it, but then, neither could anybody else, until now."

     "So, the names might . . . change?" Shinji asked hopefully.  I can get out of this? he wondered.

     "Maybe, or perhaps Shinji Ikari has saved the universe over and over and over again."  Raccoon raised himself to his full height, before bowing low.  "A true and shining hero."

     Nobody would believe I'm a hero, Shinji thought as he idly considered kicking the prostrate Raccoon, Or useful.  "He only wants to use me," Shinji shot back, realizing Raccoon was trying to divert him.  I've learned something of that too, he thought.  "All he cares about is that I can pilot the EVA," he continued with his near-mantra.

     "Funny that," Raccoon said as he stood, "He could have summoned me, Jason, Sharon, Asuka or Anna, as pilots.  But the guy with all that pressure bearing down on him," he told Shinji as he stepped close, "Calls up Shinji Ikari.  The guy who demands precision and excellence from everything and everyone, and the only pilot he specifically calls up is you."  He poked Shinji in the chest with his finger.  "Ranma was an accident, Asuka and I were foisted off on him, Nabiki was called up by order of MacArthur's command.  Maybe he is a hard-driving, humorless monomaniac.  But when he really needed reinforcements, he called you.  Maybe he doesn't love you, but he has high expectations for you.  Think you can live up to them?" he asked, with an `all-knowing` smirk.

     Shinji hid his own smile as he thought, Got you!  "Think I'm good enough to look after Asuka for you?" Shinji asked as innocently and shyly as he could, and treasured Raccoon's shocked expression that he'd been outargued.

     "Try that again when I'm awake," Raccoon growled as he turned away and resumed pacing.

     "So what are those thrones?" Shinji persisted, "Are there 28 Children?"

     "Have you heard of any of the others?" Raccoon asked, "The other names you could read?"

     "I . . . " Shinji stammered, "Our class, some of them . . . Hokari Hikari, Suzuhara Toji, others."  Shinji shook his head.  "I don't want them to be like us.  To know what we have to know . . . to do what we'll have to do . . . I . . . couldn't do that to them," Shinji said shamefully and bowed his head, clenching and unclenching his fists in frustration.  I can't run away from this, he thought, Because it . . . I would be wherever I ran away to.

     "That still leaves the question of 'who', and no one has gotten, or should I say, recorded an answer," Raccoon explained.

     "So there's more like us, or did they make extras?" Shinji asked.

     "Maybe, maybe it's a metaphor for something else.  Maybe it's a practical joke, something to gnaw eternally at the overconfident and supposedly omniscient," Raccoon suggested, shrugged, "I do know that the Mi-Go won't go near those three towers and are terrified of the city around them.  The Cthulhi record their existence, but no occupation was even attempted, and since they'll take any uncontested real estate, especially presized for them, it is even more mysterious.  The Great Race have no record, beyond that the place exists.  You may have been the first being to walk there in nearly a hundred million years.  All the ancient races mention prominently that the place is unimportant and they didn't stay there."  He stopped and turned to face Shinji, who gulped and took a step back.  "Ancient maps used to have 'There be Dragons', this place has 'It's boring DO NOT GO THERE!' stamped on it.  I find the whole thing curious, and it appears in the Dreamlands of no race I've ever heard of.  So, it's a riddle, or an enigma, or a joke.  Nobody knows."  He shrugged again.

     "Maybe we'll find out," Shinji suggested.

     Raccoon shook his head, "Maybe.  I'm going to deeply investigate the effect of sleep on wounds."

     "I'll see you when you get back to Tokyo," Shinji said as Raccoon and the railcar faded from sight.

     Shinji woke and glanced around.  He recognized the ceiling.  That's a too familiar ceiling, he thought of his only source of amusement when he lay in the hospital bed, imagining shapes and patterns in the uneven paint.

     He carefully climbed out of bed, unhooking the IV stand that had fed him while he was unconscious.  Boy am I hungry! he thought as he walked along.  He headed almost instinctively towards one room in particular.  He saw none of the night staff.  Either they're invisible or they're on break, he thought as he walked.  He pushed open the door and walked in.  Rei looked up from where she was sitting with Asuka sleeping soundly, practically curled up in Rei's lap.

     Rei smiled, the smile that always seemed to brighten the whole world for him.  Just as quickly it was gone.  But I saw it, he thought, then froze as Rei put her finger to her lips and pointed at Asuka.  Shinji nodded as he approached as quietly as he could, hooking the stand into the bracket on the bed.  Asuka's asleep? Shinji wondered, What all has happened since . . . ?  He looked closely at his sometime nemesis as she moved slightly, as if sensing another presence in her vicinity.  Rei laid a hand on Asuka's shoulders, quieting whatever nightmares plagued the redhead.

     Asuka was still crying in her sleep.  Shinji covered his mouth and nose so his breath wouldn't disturb `Mein Grossfeldmarschall`.  He stared in amazement at puffy cheeks and the occasional tear that slipped from the sleeping girl's eyes.

     "Mutti," she murmured quietly.  [Mama]

     Shinji straightened up and smiled, Rei gave him another of her too brief world-illuminating smiles.  So, she's as much a kid as the rest of us, he thought, glanced at Rei, who nodded slightly, as if she had the same thought.  Shinji leaned closer to Rei, Rei leaned closer to Shinji.  Rei closed her eyes, waiting.


I Am Free Of All Prejudice

     Asuka woke from a bad dream, into a nightmare.  Wondergirl was leaning close to Spineless, and blushing.  Then they kissed.  The pair simply touched lips and stayed there.

     Gott in Himmel. I've got to get a better class of nightmares, Asuka thought of the two robots blushing and smiling at each other as they finally broke off their kiss.  She went back to sleep.


     Asuka woke slowly.  "Guten Morgan," she heard, more through her bones than her ears.  She suddenly realized what or who her `pillow` was.  She sat up and instantly regretted it.  Wondergirl held her upright as the room spun through all four dimensions around her.  Asuka was mortified and nauseated.

     "What - I didn't - Oh God!"  Asuka buried her face in her hands.

     "Are you well?" Wondergirl asked.

     "No, I'm permanently disgraced."

     "You do not appear damaged," Wondergirl told her, looking her over carefully.

     "I told Yuki . . . I'm not going to repeat what I told her," Asuka said, "Then I slept with you."

     "There was no sexual congress, you did not set the bedding aflame," Wondergirl said as Asuka's soul curdled, "You were wounded in body and spirit, there are serious differences."

     "That's not the point," Asuka whispered.

     "Only you and I would know," Wondergirl quietly assured her, "I can keep secrets."

     "Then I want you to keep this secret."  Asuka nodded at Wondergirl.

     "Keep what secret?" Spineless asked as he walked in with breakfast: eggs, sausage and toast.

     "I'm doomed!" Asuka moaned and hung her head.

     "You seemed to enjoy watching us kiss," Spineless said, blushed as he glanced at Wondergirl.

     Asuka felt sick.  "That wasn't a nightmare, this is!"

     "You enjoyed watching," Wondergirl told her calmly, "You slept more soundly afterwards.  Perhaps, we both should have kissed you."

     Asuka blanched and tried to pull away at that.

     "Maybe you'd feel better sleeping with us, in the same room I mean," Spineless said shyly, taking Wondergirl's hand, who nodded.

     Asuka's eyes narrowed.  "This is more of that stupid 'Making me angry so I can be happy' junk!"  Spineless wilted slightly under her assault, she turned to Wondergirl.  "Improper dosing."

     "It is not having the desired effect?" Wondergirl asked, staring at Asuka.

     "Of course not!" Asuka shouted in fury, "I feel worse than ever!"

     Spineless and Wondergirl simply stared at her with matching blank expressions.

     Asuka sighed and `surrendered`.  "Terrific, stupid through binoculars.  You two look exactly the same."

     "Say!  Is that breakfast I smell?"she-Horseface asked as she entered, grinning ear to ear.

     "God, just kill me now!" Asuka lamented, and hung her head again, "This can't get any worse."

     "Would you like something to eat?" Spineless asked tentatively.

     "Sure, shovel it up," Horseface answered before Asuka could.

     "As you can see," Asuka told Spineless as he served, "Since you left us, we haven't improved its manners.  Despite elaborate - HEY!"  Horseface had snatched a morsel off her plate with a pair of chopsticks.

     "Where'd you learn your manners?" Asuka shouted, "In a ba - "

     Horseface silenced her by flipping the food into Asuka's mouth.  "I think she's quieter with her mouth full," Horseface said sagely.

     "I agree," Wondergirl said, nodded as she waited for Spineless to dole things out.

     Asuka glared at them, raised a fist.  "I oughta - "  A piece of sausage silenced her.

     Asuka chewed slowly on the sausage, and moved her plate out of Horseface's reach, glaring at IT the entire time.

     "Oh, a challenge," Horseface said as she bounced from foot to foot, chopsticks tapping out a rhythm like a telegraph key.  Asuka took a large forkful of the eggs and shoveled it into her mouth before Horseface could move in.  Asuka glared at Horseface's eagerness while she fed herself.  Spineless gave a plate to Horseface, a plate of toast to Wondergirl and lastly served himself.

     Sammi, Tomiyo and Juri entered.  The obvious lack suddenly depressed Asuka.  "She died . . . didn't she?" Asuka asked.

     Sammi's embarrassed silence told Asuka everything she needed to know.  She turned away.

     "Are you going to school with us?" Spineless asked hopefully.

     Asuka dropped her gaze to the floor.  "No."  It's cowardice, she thought, If it were an Angel, I wouldn't hesitate.  But going to that stupid school wasn't worth Erin's life.  I can't go back, it's pointless.

     "We must go," Wondergirl said, "They will want medical tests before you can return.  And the Fourth and I must change our clothing."

     "Aren't you afraid the same will happen to you?" Asuka asked Wondergirl quietly.

     "No, I would kill them, you would not," Wondergirl said flatly, frowning slightly as she left.  "Perhaps that is why you were chosen, because they would survive making the attack."

     "Rest," Sammi told her, glancing worriedly at Wondergirl, "There are Marines guarding this wing."  Sammi added something vehement under her breath.  The spoke louder, "There was nothing you could do, none of this was your fault."

     "Then why is Erin dead?" Asuka asked.

     "Because of enemy action," Tomiyo told her as they led the other pilots away.

     "But if I'd run a different way . . . " Asuka said to the now empty room, "It would have been different.  I wouldn't have led her into an ambush.  I'm an experienced officer, I should have seen it myself."

     They might have been waiting there too, a voice told her, one she had dreamed about, over and over, last night, the good times and the bad.

     Momma, she thought back, she started as Juri entered the room.

     "Pilot Langley.  Pilot Ayanami plotted the possible ambush points in the school, and in the vicinity.  Somebody else did to, and they were probably covering all your likely paths."

     "I could have waited.  It's still my fault."

     "No," Juri corrected, "Not this time it wasn't.  Not your fault at all."


     Outside the room, Rei heard Krasnyzamok's, then Juri's words, and Asuka's replies.  I did plot such a possibility, she thought, Security should have held those positions in force.  It would have controlled access in and out.  Yet they were not there.  Were they covering any of the locations?  Or they did not act as they should have at just that location, she wondered about that, Perhaps it is time to consider removal of the 'FUBENS', the Commander's plan does not include the negligent loss of any pilot.

     She walked through the medical wing, feeling the warmth of Shinji-kun's return and feeling guilty she felt so good.

     "Did you get the word on your tryout?" Krasnyzamok-san asked her.

     "No, the alarm cry . . . I did not await the results."

     "How well do you think you did," the Fourth pressed.

     "I believe they would have allowed me in, if I simply expressed an interest," Rei replied, trying to distance herself from the Fourth.

     "Yeah, they were pretty taken with you.  I'm just a little surprised you didn't do that," the Fourth said.  "Or do you feel the need to prove yourself to them?" she added with an unusual tone and expression.

     If the Fourth were Roku-kun or Nabiki-kun, I would say he/she is analyzing my reply, she thought of the Fourth's expectant look, An odd impression.  My words would not be part of the Fourth's interest, only my actions and movements.  "I would not do that," Rei said flatly, "I am complete."  Shinji-kun completes me, I have my function within the Commander's plan and then what will come after, she thought, she found the intensity of the Fourth's gaze disturbing, in its forcefulness and its singularity to her experience.

     She left Shinji-kun to the doctors, and continued to the vehicle that would take them to their apartments to dress, then to school.

     "I can't believe she didn't react to Shinji's return," the Fourth said while slouching along.

     Yes, she did, Rei thought, Just not that you knew of.  She saw him and slept peacefully without bad dreams for the rest of the night.  If that is not a reaction, I do not know reactions.  Rei smiled briefly as she considered the effect of Shinji-kun's return on the current situation.


     The lunch had been quiet.  The stewards brought our food to my cabin without the usual byplay, Nabiki thought, They must have heard.  They all seemed as angry as the rest of us, strange.

     Ritsuko read the report to the three of us, Maya, Raccoon and me.  Rei was still at NERV HQ, watching over Asuka.  Who would have thought? she thought, What was Ranma doing?  Doing his katas, inhaling breakfast and leaving for school?  Because it was easier than dealing with the real problem?  Because he wanted to beat up whatever and whoever did this?  Nabiki remembered Maya making several attempts at conversation, with her and Raccoon, They were met with desultory responses from Raccoon.  It answers the question of what it takes to shut him up, it's information I'd rather not have.  Of course none of us seemed eager to talk.

     The city passing by the train windows was of only vague interest to Nabiki.  Only on the curves did the sight out of the window attract her attention.  Two carriers, she thought, What do we need two carriers for?  The others were packing, she could hear them.  Except me, she thought of the neatly packed suitcases and parcels waiting to be transferred to the carrier, Like I'm helpless.  She frowned at being waited on hand and foot.  All I wanted back `home`, she thought, But it's no fun when they won't let you do something.  I'd like the right to do some things myself.

     "Oh good, you're all packed," Maya said as she poked her head into Nabiki's cabin.

     "Are you sure you don't want to pack me in batting so I won't get chipped or broken during moving?" Nabiki asked archly.

     "Oh, what a wonderful idea!" Maya chirped, "I'll get on it!"  She turned to leave.

     "NO!" Nabiki shouted, practically lunging out of her bunk.

     Maya looked back sheepishly.  "No?" she asked innocently.

     If I could get at you . . . Nabiki thought angrily.  "Can't I do something?"

     "I'm afraid not . . . " Maya said quietly, then brightened, "I could pile all the luggage in here and you could guard it with your life.  But . . . I don't think Dr. Akagi would approve at all, so no I can't do that."  Maya shook her head sadly.

     "I can't even be an inventory clerk," Nabiki complained, "How wonderful.  Raccoon of course is turning handsprings and taking care of everything himself."

     "No, he's still in bed, grousing about it almost as much as you are," Maya said chirpily, "He's just a better sport about it than you are."  Maya caught the thrown pillow and ignored Nabiki's warning growl as she began fluffing it up, with every appearance that she was going to put it behind Nabiki's head.  "Well, you can't have everything."

     "Yes I could," she complained, "I just have to ask for it and half a dozen people will trip over themselves to get it for me."  Nabiki frowned and shook her head.

     "Don't you like being pampered?" Maya teased.

     Nabiki sighed, tired of the game.  "A little is good," she admitted, "But this . . . what have I done to earn it?  How many others died in that fight, and how many were hurt worse than I was?"

     "Most of those hurt worse than you were - they all died," Maya said seriously, "And most of them would have sacrificed their lives to keep a pilot safe.  The mood on this train is ugly.  Everybody has heard about Tokyo.  If the Brothers attacked now, everybody would be in on the fight.  If you are getting angry at being cooped up and being treated as a Tang dynasty porcelain vase, your colleague has been getting lectures about not putting himself in danger.  From soldiers to the conductors to the stewards bringing him tea and orange juice.  The implication is that he should have turned his pistol and yours over to a heavy weapon's team and let them fight it out.  Keep stacking bodies between yourselves and the enemy until they were all killed," Maya told her harshly.  "I think you can imagine how he feels about those lectures."

     Nabiki nodded, subdued for a moment.  "What about the transfer to the carrier, and why are there two carriers?"

     "The second is carrying the families, a reverse of Operation Magic Carpet," Maya explained, "It's fast enough, and it can keep everyone safe.  There's a third to provide air cover."

     "And after what we saw, that we weren't supposed to," Nabiki said, "They are in a hurry to get us back to Tokyo."

     "I think they're also eager to get more U.S. troops over there," Maya said, "Especially security troops.  I thing Kaji-san and the FUBENS have made their last allowable mistake."  She glanced from side-to-side.  "I've had more than three dozen men asking me for a recommendation to be Security.  If I wanted to raise a personal regiment, I bet I could.  It isn't any easier for me, or for them.  Nobody on this train doesn't understand the odds, and what the Angels are capable of.  None of them understand why only pilots can fight them, yet they had proof that it is so.  So, if bringing you two tea and juice is all they can do, that's what they'll do.  It scares me too, with my broken English I can only understand about half of what they're saying to me, but I recognize a salute, and respect.  I didn't do anything to deserve it either, except my job."

     Nabiki had felt like squirming during Maya's entire lecture.  She changed the subject, "So our carrier isn't going to be crawling with kids?"

     "Our Carrier?" Maya asked impishly, "My, how proprietary!"

     "Oh shut up!" Nabiki threw her pillow at Maya again.  Again Maya caught it, fluffed it, and approached.  Maya let Nabiki lunge, before she slipped it behind her.  "All better.  I doubt they'll have our carrier for anything other than combat troops.  We'll be training them in EVA support and other operations.  Frankly, the Navy isn't overjoyed at using Essex-class carriers as transports, but it is the fastest, largest ship they have.  Also, as I said, there will be a third Essex-class carrying aircraft to protect us, as well as surface ships and submarines.  Quite a battle fleet," Maya said, then pointed out the window, "Oh look, a crowd."

     Maya slipped out of the cabin while Nabiki stared in open-mouthed shock at the people, the crowd, the throng, all standing there waving U.S. and NERV flags, some carrying placards.  The signs ranged from professions of love and respect, for her, for Jeff, for the EVA, to marriage proposals for the pilots.  The onlookers were universally screaming their lungs out.

     Me . . . Nabiki thought with a bee in the pit of her stomach.  She happily noted that the train rolled on, so the crowd was there and gone.  Except there was another, larger one further on, and another, and another growing steadily in size and ardor as they approached the Navy Yard.  She dropped back in her bunk.  "Oh GOD!" she murmured, "All those people.  What's gotten into them?  It was mostly kids, shouldn't they be in school?  No, it's still summer vacation in the U.S., isn't it?"  She considered the tableau in fear. Ranma is the one who gets the screaming hordes, she thought anxiously, Not me.  I'm on the sidelines!

     The train entered and continued through the Navy Yard, the double-tracked road led right to the edge of the docks.

     A knock on her door brought her around.  "Enter!" she shouted, shook herself out of the apprehension and shock that had gripped her.

     "I hope you're ready to suit up.  We'll need to move the EVA to the carrier, and traveling by EVA is going to be less embarrassing than having the wheelchair winched up to the carrier deck," Raccoon said, smiling broadly but leaning heavily on his cane.

     And hiding something, Nabiki thought, Probably several somethings.  "Did you see the crowds?" she asked, managing to keep her voice level.

     "I saw them," he replied as nonchalantly as she tried to sound.

     "I hope you understand that despite my hairstyle, I'm no singing Liverpudlian," Nabiki said.

     He shrugged.  "True, but doesn't this outpouring of love and adoration from people you've never met fill you with adulation?  Doesn't the idea of throngs waiting hours to possibly get a glimpse of you just buoy your spirits to the stars?  Doesn't the fact that the only reason they didn't shower your path with cherry blossoms and rose petals is that it would have knocked the train off the track, and that they wouldn't have feared the resulting capital sentence for a moment of being near you, but they didn't want to slow your appointed rounds?  Doesn't it just elate you without limit?"

     "No, no and - no!" Nabiki said quietly. With each of his assertions, I could feel my spirit curdle a little more, she thought as she glared at him. Anyone from Nerima would be cowering and begging my forgiveness, and you just stand there, immune.

     "You shouldn't feel bad," Raccoon told her with a smile, "Everybody in Jerusalem turned out to cheer Jesus.  A little while later, he was flogged and crucified.  People are fickle that way."  He dropped her plugsuit on her bunk.  "Put that on over your cast, and wear a jacket, it's breezy out there.  I'll meet you at the EVA in 10 minutes."  He left her alone with her thoughts and fears.

     She glanced outside at the knots of cheering servicemen and their families.  As the train sat, and all the preparations needed to move the EVA were underway.  Nabiki sat up and looked out the window.  Someone pointed and the crowd went completely nuts.  Nabiki nervously smiled and waved, the crowd went even crazier: chanting, jumping up and down, screaming love and her name and waving their flags furiously.  She watched them pass by as the train moved slowly into position.  Once through the security fence, the crowds were left behind. Oh crap! she thought, What have I gotten myself into?


     She had gotten `dressed`. I never thought a shipyard would be so noisy, she thought of the noises of repairs to the ships and the unloading of the train, Just have to ignore it.

     She'd peeked out of her window and saw only the trucks bringing food and other supplies to the carriers.  She glanced at the jacket she'd gotten out.  It's the middle of August, I'm not wearing a jacket, she thought as she headed out of her cabin.  She hobbled on crutches through the now-empty barracks and stores cars towards the last car before the double-wide EVA flat car.  She paused and steadied herself.  This cast keeps throwing off my balance, she thought, And the sprained wrists makes using the crutches awkward and painful.  She took a deep breath and thought defiantly, But I am not going to show weakness in front of him!  She exited through the door, and froze in shock and dismay.

     The wall of sound that struck her was the first surprise.  The second was seeing Raccoon sitting on the edge of the flatcar, in NERV SAR coveralls, while she was standing there in just her plugsuit.  That fink! she thought angrily, as the noise of the crowd washed over her.  Raccoon pointed at her and said something, and the force of the noise doubled.  She smiled to the crowd and shot Raccoon a LOOK, because she didn't have her pistol.  Oh . . . I am going to KILL you! she thought as she waved weakly, All those sailors and Marines, and I come charging out in a plugsuit.  She kept her temper as dozens if not hundreds of flashbulbs went off.  It covers more than a swimsuit, but its not how I'd like to be remembered.  She considered retreating.  No, I can't move fast enough with my injuries.  Besides, he probably had someone lock the door once I got out here, she thought angrily as she struggled to keep her look determined, rather than pained.

     Raccoon hobbled over, leaning heavily on his cane.

     "The only reason I can't kill you, is all these witnesses," she told him, smiling broadly.

     "I did tell you to wear a jacket," he whispered pleasantly.  He turned to the crowd and announced in a loud voice, "Miss Tendo is delighted you all turned out to see her.  She wishes her injuries didn't prevent her from shaking hands and signing autographs, but she assures you that you have her profound thanks and affection."

     The noise, including a huge number of wolf-whistles, drown out the noise of the shipyard.

     "You - you - you -!" she murmured in Japanese, her rage and frustration growing.

     "Careful, they might understand that much, and isn't 'you' what wives call their husbands?" he said as he smiled and waved to the crowd, "Just play the good soldier and remember, it isn't every day that people see a bona fide hero."  He stepped out of range before she could clobber him with her crutches.

     He walked to the edge of the railcar, "Miss Tendo apologizes for not speaking with you, but her injuries prevent it," Jeff told them, the sounds of disappointed understanding were manifest.  "And she asks you to step back.  We'll be moving the EVA soon and we don't want anyone injured."

     There were murmurs as the Shore Patrol troops got between the crowd and the railcars, and pushed the crowd back.

     "And I thought I was a skilled liar," Nabiki told him in Japanese as he helped her up to the entryplug.

     "Just anticipating what you would say."

     "I guess that's why one side, my side of the train was empty.  Did you plan it that way?"

     "Oh no, I didn't see them either, the other line of cars blocks my view.  You should feel privileged, all I got to look at during the trip was the outside of another railcar," he told her with a smile.

     That didn't answer my question, she fumed silently.  Once they were both in the plug and floating in the L.C.L., she could confront him.  "Do you think this is funny?" she asked angrily, once they were both hooked into the EVA.

     "You need to learn that saying 'I love you' isn't a bad thing," he told her seriously, all joking aside, "Unlike the people of Nerima, they will not use a show of affection on your part as a licence to hurt you."

     The impact of her fists against his chest reminded her that her wrists were still very tender.  "You rotten bastard, you unfeeling, selfish, self-absorbed, brutish, callous - "  She stopped as she realized she was yelling at him in a language she couldn't possibly know.  "Oh my God!"

     "You rang?"

     "That's not funny," Nabiki shouted, "That's not funny at all."  She shivered at the resonance that went through her as he said it.  He's just using that to tease me! she rallied and faced him.

     "Now you understand a little," he told her calmly.

     "Yes, I killed one - sort of."

     "I'm glad you are able to handle it.  I wanted to throw up, but you also see the problem."

     " 'Problem'?  You call it a 'problem'?  I have memories, thoughts, feelings . . . that aren't mine!  I want to tear your heart out . . . or I want to . . . "  She centered herself, put the roiling emotions aside as best she could.  "The Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn wanted to either kill him and take his place, or return to a more balanced rule before he ascended from first-among-equals to absolute-god-king.  They loved him, they hated him, they wanted things to be better between them.  Now you're Chaugnar Faugn and I'm the Brothers, all of them, and I can't - I don't - "  She struggled not to give in to the ferocity that was only partially hers.

     She found herself in his arms, being held, and felt the alien rightness of it.  Now I'm betraying Ranma, she thought as she returned the hug, I should be wanting to do this with him.  But does Ranma want to do this?  I know Ranko does, but not with me.

     "It's all right," Raccoon soothed, stroking her hair, "All of us went through it.  All of us survived and recovered.  You're as strong as any of us.  You'll hold on to who you are."

     She gently pushed him away.  "I don't know who I am.  Everything on this trip has undermined who I am," she insisted firmly.

     "No, it's stripped off the outer layers."  He put his hands on her shoulders.  "Do you honestly think the 'Ice Queen of Furinkan' would have survived around here?  Asuka, or me, or even Rei would have torn her to pieces and scattered the ashes to the four winds.  Nabiki Tendo is no quitter, you're caught between whom you thought you had to be, for your sisters, your father, your family and its honorable survival; and who you really are.  Now who you need to be, is more like who you are, with all the brakes off.  And it scares you, that you would be so admired for doing things that in peacetime you would be ashamed of.  All of us went through it, and all of us had our doubts about ourselves.  Whether we could do what is necessary for humanity to survive, and that we were still good people.  Even Asuka."

     "Yeah?  When did you go through it?" Nabiki asked archly.

     "When Jason, Sharon and I, and 27 others, decided we had to slaughter our 770 brethren.  We faced a choice.  Were we to stand with our 'people', or our creators?  We understood it might mean our deaths, it also meant we'd be killing mercilessly, perhaps killing the innocent along with the guilty.  We were . . . different then.  My talk with what was left of Sharon . . . helped remind me, brought up old memories, old ways of thinking that we, and the Project's doctors and scientists, buried as deeply as they could be.  Now I have them again, but like absorbing Chaugnar Faugn, and the rest, they are available to me, but they aren't me.  That's your problem.  Brown Bess and the Ice Queen are available to you, but they aren't you.  The difference is that you never liked Nabiki Tendo, she was never enough to get the attention, and dare I say it, love you needed.  Suddenly, Nabiki Tendo is all you've got left, and people you've never met, people who don't know you love you, automatically and completely."

     He threw up his hands.  "Maybe like Saotome, you were born for another time, a time when someone hard-edged and cold-hearted would make them a hero, rather than a villain."

     "When did you become such an expert on Tendo Nabiki?" Nabiki asked, her anger gone, instead she felt very small and vulnerable.

     "Several months in a single dream, watching you cry yourself to sleep in the arms of a boy or girl you clung to as if someone would steal one of you away.  Listening to the soft cries as you faced your nightmares, crying out to your mother, or Kasumi, crying out against Akane, or your father.  Watching a socially-inept, slightly-petrified martial artist tell you that he and I were there and we would stay with and uphold you.  Then you'd quiet down and slip into a restful sleep.  There were nights we literally slept in shifts, so we could keep an eye on you the entire night," Raccoon explained.

     "Terrific, make me feel real good and useful," Nabiki lamented, "So I cried myself to sleep every night, clinging to my Ranma/Ranko cuddle toy."     

"What makes you think I am complaining?  Neither Ranma nor Ranko had a problem with it either.  None of the three of us begrudged the effort," he said as he smiled, "If you must put this in a negative light, all three of us deeply resented that we couldn't get at whatever was causing it.  Assuming it wasn't Nerima as a whole, both your memories and the current realities of the place.  Ranko especially hated that none of us could fix it, she took it as a personal affront.  But none of us blamed you, Ranko just wanted to help you."

     Nabiki felt like curling up in a ball, it was the only way to retreat.  "Sorry."  She felt Raccoon grab her shoulders and shake her.

     "Would you kindly listen to what I actually said, instead of assuming I was complaining!?" he asked angrily.  "Part of the reason I `nuked` Saffron and his worshipers was because I had proof that they didn't listen, never changed from their preconceptions.  Are you the same, or can you learn?  Like Ranko and Ranma can?"

     She glared at him, her anger returned, shoving away her self-consciousness.  "Rotten - "

     "Good," he said happily, "Back to normal.  Neither Ranma, nor Ranko, nor I minded looking out for you.  The only thing we didn't like was we couldn't really help you.  Someone important to us was being hurt, and we were standing around - helpless."  He jerked his thumb at the outside.  "The others out there, the ones we're are supposed to protect, they saw the newsreel footage, they heard about the battle.  They heard about a 14-year-old Japanese girl getting torn up and then charging back into the fight to protect and defend United States territory, and you don't think that's worth some respect?"

     "I just wanted to hurt them back."  She considered punching him in the chest, then remembered the pain in her wrists last time.  "Like somebody else.  You know I'm getting tired of this lecture."

     "Oh, others have said the same thing?  And you haven't listened to them either?  I'm honored."

     Nabiki remembered her teeth were undamaged.  No, I don't want to bite him, she thought.  "You tell me," she firmly `requested.`

     "Like I said, Nabiki Tendo has never been valuable to anyone.  You weren't the heir to either your father's or your mother's way of thinking and skills.  Don't frown, Shinji felt the same way.  There are only a handful of people who can pilot.  Do you have any idea what we could demand?"  He smiled at her.  "None of us have, not even you.  We just do the job.  You think that doesn't earn respect?"

     Nabiki looked away.  I've got no answers.  I'm getting more money than I ever wanted or could dream of, and less to spend it on.  But I never even considered asking for more, she thought, Why does it bother me so much?

     There was a buzz and Raccoon looked up.  "Davis here."

     "Why are you just sitting there, and the EVA is growling."

     "Miss Tendo and I are both chewed up, we're trying to smooth out the interface to ignore our injuries."

     "Oh, okay."

     "External phone."  Raccoon cut the connections.  "And you also speak a language you share with only one other person alive."

     "Great," Nabiki said, remembered she was still speaking a language she hadn't been able to speak a short time ago.  "Crap," Nabiki exclaimed, in frustration at the reminder.

     "See, nobody knew you were being unladylike, except me."

     If I tear his heart out and eat it . . . she thought, Would anyone notice, or could I blame it on an accident?  "Oh, let's get moving!" Nabiki said in English, and saw warning signs going off all over the interior of the entry plug.

     "We have to both use the same language," Jeff said in English as he adjusted some settings, "Anything to avoid dealing with the problem.  As you wish."

     She shook her head.  I'm my father's daughter all right, avoid, and run away, Nabiki thought disgustedly, I haven't learned his demon-head/river of tears techniques to force someone else to deal with it, but I have mastered 'you fix it, I can't be bothered.'  Not the wisest course when I want something.  She put that thought aside as Jeff drove the EVA after the jeep with the flashing lights.

     "What's that?  All those posts laying across the carrier's deck?" she asked as she turned to get a better view.

     "I don't know, some kind of reinforcing, I hope," Jeff replied, clearly curious himself, "Raise Doctor Akagi and ask."

     The rest of the short walk was spent in finding out no one was monitoring any of the EVA radio frequencies.

     "'Up Simba, up!'," Jeff joked half-heartedly at the deck handler's gestures, "Keep your mind quiet, I need to use the speakers."

     "And who are - "  The EVA blared before Nabiki caught herself.

     "Do I step on or avoid the concrete pieces?" Jeff asked, cut the connection, "Now you can tell me what you think of me.  The concrete pieces look like 1 by 4's on their wide edge."

     "They're laid clear across the carrier's deck," Nabiki commented as she examined them, "I think they're supports."

     "On it is," Jeff responded to the man's orders.

     "I've got a question," Nabiki said, "What are those things they're loading on the foredeck?  They looked like EVA-scaled knee mortars."

     "The Little David, a 36.25 inch mortar.  I thought there was only one, I guess I was wrong.  But you are right, an EVA could use those as small mortars," Jeff replied as he climbed up on the carrier and down the rear elevator opening into the hanger.

     "Well, that concrete worked.  I don't think we broke the deck this time," Jeff said as he spotted Master Chief Cole in the hanger and waved him over.  "Should the EVA help with the loading?" he asked, "Standing like this, we can pass the loads from hand to hand," then he added, "I'm off."

     "So you stand while I play conveyer belt.  Thanks," she joked.

     Chief Cole picked up the external, ground-crew phone built into the EVA.  "Sorry, you two are to get this thing stowed below and proceed directly to your cabins, and the bunks there in.  Sorry, Dr. Akagi's orders."  He gestured to the teams standing by with stretchers.

     "You have got to be kidding?!" Nabiki exclaimed angrily the EVA's speakers echoing her anger, and the troops drew back.

     "You do realize we're in this EVA, don't you?" Jeff asked warningly.

     Chief Cole just stood there, staring defiantly.

     "Very well," Jeff said, "We'll do it."  He cut the connection.

     "Are you out of your mind?" Nabiki asked angrily, turning him to face her.

     "They don't have the decontam shower set up," Jeff said with a smile, "And we'll climb out of here, soaked in L.C.L., remember your first reaction to that singular smell?"

     Nabiki returned his evil smile.  "Oh, it will be so wonderfully good to let them get a good whiff.  There is a time, a place, and a setting for proper negotiations."


     I was so nice asking them to get me some lemon juice, Nabiki thought exultantly, Once they smelled L.C.L. they would have agreed to anything.  Especially something that eliminated the stench.  Nabiki quickly found the room Jeff was in, after she'd thoroughly showered twice.  Right across the corridor, she thought as she peeked out of her room, How original, and convenient.  She pulled her head back inside her room and closed the door as a patrol walked by in a cross passageway, but didn't walk towards her cabin.  Okay, time for a little subversion of authority, she thought as she hobbled into his room and closed the door behind her.  She was glad he seemed to be awake, lying on his bunk and staring at the ceiling.

     "You okay?" Jeff asked as he turned to look at her.

     "Fell asleep after such strenuous exercise," she paused, "While you're weak and drunk from fatigue, I'm going to point out a few things.  How much of what you were saying was you projecting your feelings, thoughts and fears onto me?"

     "Interesting theory," he replied, "Maybe.  Maybe it was just me talking about how I have been able to look after somebody, and that I can't look after someone else."

     "You don't think Ranma - "  She gritted her teeth.  "And Ranko - can look after her?"

     "No, you don't intimidate Ranma or Ranko as much as Asuka does," he told her as he sat up, "Who else is there?"

     "Rei, Misato, Asuka's friend Hikari, a few others," Nabiki said, sagged into a chair with a grimace.

     "Possibly, unlikely, maybe.  Including Shinji he woke up," Raccoon replied.

     "When did this happen?"  She leaned forward, then painfully sat back as her body complained.

     "Today," Raccoon said, "He talked with me before he said he'd look after her.  Maybe with what he learned - maybe he can."

     "What did he learn?" Nabiki asked eagerly, restrained herself from reacting.

     "Nothing that concerns you, yet," he replied, "You have other lessons I believe.  Unless you aren't interested."

     "I'm interested, because you need a back up, magically, and even you can't be in two places at once, and you'll need to be."  She was glad he smiled, she'd passed another test.  "And if you aren't at least half as bored as I am, you aren't half as smart as I think you are, and that isn't anywhere near as smart as you think you are."

     "I don't think I'm that smart, I just think it's important for everyone to think that I think I'm that smart."

     "Now that I have a headache, I think I'm going to go take a nap," Nabiki teased, then grew serious, "Since I went looking around in your memories, there's a few things you need to know.  My sisters and my father hurt Ranma, it's not important how, and 'why?' is too stupid to talk about.  That's why he doesn't remember.  Suffice it to say, that weird Nerima we found ourselves in, except for the people having faces - often several - that's exactly where my home was, how it was.  I pushed myself forward, because I didn't want him to be alone.  My younger sister . . . Akane . . . I don't think she meant to hurt him, but she's the Worlds' Champion for jumping to conclusions, and then acting as if those conclusions were reasonable.  She could take two plus two and come up with nine, to the 47th power."

     "Yes, I lived with Maya as her, for longer than you lived with the original.  He isn't . . . I don't like him, but I wouldn't abandon him."  He sniffed, "It just isn't done, Honor of Harvard and all that."  He gestured loftily.

     "Since I'm asking you to share secrets, I have to share one.  I was born in 1975, Ranma and I came from 1992, we'd never heard of the Great Old Ones, or EVAs, or anything like that, before we came here."  She stared at him, he seemed to be digesting this.

     "Another Universe," he murmured, "Different physical laws."

     "I don't know.  I never was much of a scientist.  The people were different in attitude, but we'd been at peace since 1945."

     "I assume the technology was vastly different?"

     "Jet aircraft, desktop computers, rockets to other planets, cures for smallpox, measles, rubella, others.  Just like the weird Nerima in the dream, that was the . . . future I guess, and my past or present."

     "Then why would you want to learn my tricks?  I can't match many of those things."

     "I'm here," Nabiki told him, leaning forward, and fighting to not react to the pain.  "I'm going to stay here until the job is done."

     "Then go home?"  A personal, rather than professional question, he was asking.

     Nabiki had no answer, "I don't know.  Home is . . . "  She shook her head.  "Home is home."

     Jeff considered, "Have you ever seen the Sorcerer's Apprentice or heard the story?  From Fantasia or elsewhere?"

     "Yes, and I get the message: 'Don't fool around with the Master's tricks.'  Or at least be careful enough that you don't get caught."

     "The latter is by far the most accurate," he explained, "An incurious mage is useless, mages need to stick their noses where they shouldn't, and where they aren't wanted."  He got up and knelt next to her chair.  "Here more than anywhere else I've been."  Jeff pulled out the collar of his shirt, took her hand to trace her finger over the scar over his heart, it was freezing cold to the touch.  "I lied when I said someone tried to - cut - my heart out.  They tried to - rip - it out, after slicing me open.  Such may be the fate of an incautious mage."

     "I've been good at watching my back," Nabiki told him earnestly, "And other peoples."  Leaving her hand where it was, feeling the difference in body temperatures. Trying to ignore the implications, Nabiki told herself, And you think this is a reason that proves you don't need back up, rather than the exact opposite?

     "Except this morning.  God, was it all only this morning?" he asked, staring at the bulkhead.

     "Yes," Nabiki told him.  "You still need someone to watch your back, I . . . "

     "I watch my own back," Jeff snapped, spinning away, breaking contact, "That's the first lesson.  Trust no one, not me, not Ranma.  Illusion, possession, domination, shape changing, are all possible," he said coldly, "Leaving out simple coercion.  Your enemies are vastly more flexible and capable, and ruthless.  Magic is selfishness, you are forcing your view of the world on the real universe and everything in it, to avoid walking straight into evil, you have to be extremely careful.  Those who don't care, can descend to a depth of evil - It was widely speculated that his evil and fascination with the occult . . . "

     "Hitler was a fallen mage.  He wasn't was he?" Nabiki gulped and relaxed when Jeff shook his head 'no', "So bad mages aren't bad news, they're the worst news."

     "Ordinary humans can do things that would send most demons screaming for their mommies.  Mages scare even those people."  Jeff paused, breaking the darkening mood, "Avoiding becoming a bad mage isn't as easy as it sounds.  That is also a major concern.  Consider it, sleep on it, and ask me again in the morning."

     "I've already made up my mind," she told him.

     "I'm too tired to teach you anything tonight, or is it early this morning?" he joked, "Let me take a short nap.  Then I'll start in on the basic lessons."

     "I'm not going far."  She considered, he was fading.  And so am I, she thought as she struggled to stand up, Shampoo and the others alienated Ranma by pushing too hard, I will not make that mistake.  She walked over to the other bunk in the cabin and settled in, covered herself with the pair of coats.

     He sighed, "Things were never easy, that remains."  He frowned and stared at the ceiling, "You are having too much fun on my account," he told it.

     Weird, Nabiki thought,But what hasn't been lately.


Chapter 23
Chapter 25
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