Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 53-54 ( Chapter 25 )

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Sic Semper Morituri

Chapter 53 - Dimm'd Fereigners

I Hate Everyone Equally

What Isn't Part Of Ourselves Doesn't Disturb Us

A Change of Nuisances

A Hero To His Valet

Treachery Is All Their Trust

Chasing Magic

Chapter 54 - Eagles Grow From Eggs

Wise Man Said Just Find Your Place, In The Eye Of The Storm

Seek The Roses Along The Way

Just Beware Of The Thorns

Wise Man Said Just Raise Your Hand, and Reach Out For The Spell

Find The Door To The Promised Land

Just Believe In Yourself

Hear This Voice From Deep Inside, It's The Call of Your Heart

Close Your Eyes And Your Will Find

The Passage Out Of The Dark

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 53 - Dimm'd Fereigners

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


I do not own any of the characters from Ranma 1 / 2, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ah My Goddess, or the Lovecraft Cycle involved in these stories.

C&C, MSTs are welcome


Stories are available in Plain ASCII at:

ftp :// -Semper-Morituri

(these are the original versions)

Il ne faut etre plus royaliste que le roi [One must not be more royalist than the king.] French saying from the time of Louis XVI

Dimm'd Fereigners

I Hate Everyone Equally

August 8, 1947

     Ritsuko waited with the Naval personnel.  A dozen pallets awaited loading aboard the carrier.  The boxes strapped to the pallets were the last of the NERV supplies to go aboard.  Maya approached.  Ritsuko knew Maya had been briefed on what was in those boxes, and had privately voiced her concerns.

     'Sempai, the Children don't need . . . to be threatened.  They love you.  They'll do their jobs because of that,' Maya had assured her, to her own massive embarrassment, 'We don't need . . . those things.'

     Ritsuko privately agreed, but, The politicians demand 'a layer of security', she thought, Ridiculous.  If they turn, it will be with all the warning and force of an avalanche.  Pathetic little tricks won't have any effect.  As if we'll get any warning to allow them to be used.

     "They are in their rooms, uh, in his room.  The Navy knows to leave the corridor separating them empty, and they have the surrounding corridors heavily patrolled," Maya said, staring at the boxes on the pallets as Ranma might stare at a cage full of angry cats.

     "Good, let them think they're putting something over on us," Ritsuko said as the pallets were hoisted aboard.  Once these are on the hanger deck, the boxes will be removed from the pallets, and ordinance lifts will take the boxes and what's inside them to the deepest, most protected magazines aboard.  They won't be unloaded until the kids are off the ship, she thought.  "They have to be aboard this carrier," Ritsuko explained to Maya, "Because the EVA is our only hope of containment, if they . . . leak."

     "And who will they go after, or who will they go after first?" Maya asked earnestly in Japanese, staring at Ritsuko, "Us, you, the kids?"

     "When you get into a position of authority, you can't stay clean all the time," Ritsuko offered in Japanese, shifting uncomfortably, at her assistant holding the moral high ground, "Some choices just make you corrupt."

     "I'm not concerned about uncleanliness.  I'm concerned about stupidity," Maya continued quietly, though forcefully, in Japanese, "Both of them killed the Brothers without their EVAs.  Do you think their magic studies will make them more vulnerable?  The only two people who'll have little to fear from what's in these 'impenetrable' containers, are the two people they're aimed at.  And no one said these prisons were escape-proof, just that they were impenetrable."  Maya stepped away as if she expected the escape any moment, but didn't want to trigger it by running away.

     Ritsuko frowned and considered the wisdom of Maya's words as the crane carried the pallets up and out of sight.  But not out of mind, Ritsuko admitted to herself.

     The ball of light, brighter than any sunlight, appeared above Nabiki's hand, held steady for a half-second.  Nabiki's face lit with delight, then the ball winked out.  "Damn!" Nabiki said from the edge of Jeff's bed.

     "Hardly," Jeff grumbled, propped himself up on the pillows again.  "In a few hours, you surpassed where I was at six months, and I was considered a prodigy."

     "Let me try again."  Nabiki cupped her hands and concentrated.

     "Don't," Jeff warned, "One spell, even one that disappeared like that, uses up a lot of power, like lifting a heavy rock that you dropped before you got it over your head, don't strain.  Besides, I'm not ready to teach you the next lesson."

     "Why not?" Nabiki asked with a frown.  She reluctantly lowered her hands to her sides.  I can do it again, she thought, literally itching to try again, I know I can, I know . . . I think I know what went wrong!

     "Because usually with apprentices, it takes a while to convince them that you can manipulate energy outside your own body, and that the universe can be nudged to do things logic says it can't."

     "I already know those things," she said, forcing herself not to try again, to summon the ball of light.  It was exhilarating while it lasted, she thought delightedly, Better than any high I've ever heard of.

     "Yes, but during that time, you have a chance to talk about ethics, duty, energy flow, patterns and of course school and the price."

     "School and the price?"  She stared at him.  Ah, nomenclature and the 'in-group' jargon, she thought naughtily, I like being part of an `in-group.

     "The school details methodology.  Shamanism versus Alchemy versus Cabalism, et cetera, how the power is generated and focused.  The price is, well, psychologically a human can't accept something for nothing," Raccoon lectured, "So they put a limit on their actions, a payment for their powers.  The smart ones pick their price by focusing on some facet of the world or their personality.  NEVER ask a mage their price, it is not only extremely bad manners, it gives you a tremendous advantage to manipulate that mage, and even the best and most good might see their way clear to - removing - such a threat."

     "So you won't tell me yours," Nabiki gulped, it was a statement.  She hammed up her cringe.

     "Certainly not!" he replied imperiously, "You may have already figured it out.  Oh, unworldly apprentice."  He paused to let her chuckle, then continued, "Mine's obvious and actually almost impossible to manipulate, if you look at it.  Some people hide theirs like paranoids.  And they can be extreme or even silly.  One mage I fought couldn't travel on Thursdays.  I teleported him to the top of a mountain, now he had the choice of walking down, or dying of anoxia.  Taking him on, after my two mile climb to reach him, was child's play, even if the initial spell nearly killed me by exhaustion.  Stupid really."

     You or him? Nabiki didn't ask aloud.  "What type of school do you use?" Nabiki asked carefully.  She was trying not to wonder, How many people has Raccoon already fought and killed in his life, in reality, not like the dream of killing the Phoenixi, and not like killing the Brothers in self-defense?

     "That's allowed, it's even considered a good icebreaker or salutation," he said pleasantly, "I'm a Shamanistic Technomancer by Platonist Runic Association."

     Nabiki's jaw dropped to the floor and the rest of her nearly followed.  "Can you translate that into Japanese?"

     "Only if you've had plenty of green tea, so you won't fall asleep," he replied with a smirk.

     "I'm too excited to sleep."  Besides, after listening to my `family` and teachers, she thought grimly, I'm boredom-proof!

     "Everything has a perfect representation, and this representation is a spirit, not a physical form.  There's a 'Chair' for example, THE a 'Chair'.  Magical energy comes from negotiations with these spirits and is manipulated through complicated, almost mathematical formulae, the use of focuses is made through runes, representing the elements or concepts, which are the machines that bring about the actions/items desired."

     Nabiki's eyes rolled up in her head, which she shook to clear it.  "You lost me completely," Nabiki admitted.

     "Basically create a machine/spell out of a sentence of two to four words, then plug it into a particular power socket to make the spell go.  Wolf, Man, Tower creates a different effect if `plugged into` a spirit of construction than say the spirit of Cats."

     "I can imagine.  So you use runes/concepts to create the effect and use specific powers to drive it."

     "Exactly."  He nodded.

     Nabiki took a deep breath, so she could politely say, "You realize that makes absolutely no sense at all, you can't run an electrical device on steam pressure."

     "Machines refers to simple machines, inclined planes, levers, etc.  Components of more complicated machinery.  And yes you can, you just need a converter."

     "Oh," Nabiki thought, she paused and thought hard, finally she shook her head, "You still lost me."

     "That's why I have to take time to develop your school, mine is so easy and obvious, to me.  Yours may be different."  He sighed, considered.  "I hope it isn't too different, or you'll very soon need a different teacher.  Adam wasn't joking when he talked about commerce.  His magic rides the field of needs and supplies, and he gets his power as a consequence of that 'engine.'  Don't ask me, I understand commerce, I don't understand his school."

     "When do I get to blast people?" Nabiki asked sardonically, closing one eye and pointing at a far wall.

     "Safest place is where you're aiming," he muttered, then grinned broadly as she glared at him, "Right now, if you don't mind getting swallowed by the blast," Jeff smirked.

     "Oh, I think I'll take it a bit slower," she said as she `holstered` her finger, then added more quietly, "And practice aiming."  She paused, "Actually, healing is what I'm really interested in.  We seem to get hurt so often, all of us."  She seemed embarrassed by the admission.

     "Conventional wisdom is that a combat mage cannot develop the empathy necessary to heal.  There is a fundamental flaw I discovered.  At least for `good` mages."

     "They can be empathetic?" she offered, trying to find the answer.  Think like a mage, she told herself.

     He shook his head.  "Not generally."  He stared at her, willing her to solve the riddle.

     "You have to be in touch with yourself, so you can heal yourself."  She worked out from the healing she'd seen him do.

     "And?" he asked expectantly.

     "And, if being wounded is a characteristic, you can transfer it," she replied happily, smiling at her solution.  Not bad, she thought, Then why is he frowning?

     "Not my way of thinking, but it does give an insight into yours."

     "Excuse me?" she asked in confusion.

     "For me, I see things as energy and process.  Matter is merely potential energy.  Gold and lead are merely different forms of electromagnetic energy."  His hands moved through the air in patterns that made no sense to Nabiki.  "Coal and diamonds are a matter of arrangement.  A chair works because of interatomic repulsive forces and organizational structures that exist."  He pointed at her.  "You probably think, 'Being able to sit on it is one of the things that make it a chair.'"

     "That's right, what's wrong with thinking like that?" she asked, now completely confused, trying to hold onto the few coherent thoughts she had.

     "Nothing, nothing." Jeff covered his head with the blankets and cowered, when Nabiki chuckled and yanked down the blankets, he uncoiled, "Magic is about changing the universe, however you conceptualize things to let you, well, grab the Universe's undivided attention, and . . . squeeze."

     Nabiki laughed.  I'm glad none of Ranma's admirers know that trick, she thought.

     "Anyway, I think I can adapt my teaching technique to get you started along the way.  The methods aren't too very different, I believe in characteristics, but only as an external manifestation not as intrinsic state properties."

     "You lost me again."  Nabiki's head was spinning.  I've got a sneaking suspicion that he's attempting to scare me out of trying to learn this, she thought, Except I know how dangerous the life I'm asking to be part of is.  The disappearances at night, the strange behavior, let alone what would happen if Ikari-chan caught either of us.  She steadied her thoughts.  Still, I need to be part of this, to protect myself and the others.  That was the mission I was given . . . and I now fully accept it.

     "I'll need to give you a primer on the nomenclature and slang of your new business."

     'Your new business', she thought and kept the smile from her face.  I saw him take on bringing Ranma up to speed in school, and teaching Asuka the kanji she needed to do well, if he's going to show the same drive in teaching me . . .   Something occurred to her.  "Are you going to help Asuka?"  And not just to get me out of the way, she thought.

     "When I can slip in and do it, and slip out."  He sighed sadly.  "Which means when we get back to Tokyo.  Ritsuko and Maya can keep a secret.  However, I don't want to explain what I can do.  I suspect the `extraction` of that knowledge, wouldn't be pleasant.  Please remember that."  He stared at her, the threat unspoken.

     "If you've been trying to frighten and confuse me, it's working.  If you're trying to scare me out of training with you . . . that hasn't worked yet."

     "Fair enough.  Now go rest, I need to rest and think."

     "Okay."  She smiled.  "I'll - "  Nabiki wrinkled her nose as if the entire room suddenly smelled bad, she noticed Raccoon had the same reaction.

     "What was . . . ?" her voice drifted off, as memories that were not hers gave her the answer to her unfinished question.  "That was what I'm thinking it was, right?"  She shuddered at the thought of knowing all these things, without having learned them.

     "Yep," Raccoon answered, shaking his head from the stench that wasn't actually a smell, "A whole passel of them.  Don't worry.  There are simple enough spells and wards to deal with them."

     "Then why bring them aboard why would Ritsuko allow them aboard, she has to know . . . assuming they didn't sneak aboard."  Nabiki was already developing stratagems.  "Our presence can't have a been a . . . those things are meant to be used on us?" Nabiki shouted the last, her face contorting in fury.

     "As was the powder I developed," Raccoon told her calmly, "Fear comes from a perception of inferiority.  If you don't feel inferior, you're less likely to be afraid."

     "But . . . what have we done to make them . . . ?" Nabiki's voice drifted off as her head drooped, "Why?  Is that why they beat up Asuka, they were afraid?"

     "No.  The ones who gave the orders, they were the ones who were - are afraid.  Frankly, now they have a reason to be afraid.  They did something stupid, out of fear."  She saw the swiftly hidden rage that matched her own.

     "You've got a plan," she realized, "About those . . . things, not Asuka's attackers."

     "I've got a plan for both, but those things are first.  Nobody told us they were allowed on board, right?  Do you think they'll go after us first if they get out?"  He smiled.  "Hardly.  They represent a serious threat to this ship and its crew, it's our duty to protect them."

     "They don't actually believe they're inanimate . . . do they?  Ritsuko would have set them straight," she asked incredulously, "Yes . . . they do, don't they?  They didn't listen.  They trust they can control those things?  When the Elder Things tried and failed?"  She stopped, blinked.  "I always wanted to know things others didn't, or couldn't figure out," she said sadly, shaking her head, "Now I know . . . so much.  And I don't want to know any of it."

     Raccoon put his .45 auto on the bed next to her.  "That's the only cure."  He mimed blowing his brains out.  "The others went through it, we survived.  You - will - survive."  He collected the pistol, it disappeared behind him.  "Those people who attacked Langley were trusted," Raccoon told her, "Like I said, there are ways of dealing with things like that.  And even if they know those things are alive, as brutal and clumsy as they are, they are also highly intelligent.  Most people don't think of them that way."

     "I don't want to know."  Nabiki shook her head.  What is down below is insanity, she thought, But I couldn't be so cavalier about slaughtering them, the Brothers had hurt me, I was fighting back.

     "I'll make sure I don't get caught," Raccoon assured her with a smile.

     "As if that matters," she replied.  Idiots, she thought, trying to banish the crawly feeling that they were even on the same ship with them, They intend to use those things on me and the other Children.  He won't say it, but he's going to destroy them all.  Probably before we get out of Territorial waters.  What kind of idiots would schedule this transfer the day Asuka gets hit?  Didn't they think we'd notice?

     "Okay, let's get back to magic," Raccoon suggested.

     Something dawned on Nabiki, kicked out all her preconceptions and practically rapped on her brain.  "Now I know why Ranma's curse doesn't work around you!" she shouted at him, poking him in the forehead, despite the agony in her wrists, "You neutralize it.  You fink!  You've had me believing that you didn't believe in the curse!"  Nabiki raised her fists to pummel him, then seemed to acknowledge the pain.

     She mastered her brief anger, made worse by her `teacher's` knowing smirk.  "Why not cure it completely?" she demanded, grimacing from the stinging reminder she wasn't completely healed yet.

     Raccoon cocked his head while staring at her.  "For who?  Ranma or Ranko?" Raccoon asked, "But that's all speculation on your part, I can neither confirm nor deny that."

     She stood up and hobbled around the room.  I could beat him senseless, she thought angrily, But it really would hurt me more than it would hurt him.  But I have his `price` worked out, at least parts of it: he has to fix things.  Since he keeps insisting Ranma and Ranko aren't the same, he'd never destroy Ranko to fix Ranma, she stopped, stunned at the next thought, Or kill Ranma to `fix` Ranko.  She flopped down on the other bunk in the room and took time to absorb that.  Okay, so Ranma's in no danger from that . . . or anyone else who tried it.  Raccoon would kill them before they succeeded, she realized, But then . . . why does he keep saying Ranma and Ranko aren't the same person, they are . . . aren't they?  She let her head spin from that for a bit.

     Okay, change the subject, she considered why and how her spell had failed, That will be the first question I ask when we start training again.

     Raccoon pulled a few pieces of cardboard and a pen from his bedside drawer.  "Let's deal with the representations of things.  Mnemonics or symbols, it depends on how you look at it," he said, "But it will get you in the habit of thinking systematically about your interpretation of magic."  She nodded, but stayed where she was.

What Isn't Part Of Ourselves Doesn't Disturb Us

     Misato watched Tomiyo and Shinji leave the NERV Med Center together.  Shinji didn't even react to her friendly goodbye.  He just waved and excused himself, she thought, He didn't even apologize, the world must be ending.  And why didn't anyone tell me?!  She watched them walk away in silence, a pair of out-of-uniform soldiers in a two-man covering formation following at a discreet distance.  Rei and Ranma left together and they were under heavy guard as well, Misato thought, And no one told me they were here either!

     I am going to find out what's going on here! she thought as she marched into the offices of the NERV Bodyguard division.  She was amazed that she saw more clerks, than rough men, and even those were moving mail bags and boxes of files.  The man at the central desk looked extremely worried.

     "Major," one rather mousey looking man with thick glasses hailed her, as he stepped out of his office.  He walked around several bags of mail and packages, and towards her.

     "What is going on here?"  She looked around what looked more like a mailroom than a security office.

     "We're doing our job," the man said, looking around nervously at the bags, boxes and the reports about them, "It's usually much neater than this, but with the attack . . . "

     "This is supposed to be the Bodyguard division!" she said angrily.

     "The Childrens' actual guards are under the Intelligence department," the man explained, "We do do our best to keep them safe.  We examine the places they go, before they get there.  We check out the people they meet.  We do have an enforcement division, but we try to keep threats well away from the Children."  The man seemed to be gaining some confidence.  "I dare say, the overall threat to the Children is bigger than you know."

     Misato drew herself up to her full height and she told the man, now easily a head shorter than she was, "Show me."

     Misato was horrified to learn of the volume of threats, death and otherwise, that the Children received.  Many were just harmless nuts, some were legitimately life-threatening, some were graphically sexual in nature.  The boys and the girls got those, Misato noted, Frightening.

     "Then there were the ones dealing with race.  Some against the Japanese for 'dealing with gaijin', others against the gaijin for their presence and pollution of Japan, others against Miss Langley and Mister Davis for working with the Japanese," the man told her as he showed examples of each type, and sacks of further items.  "We've been going back over those, as you can guess."

     Misato dug through some of the sacks to see for herself.  It seems Rei gets some as gaijin and as a Japanese, Misato noted, Hopefully, they are all this stupid . . . and harmless.

     "Most of these we can safely investigate and ignore," the man explained, "Sometimes it's just people who've lost friends, family or property, we don't report it because it's like complaining to city hall, we do censor their complaints and forward them to the correct agencies, and send along a letter of condolence to the victim.  We don't make a big deal about it, because we'd wind up annihilating half the population of Tokyo," the Security man told her, "By your orders or Commander Ikari's."  The man smiled.

     Misato nodded at the good-natured jibe, "How did yesterday happen?"

     The man rubbed his head.  "We wish we could say the attackers were possessed, but we haven't been able to find the attackers.  And we keep being told 'it isn't our job' by Commander Ikari, he believes it is a diversion of our attention.  Perhaps he's right, it would be an appropriate time to make an attack, with everyone stretched so thin.  So we've redoubled our efforts.  It isn't much," the man admitted, "But there is some truth to it.  We received a few alarming items, nothing we haven't seen before, but never so many in one day."  The man sighed, wiped his glasses.  "There's also a few rumors floating around, those we did forward to the proper authorities, and a few other sources."  He lost some confidence at Misato's intense stare.  "Let's just say Major, that patriotism and a broad understanding of self-preservation, may be found in some rather - unusual - places.  Places it would not be safe for either of us, even in broad daylight."

     "And if I ask, you'll suddenly develop memory problems?" she asked with her hands on her hips.

     "No, Major, I honestly don't know, that isn't my job.  I'm good at making a picture out of the little bits.  Fortunately for all of us, most of these - " He indicated the mailbags.  " - are just separate little bits.  The attack, we don't have enough bits, but I can tell it's part of a much larger picture."  He stopped and scratched his head.  "Or several pictures, that's what's been bothering me about it so much."

     The man considered, then continued, "We have found out that all those related to the attackers remember the hostility they felt about 'Kids from outside' doing what they were doing, what Japanese could clearly do.  Like I said, we do have an investigative arm.  They related that it was too subtle to be considered a threat, and the people were vetted.  Somebody in Intelligence made a mistake.  Major, on another subject, the Children have begun displaying stranger behaviors, Security is having a harder time classifying `normal` behaviors for the pilots.  The Children outran their security, how Asuka's security was avoided, hasn't been confirmed.  Asuka Langley rarely even tries to evade her security troops, she treats them as a constant reality.  Probably from her time as a British prisoner.  Why the Security doesn't know why their people on site didn't call for ambulances for Langley, or reinforcements or transport for the other pilots, is still being investigated, by us and by them.  There was no warning of this on our end, Major.  No manifesto in the mail, no specific threats, and according to the families, no changes in the behavior of the attackers.  If I was paranoid, I'd say they got their marching orders and just moved out.  I also want to say again, this is not a little bit, but part of a very much larger picture.  And those odd places to find patriotism, they are nearly as up in arms about this as you are."

     "What do you do with the more . . . innocuous letters and such?" Misato asked.

     "The fan mail?"  The man smiled and laughed.  "We burn it, Commander's orders.  It's not like they need it or anything.  They've got orders, that should be enough.  The gifts we give to various charities, anonymously of course.  We don't want the kids getting too big for their britches."

     Misato nodded. "Agreed."  Very good, she thought.

     Admiral Simson looked over the people in the conference room.  General Tomlinson, Captain Ramsey, the psychiatrist Dr. Samuels, and Commander Ikari.  Fuyutsuki and Stedman can take the helm for a while, he thought.  "What do we know?"

     "There was no warning."  Unusually, Ikari took the lead.  "Our interrogations under truth serum, and not, were remarkably similar.  The families of those who carried out the attack were fully vetted by your people and ours.  They had no clue, they suspected nothing."

     "Have we located them?" Simson asked, glancing from one face to another.

     "No," Ramsey supplied, "They seem to have disappeared off the face of the planet.  We have people looking."

     Meaning he's got the cults out looking, Simson realized, God help the attackers if Langley's or Davis's people get them first.  Although with Ayanami's behavior, her people might handle them pretty roughly too.

     "We need more security, people who can be trusted," Ikari said.

     He seems angry, Simson thought, But he's also a good actor.  With Ramsey's people, we have people we can trust.  You want more subordinates.

     "Frankly, that would solve another problem," Tomlinson piped up, "I might be facing a mutiny, if we don't beef up security."

     "Your wife giving you as much trouble as mine?" Dr. Samuels asked, "After Miss Ayanami's party crashing, I got a reception last night that would scare off an Angel."

     "That too, and not just me," Tomlinson admitted, "The SP's and MP's are in an uproar.  The rest we can calm down by pointing out they don't have the training.  Even if they were civilian cops.  But the MP's and SP's know different.  They're all just itching to close and destroy whoever did this.  If we don't order 'alive', we'll be able to bury all the attackers in a single thimble."

     "Some of them may have contacts with people who wouldn't speak to . . . legitimate authorities.  I was a sergeant myself once," Ikari suggested, gazing at the others over his clasped hands.

     "There are other options," Tomlinson said piously.

     Okay, Ikari, you slipped yourself ahead, Simson thought, Time to give you a little task.  He nodded to Dr. Samuels.

     "Commander," Dr. Samuels began, "You might want to be aware of the details of the conversation that occurred last night."

     Nabiki watched the sailors and Marines, primarily Bennington veterans, deliberately sitting at the adjacent mess tables, surrounding the almost empty one.  They scanned the area around them as they sat and ate dinner, exuding an air of protective malevolence.  As I am, she thought, Somehow the people around us are more defense and less audience than they were on the Bennington.  Although I shouldn't look just for threats, there won't be any, for me anyway.  It makes me more angry than if all of us were targets equally.

     She was happy to see Jeff sitting at his usual place at `their` table.  Except he keeps glancing at the exits with that Rei-like stare, she thought, And the unconscious 'no-man's-land' surrounding him, no one is coming within a meter of him.  She deliberately took `her seat` at the mess table next to him, "You okay?"

     "No, thank you for asking though." He continued to glance about. 

     I should start stealing food off his tray, she thought, Naw.  She grabbed his cheeks and turned his head to face her and stared at his face.  I remember the painting of 'The Thousand Yard Stare,' she thought as she released him, I never expected to see it in real life, and especially not on him.  She spotted Ritsuko and Maya approaching.  She waved to them, noted the direct path to the table that cleared for them.  Everybody wants to see the show, Nabiki thought, And they want the maximum density of bodies between us and any threat. She considered her guilt at the realization, I still don't think I deserve it, but all these veterans do.  Very strange.  There's also another undercurrent here, but I can't tell what it is.

     "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked quietly in English.

     "That won't help."  He picked at his food.  "No one has answers, so there aren't solutions.  It's all symptoms," he said flatly.

     "You aren't alone in this," she told him.  And isn't that reassuring? she thought sarcastically.

     Ritsuko and Maya sat at the table.  "You could have asked for someone to help you," Ritsuko noted Nabiki's crutches.

     "I wanted to actually do something myself," she groused.  She moodily stared at the food.  "I'm getting used to this stuff," she lamented, "Will I forget pickled plums and miso?  Yakisoba and Oko - okono - pizza-ish thing, 'as-you-like-it'."

     "Okonomiyaki," Maya laughed at that.  "So how did the lessons go?"

     "Well enough," Raccoon said, frowned at Nabiki, "I just have to worry about her going too far and too fast."  He switched to Japanese, "And Langley wasn't alone either."  There was none of the usual fire in his eyes, from anger or cunning.  "They didn't help her.  The pilots had to rescue her.  Somebody should have prevented it."  He returned to staring at his food, picking at it.

     Nabiki returned to her meal, considering.  He still blames himself, but how do I, or anyone, convince him it wasn't his fault?  "We'll have to talk to our people . . . somehow, they can go over the reports, see if they saw this coming, see how we missed it."

     He nodded.

     Well, at least that's something, Nabiki thought, How do I carry it out?  "So how soon do we sail?" Nabiki asked.

     "Some time tomorrow," Ritsuko said.  Dinner is going to be a maudlin affair, Ritsuko thought, They can wire their various spies and informants to interrogate and re-task them.  But it's make-work until we can get back to Tokyo.  I hope things work out tonight, they both need it.  She was disgusted that the `professionals` couldn't manage their tasks and the `kids` would have to take up the slack.  That they can do it, she thought, And that they have to.

     At least Ranma and the others did a good job, she thought, I sent a demand for information, and got a report on what Rei and Ranma did, and that Shinji's back and also looking out for Asuka.  I'm going to hold onto that information, until I can get more of it.  Ranma's staying close to Rei, which is good news, and Rei seems to tolerate his/her presence, at the moment, which is even better.  Ranma staying as a she is something else to look into.  While Shinji has been orbiting a little further out and seems to be asking the other students about the events of the previous day, with Toji, Hikari and Kensuke backing him up and supporting him.  Quite a little nest of spies.  Although it hardly sounds like Shinji, perhaps a lot has changed.

     "The students are doing something like that," Ritsuko said, "None of them like the idea of an attack on a pilot.  Mr. Suzuhara said, 'Even Sour Kraut didn't deserve that.'"

     Ritsuko watched Nabiki wince at that.  But Jeff didn't react to it, she thought sadly.

     Neither Jeff nor Nabiki spoke for the rest of dinner, despite Ritsuko's and Maya's efforts to strike up a conversation.  Unfortunately none of the reports add anything to the picture that has already been drawn, Ritsuko thought, They have to be refining the intelligence reports.  Going over previous reports to find a thread to warn of a repetition of the first attack.  I need to make a few notes, and take them to the Navy here.  It seems to lead nowhere.  I have to wonder if we are missing something, or being deliberately misled.

     Misato spent the next hours learning about the threats to the Children, that had nothing to do with `Angels`, the mythos or mad cultists.  She got angrier and angrier as the U.S. Navy/Marines' security forces and their investigations into these threats, added to the reading from NERV Bodyguard division.  And I never heard a word about any of this before today, she thought angrily.

     Home-grown doomsday cults, people for whom the war had never ended, sexual predators, mad ramblings and manifestos, she thought as she sat back and sipped the tea she'd been served, trying to prevent a massive headache from breaking out, Even a few nuts who worshiped the pilots.  And the intimations that Nabiki, Raccoon and Rei have hunted down threats from mythos monsters, cultists and other assassins.  I could hardly credit those, until I read the New Mexico reports.  Now I'm not sure.

     By the end of the day, Misato was thoroughly angry and thoroughly shaken.  I want a beer or five, she thought as she walked out, I also want a target.

     Nabiki watched the medic putting the finishing touches on the casts on her forearms, they'd already changed the cast on her leg.  I guess they couldn't get rid of the smell, she thought.  "I thought gloves weren't necessary," Nabiki joked, a WAVE officer stood by with a dress, and needle and thread to sew her into it.

     The medic smiled.  "Sorry, ma'am, this is Dr. Akagi's orders.  She doesn't want you straining anything."

     "I'm not fragile porcelain, sailor," she said, the flint arrowhead still hung around her neck, still reminded her of the battle, and its effects.  And that other soldiers considered her a soldier.

     "Yes, ma'am," he said, still smirking slightly.

     Why do I think everybody is in on the joke, except me, she asked herself, I don't like being out of the loop.  "Is Pilot Davis going to jump out of a cake or something?  And they don't want me to strangle him?"

     "I wouldn't know, ma'am," the medic replied as he checked his work.

     Okay, so if it isn't Raccoon, maybe it's Ritsuko.  Dinner with the Admiral and the Captains of the vessels escorting and accompanying us, but I didn't get sewn into Raccoon's kimono, my good clothes were sufficient, she considered the problem.

     "The plaster seems dry enough," the medic told her, and the WAVE officer.  He left Nabiki alone with the dress and the WAVE officer.

     "Why, thank you, sir," Nabiki said as sweetly as she could, causing the young man to stammer and nearly fall against the bulkhead as he left.  How are they going to get me, and especially this wheelchair, wherever I'm going? she wondered.

     "Let's get you dressed," the WAVE said.

     "And if I give you the trouble I gave him," she said, as she pulled herself to her feet, "You'll stick me."

     "I'd never do that," the WAVE said as she helped Nabiki dress.  Nabiki kept silent until the woman was done, fuming all the while.

     Outside, there was a pair of sailors, in undress uniforms, waiting to carefully carry her and her wheelchair through the first hatchway, and another pair to receive her, and another two pairs at the next hatchway, and the next, and the next.  Nabiki couldn't shake a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach about this huge expenditure of manpower, just to get her wherever she was going.  Unless they're afraid I'll run away.  Not like they could give me my crutches and let me totter around, they'd still catch me and drag me to this secret, she thought in a growing fury, No, I have to be carried around like a glass doll.  I don't mind solicitude, but . . .   She sighed and silently collected her thoughts, and put her anger aside.  I still can't figure what I have done that's so special.  I made a pest of myself until they let me get back in the fight, and it wasn't much of a fight.  All I did was step on something.  "What's all that noise?" she asked.

     'I'm sure I wouldn't know ma'am,' kept coming back as the answer, as she moved closer.  Nabiki was getting a little cross by everyone being in on the joke except her.  Okay, why are they keeping it from me? she wondered

A Change of Nuisances

     At the end of the school day, the pilots were cleaning the room, to make up for leaving the day before.  Shinji glanced around at the other pilots and their guards.

     "Ayanami-san, do you come back to Sammi's?" Shinji asked carefully, trying to sound nonchalant.  I'm equally afraid she'll say 'yes' or say 'no', he thought, But I am glad today is over.  I'm getting tired of the questions from the others.  I've changed, more than the first Angel I killed changed me.  I don't think they'd ever understand.  I don't want to talk about it with someone who'd never understand.

     "I am not sure," Ayanami-san admitted, "I have never been able to sleep comfortably under another roof."

     "Come on, it'll be fun!" Saotome-san said, her red hair swishing as she shook her head, "You are allowed to have fun."

     "No, you are still breathing," Ayanami-san said, staring at Saotome-san and advancing, "Fun is denied me."

     Saotome-san shivered and retreated at Ayanami-san's statement.  Then Ayanami-san gave a ghost of a smile.

     "You scared me so bad!" Saotome-san shouted at her.

     "Yes, it was intentional," Ayanami-san said, seemingly very pleased with herself, "You said practice was required."

     Saotome-san seemed extremely relieved, frustrated and confused in equal measure.

     I miss this, Shinji thought, felt himself smiling, They talk one way, and act another.  Unlike the `adults` who smile and say nothing, and act like we can't figure out what they're doing from their actions.

     "We should go to Misato-san's apartment," Shinji commented, "I don't have fresh clothes, and you don't either, other than what Saotome-san got when she picked up your clothes."

     " 'She'?" Saotome-san complained, "I'm a - "

     "Girl," Ayanami-san interrupted, smiled as Saotome-san fumed.

     "The way you two fight," Toji said, as he stuck his head in the room, "It's like you're an old married couple."  He pulled back to the safety of the hall, or so he thought.

     Saotome-san grabbed up a piece of chalk and threw it at the door frame, it hit and bounced off.  Toji's 'ouch' from the hall brought a smile to her face.

     As the job neared completion, several NERV Security troopers arrived, not plain-clothes, but uniformed combat troops.  No sidearms were in evidence, their rifles were slung, and the pins of their grenades taped down, but that didn't mean anything.

     "Congratulations Shinji-sama," Sammi told them, "Now we're in trouble."

     Saotome-san smiled at the joke, and Shinji's shocked expression.

     "I will intervene on your behalf," Ayanami-san said.

     "What if he's drawn and quartered?" Juri asked.

     Ayanami considered deeply for a moment.  "That would involve pieces of eight," she said, "I cannot make a connection beyond that."

     Okay . . . he thought.

     "Well, at least now we don't have to wonder where we're going after class," Saotome-san commented.

     All three pilots were taken to Misato-san's apartment to get a week's clothes for Shinji, both girls helped him pack his clothes up.  Saotome-san and Shinji then helped Ayanami-san pack in her apartment, she had a more limited selection.

     "We've got to buy you two some clothes," Sammi teased.

     "Like I'd buy a suit off the rack," Saotome-san disdained her suggestion, sounding and looking like Raccoon while he did it.

     Sammi chuckled at that.

     Asuka stared listlessly at the ceiling, wondering about her present and her future, whether she wanted to even be here anymore.

     Asuka sits alone in her bed, she thought, I hate sitting, I hate waiting, I hate hiding, so why am I sitting here, waiting, hiding from what's going on outside?  Wondergirl was right, I should have gone, but . . . she mentioned it and it was like all the life drained out of me and the rest of the world.  I wasn't even angry at Horseface, I wasn't happy that the two robots got their favorite people back.  I just didn't care anymore, it was too hard to feel or do anything.  She smirked for an instant.  I bet if I'd told Wondergirl I should, but I didn't feel like it, she would have dragged me there like a doll . . . maybe that's why I didn't say it, she thought, feeling a little better, but it instantly faded, Having Major Katsuragi come walking in, stare at me and walk out as if she were going to bust a gut laughing if she didn't leave, yes.  It makes me feel sooo much better.  Fine, some of your people finally decided to hammer this nail down, and it stuck.  "I hope you go drink yourself to death in celebration," Asuka muttered, "You libertine beer-hound."

     "I do not drink," came a quiet voice.

     Asuka sat up in shock, staring at Wondergirl, who was staring back at her.  Asuka continued looking at Wondergirl, and doing what she hated, waiting.

     "Why don't you take a picture, Wondergirl, it will last longer?" Asuka finally said.

     Wondergirl cocked her head in confusion.  "I have no camera."  Wondergirl waited for a while before adding, "There were no events worth mentioning in school today.  Although Tomoe-san did suggest giving the Fourth your homework to do.  Since you already possess a college diploma, and may not be returning to school, I saw no reason not to follow her suggestion."

     "You hate Horseface that much?" Asuka asked.

     "No, but I was curious, at what interval would the Fourth realize the assignments were duplicates?  'A Martial Artist must be ready for anything', however, our battles require thought.  You will be needed."

     "Thank you."  Asuka watched Wondergirl turn and leave after giving her `report`, and she had an odd thought, I don't want her to leave.  I felt safe again when she was here.  Bored, but safe.

     Rei considered Asuka, considered the worried look she given her when she realized Rei was there.  I am made uncomfortable, Rei thought, I prefer when she acts as she typically acts.  Even if it is irritating, it is also comforting.

     She walked through the corridors, almost randomly, trying to decide on her next course of action.  Mrs. Simson said something about 'taking someone out of themselves', she considered the problem, I thought I had accomplished that yesterday.  Preparations were lengthy, and to risk that again would be unacceptable.  I confused and irritated her until she reacted, but like Nabiki-kun, the solution was temporary.  I should have taken that experience into account.  Only repeated procedures returned Nabiki-kun to her normal operational patterns, perhaps it is time to take her out of herself in a different direction . . . in a specific direction.

     She spotted the Commander coming up the steps with Admiral Simson a step behind him.  "I believe the problem is continuing."

     "An attack en echelon," Admiral Simson told her, the Commander nodded, "Please continue with your plans."  Again the Commander nodded.

     "It will not reduce my efficiency," she assured the Commander.

     "I am certain it will not," the Commander told her as they parted.

     She smiled.  I have the Commander's blessing on any action that does not compromise my readiness, she thought, then shivered, There are too many options, too many choices.

     She stopped, stood and concentrated, seeking the stillness the rage had showed her was possible.  Focus on one thing, she told herself, As Roku-kun said, define the problem.  Separate all into those that will match the needs of the true problem, and discard all that will not.  She did that as she stood, finding a odd calm in the operation of dismantling solutions to see if their parts fit the `holes` available for them.  I have one, she thought and began running home.

     Asuka was again lying on her bed, considering her future.  I could volunteer to go master Unit 03, at least then I'll be in Europe, doing something useful.  There are rumblings that something's going on out there.  The Brits aren't half bad, even their cooking.  No more rice and thin, noodle soup, oh how will I survive? she thought sarcastically.

     The door opened and she sat up to face ole' Stoneface entering.  "Commander?" she tried to ramp down her automatic sarcasm.  Maybe he's here to . . . apologize, explain, reassure . . . stranger things have happened today.  "To what do I owe the pleasure?"  She nearly choked on the last word.

     "If you are not prepared to return to school tomorrow, as Pilot Ayanami as opined."  He stood there, staring at her.  "We will schedule a series of sync tests tomorrow."

     "Commander . . . I . . . " she said.  I won't admit weakness, not to him! she thought furiously, trying to meet his gaze.

     "Yes, the attack," ole' Stoneface said dismissively, pushing his glasses up on his face, "That is the exact factor which we require data on.  The effect of emotional trauma on sync ratios," he said coldly.

     Asuka felt her fury and bile rising as he turned to leave.

     "Please do not allow yourself to be cheered up before tomorrow, it will throw off our results."  He closed the door as he left.

     Gendo barely managed to get the door closed and locked before something non-breakable ricocheted off the door, an instant later Miss Langley was rattling the door to get out.

     "Sync ratio!" she shouted, from behind the `soundproof` door, "I'll give you a sync ratio."

     He walked placidly away, down the corridor, seemingly oblivious to the string of curses in six languages he recognized, and several he didn't.  Miss Langley covered his sexual and eating habits, similarities and differences to his son, speculations on his parentage, even recommendations that could best be defined as extreme Tantric yoga.  The staff avoided the corridor as he gazed at them sternly.  Most retreated rather than rush to either console or quiet Miss Langley.

     Some 10 meters down the corridor, he spotted Admiral Simson sitting in a chair in a cross corridor.

     "Well?" the American asked as he stood.

     "You were correct," Gendo admitted reluctantly, "The Pilots were able to find a solution I had not considered."

     "Because it is counterintuitive, I know.  You should give Miss Ayanami a 'well done', both for figuring it out, and suggesting it," Simson replied as he fell in beside, and half a step behind, Gendo, preserving Gendo's illusion of supremacy.

     Making it seem he is subservient to me, he thought, the insults from Miss Langley still ringing down the corridor.

     "Now do you understand my plan for cycling the pilots.  They don't know a lot of things, so they can bring a different insight.  They may even make things work that previously were unworkable."

     Because they are unworkable for humans, Gendo thought.  "They would lack discipline," Gendo countered smoothly as they walked.

     "That is something we'll have to provide.  There will come a time soon, when the only force that will be able to discipline them is themselves or each other.  We'll have to have their respect, and dare I say it, love, before that point is reached.  Powerful and knowledgeable as they will become, they are still our creations, our children."

     "Agreed," Gendo said, "You also suggested that we should make an effort to provide . . . disinformation to the enemy."

     "What I said was 'you should try to be less predictable'.  Whatever you're cooking up, if I've figured out most of it, someone else could."

     Gendo hid his astonishment and squelched an immediate denial.  He couldn't know! he thought, But maybe he does know about SEELE's plans.  And that's what he's referring to.  He tried to retain his calm facade.  "I am not sure what you mean," he said to cover himself.

     Tiny hands clasped and unclasped as the beady eyes watched the two figures from the air vent, until they were out of sight.  The Rat-Thing considered the best way to return to its masters, the information on Langley was important, these additional revelations would prove critical.

     These musings were cut short as something it hadn't detected, broke its neck and took its corpse off back down the air duct for a more private lunch.

     Rei walked out of her bathroom, drying her hair.  The towel will have to be disposed of, she thought as she spotted Shinji-kun waiting in her apartment.

     "Oh!  I'm sorry!  I didn't see anything!  I mean . . . I . . . did - " he stammered as she approached.

     She put her hand over his mouth and looked into his eyes.  "Yes.  You did not see anything," she warned him, "Until I reveal the truth to Mein Grossfeldmarschall."  She realized he was not staring at her naked body, but her hair.

     "I don't understand."

     "Mein Grossfeldmarschall has always been very proud of her hair.  Now it is gone.  Now she will have a problem to solve."

     "That isn't something you can . . . solve," Shinji-kun said to her, his eyes continuing to drift upward.

     "But she must try," Rei told him.  She saw slow realization and a smile dawn on his face.  She felt her heart soar, both that he understood and appreciated her plan, and that he was with her again.  "Your extended departure . . . was it my doing?"

     "No, no Rei-san," Shinji-kun admitted, "I had to discover a few things . . . about myself, about the other pilots, about the pilots we don't know about."

     "There is much we have not been told," Rei admitted.

     "There are things my father doesn't know.  Maybe he can't understand some of the things, because no human can understand them.  But we'll need to.  Some things he got wrong, and I don't know why he kept the truth about us from me."

     "I agree.  We can discuss this later, I have a mission to complete."

     "A mission?  You aren't going out naked?  Are you?"

     Rei considered if nudity would increase her effectiveness.  "No, I will wear clothing."  She turned to get her undergarments and a clean uniform.  She heard Shinji-kun leaving hurriedly and wondered about it.  Should I wear another towel? she wondered, Perhaps.  Raccoon talked about maximum shock effect, as did Mein Grossfeldmarschall.  It might be useful to employ their advice.

     Hiro walked into Misato's apartment through the open door.  You'd think security would be keeping a closer look, not a more distant one, he thought, No wonder everybody calls them FUBENS, Fouled Up Beyond Even NERV Standards, it fits perfectly.  "Misa-chan!" he called as he entered.  In case she isn't as unconcerned about security as Security is, he thought.

     Penpen poked his head around the corner, and gave Hiro a once over before withdrawing.  Hiro removed his shoes and followed the odd bird.

     Inside, he found some food burning on the stove, and the rest of the place looked like a tornado had been trying to neaten it up.  Hiro shut off the stove and covered the pans before the contents could be used as smudge pots.

     "Hi, good to see you."  Misato smiled as she carried a bag of trash past him and put it in the hall to be taken out later.

     "Shouldn't you be packing instead of cleaning?" he asked.  Getting the kids in here to clean this mess up would probably be a good idea, for them and her, he thought, Give them something constructive to do.  And to make this place livable again.

     "Packing what?"  She stopped.  He couldn't help noticing, T-shirt, shorts and dirt were all she was wearing.

     She isn't wearing her necklace, he noted.  "Shinji's and yours, to head over to Krasnyzamok's place," he replied, enjoying the show.

     "Oh, they're coming here," she replied quizzically.

     "Why?" he asked, "This place is smaller, not to mention not as well constructed."  It also only has one bathroom instead of three or more, he thought, With the pilots and a pack of adults, that matters nearly as much.

     "This is Shinji's home," Misato said.

     But not Langley's, she hates this place, and isn't fond of you either, he didn't say.  "But he's only one," Hiro said carefully, "Rei was there when the others were out.  Ranma's staying there with Akagi gone.  Asuka's home is there."

     "I think Shinji will want to be home after all this time," Misato told him.

     "He'd rather be where he can look after Asuka," he explained, trying to persuade.  Like he's obviously been looking after you! he thought.

     "Where he can look after Asuka?" Misato asked, smirked, "I think Rei would be jealous.  I didn't think he'd move that fast."

     Hiro censored his first reaction and said with a stone face, "I think he's worried about her.  He came back here because he needed to take care of you."  He looked around at the mess.  "I don't know where he got that idea though."

     "She insults him all the time!" Misato told him.

     Hiro's patience ran out.  "Okay, let's cut to the quick.  You want Shinji here because you want to celebrate his recovery and your return to work.  They are happy about both, but they want to hunker down somewhere safe and ride out the storm.  Believe me, during the monsoons, we'd do exactly that.  After they think they are safe, a nice little party would be welcome, just to let us forget.  Later, but not right now."

     "When did you become an expert on the Children?" Misato asked, her fists on her hips.

     Just like Asuka, Hiro thought, I wonder if she even realizes it.  "I've been under heavy attack.  I've been under artillery barrages, naval, shore-based and both.  I know how soldiers react when the enemy pulls back after a heavy attack, they expect them to regroup and attack again.  Now isn't the time to celebrate, even if you caught the people who've done this, it wouldn't be an appropriate time to celebrate."

     "If I think that a celebrata - "

     "No," he cut her off with a wave, "You can't order them to make you feel better.  You shouldn't override the common sense advantages of Krasnyzamok's place over this one.  She doesn't have a large open window to fire into, the walls aren't of the same thickness - "

     "But I - " Misato said officiously.

     "No, you can impose your will on this problem, and them.  But if you do," he said warningly, "All you can ever be is their commanding officer, Stoneface in a dress."  He let her blanch and squirm at that.  "And if you try to be their friend after that, you'll lose even that hold."

     "Okay, I'm being selfish and stupid," Misato said angrily, "So what does the wise old man suggest for poor little me to do?" she asked caustically.

     He forced himself to be calm and reasonable.  "First, think of them.  You weren't attacked, they were.  Second, the Security forces promised them that they would be safe outside the EVAs.  That promise was not fulfilled.  You, personally, are going to have to make up for that failure, because it isn't Simson's job, Ikari won't do it, and Ritsuko and Ibuki aren't available to the kids here, and they are probably doing it with the pilots in their purview.  If you really want to help them.  Your first concern has to be the kids, if they aren't, they'll know and react.  They already expect and accept that they'll be sacrificed if necessary.  This is not a necessary sacrifice."

     Misato stood there and frowned.

     I didn't call you immature, he thought, I made the assumption that I was talking to an adult.  But you didn't hear what I actually said.

     "So what should I do?" she asked angrily.

     Since you aren't listening, he thought, I might as well speak the truth, at least it will be out there.

     "Pack up some of his clothes, and yours, get some help to move Penpen's stuff, then head over there.  Get a feeling of their mood, and don't try to impose your beliefs of how they should be acting.  They're in the mood for a fight, they'll just close ranks and give you one."

     "You think you know so much."

     "Major."  He didn't salute, but he did snap to attention.  Misato paled at that.  "I may just be an ex-Sergeant, like your boss.  But I spent my time on the line, the Chindits and the Tommies gave us fits.  I also know what it's like to sit in the pouring rain, waiting for the enemy to attack," he lowered his voice and changed his axis of attack, "Have you been in that kind of situation?  From your service, I doubt that you've stood and exchanged fire with an armed enemy.  The kids have,all of them, I've got decorations and my permanent smile that say I have too, so I do understand them.  So would any other combat veterans.  Fine, don't believe me, that's reasonable, ask them, ask Simson, Ramsey, Tomlinson, or Kuroda."

     "Are you saying I'm not a soldier?" she asked angrily.  Her arms crossed under her breasts.

     "With that outfit and that expression you look more cute than soldiery."  Oops, he realized, Change the subject.  "I said you weren't a combat soldier.  Both you and Ikari are 'swivel chair hussars' as the Brits, who captured me, called them.  The Americans said 'REMF', a nasty little acronym that I won't translate.  If you're more interested in the appearance of things, and getting your way, rather than the effectiveness of something and living to see tomorrow, you're no combat soldier."

     "Leave - now."

     "Fine, Major, I've said my piece," he said, gave her a sharp salute, "I'll be with the kids, Major, sir.  I'm sure Miss Katsuragi will be more than welcome, I'm not sure about the Major."  He got the door closed before the skillet bounced off of it.

     Well, at least she won't be trying to convince anyone to eat it, he thought of the service he'd just provided, as he put his shoes on.


     Hiro glanced down at Penpen, the bird staring up at him with a curiously expectant expression.  "Okay, you want to see the kids too?"

     The creature seemed to consider the question.  Great, now I'm attributing human motives to a penguin, he thought.  "Okay, but I hope you don't mind riding in a bicycle basket.  I can't afford a car."

     The penguin waddled off.

     "At least he's headed in the right direction."  Hiro followed the penguin.

     Misato stared at the door, the thrown, burnt food sliding down it onto the floor, and then at the pair of her and Shinji's shoes sitting side by side.

     The only neat thing in the entire place, she thought as she slid to her knees, hanging her head. What Hiro said hurt so much!  Even worse was the salute, she thought morosely, Because it's true.  She growled and punched the floor, regretted it immediately.

     "Ow ow ow ow DAMN!"  She sucked on her bruised knuckles and looked around the disaster area she'd been trying to clean up.

     She looked around again.  "Oh well, I can get them all to help with this later."  She headed to the bath to get washed up.  "What can I pick up to eat on my way over?" she asked.

A Hero To His Valet

     Ranma and Sammi returned to their apartment.

     "After we get the homework done, what about going to Misato's place and giving it a thorough cleaning," Sammi suggested.  Ranma didn't disagree, but showed no real enthusiasm either.  Sammi forced herself not to grind her teeth.  "Okay.  Let's get started on getting this place ready for Shinji and Rei."

     They cleaned and organized, hanging up Shinji and Rei's clothing in their closets.

     No complaints from Ranma about this being `women's work,` or that Shinji and Rei aren't here to help, Sammi worried, He's doing it desultorily, but he doesn't seem to care.

     "Ranma, would you mind cooking dinner?  I've got a ton of paperwork to do."  That didn't get an explosion either, Sammi brooded, Either he's growing up, or something is seriously wrong.

     "I thought she'd hate staying in the hospital," Ranma said as he entered the kitchen, giving slight head shakes so his red braid lashed like an angry cat's tail.

     "Maybe she's hiding."  Sammi collected the reports on the kitchen table.  Like you are, she realized, You can't fight this and you don't know what else to do.

     "Don't forget about Rei - " Sammi began as Ranma set out the food to start cooking.

     "I've got something meatless planned for her," Ranma told her, muttered something about 'koshaa' and continued cooking with every sign of enjoying himself.

     That's a good sign, Sammi thought, He's realized this is a way he can fight, make the others comfortable.

     She looked at the first item on the stack of paperwork.  Misato wanted Rei and I to take Asuka's room while Ranma and Shinji would have to squeeze in together in Shinji's room, Sammi looked at the paperwork, she crumbled up the paper and put it in the burn container, Too bad I never saw it, but five or six people sharing one shower and one toilet would be a logistical nightmare.  This place has four complete baths and six toilets.

     Sammi returned to her paperwork, and enjoyed the smell of Ranma's cooking. It won't be fancy, but it will be good and plentiful, she thought happily, Like home..

     Asuka sat on her bed.  I should be doing something, she thought as she sat in the middle of her bed, But I don't want to.  She wanted to get up and do something.  But nothing seems important enough, she silently lamented, Even, my anger at Stoneface wasn't enough.  I'm just tired.

     She heard the door open, but couldn't make herself look over at the `intruder`.

     "I am concerned.  I require your assistance," came Wondergirl's voice.

     "You're worried about me, Wondergirl, I'm touched - " Asuka turned, just to see what Wondergirl could possibly - "Your hair!" she shrieked.

     Wondergirl's usual blue flyaway hair was knotted and plastered to her scalp like strands of greenish-brown mud.  Asuka sat bolt upright.

     "I - miscalculated," Wondergirl admitted, "The instructions called for - "

     "You used too much!" Asuka cut her off as she slid off the bed and stalked towards her fellow pilot, "But too much of what?!"

     "Ammonia, I believe," Wondergirl said, "I realized I have become the most beautiful pilot, since the Heavens must surely protest, I decided to cement my position."

     Asuka frowned at Wondergirl's lame joke.  "Cement is certainly what it looks like," Asuka told her, as she approached Wondergirl, taking a strand in her hands, "And leave the awful jokes to Raccoon."  Wondergirl began to shy away, then steeled herself.

     "If I don't know what you did," Asuka grabbed Wondergirl's shoulders and angrily told her, "I can't help you."

     "Reasonable," Wondergirl told her, stood still while Asuka felt the hair, "Please don't hate me because I am beautiful."

     Asuka felt a smile touch her lips.  "I've got plenty of other reasons, Wondergirl, don't worry your . . . yuck-covered head about that.  Only you could figure out how to make your hair dry and greasy all at once."

     "I would prefer not to attend school in this condition," Wondergirl said.

     Asuka stepped back and smiled, "So, you do have some pride after all."

     "I have always sought excellence in piloting," Wondergirl replied.

     "You aren't the best pilot," Asuka told her.

     "I have sought only to be better than I was," Wondergirl told her, "Mein Grossfeldmarschall, as have you."

     Right, Asuka thought.  "Come on, we'll need to head over to Search and Rescue," Asuka said as she dragged Wondergirl out of the medical wing, "If Dr. Akagi were here, I'd go see her, but we can't."

     Asuka missed the faint smile on Wondergirl's face.

     Suddenly Asuka jerked to a stop, as if Wondergirl had suddenly turned to stone.  "What -?  Why'd you stop?"

     "Search and Rescue is that way."  Wondergirl pointed.

     "Okay, fine!" Asuka told her, "You lead, you know so much!"  Asuka followed Wondergirl, grumbling the entire way.

     Rei let another smile ghost across her face.  It is working, she thought, The plan functions as it should.  She hid a smile as another string of complaints proceeded from `Mein Grossfeldmarschall`.  She is returning to normal, Rei thought, Not burning rage, but seething discontent, that is the proper setting.

     Finally, they arrived at Search and Rescue.

     "Where is Janice?" Mein Grossfeldmarschall loudly demanded, fully in charge.

     Officer Akira Kuroda pointed, and Mein Grossfeldmarschall dragged her in that direction, sputtering curses and imprecations as she pulled Rei along.  Rei considered how to keep Asuka in this state or near it, until she fully recovered.

     "You wanted to help," Mein Grossfeldmarschall announced as she entered the equipment bay.  Everyone stopped and stared at the pilots, in fear and amazement.  "Can you fix that?"  She pointed at Rei's hair.

     The addressed woman paled and stared, along with her colleagues.

     Something is familiar about her, Rei thought as she scrutinized the woman, but dismissed the thought as her fellow pilot stood, looking angry and tapping her foot impatiently.  `Mein Grossfeldmarschall` glared while the cowed woman carefully approached Rei.

     The Search and Rescue officer examined her hair and frowned.  "This is going to take some work," the woman said, as if she feared a detonation for delivering bad news.

     "We have time," Mein Grossfeldmarschall complained, "Unless you have some overwhelming need to be elsewhere, Wondergirl."

     "No," she replied without showing her elation.

     Nabiki rolled in a complete daze, barely acknowledging the pause to lift her through the hatchways.  "Someone could have told me," she complained as Maya pushed her wheelchair.

     Maya and Ritsuko smiled at each other.  "But we didn't want to spoil things," Ritsuko teased.

     "Ha, ha, ha," Nabiki said tiredly, letting her head droop, "Where's Raccoon?"

     "The Admiral's aide is escorting him.  Also he's arranging for the shipment of what his parents meant to pass to me," Ritsuko told her.

     "I think he had as much fun as you did," Maya teased as Ritsuko carried Nabiki in her wheelchair, through a hatchway by herself.

     "You sure he isn't just retreating from the Japanese?" Nabiki asked sadly.

     "I think you're overreacting," Ritsuko said firmly.

     "I . . . I don't know.  We didn't see what happened," Nabiki turned to Ritsuko and said, "Maybe I am overreacting, but who can help Asuka?  Misato, the most immature of the children of NERV, and if you don't think she hates Asuka, you can't see.  Rei, she might try, but does she know how?  Ranma, sweet but fumbling.  Shinji, he has woken up you said.  Gendo, no chance.  That leaves Admiral Simson, Captain Ramsey, General Tomlinson, or Colonel Stedman, somehow I doubt it."  She turned away.

     "What about Sammi and Juri?" Maya asked to distract Nabiki.

     "They'll be more interested in preventing it from happening again," Nabiki replied coldly.

     "How does that apply to our wayward pilot?" Ritsuko asked.

     "Because he wants to go protect - his sister - in all but blood," Nabiki said, "The Japanese hurt his family, he might not be able to lash out at a target, so he tries to avoid the pain."

     "I believe you are exaggerating," Ritsuko said, "But I will check up on him."

     "Thank you," Nabiki said sleepily as they arrived at her cabin.  The light in Jeff's was off.  He's either already asleep, Nabiki considered, Or he hasn't arrived.  So many pretty starlets, so little time . . .   " . . . yeah right."

     With dinner ready to be served, once the others arrived, Ranma helped Sammi clear out the fourth bedroom, so Shinji could use it.  What else can I do? Ranma wondered, Mope?  That's not me.  And I don't know who to fight.  Halfway through, Shinji arrived.  Ranma thought Shinji was smiling about something, And hiding it badly, Ranma considered and went back to work.

     "At least I don't have all the stuff Asuka does," Shinji muttered as he began sweeping up.

     Ranma doubted Shinji thought he could be heard.  Then Rei arrived alone, not bringing Asuka with her.

     "Your hair!" Ranma shouted in shock, he practically felt his pigtail bristling in shock.  Rei's hair was red, RED, very red, redder than copper, redder than blood.  "I thought you didn't like red, I thought you hated red!"  He looked at Shinji who was only mildly surprised. Okay, Ranma thought, That's what you knew.  Ha!  Ha!  You got me.

     "Red was the only color that adequately covered the previous color," Rei said calmly, she took a few strands, stared at them, she cocked her head, "Perhaps we should contact Nabiki-kun, all female EVA pilots would have short, red hair.  Uniformity was a concern."

     Ranma wasn't sure if Rei was joking or not.  "What about the boys?" he asked lamely.

     "Black would be the standard," Rei said as she pushed past to help straighten up.

     Ranma turned to Shinji.  "You knew about this?" he accused weakly, trying to figure things out.

     Shinji shrugged.  "What if I did?"  He grinned at Ranma.

     "You could have told me," Ranma complained, as he went back to work.

     "I didn't want to, 'a martial artist must be ready for anything'.  Or does that only apply to getting beaten up?" Shinji asked as he returned to work, ignoring Ranma's unintended `Angry-Asuka` impersonation.

     Hiro arrived with Penpen.  "Hello, do you have need of another pair of hands?  I guess I can help too," he said as he set Penpen down.  The penguin scurried over to Shinji, pleased to see the boy again.

     "Yes," Rei said as she walked out into the main room.

     Hiro pointed at her, tried three times to ask, then gave up.  Penpen just fell over in shock.

     I think she's doing that on purpose, Ranma realized as he glanced at the others enjoying the effect on a pair of new `victims`.

     "I misused hair dye.  This was the only color strong enough to disguise the previous color," Rei admitted, "Asuka was most helpful."

     Ah ha! Ranma realized.

     "Let's wire Miss Tendo - " Hiro began gleefully.

     "We have already considered that," Rei said, "As well as Roku-kun."

     "Hello," Misato's voice could be heard, she came through the door and set down a pile of her and Shinji's clothes.  Her jaw dropped.  "REI!  What happened to your hair?"

     "Is there something amiss with my hair?" Rei asked as she looked from one pilot to the other.

     It was quite late before everyone had completed their ablutions, Sammi stared at Misato snoring on the couch.  Shinji covered her with a sheet and some blankets, Sammi considered, Funny, he seems a lot more tolerant and solicitous.  I wonder what brought that about.  I also wonder why Hiro watched that little scene so carefully.

     Rei wandered out of her room, up the stairs and to the table where Sammi finished up the reports on the last few days.  Rei continued staring at her.  "Yen for your thoughts," Sammi offered.

     "I do not need a yen."

     "I'd like to know what you are thinking.  You're wondering something.  I'd like to hear about it," Sammi said, gesturing at all the paperwork, "I'd like to hear something other than my own thoughts."

     Rei considered.  "This follows no pattern," she said tiredly, "They cannot believe what they claimed they want."

     Now Sammi considered if Rei was right, it could all be a diversion.  For what? Sammi wondered.  "If they achieved what they want, what did they want?"  Silence greeted her, Rei had laid her head on the table.  Sammi thought the bright red hair was a good change for Rei.  And her reason and willingness to perform the change, is an even better sign, Sammi thought.  "Sleep on it, maybe we'll get an answer in the morning," Sammi told her, Rei closed her eyes and was immediately asleep.  I meant go back to your room first, Sammi thought, Or did you think I needed the break and the physical activity.  She gathered the small girl in her arms and carried her downstairs.  Or am I over analyzing all of this? she wondered, While I envy the talent to sleep anywhere, I wouldn't want to have to follow orders as Rei does.

     Ranma stared at it in his bathroom mirror, he heard no other noises in the apartment.  He knew he was alone, completely and totally.  He had his pigtail in his hand, as did his reflection.  A short braid of red hair.  Why is it such a big deal? he asked himself, It's not just a `girly` thing.  Ranma wouldn't want to cut it off either.  He considered how Asuka-like Rei's hair had looked.  All in aid of Asuka and making her feel . . . less outside, Ranma mentally `translated` Rei's dinner table comments, So why is it such a big deal?  Ranma sighed.

     Ranma glanced down at the scissors sitting on the counter.  Just a snip and it's over.  Why am I treating this as a major sacrifice?  It's not like it used to be, with my hair growing uncontrollably.  It isn't - or shouldn't matter.  I don't care what my girl side looks like.  I don't care if I'm `pretty`, but . . .   Ranma had no answer for his hesitancy.

     She didn't ask for this.  She'd call it stupid, Ranma rationalized, Rei didn't ask, although she said she called Hikari, Natsumi and the others with her plan.  So a lot of them are doing something.  But all she called it was 'a plan'.  To me, no details.

     He stared at the mirror, glanced down at the scissors then back.  Why am I hesitating?  Would I hesitate for Nab-chan, or Raccoon?  Hell yes!  They wouldn't need me to do this, it wouldn't have any effect if I did, he thought, There were other ways I could make Nab-chan or Raccoon feel better.  Ranma squirmed at those thoughts, and the memories of the dream, Where I, as a he and a she, cuddled night after night with Nab-chan to drive away her nightmares, or talked to Raccoon about my hopes and dreams for the future.

     Silly, stupid to get worked up over hair . . . but that's what Asuka is doing, now I'm doing the same.  Is it because this stupid piece of hair is so much a part of me?  That without it, am I less of who I was?  It doesn't make sense.  I don't care if I'm pretty . . . or do I?  Isn't that weird.  I don't want to be a girl, but if I am one, do I want to be an attractive one?  I'd clobber any guy who'd try to put the moves on me!

     Ranma sighed.  I should quit thinking about it and just do it! Ranma thought, as he grabbed the scissors raised them, and stopped.

     Don't think, just do, Ranko considered her reflection, But that's gotten me into a lot of trouble around here.  She stared at her hair as she undid the braid, letting her hair flow out and down her back, she stared at the image in the mirror.  I am very pretty, with such beautiful hair.  I remember tickling Nab-chan with it, and her tickling me with it, I remember Raccoon brushing it or just running his fingers through it.  I remember how good they felt, and how good I felt.  Her hair reached below her shoulders.  It was so fine she could collect the entire volume in such a small package.  She ran her fingers through her hair.  Instead of feeling good, as it had, instead of calming and soothing her, it made her feel terribly guilty.

     It would simplify things if I could just give this to Asuka, give her back what she had, what she lost, she thought sadly, Except I don't know how.  Am I selfish, not wanting to give up . . . something I need to feel safe, just to help Asuka?   She stared at the mirror and thought, cursing herself for her indecision.

     Misato woke, she had a dream of people wandering the apartment, with knives.  Dozens of Reis of all ages had appeared out of nowhere, and beaten the invaders with fish.  She'd woken before she could see what the invaders planned or which side prevailed.  She sat up off the couch, went to Asuka's room, and saw it was empty.  Relax, she's at the med center , she reminded herself.

     Rei had curled up into a ball, sound asleep in her room.  And what are you dreaming? Misato wondered, I hope they aren't nightmares.  She slid the door closed and opened the door to Shinji's room.

     Ranma's door opened suddenly, the redhead stood staring at the `intruder`.  I could swear I saw her eyes glow, Misato thought.  Shinji sat up in bed, also staring at her.  It's like being in the middle of a tiger pit, she thought as she froze.  Ranma recognized her and relaxed, and went back into her room, but left the door open.  Shinji nodded, smiled and put his chin on his knees.  She considered calling him out to talk, but abandoned the idea. He needs his sleep, and so do I, she thought.  She returned to the couch, a new nagging feeling lodging in her mind.

     Nabiki looked at the table next to her bed, at the pieces of plaster covered with names.  "John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Omar Bradley, Fred Astaire.  God, I don't even remember meeting these people."  She bowed her head in dejection.  "I just saw people and tried to be pleasant.  The man who `danced` with me must have been Astaire . . . or Gene Kelly.  Oh God, how could I forget that!  How could I not know!  The one who talked about doing my job, was that Wayne, or Gable, . . . or Colonel Stewart, or did all three of them talk about it?"  She covered her face and laughed.  "I met all those famous people, and I can barely remember the details.  I can't discern which person said what, and when.  I was just so overwhelmed."  She turned over and buried her face in her pillow.

     She flopped back over in her bunk, to stare at the ceiling.  "At least I didn't turn into a complete idiot . . . like I did last time," she said.  She laughed at herself again.  She picked up the cast piece that the Navy men had carefully varnished, so none of the signatures would wear off.  She remembered the man kneeling before her, so he could look her straight in the eyes.  'Well, the difference is that you got a `million dollar wound` and then went back into the fight.  That's a real measure of heroism.`'  "I couldn't get my brain sufficiently engaged to argue," she lamented, then added in amazement, "Veterans, movie stars, came to see us!"  She shook her head and laughed.  "Sure, some were already down here for the Del Mar races, but the rest came on a train headed down here, while Raccoon and I were loading the EVA aboard," she told the room, "I guess I need to get over myself.  Accept that `Brown Bess` is who I have to be, and the `Ice Queen` is gone forever.  Now I just have to live up to the standard I set for myself and others' . . . expectations.  The ones I have to live up to, not live down to, what a joke."

     She stared at the pieces of pasteboard that she and Raccoon had been working on.

Treachery Is All Their Trust

August 9, 1947

     The campfires of the army dotted the slope of the entry to the pass, like fireflies over calm water.  Like those fireflies, they seemed oblivious to the spiders who, waited the slaughter.

     The Scholarly Dragon had watched the Spiders of Leng and their slave legions troop past, some as close as 100 yards from his position.  They will attack at night, he thought, Because that is when their vision is most superior to humans.  But they are seeing with their hubris, not their eyes.  He looked at the campfires, tents, and the pass beyond.

     His attention returned to the Meliorist, who had returned to them.  Not healed, he lamented, But well enough.  An easy victory is what she needs.

     The Spiders and the men of Leng continued to close on the picket line.  The skies boasted a few of the Moonbeast's air galleons.  The Scholarly Dragon had several dozen dragons tasked to deal with them, once the trap was sprung.

     "They never considered it doesn't take an army to light that many fires," Anna commented as she crept up beside him, "I want to tell you, the artillery and cavalry are in position."

     The Scholarly Dragon looked at the pass their army had advanced through.  "Build a golden road for your enemy to retreat through," he rumbled quietly.

     "That's where you put the fougasses," Anna added as she slipped back to her unit.

     The enemy gave the signal, their own massed attack on the tents, campfires and the mannequins simulating guards.  A few moments of elation gripped the spiders, then growing confusion.

     "Charge!" the Scholarly Dragon's voice thundered over the plains.

     Dozens of dragons leapt into the sky, and the artillery rained fire down on the camp.  Canvas, straw and spiders went up in flames as the naphtha/phosphorus mixture lit up the night sky with hundreds of lesser fires, some of which ran screaming through the ruins of their plans.

     The Scholarly Dragon watched some spiders try to rally their slaves, while the majority ran for the pass.

     "Forward!" the Meliorist ordered her cavalry, the thundering hooves drown the screams of the victims.  The Scholarly Dragon leapt into the sky, as close air support.

     More headed towards the pass, and into it, he thought as he conjured a bright red flare of light that hung in the sky, Release the avalanches to the local commanders.  Soon very soon.  He banked and looked for any Spiders or men of Leng who looked willing to resist.  A blast of his breath weapon destroyed either them, or their resolve.

     Someone was shaking him awake.  He saw Nabiki's face, and her horrified expression.

     "Why did they do it?" she demanded, "They had to know!  They had to know and they gave it all up!"

     "Because someone was paying them, because it was a good idea, because they hoped it would get them sexual advantage," he offered groggily, "What are you talking about?"

     "You know!" she said desperately, looked around the cabin's bulkheads, floor and ceiling, as if they were closing in on her, "You have the memory, it has to be the same as mine!"

     Jeff sighed, tried to put the slaughter of the forces of Leng out of his mind, and focus as best he could on the girl pacing.  Her frantic gestures worried him.

     "Memories, you mean the memories of the Brothers?"

     "And Chaugnar Faugn," she replied brittlely, unconsciously slipping into the Chaugnaroid's tongue, "I went looking.  I went to see.  They had a civilization, something more than sitting in a cave and waiting for sacrifices."  She stopped pacing and stared at him, while not hostile, it was disconcerting.  "You went looking, Ranma said, went looking inside the memories to find things out."

     "Yes, but that's just facts, data, like reading a book, not living their lives.  Ranma admitted he had a few dreams, but they were disconnected things and they faded within days."

     "No."  She covered her mouth.  "It's just me, it's happening."  She looked around frantically.  "I am going mad," Nabiki began pacing as if she was driving the walls back by charging at them.

     Jeff knew what he was about to do was unfair, even cruel.  But she's like an engine without a governor, he thought, If I let her go, she'll destroy herself.  "Stop," his voice had the odd harmonics from Chaugnar Faugn and the dragons, forcing her compliance.

     Nabiki stopped and sat on the edge of the bed.  She began throwing off the compulsion almost immediately.

     Have to act quickly, he thought.  "You're saying that you delved into their memories," he said, "The memories of several or all of the Brothers you absorbed."

     "Yes," she said sharply as she realized what he'd done to her.

     "The dates, places, motivations behind actions, that kind of thing."

     "YES," Nabiki said belligerently.  She stood, towering over him in a rage.

     "I can't," Jeff said flatly.

     Nabiki froze.  "You - can't -?"  She collapsed, catching herself on the edge of his bunk.

     "The Great Old One I absorbed, fell apart soon after I absorbed it," Jeff explained, "I can determine facts but the emotional impact behind them - I haven't the foggiest."  He shrugged.  "I know how angry Chaugnar Faugn was about the rebellion, but I'm not the least bit angry about it."

     Nabiki had gone white as a sheet as she stared at him.  "But I do," she said in a tiny voice.  "This can't be happening!" she whispered desperately.

     "Look," he told her firmly as he took her shoulders, "None of the rest of us absorbed what you did, the compilation of the servant race.  You also said that you went looking for them, not that they invaded your mind."  He held her shoulders as her breathing slowed back to normal.

     "Yes," she said as she gathered herself in, her knees under her chin and arms wrapped around her legs, "I went looking, and there were so many.  So many . . . people, odd, alien, but considering where I grew up, this place is almost as alien."  She looked at him, her eyes red with unshed tears.

     "You aren't going mad," he told her, "You aren't wrong by being able to do this."  He was worried that only his grasp on her shoulders kept her from toppling.  Physically or psychologically, he thought, And later she'll torture herself about `cheating` on Ranma.  When is she going to realize the first thing he wants is people around him, and if they interact, that's fine as long as they don't leave him!

     Nabiki sighed, laid her head on her knees.  "I HATE this!"  She unfolded and sat on the edge of his bunk.

     "It's the reality of being a pilot," Jeff told her, "Imagine it from the other end.  I had to learn how to act human, admittedly it was from a young age, but half the time I get frustrated when someone doesn't `follow the script`.  You have no idea how irritating some yutz is who says 'I don't have to play by the rules, I am a wolf among sheep.'  But it is so fun watching their faces, when they realize that I am taking them at their word.  If they don't have to follow the rules, then I don't have to play by the rules."  He smiled evilly.

     That got a chuckle out of Nabiki.

     "Now, you stormed in here asking 'Why did they do it?, 'They had to know!', 'They had to know and they gave it all up!'  What did they do, what did they give up?"

     "The Chaugnaroids," Nabiki began, seeming to collapse in on herself again, keeping hysteria at bay by pure will, "They had a culture . . . music, art, literature, architecture.  I may not know all the science, but I know beauty when I see it.  It was alien, weird, but it was . . . it was beautiful.  They asked a lot of the questions we did - do."  She put her hands on his shoulders, and pulled him against her.  "Then they gave it all up.  I know they did it, all of them did it, all at once, but why!?" she demanded, "Money and power are a means to an end, not an end to themselves, even if it is only to have more than anyone else, so they can't use it against you.  But you don't throw everything else away!"

     "To gain the secrets of the universe, the true and deeper meanings," he told her, "They thought it would be worth it."

     "It isn't worth it!" Nabiki insisted, "Couldn't they see that?!  Couldn't they stop?!"

     "You know that, because you can make the comparison," Jeff told her fondly, "They couldn't.  The people I mentioned, SEELE, they're in the same boat.  They don't see us advancing fast enough, so they'll throw it all away to push us to the next step in human evolution."

     "That's insane," Nabiki said firmly, realization dawned, "That's why they're insane.  They gave up everything . . . and for what?  Understanding?  There are things we shouldn't know."

     "That's why they have to be stopped," Jeff replied, "That's also why I don't consider the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods our enemies.  They may be our opponents, but they aren't our enemies."  He chuckled.  "Our silly illusions, our hopes and dreams put us so far ahead of them.  Yig, the Father of Serpents, he loves us, as much as a Great Old One can.  Because after millions of years, geological epochs of trying to create the 'perfect serpent', a bunch of hairless apes do it in 50,000 years without trying.  And not in one place, not of one type, but thousands.  Cthulhu was the God-King of his people before his `ascension`, apotheosis, whatever.  Then he brought them along for the ride, so he still retains some of the creative spark.  It's why such a second-rater in terms of raw power is so feared, he can still make things: civilizations, alliances, all the things the Chaugnaroids surrendered."

     "Would they have attacked Asuka?" Nabiki asked, "Because she's in the way of their power?"

     "I wouldn't discount it," Jeff said, "They are responsible for our friends down below.  If not them directly, their supporters in the U.S. Government or Military."

     "Bastards," Nabiki spat, she pushed herself away from Jeff and stared at him, "Why haven't you killed them all?"

     "Patience," he chided, "A pack of nitwits can't do what they've been doing without powerful backing."

     Nabiki stood and backed away.  "Nyarlathotep is helping them," horror straining her voice, her eyes widened, she covered her mouth as if to prevent the next words from escaping, "He helped the Chaugnaroids!  His help destroyed them.  He did it on purpose!"

     Jeff stood, walked over until he was facing Nabiki.  Nabiki backed away from him, more afraid of him than her revelations/realizations.  "That is why we are going to destroy him!" he said firmly.

     The chants were sung in unison, the runes were laid out in tandem.  In this, the ritual and the invoker had much in common.  The two faces no longer looked half-melted.  The creature looked as much like a statue of Janus as was possible.  Its beauty while only a temporary seeming, was statuesque, finally.

     The necklace of runes was complete, and would never be taken from it.  But it was on the mainland not because of this, but in spite of this.

     The human cultists cared nothing for `the Twins`, save for their mistaken belief that it was an avatar of their paired gods.  They gloried in the contact with their matched gods.  The Twins simply offered a plan, and an agreement.

     Only one of the pilots could successfully oppose them.  The Twins would dispose of this one, leaving the world open for their sire and dame.  The summoned projection/avatar of the duplicate deities accepted the offer: the target's greatest weakness was revealed, the great dragon would be chained so the Twins could take its body for its own.

     The deal concluded, the Twins left, not telling the cultists, nor their gods, of the other deal it had struck.  The world would be cleared of all who lived, made clean for another pair to step forward and rule.

     Raccoon lay on the bed.  "What's true is lies and what were lies are now truth," he murmured, "Stupid, Grade A, unadulterated stupidity.  Beats anything Ranma could manage."

     "What's that?" Nabiki asked as she lay on the room's other bunk.

     "The exercise, infiltrating people's dreams," he replied despondently.

     "Yes," Nabiki said as she sat up, "You finally taught me something I can actually use.  With practice, I'll get better."

     She noted the mirthless chuckle.  "What's so funny?" she asked.

     "You don't understand.  That exercise, it's a time waster, it's to start teaching the apprentice to get comfortable with the idea of manipulating energies outside their bodies without any instrumentalities, no machines or devices to help them."

     "So?" Nabiki asked, something about his tone bothered her.

     "Nothing can do what you did: Infiltrating a dream while remaining awake.  Nyarlathotep has to separate off avatars/subsections, to be in the Waking world and in dreams.  Cthulhu, the master of dreams, sleeps to send his dreams, when awake, he only has his mind, telepathy if you will.  But none of them can do what you do.  To waking, enter a dream.  It could be that's why Cthulhu made the deal he did, he wanted to preserve a new technique.  Later he might offer something, so you will teach it to him."  He clapped softly.  "Congratulations, your power exceeds the might of the gods, in your area of expertise."

     "So, I lied to you on a standard exercise, and you beat it."

     "Oh," she said to banish the image of her playing her old 'Ice Queen' games, doling out favors, rumors and dirt to the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods.  Not this time, they may be as crazy as Kuno and the others, but I doubt they are as gullible, she thought.

     "Then when you did make it work, I didn't want to say anything because I wanted you to develop your skill, without anyone telling you 'that's impossible'.  I apologize for that.  Ask Ritsuko what the truth is, the truth about me, the great wall you tried to get through.  It hides the truth - "  He paused a while, Nabiki waited for him to continue, doing nothing to fill the silence.  "All I `know` about my past is wrong.  I finally went and looked . . . after Sharon died.  I had some help."

     "I'll go."  Nabiki stood up, and hobbled to Ritsuko's cabin.  The doctor was in.  "He's talking about truths you know about him.  On . . . ly," her voice trailed off as Ritsuko paled, "Is there something to those meanderings?"

     "Yes," Ritsuko admitted.

     "What?" Nabiki asked as she stepped inside and closed the door.  She didn't demand any more due to the fearful expression on Ritsuko's face.

     "Okay," Nabiki relented, "But since you do know, you ought to talk to him about it."

     "I - "  Ritsuko squirmed.  "I wouldn't know how to act."

     "Try human.  If he's a hurt little boy, mommy; if he's a wounded man, wife or doctor."  Nabiki sighed, put her irritation aside.  You two are worse than Ranma!  And me, she thought.

     Misato woke again, an hour before dawn.  Now there were definite noises upstairs, she pushed off the covers quietly, she had her pistol at the ready as she crept up the stairs.  She peeked over the edge of the stairs.  Rei was in the kitchen cooking, Ranma was practicing katas.  They both moved as quietly as they could, but made some noise, it was faint sound, silence, faint sound, that had woken her.  She wondered, How does Sammi put up with it?  And neither is saying a thing to the other, they seem to be steadfastly ignoring one another.  What's up with that?

     She considered stepping out of the stairway to talk with them, then recognized what she was wearing, or not wearing.  No wonder Ranma and Shinji stared at me, she realized, After I went prowling through the house like this last night.

     She decided to leave them alone for a while.  Instead, slipped downstairs and dressed. I'll need the added `authority` of the uniform to talk with them.  After how I walked around last night . . . she thought, Where Shinji might be too intimidated, these two need a little intimidation.

     "' 'hayo," Ranma whispered as he paused in his katas to let Misato pass.

     "Ohayo gozaimasu, Major."  Rei continued her quiet cooking.

     "You two are up early," Misato said.

     "Actually, Major," Rei admitted, "We slept in."

     "Do you usually sleep curled up in a ball?" Misato teased, smiling at Rei.

     "I do not know," Rei replied quietly, barely glancing at her, "I am asleep."

     Misato glanced at Ranma who had restarted his katas while she and Rei were talking, as she turned her attention back to Rei, she'd gone back to cooking.

     "All right, what is the problem with you two?"  Misato put her fists on her hips.  Rei stared at her, Ranma stopped, the two pilots exchanged glances.

     "I do not understand, Major," Rei stated.

     "My name is Misato." She realized Rei had sidetracked her, "You two haven't said a civil word to each other since you got here."

     "We have not said an uncivil word," Rei said quietly.

     She grimaced, "Ranma."  He stopped his katas.  "Is there a problem between you two?"

     Ranma looked at Rei.

     "Don't look at him, answer for yourself."

     "Uh, Rei-chan's a she," Ranma said, "Aren't you?"

     "Under most circumstances," Rei replied.

     "You know what I meant," Misato insisted.

     "I dunno, I guess there's no problem," Ranma admitted, "You think there's one?"

     Misato was angry, and getting angrier by the moment.  "I thought your standoffishness was a pilot problem.  You act the same way, the forced politeness, you two are like a pair of tomcats ready to fight."

     "I would lose such a fight," Rei said, "Although calling the Fourth a tomcat was needlessly cruel, Major."

     "Got that right," Ranma agreed in a whisper, shivered.

     "We are different people, Major."

     "My name is Misato.  People call me Misato."

     "You are in uniform, Major, to treat you otherwise would dishonor the uniform," Rei said with cold politeness, "If you did not wish to be considered a Major, perhaps you should not have worn your uniform, and instead wore what you did last night."

     Misato paled at that.

     "Or taken off the rank insignia," Ranma commented as he restarted his katas.

     Misato turned from Ranma to Rei, who had turned back to her cooking.  Ranma stared at both of them while he practiced.

     Misato felt confused.  She threw up her hands and stalked back downstairs.

     Ranma continued his katas, to warm up before the morning class, while Rei finished cooking breakfast.  She set the dishes and utensils on the counter.  She pointed to the plates, then at the table.  Ranma replied with his tongue.  Rei gave him an all-teeth-visible smile.  Ranma took the dishes and utensils, slunk over to the table and set them out silently.  He smiled at Rei's faint grin at his antics.  Ranma stepped up to the counter and jerked his thumb at Misato's couch, shrugged.

     Briefly, Rei frowned slightly, shrugged back.  She considered, then made a winding motion next to her head.  Ranma nodded and returned to his katas.

     Usagi arrived early at the school.  She looked around the school yard in amazement.  There seemed almost no girls who didn't have short hair.

     "By the Goddess!" Tomoe breathed.

     Usagi agreed.  She looked at some of the girls carefully clipping the hair of others.  "Dear sister, you are on your own."  Usagi marched through the crowd.  She felt the eyes of the shorthaired girls on her.  I've never felt such hostility, she thought, Yuki, you idiot!  You thought you'd break that girl, she cursed silently, All you did was make her a martyr!  And martyrs are unreal and undestroyable!

     "Mirei-dear!"  She'd found Ranko's little friend.  "Someone's been keeping secrets," she chided the girl slightly, "That shows a lack of respect for your Team Captain," she said sweetly, "Or are you all playing a little joke on me?"  She smiled to show she could take a joke, and there was no harm done.

     "No, Team Captain!" Mirei assured her, "It's just a show of support for Miss Langley."

     "Oh dear," Usagi said with distress, "My mother would never allow me to cut my hair.  'It isn't ladylike', she'd say.  She barely tolerates my sports, she'd never allow this."  She covered her face with her hands and managed a few tears.  Yuki, there are times a show of weakness is better than a show of strength, she thought.

     "Team Captain.  I can do your hair up in a bun, like some of the other girls.  Your mother will never know."

     "Oh!"  Usagi brightened.  "You are so dear.  Yes, it makes perfect sense, once someone cleverly points it out."  She turned and bent down so Mirei could quickly do her long hair into a tight bun.

     "Also, Team Captain, I heard that Yuki-san wasn't coming to school."

     "Yes, she's a little under the weather," Usagi said.  Under a load of bricks, Usagi thought, She never told me who dropped the building on her, she just kept begging us not to steal her shoes.  Whatever that means.

     Once Mirei had finished, Usagi hugged the girl and gushed her thanks.  "You won't tell anyone, please?" she asked with her hands clasped as if in prayer, her `puppy dog eyes` at full power.

     "No, Team Captain," Mirei assured her.

     Usagi hugged the girl and headed off.  Now that I'm coiffured properly, she noted as she walked, I am more acceptable.  This could hardly be a greater disaster, if Tendo planned our moves and the counters.

     "You are such a - " Tomoe began disgustedly.

     "I intend to fit in," Usagi interrupted her sister, "If you don't, then enjoy the consequences.  Yuki's 'marvelous plan' has become a nightmare.  As bad as things have gotten, short of the Goddess giving up on this world, I don't see how it can get significantly worse," Usagi said as the pilots arrived.

     "Like a bunch of conquering heroes," Tomoe groused.

     They are, Usagi thought, Our enemies, and now we have made them so.

     The drive to school had been quiet.  Ayanami-san and Saotome-san maintain a polite silence,Shinji thought, But I think they are fighting a war at the same time, somehow.  And they're both enjoying it.  I think Ayanami-san enjoys the `unorthodox` combat methods, and Saotome-san's goading to practice.  But I don't think Saotome-san appreciates how Ayanami-san interprets his 'a martial artist must be ready for a fight at all times' business.  I have to talk to her before she takes it too seriously.  Or she may toss him out a window and ask if he's ready, while he's falling.

     While Shinji enjoyed the silence for a while, he was overjoyed when he saw Asuka getting out of another NERV van. She's subdued, Shinji worried, A loud Asuka is a constant in our lives.  An occasional break from it is not unwelcome, but the loss of it forever . . . that's not something I want.  He walked towards her, smiling.  He noted that Ayanami-san and Saotome-san fell in behind him as he approached Asuka.

     "Hey, Asuka!" he hailed her, she waved back, but no insult and no change in her expression.  Shinji glanced back at Ayanami-san and Saotome-san who stared at Asuka.  They seem concerned, he noted.

     Hikari and Toji stepped up towards him.  They stared in shock at Ayanami-san's red hair, although Hikari's hair was now shorter than Toji's.  "You two go talk to her," Toji said, "I'll stay close, and just keep quiet."

     Shinji glanced around the schoolyard and realized that Asuka's hair was actually among the longest in sight.  Only Saotome-san's pigtail and Sammi's hair were longer.  Many of the kids from the old school stared open-mouthed at Ayanami-san's red hair.

     Shinji felt a little of Toji's guilty concern.  "I don't think she holds you calling her 'Sour Kraut' against you."  Toji shifted nervously.

     "What are we supposed to do?" Saotome -san asked.

     "I'll take care of that," Hikari said and pointed to Mirei, "Your lady friend will give you a way to fit in, Ranko-san."  Hikari smiled and moved towards Asuka.

     Ayanami-san even thought of that, or did the others? Shinji thought as he headed towards Asuka with Hikari.  "Are you all right?" Shinji asked.

     Asuka gave a weak smile.  "Yeah, I decided I couldn't lay around anymore.  Hikari, what's gotten into you, first Wondergirl, then you."

     Hikari blushed and ran her hand through her much shortened hair.  "I guess I had to do something.  What about you?"

     "It wasn't any good sitting around feeling sorry for myself," Asuka admitted, looked around the school yard, "There must have been a lot of fights about that."

     "That's why we did it at school," Hikari said, "The girls may get yelled at, but what can be done?  Besides, it's for a good cause."

     "But . . . for me?" Asuka asked in a small voice.

     "For you," Shinji said, "And for themselves."  They failed.  Let them atone, even if they cannot apologize, Shinji thought to Asuka.

     Hikari nodded.

     "Look at poor Toji," Shinji teased, "Without anything to do."

     "What!  I oughta -!" Toji shouted and advanced with his fists raised.

     "Yes," Asuka said analytically, "I see and understand.  A jock like him has to pound something.  More civilized people find other ways."

     Toji advanced on Asuka, as Asuka prepared for battle, with every sign of enjoying what would come.

     "Natsumi-san has a theory," Ayanami-san said, as she had appeared next to the pair, causing both of them to jump, "She believes we may have something to do."  Ayanami-san looked at the two shocked almost-combatants.

     Asuka turned to face Ayanami-san, then she calmed down and reached up and brushed Ayanami-san's hair out of her face.  "You should wear something to keep your hair gathered, let Baka-Shinji see your face."

     Shinji blushed, Ayanami-san looked embarrassed.

Chasing Magic

     Nabiki watched the papers scatter all over her cabin and her wheelchair spin on its rear wheels.  The windstorm ended as suddenly as it started.  Nabiki grabbed the papers and pieces of card stock, checking them over for what was missing.  She noted that her wheelchair was also gone.  "Oh no!"  She considered calling the Marines and discarded the idea.  Too many explanations, she thought.  Instead she struggled to her feet, grabbed her coat and hobbled out of her cabin and down the passageway.

     Ritsuko and Maya stared at the stack of books Jeff carried to the examination table in the medical wing.

     "All those!?" Maya lamented.

     "There's probably only a paragraph's worth in each one.  I should stick them all in the refrigerator first," Jeff said as he set the stack down, "Just to make it fair."  He picked up the first, started paging through it.

     "I have been putting the instruments in warm water before using them," Ritsuko said in high dudgeon, "As if you haven't noticed."

     Jeff set the open book in front of Ritsuko.  "First, check that out."

     Ritsuko looked at the paragraph and started to ask a question.  She stared from Jeff, to the passage, then back.  "Okay, I do understand it.  Maybe I do understand magic adequately."

     Jeff smiled, Maya giggled.  "Then you are competent to give Maya your opinion on what might happen to her or anyone else, who accompanies a pilot on a mission.  She doesn't believe me when I tell her, she'll be fine."

     "Very well," Ritsuko said, she sighed, "Since she isn't a Children, there is effectively no chance of her picking up such powers."

     Maya sighed with relief.

     "Unless the Children specifically directs power to her, channeled through them first," Ritsuko said.

     "Nabiki-chan wouldn't do that," Maya said aghast, looking from Jeff to Ritsuko in fright.

     "No," Jeff said, "She wouldn't.  Nobody should have that."  He turned away and stared at the wall.  Missing the fearful looks between Ritsuko and Maya.

     Sammi had been planning to get the kids involved in her counterattack plan.  Juri was staring at the byplay among the 'First Three', they were smiling, the first time since the incident.  "What's caught your attention?" Juri whispered to Tomiyo.

     Rei spent the night watching over Langley, Sammi thought but didn't say, Her dream-self guarded Langley as well.

     Your plan? she almost heard Nabiki ask.

     I might have suggested something along those lines on the first night, Sammi `replied` silently, If Rei hadn't taken her own initiative in the Dreamlands.

     "You aren't giving up yet, are you?" Juri asked Tomiyo, who seemed a little stiff and sore from the morning's practice.

     "I've never given up, and I won't now, I may take a while to retrench, but I don't quit," Sammi told them.

     Tomiyo smiled, "Glad to hear it.  Rei-sama brought up an interesting point.  One I think we need to look into."

     "Do you know how many crazies who hate the pilots there are out there?" Juri asked.

     "No," Tomiyo admitted.

     "I think you'd better, then we'll put the plan into action," Juri said.

     "Come on!"  Nabiki hobbled with all the speed she could manage on crutches.  She could feel the sweat pouring out of her as she struggled to pursue her quarry.  Sailors and Marines got out of her way, but she still wasn't fast enough.  'Never attempt to forge a new rune or element, unless I'm there to guide you', she thought as she wound her way through the carrier, But after what I found, I had to do something.  I had to . . . I don't know . . . create something, since most of our opponents can't.

     The flying wheelchair also drew attention, but most saw that they would get no answers from her.

     "He's going to clobber me."  She hoped Jeff had the hematite he claimed he always carried.

     Ritsuko had excused herself to check on something, leaving Maya and Jeff alone.

     "Jeffrey," Maya began nervously, "You've pretty much proven I don't have any . . . powers, changes . . . alterations."

     "Yes," Jeff assured her.  There's more to this, he thought.

     "Is there any way you could . . . arrange things?" she asked nervously.

     "WH - at?" Jeff barely controlled his shout.  "Why would you want something like that?  This isn't the same as surgery or learning a skill.  You're talking about giving up part or all of your Humanity."

     "You've said that you can simulate Humanity, that it is something you practice, not something you are," Maya countered smoothly, but still clearly showed her nervousness.

     Jeff sighed.  "I'm getting tired of getting my own words thrown back at me.  You haven't answered why."

     Maya glanced at the door through which Ritsuko had left.  "Sempai is very old.  If I am with her, it will only be a short time.  It will hurt her, I know it, and I don't want to hurt her."

     Jeff sighed, trying to clear the tightness in his chest.  "Yes, I have heard tales of such a process.  But I've never seriously researched it."  Because once I got Chaugnar Faugn's memories I had it all, he didn't add.  "Even then, this isn't something that can be reversed, there will be a whole long list of problems.  I want you - "

     "I have considered it," Maya whispered intently, glancing uneasily at the door, expecting Ritsuko to return and put a stop to this, "I want to be with her, always."

     "Does she want to be with you, always?" Jeff asked in a concerned tone, trying to point up the problems, "Forever is a very long time, and shoggoths don't form the pair bonds that humans do."  Do you understand she may not love you when you aren't human? he silently asked.

     "She will," Maya assured him, "I'm sure of it."

     Are you sure? he asked her silently, Or are you projecting your hopes onto her?  What is that in my pocket?  He started to reach into his pocket, instead he excused himself to make a phone call.  The hematite sphere was practically burning a hole in his jacket, when he was able to slip into a phone booth.  "Yes."  He held the handset up to cover talking to the silvery-red, stone sphere.

     "Jeff I'm sorry, I need your help.  One of the elements got away, I'm chasing it now."

     Nabiki, I . . . he canceled the thought, Help first, scold later.  "I'll make my apologies to Maya and Ritsuko, and I'll be there quickly.  If it's an element, I can track it."  He headed back to the room, Ritsuko had returned.

     "Sorry, Nabiki has a - problem, if you have enough notes head back to the doctor's cabin.  I don't think I'll need help, but I'll call the ship's Captain if there's anything he can help with."

     "Should we come too?" Ritsuko asked, suddenly worried.

     "No, stay safe.  Don't read too much."  Jeff left in a hurry, he watched the pair collect the books.

Chapter 54 - Eagles Grow From Eggs

But How Many Ships Do you Reckon My Presense To Be Worth?


Send Me An Angel - Music: Rudolf Schenker

Lyrics: Klaus Meine

Wise Man Said Just Find Your Place, In The Eye Of The Storm

August 9, 1947

     Nabiki looked around the bowels of the carrier.  Among the machines and pipes, the spirit of an element was waiting.  Her legs ached from the hard use, as did her underarms from the chaffing of the crutches.  Why hadn't it turned and attacked? she wondered as she cautiously advanced, Why did it stop occasionally to make mischief, allowing me to keep up?  She heard several groups of men wandering around, calling her name, searching for her.  She ignored them.

     Jeff ran to her, at the edge of the site.  "Do I need to lecture you on precautions?"  He moved ahead gingerly, in and among the pipes and machines.

     "I saw you summon an element spirit to bind to the rune," Nabiki admitted as she followed him, picking her way through, "It was so easy, I thought I could do it, I took all the precautions to summon one friendly to my cause," she explained.  And he's barely listening, she thought.

     Jeff turned to glare at her, then sighed.  " 'Every mage must find his own path.'  Now I know how the sorcerer felt with his apprentice."  He turned back before he could see her stick her tongue out at him.  "Did it ever occur to you that I might not have told you absolutely everything?"  He extended a hand, guiding himself toward the escaped elemental spirit.

     "Her own path."  She put one fist on her hip and one hand behind her head, to show off her curves, "I am a girl you know."

     Jeff didn't even look.  " 'All mages are inherently male.'  Which was why they tossed me and the Scholarly Dragon out of the order.  Teaching human girls, just isn't done," he told her apathetically, "So you aren't the only one who does dumb things for the best of reasons."

     Nabiki was horrified.  "I guess, I guess I really owe you, I didn't mean for that to happen."

     "And I didn't count it for pay, or tell you beforehand, the second reason they threw me out.  Relax, since I can't get into the Dreamlands and most of the order never leaves there, it really doesn't mean much.  Besides, they actually threw me out before the lessons started," he told her as he looked around, waving his hand in front of him., "For thirty bonus points, you can guess the third and final reason they threw me out."  He looked up.  "It's up top.  It hasn't attacked, just run away?"

     "Yes, and it never let me lose sight of it, until I got here.  It's really weird."  Nabiki glanced at the huge machine, and at the `ladders` that lead to the top.  She considered climbing to the top.  Terrific, she thought, Ritsuko will kill us if she catches us up there.  She thought of the moving equipment and the steam.  I don't even know what this is, she thought as Jeff started climbing.

     "You may have done a better job summoning it than you know.  The danger of summoning elements is they're uncontrolled, wild spirits, that have a very restricted view of the universe, and everything in it, very Elemental."  Nabiki winced as she started following, Jeff continued to talk as he climbed, "I think this one is trying to help you, it just doesn't know how."  Jeff headed up the ladders that climbed the steel shell of the machine, Nabiki reluctantly followed, wincing at the steam and watching the exposed moving parts.

     "Why were you able to summon and bind the first element spirit you gave me?  I did everything you did, I even did all you said wasn't really necessary, to summon a friendly spirit, and it ran away," Nabiki asked as she climbed.

     "First."  Jeff helped her onto the top, both had to duck to avoid rapping their heads on the pipes and duct work overhead.  "Mages, fully-fledged mages, bind themselves to one or two elements as an anchor.  They usually pick elements similar in personality to their own.  This anchor allows them to summon any kind of elemental and bind it."  He looked around, seeking their target.

     At least there's a solid floor, all fenced in up here, Nabiki thought of the claustrophobic confines, I don't like the idea of balancing on beams, dodging steam, while facing a skittish elemental.  The small tornado was visible at the far side of the machine, "Second, if you were a friendly, conscientious sort of person and somebody pulled you out of your world, dropped you in a powerful pentagram and politely asked for help, wouldn't you think there was major trouble about?  It's a Wind spirit, probably fairly intelligent.  That implies a guardian or master sort.  Not bad for your first attempt."

     "Yes."  Nabiki didn't want to tell him that was exactly the source of two of his comrades.  "So it's trying to help?"

     Jeff drew a rune in the air and motioned with his other hand, another much smaller whirlwind appeared, and cautiously approached the first, the one Nabiki had summoned.  "What worries me, is that it perceived a great enough danger, to break the pentagram I'm sure you were using.  Either it's very strong, or it was very agitated, or both.  We'll find out soon enough."

     "What did you call up?" Nabiki asked, as the two seemed to be conversing, "Another elemental?"

     "Sort of, more like an elemental homonculus," he dropped into a distracted, lecturing tone, "It will enhance my understanding of what it's saying."

     They waited and watched. It's like he's not there, she thought as they waited.  She couldn't hear the searchers anymore.

     I wish he'd just yell at me, Nabiki thought, I hate waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Almost as much as I hate knowing how much I owed, and he never mentioned one word of it!

     The smaller whirlwind approached them, followed sheepishly by the larger one.  Nabiki tensed, not knowing what to expect.  Jeff pulled a parchment card from his vest pocket.  "Use this, walk up to it, and say the binding spell."

     He didn't even look at me, kept staring at the elemental, she thought as she took the card, I guess he really is pissed or worried.  How badly did I screw up?  Nabiki approached the larger whirlwind, holding the square at arms length, she began the chants when the whirlwind lunged forward.  She retreated to the railing.  "Jeff help!"

     By the end of the lunch break, Jamie had shocked the others, who were once of Nyogtha, to their core.

     "The doomsday cultists that have nothing to do with the Mythos remain a constant threat," Eriko, one of the Sixth's agents, said in a wrung-out tone, "Our `master` often `hunted` monsters and sorcerous enemies, but this . . . " her voice trailed off.

     "Now Nabiki has joined the fraternity," another boy, one of Nabiki's, said, "But as the Brothers, will she accompany him, or usurp him?"

     He wants to know how the god's relations influence ours, Jamie thought.  "Can we concentrate on the more mundane threats?" This is not the time for such speculations, she thought.

     "People who would lay poison in the trains they took, throw a Molotov cocktail into the apartment or school," Mihiro, the girl who'd been the first to join her, on the first day, commented in shock, "They didn't act as inefficiently as this attack has seemed."

     "Our enemies have only been lucky once," Jamie said, "But their victory yielded nothing.  Typically, arrests were made, yet nothing has happened.  Nobody knows, not us, not the `legitimate` authorities."

     "Security troops have `leaked` the identities of the attackers," Mihiro said, "To send people to look where and at what NERV and the U.S. needed to look at/for.  But no one has found anything.  It is as if the entire operations simply struck and vanished, like a lightning bolt."

     Jamie looked at Mihiro, wondering what was being held back.  By NERV and her uncertain allies.  She and I will have to work out a few modifications to our search plan, Jamie thought, Although even with the plan worked out, what next?  There has to be an inciting incident.  Something the Second did directly, or something that caused someone to give the release order.  But what?  We're all missing something.

     "We shall just go out and see, don't take chances, don't try to be a hero.  We need information," Jamie told them, "Then we'll drop the whole world on them."  I'm warning the others, she thought, As much as I'm warning myself.  I want to hurt them.

     "So do we tell our yakuza `friends`?" Eriko asked, "Mirei is . . . quite disturbed by events."

     "No, let them come of their own free will.  Let them be pricked by their honor," Jamie said quietly, she looked at the people, her allies.

     "Rei and Shinji have stayed close to Asuka, as have many of her friends," Mihiro said, "A few have wanted to know what they could do to help, what to watch for."  She smirked.  "I am certain Nabiki would tell them."

     But she isn't here, Jamie thought, Nor is Davis.  We must make do.  "Are you going to tell them what the threats were?" Jamie asked neutrally, "Then explain how we know?"

     "They need to know what, but not how, also it will make them a little angry, a little anger will go a long way, as will a touch of shame," Mihiro answered confidently.

     Jeff leaned over the railing.  "Complete the binding ritual!" Jeff shouted over the thunder and wind that emanated from the whirlwind as Nabiki hung suspended within it, some 15 feet off the deck.  I suspect Miss Tendo has done a better job than she knows, he thought as he watched, If it hadn't been for the elemental, I would have noticed the real problem earlier.

     "Can't breathe!" Nabiki gasped.

     "The sounds are only a focus, the words and runes form in your mind!  Use them!  It doesn't know it's hurting you."  And it isn't, he thought, You only think you're smothering because you're hyperventilating.  Keep your head, you can do this.  Jeff prepared a banishment, in case Nabiki panicked and had to be rescued.  In a moment, the winds died down noticeably and Nabiki's gasping became easy breaths.  He heard her chanting the words, then the whirlwind vanished within the parchment and she dropped.  Jeff's AT field caught her and eased her to the ground.  Her expression on contacting it was completely unreadable.  Probably going too many different ways, he thought as he climbed down the ladder to the deck where Nabiki sat, hugging her legs.

     "I did it," she gasped, looked up at him as she held out the parchment as part of it crumbled away to ashes, "The card! It's all burned!"  She peered at it.

     Jeff turned her hand to see the burns in the cardboard, careful not to touch the card itself.  He noted how she froze when he touched her.  Worry about it later, he told himself.  "It's enruned, not burned.  Wind burn not heat burn.  The elemental bound itself as much . . . "  Jeff felt the cold under her sleeve, he rolled up the sleeve of her blouse, there was an almost identical set of burns, much smaller, on her upper forearm opposite the elbow.  "I was going to say 'as much as you did it,' but it went further.  It bound you as you bound it.  Quite an honor."

     "What?"  Nabiki stared at the tiny, elaborate runes that formed the burns.  She rubbed at them as if to wipe them off.  "What do we do?  I didn't intend for this to happen!  How do I get rid of it?" the questions came rapid fire.

     "I'll let you figure out why," he said in his best `fatherly` voice, "We're deep in the ship.  What do you smell?"

     Nabiki looked at him as if he'd lost his mind, then sniffed.  Her expression went from cross to frightened as she took a deep breath through her nose.  "I can't smell them!  But this is where they should be."

     Jeff walked underneath where the elemental had been waiting on the machine, there was a dead straight line incised in the steel bulkhead.  Jeff peered into the gap and then motioned Nabiki over.  "What do you see?"

     Nabiki lifted her eyes from the burns as she walked over, then she peered into the slit in the metal at the containers within the room beyond.  "It looks like . . . scattered around," she said, then it hit her, "They're all open!  They escaped!"

     "Right," Jeff agreed as he looked around, "Let's get to the flight deck and see what we can see."  They headed for the hatchway leading to the ladders.

     "It, the elemental, calls itself 'Coffee'," Nabiki explained, "I think it wanted to 'wake me up', and that's what it took from my mind as its name.  It's offering to carry us both, and seems pleased we were so eager to fight this abomination."

     She saw Jeff nod as they climbed.  "NERV business make a hole!" he shouted at the base of each ladder, and troops got out of their way.

     My little wheelchair chase has probably got everybody talking, Nabiki thought as she followed him, So they're already primed to accept this.  "What is the human name for these things?  I know the Chaugnaroid word, and . . . the Winds see it as totally inimical to their race.  Since humans generate little winds to stay alive, it would be dangerous for us too."

     "Something that prevents us from breathing?" Jeff wondered, "Doesn't sound familiar.  They're called the Flying Polyps.  The Great Race fought them endlessly.  Cthulhu's people and The Elder Things fought them off and on, so I can't imagine Ritsuko doesn't know about them."

     "Some genius.  Two mages and I get twin lectures instead of a two-word answer."  She watched amazed as the burns on her arm vanished.  Don't go! she thought desperately, then felt amusement coming from the seemingly vanished burns on her arm.  "I guess these are . . . wind burns, they don't hurt."  She closed her eyes.  "How am I going to explain this to Ritsuko-sensei?"

     "Branding.  You got burned by something hot, or cold," he explained as he climbed, "As for the pain, supposedly you can brand cattle with an iron dipped in liquid nitrogen and it doesn't hurt.  I guess that's the same principle."

     They climbed the steep ladders until they reached the flight deck.  Nabiki saw and reported, "A tornado or a typhoon, but it's just sitting there, over one area.  I've also never seen storm clouds that color."  She noted a few sailors walking around the deck, only a few looked at the odd weather, and those were staring as intently as she was.

     "Describe them," Jeff said as he looked around, more at the sailors than the storm.

     Nabiki grimaced at Jeff's idea of a `lesson`.  "The swirls are oranges and reds, flashes of blue and green, like lightning within.  The top has a normal white to an odd pinkish-gray color."

     "I can't see it," Jeff admitted to her, made some gestures as if wiping his glasses, she recognized them as the true-seeing spell Jeff had shown her.  "That's what it detected."  He handed her the glasses to look through, the image through the plane of true-seeing was different from what she saw with her naked eyes, more angry and malevolent.  She glanced back and forth, looking at the `normal` and the `true` image.

     "We've got to call the Captain, report this," Nabiki suggested urgently.

     A police car flipping end over end from the cross street, told them that wasn't necessary anymore, the explosion punctuated it.  "And I was going to say, 'Captain we used magic to see something that isn't there.  The best we could hope for is the booby hatch, or would you rather have Ikari-chan start treating us like Rei'?  Somehow I think they'll believe us now."  More sailors and Marines were looking at the disturbance by the minute.

     "What do we do?" Nabiki asked, her unease growing, partly fueled by the revulsion emanating from her arm, she switched to Japanese, "Not just the Polyps.  What about this binding?  What am I going to do?"

     "The elemental was not only friendly, and highly intelligent, it is also a sorcerer in its own right.  Definitely a Master Elemental.  I think your first element has been chosen for you, and you've got another teacher," he replied in Japanese.

     "What happened?" Nabiki demanded, forcing herself to keep her hands at her sides so she wouldn't strangle her fellow pilot.  Coffee may not like me denying him air, she thought, Maybe I could just beat him unconscious.  If those things get much stronger, nobody will be looking at us.

     "You summoned it, it detected this and broke your containment with a counter spell, and led you to it, then directed you where you could see the problem.  My wind homonculus told it what we were doing, EVA pilots fighting the good fight and the like, when you offered binding to help us fight, it put its brute strength in the element card and its mind."  He touched the invisible burns.  "Here.  You'll have to be careful, Wind elementals are playful, that will probably carry over to you.  This one also wants to stop these enemies.  Just think of it as your own Flying Tiger or Eagle Squadron pilot, a volunteer to the cause."

     "So an exorcism is out of the question?" Nabiki said glumly.  This is too weird for one day's occurrences, she thought.

     "Extremely bad manners.  It hasn't and won't take command of you, but it will expect to be used and consulted."

     "What happens when it finds out how weak a wizard I really am?  And the other things?" Nabiki asked worriedly, as she looked around for eavesdroppers.

     "Probably put you to school, as I said, you pulled one in a billion out this time.  And it already knows about you being one of the Children.  But, let's prove our bona fides and go after that thing."  He held out his hand for his glasses.

     "How?" she asked, reluctantly returning them.

     "I think Brown Bess is called for."  He smiled, she wanted to punch him so badly she could taste it.

     "You're enjoying this just a little too much." Nabiki glared at him.

     "Knowing you'll always have a guardian angel, is that bad?  Believe me, having that kind of an ace up your sleeve - "

     She winced.  I'm going to kill him, she thought, For that joke alone.

     "- is going to get you out of more trouble than you know.  It's also going to get you into a lot more trouble, but you'll get out of it."

     "Terrific," Nabiki said sarcastically, "All Akane had was Mr. Happy Mallet.  I've got a fun-loving, guardian tornado."

     She looked at the sailors and Marines.  Some of them had noticed that she and Jeff had been chatting, while they'd been looking at a loathsome desecration of their homeport.  Look at their faces, Nabiki thought glumly, 'You're a pilot, you can fix this.'  But I'm only a kid from an open-air asylum for obsessive denial and brawling.  She glanced at Jeff.  He'll back whatever I do, she thought angrily, But he's going to make me get the ball rolling.  Okay, go out with style.

     `Coffee` suggested a spell that would change the characteristics of the air to carry her voice clearly to all the men on this deck and the hanger below.  She cast it effortlessly.  "Listen up!" she commanded with more authority than she felt, "If you're expecting a St. Crispian's Day speech - go read Shakespeare, that's not my style.  Get that EVA below armed and ready for immediate launch."

     "Beggin' your pardon, but we got no orders," a chief, who hadn't been with them on the Bennington, complained.

     "We'll have'em soon.  And I want to be out of the hanger and halfway to the target by the time the echo dies.  Is that clear?"

     "Yes, ma'am," came the answer from many.  It was lackluster, but they responded.

     "Then let's move!" Raccoon added as he headed for the aft elevator.  Nabiki scanned the faces, then imperiously turned on her heel and marched after him. Act as if they wouldn't dare not follow my commands, she thought.

Seek The Roses Along The Way

     As school continued, a plan percolated through Asuka's mind.  It's a cliche, but cliches are generally true and people knew they are, she thought.  "Wondergirl, have you got some cash on you?" Asuka asked.

     "Yes.  Why?" Wondergirl asked, staring at her in real confusion.

     "I think it's time to get you and the Fourth some new clothes, I think Shinji will be willing to help."

     "I am needed to pay?" Wondergirl asked.

     "For your own, yes, and we'll need your help to get the Fourth to accompany us," Asuka commented.

     "I may have a way," Rei said.

     "Girls going shopping?" Hikari asked excitedly, "At the PX, I think I can get some money from my mom, if I agree to pick up some things for her!"

     "Good, you can get him to come with as a pack-mule," Asuka said, nodded at Toji and smiled, "I bet Yumiwashi will be delighted to come.  And Ranko's friend Mirei."

     Hikari considered, "I'll work on him."

     "Oh, he'll come if we invite him," Asuka said, then turned to Ranko, "But Ranko has to come too.  A few new outfits, some new underwear.  A guy may be able to wear that tattered old stuff, but a girl needs hers clean and pretty."  She smiled at Horseface's panicked expression.

     "I'll handle it," Asuka said to the other girls, smiling broadly to them.

     And with malice to me, Ranma thought, and felt as if his skin and hair were three sizes too small.  He ran from the room, away from Asuka and the other girls, and straight into the boy's bathroom.

     The bun holding his red hair felt as if it was stretching his skin.  He looked at the mirror to help unwind it, when he saw the black-haired male staring back at him.  Great, he thought as he loosened his hair, Everything I do can't change me back.  The mere hint of going shopping, and I'm back as a guy.  He rebraided his black hair, then looked up and saw Rei-chan waiting just inside the bathroom door, leaning against it to make sure they were alone.

     "Aren't you going to say something?" Ranma asked.

     Rei raised an eyebrow, effectively saying 'Why should I?  It is a waste of effort.'

     "You're right," he admitted as he finished the braid, "I don't know why I'm back."

     She intensified her stare, telling him she was displeased by his lack of effort.  "Okay, I don't like shopping, I don't want any of the stuff Asuka would brow-beat `Ranko` into getting."  He smirked.  "So now they can't force me to get anything," he said proudly.

     Rei's expression was truly unreadable.  She opened the door.  "Mirei, we will need you to model clothes for Ranko, pretty and feminine."

     "Of course, Ayanami-san," Mirei said from behind the door, "I'll help any way I can."

     Rei-chan looked at him with an upraised eyebrow, indicating her victory.  "You must learn chess or draughts, to think several moves ahead.  You depend on personal superiority to win the battle, when you should consider winning the war."  Rei-chan walked out.

     Ranma stared into the mirror, and cried.  "Why can't I ever win?!"

     "Because you don't plan!" Asuka and Rei shouted/said to him through the door.

     Ranma frowned.  "Okay, I'm supposed to play the clown," he said quietly to his reflection, "I might as well embrace the role."

     Mirei was waiting for him outside the bathroom.  She gave him a friendly hug.  "I'm glad to see you!  Where's Ranko-chan?"  Rei and Asuka had departed back into the classroom.

     "Uh . . . ," Ranma said.

     "NERV business, Top Secret, can't talk about it.  I get it," she said, she hugged him again, then stepped away and bowed.  "The shopping trip after school, I agree that Ranko-chan needs some decent clothes."  She glanced around worriedly, stepped close to him and whispered, "But she won't be happy with the frills and bows the others are talking about.  But girls like pretty clothes, don't try to understand, it's a girl thing.  I'll need your help Ranma-san, to pick out some outfits she'll actually wear and enjoy wearing."

     Ranma thought desperately.  "She . . . she only wears my clothes.  Don't ask, it's a `Ranko-thing`."

     Mirei brightened.  "Then we'll get her a couple of suits and shirts, and we'll get you a couple just like them.  Maybe a tie.  Even though hers won't fit you, and yours won't fit her, she can't say they're a not like yours."  Mirei beamed at him.

     Ranma couldn't find a single thing wrong with her argument.  He couldn't deny that happy face or the warmth it brought him.  "Okay, I guess," he admitted, which earned him another hug.  This one he returned, very carefully.

     He kept glancing over his shoulder with anxiety.  Why does this feel so strange? he wondered, Why do I keep expecting somebody will hurt me?  He broke off the hug as Mirei happily took his hand and led him back into the classroom.

     Hikari was saying to Toji, "I thought it was a good idea, you are going to help."

     "I got him to agree," Mirei told the others, then added to Asuka, "But you are not going to embarrass Ranko-chan."

     "Ha," Asuka replied.

     Mirei's expression darkened as she marched over to confront the redhead.  "You - will - not!"

     Asuka glared back at her.  "I'll - do - what - I - want."

     "You - will - not!" Mirei snarled at Asuka.

     Tomiyo grabbed Shinji, while Sammi collected Ranma and took them outside.

     "We'll just let them decide among themselves," Sammi said, then into her collar, "Volunteer, Sunshine, fire mission, fire mission."

     "You aren't really going to use those battleships against them?" Ranma asked.

     "Too much?" Sammi asked.

     "Not enough," Ranma replied.

     "There you are," Hikari told them as she stuck her head out the door, "Ayanami-san sided with Mirei-chan, so the argument is over.  What is with you boys?"

     "I don't want to die," Ranma replied, "Shinji, what about you?"

     "I had confidence in Ayanami-san.  She'd solve the problem."

     "How did you know she'd do that?" Hikari asked.

     Shinji looked around, as Raccoon used to.  "Evil magic."

     Hikari chuckled and nodded.

     Captain Miller marched onto the bridge.  "Sound General Quarters, no drill," he ordered as he raised the handset and stared out the bridge windows at the disturbance.

     "Yes, sir."

     The klaxon sounded.  'General Quarters, General Quarters, all hands man you battle stations, all hands man your battle stations.'

     "Pilots, man the Eva and launch immediately," Captain Miller said, "I say again, Pilots - "

     Unit 04 leapt out of the open rear elevator well, as if fired from a cannon.  In the air, it twisted until it caught its own tail in its mouth.  When it landed in the harbor, it rolled like a wheel towards the enemy.  "Very well, all hands, make all preparations to get underway, I say again, make all preparations to get underway."

     "Sir, what about the EVA?" the officer of the deck asked.

     "They have 6 hours of power," Captain Miller explained, "They can catch up to us, or we can come back to get them."

     "Yes, sir."

     "I think I'm going to be sick!" Nabiki complained from her seat as they rolled along.

     "Just be ready to slice and dice," Raccoon replied from his position floating at the `bottom` of the plug, as the EVA rolled between two ships and headed towards the shoreline, "We won't be rolling for long."

     "Do you think 14 prog knives and 6 sonic glaives are enough?" Nabiki asked sarcastically.

     "Sure, you'll get to do your Asura impersonation," Raccoon replied, "Get ready."

     "Lock S-Foils in attack position!"  Nabiki unlooped the EVA and extended the `armed` legs, ready to attack.  She got an impression of murderous rage from her `armmate`.  Calm down, we'll kill them all, she replied silently.

     The EVA landed and the nearest Polyps hurled hurricane force winds against them.  Means nothing! Nabiki thought as she snarled and slashed at the tightly packed mass with many of the prog knives.

     "I've got the rear," Raccoon told her as he took over 2 knives and a sonic glaive.

     Nabiki drove a prog knife into one of the collections of eyes, fanged mouths and tentacles as it phased into visibility.  The thing dissolved into the gray dust she'd seen before.  Suddenly she had to deal with her new companion's utter revulsion at what came with such a death.  "Hey, you knew what you were getting into!" she shouted at Coffee as its repugnance translated into her nausea.

     Raccoon swung a glaive around to stab a polyp that was closing on the EVA's eyes.  "You need to swap jobs?" he asked.

     "No, got it," she answered, concentrating through the fading odium, and stabbing several Polyps in quick succession.  The remaining Polyps all faded into invisibility, while the disruption before them continued.  "They are . . . unpacking, expanding," she explained, "That was how they were stuffed into those boxes."

     "Now they're scattering," Raccoon said, "Don't look, listen, use your ears and your wind-based senses."

     Nabiki focused, seeing the faint disruptions the creatures made as they directed the winds against the EVA.  She smiled as several targets were immediately available.  And they aren't dodging, she thought as she attacked them simultaneously, feeling their deaths.

     The disruption faded, as the last of the Polyps `unzipped` and fled.

     "Now we go hunting?" Nabiki asked, "Of course we do!" she answered her own question.  She moved the EVA towards where the machine's ears heard the loudest whistling.

     "You aren't doing this."  Mirei planted her feet firmly on the PX's floor, folded her arms defiantly, and tried again to stare Asuka down.

     "Mirei."  Yumiwashi tried to play peacemaker.  "It is very pretty."

     "It's cute," Mirei said, as if denouncing a cardinal sin, "Not pretty."

     Yumiwashi looked to her brother for help.  Toji held up his hands.  Coward, traitor, she thought.  "Ranma, say something!"

     The martial artist looked around worriedly.  "Uh, Ranko would never wear that."

     "It's something only Sour Kraut would wear," Toji offered, "All those bows and ribbons, might finally manage to make her look cute."

     "What was that?" Asuka advanced on him.

     Yumiwashi grabbed Mirei's hand and nodded to Ranma.  The trio plunged into the boys' section of the clothing area with Sammi moving in behind them, to cut off Asuka's advance.

     "Leaving your brother to Asuka-san?" Mirei said approvingly, "Nasty."

     "He wouldn't help," Yumiwashi said primly, "He paid the price."

     "What's so funny Sammi-san?" Yumiwashi asked.

     "Nothing, nothing," the guard replied, hiding her smile.

     "How's this one?" Mirei asked Ranma as she pulled a suit coat and slacks from a rack, holding them in front of her.  It looked like they would fit Mirei well.

     "Well, Ranko's - "

     Yumiwashi's kick in the ankle served warning to Ranma.  Ayanami-san warned me he speaks . . . unfortunately, she thought as Ranma glared at her.  "She's built differently," she said as much to Ranma as to Mirei.

     "Yeah, she - " Ranma glanced worriedly at Yumi, "She's real . . . active, so the clothes have to be a little . . . loose."

     Yumi gave him an approving nod.  Good, don't hurt her feelings, just because Ranko has a figure most adult women would kill for, Yumi thought, Gently.  The truth doesn't have to hurt.

     Mirei held up the pants in front of Ranma.  "So, are her hips wider than yours?"

     Yumi thought Ranma was going to hit the roof from that question.

     "Ah, wider, ah, ah lot wider," Ranma managed.

     Mirei pulled his arm out and hung the slacks on it.  "Okay, you try these on.  Make sure they fit you."

     "Thanks," Ranma said despondently.

     "What's wrong?" Mirei asked crossly, then caught Yumi's warning glare.  She softened her tone, "Ranko-chan will appreciate all your work.  Don't you want her to be happy?"

     "Of course," Ranma replied hotly.  "But I -"

     "She's going to realize she's a girl," Mirei explained, taking Ranma's hand, "And a very pretty one.  She's going to grow into a beautiful woman.  She's going to want to be a pretty girl occasionally."

     "Especially for Raccoon," Yumi teased, Mirei giggled, Ranma turned bright red.

     "Don't be angry," Yumi chided, "He's a gentleman.  He won't do anything to hurt her.  That's why she likes him so much.  He doesn't act like he wants to rip her clothes off and . . . well, you're a guy, you know."

     Ranma had gone from bright red to white as a sheet.  He looks like he's going to fall over any second, Yumi thought.

     "Well, the way she looks at Ayanami-san - " Mirei said, "She might have a crush on her."

     "Ranko has a crush on Rei-chan?" Ranma sounded horrified.

     "Don't tease him," Yumi accused, "Ranko's just envious."

     "About what?" Ranma strangled on the sentence.

     Yumi turned to Ranma.  "But in a good way.  Ayanami-san has always been calm, imperturbable, I think that's the word, unbothered by events.  Isn't that what martial artist try to be like?  That's what she admires in Ayanami-san."

     "Yeah," Ranma said brightly, then muttered, "Not that we get it."

     "That's why Ranko-san admires Ayanami-san.  She can maintain it," Mirei explained, "It's just a school-girl crush, 'Oh I wish I could be like her!  She's so wonderful!'" Mirei said with her hands clasped and dewy eyes blinking, "It's not like a boy-girl crush."

     "Oh," Ranma said quietly.

     "We'll go check these," Sammi said, "You see if you two can find a couple of shirts and a few long ties to go with the coat."

     "Okay," Yumi said as she and Mirei began searching.

     "They don't know, do they?" Ranma asked Sammi in terror.

     "No," Sammi assured him, "They have a bit of a crush on Ranko, like Ranko's on Rei.  Someone strong and confident to look up to."

     Ranma wished Sammi would just stab him, instead of saying things like that.  Why do I keep thinking girls being nice to me is a prelude to pain, he wondered.  He glanced over to where Asuka and Hikari were talking to Rei.

     Shinji was people watching.  The three girls weren't quite having an argument, but it was verging on it.  Ranma had overheard Rei make it clear she didn't like red, and Asuka had taken that in stride.  I guess Rei isn't as much fun to tease as I am, Ranma thought as he wandered towards them.

Just Beware Of The Thorns

     Asuka was irritated by the number of times Rei had flipped her hair out of her face.  But the barrettes, hair clips, and headbands that I suggested, and the style of haircut that Hikari suggested, aren't making an impression on Wondergirl, she thought as she noted Horseface wandering over, Too bad water doesn't seem to work on him anymore, a three-way argument would be better.  And Wondergirl couldn't keep insisting she 'doesn't see the purpose of useless accessories.'

     "Undoing all your hard work?" Horseface asked politely, enjoying her dismay.  Wondergirl was having none of it.

     "Excuse me."  Horseface carefully pulled off Asuka's A10 nerve clip.

     "Hey!" she protested.

     "I ain't gonna break it."  Horseface fitted the clip on Wondergirl.  Hikari stepped up, slipping the blue hair under the clip.

     "There," Asuka said, "You wear one in the EVA all the time, Wondergirl, you can't say that serves no purpose."

     Wondergirl looked at her reflection in the mirror, "I do not like red," she said quietly, but made no move to remove it..

     Her other objections seemed to have vanished, Asuka thought, At least that was something.  Asuka realized she was nervously shifting from foot to foot.

     "I think you'd better give it back," Horseface whispered to Wondergirl, grinning at Asuka, "Or Langley's going to melt."

     Asuka frowned at the pair as Wondergirl took it off, and stared at Asuka, examining her, rather than returning it.  Horseface and the two Stooges all burst out laughing.

     "Lingerie!" Asuka suggested as revenge on Horseface.  The look on Hikari's face suggested she was going to look forward to heaping the embarrassment to its very limit.

     "Done!" Mirei spoiled the fun, handing a pile of boxers to Horseface, and smiled so sweetly at Asuka.  Horseface sighed happily.

     "But Ranko does need some bras," Mirei said, and Horseface's countenance fell.

     Asuka smiled at Horseface.  "Yes, that was one thing we agreed on," she told Horseface, making him realize there would be no escape.

     "She can't keep borrowing yours, they'll get all stretched out of shape, and must be uncomfortably tight on the poor girl," Mirei added, smiling brightly at Asuka, who was considering homicide.

     "You dirty, rotten, evil - " Nabiki ran out of insults.  None of them are . . . comprehensive enough, she thought as the EVA peered into the middle floor of the three story building, where a group of Polyps had surrounded themselves with a pack of kids.

     Poor kids, she thought, imagining how she and the others would have reacted to being captured and touched by these warped, horrifying things that oozed and glided among them.  She glanced at the floor above and below where the Polyps' winds held other groups of kids as shields in those directions.  Those kids know I'm in here, and they're calling my name, she thought, Each time they do, it's like a stake in the heart, when I can't save them.

     "Quit thinking literally and start thinking laterally," Raccoon told her, "You bring your pistol?"

     "Ah, no," she admitted.

     "Start," he told her crossly as he passed her in the plug, "Pop the top, time for combined arms."

     "What are you - ?" she demanded, but he was already disconnected and outside.

     Raccoon, his pistol at his side, walked across the building's middle floor.  The Polyps seemed uncertain.

     If they were the Nerimaniacs, Nabiki thought, They'd be trying to watch both of us.

     "Frrreeeessssh - mmmeeeeeatt!" Raccoon shouted at them, eliciting giggles from the terrified kids, then added, "Miss Tendo, if they move out of there, squash them!"

     "Covering it," she replied, found herself snarling.  She saw the expressions on the kids change.  Some started shouting her name, or Raccoon's.  From scared to spectators, she thought, Something to tell their own kids.  She winced as a wind blast slammed into Raccoon's AT field, to no effect.  I wish I . . . she remembered touching the field herself, All the feelings and emotions; fire, ice, loneliness, resignation, rage; mine and his, I . . . I wonder if that's what `Ranko` sees in him.

     "They're just hunching down," she warned Raccoon as the Polyps all faded out.  I see you, she thought as the disturbances the Polyps were making in the winds pointed back to them.  She felt herself coiling to spring.

     Raccoon emptied his pistol over the kids' heads.  Just firing into the center of mass, she thought as two, then all three of the Polyps were hurled across the floor.

     "Move!  Run!" Raccoon shouted at the kids, as Nabiki reached in to squash the writhing Polyps.  Raccoon guided the kids out of the room.

     "Not so clever now?" she said as she crushed them, giving in to her rage, "Why didn't you just run away?  No, you had to be clever!  Are you clever now?"

     Misato had expected a lot of things when she returned to Miss Kraznyzamok's home after work, the sound of laughter wasn't one of them.  Asuka, Rei, Ranko, and Shinji were having an impromptu fashion show, to the delighted applause of Mirei, Toji and his little sister, the guards and Hiro.  The last was taking pictures.

     Why do I feel I'm intruding? she wondered as the laughter subsided as she walked among them and up the stairs.

     "What about you?" Misato asked Hikari, who was upstairs cooking dinner, with Penpen on the counter `supervising`.

     "I'm enjoying myself, Major," she said happily.

     Major, Misato felt like someone was twisting a knife in her guts.  She returned to the fashion show, she noted the diminution of the noise as she rejoined them.  Rei and Hiro had disappeared.  "You all look so good," she said cheerily, "You'll put Daibusu to shame."

     "My suits are hand tailored," Ranma said as he exited his room, closing the door behind him, a good facsimile of Raccoon in tone and posture, "I haven't found a new tailor of the requisite quality, skill and discretion."  He brushed his `lapels`.  "So I could have my measurements taken and sent to Boston, besides I have five suits, I'll wait for another growth spurt before I replace them."

     The performance got some mild applause.  Ranma bowed.

     "So who paid for all of this?" Misato asked, "I know you didn't ask for an advance."  She sat down in a chair across from the others.

     "Wondergirl did, some of it," Asuka replied nervously.

     "She ran out of money."  Toji indicated Asuka.

     "I did not," Rei added as she exited her room with Hiro, "I was carrying $500, I still have over half."

     "You carry $500!" Misato was shaken.

     "I should carry a reserve," Rei explained, "It is how much Roku-kun carries.  Some in various currencies, some in gold."

     Rei stepped up to Shinji, "Is this correct?"

     Shinji stood, and tried to speak.

     Rei's wearing make up! she thought as she glanced at Hiro, who was looking nonchalant.  Misato looked closer and could understand Shinji's, and the others', stunned expressions.  She really is very pretty, Misato thought as she stared at the transformed girl.

     "Hikari-chan insisted on buying Rei some cosmetics," Hiro told her quietly, "I know how to apply them.  By the way, lose the jacket, the rank and the attitude, and they'll quit snubbing you, Katsu-sama."  He moved off before she could respond without yelling.

     "Asuka had little talent," Rei said quietly, "Hiro-san is very good, and Roku-kun left his college theater make-up."

     "I've got to admit Wondergirl," Asuka said, "The difference is startling."

     "Rei."  Misato was tongue-tied, the different clothes and make-up changed Rei completely.  "Ah, yes, it's, ah, very good job, it suits you."

     Rei nodded to Hiro, who bowed theatrically.

     "We even bought Ranko some new clothes," Shinji added, earning a low growl from Ranma, Shinji ignored him and continued,"If you could get her to come out and try some of them on for the Major, we'll promise to be nice."

     Misato winced at that, but no one seemed to notice.

     All eyes were on Ranma looking around like a trapped animal, from one face to another, seeing salvation nowhere.

     "It will have to wait," Hikari called from upstairs, "Dinner's ready, if someone will - "  Ranma zipped up the stairs and past her before she finished.  " - set the table."  At the loud clattering, Hikari turned around.  "How did you do that!?"

     They walked up the stairs.  The table was set, and all the serving dishes had gone from the stove to the table.  Ranma was sittingat his place, chopsticks at the ready.

     "How did he do that?!" Hikari demanded of the pilots, "My back was only turned for a second!"

     "Hypergeometric superpowers absorbed from our foes, enabling him to be several places simultaneously, as she took her seat, " Asuka said, "Right, Wondergirl?"

     "He is always eager to eat," Rei replied as Shinji held the chair for her to sit down.

     Hiro blocked Misato's way out of the stairwell.  "Civilians only," he said flatly.  She removed her jacket and tossed it, one-handed, on the couch downstairs before he let her pass.  She frowned at him for her entire walk up the stairs and to the table.

     "You didn't seem happy about your promotion when you got it," Shinji said innocently, "Now you wear your collar tabs almost everywhere.  I don't understand."

     Misato grimaced at the seemingly harmless comment as she sat down to dinner. Why are they all picking at that particular scab, she didn't ask aloud.

     "I should have Ritsuko draft you," Misato said as she dug into the food, "This is great."  She noticed Rei, Sammi and Asuka had pause to bow their heads, and Ranma restrained himself until they finished.  She frowned at that.  Since when did he learn manners? she wondered.

     "Hey!" Toji protested at his suddenly empty plate, "What's goin' on."

     "Just showing Hikari-chan how I set the table," Ranma said, digging in to the food he'd stolen from Toji.

     "I'd like to see you try that again, when I'm ready."

     "Not really," Asuka warned, "It took Ice Princess, Raccoon and Ritsuko a lot of effort to train him out of that.  They'll be very angry if we let him fall back into the habit."

     "I can control myself.  Besides," Ranma said, pointing at the single dumpling sitting in the middle of Toji's plate.

     "Gahh!  Ghosts!"  Toji set his plate down.  Yumiwashi removed the dumpling more slowly but no less thoroughly than Ranma had.

     "Talk or eat, I'm not wasting Hikari-san's wonderful food."

     "Roku-kun's is superior," Rei said as she sampled her white rice.

     "And you don't even come close, Asuka," Ranma countered Asuka's unsaid protest.

     "Hold it," Sammi interjected, "You can fight it out later.  Let's first enjoy the food."

     "Rei-san can't," Shinji said as he excused himself, Yumiwashi followed.

     Hikari looked around worriedly.  "Is there something wrong?"  She faced Rei.  "Are you allergic?"

     "I dislike meat," Rei said, "You did not know."

     Hikari stammered an apology.

     "Rice is fine," Rei replied as Shinji assembled something in the kitchen.

     "What about those people," Hikari asked quietly, "Have you caught them yet?"

     "They won't," Asuka said glumly.

     "They can't stay hidden forever," Misato assured them, Rei and Ranma exchanged a glance and raised eyebrows.  Asuka glared at Misato, then kept eating, staring at her food.  Hikari too concentrated on her meal.  They know the truth, she realized, And they are getting as tired of being constantly lied to as I am about this.  In this case, someone is hiding the attackers from NERV Security, that means a lot of muscle.

     Shinji and Yumiwashi returned to the table with a plate of lightly stir-fried vegetables.  He gave them to Rei and took his seat.  "There are other avenues, enquiries are proceeding."  Shinji steepled his fingers and intoned, "We'll court-martial anyone who does not cooperate."

     "He wouldn't say it that way," Asuka sat up, steepling her fingers, "The beatings will continue until morale improves."

     "That's not right," Sammi countered, doing her own Gendo Ikari.

     Rei abruptly left the table, and shocked everyone when she returned with a pair of Gendo's glasses, perched them on the tip of her nose as she sat down, then she sat up straight, adjusted the glasses one handed then steepled her fingers as she leaned forward.  "The activity here is eating, this levity serves no purpose.  Return to your tasks," she intoned.  Even Hikari was shocked by the transformation.  Rei slipped the glasses in her pocket and continued her meal.

     "You had to teach her to tell jokes," Asuka stage whispered to Shinji.

     "Don't worry, you're next," Shinji stage-whispered back.

     The EVA dodged around the corner as the two four plane elements laid down their cargoes of napalm.  The screams that followed were clearly not human, but within the flaming box, more Polyps waited.

     Last ones, Nabiki thought as she screamed some ancient Chaugnaroid warcry and leapt over the fires to engage her targets.  Prog knives and sonic glaives flickered around her as she lost herself to the fight.  Suddenly, it was over, the fires and gray powder remained.

     "That wasn't shooting fish in a barrel, that was dropping a chainsaw on them," Jeff told her, "You seem to have a great deal of repressed anger."

     "It's not repressed anymore," she warned, breathing heavily as the toll for her frenetic actions of the last few hours demanded redress.

     He glanced back around the corner.  The company of riflemen were looking for their now cubed and deep-fried quarry, and beginning to call for help to fight the fires.  "Well, that's all of them.  A quick lesson -"

     Nabiki shook her head.  "No, this thing's on fumes," she explained, "We get it back aboard the carrier now."  She looked around.  "Now where the Hell is the carrier?"

     "You could summon a spirit to guide you," Raccoon suggested.

     "I won't do that again," she promised tiredly, "Until I'm ready."

     "Good.  There's the carrier."  Jeff pointed the EVA towards the harbor.

     "No hoop snake tricks," Nabiki warned, "I'll alert the carrier we're coming in, and we'll need the power take off as soon as we land.  As if they don't know about this."  She began broadcasting.  "Hello, hello . . . Moshi moshi!  Can I speak to Dr.  Akagi, Analyst Ibuki, Captain Miller?"  She paused, fumed.  "Those things that sound like a bent flute, toss armored cars around like leaves and likes threatening kids are all gone SO WE'RE HEADING BACK THERE AND I MEAN NOW!"

     "Well at least they can see us."  Nabiki sagged.  "Oh Mighty Chaugnar Faugn, how does your magnificence keep from falling asleep, I'm exhausted."

     "I'm not gonna say 'I told you so,'" Jeff grumbled he as drove the EVA through the harbor, rowing with the arms like a giant galley, "I'm gonna save my strength to yell for a cab once we're aboard.  Besides, you did most of the actual fighting.  I just disrupted their spells and watched our backs."

     They arrived at the carrier, the rear elevator was down, making the hanger park accessible.  "And I'm tired too.  The concrete's not out, but I think I can help, can you get this thing through the elevator?"

     "Anything that lets me get some sleep," she said as she took command, "What are those things?"

     "AT field," Jeff said distractedly, "Step down on them, no bent deck."

     "Got it."  The EVA stepped down on the AT field projections.  Nabiki felt the same odd resonance.  Like when I landed on the AT field - Raccoon's AT field - back aboard the carrier, she thought guiltily, Nobody should know that much about somebody else's innermost being.

     Inside the hanger the lights were on, men were working on Corsairs and Avengers near the front.  Nothing was parked in the EVA's resting spot near the stern.  "They must have decided to mix air-ops with EVAs," Jeff suggested, "At least they have a spare battery in the charging rack."  Jeff indicated the long box.

     Men were scattering everywhere, hiding behind the little tractors and the huge tool boxes.

     "REAL FUNNY!" Nabiki had the EVA shout at them, then on internals to Jeff, "I lost my temper, sue me."

     "I'd rather go to sleep," he replied, as he quit floating and sagged to the deck of the plug, "The battery's fitted."

     "Switching over to emergency life support."  She looked at him as the plug went dark.  I don't know if I'm more angry and worried he's over there and I'm over here, than I would be if he'd joined me, or asked me to join him, she thought, Has Ranko ever felt it?  I think Asuka has.  But . . . I need sleep.  I am just not thinking straight.  "Let them come get us," she said, "I don't care if sleeping in an EVA gives you weird dreams."

     The guards had a driver take Hikari, Mirei and the Suzuharas home.  Hiro had wanted to walk home to think.  The pilots stood around the lower floor.  "So Horseface, you are stuck as a he for a while?  She-Horseface was better company," Asuka complained, "I guess all it takes is a mention of shopping and you change back.  Maybe your curse mutated.  We say 'shopping' and you turn into a boy, all we have to do is figure out the code-word to turn you into a girl."

     "Asuka is your wife," Misato offered, trying to sound reasonable, actually she was glad Asuka was back to fighting and arguing.  Ranma took the opportunity of Asuka's distraction to slip into his room and close the door.

     "Hey!  Baka!  Don't run away!  I was winning!"  She charged in and let out a shriek to match Ranma's squawk.  "Dummkoft!  Baka!  Hentai!" she shouted as she retreated, "How come you never show any feminine modesty?!"

     "Is it true he has so much to be modest about?" Shinji asked Asuka innocently.

     "Who asked you?" Asuka shot back.

     Rei walked out of her room, wearing only the cold cream on her face to remove the make up.  "Is it proper to argue, rather than sleep?"  She glanced around at the stunned faces.  Ranma exited his room and immediately retreated back in, slamming the door behind him.  Rei turned to face Shinji.  "Asuka has suggested I give you each a good night kiss."  Asuka walked into her room and slammed the door behind her.  Shinji escaped into his room and closed the door quietly.  Rei looked at Misato.

     Misato backed up a step, expecting the naked girl to try to kiss her.

     "Tactics, Major, achieving objectives."  Rei returned to her room, and quietly closed the door.

     "Our children," Sammi sighed, "They grow up so fast."  She headed up the stairs.

     "Of all the places to have no beer . . . "  Misato sighed as she stretched out on the couch again.

Wise Man Said Just Raise Your Hand, and Reach Out For The Spell

     Usagi looked down at Yuki as her rival/subordinate lay tied and gagged on the ground.  "Your plan not only failed," Usagi said, "But they took my parents away to question them.  It will take considerable luck that they don't reveal our activities, despite the spells I have on them.  You have fallen from the service of the Goddess into service of yourself."  Or getting yourself serviced, she thought sardonically.  "You have endangered the chances we have of bringing them to the Goddess."  She sighed, honestly saddened by her colleague's fall from grace.  "I have tried to be patient, to make you understand the greater vision that the Goddess has for us, for the `Children`, for the entire world.  I don't blame you for not understanding."  She knelt next to the writhing girl.  "It is my fault for being a poor advocate, I apologize.  So, I've taken steps to make things right."  She smiled and patted Yuki's head.

     Usagi saw Yuki's eyes focus on the cloud forming behind her.  "What are you afraid of?" she asked, trying to sound cheerful, instead of jealous, "You will be one with the Goddess, and then return to us better and deeper in understanding," Usagi happily explained to the thrashing girl as the smoky tendrils wrapped around Yuki, and drew her into the nebulous mass, which vanished a moment later.

     Usagi bowed her head.  "Please seek to understand your errant daughter, and use her to increase your power and glory.  And if you see fit to return her to us as one of your Blessed or your children, we would be eternally grateful.  Your will be done."  Usagi clapped her hands and began her walk home.

     I do feel bad about her parents, but without their deaths . . . how could I have generated the power to cast the spell, and convince the Goddess not to remain and test her powers against the EVAs?  With Ikari's return, things can be different, she thought as she walked, For all its briefness, the Goddess's visit was a transcendent experience.  I am glad of its briefness.  She watched the lights of the NERV compound knifing through the darkness.

     "What do you mean it's gone?" Ikari asked.  Shigeru gulped, "Commander.  It was there, a signal at least as strong as the one generated by Tulzscha.  The signal held steady for 19.3 seconds, then vanished completely."  He waited, the Commander's eyes bored into his.  "I have dispatched troops to the area and maintenance teams to the sensors.  Other than that, I have no explanations."

     Ikari stared at him for several long moments, Shigeru felt his own sweat like an alien thing, crawling along under his uniform.  Then the Commander turned and walked away.

     Shigeru relaxed.  "I'm glad I didn't get promoted.  I'd hate to have to deal with that every day."  He turned back to prepare the reports of the situation, while it was still fresh in his mind.  He glanced around.  "Where's my guitar?"  He looked at the departed Commander. "Would he have ??  Naw!"

     Jeff saw the EVAs, all five of them, Units 00, 01, 02, 03 and 04, lit by the guttering fires scattered about and the first light of the moon.  He stared at the black form of Unit 03.  "Okay, this is why you don't sleep in an EVA."

     "Hello," came a voice from behind him, "I guess this is why I fell asleep.  Although the train ride wasn't very interesting."

     "Sarah," Jeff said, smiling at his ally, "How are things going?  We got your telegram, unfortunately we were in San Diego and the plans were set.  We have to return to Tokyo.  I'm sorry.  What are the chances of you getting Unit 03 operational?  It alone should be able to clear out any of those things."

     He saw Sarah shudder, her conversation block was pure fear.  "I'd rather not," she said, "Its reputation is very bad."

     "You certainly have mastered the British art of understatement.  'Oh please don't order me to get eaten by that monster.'" Jeff returned to staring at Unit 03.

     Sarah chuckled at his antics, then sobered.  "My dad really is sorry about . . . events."  She stepped up to him and stared at Unit 03, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.

     "Sorry that he was ready to kill me, or sorry he got duped into going after the wrong target?" Jeff asked, then he turned to her, "I apologize.  Sharon's death still has me shaken up.  What he did for you . . . I have to wonder if he could have saved her.  If a few days, or a couple weeks would have made a difference.  The attack on Langley just reminded me that she's the last one . . . from the old days."

     "Feeling old?" she asked.

     "Feeling positively ancient," he told her, "Already started training a potential replacement.  She's got every sign of surpassing me, in case your dad has to do the job for real.  Shinji's coming along well also, he's just got to realize his powers don't define who he is."

     "How . . . how are he and Rei getting along?" Sarah asked shyly, staring at her feet.

     "They are doing well, and you have every right to be jealous.  You might start looking for someone of your own."

     "Do you have to know everything?  So when are you going to find 'someone of your own.'"  She stared at him.

     "There is one thing I don't know," Jeff admitted as he walked towards the row of EVAs, "Displacing someone from someone else who - I assume - would be a better match than with me.  Is it because I don't really like me, or I just don't trust everybody else, or both.  Despite being able to see their intentions and emotions by the color of their words.  I see the truth they don't even know they're speaking, and I still can't trust sufficiently.  When I get the answer to that dilemma, maybe I can understand more.  Then I'll be able to answer your question."

     "What was it Sartre said, 'Nothing exists just slightly'?"

     " 'Nothing can exist only slightly', how does that apply?" Jeff asked.

     "I surprised or confused you," she said, "Amazing.  When have you ever been with someone who needed you, not as a pilot, a mage, a warrior, but just because you are warm and alive, and out of those objects with just those characteristics, chooses you.  That you are a mage, a warrior, a pilot, a teacher, etc. is just icing on the cake, an extra side of chips with the meal, nice but not absolutely necessary."  She looked around, spotted the others walking towards them.  Two Reis, Shinji, Langley, Ranma walking side-by-side with Ranko, and Nabiki approached.

     "Maybe your real problem is you are darkness.  You haven't understood that darkness not only implies evil, but it also implies rest for the effort and concerns of the day.  Cheese it, the cops," Sarah told him as she walked towards the Reis as they approached Shinji.

     "Gott im Himmel," Langley announced, "What a rotten nightmare this is!  Who is she and what's she doing here?"

     "Good to see you too, Langley," Jeff called, "Hear you got into a little bother.  I was teaching Nabiki a scrying spell.  We saw the whole thing."

     "Did you see where they went?" Ranma demanded, changing directions from towards Nabiki to towards Jeff.

     "That answers whether he'd rather have a girlfriend or a fight," Langley said, glanced at Shinji and the twin Reis, "So are you going to make a thousand copies of her, so you can have a harem?"

     "Over four thousand," Rei replied.

     "And too scared to make a move on any of them," Langley teased.

     "It seems the malady is more widespread than I thought," Sarah commented.

     "What malady is that?" Langley demanded, fists on her hips, glaring at Sarah, "And who are you anyway?"

     "Not being able to get a boy or girlfriend," Sarah replied, "I'm Major Alfred ggreg's daughter, Sarah."

     "Ha, look at Horseface, he and she, they aren't careful they're going to wind up being alone with each other," Langley replied, "So why are you here?"

     "The Severn Valley situation," Shinji said, "Is it really that bad?"

     "How do you know about it?" Sarah asked, stunned.

     "I . . . looked in to it," Shinji admitted, staring at his feet, "It looked pretty bad."

     "It still is," Sarah explained, "We are sending another team in, I'm part of that team.  I was hoping to get an EVA, or a pilot for Unit 03.  It hasn't worked out."

     "If the situation is that bad," Rei said.

     "The Commander will send forces," the other Rei completed the sentence.

     "Great, two and twice as boring," Langley said as she brushed off a chair she formed from nothing and sat down.

     Shinji's face screwed up in concentration and chairs appeared for the others, as well as a small campfire in a ring of stones.

     "What?" Nabiki asked as she sat down, "No marshmallows?"

     "Sorry," Shinji said.

     "When are you gonna quit apologizing for EVERYTHING!?" Langley shouted at him, "She was making a joke."

     "Isn't it good Asuka's back to normal, yelling and screaming at the slightest provocation?" Ranko asked, pulling Jeff's arm so she could sit between him and Nabiki.

     "Yes," Rei said, "It is comforting."

     "Older sisters are like that," Sarah added.

     "Yes," the other Rei said, "Asuka's raging at Heaven, and all's right with the World."

     All Langley could do was glare at the Reis, and Sarah as she sat down.

     "Maestro, if you would," Jeff said to Shinji as he gestured at the still standing Ranma.

     Shinji nodded and concentrated.  Nabiki's chair became a cane-backed loveseat, all the unoccupied chairs vanished.  Ranma looked around in surprise, extended his hands and concentrated, straining every sinew.

     "Against all - what - five of us?" Jeff asked, turned to Ranko, "Or is it six?"

     "All in favor of hurting Ranma if he doesn't sit down in the chair provided," Ranko announced, "Please signify by saying 'Hai'."

     'Hai!' came the chorus.


     "You're supposed to be me!" Ranma protested.

     "I'm sitting down," Ranko told him, put one arm around Nabiki's waist and the other around Jeff's, "I kind of like the idea of a harem.  Shinji gets the Reis, I get everyone else, to admire and flatter me."

     Ranma stared at her, utterly mortified.

     "With one 'Nay' - "

     "Neigh," Langley quipped, "It is Horseface after all."

     " - and Miss Tendo abstaining, the 'hai's have it," Ranko said, smiled at Ranma, who dropped into the loveseat next to Nabiki

     Nabiki smiled at him with a 'mine!' look, but only took his hands in hers.

     "You're all picking on me," Ranma complained, glancing nervously at the mixed messages Nabiki was sending.

     "We pick on everybody," Jeff replied, "Get used to it."

     "Case in point," Langley began, "So, Raccoon, you tell your new student that you got thrown out of the Camilenn Order before you even started teaching her?"

     Nabiki squirmed at that.

     "Yes, Langley," Jeff said in irritation.

     "How do you win against Angels?" Sarah asked.

     "This is all turned against the Angel," Rei said.

     "Ah, makes sense now," Sarah said, nodded.

     "Can we get to the point?" Langley asked.

     One Rei peered at the top of Langley's head.  "Not as quickly as you can."

     "You did this to her!" Langley accused Jeff, "I preferred her boring!"

     "Ranko, did you teach Rei to tell jokes?" Jeff asked.

     "No, he did," Ranko said and pointed to Ranma.

     "You're supposed to be on my side!" Ranma complained.

     "Well, I was expecting Nabiki to ride to your rescue, but she's just been sitting there," Ranko replied, giggling, "Wives should stick up for their husbands."

     "Can't you do something about her?" Nabiki asked.

     "Not in front of all these witnesses," Jeff admitted.

     "Can't we go pick on those girls who've been picking on us?" Ranma asked.

     "You are more entertaining," the other Rei said.

     "Besides, after chasing them with fish all last night," Langley said dryly, "I'd think you'd want a real challenge."

     "I will have to settle for the Fourth," the Reis suggested in chorus.  Langley nodded sagely.

     "Aren't you gonna say anything?" Ranma turned to Nabiki.

     Before Nabiki could, Sarah said, "If they didn't love you, they wouldn't tease you."

     "I agree," Nabiki added leaned into Ranma, leaving him stricken and looking for an escape route.

     Shinji decided to change the subject.  I don't want to, but I think I have to, he considered the laughing people, The friends around me.  But I don't want to be like my father, keeping the unpleasant truths to myself.  Maybe he's trying to protect them, maybe he doesn't care, but I think they need to know.

     "When I was out walking - " Shinji began.

     "One morning for pleasure, I spied a young Horseface a riding along," Asuka-san sang, then glanced around at the silent `audience`, "What?"

     "Continue," the Rei-sans urged Shinji.

     "I discovered something, many things . . . about the pilots."

     "So?" Asuka-san asked, "We know a lot of stuff.  We're monsters for one, able to do things humans can't."  She glanced around, as if challenging anyone to disagree.

     "They are also developing equipment and techniques to destroy us," Nabiki-san said, "If they think they need to.  Of course so is he."  She pointed at Raccoon.

     "I said they'll think the new powder will work.  Give me a little credit for brains," Raccoon turned and replied.

     "That makes sense, we aren't supposed to survive this," Shinji said, and all the arguments among the others ground to a halt, everyone stared at him.  Shinji shifted uncomfortably, then one Rei-san took his hand and he continued.  "The war, all of it, the Outer Gods versus the Elder Gods, and the Great Old Ones on their own side, it's all over the secrets of all Creation."  He looked at his fellow pilots.  "Not just this universe, but all the universes, now, in the past, in the future.  They came here to hide and fight, but they also built this place, not just this planet, but this whole universe to fight in."

     "So this is just a battlefield?" Asuka-san asked, sitting back in her chair, "Maybe they should rename it Poland, or Belgium."

     "What's the point?" Ranma-san asked, looking from face to face, "And what does that have to do with us?"

     "They're fighting over whatever allowed them to build this," Shinji explained, "If they get it . . . we all lose."

     "So we find it first and use it ourselves," Asuka said offhandedly, looked around at the stunned expressions, "What, we set it up so all of us have to agree, like a committee, that way none of us can go completely powermad."  She rocked back in her chair.

     "I think you're missing Shinji's point," Raccoon said.

     "Then if he - would - make - it - " Asuka-san said and set the chair back with a thump, glaring at Shinji.

     Shinji squirmed under that gaze, but persevered, "We will get it.  Raccoon showed me where it was hidden."

     "If you know then the others know," Ranko-san squawked, she shook Raccoon's arm, "They'll come and take it."

     "No," Raccoon said quietly, "That's what Shinji is trying to explain."

     "The only way to open the chamber . . . " Shinji began, paused and looked at the faces.  I don't want to tell them this, he thought, I wish I didn't know.  But they deserve to know.  And . . . I want someone else . . . anyone . . . to tell me what to do with knowing.  " - is to chain a Great Old One to each of the four great posts, and spill their life's blood on it."

     Ranma-san exploded, leaping to his feet, "How the heck are we supposed to chain a Great Old One to a post and . . . and . . . ," he ended with a whisper and fell back into his chair, "We'll be Great Old Ones then . . . right?"

     "I think he's got it," Asuka-san said bitterly, "Now that he's figured it out.  Who at NERV knows?"

     "The Commanders," the Rei-sans volunteered in chorus, "Probably Admiral Simson."

     "Dr. Akagi," Raccoon said, "Definitely."  He glanced around disgustedly.  "I doubt Major Katsuragi would, she doesn't pay attention to important things."

     "Not Maya," Nabiki-san added sadly, "At least I hope . . . "  She accepted Ranko-san's hug.

     "You're missing the point," Shinji said quietly, "I . . . I think they'll be doing the right thing."

     "WHAT!" Ranko-san was out of her chair and screaming in Shinji's face, "They're gonna KILL us!!  And YOU think it's the right thing to do?!"

     "If we are a threat to humanity," one Rei-san countered gently, "We - should - be destroyed."

     "Can't fault the logic," Raccoon said despondently, "How many Great Old Ones, Elder Gods and Outer Gods will we have killed and absorbed by that time?  How insane by human standards will we be?  Or, how will we perceive our `fellow` humans?  If we're half as nuts or half as alien as most of our enemies.  Getting the chop would be a relief, not a threat," he added hopelessly.

     "But what if we aren't?!" Ranko-san countered, marching over to confront Raccoon, "You want to just roll over and die?"  She grabbed his shirt with both hands and seemed on the verge of either slugging him or bursting into tears.

     "No," Shinji said, "It makes sense."  He bowed his head and glanced at Ayanami-san.  "I didn't say I agreed with it.  I saw the future, for me, for you, for the rest of us.  I saw huge, crowds of people.  Stretching from horizon to horizon.  Chanting, singing, talking about . . . well, us."

     "Worshipers," Ranma-san said with distaste.

     "Our victims," Shinji said with fear.

     "This is . . . " Ranma-san began, "Just because . . . there's a chance . . . that's no excuse for letting them kill us."

     Shinji was on his feet, along with all the others, only the Reis and Ranko prevented him from charging.  "You keep talking about honor!  Where's the honor in slaughtering people, our people.  We're supposed to protect them.  I don't want to suddenly . . . be the threat."

     "Only you could manage an enraged whine, Spineless," Asuka-san said, as she sat down, "But he's right, we are monsters."  Asuka-san paused to glare Ranma-san into silence.  "When we start acting like monsters, what do you suggests, Horseface, hope we'll wake up and be nice people again?  Each time we absorb one of those things, we change.  Spineless grows a backbone, Wondergirl starts thinking about starting a family with Spineless, and you aren't nearly as irritating as you once were.  My point is, how deep do those changes go?  Are they just on the surface, or will they change how we react to everything?  Are the changes cumulative, so if we absorb several will we be able to shrug it off as easily?  Spineless is saying the effects are chronic, each change doesn't simply fade.  Eventually - eventually the change will prove too great."  During her speech, the others took their seats again.

     "There . . . has to be another way," Nabiki-san said worriedly.

     "Your friends, fat chance," Raccoon said angrily, "They hate what we are, they'll really hate what we'll become.  They'll be of zero help when we most need them."

     "That's not what I meant," Nabiki-san said, bowed her head, "You said Cthulhu would wait, patiently, for humanity to . . . catch up with him.  Couldn't we . . . make a deal to - put us to sleep until then?"

     "At what cost?" Sarah-san asked, shocked at the direction the conversation had taken.

     "So our only hope, is to do our job, and then - " Ranma-san couldn't complete his sentence.

     "You're forgetting," Raccoon pointed out, "Four of us will have to die to do our job.  We can select those who are worst off."

     "You sound like you're volunteering!"  Ranko-san was aghast.

     "Look, the reason I can do the things I can do, is I started further along," Raccoon replied.

     "That proves my point," Ranko-san argued, "That you have survived, and are still as human - "

     "Quite a vote of confidence," Asuka-san interjected.

     "Maybe things will be different with us," Ranma-san said, completely out of his element, "Has there ever been a group who did this?"  He looked at Asuka-san, who didn't know, then at Raccoon, who did.

     "No," he said, "Not in my research, and not in any of the stolen memories."  He looked at Nabiki-san, who shook her head.

     "So there's a chance!" Ranma-san shouted as he turned to face each of them in turn.

     "There has to be a chance," Ranko-san echoed his sentiment, concentrating on Nabiki-san and Raccoon.

     "The Great Old Ones were a result of the Outer Gods and the Elder Gods coming here," Shinji said, "Like . . . disease fighters?"

     "Antibodies."  Asuka-san rocked back in her chair and stared at the sky, presumably to ignore Ranma-san and Ranko-san, who both continued to look at the other pilots with a searching gaze.  No one could meet that gaze.

     "Is that why they went mad!?" Nabiki-san asked, "They went looking for the secrets of the universe, and the first piece of enlightenment is that all they were, was a glorified iodine swab?  No wonder they went nuts."  She shook her head.

     "But we understand that - is - our raison dre," a Rei-san commented.

     "See," Ranma-san shouted, slapping the flat of his hand, "That's what I'm talking about."

     Asuka-san shot to her feet.  "You don't even know WHAT we're talking about!!" she shouted at him.

     "But," Ranma-san said more quietly, "I can hear the way you're talking about it."

     "Why can't I just kill him?"  Asuka-san turned to Raccoon and Nabiki-san.

     "You kill him, you eat him," Raccoon said.

     "I will not lend you my ketchup," the Rei-sans added.

     "Traitors.  Wait a second!"  Asuka-san turned to face Nabiki-san.  "How does Ice Princess know about this, all she did was kill some servants."

     "Who were assembling themselves into a single entity," Raccoon added.

     "And what did she do?  Look into each and every one of their dreams?"  Asuka-san fell silent when Nabiki-san nodded.  "How?  That's totally impossible."

     "I KNOW!" Nabiki-san shot to her feet and roared so fiercely, Asuka-san sat down and remained silent.  "I know," she said quietly as she sat down, pulling her legs in under her chin.

     Raccoon reached over and put his hand on her shoulder.  "I taught her - taught her how to infiltrate dreams," Raccoon admitted, "She used the ability to look inside the thoughts of those Brothers of Chaugnar Faugn who comprised the creature she killed."

     "What a fun way to spend an evening," Asuka-san commented, earning a glare from Nabiki-san.

     "The point is, we don't have to give up!" Ranma-san insisted, "We aren't all doomed."

     "We are doomed," Raccoon replied, "Humanity is the one we're supposed to be saving."  He stared at Ranma-san.  "We're expendable."

     "Now you're starting to talk like that beer-hound," Asuka-san replied.

     "I didn't say thrown away to be replaced," Raccoon countered hotly, "But if I go from protector to ravager, I hope somebody puts a bullet in my head."

     "I shall," Rei-san volunteered, "If you will do likewise."  Raccoon nodded.

     "You people are real fun," Sarah-san said as she looked around, "I'd hoped to get some advice about dealing with the Severn Valley situation."

     "Get a good pair of running shoes," Asuka-san said, "There's no way any conventional defense can defeat a Great Old One.  The Jap - panese - tried everything from spirit wards to heavy artillery.  Then the Americans added a couple of atom bombs."

     "Which had been blessed by every major religious person they could get their hands on, on short notice," Raccoon added, "No effect."

     "A banishment might be attempted with ceremonial magic," Rei offered.

     "Ceremonial magic isn't portable, and the power requirements are immense for the banishment to work.  The other problem is you said they were waking up," Raccoon pointed out, "Banishments only send them `home`, if they are home, you're out of luck."

     "Brilliant," Sarah-san said sarcastically.

Find The Door To The Promised Land

     Ranma walked along the gravel path, thick fog walling it in.  He was furious at his only traveling companion.  "You could have stood up for me," he berated her, "You could have helped me."

     "Are you saying you LOST?" Ranko teased, covering her mouth in shock, "Why the end of the world must be coming."

     "I didn't say I lost," Ranma shot back angrily, "I said you should have helped me."  He stopped and shook his head.  "I can't believe I'm having this conversation."

     "It's an argument, and you're losing this one too," Ranko replied as they were walking, "Where does it say I have to agree?  Especially when you're so afraid it's pitiful.  You're pitiful."

     "I thought you were me," Ranma countered and drew himself up, "And I'm not pitiful."

     "You're me, and a lot more," Ranko said.


     "All I got was your sense of fun and adventure.  All the stupid fears you have, you kept them all for yourself.  Selfish really," she added disdainfully, she smiled as Ranma threateningly towered over her.  Then Ranma smiled.

     "So you aren't afraid of c - " Ranma couldn't say it, and from Ranko's terrified expression, she didn't want to hear it.

     "Of course I am," Ranko replied, shaking herself to drive away the fear, "But that's not what you are really scared of."

     Ranma turned his back on her and stared at his other self over his shoulder.  "So what am I afraid of?"

     "Your friends," Ranko said with derision, "You are terrified of letting them get close to you. I'm not.  I like getting them close, Raccoon and Nab-chan, preferably both together."  She giggled at Ranma's disgusted expression.

     "You're nuts," Ranma said, looked ahead and started walking down the path.  Suddenly he was face down in the gravel, with his arm twisted uncomfortably, preventing his escape.

     "You keep forgetting you can't hit girls," Ranko told him cutely, "And you keep underestimating me.  How 'bout I put this - " She twisted his trapped arm.  "- In a few places you're terrified of anybody touching when you're in this body . . . or when you're in your own body."

     "I don't like gettin' grabbed!" Ranma shouted back as he twisted, only to have Ranko counter, and remain in control, "You don't like it either!"  Ranma tried to break the hold, but only received a twinge from his shoulder to the elbow indicating not only would he dislocate both joints, but also give himself a spiral fracture if he tried to press.

     "That's right, but there's a difference between being grabbed and being touched," she said as Ranma leapt into the air, trying to shake her off.  She maneuvered in the air so Ranma came down first, face-first.  She continued as he grumbled.  "Do really think that a hug from Rit-chan is the same as getting groped by one of the kids in school?"  She waited while the grumbling died down a little.  "And that being touched outside of a fight will turn you to stone?"

     Ranma freed himself with a shout and when rolling away, landing in a crouch ready to continue the fight.  His snarl died as he stared at Ranko smirking at him, he read the truth in her expression.  "So you let me escape."

     "You would have hurt yourself if I hadn't, and hurting you wasn't what I wanted.  I wanted to win.  By doing what you did, you proved my point entirely.  Your move let you escape, but I won."

     Ranma stared at her in shock.  Then hung his head.

     Ranko proved she was Ranma by rubbing it in.  "Oh a little, helpless girl against big strong, male you, how could I ever hope to survive," Ranko teased him, nearly galling him to try to charge.

     "You're just a silly, little girl who cheats to win," Ranma replied, "I don't know why I'm even talkin' to you."

     "Oh, I am wounded, boo hoo," Ranko replied, sniffed, "I cheat, that's rich coming from you.  The only reason you quit trying that crap, is you kept getting caught and punished.  And you really couldn't handle the way Rit-chan and Nab-chan looked at you.  You cheat all the time, calling them Rit-chan and Nab-chan is a cheat against the rules of Japanese, you found out English doesn't follow the same rules, and you incorporated that into your bag of tricks."  Ranko walked over to Ranma.  He massaged his arm as he glared at her smiling face.  "You've been looking for a cheat, a simple, easy way to deal with Nab-chan and Raccoon, their feelings, their love."  She let him shudder at that before continuing, "Instead of coming out and saying what you feel, or just asking for time to figure out what you feel.  That's the only honorable option in this case, and you refuse to do it.  You, are a coward."

     "Take that back."  Ranma towered over her, his fist clenched in her face.

     "You can't hit girls," Ranko replied, a wide smile on her face, secure in her invulnerability.

     Ranma turned away in frustration.

     "Since you won't share your fears, I can't imagine what you're scared of.  The only one of the pilots who really hates you, damn near died to protect you, or have you forgotten Rei with that steel rod shoved through her . . . and all that blood."  Ranko lost her composure, shuddered at the memory.  "Her blood.  What is it the Christians say?  'This is my blood shed for you.'  That was hers, shed for you, and me."

     "I remember," Ranma replied distantly, shuddering himself, "I remember how she looked at me, with that pole shoved through her."

     "So if Nab-chan cries out in her sleep, it's okay to comfort the sleeping, naked girl, but if she's awake, you can't talk to her, can't smile at her, can't say she looks nice.  You like her with the longer hair, makes her more soft and feminine.  More approachable, but you never did approach.  What is it you're so afraid of?  That if you want her as your girlfriend, you might lose her as part of your adoring fans?  Are you that self-centered that you'd keep hurting her just so she'll keep fluttering around you?"

     "Is that why you hug him at every chance?  You want him to - "  A slap interrupted, it stung and surprised him.

     "I'm not the one who was willing to offer seppuku or marriage vows to regain my honor," Ranko screamed at him.  Ranma wisely backed up.  "You did that, and yes it hurt when he said no," Ranko continued in a calmer tone, "But he at least gave reasons, and he's still with me.  And unlike you, I can see how scared he is.  Maybe you ought to use all that combat expertise to read the people around you."

     "All right, I'm scared!" Ranma shouted back, barely restraining himself from hitting her, his other self, "Is that what you wanted, you got it.  I'm scared."  Ranma felt as if something broke inside him.  "I don't want to be alone."  He squatted in the middle of the road, running his fingers through the gravel.  "I couldn't live with it."

     Ranko squatted in front of him.  She took him into her arms.  "You won't be.  All of them are just as scared, of exactly the same thing.  You were the only one assuming you'll get through this.  How much of that was you being afraid you were going to be the only one who got through it alive?  If you're going to keep any of them, you have to let them get closer.  Sometimes it will hurt, but you don't mind getting hurt in training or a fight.  Why are you so worried about getting hurt like that?"

     "I . . . I don't know," Ranma said softly, "I . . . I keep expecting that if . . . if I let them get close . . . they'll hurt me, and keep hurting me.  I couldn't fight them then.  I don't know why I'm sure, but I am."

     Ranko took his face in her hands, raised it so he was looking at her amused smile.  "Did you see how Raccoon and `Langley` carried on?  If someone said those things to you, they'd be picking their teeth out of the walls.  But what would have happened if Raccoon had been with us when we rescued Asuka?"

     Ranma shuddered.  "Even Rei wouldn't have been able to keep him from taking them apart."  Ranma paused, shuddered again.  "No, he would have hurt them bad enough they couldn't get away, but they'd be eager to answer questions.  As long as they kept him out of the room."

     "Okay, what about Raccoon and Nab-chan?  Same thing, all claws, fangs and flying fur," Ranko shuddered at the image, as did Ranma, she continued, "But no blood, and they enjoyed it.  Once you quit trying to out-insult them and played at the `safe`-level, they quit trying to tear a strip out of your hide."

     "Don't get near me, don't leave me," Ranma `quoted` them, "How stupid is that?"

     "That's the 'Hedgehog's Dilemma'," Ranko said as she released his face, "Do you remember the cure Asuka mentioned?"  She gently ran the back of her hand down his sleeve.

     "The spines go back down when they relax," Ranma said, "I'm not completely stupid."  He pulled his arm away from her.

     "Not completely," Ranko replied with a smile, "See, it didn't kill you.  Are you going to tell me you didn't like Nab-chan depending on you, or being able to crawl into Raccoon's arms and feel safe and needed?"

     Ranma looked like he'd just swallowed a live cat, whole.

     "Okay, you had to see how Shinji and Rei were acting.  He was doing almost all the talking for both of them, but he was depending on her supporting him while he spoke.  He was willing to take Asuka on directly, as long as Rei was with him.  You can have that, you can have that as Ranma and Ranko, all you have to do is let them need you, and let you need them."  Ranko smirked.  "Then maybe we won't have to have these conversations.  And I love you too, I can't stand you hurting yourself."  Ranko wrapped her arms around his neck and before he could pull away, gave him a very passionate kiss.

     Ranma blinked and now sat alone in the middle of the gravel road, his lips and cheeks still burning from the intensity of the kiss.  He shook his head as he stood.  "I lost an argument to myself," he said as he stood, "How weird is that?"  He sighed sadly.  "But it was me, and she - I - whatever, was right.  I'm just like the others, get close, but not too close."  He clenched his hands together, stared at them.  "I do want Nab-chan with me, in some ways, I want Raccoon with me."  He laughed.  "I even want `Sour Kraut` and `Wondergirl` around, but I can't see that I need them."  He yelped and leapt into the air.  On landing, he whirled around to see how he had received a kick in the seat of the pants.  The laughter in his head told him the source of the `kick`.  "Okay, maybe I need them, but I haven't figured out how, is that better?"  The sense of another impending kick forced him to think fast.  "Okay, IneededAsukatoteachmehowtoteachtheothersmartialarts!" he shouted rapidfire at the surroundings, "Geez, does everybody have to pick on me?"

     "Only because you love you," came the disembodied answer from Ranko.

     "Isn't that supposed to be 'only because we love you'?!" Ranma shouted back.

     "I'm glad you see that."

     The laughter continued all the way down the road until Ranma found himself back in bed asleep.  He remembered having Nab-chan leaning against him in the loveseat, and Raccoon and Ranko holding hands. Yes, he admitted, I kinda liked it.

     Jeff shifted Nabiki's dazed form and knocked on the cottage's door.  The meeting was fun, she thought sarcastically, Especially seeing Ranma again.  He's just so cute when he's not so sure of himself.  But it was also exhausting, and for whatever reason we can't get back `home` to sleep.  We must have argued for hours, about everything.  But it is good to get that all out in the open, I suspect there was a lot Shinji and Raccoon didn't tell us, but I bet they covered everything that directly touched on us.  I'll have to go look at those chairs on Yuggoth myself.

     He knocked again and announced, "I know the rules of hospitality as well as you do," he said in the dragon's tongue, "I also know you're in there."

     How do I know that's the dragon tongue? she wondered, And how do I know what he said in it?

     An old, silver-haired woman wearing a house coat of almost the same color opened the door, "You might be patient and let a body get some clothes on, first."  She helped Jeff carry Nabiki to a day bed near the kitchen, and lay her down.  "What in the name of all the ancient fathers have you been doin'?"

     " 'Blessings and peace on all within'," Jeff gave the ritual salute, "Killing Flying Polyps with hand-to-hand and magic.  Then discussing the plan to set the universe to rights."  Jeff let her guide him to a chair at the kitchen table, "Having received hospitality.  I ask what payment is required.  As in the ancient codes."

     "At least you remember your manners.  From the look of you, an explanation is all I could really expect.  Orderless vagabond like you."  She rested a hand on his shoulder to forestall his protest, "The explanation will do, the truth.  Starting with the girl, she's the one, isn't she."

     Nabiki despised being talked about, when she was right there.  But I can barely move, let alone talk, she thought exhaustedly, I guess that's part of 'touching the world lightly', it means maintaining my own existence in a dream versus `riding` in someone else's is exhausting.

     "Yes."  Jeff crossed his arms and laid them on the table, he put his head on his arms, "She's the one.  Pilot first alternate Tendo Nabiki, Fifth Children, martial artist, marketeer, mage, and friend."

     The old woman stared down at Nabiki who opened her eyes, and massed her energy to speak, "Wha, is Jeff?"  I sound like I'm drunk or stoned, she silently complained, Instead of wrung out by the effort.

     "He's fine, child.  Not much better than you I'd wager."

     "What odds?" Nabiki replied, tried to sit up, fell back down as the world did a slow roll.  "Mind 'f I jus' lie here a while?"

     "Kids today," the old woman grumped, heading to the kitchen, "No sense of honor, no sense period."  She looked at Jeff pillowing his head on his arms at the table, "Don't you agree?"

     "I'll agree to anything that keeps my head from exploding."

     "Used up all your powers, the both of you.  Didn't Alwyk teach you better than that?"

     "Yes, ma'am."  Jeff raised his head.  "Just before he saved you from El Nureenen using up all of his.  I thought it an especially effective lesson in rules, and when to ignore them."

     The old woman laughed as she walked through her kitchen, mixing and preparing something that smelled wonderful.

     "I'll have tea in a moment.  I take it you killed all of them?"

     "Deader'n hell on a Friday night." Jeff said, resting his head down again.

     Concerned, the woman selected an incense stick, lit it and placed it in a vase near Jeff.  He raised his head to protest.

     "No charge, I suspect the story will be more than worth it."  She rounded up some crackers and honey while she heated water for tea.  "How many?"

     "Sixty, real big, biggest I've ever heard of.  Glad it was night, the jeeps' machineguns had tracers, hurt the things.  Let Nabiki and I finish off the big ones with the EVA.  Littlest one fell to the soldiers, flame throwers and satchel charges.  Lots of screaming kids, still hear it."  He dropped his head back down.

     "Your friends at NERV couldn't help?  I thought that was what they were for."

     "It was San Diego, clear across the ocean.  Still, sometimes NERV can't find their butt with both hands and a proctologist," Nabiki commented, "I just haven't figured out why.  Stupidity, sabotage . . . "  She tried and failed to sit up again.  "Or too much politics."

     "Oh, I wouldn't know about politics, not poor little old me," the woman laughed, Jeff joined her.  "Does your friend know about the order?"

     "I know they tossed him out." Nabiki sat up, finally managed to stay that way, put her feet on the floor, decided against standing up.  "Because of me."

     "Not entirely true.  The order is for dragons, and a few respected wizards, the wizards are all men, human males.  I don't think they realize two-thirds of the council are female dragons.  The hearing on your teacher was one of the most acrimonious I've ever participated in, despite the fact they were yelling at and around the Scholarly Dragon.  Good thing he either expected it, or was amused by it.  Teaching a human is bad enough, losing his connection to dragonkind and the Dreamlands was bad enough, but teaching a woman for free, oh the scandal and the outrage."  Now she really laughed.  "I thought poor Alwyk would have apoplexy when he heard the dragons weren't going to support the humans decision to throw him out."

     "From what you've said."  Nabiki got unsteadily to her feet.  "I thought this Alwyk was a friend."  I guess Coffee gives me the strength to stand and move, she thought, After a little rest, and a willingness to accept a `helping hand`.

     "No, he's my teacher," Jeff replied, his head still down on the table.

     "Oh, a mortal enemy and an annoyance." Nabiki sat down heavily in a kitchen chair, breathing deeply the incense fumes, exhaustion being replaced by relaxation.

     "I see you've learned selection of apprentices and teaching from him too," the woman continued, "Alwyk is a dear soul, who'd rather do what needs to be done, instead of what's `right` or what's civil.  He's been thrown out of the order five times.  All his best students have been thrown out of the order at least once, 'They aren't really seasoned until they've been tossed out,'" she chuckled as she set down a plate of crackers and a jar of honey, "He was rather disappointed in young Jeffrey here, until recently."

     "What she's not telling you," Jeff sat up, partially revived, "Is that the council comes crawling to Alwyk or his students offering not only reinstatement, but usually the ArchChancellorship or the Dictatorship.  Now the sight of a dozen ancient dragons groveling is rare enough, Alwyk has managed to be there every time a student was reinstated.  It makes his decade."

     "So he `arranged` to have you thrown out, so the punishment exceeds the crime, so they'll ignore you, us, sneaky," Nabiki concluded, "If the Scholarly Dragon was tossed out, why hasn't Asuka been crowing about it?"

     "He was never a member, and getting tossed out was the alternative to censuring you, Miss Tendo, and all of this happened before he was officially teaching you.  The Scholarly Dragon is not teaching, and he's still only sort of a Dreamlands' dragon," the woman said, "But he did help Alwyk, and he had the waking world portion of Kovaak's staff delivered to Mr. Davis here, months ago.  Imagine, the staff of the late ArchChancellor Emeritus in the hands of a fully-human renegade."  The woman laughed again.  "One more shock like that, and half the moribund members of the council and the teaching order will die, go into the mystic, or on permanent sabbatical."

     "I hope you realize you aren't making much sense."  Nabiki sampled the crackers and honey.

     "That's for the tea, dear.  And it will all make sense, in time."  She stared at Nabiki as a thought crossed her mind.  "Jeff, she isn't a Dreamer is she?"

     "No, but I'm not anymore either."

     Nabiki calmed down, her secret still safe.  I think I can trust her, she thought, But I don't want it broadcast all over.

     "Well, I've got something in that case."  The woman got up and put the tea bags in the pot, then vanished up stairs Nabiki hadn't spotted before.  Jeff laid his head back on his arms.

     "Are we safe here?  I understand she's your friend, but she seems a little, off."

     "Like Rei?" Jeff asked, "That's because she isn't human.  Like Rei, and me, she's wearing humanity, without being human."

     "A dragon," Nabiki said.  Okay, Raccoon said that the dreams of humans created dragons, but why would a couple of fairly senior dragons put up with him and his antics.  Or because he knew they were the ones called in when everything went to hell, did he go after them? she wondered, I doubt similarity of personality would be all of it.  What do they know, and what do they want?

     The woman returned carrying a set of massive books, "These are some basic spells, incantations, blessings and the like.  You do know the true seeing cantrip?"

     Nabiki nodded.

     "Otherwise they just look like an old woman's photo albums.  I got them at an auction a few years ago, had to make up a family history, so I could bore the neighbors into leaving me alone."

     "That slide viewer still works?" Jeff asked.

     "Wait a second," Nabiki said, "I thought we were in the Dreamlands!"

     "We are in my Dreamscape," the woman explained, "I sensed you didn't have the strength to make the transition to the Waking World on your own.  And the slide viewer, works wonderfully.  Best present you could have given me."  She spoke conspiratorially to Nabiki, "Some neighbor watches my house too much.  Nice lady shows up on his or her doorstep with the viewer and five boxes of vacation pictures.  Those who peep to peep quit, those who are just plain lonely, well, I have a whole circle who play cards together and spy out the neighborhood."

     "That's why we have those weirdos looking into everything," Nabiki realized, "An early warning system.  Learned behavior."

     "All you have to do is separate the wheat from the chaff of their reports, and you have a bunch of loyal agents," the woman said, "But you already knew that."

     "I hate to be rude," Nabiki said.

     "She does, she really does," Jeff said, Nabiki mimed hitting him.

     "What should we call you?  Thinking of you as `the old woman` seems faintly ill-mannered."

     "Aratara," she replied, "It's as close as Japanese can get to what I'm commonly called."  She smiled.  "Taught her about Names huh?"  Jeff raised his head and nodded.  "Same reason I call you `Dear` or `child`, some names have no power, others, they'll get you killed if you aren't strong enough."  Her hand suddenly darted forward and rolled up Nabiki's sleeve.  "Maybe I should call you Wind Angel."

     Nabiki pulled free and nervously rolled her sleeve back.  "It was an accident."  I've got enough people thinking I'm just a bag of hot air, Nabiki thought.

     "No, child, the summoning may have been an accident, but that was a gift beyond all price.  And its tale must not leave this room."  For once the woman seemed frightened.

     "I understand that, why the urgency?" Nabiki asked.

     "When you can read the elemental tongue, you'll understand fully.  Tea."  She got up.

     Nabiki's head was spinning, the day was rapidly becoming too much to handle.  Too many secrets revealed, too many new concerns and responsibilities, and too much power added and then used all at once.  She felt dizzy.

Just Believe In Yourself

     The cold cloth on her forehead and the clear view of the ceiling told her she's fainted.  Stupid, like some silly girl in a romance novel, Nabiki thought, I really need the sleep.

     "Rest easy, child." Aratara sat her up, held the tea cup to her lips.  "You've had a hard day.  That dizziness you feel is Wind's natural state, always moving, always changing.  If you weren't exhausted, you'd probably be exhilarated by it."

     Nabiki swallowed the tea, it seemed to take the edge off.  "You were worried about the mark?"

     "Wind is a good element, playful, but not malicious.  Powerful enough, without being hard to control.  I don't know what price that elemental demanded for this, but pay it and be glad.  That's a trick most mages would kill to know, literally."

     "It didn't ask a price, not one of me."

     "Then be yourself child, that's the price.  Fight your war, love your friends, and that pays for all.  You've got the devil's own luck to strike a deal like that, and an angel's character to carry it out."

     Nabiki's instant denial died on her lips and she felt her eyelids closing.

     "Be at ease, I drugged the tea.  Only enough to make you sleep."  She eased Nabiki back down on the bed.  "I know this one," jerking a finger at Jeff who was asleep at the table, "And his friend the Knight."

     "Sister," Nabiki slurred, overcome by the world becoming warm and fluffy.

     "Proof you're probably the same: too stubborn by half."  She picked up the youth and set him next to her in the bed, "You two watch over each other, I'm afraid no one else can any more."

August 10,1947

     Misato woke after midnight, again. This time it is a definite sound, not a suspicious absence, she thought, Someone opened the screen door to the patio upstairs.  She pulled her pistol and draped a sheet around her.  The patio door was closed and the rest was a solid wall, preventing her from looking out onto it.  But someone is out there, she thought as she concealed the pistol in the folds of the sheet.

     Rei sat on the balcony, holding a book to catch the light of a nearby streetlight.  She looked up as Misato approached.

     That red glow from her eyes, Misato thought, Must have been a trick of the light.

     "Major, I apologize, I was attempting not to disturb anyone."

     "You should be asleep.  How can anyone read in this light?"

     "I cannot and it is easy," Rei replied, "Respectively."

     Misato put Rei's answers with the correct parts of her question.  "You should try to get more sleep.  Go on."  She opened the screen door.

     Rei showed no expression as she picked up her book and walked back to her room.

     Misato glanced around, wondering where Penpen had gotten to.  Probably sleeping in one of the pilot's rooms, she thought.

     Ritsuko looked over the pilot's shoulder through the Avenger's windscreen to the deck of the U.S.S. Boxer, the huge '21' proclaiming it's identity as CV-21.  Once she'd seen the empty flight deck, she sat back down in the rear gunner's seat.  I hate flying in these dinky planes, she thought, For more than two people, two should be the minimum number of engines.  Not one.  Not that I mind crashing.  I'd probably survive, but explaining my survival, that would take a lot of talking. She waited until the plane caught the wire and stopped completely before unstrapping herself.  She didn't wait for the ladder, using the toe and finger holds on the plane to climb down to the deck.

     She was marching across the flight deck, to the ladder she knew led down to the hanger deck, before the `welcoming committee` could catch up with her.  The wind over the deck rippling her lab coat and slacks.

     "Dr. Akagi!  The Captain would like to offer his thanks and profound apologies -"

     "Thank you, ensign," Ritsuko said without turning to face him, or slowing down.

     "Ma'am, I'm to lead you - "

     "I know where they are," Ritsuko said sharply, "I only had to skim the briefing documents to know exactly where they'd be.  Plus, talking to an overly polite toady who's trying to calm me down is not what I want, she thought as she reached the bottom of the ladder and marched across the hanger deck, I want a full head of steam when I deal with them.  So I won't have to do anything rash.  Maya's unspoken 'I told you so's were even louder for all their silence.  I don't need to be 'thanked and apologized' into quiescence.  Ritsuko completed the thought as she received confirmation of her suspicions, and sighted the hatch, beyond which she knew her quarry lurked.

     " 'We are poor little lambs, who have lost our way, baa, baa, baa,'" came through the door in harmony, accompanied by the sound of an accordion, " 'We're little black sheep who've gone astray, Baa-aa-aa!'"

     "You certainly are," Ritsuko said crossly, glaring at the fighter pilots and the EVA pilots equally.  Jeff and Nabiki were both wearing VMF-214 flight suits, Nabiki had a leather jacket with the squadron insignia on the shoulder.  The pilots seemed a little subdued, especially, the two EVA pilots.

     "Um, hi Rit - Doctor Akagi," Nabiki said as she and Jeff stood to face her, "We were almost out of power, nobody would answer the radio, and we found this carrier . . . "  Nabiki glanced around guiltily.  "It did have a battery pack, and they cobbled together a power take off for the EVA."

     "I saw it," she said as neutrally as she could, simply staring at the pair, drawing the answers out by her silence.

     "Well, if it wasn't the correct carrier," Jeff continued the defense, "Better to board an available ship, than the difficulty of an EVA recovery.  As well as the cost in time and money."

     "What of the problem of the squadrons which were supposed to land here, and instead had to divert to the Bunker Hill?" Ritsuko asked, as if discussing something of no importance, "They will have to be transferred again.  The Bunker Hill does not carry large supplies of aviation fuel, as it was never to carry large numbers of aircraft."

     "I don't have the figures to make a comparison," Jeff replied, "We did discover a way to allow the EVAs to use Essex-class carriers without destroying the flight deck."

     Ah, this is the part I wanted to hear, Ritsuko thought without letting her expectations change her expression.

     "The systems still has some bugs to work out.  But we can work on it during the trip back," Nabiki suggested.

     Anything to get out of more target practice? Ritsuko thought, noting that the fighter pilots looked on the verge of intervening.  Their very different, though equally nervous expressions told her that.

     "Any troubles?" Ritsuko asked as innocently as she could.  And both hide their shock and embarrassment, she considered.

     "Nothing beyond normal parameters," Jeff said with an absolutely straight face.

     "Very well," Ritsuko said, "How did you confuse a '21' for a '17'?  It's only painted on the side of the island and on the flight deck."

     "We saw a carrier where one was supposed to be," Nabiki admitted, "We - I didn't look for the number."

     Ritsuko sighed, breaking the tension.  "Only you two, only you two."  She shook her head.  "What am I going to do with you two?"

     "If you don't want'em, we'll take'em!" some wit at the back called.

     "Where does a thousand ton EVA sleep?" someone else asked, "Any place it f- wants!"

     A pilot near the front nodded.  "Gramps would be proud of them," he said.

     "No, maybe when we're done with them," Ritsuko said, "What's the matter `Raccoon`, couldn't get a jacket like 'Ice Princess'?"

     "She's cuter than I am," Jeff admitted, getting whoops from the fighter pilots.

     "You two slept together in the plug all night?!" Maya teased Nabiki and Jeff while they walked from the plug to the decontam showers aboard the Bunker Hill.

     Nabiki touched her sleeve, Jeff shook his head 'no'.

     "Oh, the Ice Princess and Raccoon, I hope someone got pictures," Maya said, her hands clasped under her chin looking cute.

     "Eight-by-tens and wallet-sized.  Very good job, if I do say so," Jeff said dryly, "I doubt we'll let you in the auction though, it's a silent auction, you can't meet the minimums."

     Maya immediately seemed to tear up.  "What is that supposed to mean?  Oh boo hoo, I can be as quiet as the next person!"

     "Provided the next person is an active volcano," Nabiki retorted.

     "Or a howitzer barrage," Jeff added.

     "Or Asuka Soryu Langley," Nabiki said.  Maya acted mortified by the last.

     "Oh yeah, while you to were making a love-nest in the plug, we were working," she told them, "Finding places for all the planes you displaced."

     "We didn't move the carrier and not tell anybody."  Jeff brightened.  He glanced at Nabiki and nodded, she nodded back.  They immediately both began shaking like dogs, spraying the area, especially Maya, with L.C.L. drops.

     "WAIT!!  STOP!!  DON'T!"  She tried to block or dodge the loathsome substance from falling on her.

     "You only had to ask," Jeff said.

     Nabiki smiled at that.  "Jeff, coffee after school?"

     "Why not, our ANALYST friends needs to clean up," Jeff said, he waved a hand in front of his face, "She smells just awful."

     Maya growled at the retreating pilots, trying to wipe off the offending substance.  "YUCK!"

     Ritsuko watched the pair going over the reports on the action of the previous evening, especially Air Close-support.  She smirked that Jeff was much more concerned with warning Nabiki about not going beyond her limits.  Wonder about that, Ritsuko thought, I don't understand why they had an additive effect, when all our tests indicate two people in a plug had a deleterious effect on sync rate.  However, we never had two pilots to check our theories.  She watched Maya hovering over the pair.  I was especially surprised about Maya waking me up with breakfast before I could take off for the Boxer, she thought, Although she seems to be returning to a more demure personality, back to `normal`.  That may be due to her own increased confidence, rather than anything else.

     Maya was also playing chess with one of the officers in the ready room.  She's actually moving the pieces herself, between looking at the kids.  'More miracles', the poor officer studies the board for a few minutes, makes his move, Maya glances back from the kids, makes her move and immediately looks back at the kids.  I think that poor man may have an attack of apoplexy, Ritsuko thought.

     "Atten' hut!" someone called.  Everyone in the mess hall were on their feet.  Pilots and NERV personnel included.

     "As you were," the Marine Major, who was the commander of the ship's Marine detachment, stood at the lectern as the audience sat back down.

     "We've gone over the assembled reports from our Intelligence and NERV security," the man said, "We have no additional information beyond what we will report here.  Additionally, we have no reason to believe that your families will be in any danger from these people."

     The briefing went on.  Basically, the attackers existed before the Security people were in place and Security had their jobs because of the attackers, he singled out a suspect that could pull that off, SEELE, NERV's original parent organization.

     Good Lord! Ritsuko thought in shock, I've never heard them mentioned outloud before, and especially not as the chief suspect in any nefarious dealings!

     The rest of the data bore out no conclusions and no patterns, just speculations, the briefer noted them as such.

     Ritsuko glanced over at the two pilots' notes.  On Jeff's, there were a few doodles with a number 6 with various combinations or eyes, smiles, glasses.  Nabiki sketched a six with a raccoon eye mask and a smile on her notes and circled it.  When Jeff spotted it, he gave fair recompense, a 'na' hirigana with a yen symbol replacing the upper radical.  Nabiki had gotten a multicolored pencil set and colored a thatch of blue hair on a zero with red eyes.  Nabiki had considered giving it a ghostly halo, then scratched it out, abandoning that idea.

     Other symbols, numbers, kanji to develop a `logo` for the other pilots, Ritsuko realized, Most of them going nowhere.  And they already seem to know most of the elements of the briefing.  How?  I didn't tell them.  She wondered what the logos were about, and considered that they might be experimenting with creating a rune for/of each of them.  I'm going to have to find out the implications of that later, she thought as she assembled the data, and ran the possible scenarios, and how to tip the game in their favor.

     As the briefing ended and the troops were dismissed, Ritsuko headed through the crowd to the Major.  Jeff and Nabiki followed.  "Major, I think we need to talk to the Captain and the Admiral."

     "Yes, ma'am," the Major said and saluted.

     Gendo sat, watching the readouts from the pilots as they performed the sync test in the test plugs.  He heard someone entering, glanced over and saw it was Admiral Simons, who plugged into the Magi feeds to see what Gendo was seeing.  "I'd forgotten both how relaxing and how tedious this was."

     "I've heard you have to watch Saotome," Simson said as looked over the virtual desks, "He tends to fall asleep."

     The placid faces of the kids displayed from inside the test plugs seemed to be at odds with what they were each trying to accomplish.

     "Shinji is resisting saturation better than the other three," Simson commented, checking the output from the Magi against the strip chart recorders.

     "Better than previously as well," Gendo answered, "Have you ever wanted to try?"

     "I tested at Las Vegas.  They gave me my third star and this job.  I'm also one of the few general officers who could stand contact with L.C.L.."  He chuckled.  "You don't want to know what Bull Halsey suggested they do when they tried to convince him to get into the plug."

     "I can imagine," Gendo said, "Our General and Naval Staff were - unwilling to accept the need."  He turned to face Simson.  "You suggested that I have become predictable."

     "Sorry to say, but it's true," Simson spread his hands and replied.

     "I have an idea to break that certainty, but I need some help with my plan."

     "What do you need?"

     "First, how's this for surprising and out of character?" Gendo asked, smiled, "I want to reward the pilots for their service, they've exceeded both projections and expectations."

     "I think I hear the devil putting on his ice skates now.  What do you have in mind?" Simson asked.  Gendo saw he was intrigued.

     Asuka let the hot water and lemon oil remove the awful smell of L.C.L. from her hair and skin.  "I miss my longer hair," she said sadly.

     "It is quicker to wash now," Wondergirl commented.

     "Not everything is about efficiency, Wondergirl," Asuka replied, "Frankly, if you were really interested in efficiency, you'd be better off shampooing Spineless's hair and him yours - HOLD IT!!"

     Wondergirl blinked, staring back from the doorway to the showers.

     "When you're both dressed, Wondergirl," Asuka told her, "Not when you're naked."  "You'd give him a terminal nosebleed," Asuka muttered.

     "Why should that matter?" Wondergirl asked, "He will be as well."

     "Because it's . . . "  Asuka's eyes narrowed as Wondergirl stared back a little too blankly.  "Oh, ha ha, very funny, Wondergirl," Asuka told her as Wondergirl returned to the shower stall, "You had me going."


     "No reason to be so smug."

     "I beat you."

     "You don't have to rub it in!" Asuka shouted.

     "I do."


     "A flat."

     "I'm going to kill you!" Asuka shouted and chased Wondergirl, right into a naked Spineless and Horseface.

     "Wagh!  You did that on purpose!" Asuka shouted as she retreated back into the shower.

     "Yes," Wondergirl told her.

Hear This Voice From Deep Inside, It's The Call of Your Heart

August 11, 1947

     "They what?" Ritsuko looked up from her paper work and asked the head of the Bunker Hill's Marine detachment.

     "I said 'they stood in the middle of one of the ready rooms and sparred, in the dark, for three hours'."  The man smiled.  "Too bad the people who attacked Pilot Langley didn't show up, they would have chopped them into mincemeat."

     "You didn't go stop them?" Ritsuko asked.

     "Ma'am, I've taken some fencing, but I wouldn't have gone in there last night without an armored brigade."  The man shook his head.  "Scary doesn't even begin to describe it."

     "Yeah," Ritsuko said quietly, "Scary.  Where are they now?"

     "Davis is in the engine shop," the man told her, "Miss Tendo was arranging with some of the DI's to continue her shooting lessons."

     Ritsuko headed out of her office, feeling none too secure of her place at NERV or in the world.  "Please ask Pilots Davis and Tendo to join me in the ready room.  Insist as necessary."

     "Yes, Ma'am."  The Marine headed in one direction while Ritsuko headed in another.

     The tension has been growing between those two, Ritsuko thought, The use of the AT field with two pilots in the plug was bound to cause problems.  I should have realized that with those two, it would cause more serious problems.  Jeff has all the characteristics that draw Ranko, yet despite having an example, Nabiki can't quite manage to get around the roadblocks she and Ranma keep throwing up to prevent them getting closer to each other.  So where does Nabiki turn when she gets frustrated and lonely, and then tears herself up because she's 'being unfaithful' to Ranma. Ritsuko snorted.  It is better if Ranma has someone to learn from and compete against in pursuing Nabiki's affections, Ritsuko thought, Of course at that age, they're sure that being rejected is the end of the world.  Odd, considering they all have proof that it isn't true.  They've already lost so much, and survived.

     Ritsuko stepped into the room, the various chairs and fittings pulled to the walls, leaving a wide open area in the center.  She sat there in the dark, considering what she was going to do.  It's not fair, she thought, I can go through nearly every step of what Jeff will say and do, Nabiki is more of a mystery.  But I think Nabiki is the one having the real problems, both transitioning into being a `real` pilot, but also getting used to the differences of being treated as one of the fraternity of warriors.  I know both Maya and I are having troubles doing it.  At the same time, while Nabiki is lionized by gaijin, Asuka was attacked, supposedly because she is a foreigner.  Except, I don't believe that.  She was attacked to see what would happen when a pilot was attacked, so someone else could see how to beat Security, or how the pilots would react.  Bad data, they'd be reacting differently if all of them were together.  I'm just glad the Captain and the Admiral agreed.  We may only be able to shave a day at most from our steaming time, but that might be enough.  Three carriers, two pilots, an independent EVA, and `Maya's Army` will make a difference if we arrive unexpectedly.

     She watched as Nabiki arrived, looking around the darkness and spotting Ritsuko.  Nabiki sat across the `clearing` from Ritsuko, the girl said nothing, intent on studying the deck plates.  Maya and Jeff arrived a few minutes later.  The Marines closed and bolted the doors, leaving the `senior` NERV personnel in privacy.

     "They posted the area," Maya said quietly as darkness closed around her, the only one who couldn't see in the darkness of the room.  Jeff had taken a position across from Maya, between Ritsuko and Nabiki.

     "I heard about your sparring last night," Ritsuko said quietly but firmly, "I've been watching you . . . both, and how you've been reacting to things, ever since Sharon's death at your hands Jeff, and your reaction to becoming a blooded pilot Nabiki."  Ritsuko lamented that there was no smoking.  I could have used the effect of being the only face in light, she thought, Good grief, I'm going to wind up as manipulative as Gendo.

     "I've been . . . angry lately," Nabiki admitted reluctantly.

     "Lately?" Jeff asked.

     Nabiki took a breath to launch an attack, instead she stood up and began pacing in the darkness.  Ritsuko watched Maya try to track the sound of the girl's steps on the deck.  "Okay, for longer than that."  She paused next to Maya, then sat down next to the analyst.  "I have been angry, angry at the whole world, and myself especially.  Since my mother left me, without any explanation, or my permission.  I never could figure out if I did it, or I was being punished."

     Maya wrapped her arms around Nabiki.  The girl's tension lessened slightly.

     "Ever since, I've been trying to figure out where I belong," Nabiki said quietly, settling in Maya's hug, "It turns out . . . it's here.  With that revelation, I find out I'm not so separate and outlandish as I always desired and feared to be.  All my best characteristics, all my pains and trials, somebody, lots of somebodies, had them first.  I lost my mom, so did the rest of the pilots; I was always the outsider, compared to what Rei, Asuka and Jeff have to live through everyday . . . no comparison.  So many others have gone through it, and they aren't whining and moaning about it.  Or beating on everyone around them 'look at me, look at me!  But not too close.'"  Nabiki looked up, looked first at Jeff, then looked Ritsuko in the face.  "I'm not fighting anymore because I'm ashamed of who I am and what I do."

     Her eyes narrowed and her expression hardened.  "I'm doing what I have to because I'm obstinate, calculating and vicious, because I'm me, and I'm finally proud of Nabiki Tendo."

     She looked around.  "So I'm going to do what I have to."

     Ritsuko nodded.  Okay, part of the problem dealt with.

     Nabiki sat in the middle of the ready room.  The lights on, in deference to Maya.

     I'm as excited as I was during the first lessons, she thought, glanced at Ritsuko who was prepared to intervene if something untoward happened.  "So what is the answer?" Nabiki asked.  Here comes the gobblygook answer, like Cologne, Genma or Soun would give, she thought sourly of Raccoon's smile, Something to highlight the student's ignorance and the teacher's `wisdom`.  From Genma and Soun, such pronouncements had been lies and pretentious most of the time, only Ranma and Akane were naive enough to believe them.  From Cologne, they were merely irritating.

     "Magic is sending out a demand that the universe give us what we want, and then being a passive conduit of the universe's reply," Jeff told them.  "Because magic is the mixture of willful selfishness and absolute surrender."

     Nabiki boggled at the simplicity of that.  But it sounds like the typical koan/mondo stuff that Zen masters spouted, Nabiki thought in frustration, And that the martial artists of Nerima used to disguise their ignorance.

     "Simply put, you send a demand out to the universe.  By knowing the shape of the universe, the density and types of ambient energies, you become the conduit of what is reflected back."

     "Magic is a cross between a radar set and a signal?" Nabiki asked, not bothering to hide her disappointment.  It can't be that easy, she thought, There has to be a catch.

     "No, the magic is, it's everywhere and no where, anyone can do magic, but the echoes they get are generally too weak to do anything, or they don't let the echo flow through them."

     "Then what's all this 'manipulate external energies' stuff?"  Get to the point, she silently urged.

     "That's how you determine the shape of the universe , the density and types of ambient energies," Ritsuko explained.

     "Testing the waters before the spell is cast?" Maya asked, trying to understand.

     "Precisely," Raccoon said, bowed to her, "There are more ways to 'plumb' the waters than I can relate in a day.  The junk Gosenkugi used are some examples.  Runes and inscription, incantations, gestures, materials, all of it is little more than giving the understanding of ambient conditions.  Spell formulae are tried and true ways of recreating the echo that delivers a certain effect under most circumstances.  An improvised casting takes much more power, time and luck, but they allow those mages to do anything they can visualize and empower."

     "So what's involved?" Nabiki asked impatiently.

     Raccoon spread a deck of very strange cards, a collection of stones, herbs and dried bugs, pages of diagrams and mathematical formulae, rune carved rods of various lengths and colors, and a collection of coins from across the world on the deck before them.  "Each one of these can be used to focus the mind, become receptive to the subtle changes around you that will tell you precisely what to send out to get the echo you want."

     Don't touch, don't touch, don't touch, Nabiki urged her itching fingers to stay right where they were.

     Maya reached for one of the packets of herbs, turned it over in her hands and set it back.  "It, is safe?"  She glanced around.  "But not for the rest of you, right?"

     "Yes," Jeff told her, "You could use them as the focus of your meditation, but not to cast a spell.  If Nabiki or Ritsuko had tried to pick one up, I would have stopped them."

     "It's this submission to that echo I'm worried about."  I'm not sure I could `submit` to anything, she thought.  "What does the energy flowing through you . . . what do you do?"

     "Nothing," Raccoon told her as he shrugged, "Which is not as easy as it sounds.  If you get out of its way, the spell is cast.  If you don't, that depends on the spell.  It could do nothing, it could vaporize you and turn your spirit into bitty pieces.  That's why I told you not to mess around with spellcasting."

     Nabiki frowned and shifted.  Okay, message received five by five, she thought, and got a strong reinforcing impression from Coffee, And no help from the peanut gallery!

     "Like I said, the initial demand is where you get your control, you can't change your order once it's been made.  'This is the day the Lord hath made', you can't send it back for a refund."

     Ritsuko guffawed once, apologized and tried to keep a straight face.

     "I take it you've never seen this technique," Raccoon commented.

     "No.  The Elder Things . . . they - sang - and things happened.  The language was different from the one they used for communications.  The idea that they would ever submit to anyone or anything seems . . . alien to their nature."

     Sounds like me, Nabiki thought.

     "Arrogant doesn't even begin to describe them."

     Ouch! Nabiki thought, Maybe not.

     "They also weren't powerful spellcasters.  The other powers that are - generally know the procedure.  The ones that develop new spells are even more adaptable."

     "Humans have added spells?" Maya asked.

     Beat me to the punch, Nabiki thought.

     "Humans have nearly doubled the number of spells available," Racoon said.  Nabiki was amazed, Raccoon continued, "Other races just aren't as interested in the research, or aren't as willing to brag about what they found.  Admittedly, most are combinations and permutations of mightier works, but they are new ideas.  A Master's Thesis, rather than a Doctoral Dissertation."

     I'd bet on braggarts, Nabiki thought, It's all I can do not to burst out with what I've found, and with Coffee's existence.  But I've got to keep my mouth shut, not let them know my full capabilities.  Not that I ever had to do that in Nerima.

     "That's one reason necromancy is so popular.  Which I'm afraid we may have to use on Maya if she nods off one more time, she may crack her head on the deck."

     Now she's awake, Nabiki thought.  "You mentioned that, it's summoning up the shade of a deceased wizard and torturing the shade into giving up its secrets.  Seems kind of tawdry, I mean, if you're dead, can't they just leave you alone?"

     "It's gruesome," Maya added, "Have you . . . ever . . . ?"

     "Summoned up, yes; tortured, no.  I've found that any really skilled wizard left things undone.  It's easy to make a deal.  Torture something and they'll tell you what they think you want to hear.  Make a deal, and they'll tell you what they think will make you do your best to achieve goals not your own.  Often only part of the payment is received at first, the rest on `delivery`."

     "I prefer the sound of that," Nabiki said.  Ripping the secret out of the dead is one thing, she thought, But helping them rest easier, that's a whole other kettle of fish.

     "So neither of you should try to take your secret to the grave," Ritsuko teased, "Because someone will just dig you up to get them."

     "So what are Nabiki and Sempai supposed to do with all this stuff."  Maya indicated all the paraphernalia, then she looked at the stunned faces.  "I thought you were teaching both of them."

     "I am," Jeff said, "What they do, is select what best connects them with the infinite, as flippant as that sounds, that's what this stuff is for."

     "What connects you?" Nabiki asked pointedly.

     "The spirits, the ambient energy of the items around me, the people, the memories, the forces around me.  So I get a continuous `background hum` which tells me the conditions."

     "So you could toss a lightning bolt easily?" Nabiki asked.

     "No."  He shook his head.  "My form of magic doesn't accommodate itself to attack spells of that form, although I can deliver such an attack with a touch, so I would not be someone you'd want to punch or block, or get hit by.  Enchantments are my specialty, making magic items, temporarily or permanently.  If I toss a fireball, it's probably from a device I made, rather than from me."

     "Isn't that the whole point of being a mage?" Nabiki asked.

     "What?" Raccoon asked disdainfully, "Blowing, people and things up?"  He stared at Nabiki until she looked away.  "No, that's not the point.  Is that how you operated in Nerima?  That wasn't how I operated."

     I hate it when he's right, she thought, frowning, No, I never operated like that.

     "Touchè," Ritsuko said.

     Good gang up on me, she thought.  "So, let's begin," she said to change the subject.

     As important as money was to me, she thought as she felt the coins and concentrated, then dropped them to the deck, They do nothing for me.  "I was just considering using coins for getting readings in the I Ching," she commented.  The cards are what keep drawing my eye, she thought, Because of my earlier `experience`?  Or the strange kanji-like characters?  She found herself reaching for them, then restrained herself, No, those last.

     She picked up and examined the stones.  All different colors, different textures, different weights, but nothing special about them, she thought.  She set down the stones and passed her hand over the herbs and bugs.  The bugs are something I don't want to handle even if I do become a mage, she thought.  She considered the pages of mathematical formulae.  "These are for Asuka," she said as she set them aside, her head spinning.

     "Those are real spells," Jeff said, sliding them away from Maya's advancing hand, "Not for the uninitiated."

     "I can tell," Nabiki said as she waited for the world to settle down.

     "You two may want to study them as a back up," Raccoon told Nabiki and Ritsuko, "If they had that effect on both of you, they may be usable.  It's always good to have a back up."

     "What's yours?" Ritsuko asked, taking the pages to study.

     Nabiki noted the woman reeled slightly from just looking at the pages.

     "All of them," he told them with a Machiavellian grin.

     The colored wands are next, Nabiki thought, Oh joy, I can be a magical girl, spreading love and peace and justice to all the world with a smile in my heart.  I can kill Great Old Ones with sugar shock and diabetes.  She stared at the rods as she handled them, the runes carved in them, the bright colored paints highlighting the carvings, the tips.  Some had stripes and spirals along their lengths.  No connection, she realized as she handled them, Thank God, no Pretty Soldier Biki-chan and my pet rabbit who turns into a personal suit of armor.

     The cards at last, she thought, I was a good girl, I tried everything else first.  Now I try what's been drawing my eye and my hands since we started.  She glanced at Raccoon, who seemed to be watching everything.

     She picked up the cards.  It feels . . . reasonable, I can see a connection between me and among the cards, she thought as she felt the patterns and ways of combining then to different effects.  She set the cards down with a stunned expression.  "It all works . . . it almost all made sense," she admitted.

     "Typically, the students come slowly to their affinities.  You've pretty much jumped in at the deep end, I could suggest you go back to the math and work that around, as a backup to the cards and their runes.  Each method has it's advantages and drawbacks.  I'll explain each and you can decide how to get around them or adapt to them."

Close Your Eyes And Your Will Find       Back to Index

Close Your Eyes And Your Will Find

     Misato looked down at the corpse, very glad it had been found after the kids were on their way to school.  They'd bickered and argued, laughed, ganged up on each other and complained.  Misato smiled and thought, About back to normal.

     Before they removed the body, the medical examiner told something to an officer of the Tokyo police, Minayo Tendo, who turned out to be Tomiyo's father.  He walked back to Misato.

     "The rifle he had was pointed at the apartment, Major.  They don't think it was a coincidence considering that he was probably one of the people who attacked Miss Langley."  Minayo considered his next words carefully.  "The rifle grenade wouldn't have penetrated the walls, and the patio doors are positioned and blocked so no such attack would get through them.  You'd be better off trying to simply level the building."

     "What killed him?" Misato had seen the reports on the attackers.  They were all ex-army, most were specially-trained: snipers, explosives experts, the like, she thought, Yet someone or something killed this one.

     The cop was puzzled.  "A single thrust through the skull, whoever did it, knew enough to damage the bone around the wound to keep us from knowing the shape of the weapon.  There were no signs of a struggle."

     "So a community-minded citizen snuck up on an ex-commando armed with a rifle and grenades, killed him with one stroke, destroying all the evidence of how he or she did it, and left."  Misato looked across the busy street to Sammi's apartment building.  "Could that rifle have made an accurate shot from this distance?"

     "You'd have to check with your own armament section.  The rifle is neither American, British, nor Japanese, so it's outside my area of expertise.  But the police officers who know about these things seem to think so, especially with the telescopic sight.  Would a rifle grenade reach there?  I'm not sure."

     "Time of death?" Misato asked.

     "Sometime between 11 and 1 last night.  What worries me is the case he had for the rifle, had space for another, smaller rifle in it, that was empty.  It could have been empty when he came up here, or . . . " Minayo's voice trailed off.

     "Or someone took home a souvenir," Misato concluded, "Our civil friend, or the person who called in the body?"

     "The woman who found the body is being questioned, the police are taking a discreet look around," the cop told her.

     Misato could almost hear the unasked question that had to be on the minds of every cop and NERV investigator within earshot.  Especially Minayo, who is interested in his son's work. 'How were the kids this morning?' she imagined someone, anyone, asking.

     They were kids, she thought in reply, Loud, disorganized, picking fights, you know, kids.

     Must be your superior mothering skills, she nearly heard the sarcastic reply, But from Ritsuko, Dafisu or Asuka, I don't know.  Misato returned to staring at the apartment

     "Which room's windows face this way?" Minayo asked.

     "Nothing, the only thing exposed is . . . the patio.  Rei was out on the patio, at around midnight," Misato breathed.  Just when this was going on!  Did she hear something?  Was she the target? Misato growled to herself.  "Why else would the sniper have to come up here?  He couldn't shoot down into the rooms from other floors, but to fire up with a rifle grenade and have it hit inside the balcony he'd need this location."

     "Or he could have come to the only part of the building accessible to the public with an expectation of privacy," Minayo replied evenly, "Don't over think this, Major, it may be a coincidence."

     The entire school body had been assembled in the gymnasium.  Please, oh Merciful Goddess, not the principal's speech! Usagi prayed, then she spotted the movie projector and the large screen.

     Harumi sat next to Usagi.  "Do you know what's going on?"

     "No idea," Usagi admitted, "Never had a movie before."

     The lights dimmed and the projector came on.  The theme and logo of Movietone News(tm) came up on the screen.

     "Tinseltown and the Pentagon joined together to honor real heroes.  Pilots Nabiki Tendo and Jeffery Davis meet the elite of Hollywood, in a strange twist, young Mister Davis was giving others his autograph, and Miss Tendo with her casts being signed."

     Usagi couldn't believe it.  She had to have planned this! she thought angrily, But there she is, bigger than life, the picayune, modern `gods` who sparkle through life all playing court to her.  I thought it couldn't get worse, but there she is!  Charming those fools, smiling and chatting.  Usagi looked around at the rapt expressions on the other faces around her.  The light of their adoration clear in the flickering light of the movie projector.

     Suddenly it was over, the lights came up.  But the mesmerized expressions continue, Usagi thought in a fury, forcing herself not to show it.

     "Yes," the principal gushed as he stepped in front of the screen, "And soon they will be attending our school.  You saw how they were, polite and poised, that is what we hope to instill in you.  Miss Tendo was speaking with such expertise, and such skill in English.  Is the next film ready?  Oh, good!"  He scurried out of the way.

     The lights came down again.  The Movietone News(tm) theme and logo came upon the screen.  Usagi felt as if someone, one Nabiki Tendo, was dribbling acid on her heart.

     "Pilot Nabiki Tendo at last night's soiree with the elite of Hollywood - "

     Usagi blanked out all but Nabiki Tendo, the wounded heroine.  She appeared bigger than life.  She's staring oh so earnestly at the entire class, Usagi thought, squirming under that gaze that seemed to look right through her, And me in particular.

     "Is there anything you particularly want to do here in the 'States?"

     "As you know, we'll be sailing very soon," Nabiki said, looked down shyly.

     Charming all these idiots with how humble and thoughtful you are! Usagi wanted to scream, What a load of CRAP!  I know you know exactly what you're doing!

     "But I'd like to lay a wreathe at the site of the U.S.S. Arizona, to remember all the men lost there and in the year's following, who saved their nation, and mine.  We will be fierce rivals in the future, with the Tokyo Tigers beating the Yankees in the series, and Japanese cars and radios on the shelves with Philco, RCA, Ford and Chrysler, each better for the intense competition, but we will never again wage war against each other."

     Usagi ignored the yammering of the reporter and stared hatefully at that smiling face, the superior yet seemingly humble face, the face that had reduced all her classmates and teachers to mush.  All right, I lost, then you rub my nose in it, Usagi thought, I will destroy you.  You couldn't just have left me hurt and confused, you had to kick me too.  Very well, I'm still standing, and I will be ready for you!

     The lights came up and Usagi began planning her next move.

     "It's so exciting!" the principal gushed, "Let's all see it again!"

     Usagi ground her teeth.

     The comments from the boys on Hikari's and Wondergirl's appearance, especially Wondergirl's new hairstyle, had Asuka smiling.  Just something subtle, a careful going over, Asuka thought, Then jock stooge had to say 'She looked like a girl for once.'  At least Hikari learned another lesson.  Rather than berate him, she'd correctly burst into tears, standing there while Toji stammered comforting words.  Asuka considered her work and was pleased.  Easier than thinking about what Spineless said last night, she thought, Horseface is such a pollyanna, of course with his luck, he probably will come through this all unchanged.  Some of us aren't that lucky. She shook her head and sighed, trying to break her bad mood.

     Spineless is embarrassed by his treatment as a celebrity, Asuka thought then glanced at Ranma, And Horseface is back as `sigh, Ranma`.  Strange, he doesn't seem to enjoy it as much as he used to.

     Yes, things are shaping up nicely, she felt all was well with the world, until Wondergirl motioned her over.

     "A dead sniper on the building across from the apartment," Wondergirl whispered, "It could also mean a plumber had an accident with a load of pipes, but the sniper seems more credible."

     That's right, tell a joke, Asuka thought as she paled, she asked, "Have you told the others?"

     "Not until we can confirm this.  There is no need.  The guards know."

     "What about us?" Asuka asked, "Do we need to know?"

     "You, and I, can observe.  NERV Security must know, there may be no danger."

     Yeah I believe that, Asuka thought, glanced at Spineless and Horseface.  Asuka returned to her seat.  Wondergirl had one insight in that meeting, Asuka thought, She'd guessed the security people's relatives hadn't been corrupted, the security people had been chosen BECAUSE their relatives were sleeper agents.  I haven't shared that bit of information, who could I trust it with?  Neither have any of the others.  'Let me get one brick out and I'll pull down the whole wall', is a piece of advice I've never forgotten, it made up many of my basic stratagems, now we have a brick to pull out, do I want to know what is on the other side of this wall?

     At lunch, Rei set up her chessboard next to Asuka, she moved one of the pieces, without any prompting from anyone.  She waited, staring at Asuka.

     More miracles, Asuka thought as she moved a piece.  Wondergirl studied the board.  Asuka noticed some of the kids were quietly watching them.  Great now we're the lunchtime entertainment.

     Asuka countered Wondergirl's move and continued munching her lunch.  "Spineless is quite a good cook," Asuka told Wondergirl, who paused for a moment.  Gotcha, Asuka thought.

     "Yes."  Wondergirl moved.

     Okay, where to move, she thought as she studied the board, Where to -

     "Better than you," Wondergirl said.

     Asuka blinked, glared at Wondergirl who continued with her placid expression.  Asuka tried to reorganize her strategy.

     "Ranma is also better," Wondergirl said.

     Asuka grimaced.  "Okay," Asuka said, "I'll be quiet, if you'll be quiet.  Agreed?"

     "Agreed," Wondergirl said.

     Asuka thought she saw the ghost of a smile cross Wondergirl's face.  I'll make you pay for that later, Asuka thought as she returned her concentration to the board.

     P.E. is going to be an even more hectic time, Ranma thought as he tentatively reached into the cold shower, and remained male as the water hit his arm, although he felt a weird crawling feeling throughout his body, Okay, I can contra - override the curse.  But something inside me controls whether I'm male or female.  That I can't control. Yet!

     As he stepped back into the locker room, more contacts, more questions, more concerns descended on him and Shinji.

     "Look," he announced, "The sniper was on the news, was there a connection?  We don't know.  Our guards haven't pulled us out of here, so it isn't a serious problem."

     Soothing Asuka's fears while she completely denies having facts, Ranma thought, I hope Hikari and Rei are up to doing it.  I do not want to become Ranko in the middle of the guys' locker room.  He smirked.  I'd have to break too many fingers before I escaped, he thought, glanced at Tomiyo who waited near Shinji.  Okay, so Sammi's over there with the girls, he realized, But what do we do on the way home, now that the enemy - what's the word?  Escalated - that's it, escalated their actions.  'Ranma the Invincible!' is no good against firearms.

     The twin faces peered out of the shadows at the Children playing with the children.  The thing's sense of expectation was growing.  It knew the prey would soon be in reach, and would soon be destroyed.
     Sammi had excused herself from the locker room, because of the gender problem.  She approached the other guards as they watched the kids play football.  She had a paper in hand when she rejoined the waiting group.  "Forget taking them straight home," she said, "I think we need to go straight to Commander Ikari with this."  She held up the headline for others to read.
     Usagi frantically searched under her bed.  She heard Tomoe enter.  "Help me find her!"

     "Find who?" Tomoe asked.

     "The . . . gift," Usagi told her as she dug through the boxes from under her bed.

     Tomoe stared at her sister as the blood drained from her face.  "You don't think - they found it?  Or maybe they - stole it, as revenge."

     Usagi's fear turned to fury.  "How - dare -they!"

     "We have to find - your pet.  Or find out who took it, assuming it didn't just wander off to go hunting."

     "If they find - the gift, they'll have our finger prints," Usagi warned, "They'll know who we are!"

     Tomoe paled at that implication.

     "I'm sorry," the security trooper told them, "The Commander is in conference and not to be disturbed."

     Rei looked at her fellow pilots worriedly, "Perhaps, if I went alone."  She knew they knew about her more cordial relations with the Commander.

     "I'm sorry, Ayanami-san, he said no one, no exceptions."  That seemed to shock Rei.

     "Let's go see Fuyutsuki," the Fourth ordered the others, " 'Attacks made on NERV pilots,'" he quoted the headline, "He's got to talk to us."  The Fourth stormed off in that directions.  The demeanor of the pilots was more angry than frightened.

     "Congratulation on being a gaijin," Asuka teased Rei, Rei was too shocked by the Commander's behavior to reply.

     "What is your take on this?" Ikari asked Fuyutsuki.

     "The pilots assured me they told no one who would have revealed the information.  The author `Tam` is being investigated, but the only people with this detailed knowledge of the attack were the pilots, the perpetrators, and the eyewitnesses, and any of them would have talked much earlier," Fuyutsuki said, remembering the angry invasion of his office by the pilots and their guards.  "Some of what was revealed in the article wasn't even known by all the pilots, it is impossible that anyone without contacts within NERV could have assembled this story.  I can't believe the papers ran this story, all of the evening dailies have it, decrying our coverup of the attack.  Frankly, the Children were furious about the lack of privacy and the security leaks required.  The guards said nothing, but they weren't any happier.  No one person should have had access to all the information involved, except you.  Even I didn't have it all.  And I trust you didn't leak this to the papers."

     "I want the guards checked again," Gendo said quietly, "And the technical people.  We have a security leak, one of immense proportions.  And you're wrong, there is one other person with access to all this information.  Kehl."

     Fuyutsuki stared in disbelief, "If they're involved, openly involving themselves . . . " he left the rest unspoken.

     "Wrong, Professor.  If they've decided to tip their hand here, then what are they hiding now?"

     Kaji caught up with the Commander outside the conference room.  Who the heck was he arguing with, Kaji thought as he glanced around the empty room, As if I didn't know.  I bet you love throwing a cat among the Committee of pigeons.  I should tell them, but I want the answers you're providing.

     "The reporter is on his way to New Guinea, officially.  The story ran as intended.  I don't think this will smoke out the attackers, or get anyone to report them."

     "That is not your concern," the Commander said, "Your job is to see what this does shake out, and bring the information to me."

     Yes ,sir, Kaji thought angrily as he walked along.  "I already have one other piece of information.  Somebody else has been looking into things.  The organization is large, well-organized, and seems able to dodge and twist around NERV Security, ONI, Army Intelligence, etc. without being detected."

     "Or they are ignored," the Commander said.

     He won't say it, Kaji thought as he moved away, But I'm to look into it.

     The sound of the gunshot made Ranma flinch, Asuka set the standard .45 down on the range table.  "It's too big!" she complained.

     Sammi considered, The other pilots aren't technically authorized for weapons.  But knowing how to shoot isn't the same.  And their weapons may be the only thing between them and another disaster.  Like what happened to Asuka, or what happened to Jeff and Nabiki.

     "All right." Sammi approached, pulling a .22 revolver and pulling the target closer on the wire.  "Five shots, don't fan it."  She watched Asuka carefully aiming and firing, and Ranma who stood beside her flinched with each report.  The accuracy wasn't good, but she was only out of practice.  "Okay, reload the .22"  She glanced over to where Rei and Shinji were working with Rei's Schofield .45 revolver under the careful watch of Juri and Tomiyo.

     Tomiyo watched Rei step up to the firing line and empty the cylinder, tearing a tight, accurate pattern in the target.  She set the gun down, broke open the action, slipped a speedloader into place, and did it again.  "I am trained," she said as she reloaded the pistol again.

     Tomiyo merely nodded.  "Okay, you help Shinji with the .45, I'll help Ranma and Asuka with the .22."

     "And Asuka's own .45," Rei commented, Tomiyo nodded his agreement.

     "Is this really necessary?" Shinji asked.

     "Are you more afraid of the gun," Rei asked as she put her arms around Shinji, adjusting his posture, "Or me?"  Shinji cocked the gun as Rei instructed.

     Shinji is a passable shot at best.  Ranma refuses to even touch a gun, he thought, I wish I could have brought my dad, he's taught all kinds of people to shoot.

     "It's not an honorable thing," Ranma announced.

     "Langley, your witness."  Sammi checked Ranma's ear protection and handed the .45 to him.  "Safety, grip safety.  Good.  Only point it at something you intend to destroy."

     Ranma set the pistol down.  "No," he said, crossed his arms.

     Tomiyo glanced over his shoulder as Asuka advanced and backed Ranma into a corner by poking him angrily in the chest.

     "You're going to do this," Asuka told him flatly as she gripped his collar, "Because we aren't going to be your gunbearers, because I'm bigger and meaner than you, and I will pummel you if you don't!" she was shouting and waving her fist over his head.

     Sammi led Ranma away from the fuming redhead.  "Okay, just hold the pistol, don't touch the trigger, just feel the weight.  You aim from here, to here, to the target."  Sammi slid the clip in and chambered a round.  "Okay, remember, just squeeze the trigger, you never know when the gun will fire."

     The bullet missed the target completely, even Shinji hadn't done that badly.  "I'll try -" Ranma began.

     "Stop," Sammi ordered, "Just relax, you closed your eyes before you fired.  Just squeeze the trigger and relax.  It won't bite you and the bang is the worst part of it.  If you can't get a good grip, tell me, we'll switch to the .22 revolver."

     "I can do this.  But it is kinda big."  He sighted again, fired, hit the target, nowhere inside the rings, but the outer edge of the paper.


     He fired, hitting the opposite corner of the paper.  He set the .45 down and shook his hands. "I think I need to try the smaller gun, I can't control this one."

     Sammi nodded, "Miss Langley, if you would."  Asuka handed Ranma her Peacemaker revolver and a box of shells.  Ranma approached again, still frightened by the pistol.  He glanced back at Asuka who looked extremely angry.  Ranma concentrated on the target and the pistol.

     Tomiyo nodded to Asuka and she nodded back.  Okay, use the fear, he thought.

     Ranma fired six shots only hitting the target twice.  Asuka slapped her face but said nothing.

     They walked to the indoor rifle range, Rei had another five boxes of .45 ammunition, she wanted to see if anyone was as good as she was. At least the Fourth is taking my orders to play the clown seriously, she thought, I hope he is not truly that inept.

     "I just think it's funny," Asuka said, "All those reports about Ice Princess's training on the carrier.  The two indomitable, martial artists can't hit the broad side of a barn with a real weapon.  Maybe I should get a pair of those repeating Chinese crossbows for you two."

     "Shinji didn't do much better," Ranma growled.

     "Shinji the Great Untrained, did do much better than either of you two."  Asuka defended Shinji, "I could have thrown the bullets more accurately than you shot them.  You have to quit closing your eyes and flinching, before the gun even goes off."

     "How do you know that?!" Ranma asked.

     "By how you shoot," Asuka replied.

     Rei glanced at Shinji, both of them glanced away, blushing.  It was pleasant having him in my arms, she thought, feeling her blush rising, Even if it was training.

     "I can cure that," Tomiyo said, "I just need a different pistol, a .357 double action revolver.  Spent shell, .38 and .357 in the cylinder, you're never sure what's going to fire next, it should help both of them.  Until then, Ranma -" Tomiyo patted Ranma's shoulder.


     "Take the bullets out and throw them at your opponent, then throw the gun at them," Tomiyo said, "And no, I'm not kidding.  You can throw nearly as far and as accurately as any of us can shoot."

     Shinji and Asuka laughed, Rei and the guards smiled.  Ranma flushed from anger and embarrassment.

     At the range Rei set up a small bore rifle target at 50 yards, and hit every target with her revolver.

     "Whoa," Ranma said, "That's pretty good."

     "Dummkoft!  Baka!" Asuka yelled at him, "That's pretty good, if she was using a rifle!  That's impossible with a pistol, that's what that is."

     "I did it, it is not impossible.  Roku-kun does the same at 75 yards."

     "Somebody can get the target," Sammi told her, "I'll set up one for both of us at 75 yards, Ayanami-sama.  I'm a pretty good shot myself."  Sammi walked down the tunnel under the range.

     "Nobody can shoot like that," Asuka assured them, "Wondergirl?  Can you shoot like that?  At 75 yards I mean."  Shinji was pulling Rei's target in along the wire.

     "I do not know."  Rei loaded the cylinder and speedloaders and awaited Sammi's reappearance.  She didn't have long to wait.

     "Go ahead," she told Rei as Shinji pulled the target down for the others to examine.

     "It was not my best, but it was good," Rei said as she concentrated on the target.

     Asuka snatched it out of Shinji's hands and paled.

     She is no pistol marksman, Rei thought as she fired on the distant targets.

     Rei was having trouble with the targets, a few shots and she set the pistol down.  "I cannot use it at that range."

     "I'll set a target on the wire, take it out 60 yards," Tomiyo told them.

     "Much better." Rei sighted at the target, she didn't hit all of the small bull's-eyes, although Sammi did, but Rei was close to all of them.  "You win," Rei admitted.

     "At least I'm good at something."

     "Have you always shot like that?" Shinji was incredulous, he'd been happy to hit the foot-wide bull's-eye at 10 meters with every shot.

     "No," Sammi admitted, "It takes a lot of practice, and a good teacher.  Besides, this is just to keep it a challenge.  A pistol isn't good at much over 15 meters, you really need a rifle for much better than that.  A regular .45 wouldn't be able to reliably hit the target at that range.  All we were trying to do, is get you familiar with firearms, if - when they hit us again.  If you feel comfortable with continuing, I'll get the Marines to provide professional instructors."

     "Guns are dumb," Ranma told them.

     "Says the guy who can't hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle," Asuka said.

The Passage Out Of The Dark

     Hiro had come to Misato's apartment and found her passed out drunk.  Now she was wide awake and resented it mightily.  "Wa's y' POBLEN?" Misato shouted in his face.

     Great, everybody else gets Misato the-happy-drunk, Hiro thought as he pressed himself against the wall, "I have so many, which one in particular?"

     "Na just agree!  You're up here 'gain.  Why?"

     "I wanted to check up on you, so I came by."

     She practically fell against him.  She hasn't been drinking beer, he thought, That's whiskey I smell.

     "Don' sleep her 't all!" she shouted, pulled the neck of her dress down to expose her shoulder, "Wha'cha 'fraida?"

     Drunken EVA commanding officers, he thought, but said, "We did sleep together, in your jeep, remember.  I was a soldier, remember?"  He hoped the joke would work, old instincts were howling that he was in hostile territory and should run away.  And it's getting harder to ignore by the second, he thought.

     "Was real reason?" she growled, punctuated it with a poke in the chest with her chest.

     "I'm sorry, I . . . "

     "Don't start like Shiji!"

     "I don't understand the question," he said desperately.  The howling voice is almost impossible to ignore now, he thought, Where are the others?!

     "Y' 'fraid now."  Her brow furrowed, "Y' 'fraid me!"

     What do you want?  I should throw you on the floor and have my way with you, he censored that thought.  "I'm just worried about what's happening."  To you, he didn't add aloud.

     "Nah, you 'fraid of me, right now."

     "I just want to know what I did wrong."  And why you're acting like this, he thought, Shut up!  I can get out of this.

     "Nothing wrong," she said, "You gues' m'house, m'country, me, feel welcome."  She rubbed herself against him.

     "Thank you.  You've done a good job with both," he said pleasantly, put his arms around her shoulders.

     She smiled at him.

     See, I told you if I kept my head I could get out of this with my skin, he told his instincts.

     "Don' change a subject!"

     Whoo boy! he thought.

     "Is me ya 'fraid of, yur not 'fraid of Angels, or Gendo, yur 'fraid a me!"

     "Well, my job never was to fight, and I'm not Shinji."  Oops, stupid, stupid, stupid! he thought.

     "Was 'at suppose mean?!" she shouted again, slamming her palms into the wall on either side of his head.

     "Shinji seems afraid of his father, he's not my father, so I'm not afraid.  And I'm supposed to take pictures and make movies."

     She stared owlishly at him.  He forced himself to relax, he'd been inching down the wall to duck under her arms and escape.

     "Wha' about me?" she growled quietly, she repositioned her fists to block his escape.

     HIT HER AND RUN AWAY!, his instincts told him, Shut up!  Why don't you just tell her, or do what she wants?  Shut up and let me think!  "Excuse me?"

     Two fists dented the wall on either side of his shoulders.  "Don't play dumb!"

     Hiro pointedly stared at the dent in the wall, "Oh, I know you'd never hurt me.  That's so obvious right now."

     "Right."  But her arms didn't move.

     "We should continue this at another time."  Like when you're sober, he thought, Even if you respected me after I took advantage of you in this state, I wouldn't respect myself.  He carefully put one finger under her wrist and lifted to give him room to slip under.

     The hand turned, grabbing his collar and slamming him into the corner, "We discuss it now."

     Fear and anger finally overcame reason, "Doesn't this qualify as a good reason to be afraid?  It's no wonder the kids are afraid of you."  He advanced pushing her back.  "How many times has their commanding officer beat them up in a drunken rage!  Who are they supposed to appeal to?!  If one complains, they get punished, if the officers even believe them!"  He knew he should have left it at that.  "One day you'll go too far and one of them is going to put a knife in you, or maybe they'll just `accidently` step on you in their EVA, or maybe they'll just let you drown in your own vomit or leave you in the middle of the street to get run over.  Would it have been better if I'd done that?  You want to kill yourself, fine!" he shouted in her face as he backed her against the opposite wall, "But you've got no right to take anyone else with you.  If you don't want the job resign, the Army could use interpreters and secretaries, so you won't starve, and nobody will care if you drink yourself to sleep every night."

     She was tearing up and collapsing in on herself, but he ignored that as he walked away.

     I shouldn't have turned my back on her, he thought, She may have been drunk, but the Major had the element of surprise and is better trained in hand-to-hand.  Face down on the floor with his arm bent almost to the breaking point, he remembered the old adage from Sun Tzu, 'Don't fight a battle you don't have to win'.  Take your lumps and survive, he thought , he relaxed, waited as the seconds, then minutes ticked by.  The sound of snoring told him he could free his arm and resume a sitting position.

     "What am I going to do with you?" he asked the snoring woman, "Would simply drowning you solve everyone's problem?  Especially yours?  Do you hate somebody specific, is it yourself?  Or do you hate the rest of us?  What do you want of me, to hate you as much as you hate?  Why do you do this to yourself?  Because you lived and others didn't?  Or is it something else?"

     Rei and Shinji walked in, both of them laughing, Rei saw his expression, "What has happened?"

     "Misato-chan jumped me, then fell asleep."  He carefully set the snoring woman in a sitting position against the wall.  "Rei-san," he said as he passed them, "Don't you do that, it's very frustrating."

     Rei blushed slightly as he put his shoes on.

     Which means anybody else would melt from embarrassment, he thought.  "You two smell like gun smoke, what have you been doing?"

     "Shooting," Rei said.

     Hiro nodded and left.

     Rei looked after the man as he walked rigidly away, she glanced at Shinji-kun and felt her own embarrassment growing along with his blush.

     Misato remained against the wall, half-dressed and snoring soundly.

     "The Katsuragi Institute for the Mentally Unbalanced," the Fourth said as he entered, then he stopped and stared at an object on the floor, as if trying to fix something in his mind.

     He picked it up, turned it over in his hand.

     "One of the small buttons that held the collar tabs on the shirt Hiro wore," she told him as she looked at it.  The center section is broken out, she thought, Curious, somehow the button broke before the thread or the fabric gave way.

     The Fourth dropped the button in her hand, and walked towards where the Major lay snoring.  At a particular point, the Fourth set his feet apart and placed one fist in each of the dents in the wall.  He looked at her.  "Can you step between?"

     She glanced at Shinji, who stepped between the Fourth's arms, looked at where the Fourth's arms were in relation to him.  Shinji slid down the wall until the Fourth's fists were on either side of his head.

     Rei held the button in the Fourth's view.  "Terrific," the Fourth said sarcastically, "Just what we needed.  Misato beating up her boyfriend," he said disgustedly, "She'll be lucky if he comes back.  I wouldn't stay with that."  She nodded as the Fourth helped Shinji to his feet.

     "We go after him?" Ranma asked, perplexed by this.

     "You?  No way!" Shinji told him, the Fourth nodded, "Maybe Ayanami?"

     "You do not have to continue playing the clown," she advised the Fourth, "Asuka is not here."

     What am I supposed to do when I catch up to him? she wondered.

     "Now who's crazy?" Ranma asked, frustrated at this turn of events.

     At dinner, Asuka and Shinji were arguing animatedly about using firearms.  The other Children and most of us seem content with silence, Sammi thought as she kept dishing out the food, everyone around the table seemed ravenous, All of us refuse to be drawn into the conflict, despite sallies and provocations, from both sides.  Shinji's learning to hold his own against Asuka, with Rei's quiet support.  Although Asuka's trying to be more educational than confrontational.  Both to the good.

     She noted that Misato kept up a string of questions about school, how they were doing, favorite classes, friends, crushes, who was going out with whom.  She received the typical one-syllable non-answers teenagers gave to such questions.

     If I didn't know better, Sammi thought, I'd say she was trying to embarrass the kids, only none of them are taking the bait. Sammi decided not to intervene.

     "So, Ranma," Misato began, "Now that you're a boy again, are you going to take Mirei-chan out on a date?"

     Ranma fixed Misato with a stare and dropped a broken button on the table, "Would anyone care to explain that?  Those don't break easy, the cloth should tear first."

     Misato's false joviality dropped away, she stared at the button in stunned silence.  Shinji and Asuka caught the change in mood instantly, and fell silent.  Ranma stared at Misato.

     Don't keep picking a fight if you don't want to get hit, Sammi thought as she picked it up and looked at it, You keep forgetting he's ignorant, not stupid.  Put things in terms he's used to, and he's pretty clever, his and Rei's `sign language` for one.  "He's right," she said, tossing it back in front of Misato.

     "It looks like one of yours, Hiro," Ranma said, continuing to stare at Misato, "Same color, same size."

     Hiro turned, carefully displaying both of the buttons intact.

     What do you want to bet that if I asked Rei, Sammi thought, She'd tell me you changed your shirt before you got here, and there's a damaged shirt in your closet?

     "It must have been the same thing that put those two dents in the wall opposite the bathroom," Shinji added pleasantly, "I guess we'll have to go over there and fix them, along with cleaning the place up."

     Misato blanched, Asuka simply kept eating.  The sound of her chopsticks the only sound as Shinji and Ranma stared at Misato, the former smiling, the latter frowning.

     Take on one pilot, and you take on them all, Sammi thought approvingly, then caught Asuka's nonchalance, matching or exceeding Rei's, Oh, you naughty girl.  This wasn't happenstance, this was a cleverly planned ambush.  I wholeheartedly approve.  She glanced at her fellow guards, warning them to stay out of it.

     "If you were attacked," Rei said, "We should inform Commander Ikari directly."

     Misato looked like she'd been stabbed, looked nervously at all the pilots who were staring at her.

     "An attack on a NERV employee should not be taken lightly," Asuka added, sounding so sympathetic.

     "We're worried about you," Shinji practically whispered with an earnest expression.

     "Leave it alone," Hiro whispered finally, "My mistake."

     Misato looked like she was going to say something, but thought better of it as she stared at her lap.

     Rei set down her bowl.  "I am going walking."  She tapped Hiro.  "Please."  He nodded.

     "What are he and Wondergirl going to do?" Asuka asked as they left.

     Ranma continued staring at Misato, an eyebrow raised.  "He seems to think the matter is closed.  Is he mistaken?" Ranma said pleasantly,"I can't imagine what he was fighting.  Considering what soldiers are taught."

     "I desire to make Asuka feel more at home," Rei said as she walked with Hiro, "You have some experience with British food.  This would be more familiar to her."

     "I don't have a lot of experience," Hiro admitted, "They didn't exactly feed the prisoners kippers and chips."

     "You do know what they are," Rei countered.

     "I can probably direct you to some better sources," Hiro said, "Maybe some people who can direct you to authentic German sources and information."

     "I read German.  Thank you," Rei said as they walked.

     Rei stopped, looked around at the beginnings of dusk.  There is something out there! she worried, But I can see nothing.

     "Problems?" Hiro asked, also scanning the area.

     "Perhaps," Rei admitted, "Perhaps not."

     "I don't think you're being paranoid.  There are things out to get you," Hiro said.

     "She saw us!" Mihiro hissed to Jamie.

     "She saw two of her schoolmates," Jamie soothed, "That's all, you're overreaction is more likely to draw her attention."

     "But she's - "

     "Not even looking in our direction," Jamie interrupted as she continued walking.

     "I know 'This is not a good idea', grandfather," Mirei said, "But don't you think father would be interested in how many people are watching?"

     "Yes, granddaughter," the old man said, "However, it would be better if you weren't involved."

     "I'm more noticeable, but they'll think I'm mooning over Ranma-san," Mirei said, she smiled as she raised the telescope to watch the evening practice, and Ranma especially.

     "Aren't you?" the old man teased his granddaughter.

     "But you aren't, honored and wise grandfather," Mirei said, smiled.

     Rei and Hiro came back later.  Rei saw that the Fourth, Asuka and Shinji were already asleep.  Rather than disturb them, she went to her room and sat with her back to the wall.  She heard Hiro leaving without speaking to Misato.  She frowned at that.  I know how important Shinji-kun, and Asuka are to me, she thought, To fail to even attempt to repair the relationship, is foolishness.

     Rei sighed and walked to the bathroom to wash up.