Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction ❯ Sic Semper Morituri ❯ Chapter 57 ( Chapter 27 )

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

Sic Semper Morituri


Chapter 57 - The Price of Victory

     
Today I weigh less than a shadow on the wall, just one more whisper of a voice unheard

     
Tomorrow leave the windows open

     
As fear grows, please hold me in your arms

     
Won't you help me, if you can, to shake this anger,

     
I need your gentle hands to keep me calm

[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 57 - The Price of Victory

Disclaimer:

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

C&C, MSTs are welcome

E-mail: dan_s.comments@comcast.net

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(these are the original versions)

What has gone before:

   Admiral Adams and Doctor Akagi learn that the faster advance of their carrier battle group might be needed.

    Nabiki and Ritsuko have a heart-to-heart to discover why Nabiki has felt unworthy. Ranma and Ranko have a heart-to-heart about what each one truly wants.

    Nabiki and Jeff discuss their new position as half of Chaugnar Faugn, and how to best use it. Jeff begins teaching her how to use her powers, control is the key, Nabiki has power in abundance.

    Hiro has gotten General Tembris and SEELE their desire, and has learned that SEELE is planning to move against the pilots. Later he reveals all he knows, and discovers that Simson already knew what Hiro was.

    Kaji discovers the details of Gendo's secret plan, and even he can't believe what he has learned.

    Asuka begins developing her own plans, after a discussion with Commander Ikari. Later enlisting Shinji to assist her.

    NERV's Official but Unwritten Rules begin to be compiled.

    Maya begins teaching the Marines new tactics to combat their Mythos enemies. Ranma begins teaching Rei the Chestnut Fist, Rei of course modifies the regimen for efficiency, after she practically dragged all the secrets and nuances from Ranma. In repayment, Rei gives Ranma another lesson in using guns.

    Nabiki, Belldandy and Jeff `discuss` the greater realities. Neither Belldandy nor Nabiki are pleased by what they learn. Nabiki and Jeff then rescue Megumi from the Curse of Chaugnar Faugn, although Megumi's despair worries Nabiki. Until a Great Old One responds to Nabiki's wish for answers.

    The attack on the pilots injures Rei, Asuka charges in for revenge with Hiro in pursuit, Mirei draws her father's people into the battle while Ranma and Sammi are drawn into a battle with the Twins. Rei takes out an EVA with Admiral Simson assisting her.

    Sammi, the Neko-ken and finally Unit 00 wound then kill the Twins. Rei discovers that it successfully summoned another foe. Both of the injured, the Neko-Ken and Rei, curl up with Asuka. Once Ranma reemerges, he takes to his heels.

    Shinji falls ill to something, with both Rei and Asuka getting much milder cases.

    Hiro reveals his involvement with Tembris to first Sammi, then Misato. Misato is furious at the deception.

    General Tembris and allied forces launch their attack. Attacking Shinji at Misato's home, Ranma and Tomiyo at Mirei's ball game, Asuka and Juri at Sammi's home, and NERV HQ.

    The Azores Group arrives ready for a fight, and they are involved in one immediately. Ranma survives the mortar attack that kills Tomiyo, Mirei, and many of the two ball teams. He arrives at Misato's to spoil the attack on Shinji, but not soon enough to save either Hiro or Sammi. Sammi begs him to absorb her as the EVAs, he does, and moves to murder Tembris's men. Captain Ramsey cannot dissuade him, so Unit 04 grabs him and pulls him away.

    Rei attacks the ambush force at Sammi's apartment, until forces from the Azores Group come to her aid. Maya is sent to rescue Gendo and Fuyutsuki, and they deal with a Dark Young using the new tactics.

    Ritsuko and Nabiki rescue the rest of the command staff, although Admiral Simson and General Tomlinson use the assault to force their captives to surrender, before the rescue force gets to them.

'Cause I never thought I'd lose, I only thought I'd win
I never dreamed I'd feel, this fire beneath my skin
I can't believe you love me, I never thought you'd come

I guess I misjudged love, between a father and his son
    "The Last Song" - Music by Elton John/Lyrics by Bernie Taupin

   Yesterday you came to lift me up, as light as straw and brittle as a bird

Today I weigh less than a shadow on the wall, just one more whisper of a voice unheard

August 20, 1947

    Ritsuko watched with some nervousness as the bomb-disposal teams went through her apartment, while a large number of armed Marines guarded her, them, and the apartment. I hate this, she thought as Maya directed the effort or talked with the soldiers, The other places aren't `secure`. If they'd just leave for a little while, I could get into every nook and cranny. I'd find any bomb or listening device anybody could have hidden in here, despite their advanced, stolen or `borrowed` technology. I know nobody came here, and this might be the only place that actually is secure, but I'm still nervous.

    "But I have to just stand and watch," she muttered angrily.

    When I want to be with the kids . . . and when did all this happen? When did I start acting like a fretting mother, instead of a passionless scientist? When did I become comfortable with using my powers in front of select others, instead of hiding everything from everyone in fear?

    "Anything?" she asked as Maya restocked the icebox and washed all the pots and pans.

    Trying to be helpful, and taking the opportunity to go through my cupboards? she wanted to ask.

    "All our searches have located nothing out of the ordinary, Doctor," the Major in charge of the detail told her.

    Meaning nothing that the Department 2 people told you not to find, Ritsuko translated.

    "Very well," she said.

    "Okay lads, everybody out. Let the ladies sweep with their gizmoes," Sergeant Kilrain said. "That is, if you want kids or your stuff to stay on the outside," he added to the Major, who thought he was in charge. The man turned white and left with his men.

    Kilrain paused beside Ritsuko as the men hurried out. "Does all that stuff have a bad effect on only men?"

    Ritsuko rubbed her hands together and when she separated them, an eye looked out from her palm. It blinked and looked around. It closed and she rubbed her hands together again, and it was gone. "The simple answer is 'no.' The more complicated is -"

    "Ignorance is bliss," Kilrain said, glancing around to verify than only he and Ritsuko had seen the little show, "So when she says 'Sempai wants to do a thorough look-see,' I shouldn't think about it."

    "Just have some faith in us."

    "Of course," the man said as he left.

    Ritsuko noted that the guards outside were all women Marines now. One of them closed the door behind the last man leaving. I've got my own search methods, she affirmed to herself, Maya didn't file out with the others.

    Ritsuko looked at Maya. "What did you tell him?"

    "Far less than you did," Maya replied and frowned at her Sempai.

    "Aren't you going to go too?" Ritsuko asked pointedly, folding her arms and staring at the girl in a way that would have had her scampering for the door, before the Azores mission.

    "Not really. Nothing I haven't bathed in before, " Maya replied in cheerful innocence, "There's nothing you do that really scares me."

    Ritsuko frowned, extending her arms so her palms were centimeters from Maya's face. A mouth with long, needle-like teeth formed on each palm and growled.

    "Wouldn't an eye be more effective?" Maya asked innocently, completely ignoring the terrifying display.

    Or unaffected by it, Ritsuko thought as she frowned at Maya walking out of the kitchen and into the dining room.

    "Besides," Maya teased, "I know how to scare you." Maya approached with a grin and a spring in her step.

    Ritsuko stepped back and Maya stopped. Then the human girl hopped closer. Ritsuko retreated a step from the grinning girl as she hopped closer. "What's gotten into you?"

    "I scared big, scary Commander Ikari," Maya said cheerfully as she backed Ritsuko against the wall, "Maybe he thought I was going to gouge his eyes out, but I scared him. I scared him, and you aren't that scary." She pressed against Ritsuko and wrapped her arms around her, her smile definitely more playful and challenging.

    "I have to check out the apartment!" Ritsuko protested.

    "I can't stop you," Maya pouted as she tightened her grip around Ritsuko into a hug, "Every time I get close to you, you just slip through my fingers."

    Ritsuko was already doing exactly that as she released her hold on her human form, becoming fluid as she slipped into the nooks and crannies of the building.

    I am scary, she thought angrily at the girl on the other side of the wall, who was giggling with delight at the show. I am mean and nasty, a shoggoth, the terror of all sane people. The secret nightmare of the Elder Things! she thought as she gobbled down an unusually large rat that was denning behind the baseboard. I am! she thought, but heard Maya's delighted laughter, Who am I kidding? Maya knows I won't hurt her, the kids know I can't hurt them without them hurting me back.


    The slim, green dragon landed near the Meliorist, as the army advanced through the Valley of the Spiders. "The Spiders are driving the Men of Leng straight against our two flanks. With the Moonbeasts' flying ships, they have airpower enough to keep away our aerial reserve."

    The Meliorist nodded and concentrated on the battle ahead. "They don't seem to want us to reach the tunnel to the monastery," she said to the captains arrayed around her and the map table. She let them chuckle.

    Another messenger, a human, ran up to them. "Milord, the advance!"

    "What's happened?" the Meliorist demanded.

    "A huge, winged, black cat charged into the Moonbeasts' lines. The slaughter was terrible."

    "Saotome never does things by half-measure," the Meliorist said, voicing her pet theory on the new creature.

    Even when he doesn't know he's doing them, she mentally added.

    "I just hope it stays out of Ulthar." She looked at the map, then the officers. "Since we've just learned that the major weapons we need for our advance, are mops and pails," she said and waited for the nervous laughter to subside, "I suggest we wait for the spider-fry and deal with anyone who breaks through."

    The captains nodded and dispersed to their commands.

    "Yes, ma'am," the dragon said as it leapt into the air.

    "Somebody must be having a good laugh at our expense," the Meliorist muttered as she studied the maps.


    The Scholarly Dragon watched as the huge Spiders of Leng drove the phalanxes of the Men of Leng before them. The hissing spiders had planned to send the screaming men to their doom against the lines of defense the Meliorist had established.

    Except there are others out here, the Scholarly Dragon thought as he watched spiders pass where he and dozens of other dragons had concealed themselves, The spiders seem to think they need no rearguard. He picked his target, a huge, fat, old spider who would occasionally grab some straggler and sink her fangs into them, to send the message to the others that they lived only at her sufferance.

    The Scholarly Dragon sent his own signal, and the dragons boiled out of their hidey-holes.

    "Trapdoor Dragons!" he screamed as he leapt, in case some hadn't gotten the signal. He slashed open the old monster, and proceeded to land with all four feet on a smaller specimen. The spiders were slow to react, and soon became the dragons' buffet. Other dragons stayed at range and used their breath weapons. However, the Scholarly Dragon lost himself to the carnage of claws, fangs, and eviscerated spiders. The dragons obliterated the spiders up and down the line.

    When he paused to consider, he noted, We'd assumed the men would break towards or away from the armed camp. Instead, they scatter in all directions.

    "Run little men-things, run!" he shouted at the fleeing troops, looked at the horrified expressions on his fellow dragons, then at how the swathe he'd personally cut in the spider's formation dwarfed what they had accomplished. They were remembering why he was the leader and not they. "Don't tell me everyone but me forgot their seasoned salt!" he bellowed, and nervous laughter answered him.


    Anna lowered her telescope and shivered. "I don't hate the spiders that much," she said, "But to see both flanks annihilated that way . . . " She shivered again and turned her scope on the ruined fortification that lay along their line of march. "Even the stone work was thrown down. What was that giant cat?!" she asked as she turned her scope to the black, furry, dragon-sized creature sunning itself on the rocks, and looking at the world with typical feline smugness, after having eaten it's fill of Moonbeasts and their formless slaves. "The Meliorist is crazy if she thinks that's Saotome's dreamself. Yes, that's his appetite, attitude and iron constitution, but I've seen his two selves in his/her dream dojo. Neither has the power or the inclination to fight a slaughter like that. Or eat the victims wailing for mercy. Only a real cat is that cruel."

    She turned her horse around and considered what she was going to tell the Meliorist.


    Other eyes watched the advance of the army. Human, but hostile. "They think a lot of themselves, don't they?" the young woman asked.

    "Of course they do," the older man assured his three young charges, "After all, they are great heroes. One, the Fascisti's darling, the other the spawn of wealthy boyars. It is obvious they are better than the workers."

    The four shared laughter, but quickly returned to staring at the army moving out of their fortified camp, and up into the highlands.

    "Soon they will have to earn what they have been given," the older man said as he led his three charges away.

    For concealment, red eyes blinked and tracked them, a crossbow near at hand. I did not understand their words, but I understand their intent, Rei thought as she checked around her, and moved out to shadow these newcomers in the Dreamlands.


Tomorrow leave the windows open,

    Nabiki walked towards the gangway off the carrier. From the flight deck, she could see for miles, nearly to her old/not yet existing home in the newly-formed Nerima district. I never realized how badly I missed Japan. The sights, the sounds, the smells, she thought as she looked around and down, like a returning hero. The food smells called to her and her stomach rumbled at the thought of it. I never noticed them all before, but after over a month I've been among foreigners, Americans . . . they were polite to a fault, and I finally worked up the courage to ask for some Japanese-style food on the trip back. The problem was, I wanted plain - white rice, boiled or stir-fried vegetables. They made each dish a delight, but fancy. I would have killed for boiled rice, boiled cabbage and maybe ONE pickled plum. No cheese, no meat, no fancy sauces! Or the courage to ask for it, but here . . .

    "Walk down the gangway," Raccoon teased her as he stepped up beside her, "Don't jump down there, no matter how homesick you are. It'll scare the poor natives and hurt the tourist trade."

    She growled at him, and got a smile in return. She returned her focus to the place spread out before her. Now I understand how Asuka and Raccoon must feel all the time, cut off from home and familiar sensations. The few columns of smoke that remained reminded her, This is a city at war, and we've been fighting that war.

    Raccoon already took Unit 04 back to base late last night, and returned in a helicopter early in the morning. I guess he was safer on the carrier than anywhere ashore, she thought as she again inhaled the smells of Tokyo, I do practically want to run down the gangway, bowling anyone who gets in my way, just to get - home.

    "I didn't think it was so obvious," she said.

    "Oh, it isn't," Raccoon assured her, as he stood beside her and looked out over Tokyo, "I thought 'home' was wherever I had my feet planted at the moment, but I felt the way you do as the Bennington pulled into Boston Harbor. I was ready to jump off and swim to my favorite restaurant, then just walk around and absorb the place."

    Nabiki's retort was cut off by the sound of a redheaded missile coming in.

    "Nab-chan! Jeffery!" Ranko came bounding up the gangway, and she wasn't bothering to walk, jumping up railings of the switchbacks of the gangway. Leaping three to five meters at a time, to the amazement of the sailors watching.

    "Well, you wanted a Hero's welcome," Raccoon joked as Ranko jumped onto the flight deck and closed at a dead run.

    Do I stand my ground or dive out of the way? she asked herself as the pretty redhead raced across the deck straight at her, somehow missing every man who should have been in her way. I mustn't run away, I mustn't run away! she told herself as she braced herself for the worst. Raccoon's chuckles didn't help.

    "Someone missed you."

    Not by much, she thought as Ranko came to a dead halt about 10 centimeters in front of her, the smaller girl's expression so filled with hopefulness and terror that Nabiki wondered what had happened. She leaned forward to ask, and her question was cut off by Ranko's impact. The redhead wrapped both arms around Nabiki's neck, pulling them together and kissing her on the lips. No mere peck, Nabiki thought Ranko was going to suck her eyeballs out. What is going on here?!

    Nabiki's shock increased exponentially, when Ranko snaked one arm out, and caught Raccoon by the collar to pull him close enough for a kiss of his own, as long and full of passion as the one Nabiki had gotten. Now I'm scared, Nabiki thought, expecting an imminent attack by Angels in concert with the Fiancé(e) Brigade, or a rain of frogs and kitchen sinks.

    As soon as she broke off the kiss with Raccoon, Ranko tightened her grip around their necks, pulling them close and laying her head on their now overlapping shoulders.

    Nabiki and Raccoon looked over Ranko's head and exchanged worried glances. What's going on?! she wanted to demand of an equally mystified Raccoon, You're no help, you don't know either. Ranko was holding them so tightly they could barely breathe. I know Ranma wears his heart on his sleeve, her mind raced, And a public display of affection like this back in Nerima, would probably have gotten him, or her, instantly married to the recipient, but what happened?

    Nabiki let it continue for a time, she ignored whoops and wolf-whistles from some of the sailors. It's incredible that Ranko hasn't reacted to them either, she thought, Normally Ranma is very sensitive to that kind of embarrassment.

    "Ranko, are you okay?" Raccoon asked in a concerned tone while patting the redhead's shoulder, looking to Nabiki for answers neither of them had.

    "No." Ranko responded by nuzzling Nabiki's shoulder. Nabiki could also see Ranko squeezing her eyes tightly shut.

    Trying not to cry, or show any signs of crying, Nabiki realized. "It's okay to cry. Even strong men cry," Nabiki said, when she'd managed to get her arms around the smaller girl and hug her.

    "No," Ranko replied, shaking her head and hugging them tighter. Although Nabiki could tell, Ranko was at the end of her rope. Nabiki ignored the sobbing gasps coming from the girl pressed against her and gave Raccoon a pleading look, she was lost here.

    He's lost too, wonderful! she thought hopelessly, Not even a guess?! You always have a plan!

    "I don't think she's going to let go," Raccoon told her in German, but kept a light tone to disguise the seriousness of his concerns, which were painfully obvious from his expression, "This should be done privately, but first, we have to get back to our cabins, or down the gangway."

    I already reached the same conclusion, only maneuvering back into the bowels of the carrier is an impossibility, she thought as she considered the problem, There is only one other solution. But . . . the heck with it! Nabiki thought with a grimace, These guys already think I'm a 'tough cookie'.

    "Ranko, just relax," Nabiki said soothingly as she released the girl, "We're going home." She stepped back, swung one leg behind Raccoon, then swept both him and Ranko up, in a heavily modified throw. She managed to get both of them up in her arms, without dropping herself or them, or anyone getting their neck broken.

    Ranko squeaked in surprise, and looked around at suddenly lying on Raccoon's chest, but she hadn't loosened her grip on either one of their necks, a moment later Ranko settled her head back to rest in the space between their shoulders.

    She looked like she's asleep in bed, Nabiki thought, What happened to him - her - Ranma?

    Nabiki marched across the deck towards the gangway, her head held high, easily carrying her load, ignoring the wolf-whistles and catcalls. ' 'Bout time!' 'We thought you pilots were gelded!' 'Don't fight her boy!'

    "Jealous!" she shouted back at them in English, as loudly as she could, ignoring another wave of cries, whistles and friendly jibes. She smirked at that.

    The teasing, rough as it is, is affectionate, she thought as she walked, and the sailors got out of her way, I followed Raccoon's example aboard the Coral Sea: toured all of Bunker Hill, asking questions, even listening to some old war stories, she remembered, to keep her mind off being embarrassed to death by her situation, It worked, from the 'snipes' in the engine room, to the few 'Airedales' still aboard, I was 'Miss Tendo.' Nice to be respected, better too that the only fear that respect contained was a kind of awe over what an EVA pilot was expected to do, she remembered, I was a temporary mascot, and I learned a great deal about these strange creatures called Americans that completely control my homeland, and will for the next five years.

    She let the men get out of her way, as she stood near the entrance to the gangway. Waiting as if I wouldn't expect them to do anything else, she thought, More like making sure when I tumble over, I don't fall and break their necks on the way down. She nodded to the men who waited as she started down the gangway. Several men waited at the bottom of the first flight, and they moved to the bottom of the second as she approached. Another group followed behind about ten feet. The two groups maintaining a bubble around her.

    Now they clear a path for me, or us, she thought as she held her head up, trying to look every inch the woman in control, carrying almost 100 kilos with one of them affixed to her neck made it hard. With back straight and eyes forward, `Brown Bess's` steeliest gaze is completely unnecessary. They don't need it, they know who I am, and what I am. I guess finding that out for myself, finding myself, was a difficult experience. I was so amazed that they wanted to hear my war stories. It makes no sense how describing that terrible day made . . . thinking about it, makes living with it, so much easier. It also got me included, the fraternity of veterans, those 'who'd seen the elephant', that too I welcomed. I was like them, I was not just a fighter. Instead, I was a soldier. These people had fought as long and as hard as any of the Nerimaniacs, but for a purpose, for a goal, and they decided 'the mercenary girl', my family's throwaway extra, I, was one of them.

    She was halfway down, and took a moment to glance at Ranko, curled up on Raccoon's chest, while Raccoon had one arm curled protectively around Ranko and the other around Nabiki's waist. "Is she asleep?" Nabiki asked quietly in German.

    "Yes," Raccoon answered, without taking his eyes off the small girl cuddling up against him, the concern and confusion in his voice and expression overriding any embarrassment.

    Nabiki smiled at that and began walking again, and remembering, Talking and listening to their stories helped me and them, typically over a game of late night poker. She smiled at that. Gaining a reputation as a card shark doesn't hurt either.

    When she reached the bottom, she was suddenly at a loss. There are at least three dozen vehicles, from jeeps to 6x6 trucks, some marked 'U.S. Navy', others marked 'NERV'. I have no idea where to go from here, she thought as she looked for some clue.

    One Master Chief turned to a waiting Seaman Recruit, yanking the younger man's hat off and thrusting it into his hands. "Wassa matta wit' youse? You inna NAVY, show the lady to her car!"

    The target saluted instantly, 'sir'ed the chief, looked despairingly at the long like of cars and trucks, and ran off to check each one.

    The chief whipped off his own hat. "New recruits, ma'am, can't do nothing with'em till ya get some salt in'em."

    "Quite all right," she replied loftily. The old me would have enjoyed that too much, she thought.

    More laughter.

    And would have absolutely come unglued inside at that, she silently added, She wouldn't have shown anything, but she would have died.

    "Oh, she's going to do horrible, cruel things to me!" Raccoon squeaked. Nabiki nearly dropped him, on his head.

    The Master Chief leaned over, "Then suck it up, take it like a man, and shut up . . . sir."

    More laughter at Raccoon's overly theatrical faint, suggestions he join the Air Force, and so on.

    That 'sir' and 'ma'am' stuff is the other confusing thing. I know I am well paid, our 'pay-grade' is O-5, a Lieutenant Colonel or Navy Commander. We only see part of that, combined with Flight Pay, Hazardous Duty Pay and various allowances, we each still make a tidy sum for cash-poor Tokyo. The question for the troops seemed to be how to treat me and Raccoon, too young to be a sailor, not really an officer despite our pay and combat posting, and some combat experience. For me, the sailors and chiefs settled on 'ma'am'; from the officers, it was 'Miss Tendo', which made me an honorary officer, and while they didn't salute, they did uncover, that is, take off their hats. For me and Raccoon, it was slightly amusing, and for me and Maya, it was also frightening. If any of us told them to do something regarding the EVA, they acted like it was a real order. 'Yes Ma'am, right away ma'am, we'll square that away ma'am.' Having that kind of power really is intimidating. Maya and I got very good at phrasing our `orders` as questions or suggestions: 'Is that a good idea to have that here?' 'It might be better if that connection was tighter.' The officers were more reasonable, but they still acted as if we knew what we were talking about, she thought as she waited, the sailor checking on car after car, and truck after truck along the line, the other sailors filing past to be processed, each noting the absolute death grip Ranko still had on both her and Raccoon, And there's my power, she thought of the faces that hardened with that scene, instead of smirking, They know someone hurt Ranko. They don't know who and they don't know how, but when they do, I wouldn't give a tin cent for our enemies' chances. I'd almost feel sorry for the idiots from Nerima who face these troops. Especially if they've found out what they did to Ranma, or even to me. But I earned that respect, their respect too. I went over the Bluejacket's Manual, so I could return the proper courtesies and use the proper nomenclature. I didn't 'sir' the chiefs at the bulkheads, or call them Lieutenant Commanders through the hatches. I guess that also went a long way towards being accepted, and even respected aboard both carriers.

    The sailor ran back, ahead of a command car. He caught himself before he saluted. "Ma'am, it's that car there, the one following, ma'am."

    He looks so young, Nabiki thought, Younger than I feel. Raccoon slipped out of Nabiki's grip but managed to keep Ranko cradled between them.

    "Thank you, seaman," Nabiki said as she walked toward the car with Raccoon walking beside her. She ignored Ritsuko's odd look and simply walked toward her target. Raccoon said something in what Nabiki thought was French, and Ritsuko nodded and opened the rear door for them.

    "Can we wake her up?" Nabiki asked in German.

    "Whether we can or not, I don't think we should," Raccoon replied as he looked at the opening into the way home, with an expression that said he had a solution to the problem of fitting the three of them in, without breaking limbs. "Triangle, Ranko gets to be the hypotenuse."

    Getting situated is going to be difficult, especially since Ranko's unwilling to relinquish or even slacken her grip on either of us, she thought as she nodded, I'm not going to press the issue. Raccoon seems willing to let me take the lead, so does Ritsuko, Nabiki thought as she backed into the car, with Raccoon putting a hand on her head to guide her through, Maya is intent on staying behind the wheel, and not laughing at the ridiculous situation. Because she knows we'll hurt her if she does.

    She sat with her back against the rear seat, Raccoon sat beside her, his longer legs letting him brace himself on the floor or on the car's frame. Ranko hung on to both of them, lying atop their chests with her legs pulled up tight against her body like she was kneeling in their laps. Raccoon's arms tightly around both girls. The closeness of the contact was jangling Nabiki's thoughts, It wasn't too bad when I was carrying the pair, or standing. Now with every bump rubbing me and Ranko against each other . . . As Ranko snuggled against her, making pleased little noises, Nabiki mind was headed in certain directions. I keep thinking of all the fun we could have, of sweat slicked bodies gliding over each other on silken sheets, mouths and fingers exploring the limits of pleasure . . . Riiight, Nab-chan, Nabiki thought, Like Ranma would ever think that way, and in her current state, it would feel too much like rape. Besides, even I think an audience is inappropriate for that kind of activity.

    Raccoon's sardonic raised eyebrow didn't help.

    Ever the gentleman, he just won't let on that he is affected at all, she thought, The liar! Just because he's a better actor than you, Nabiki realized.

    "Do you want to tell us about it?" Raccoon asked to start things off.

    Ranko raised her head from Nabiki's chest, and immediately blushed.

    I'm not sure the blush is due to the question, or if Ranko is feeling and reacting the way I am. Nabiki almost laughed at the distraught face. I've seen Ranma look like this a few times, when he'd had a fight with Akane over something she cooked, or some dumb comment one of them had made. I wonder if my dear little sister really understood how different Ranma was from Kuno and the Hentai Horde. I doubt my once-sister ever figured it out, or ever would have. The reasoning is too abstract, and undermined her entire view of the universe with her as the center, the unmatched and unachievable center. And Shampoo was right, 'pervert-girl' could never understand a male-female relationship that wasn't eventually sexual. I guess I'm as much a pervert as her, but I know when to turn it off.

    Ranko's head fell back to Nabiki's shoulder. Nabiki glanced at Raccoon, and mouthed 'What do we do?' in German. Laughing is not appropriate, and neither is an interrogation.

    Ranko still hadn't answered Raccoon's question, then Nabiki realized, She fell asleep again, when she'd put her head back on my shoulder. Raccoon said something to Ritsuko, probably in French. Ritsuko immediately blushed, glanced at Maya and blushed even deeper red.

    Since Nabiki had both arms around Ranko, she couldn't easily attract Raccoon's attention, without waking the girl up. When she did, she mouthed 'What did you ask?'

    'The furo's been drained for weeks. You and Maya, then add Ritsuko,' was the mouthed reply. Nabiki blushed at the thought, not entirely out of embarrassment, then glared at him.

    She remembered holding Maya's hand while she was submerged in 'Ritsuko', The liquid felt thick and viscous if you moved quickly, but incredibly tenuous if you moved slowly. Strange pulses and something like swimming fish also passed through it. Nabiki thought, Then there was its 'exploratory' tendency, as it crawled around my arm like a meniscus, checked out the hairs of my arm, even under my fingernails. I don't want to think about the places Maya was 'explored', and that going along with Raccoon's plan will get those spots surveyed on me and Ranko as well.

    'NO!' she mouthed as she slowly shook her head.

    He smiled, indicating he understood. 'She knows,' came the reply, and a glance at Ranko.

    Knows - ? Nabiki was aghast. Knows what? Knows about Rit-chan? Knows what she is?

    Ranko stirring brought Nabiki's speculations up short.

    Ranko looked at her, and Ranko's expression of desolation and loss nearly broke her heart. Ranma only looked that way once before, that first day when Akane had belted her with the table. Kasumi tried to explain it away, that Akane was 'A sweet girl, she's just violent.' The look of loss and betrayal was the same as what I'm looking at now.

    "Sorry, fell asleep," Ranko tried to cover, giving a wan smile and a chuckle, "Haven't felt like that in a while."

    "You don't have to talk about it, if you don't want to. But we want to help . . . " Raccoon said gently.

    Nabiki was transfixed by the profound sadness on the pretty face just inches in front of her, how lost and lonely Ranko looked.

    "You don't want to know," Ranko assured them with a whisper as her face tightened to hold back the tears.

    "On the contrary," Raccoon took a firm fatherly tone and laid a hand on Ranko's head, "I assure you, nothing you say could surprise us."

    "Sammi loved you," Ranko said to Nabiki, then turned to Raccoon, "And you too, all the pilots." She craned her neck to look at Ritsuko with an expression of betrayal, "She didn't have any choice, did she." Ranko looked one step away from bursting into tears.

    "Yes," Ritsuko said quietly as she looked away, "She could have been jealous, hated and envied you all instead."

    "But she didn't," Ranko turned back to Nabiki, "She wasn't human. She was like those things that attacked you and Rei, and killed Captain Everett, or the ones who freed the Great Old Ones on the ships."

    "A spawn of Nyogtha? A shoggoth?" Nabiki asked and glanced at Ritsuko who refused to look at the pilots, "Another one?!"

    "Not quite, she's like one and the other, but different," Ranko took a deep breath, "Ritsuko's one too. She's a real one."

    "We found out," Raccoon said, "You found this out, how?"

    Ranko took another breath that was nearly a sob. She buried her face in Nabiki's shoulder until she mastered herself enough to raise her head and speak. "What the EVAs do to the Angels. She told me . . . she begged me to - to do to her. She wanted to be - be able to keep protecting the pilots." Ranko's voice continued to break as she told the story. Nabiki tightened her arms around the shivering girl. "I thought she'd be in my head, like the . . . well, intact, not like the remains of the ones I killed." Now Ranko did sob, burying her face in Nabiki's shoulder, "But she fell apart! I couldn't save her!" Ranko sobbed hysterically, "I couldn't keep her together. I tried and tried and tried!"

    Nabiki held the redhead against her shoulder, just let the girl cry herself out. Nabiki looked at the others. Maya was fixed on the road, only her white knuckles betrayed her feelings. Ritsuko looked particularly guilty.

    "You infused her with some of the samples of us, all of us," Raccoon said in an arctic tone, while he gently stroked Ranko's hair, "She couldn't help but feel an affinity for us, correct?"

    "Yes," Ritsuko admitted and bowed her head.

    "Do I need to tell you what an incredible risk that was?" Raccoon asked evenly, "Even the Great Old Ones can't always control their creations."

    "Why?!" Ranko demanded, her voice muffled by Nabiki's almost sodden shirt.

    Ritsuko twisted around and shouted back, "Because you needed someone to look after you!" Expressions of defensiveness and guilt warred for dominance. "I knew I couldn't be with you to protect you all the time! And if you haven't noticed, security is practically a joke!"

    "Kraznyzamok: Red Castle, Akagi: Red Castle. You built a flesh and blood fortress, out of bits of us, and what else, Doctor?" Raccoon asked in the same cold tone.

    I feel like I'm caught in a crossfire, Nabiki thought as she held Ranko.

    "Certain things in deep storage," Ritsuko admitted as she seemed to pull in on herself.

    "Other fragments of yourself?" Raccoon asked.

    "No." Ritsuko shook her head. "I wouldn't be that foolish," she said, "Something else, something I'm not at liberty to discuss."

    "Rei," Ranko said as she lifted her head to stare at Raccoon and Nabiki, "A dead Rei. There's more than one, Sammi understood, and Rei loved Shinji, and Asuka, and - you Raccoon, almost as much as she loved Gendo."

    "So, ready-made, expand the affinity to Ranma and me," Nabiki said, "And you had the perfect cat's-paw."

    Ranko shuddered at Nabiki's words.

    "Figure of speech," she apologized, "Sorry."

    "She volunteered," Ritsuko replied miserably, she glanced at Maya, who was staring straight ahead.

    Ranko twisted to stare at Ritsuko. "You had no right," Ranko said angrily, "They killed her, tore her apart from the inside . . . she died in agony. I - I killed her, to end her pain. I couldn't do anything else, I just couldn't." Ranko buried her face in Nabiki's shoulder again.

    Nabiki was stunned. Now, it makes sense! Ranma isn't `sophisticated` enough to intend euthanasia. He honestly thought he could preserve her in some way. Now he thinks he murdered someone, after offering them salvation.

    "Ranko you did your best, I know you don't believe it," Raccoon explained as he stroked her hair, "I couldn't believe it, after Samuel died, but it is the truth. Sammi didn't believe she was getting some kind of serial immortality, to be pulled out of one body to be plugged into another. She was expecting her skills, abilities and memories to serve best in her goal of protecting the pilots. She wasn't seeking deliverance or escape. She wanted a legacy."

    Ranko turned and stared at Raccoon now.

    He kissed Ranko very gently, before telling her, "You didn't take her life, you just inherited. You aren't a killer, just an heir. Are you willing to accept her legacy?"

    Ranko gulped and nodded, then raised herself up and straightened her legs out, so she could put her head on both her friends' shoulders.

    "She was hurting so much," Ranko murmured, "I couldn't just leave her like that, I couldn't."

    Nabiki put her head down on Ranko's shoulder. "When Hiroko died . . . I blamed myself, Raccoon, everyone: 'If we'd done it all better, done it differently, then it might have been different.' But the truth is, we all did all we could. As high a cost as it was, we won. When you start feeling comfortable, and you go a day or two without thinking of her, then you'll think you've betrayed her. It's wrong, but that's normal too. I've felt that way myself."

    "So you don't think about Hiroko?" Ranko asked, almost too softly to be heard.

    "Sometimes for days at a time," Nabiki admitted, kissing Ranko's neck and filing away for later the little shiver Ranko gave.

    Much later, Nabiki thought.

    "We'll visit her grave this weekend. There'll be a marker for Sammi too." Ranko paused, the tears started again, a near deluge. "And Mirei and Tomiyo," she cried.

    Nabiki froze, she couldn't breathe. If Mirei and Tomiyo are both dead, she thought in horror as she stared at nothing, That means no Soun Tendo, therefore no Nabiki, Kasumi or Akane Tendo. The family will never exist, the line extinguished. She felt her mind reeling at that possibility. They weren't my friends, but they had been my ancestors . . . in another place and time. She held the other girl tighter, adding to the redhead's tears with her own as she realized, Another consequence of 'touching the world lightly', now I really don't exist, she thought miserably, her blood feeling like ice within her, I am gone. No parents, and no hope. If I tried to be fully part of this world, I'd cease to exist. She hadn't expected that, or been prepared for it. I'd thought it might be funny to watch and help with the courtship of my own grandparents, now I'll see nothing, she thought, Gone, all gone.

    Raccoon wrapped his arms more tightly around both girls, held them in silence for the rest of the ride home.


    Ritsuko watched Jeff carry Nabiki and Ranma to the elevator, in a reversal of Nabiki carrying him and Ranma down the carrier's gangway. Nabiki hadn't protested, simply acquiesced, she worried, Ranma is sound asleep with her arms and legs entwined with Nabiki's, and her head pillowed on Nabiki's chest, Ritsuko thought, and glanced at Maya, who seemed enchanted by the sight, Nabiki holds on to Ranma as if she expected one or both of them to float away. Jeff's grim expression marred the charm of the moment for Ritsuko.

    Ritsuko held the door open for him as he carried the brunette and redhead inside. His expression is far more dreadful than I've seen, even during the heart of the hurricane.

    "What occurred?" she asked in French, as she followed him threading his way to the girls' bedroom, then rephrased the question.

    "Family, uh, disconnect," Jeff told her as he carried both of them into Ritsuko's room, slipping out of the seeming death-grip Ranko had him in since the carrier. She wanted to comment on the wisdom of leaving them together in bed, then she looked at his face and Maya's. I'd better not say anything, she thought as Maya pulled the colorful quilt over both girls, Her expression of delight over the `cute` scene, is oddly inappropriate. They probably do need it. I guess leaving the door open is the appropriate compromise between discretion and responsibility, she thought as they left the two entwined girls alone.

    "What happened?" Ritsuko asked in Japanese, as Maya served the tea she had brewed, then Maya sat down next to Jeff and across from Ritsuko.

    "Tomiyo was a relative. So was Mirei," Jeff explained as he seemed to collapse into the chair, "Nabiki didn't say anything, it wasn't her place. Now they're both gone. She's the last from both families."

    Ritsuko glanced at Maya and noted her horrified expression.

    Jeff still wore the same forbidding face, as if he had planned to drive his head through a wall, and was just deciding which. "I guess with all my cousins, I can't really relate."

    "Should we leave them in there together?" Ritsuko asked.

    I feel silly considering such things, but stranger things have happened.

    "Just what are you afraid of? That they'll drown each other?" Jeff massaged his neck. "That girl's got a grip like a snapping turtle, and I still think you should tell Ranko about yourself. If she absorbed Sammi directly, she'll need guidance. The information alone is traumatizing."

    From the corner of her eye, Ritsuko saw Maya nodding. It seemed so strange, 'I'm a hideous monster.' 'That's nice, Doctor Akagi, what on the schedule for today? Not more cold medical instruments I hope.' she thought, The human capacity for adaptation never ceases to amaze me, she thought before turning back to her original thought.

    "I . . . I have been practicing," Ritsuko admitted.

    "That's wonderful, Sempai," Maya told her with a smile on her face.

    "Good, then you won't need this." Jeff pulled a jar of her medicine from his coat pocket and set it on the table, "I figured out what it was, you've been dosing yourself with colored water with some Jimson weed extract, for the past few weeks."

    Ritsuko stared in horror at the bottle of violet liquid. "How?"

    "I didn't know, but I recognized the ingredients you needed, when the last batch was no good, then I looked it up. There's a version of Al' Azif in the Field Museum, it's in ancient Aklo, and I've got a copy. Also, I did a little experiment after I did my analysis. It was Saotome's blood components I couldn't figure out, until I realized you were using this as a substitute for ever changing shape. With the elements of Nyogtha in Saotome, it all made sense." Then he smirked at her. "If you could have caught Saotome in a moment of transition, it would have been even stronger."

    Ritsuko frowned, she didn't like being teased, not about this. "I'd eat you, but I remember what happened last time."

    "You should try it," he told Maya, who had completely lost the conversation thread.

    "I guess you know everything," Ritsuko replied angrily as she glowered at him.

    Jeff sighed. "Not everything. As Rei pointed out, I'm great at looking after those around me, but I can barely be trusted to look after myself." He looked up and tiredly stared at Ritsuko. "You're going to run into that problem more and more, as we assimilate more targets, and their knowledge becomes available to us."

    "We'll see you through this terrible difficulty," Maya said gravely, patting his hand, then giggled.

    Ritsuko was glad that Maya broke the mood. "So, what? We wait out here?"

    "Mis - " Maya shut up at Ritsuko's raised eyebrow.

    "Major Katsuragi had a surprise party planned," Jeff finished, "Oh joy." He sounded like shoving his head through a wall would be the preferred option, "that didn't take any effort to guess."

    Ritsuko glared at Maya again. "Yes."

    Maya smiled, dropped it, and left to get more tea.

    "I take it you sent along the food you picked up from my relatives in Wyoming?" He shook his head ruefully.

    "Yes."

    "Well." Jeff smiled, a particularly evil grin. "I don't think they'll be in a party mood. Especially if they ate or drank any of it."


As fear grows, please hold me in your arms

    Rei stared at the ceiling as she lay on the floor of Major Katsuragi's apartment. I know it is not strictly necessary to hold onto the floor, Rei thought, as she gripped the carpet, I am unwilling to take the chance. Moving, is not a wise idea.

    "It tasted like apples," Shinji said in an amazed and frightened tone, as he lay on the floor beside her, having recovered from his previous condition, but now suffering from her malady.

    I desire to agree, but I have no desire to speak. Speaking makes the ceiling ripple disturbingly. Nodding is worse, I am convinced my head might fall off or explode. I do wonder what Major Katsuragi ate to make her turn red and run screaming to the bathroom with Mein Grossfeldmarschall in pursuit. It was painful to listen to.

    The shower is going, she guessed, Mein Grossfeldmarschall is washing out the Major's mouth. She wondered, Have our enemies finally managed to poison us? I hope that Roku-kun, the Fourth and Nabiki-kun will find our corpses, and take up the inspiration to fight on against our foes.

    "It smelled like apples," Shinji-kun said from his place on the floor.

    I doubt the party for Roku-kun and Nabiki-kun will be ready in time. I wish the world, and my body, would stabilize, either returning to normal, or letting me die.


    "What was that?" Maya asked, as she leaned close to Jeff, "Apple jack?"

    "You take apple cider, set it behind the furnace or the water heater, some place that stays warm. When winter really starts getting bitter, you pull it out last year's, filter it and set it outside. The water freezes preferentially, and you keep removing the ice at the top. Once the ice stops forming, you have mountain-distilled cider," Jeff explained, "Brother is it strong!"

    "I'll bet," Ritsuko said, her expression brightened, "Maybe Misato recognized it . . . " Then she frowned. "No, never mind, that would almost be worse."

    "I'm more worried about the pickled peppers," Jeff said and laughed, "We used to slice those thin and use them to season a whole meat loaf, or pot of chilli, one slice each."

    "You should have put a warning label on them," Maya chided.

    "I never expected they'd be dropped on helpless populations, without me being there to warn people."

    "Or enjoy the results," Ritsuko said sourly, glaring at the other two.


    Nabiki heard the laughter in the other room, Ranko snuggled closer and made frightened noises in response. Nabiki considered her `victory`, Most of the Fiancé(e) brigade would kill to be in my place: Ranma in their bed, holding on for dear life. She sighed hopelessly. Except with Ranma using her as a pillow, Akane would belt him for being a pervert, Ukyo and Shampoo would break loose and be dancing that 'Ranma's going to marry me!' Instead of trying to comfort him, for what drove him to this, Nabiki thought, Instead, by doing nothing, I lay the ground work for later. Maybe there is something to this Zen stuff. She smiled at that, stroking Ranko's hair. And thinking about what he actually needs, instead of what I want. In the process, I even get what I need, she thought as she hugged the girl tighter, Don't leave me, don't let me fade away, please. She forced back the tears she felt coming.

    "It's all right," she murmured as she stroked the soft, red hair, "You're safe. I'm here." Provoking another snuggle, and more tears, although Ranko stayed asleep. I wish I knew the cause of this, beyond what Ranma told us. Even Sammi's death shouldn't make Ranma react like this, she thought, But I've learned patience. I can wait, I can guess, and with the skills I learned from Raccoon, I can go in and look. The days after seeing Hiroko were the darkest in my life. I had passed sentence. While my mother just disappeared, and never returned, Hiroko . . . I saw the body and confirmed the death with my own hands. Ranma had the woman die in his arms, and her being die within his mind. The effect, I can only guess at.

    She wondered, What can we do to help him? I want to, I came here to protect him, and it is about time I start taking my 'job' more seriously. She thought of all the stupid things she could tell Ranma at a time like this, and how little any of it mattered. The words hadn't helped, in that, Ranma had always been right, words couldn't encompass or erase feelings that strong and deep, she thought.


    "What should we do?" Maya asked, she was worried about the silence coming from the room.

    "Tea and sympathy, Shinji, Rei and I just sat there and said little to nothing, unless spoken too," Jeff told Maya. Despite the earliness of the hour, he looked ready to fall asleep himself.

    "I was afraid they might - " Maya blushed, glanced at Ritsuko and blushed again.

    "Oh, you're jealous," Jeff said and grinned, "Well - " He took Ritsuko's hand. "I'm willing to share if you are."

    Maya turned purple, at `Raccoon's` twin suggestions. "That - I mean - it just that I - "

    Sempai saved her by covering her mouth with her hand. "We just go in there, and do what Ranko needs." She glared sternly at Jeff. "Not what we think she needs, and no teasing."

    "Yes, mighty one," Jeff said as he clasped his hands and bowed. He glared sideways at Maya. "Perfect chance and you mess it up."

    Ritsuko saw Jeff almost nod off. "Okay, you go to bed too. I think that any party is canceled and the baggage can be handled by the two of us." Ritsuko waited for Jeff to form a protest before continuing, "Besides, you can do more good for Ranko and Nabiki asleep than you can awake." She enjoyed his look of frustration, but he bowed his head and went to what had been 'his' and Ranma's room.

    "What are we going to do about the sleeping arrangements?" Maya asked, "Long term?"

    "This place was ignored, and they never got into Sammi's place, so I think that one is safe. Besides, Jeff can check it out mystically, and I can search physically. I think we move in there. It will let me keep an eye on the pilots, and still maintain my own privacy."

    "There are four bedrooms up stairs as well," Maya pointed out.

    "Keeping an eye on me too, Lieutenant? Poor civilians can't protect themselves without a military hero?"

    Maya sputtered several attempts at denial, then gave up.

    "I appreciate the offer, but with the kids in the place, it isn't going to be a good trysting place."

    "I . . . I want to look after all of you," Maya said shyly, gripping her cup with both hands and staring into it, "That's all."

    Ritsuko laid her hand on Maya's. "Thank you."


    Sleep came easily.

    "Okay," Jeff said to himself, "Let's find Nabiki and then I know where Ranma will be."

    He headed off.

    "Losing her grandparents must have been a shock. I wonder, why no one in Nerima went to find Mirei in 1992? She still would have been alive, she couldn't have been 60 and could have straightened things out. Family, especially elder family is supposed to guide and be supported by the younger. I wonder why they never did, heck I wonder why I never did."


    Ranma knew he was dreaming, he desperately hoped he was dreaming. He was standing in his dream dojo in Ranko's form, and dripping. Not that water or blood were falling off her to the floor below, but that pieces of her were spontaneously liquefying, body and clothes, then falling to the ground with a splash. Then the drop would slither back to rejoin the rest of her. Despite all that had happened to him in the past months, Ranma screamed in horror and agony. Nothing she tried, no discipline or trick held her together. She screamed for aid, from the gods, from someone.

    "No one can help you with this."

    At Raccoon's voice, she turned slowly, so as not to disintegrate faster. Raccoon and Nab-chan stood a short distance away. They wore matching yukatas.

    "Don't look at me!" she shouted tried to cover herself, her desperation just accelerated the process of disintegrating.

    "This isn't new," Nab-chan told her as she approached, "And it isn't horrible." She took Ranma's chin and didn't flinch as part of it ran over her fingers. "It's natural, the rest of us change. This is just an art you have to master."

    "There's nothing to master!" Ranma shouted, tears dropped, mixing with the other liquid. "There is nothing good or useful about this!"

    "If you trust us, I can show you one, right now. All you have to do is relax," Raccoon told her quietly.

    "If I relax I'll - "

    "Do you trust us?" Nab-chan asked and rested a hand on her liquidizing shoulder.

    Ranma looked at Nab-chan, and saw none of the calculation that often meant there was a trick coming, Raccoon was the same, he was expectant, but there were none of the subtle cues that this was some trick.

    "Yes, I do trust you," Ranma admitted. She knew she had little choice, and that was one thing she'd learned about all the pilots. Once they'd won, they rarely pushed.

    "So." Raccoon made a complex pass with his hands, saying words that gave Ranma shivers as they echoed eerily among the walls. Then Ranma felt betrayed as her entire body fell to liquid and didn't resolidify no matter what she did or tried. She wanted to cry, or scream, but she couldn't. She flowed out like a great lake, her panic subsided as she felt the solidity and containment of the banks and bed of the pool she had become. What happened next was the biggest shock of the night.

    Raccoon dropped his robe, revealing the pair of shorts and T-shirt he wore. He took three running steps and dove in. Nab-chan dropped her robe, then screamed and covered herself.

    Lake Ranma turned bright red.

    Raccoon instantly conjured a swimsuit for her, and Nab-chan adjusted her suit, before gingerly wading in.

    Ranma was amazed. I can feel them moving through me, and not just as shapes or bodies, but other things: scents, textures. I can see them, not just from one side, or one perspective, as if I was watching from the lake's edge, or with my nose pressed up against their skin, he thought and then was further stunned by realizing, I can sense the blood flow - . . . that's not blood, that's like Chi and . . . electricity? They change and flow as their muscles move and they look around the depths. When did I become a lake!? He examined Raccoon swimming in the depths, and Nab-chan slowly working her way into deeper `waters`. He could feel the play of their muscles against the resistance, and `saw` the myriad signals their brains generated themselves and dispatched to other parts of their bodies.

    Then there are the other energies, energies I don't recognize. Raccoon's practically fizzing with it, he thought then looked closely at Nab-chan, I can't see much, then I can only see her legs, and there's practically none in there.

    WHAT the ?! Ranma failed to exclaim, as Raccoon, deep in the pool, inhaled. Down into the lungs and into thousands of tiny pipes and sacks. Ranma stared in amazement at the seemingly thousands of views that revealed themselves from inside Raccoon's lungs and at the same time he watched Raccoon from the outside, still submerged, closing in on Nab-chan as she tentatively waded deeper and looked around in concern.

    She's worried, he thought despondently, Not about me, but whether I ate Raccoon, since he hasn't surfaced.

    Then his martial arts skills told him the truth. No! Don't DO THAT! Ranma wanted to scream at Raccoon as he circled unseen around behind Nab-chan, and made his fingers incredibly cold. STOP! he tried and failed to yell at Raccoon.

    Raccoon `attacked` the back's of Nab-chan's knees with his icy fingers.

    Ranma felt his surface rippling from the force of Nab-chan's screech, as she jumped seemingly miles into the air. Sound-powered rocket, he thought, Who knew? She is going to make you pay for that, Raccoon.

    When she came back down, with murder in her eyes, she executed a splashless dive and started swimming around looking for Raccoon.

    I would laugh myself sick, if I could laugh, he thought as he watched Raccoon avoid Nab-chan, You wait in the depths, and breathe . . . me. Until she tires herself out, runs low on air, and surfaces.

    As she gasped lungfuls of air, Ranma watched Raccoon creep up, and poke her somewhere ticklish. Then he silently laughed as she put up a frenzied and useless defense, until she calmed down, breathed enough to dive again. Too late, he's long gone, Ranma thought as he watched her search for someone Ranma knew was no where near her. He watched them repeat this exact process twice more before it dawned on Nab-chan that something was amiss. As Ranma watched her face, body and spirt, She's realizing he's breathing the liquid, just like L.C.L., he thought, I wish I could tell her its safe. It - I - won't hurt her. Neither will Raccoon.

    He will of course act like a little kid tormenting his older sister, Ranma thought as Raccoon again poked Nab-chan and raced away, Com'on! Play nice!

    Raccoon, fortunately, realized her dilemma when she didn't pursue him this time. Ranma watched him swim close enough to let Nab-chan see he was easily breathing in and out, yet his nose and mouth remained submerged.

    Please, Nab-chan, trust me, he silently implored, then wondered, Why is that so important? But I know it is. He braced himself, trying to figure out a way to make sure it wasn't a little she inhaled. She'd choke on a little, like my first experiences with L.C.L.

    When Nab-chan exhaled her air and sank deeper into the liquid, the bubbles tickled Ranma as they headed up, and Nab-chan looked forlornly at them and the surface. Ranma waited for the inhale. Raccoon had followed Nab-chan down, a hand resting on her shoulder to reassure her.

    When she inhaled, Ranma raced in, scavenging any bubbles that might cause her a problem, while outside, Raccoon held her as she reacted with some of the gag reflex and convulsions that L.C.L. produced.

    It's all right, he wanted to tell her as she struggled against herself and Raccoon, We all do it in the EVAs.

    After a moment she stopped, and setting into breathing easily.

    Raccoon spoiled the moment by poking her somewhere ticklish, and racing off. Nab-chan let out a silent scream of rage as she raced after him.

    She'd make me pay dearly, Ranma thought, If she could hear me laughing at her expression.

    Nab-chan relaxed slightly, as she finally realized it was a game, not a contest, or a war. Ranma delighted in feeling their bodies sliding through his substance, smelling the sweat that washed away, seeing the muscles move, and seeing the interplay on not only a physical, but a biological, even a spiritual level, between the two. Say, I do feel better about this! he realized, I guess it's whether you have control . . . whether you want control, or if you can live without it. Like my curse, if I can live with it, it stops being a curse.

    He simply let himself relax, and watch them play. Raccoon's speed and sneakiness, versus Nab-chan's grace and cunning. Except Nab-chan seems to be ticklish, and Raccoon doesn't, so he's got the advantage, Ranma thought, then fell back on analyzing the very different `fighting-styles` of the pair, Raccoon is always careful where he touches, and Nab-chan grapples in a way that some guys at school would love to have a pretty girl tackle them, but then they'd take it the wrong way. Only, Raccoon never takes advantage, he seems to like the `fight`. I guess we are kinda alike.

    Eventually, Nab-chan got too tired to continue. Raccoon helped her to the surface. When she tried to spit Ranma out of her lungs, Ranma left quickly, intentionally leaving air in his wake. Raccoon carried her into the shallows and found a shoal place where they could lie with their heads out of the liquid, and their bodies submerged within it. Nab-chan snuggled against Raccoon, with her head on his shoulder.

    Ranma felt a twinge of jealousy, then realized, Hey! I was a good-sized pond while they were swimming around every whichway in my depths. Now I'm just about the size of a furo! They can stretch out, but I'm not deep enough to let them drown. Not that they could. I guess I do know what I'm doing. I just can't consciously control what I'm doing, he thought as Nab-chan fell asleep on Raccoon's shoulder as Ranma surrounded and lapped over them.


    Ranma wakened slightly, took a moment to analyze where and who he was. A moment later, he realized he was a she, and solid as well. Ranma hadn't opened her eyes yet, but Ranma's hands told her some very strange things. She thought for an instant that one breast had swelled immensely, and her shirt had grown hairy, then she put the pressure, size and hairiness together and realized she had her fingers entwined in short hair and the cheek attached firmly pressed against her rather intimately. That's worrying enough, especially because there is only one person in the apartment with hair that short. Her legs were tightly wrapped around someone else's leg and had it firmly held against her. Someone's hand had migrated beneath the waist band of her boxers. Nothing perverted, but somehow I arranged myself and them like this, she thought as she continued to hold Raccoon and Nab-chan against her, both in a very intimate way. Raccoon's arm is over both me and Nab-chan, holding us tight. It's Nab-chan's hand at the waistband of my boxers, the other cradled her head. So she gets to get grabby and I don't, that's not fair.

    Ranma decided, I'm not going to finish waking up, skipping one day's practice, the others will understand. She settled in a little, Nab-chan's hand tickled spider-like, then drew Ranma closer to her. Ranma felt their six legs tangle further. Ranma forced herself to relax. Despite every instinct telling me different, I'm not really in danger. The ki of the other two people pressed up against had slowed, the pulse and sizzle of the two bodies warmed her, her own ki sang a duet in response. She also noted, The drive, the nervous energy to 'Do!' is muted. The wheels turn, but without the frantic restlessness I normally feel in them. Still like being in a whirlpool or a hurricane, but like this is being in the eye. The vast energy circling, circling, circling won't hurt me, and it blots out all other concerns and forces.

    It lulled her back to sleep, she didn't care how they had arranged themselves, she needed the support, the certainty that they were there.

    Usagi had asked what I wanted, this was what I thought of, now I worry they'll discover what's happening. But even I couldn't disentangle myself without waking them. Maybe they won't clobber me if I'm asleep when they wake up, she thought as she relaxed into the refugee of sleep again.


    Some instinct told Ranma he needed to be awake RIGHT NOW! He woke suddenly. I'm out of the embarrassing situation I was in, the dream. Or was it a dream? he wondered, Okay, I'm a 'he' again, and considering any and all threats . . . No movement, no sound of fire - the situation has not improved! I'm alone with Nab-chan, lying on top of her! His mind froze as he realized where his head was, and more importantly, where his hand was. Up Nabiki's shirt! Okay, Nab-chan has no misgivings about grabbing parts of Ranma or Ranko, I think the chances that turnabout is fair play are about equal to my chances I'll survive if Nab-chan realizes what I've been holding while we were asleep. Calm down, reduce the pressure on Nab-chan's anatomy, in preparation to withdraw the hand, and - His instant plan to flee immediately was interrupted by the arrival of doom as certain as the sound of an executioner sharpening her axe. Nab-chan's eyes snapped open and locked with hers, and Nabiki's hand striking like a snake to grab hold of his pigtail sealed his doom.

    Ranma felt a dread fill him, Okay, now I get the beating, one I deserve, this time. Nabiki's eyes and expression give no clue. Her ki gives no clue. She is either calm, or so angry she gone past the screaming rage and all the way to lethal revenge.

    "Saotome," Nabiki said, almost sweetly, "I'd like you to tell me just what you think you were doing. This isn't to inform me, since I already know. I just want to see if you'll try to lie to me, when you know I'll hurt you in direct proportion to the lie."

    Ranma could only gulp and consider how painful his death was going to be. Would it be better to lie, and be killed for that, or admit I haven't the faintest idea, and be killed for that? Decisions, decisions. Funny, you had your hands on me, and I didn't hit you!

    "Since you seem a little addled. I'll give you an order," Nabiki said, with the sweetness of a pineapple-scented breeze, blowing over an active volcano, "Slowly pull your hand out, and put it behind my head. Your arm around my waist can stay there."

    Ranma did as instructed, hoping something anything would intervene. Why can't Asuka walk in, or an Angel attack when it might actually help? he wondered, Why hasn't she taken my head off? Figuratively, or literally? He didn't have an answer.

    Now Ranma could sense the agitation. I thought doing exactly what she told me would reduce Nabiki's anger. I guess I was wrong. He considered trying to explain, No, remember the admonition to remain silent when I gave Nabiki the quilt. Silence might not get me out of this, but speaking only when spoken to might keep it from getting worse.

    "Close your eyes."

    Ranma instantly did as ordered. Now he waited, he could hear the rustling of cloth as Nabiki rearranged her clothing. She's content to make me wait for whatever happens. Maybe jumping up and running away? But that would just get me in deeper, he thought, How about jumping up, and running away, with her in my arms? At least I could claim insanity as a defense.

    As he lay there, he could imagine what Nabiki was planning. There are a lot of places a girl could hit, or twist or pinch or bite that would hurt a lot more than an ordinary punch, kick or slap. As the seconds crawled by Ranma, he felt his fear increase, his heart rate and breathing speed up, along with his fear. Once the pain starts, it'll be easier, the anticipation and uncertainty that made it worse, you knew where a punch or kick was likely to land, so you prepared. I can't really prepare for anything Nabiki does, and an ordinary punch, kick or slap isn't Nabiki's style. All his imaginings tightened his guts, he felt himself start to tremble. Here it comes, and I don't have any real defense.

    "Now, Saotome, talk."


    When Nabiki had awakened to being gripped/fondled and drooled on by an obviously male Ranma, her first instinct had been to tear him to pieces. I guess I owe Coffee a debt, she thought as she half-listened to Ranma's stammered explanations, If Coffee hadn't used the winds to keep me from a 'pulverize by reflex' reaction and told me to look at what Ranma was dreaming, this would have been an 'Akane-at-her-worst' moment, instead a time to point out our differences.

    Nabiki glanced up at Ranma, she'd waited until he'd woken up more before deciding what to do. I'd been shocked originally, but considering where my hands keep winding up, Coffee didn't see I had much room to complain. That Ranma, even sound asleep, had groped me was shocking, but not offensive. She stared at the shivering martial artist. He hit the important high points in his explanation and admitted he's sorry, better I don't listen too closely to his explanations. Just staring at him in silence has all the effect I need, she thought and considered the vagaries of life and existence, I always tried to be harder, more frightening than the martial artists of Nerima. It struck me, that after the dreams, Asuka had dubbed them 'The Nerima Wrecking Crew', and Raccoon called them the 'Nerimaniacs', yet I was able to skate among them without martial arts, instilling fear to gain their grudging respect. Whatever they thought of me, I was someone who had to be considered, no one dared ignore me, and none of them dared attack me.

    But it was empty, she admitted to herself, I was safe, I was even bringing home some money to the family. But I was feared far too much for anyone to even consider getting close to me. She laughed mirthlessly at that, causing Ranma to freeze in place.

    She smiled at him. "Stay on topic please," she reminded him. He nodded and continued to blather.

    Even my own family feared me, she lamented, If it got me respect, I didn't argue. It suddenly struck her, as she stared at the mightiest martial artist on the planet, He still trembles at my touch, but none of that is necessary now. I still like people being a little off their feet around me, but being an EVA pilot accomplishes that, even among other pilots. We're all nervous about what we do, and what we may become. No less than Douglas MacArthur had asked for Asuka's autograph, when Asuka had asked for his. Any of the pilots could write a letter to President Truman or the Emperor, and expect some action to take place. I like being respected better than I like being feared, being part of NERV SAR . . . and surviving that terrible day had done that.

    I have what I always thought I wanted, and it doesn't just frighten me, it terrifies me. I'm tired of fear, I wanted respect, I have it. I especially don't want Ranma afraid of me.

    She took Ranma's chin and tightened her grip on it a little. Ranma fell silent and she felt a bit of triumph. I can do whatever I wanted to Ranma. The poor baby will neither argue nor protest . . . She rolled him over, so she lay a top him. She let Ranma stare up at her, while she looked down and examined him.

    And all I really want is him to stop worrying, Nabiki thought about the irony, All I want is him to relax because I'm here. She knew part of the boy's fear was fear of the unknown. Ranma and Ranko were so cute when they were flustered! But Ranma isn't flustered, he's terrified. There's something not right, something crossways with reality about Ranma being afraid of anything, except cats, everybody needed a weakness.

    She looked down at the boy. Even with the memories erased, he still thinks that any gesture even remotely amorous would earn her or him a pulverizing, whether the action was voluntary, involuntary or accidental. I'm going to put a stop to it. It's unlikely that Ranma is ever going to get beaten up with the regularity he did in Nerima, but he still needs to be 'trained' not to expect it. There are other more effective ways to punish and discipline him, and her, than physical violence.

    Nabiki glided down atop the hyperventilating boy. Ranma froze up as if he'd been hit by a lightning bolt. The sudden interaction of their bodies and Ranma's blush and hidden glance gave Nabiki all sorts of thoughts. To pursue later! she admonished herself, but it was difficult. She pinched Ranma's nose closed then covered her mouth with her own. Ranma's eyes shot wide open at the impossibility his body was reporting.

    Nabiki released his nose, and cradled his head with both arms so he couldn't break off the kiss. Now Ranma started to relax again. Nabiki spent a delightful interval, her lips playing the 'Game of the Oni' with Ranma's. Depressingly, it was more hide than seek on Ranma's part, but he didn't break away either, Nabiki thought, Maybe releasing Ranma's head and moving his hands some place more interesting and intimate . . . be patient! You have time, have some patience, that was what none of the other fiancees did, let Ranma take time to absorb.

    She broke off the kiss and was pleased there was disappointment laced into the confusion and relief, she didn't take the last personally, she'd pushed him well beyond the expected and just outside his comfort zone. "Thank you for not lying to me," she told him, "Maybe I should . . . reward you." She licked her lips hungrily and Ranma squirmed delightfully beneath her, uncertainty, but no fear.

    Exactly as I want it.

    "I woke, and saw what you were doing. And I was angry, but then I thought about it, since you were asleep. So I entered your dream, and saw you were dreaming of suckling at Ritsuko's breast, a baby only seeking comfort from his mother. That's what you were acting out, with me." She kissed him again to prevent a series of half-hearted denials, and only stopped when he showed no evidence of further attempts to make a fool of himself, but he was still filled with a delightful uncertainty. She satisfied herself by giving him a series of little cat licks and gentle bites across his throat from the hollow of his throat to his chin. Ranma shivered the entire time, gripping the floor and arching his throat towards Nabiki, verifying he wanted the contact.

    As Nabiki sat up staring at her, . . . friend, lover? I'm not going to even think 'fiancee', there's no legal bond, and I'm trying to build an emotional one.

    Nabiki settled beside Ranma into the crook of his arm, laying her head on the boy's shoulder. "You are allowed to touch back," Nabiki gently combed her fingers through his soft hair. "As long as you're doing it to tell me how you feel, and not just to prove you can."

    Like I did for too long, she had to admit to herself.

    "Do you understand the difference?" she asked.

    Ranma stared into her eyes and nodded slowly, gathering Nabiki tighter against him.

    Nabiki preferred doing this with his male form. But being a girl is part of what and who he is, and there are worse things to have to overcome. She is nice to be with too.

    "You're allowed to do more." Nabiki stroked the underside of Ranma's pectoral muscles, felt him stiffen then relax a bit. "Not necessarily right now, but you should start." Nabiki reached over, taking Ranma's opposite arm and placing the boy's hand on her arms. "I won't promise I won't hit you, I won't promise I won't hurt you," she chuckled, "I have a temper, and I refuse to be ignored. But I will control myself. I do insist that you stop hurting me." She put her hand over Ranma's mouth, stared at his shocked expression. "When you act like your life isn't important, like getting hurt is . . . " her voice broke, she felt fear and fury building up as her gut tightened at the memory, "That bastard ran off to fight her all alone, he nearly died, and you're the same all the time!" she shouted at Ranma then buried her face in his shoulder and held on.


    Ranma stared across at the sobbing girl in his arms, then glanced up at Rit-chan who'd come through the door at Nab-chan's angry shout. Ranma gave her a bewildered look, Rit-chan nodded and closed the door quietly behind her, leaving Ranma unsure how to react. He wanted to say something, But my mouth seems to exist just to get me into trouble. But I don't have to say things to communicate, he remembered the lessons he'd gotten pounded into his head from Raccoon and the Meliorist, and the permission he'd just gotten from Nab-chan herself. He started stroking Nab-chan's back as the two of them held each other.

    Nab-chan didn't react much to the touch, good or bad, but Ranma felt the ki flows slow and alter slightly, the rate of change increased slowly. Ranma pulled Nab-chan up so her head rested on his chest, where she could feel his heartbeat, instead of on his shoulder. That increased the rate that calmed Nab-chan down. I wish I knew why, but I don't care right now. Nab-chan and Raccoon, and Asuka will all love to explain it later, and Ranma or Ranko will have to keep from falling asleep then.

    He felt the other girl's tears stop, and her breathing became more regular. Ranma stroked Nab-chan's hair. I'm glad she let it grow out a little. She is prettier with it this way.

    "I'll try, I seem to need a lot of help with that," he told Nab-chan who sniffled and nodded. Ranma decided, I can take a chance, I, Ranma, felt jealous when Nab-chan got mad about Raccoon. He's the only one stupid enough to . . . charge into a fight like I always do. Cripes, no wonder we hate each other, switch a university education and a gun, for a life on the road and martial arts skills, and all the other differences are cosmetic. It wasn't just that I was jealous that Raccoon was stealing Nab-chan from Ranma, but the insanity that Nab-chan was stealing Raccoon from Ranma and Ranko. It's completely stupid, and impossible, but I can't ignore it. It is unworthy, I have Nab-chan in my arms right now, and Raccoon isn't here. Yet, the jealousy is still there. It doesn't make sense.

    I'm a guy, why should I be jealous that another guy isn't spending time with me, is having fun with another girl? Ranma wondered as he lay there.

    I wonder when breakfast is, or is it lunch, or dinner? I have no idea what time it is, and aside from food, no real interest. Rit-chan had been dressed, but I don't remember how she'd been dressed at the dock, so I don't know if Rit-chan hadn't gotten undressed or if she'd dressed for a new day.

    What about the funeral . . . funerals: Mirei's, Sammi's, Tomiyo's? Are they all together or separate? Mirei had family, Nab-chan and his dad might have been Tomiyo's only family. Sammi didn't, except the pilots . . . that's something else I don't want to think about, but I also know I can't, I shouldn't, keep it from Nab-chan. I don't know exactly what to do.

    Another reason to wait for Raccoon to come back, he thought, The three of us can talk, or is it the four of us? He chuckled mirthlessly at that.


Won't you help me, if you can, to shake this anger,

    Jeff looked at the destroyed door, the shattered parapet of the building across the way, and the damaged to the walls and floor of the walkway. He closely examined where the fragments of the rifle grenades' casings dug holes in the concrete walls. The polite cough from one of the half-dozen Marines `escorting` him brought him out of his considerations. "Whoever walked into this, walked into a real mother of an ambush," he said as he showed his NERV ID card to the Marine guards on the door, "Always take time to enjoy and learn from true craftsmanship."

    The Marines aren't letting the FUBENS anywhere near the pilots, Jeff thought as his escorts peeled off and waited for him to return, I don't think they would have let me in here, if they didn't know me on sight, and that I arrived with a vetted security force.

    A chalk outline marked where each of the attackers had fallen. It didn't take an intense amount of imagination to picture the sequence of events. It is obvious the sniper was Rei, almost no one else at NERV is that good with a rifle, he thought, The action cleared the upper level, then bought time for Langley to escape, simple and to the point. Very much like Rei.

    Langley was in her room, sitting alone on a bed that hadn't been slept in. The enemy hadn't reached here, so no forensic investigator came this far.

    "Langley?" Jeff asked quietly as he entered, she looked at him dully, as if she didn't recognize him for a moment.

    "Oh, it's you."

    Anticlimactic, he thought, I was warned about her hair, it still jars me. Langley and the Meliorist were always characterized by their long hair. Now her hair is longer than mine or Shinji's, but both Rei and Saotome wear it longer, and Nabiki's `tail` is longer still.

    "Are you alive?" he asked as he sat on the bed beside her. She automatically leaned against him.

    "One of the few. Somehow, you managed to bring all yours home safe, I always envied that about you. Erin, Tomiyo, Sammi, Mirei, Hiro," she chuckled once and closed her eyes, "And Tomoe, Usagi, and Yuki, maybe a couple of dozen more."

    "You feel you've betrayed them by being alive?"

    She pulled back and glared at him, then her expression softened and she bowed her head, "Yeah. I guess, I mean how many people are worth one pilot's life?"

    "Honestly," Jeff said gently, "Sammi, Erin, Tomiyo and Hiro were all volunteers, they'd say a bunch, or at least what a pilot represents, is worth a bunch of lives. You and I don't get a vote in the matter."

    "It isn't fair," Langley said, flopping back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, "Why them, and not others? I even heard rumors that Hiro wasn't human."

    "I seem to remember someone whose two most loyal bodyguards are werewolves," Jeff commented, Langley's listlessness worried him.

    She's holding things in, holding things off. In our `business` that's a bad decision, too much happens too fast, the time you have to sit and relax is too short to dig up old hurts and give them a proper airing. Says the pot calling the kettle black.

    "Misato's got to be devastated," Langley said, in a tone that wouldn't have been out of place from Rei, "That's why Spineless and Wondergirl are over there."

    Awfully charitable of you, Jeff thought, You probably sent them off, after assuring them endlessly that you'd be okay. Considering how Major Katsuragi reacted to the attack on you, extremely charitable.

    "So do you want to come back to Ritsuko's with me? I assure you, any tears you shed can be put down to solidarity with the - your fellow pilots."

    "No," Langley said, not rising to the bait. "You aren't there for some reason. Let Ice Princess and Horseface have their reunion, before reality reasserts itself."

    "You don't mind me staying here?" Jeff asked.

    Langley raised her arm and waved her hand languidly. "One does what one must, possessed of such intelligence, talent and beauty, I find that interjecting myself into places causes others to make me the highlight."

    "As is your due," Jeff agreed, seemingly wholeheartedly as he laid down beside her.

    "Then I must remain here, and accept worship from a smaller circle, to allow others to get on with their lives."

    "I assure you, what I lack in quantity, I make up for in quality." He bowed gravely.

    "I would expect, and accept, no less." Langley lowered her hand, patting his knee as it passed.


    Ranko heard Raccoon enter with - Food! And she stifles the urge to leap on him, get the tray and devour it all at once. Who says I'm not civilized? I'm still not sure what hour it is, Ranma had fallen asleep again with Nab-chan in his arms. And I wake up, Ranko body and mind, and the tangle of arms and legs and hair gets no comment from Raccoon, not even a raised eyebrow, Ranko worried, It also worries me that I've, we've, slept more since Nab-chan and Raccoon brought me home from the carrier yesterday, or the day before yesterday, than I ever have before, that I can remember. Nab-chan fidgeted in her arms, reacting to the smell of food.

    "She's pleasant to wake up to," Raccoon said. Ranko wasn't sure if she or Nab-chan blushed more. "She wasn't happy when I told her that."

    Nab-chan suddenly crawled over Ranko to attack the food or Raccoon, Ranko grabbed her around the waist to hold her back and prevent bloodshed. "Right after you told me I was tone-deaf!" Nab-chan shouted at him, and struggled to get loose.

    "What does that have to do with anything?" Ranko asked as she struggled to restrain Nab-chan.

    "I said you don't sing well," Raccoon replied, took advantage of his longer reach to pat Nab-chan on the head. It was all Ranko could do to keep Nab-chan from advancing. "And you got the same expression as you've got now, it's so cuuutee!" Raccoon teased.

    Ranko wondered, Is Raccoon is just suicidal or is he luring Nab-chan into some kind of trap?

    Nab-chan's fingers curled into claws, Ranko vaguely wondered, Has she been infected by the other? Ranko rolled suddenly, toppling Nab-chan and trapping her beneath, holding her arms with her own.

    "What are you doing?" Nab-chan shouted as she wriggled, setting off all kinds of reactions in Ranko.

    "You want to know how ticklish you are? Again!?" Ranko asked, nodding her head towards the grinning Raccoon and the chopsticks he held so innocently. Tick, tick, tick they clacked, Nab-chan gulped in response, and tried to get out of Raccoon's reach as he sat and smiled, idly clicking them as if he hadn't a care or thought at all. Then he moved suddenly closer.

    Nab-chan squeaked and tried to interpose Ranko between her more vulnerable areas and those clicking chopsticks.

    "You wouldn't dare - !" Nab-chan threatened, but was laughing too hard and yelping when Raccoon `shot` at her.

    Ranko noticed his speed and precision had increased, Nab-chan has probably been training him. And Nab-chan is going to keep dodging around me, while Raccoon circles and searches for an opening.

    "Enough!" Ranko announced.

    "Thank you," Nab-chan whispered, gave her a kiss, "My hero."

    "No," Ranko said firmly, "The villain. With permission!"

    Nab-chan shrieked, "Traitor!" as she desperately tried to protect herself from Ranko's `attack`. Ranko noted all she had to do was get her fingers close, and Nab-chan would react, she didn't even have to make contact. That's better.

    Nab-chan immediately retreated behind Raccoon.

    She must think that his larger size will make him a better block, Ranko noted and smiled evilly, It is a bad idea, because Raccoon is covertly striking at Nab-chan, and at me when either of us overcommits to an attack or defense. Ranko watched Raccoon's attack on her exposed flank throw off her aim, and his other hand carried off the attack on Nab-chan Ranko had planned, all the while looking as if he were defending Nab-chan, and of course wearing an expression of total innocence.

    "He's pitting us against each other!" Ranko accused, catching Raccoon's hands while he was making a simultaneous attack on her and Nab-chan.

    "Would I do something as sneaky and deceitful as that?" Raccoon asked in a tone of aggrieved righteousness.

    'Are you going to believe me, or your own eyes?' Ranko mentally translated. She and Nab-chan exchanged glances. With Nab-chan's nod, Ranko released the grip she had on Raccoon's hands, and smiiillled.

    "Oh look, I've got food." Raccoon scrambled over and displayed the tray to them.

    Slowly they turned, step by step.

    "Look! A cat made out of money!" He pointed behind them.

    Inch by inch.

    "Hold it right there!" he commanded as he took a combat pose, an interesting combination of Karate and MacBane's hanging guard, "I know . . . MacArthur."

    "So do we," Nab-chan reminded him as she advanced, slowly.

    "Oh, good point!" He dashed for the door, yanked on it.

    "Take your medicine like a good boy," came Rit-chan's voice from the other side of the fastened door.

    "But I'm not a good boy!" he wailed over the maniacal laughter of the two girls.

    "Rosebud!" Raccoon screamed.


    Ranko sat in the bathroom, both doors locked. Raccoon looked her over very carefully, occasionally rubbing an oil or powder on her skin. Sometimes looking at her through a crystal of some kind. Despite the clothes she wore, she still felt a little naked under his gaze. Her occasional glances outside told her that night had finally fallen. Somehow I know things are going to get worse, rather than better, Ranko thought as she waited.

    Finally, he shrugged and sat down to face her. "I'm sorry Ranko, I don't see anything."

    "But why am I stuck as a girl?" Ranko wailed.

    "First of all, let's test something." He dipped her hand in a glass of hot water, while watching her intently. Ranko didn't notice any change. Then he dipped her hand in a glass of cold water, and again, nothing changed.

    "So?!" Ranko asked impatiently.

    "Your transformation is normal."

    "That's impossible!" Ranko complained, "I didn't change!"

    "Didn't you?" he asked then rapidly dipped her hand in hot, then cold, then hot, repeating it until Ranko reeled, feeling sick.

    "Oh . . . I don't feel good." Ranko nearly fell forward onto him.

    "You're still transforming," he told her as he held her upright, "There's a second transformation overlying and negating the first. Congratulations, you've mastered very basic shapechanging."

    "WHAT!?" Ranko's cry attracted a call from outside both doors asking if she was all right.

    "I was teasing her that she actually was Ranma, trapped in a female body," Raccoon called back, then put his hand to his ear, "Ah, frustrated muttering, such a delightful sound."

    Ranko frowned at that, and waved her fist at her friend.

    "Your transformation proceeds normally, then you change to Ranko. That's how come you changed without water, when you were asleep."

    "Why would I want to be stuck as a girl? Most of the time, and a boy at the worst possible time to be one?" Ranko asked desperately.

    "Well, why would you want to be `stuck` as a girl, why would you choose to be a girl? I don't think it's some deep secret, it's just something simple, or several somethings, you haven't considered."

    "Gee, thanks. I did it to myself."

    "After absorbing Nyogtha in Unit 01, then absorbing a proto-shoggoth directly, your ability to adjust your body as you will is fully available to you."

    "You knew she was a . . . " Ranko whispered the rest, "That Sammi wasn't like us? Before I told you? How?"

    "I'd be a pretty lousy wizard if I couldn't detect something like that," Raccoon explained, "Let's take this step by step. No offense, but despite how sneaky and manipulative you try to be, you're still frank and simple, so I doubt the reasons are complex."

    Ranko frowned at the implied insult.

    "I just want you to say the first thing that comes to your mind."

    "When's lunching?" Ranko smiled as Raccoon frowned.

    "Okay, one point to Ranko. I'm going to ask some questions, and you answer, whatever comes first, even if it's a whole bunch of things, just say them."

    "Okay."

    "What advantages are there to being a girl?"

    "Going places, expectations," Ranko said.

    "Okay. What are the most important things that happened while Brown Bess and I were gone?"

    "Sammi died, Tomiyo and Mirei died, Asuka got attacked."

    "You realized you didn't mention the EVA battle, going to a new school or anything else?"

    "Yeah, whose Brown Bess?"

    Raccoon recited what was probably a poem in English.

    "So Nab-chan is . . . what's a Brown Bess?"

    Bess-chan, Ranko thought, Or Burawan-san. She's going to kill me. She smiled at that thought.

    "A musket, an English musket. Let's take those answers one at a time, why would Tomiyo and Mirei's death make you want to be a girl?"

    "They wouldn't!" she shouted.

    Ranko felt traitorous saying that, As if their deaths weren't important enough.

    "All right, what about Asuka getting ambushed, what about the aftermath of Asuka getting attacked would make you want to be a girl?"

    Ranko thought about that. "Following . . . " She held up a hand, so he'd let her finish the thought as it slowly crystallized. "I could go more places she could. I could go places and she wouldn't object so much." She smiled. "But she still objected, but I could say 'I'm a girl too'."

    "Okay, and why would Sammi's murder and you absorbing her, why would you want to stay as a girl?"

    Ranko felt the horrible feeling as Sammi's mind and spirit disintegrating her, she felt tears forming as she remembered the desperation and loss on Sammi's face as she died and ran through his fingers.

    Raccoon leaned close, letting her rest her hand on his shoulder and wrap her arms around him. Then she let the tears fall.

    He didn't berate or hurry her along.

    "Sorry," she snuffled, then blew her nose on a tissue. "It was terrible, watching, feeling her die. I . . . I can't . . . I can't . . . "

    "You want to remember her. Your job is to protect the people around you."

    "Yeah."

    "Could you do that better as a boy or a girl?" Raccoon let the question hang in the air.

    Ranko considered deeply, mentally listing all the combat advantages as well as how close and consistent the protection could be. "A girl. I guess."

    "That's why you're a girl," Raccoon said, "As you convince yourself being a girl isn't mandatory, you'll probably be able to switch back and forth. Eventually, you'll be able to transform as you wish, and as long as you do spend time as each, the curse should be appeased."

    "That's too easy," Ranko said.

    "Not when you consider I was 19 years in that dream, studying. I know you, how you were expected to think and react. That's different from being you, but I do have some experience."

    "Okay, so what do I do about . . . ?" she almost couldn't bear to think about the name, she knew she couldn't say it.

    "Accept that she died to protect Shinji. Accept that her memories and abilities are the legacy she bequeathed you. Accept you did everything you could."

    "Like Nab-chan after Cthugha," Nab-chan said, "You two worked so hard, and Hiroko still died."

    "She was dead before anyone brought her to us. That doesn't mean we don't miss her, that doesn't mean we just go as if nothing happened, as if nothing changed, but we do have to go on. Hiroko wouldn't have wanted 'the Boss' to stop, and Sammi wouldn't want you to curl up and die either."

    Ranko nodded. "How do . . . how do I tell her about Tomiyo and Mirei? How they died . . . I mean."

    "We'll tell her," Raccoon said as he stood up.

    "Did you check with Asuka, is she really okay?" Ranko asked.

    "No, but she'll survive, with the rest of us here, and Rei recovering, she'll be better."


August 21, 1947

    An all-hands meeting with Commander Ikari is something no one, not even Rei, looks forward to, Ikari thought as he watched them arrive, and listened to their byplay, As they file into the office before the desk, the pilots, a clear comment on their boldness, take the chairs at the front, and the senior staff files in behind. And the war for position and dominance begins.

    "The invitation ordered the front seats to be 'left open' for the pilots," Asuka teased Shinji, "But didn't order us to take the front. I guess maybe you are growing a spine!"

    "I wanted to sit with Ayanami," Shinji replied softly.

    Asuka turned and stared at Misato. "I guess you aren't his favorite anymore." She turned back before she could see Misato's shocked and angry reaction.

    "Dangerous," Nabiki warned, "Taking a shot like that, and turning your back on her."

    "Once Roku-kun returned, she knew he would guard her back," Rei said quietly, "As he has done often before."

    "What's she gonna do?" Ranma asked as he sloppily lounged in the chair, "Strangle her while we're all sittin' here?"

    Ritsuko shook her head and stared at Misato. "And I'd so hoped you could keep them civilized," Ritsuko said with a sigh, "All that work for nothing. We'll have to start all over again."

    Misato could only sputter helplessly in response as the kids and others grinned at their coordinated attack.

    "So where is he?" Asuka demanded.

    Gendo steeled himself, made certain his bag had all the items in it.

    "And what did we mess up?" Ranma asked.

    "Hear the 'we'?" Nabiki asked, "He is more civilized."

    It begins, he thought as he marched inside.

    "Oh Hellooo!" Gendo trilled as he swept into the room, wearing a Santa Claus hat and carrying a large sack over his shoulder. "So sorry I was late," he trilled as he walked across the Sephiroth, "But I have presents!" He stepped up to the line of pilots who stared at him in horror, amazement and shock. "You've all done such a wonderfully good job. I just had to find some way to show my gratitude!" He stopped before the Second Children. "You've tried so hard, and you think no one appreciates your efforts. But I do!" He ignored her suspicious look as he leaned close, and Asuka leaned away with a snarl. "You see the U.S. Navy doesn't have any medals they can give to people who aren't in the Navy, and they wouldn't make the Army give away any of its medals, the meanies!" he announced in a tone usually associated with kindergarten teachers, "And you're just so cute!"

    Asuka's expression of waxing terror as she stared at him had no apparent effect on him, but the other pilots seemed divided between leaping to her defense, and running away. He knelt next to Asuka and held the bag up to hide most of his face, except his eyes. Asuka looked ready to jump out of her seat, if not her skin. "I've got a fuzzy surprise for you!" he told her and lowered the bag to display the manic grin.

    Only Asuka's eyes moved as she tracked his hand reaching into the sack.

    "I know you hate dollies!" he said in a singsong tone, "But this isn't a dolly!"

    "How nice," Asuka braced herself in her chair and looked at the others for help, and realized whatever horror mad Gendo pulled from the bag, she would face it alone.

    He held the colorful object in front of his face, moving it to make it seem to dance. "It's not a dolly, but it is cute! And it wants to be your bestest friend," he squealed and carefully placed the toy in Asuka's hands.

    Asuka examined the furry, multicolored model of the Panzerkampfwagen Koeingtiger with the colorful `camouflage` scheme and the oversized main gun. She looked at the mantelet and saw the smile gracing the mantelet and the eyes glued to the sides of the turret, then she turned it over to look at the buttons sewed on the hull that were surrounded by the pink belt that simulated the tracks.

    "Oh you naughty girl, turning it over to look at its road wheels!" Gendo squealed, "The poor thing! Only Dr. Akagi and Maya are allowed to look at your road wheels!" Gendo tsk tsked at her.

    Asuka seemed on the verge of replying, then looked at the grinning face first of Gendo, then the tank, and decided the only reaction would be to turn the tank right side up.

    "They're overlapping, not interleaved," Gendo told her petulantly, waggling his finger in her face, "You won't catch me that easily."

    "Thank you, Commander. It's very nice."

    "Ooooo! I'm so glad you like it," Gendo squealed happily, clasped his hand under his chin and did a little dance, "I'm just so delighted to know I guessed right and you like it!"

    Gendo skipped a few steps, then whirled to face Rei and Shinji. Shinji cringed and Rei stared at him with wide eyes. "I have something special to give to you two too! TOO! TOO! TOO!" Gendo said and giggled as he set the sack on the ground, knelt before Shinji and Rei, and reached in with both hands, then thrust what he'd grabbed from the sack into Rei and Shinji's hands.

    Gendo's face fell, he covered his mouth and squeaked, "Oh no! It's horrible!"

    Rei stared at the object in her hands and clearly did not find it horrible. "It is a credible duplication of myself as a doll." She held the figure out to Asuka. "This is a doll. I am not." When Asuka barely glanced up from her minute examination of her present, Rei turned to Shinji. "He seems mildly offended by his likeness, but nothing to warrant your reaction, Commander."

    "Oh Rei, I've made an awful mistake!" Gendo said as he knelt before Rei and rested his forehead on her knees, "Can you forgive a foolish old man such a tragic mistake?"

    Shinji looked at Rei, who stared back wild-eyed. "Uh, yes," Shinji said nervously.

    Rei watched the Commander as most people watched rabid animals. "Of . . . of course, Commander," Rei stammered, glancing at the others, her expression showed how completely lost she was, "I assume no malice involved in your error." She looked around again wide-eyed, at the Commander's lost of stoicism and the resulting violation of the natural order of the universe that governed her life.

    Gendo turned to Shinji, who recoiled at the older man's desperate, tearful expression. "Can you forgive your poor father his tragic mistake?"

    "Uh," Shinji said as he glanced around and found no one who wasn't at least as bewildered as he was, even the senior staff was nonplused or worse. "Yes." He nodded.

    Gendo hugged Shinji's knees and shouted, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" He released Shinji's knees, sat up straight and took Shinji by the shoulders. "Son, of all the pilots, I've always known I could count on you two." Gendo's expression froze again, and Shinji tried to disappear into his chair. Gendo looked up and down the line. "I have faith in all of you pilots. You all do your very best, and you have never failed to rise to any challenge given you. Some of your ideas of how to meet a challenge are not in perfect synchronization with how I'd best want a situation dealt with. I hope you all understand." Asuka kept staring at the smiling tank. Ranma shook his head while the others nodded and stammered 'thank yous'. "I'm so haaappy!" Gendo said as he clasped his hands under his chin.

    Gendo knelt between Shinji and Rei. "If I may?" he asked worriedly as he looked from one to the other, then pointed at the two dolls the pair held. Shinji and Rei glanced at each other, then looked at Gendo and nodded. Their uncertainty etched in their faces.

    With the wariness of someone removing a live fuse from a shell, Gendo pulled the Shinji doll from Shinji's hands while simultaneously removing the Rei doll from Rei's grasp. He relaxed not a whit as he crossed his arms and just as painstakingly placed the Rei doll in Shinji's hands, and the Shinji doll in Rei's hands. With that accomplished, he bowed his head, hugged both of them and let out a loud sigh. "I must simply learn to stop rushing."

    " 'More haste, less speed'," he trilled and giggled with relief, instantly setting off alarmed expressions in everyone around him.

    As Gendo stood and reached into his bag, he smiled at Maya. "I bet you thought I forgot you!" he said in the singsong tone.

    "I had. I didn't expect any reward, Commander," Maya managed as the Commander drew near her. Both Kaji and Misato moved away from the Analyst, although Ritsuko bristled and remained at her side.

    "Oh you were so clever! And so brave!" Gendo squealed, "I just had to get you a reward too." He pulled out a gray lump of fur that seemed to have every eye in the place glued to it: it looked a little disturbing with all the eyes glued on it. Asuka's and Ranma's different blue, Rei's red, Simson's gray and the more common browns and blacks of the others, even a couple with rose-tinted lenses. "There's Misato's, and Kaji's and Shinji's," Gendo chirped as he pointed out the different styles and seeming expressions of the eyes.

    "Thank you, Commander," Maya said as she accepted the gift and hugged it to her cheek, all the while smiling at a very nervous Ritsuko, "It's adorable." The others edge further away from Maya, as if fearing her and the Commander's condition were catching. Ranma looked as if he'd changed the membership of his top phobia list.

    "I'm so pleased you like it," Gendo squealed.

    Gendo stepped back to the front row, and took one long step, so he was confronting the last three pilots. Gendo stepped in front of Nabiki, who looked one step away from violence. "I bet you think I forgot you!" Gendo accused with a happy grin.

    "I know you wouldn't!" Nabiki replied in the same eerie singsong while grinning back at Gendo, and got an elbow in the ribs from a terrified Ranma. Jeff had palmed the holdout pistol he carried.

    "A girl with such overwhelming faith in her fellow man!" Gendo squealed, with his hands clasped under his chin and a wide grin on his face while he danced.

    When he stopped, he knelt before the three, still wearing his wide, oddly-disturbing grin. "Do you want to guess what I got for you all?"

    Nabiki's nerve failed and she only shook her head.

    "Nothing of the Felis-family," Jeff managed, then glanced at Ranma.

    "I searched and researched, ha ha!" Gendo laughed and reached in his bag, "I was such a big silly, it was so obvious once I knew." He removed a doll. "See, see, see?" he said eagerly as he displayed the Ranma doll. Then folded it into itself and revealed a Ranko doll was the inside, now the outside. "You didn't guess that! I know you'd never settle for just one!" he teased as he shook his finger at Nabiki. "It's just so clever!" He handed the doll to her. "You think both are yummy, and you want both, you naughty girl. You get to be utterly devoted, and a two-timer all at the same time!"

    Nabiki nearly slugged him for that remark, but took one look at his mad grin, and decided to just nod.

    Gendo grinned at Jeff. "I just couldn't think of what to get you, then it came to me in a dream." He pulled the figure out. The winged, face-tentacled, pudgy figure would have been cute, except the violently clashing, eye-watering paisley and plaid made it a bit of a nightmare.

    "This may break our treaty," Davis murmured as he accepted the odd figure.

    "Oh you're such an old worry wort!" Gendo teased as he tousled Jeff's hair, "If he didn't like that dream, he certainly could have stopped it!"

    Ranma wore a sick smile as he stared at Gendo and Nabiki. Then blanched as Gendo turned that grin on him.

    He beamed at Ranma, who would have preferred facing a Great Old One or even a giant cat. "I've got something extra, superduper, scrumptiously special for you!"

    Ranma looked desperately at the other pilots then at the staff. "Help me!" he whispered.

    "You were so difficult. One of those cute, adorable, soft and furry . . . "

    Ranma looked ready to leap clear out of the room.

    Gendo sighed, "Then I remembered how you feel about them. So tragic."

    Ranma relaxed slightly. "Yeah, tragic," Ranma said, visibly relieved he wasn't going to have one of THEM dropped in his lap.

    "I wanted to make something adorable for each of you! But I was out of practice, and it took too much time," Gendo said, and pouted with his lip out-thrust, then he brightened, "But then I thought, gosh darn it, I'm a big important officer. No more Gendo Grumpy-Pants. There are people who need the work and can do a better job than I could. I designed and personally supervised all the others, and concentrated on making yours."

    Ranma could only managed a sick grin as he watched Gendo pull the box off his desk, and held it open facing Ranma. The martial artist had covered his face with both hands.

    "Oh that's just adorable!" Gendo squealed, "You thought I might have water in there!"

    What Gendo carefully pulled out of the box was neither water, nor could it be described as cute. The intricately carved red, wooden statue of the rearing horse seemed alive. The black thread mane and the fierce expression made it closely resemble Ranma, exactly as if the `wild horse` had been a wild horse.

    "You carved that?" Ranma asked as he carefully accepted the work of art.

    "I never knew why I gave it up," Gendo said with a thoughtful sigh, "It's so . . . relaxing. Bringing out beauty with only the skill of your hands." This seemingly insightful comment extracted even more discomfort and squirming among those who watched Gendo walk around his desk.

    "It's beautiful," Ranma said in confused, yet reverent tones, "Thank you."


    Gendo merely smiled at Ranma's innocent enjoyment of beauty from a source he'd never suspected or expected. As he sat, he smiled as he looked at them. Every person, he thought, Even Rei, has their hand on their sidearm or other hand weapon. Except Simson, but he knew. Poor Kaji has his as well, and he should have known. Ritsuko doesn't, but she hardly needs to does she? Although she bristled every time I approached Maya or the pilots. So they have her sewn up. None have set their toys aside. So, all I need is Rei at my side, and there will be no point tricking them to their fate, I only need let them volunteer, and they'll run over the top of us to get there. SEELE can never match that level of control.

    He glared at them all as he pushed his glasses up his face, then steepled his fingers. "I've never seen such pleased relief for glaring and playing the 'Evil Heartless Gendo' at anyone," he said as he deliberately reached up, picked the hat off his head, and tossed it to Rei. Simson tipped his hat to Gendo.

    I'm glad my hands hide my grin, he thought.

    "Adaptability," he said, "We assumed that since we could not truly fathom our enemies, that the opposite was equally true. We have become too dependent on this, and have become predictable. Our own unpredictability is our best weapon. Their defeat in the recent battle was in large part due to the completely unpredictable actions by Admiral Adams and the Azores Group."

    They are much more relaxed, he thought, Now that I'm 'back to normal'. I'll have to keep them a little off balance.

    "I have demonstrated it, and severely disconcerted all of you." He paused to let them consider. "The rewards are meant to be tokens of my and the other command staff's esteem for your hard work and dedication. You have performed superbly - for novices. We can no longer accept and assume that you are novices. Your expertise with the EVAs, and your acquired knowledge of our enemies, easily approaches that of the junior technical and research staff. All of you must accept greater responsibility and must take a greater role. The first part is that you will begin rotating through other elements of NERV, rather than just serving as pilots. Some of you have participated in NERV SAR, now we will begin training you to take bridge positions, so you will better understand the limitations and advantages your commanding officers have in overseeing and directing you."

    I do understand why Shinji looks so pleased to be out of the cockpit, odd that Asuka and Saotome seem to as well, Gendo thought, Only Rei, Davis and Tendo look eager. Perhaps we should begin the rotations immediately.

    "As for your predictability, I am not ordering you to change who you are," he said while looking at Rei to make it doubly clear to her.

    Rei responded by carefully straightening and folding the hat before putting it on her head with the point sticking straight up.

    "But you, as did I, need to learn to act temporarily and occasionally as if you were a different person." He paused to let that sink in.

    "I'm going to be stuck with Spineless! Aren't I!?" Asuka shouted in derision.

    "Perceptive and predictable as always, Miss Langley," Gendo replied and enjoyed the girl's wince. "You are correct. However, it is deeper than merely chaining you together." He paused to let them settle down. "It is my intention that you each learn tactics and strategies from the very different personalities. What the Twins summoned will require a level of integration that none of you have shown. Since you seem to rival my knowledge of the Mythos, they are called Nug and Yeb."

    "Aren't they supposed . . . ?"

    Miss Langley's certainty drains away as she realizes she knew what she knew, Gendo thought of the stricken girl.

    "Yes, they have the Torch and Furnace that will cleanse the world, of us, and open the path for the Outer Gods to wake and rule. I think we all agree that stopping them is a huge priority."

    "That's a joke, Wondergirl," Miss Langley said as she recovered.

    "I believe that this may be another reason for the `treaty` with Cthulhu," Rei said, and looked at the others, "That we might prevent loss of Earth, not to us, but to him."

    "Unintended consequences," Davis said and shrugged.

    "They will be arriving soon - "

    "They're here," Lieutenant Aoba said as he rushed into the meeting, "They appeared about 90 seconds ago."

    He was pleased that none of the pilots needed an order to dash from the room, each leaving their award sitting on their chairs.

    "I think the Children have led," Simson said as he and Ramsey left at a more sedate pace.

    Gendo stood and walked towards the command deck.


I need your gentle hands to keep me calm

    Asuka looked at the `windows` that appeared in her mind's eye. "What's the matter Horseface? Doesn't the seat fit anymore?"

    "I dunno know," Horseface replied as he fidgeted, "It's like it doesn't feel the same."

    "All the EVAs feel of their pilots," Wondergirl commented.

    "Why don't we go?" Spineless added, as the bay doors rumbled open.

    "See, put him in an -"

    "EVA and he grows a spine," Shinji finished Asuka's comment, "You've said it before. Predictable."

    Asuka grumbled under her breath. I'm starting to hate that word!

    "Launch," came Misato's order, and the pilots headed out.

    "Why are we back on batteries and tethers?" Asuka asked as she moved out of the bay.

    "Because we aren't sure that our visitors didn't sabotage the S and S2 engines," Ritsuko replied from the command deck, "Until we are sure, you aren't using them."

    Asuka harrumphed as she dashed along the cleared area. "What are you waiting for?" she asked as she pulled ahead.

    "The disaster of Cthugha," Wondergirl commented. Asuka immediately slowed down.

    "This one can't burn or blow things up," Asuka replied defensively, "They only eat things. You wear than hat in the L.C.L., you'll never get it clean," she added. She immediately picked up the pace as the other three caught up to her.

    "Should we attack together?" Spineless suggested.

    "How about Horseface and I kill it, and you and Wondergirl make sure it doesn't hurt any civilians?" Asuka replied as the corrupt, floating mass glided towards them.

    "That is acceptable," Wondergirl said.

    "I'm so glad that you approve. Horseface, can you keep up with me? Or should you stay back and hold hands with Spineless?"

    "Can you?" Horseface asked as he leapt past Asuka and at the creature.

    "Whaauugh!" Asuka shouted as she raced the distance to catch up.


    Shinji heard Ranma's whoop of triumph. Something's not right, he thought, I don't know what is wrong. I only know something is. What do I tell them?

    Before he could resolve his dilemma, Misato's face appeared in the screen.

    "Shinji! Why are you hanging back? You were -?"

    Rei's more welcome face replaced it. "Remember Cthugha," she urged gently, then her face vanished, leaving a white-faced Misato in mid-tirade.

    "We thought we'd best prevent it from happening again," Shinji said, "I'm sorry, I'll rush ahead." He cut the transmission and briefly considered blocking the line.

    That's it, there's more than one, but it isn't what father described! he thought as the two targets separated.

    "No shelters, no people, no burning ships, just farmland and we're on tethers," Asuka said as her face appeared, "This is the place to attack full force. Spineless, you and Wondergirl keep an eye out for surprises and be ready to back us up."

    "Jawhol," Rei replied, causing Asuka to frown.

    "That isn't how jawohl is pronounced," Asuka said with a pained expression.

    Misato's face reappeared. "Are any of you listening to me?" she asked angrily.

    "That does not follow the Commander's new doctrine."

    That sounds almost like Ayanami-san, Shinji thought, But it has to be Saotome-san. Ayanami would never say that on an open channel.

    "I requested risk reduction, not a cessation of action," Rei's face accompanied her explanation.

    "Okay Mein Gro - " Ranma stumbled over the German, "Let's attack together, with Rei and Shinji as our back up."

    "Okay," Asuka said, "Wondergirl, you back me up, girls with girls, whatever you two are together."

    "They are males," Ayanami-san pronounced.

    "Are?" Asuka asked, "And how do you know that, Wondergirl?"

    "How do you not?" Ayanami-san replied.

    I think she's smiling, Shinji thought as he shifted the sonic glaive in his hands.

    "You may attack," Ayanami-san commented as she and he stopped moving, evidently in position.

    Ranma moved forward towards one, tipped Unit 04 on its side so he ran on the legs on one side. He circled warily as he waited for Asuka to attack, then he launched his super speed attack with fist and prog knives. "Strike!" Asuka shouted as she sunk her sonic glaive into her target as Horseface rapid-pummeled his. Asuka again stabbed her sonic glaive deep into her target, aiming for the main mass of the swirling cloud of corruption she faced.

    "More is needed," Ayanami-san commented, "Synchronized mode and timing."

    "WAAAH!" Asuka shouted as the creatures counterattacked.

    "I think we're in trouble," Shinji said as both Asuka's and Ranma's EVAs sailed through the air in different directions.

    "Coordination," came Ayanami-san's suggestion as she raised her sonic glaive. Shinji nodded and mirrored her move as they approached the monsters.


    Gendo watched the screen as the pair moved and struck their widely separated targets with near-perfect synchronization. The resulting dual explosions hurled both EVAs back, but no where near as far as Asuka's Unit 02 and Ranma's Unit 04 had gone.

    "Some people were listening, some people just think they were listening," he said as he stood up to return to his office.


    "Why are we doing this again?" Jeff asked over the tether radio.

    "Because we're the smallest on the team, and you've got more muscle and leverage," Nabiki replied.

    "They didn't count the bone in my head."

    "I tried to tell them." The pair swam toward a pair of upside-down, nearly submerged EVAs.

    Ranma was thrown here, when the Angel(s) used Unit 02 like a club, Nabiki thought and tried not to smirk, Asuka followed, while Shinji and Rei killed it/them. Nabiki remembered the briefing before launch, Ranma's tether was severed, and he was forced to shut down everything but minimal life support. Asuka's tether was still attached, but with concerns for the dive teams, power had been reduced to a bare minimum. Neither plug could be ejected, because they'd lodge in the lake bottom, and the pilots would drown. Terrific, so we go in to fix it.

    She remembered that the Captain of SAR has devised a simple plan. Raccoon and I will swim down to the inverted EVAs' entry plugs, open the `bottom` hatch, and create an air bubble in the plug to allow the pilot to clear the L.C.L. from their lungs. Then they'd be given an air mask, and would follow the entry swimmer's tether out of the entry plug, to the other swimmer, who would direct them to the knotted hawser to the surface. She checked the minimal gear she and Raccoon carried, and the tool cache the hard-hat divers had placed, in case it was needed. Hard hat divers will supervise the decompression stages. The simplicity is marred by the EVAs both being upside-down on their backs, and while Rei and Shinji could shift the other EVAs, their presence on tether power, endangered all the people in the water. Armor's no good, send in the infantry.

    Nabiki considered how the adventure had started, An Angel was sighted and the pilots had scrambled, racing from Gendo's crazed meeting, getting suited for battle, and for her and `Raccoon`, waiting.

    "Are you as bored as I am?" she had asked as the pair of them sat in their plugsuits in a room adjoining the EVAs' bay.

    Raccoon had held up a book, "Not really."

    "Do you carry a book with you everywhere?"

    "Not everywhere, just anywhere I expect to have to wait."

    By agreement, they had been speaking German, I had wanted to practice.

    "Poetry or . . . ?" she'd asked.

    "Tendo Nabiki, Davis Jeffrey," the intercom had blared, "Report to the search and rescue center. Immediately."

    Raccoon had shaken his head, "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it."

    "I didn't wish for anything," she had said as they had jogged through the complex.

    "Five bucks says Langley screwed up and took Shinji or Ranma with her."

    "What odds are you giving?" she had asked.

    "Even up."

    "No bet."

    "Coward! Cheapskate!" he had shouted back.

    We were been briefed and launched toward Ranma's Unit 04, she thought as they approached, Another team should be dropping the return hawser to Asuka's Unit 02, and setting up all they safely could, to get her out, once we got Ranma clear. Two divers in hard hat suits waited at the edge of each of the EVAs, with additional tools and air supplies, should the trapped pilots or their rescuers need them. The back of Unit 04 is nearly on the lake bottom, she thought, Leaving a very narrow crevice down its spine to swim through to get at the plug.

    "Nabiki-kun, stay back. Make sure no lines get fouled. I'll rescue Ranma. I'll depend on you to rescue us."

    "Okay."

    Not that I'm eager to swim 10 meters through an half meter gap beneath the EVA's back. At least it's not an EVA I can't sync with, EVAs don't `like` people they can't sync with. She kept breathing regularly while she paid the lines out to Jeff. Under other circumstances, his lack of interest of me in a tight swimsuit would have been irritating. But, typically, he is completely focused on what he was doing. Gendo's right, I want them all. I wonder what I'd look like in a harem dress?

    "We've got a problem," he reported, "There isn't enough clearance to get the hatch open. Charge the airline and I'll blast a pit for it to swing in."

    "Okay, we've got it," Captain Madison replied from the control boat above.

    "One more thing. What's the specific gravity of L.C.L.? If it is heavier than water, we'll all be blind once I open the hatch."

    "I'll check on it."

    Jeff braced himself on the EVA as air and water blasted out of the hose he carried. Silt soon obscured him from Nabiki's view. "Okay, shut down, that should be enough."

    The water cleared, Jeff was pulling on the entrance wheel with a wrench. "Come on! This is unacceptable. I can't have you quitting on me!" He relaxed. "Nabiki, I need a cheater, maybe two, two feet and four feet."

    "What's a . . . "

    "We got'em." One of the hard-hat divers handed her a pair of pipe lengths. She swam in with the pipes, she saw how agitated he looked. "You okay?"

    "Grr. Frustrated." He walloped the hatch with the wrench. "So close and yet so far." He fitted the short length on the wrench, braced his feet on the plug's load brackets and pulled with his entire body. "Durak, poshol ty kuda podal'she! Poshol ty!" He pulled off the two-foot section and replaced it with the four-foot section and pulled. {Fool, get outta here! Go to the devil!}

    "Specific gravity is similar to sea water, mostly temperature dependent."

    "Urg, thanks." The wheel released. "Nabiki! Air hose!"

    She grabbed for it as black liquid seeped, then poured out of the plug, obscuring everything. "Charge the line," she ordered, then aimed the stream of air into the open hatch. She and Jeff fixed it through a loading bracket, and Jeff made his entry while Nabiki kept the lines clear of obstructions.

    "Slack, we need slack," she told them.

    She almost jumped when Jeff let out a yelp. "Raccoon?! Jeffery? Are you all right?" she demanded.

    "I'm . . . Ranko caught me . . . we're going to need another plugsuit, and another air pack."

    "What happened?" Captain Madison asked, "Should Tendo go in there?"

    "I think I've got it covered. There's no immediate danger, and here and now aren't the time and place to figure it out. Our job is rescue."

    "Tendo," Madison ordered, "Take the equipment to him." There was a click, indicating the private channel had cut in. "And Tendo, Find out. I need some real answers."

    "Yes, sir," she replied and waited for the equipment to arrive.

    Ranma shouldn't be shy about losing a plugsuit, she thought, As Ranma or Ranko. Maybe he got it tangled and needs to be cut out of it, and then did Raccoon drop the air pack and can't find it? That makes no sense. I agree with Captain Madison, if Raccoon doesn't want to jabber about something, it's pretty strange.

    The diver arrived with the suit and air pack. Nabiki steeled herself and headed down the narrow corridor under the EVA. Every moan and groan is magnified, she thought, I can almost feel the EVA getting ready to crush me. She entered the still spreading black cloud, and made it to the hatch, slipping through and to relative safety. Now to deliver - As she surfaced, someone grabbed her.

    "YIKE!" Nabiki yelped, "Saotome! You're freezing!" Nabiki yelled at the boy who'd latched onto her.

    "Ranko's got the same problem," Raccoon told her, "Except she doesn't have a plugsuit."

    Nabiki briefly considered summoning a light ball to let her actually see the scene inside the air bubble. Nabiki's eyes crossed as she envisioned it. No, my imagination's enough, she thought, I don't need confirmation. She shook her head again. Get my mind out of the gutter, and back to the rescue. He's hanging on as if he were terrified. He's not acting like it's something perverted.

    "Okay, how do we get them out of the hatch?"

    "We get them calmed down, like any other hedgehog," he told her in German.

    Poor Ranma, and poor Ranko, Nabiki thought, No wonder he/she broke down. If it's not one thing it's another! And it is freezing in here, how come when the water outside is warm?


    "Okay, there are people just outside who'll take you to the surface," Nabiki told Ranma while they treaded water in the entry plug. She saw Raccoon was soothing a now-dressed Ranko with a similar message.

    "Are you coming too?" Ranma asked, "Sorry about the . . . "

    "We have to get Asuka," Nabiki apologized, "You'll be fine, once you're back on the surface and 'Rit-chan' can check up on you. Everything will be fine."

    Ranma looked at Ranko, then both looked back at their counselors.

    "Okay," Ranma said.

    Ranko nodded to whatever Raccoon had said and put on a determined, brave face as she dove under the L.C.L./water mix.

    A moment later, Ranma exited the entry plug with his air bottle in one hand and carefully guiding himself along Nabiki's tether to the divers, closely following Ranko with her air bottle in hand, feeling her way along on Jeff's tether with the other. Nabiki pointed toward the other two divers. They nodded and carefully swam through the inky waters.

    "Salt water, salt water, salt water, stupid, stupid, stupid!" Jeff exited the entry plug in a fury.

    "Hey! Hey." Nabiki caught his hands. "He's safe, she's safe, the other divers . . . " She shifted her grip. "Your pulse is racing."

    Jeff pulled his hands free. "A friend nearly died because I didn't hear salt water. I'm a little angry with myself. Okay."

    "More than a little. Listen, calm down, you'll need a clear head when we get to Asuka."

    Friend? Nabiki thought, A, which one? And what is the other one?

    "Right, yes. I promise." They carefully moved out from under the EVA, Ranma, Ranko and a pair of divers were heading for the surface.


    Jeff passed by the plug without a tether to 'ground' him, to determine the conditions.

    There's more clearance on Unit 02, except it was sitting on its side, in a hole on the bottom with a dozen feet of clearance from the sloping lake bed, Nabiki surmised, The Captain figures with Unit 02's life support and communications still working, this was going to be a lot easier. Why is it still so cold down here? At least Ranma and Ranko are safe aboard and wanted to stay, awaiting 'Asuka-chan's' rescue rather than pester Ritsuko-sensei for a diagnosis and a cure. Interesting. The actinic flashes from the damaged umbilical had everyone worried.

    "Only Langley, only Langley. Nothing's ever easy." Jeff reported after retaking his airline, after his close pass on the entry plug, "The turn wheel and the shaft are gone, one of the hinges is smeared like a clay model. We can't unbolt it, and since both we and Langley are in liquid, I don't like the idea of explosives or cutting torches."

    "What about a saw? Cut through the hinges and get her out that way?" Nabiki suggested.

    "Pilot Langley reports both inner hatches are jammed, she can't budge either," Captain Madison replied, "What about having the other EVAs lift it out?"

    "Negative," Nabiki replied, "The surface is too soft. Even lying down, Unit 02 sank 3 meters into the bottom. The other two will sink worse if they walk in and lift."

    "I've got a radical idea," Jeff said.

    You usually do, Nabiki teased inwardly.

    "We don't have enough clearance to eject the plug completely, but it would give access to the other hatch. Unbolt the hinges, pull the whole side hatch off, and get Langley out that way," Jeff suggested.

    "Let me check with the eggheads," the captain told them.

    "Fine, fine. Anybody bring a deck of cards?" Jeff asked.

    "Against you two sharks? No thanks," one of the hard hat divers said.

    "Not even penny-ante or matchsticks!" said the other.

    "Our reputation precedes us," Nabiki lamented.

    "Eggheads approved your plan," the captain said, "They figure that an EVA should be able to recover the plug even if your plan doesn't work. They also think there's 15 minutes breathing in the tube once it ejects, then four minutes until the pilot dies. So we've got 12 minutes to get an air supply to the pilot, after that we can take our time or let Pilots Ikari and Ayanami pull the plug free."

    "Affirmative," Jeff and Nabiki said.

    "They'll start the eject, then cut power to the tether, the eject will take place under internal power. One less thing to worry about."

    Nabiki grabbed Jeff's hand, checking his pulse, "Stay calm, stay focused." She ignored his frown and how cold his skin was, while suppressing a shudder at the increasing cold of the water.


    Jeff was unscrewing the stiffest bolts in the history of mankind, "I love my job. Tight quarters, no light." Bzapt. "Random electric shocks, and THESE STUPID BOLTS!"

    Nabiki smiled at his outrage. The job was progressing smoothly.

    "That's one, time?"

    "Eight minute left," she told him.

    "I'm not going to comment, or this next one will be worse."

    She heard the shriek of metal as he started on the second and last hinge.

    "I thought I'd be facing monsters." Bzapt. "Fighting shoulder-to-shoulder to save the -" Zap! "World. Know what I am? A mechanic." Zap. "Who got me into this situation?!"

    Variations of 'You did' or 'You volunteered,' filled the comm channel. Nabiki laughed, she suspected the others were too. As long as Raccoon is griping, everything is going along well, when he's quiet, he's concentrating on trouble.

    "Thanks for the -" Zap. "Support and sympathy." Brzapt. "Ouch! Now look, I'm just doing -" Zap. "My job, and I -" Zoopt, "I'd like a little -" Crakzap. "Cooperation on your part!" Zapt! Zaaap! "Okay! I'll shut up! What a grouch." Zap.

    Nabiki watched and listened to Jeff work. I can hear the squeal of metal, but can only see him when the battery's discharge arcs. She winced at that. I understood the discharges don't touch him directly and he probably has some mystical defense up, but they have to be painful, the way he is reacting to them showed that. The silence dragged on. Now I'm getting worried.

    Another arc and she could see the cloud of L.C.L. coming out of the hatch. "Six minutes left."

    "Okay, fine," he replied curtly in English, "Discipline. Mind over matter and perceptions."

    Something in his tone set her teeth on edge. I've heard him use that tone on Shinji, and me, often enough, when we wanted to run away and Jeff wouldn't let us. Who's he talking to? she asked herself.

    "People are depending on you. Langley and Ranma are depending on you, and those two have had enough problems in their lives without you adding on."

    Heck with it! I'm heading - When the call of 'Ware below, charge the line,' came through, she dodged as the 70-kilo hatch sailed out of the spreading cloud. The line to make the pilot's air bubble surged as the control boat above responded. A few moments later, a somewhat bedraggled Asuka Langley descended the tether line, Nabiki directed her to the ascent line and made sure her air bottle was working correctly. She watched Asuka take the accent hawser. The hard hats would escort her up.

    "Jeff, she's clear, no need to hold the line." No answer. "Jeff can you hear me? Control boat, am I transmitting?"

    "Receiving loud and clear. Maybe the radio line got snagged."

    "I need one of the hard hats to keep my lines clear," she said

    This time I follow my instincts. One of the hard hat divers moved up and signaled ready. Nabiki swam into and through the expanding black cloud of L.C.L. She could hear the bubbling that indicated regular breathing. She couldn't see anything.

    My intellect tells me Jeff is playing a juvenile game, luring me up into the privacy and anonymity of the L.C.L. cloud, to tickle me again, or some other ridiculous . . . My instincts tell me he's in trouble, maybe from before the hatch came out of the darkness. She moved slowly, touching the radio line of the tether. If it is snagged and severed, the air line could easily be next, explaining Jeff's paralysis. Her arm bumped into something, she thought it was the hatch entrance, until she got closer. It's Raccoon. I can't see anything in this soup, but I haven't felt anything that would foul the tether.

    "I've got him. Haul him back slowly. We may have a problem." She shepherded him back down the gap between the EVA and the plug. Two divers were carefully reeling them in, feeling for the least resistance, they'd stop. Once in less murky water she saw minor burns on his arms, legs, neck, and on the back of the wetsuit, but nothing to cause the apparent catatonia. She and the hard hats carefully took him to the surface, wary for any signs of the bends.


    Dr. Akagi stepped out of the airlock in the decompression chamber. She and Captain Madison had recommended Jeff be taken back down to depth and allowed to `soak`, brought up slowly over 24 hours. Nabiki stepped in, she had volunteered to watch him. The doctor and Captain Madison agreed. With the doctor's physical exam completed and Jeff changed out of his damaged wetsuit, they were being pressurized.

    Ikari evaluated Dr. Akagi's report, "He suffered first and second degree burns on 27% of his body. The catatonia seems to be a defense reaction to claustrophobia, scotophobia, bathophobia or some combination of them or others. He should never have been allowed into this organization like that, why didn't the tests show this before."

    "He suffered the attack after he rescued Pilot Langley," Captain Madison asserted, "He showed no problem during confined entry testing, and we exceeded normal parameters due to his claim that his smaller physical size was a major advantage. A fear of dark or enclosed spaces would have shown up during those tests, I assure you."

    "It may also have something to do with the proximity to Unit 02. He has difficulty syncing with it. Considering what happened to Ranma as well, there may have been a residual. All the factors taken together may have been too much."

    "Or the release may have been too much," Maya commented, "Nabiki reported she lost contact after Asuka was safe and on her way. He may have been wound tight and the release went too far."

    "I want a full battery of tests run, if it is claustrophobia, he's of no use as an EVA pilot." Ikari dismissed them, realized the dive team wasn't leaving `their` area, he left.

    Maya caught up with Dr. Akagi as she left, "Sempai, is it just me, or does the Commander seem completely back to how he used to be?"


    "If we're going to be together, then they're probably going to stick us in places we're used to, right?" Asuka asked, more animated than usual as she paced and gestured as if orchestrating their thoughts along desired lines, and she was the conductor.

    "That sounds reasonable," Shinji admitted, glancing nervously at Ranma and Ranko, two separate people, when he looked back, Asuka was leaning right into his face.

    I think I can see her eyes boiling, he thought, remembering Misato doing the exact same thing, I can also see she's not wearing a bra. Uh oh.

    "Are you enjoying looking down my shirt?" Asuka asked in a pleasant tone, which the boiling fury in her eyes completely spoiled.

    "Umm . . . " Shinji managed while bracing for the assault.

    Instead, Asuka straightened up, her expression one of humiliation. "What?! Just because I don't have Misato's jiggly watermelons, they aren't worth looking at?"

    Shinji searched for an answer that wouldn't turn every girl in the room against him.

    "So what if Ranko's are bigger, she's a guy!" Asuka whined.

    "Thank you," Ranko said, then frowned and glared at Ranma to warn him to say nothing.

    "But I'm bigger than Wondergirl!" Asuka stated, almost in tears at that point.

    "Why is this relevant?" Ayanami-san asked pointedly.

    "What? You think you're prettier than me?" Asuka complained.

    "You lack my serenity," Ayanami-san said carefully, even for her.

    "So just because I have emotions, I'm not as good as you are?!"

    "I have them," Ayanami-san explained dangerously, glancing to Shinji for support, "You display them as you -"

    "So I have to be all stoic, like you?" Asuka yelled at Ayanami-san, "Or no one will like me, is that what you're saying?!"

    "I do not believe so," Ayanami-san answered, showing signs of growing confusion and anger, "The Commander showed - "

    "He gave us all toys like we were a bunch of kids!" Asuka shouted, then stomped into a corner and plunked down on the floor.

    I think she's going to burst into tears!? Is she practicing what father told us to do? Or is she really acting like this? he wondered.

    "Asuka, are you feeling all right?" he asked.

    Her head snapped up and she stared at him suspiciously. "I'm fine. I wanted to talk about cleaning up Wondergirl's apartment, and you all decided to get sidetracked."

    "We-?" Ranma exclaimed.

    "Yes, you too. Now shut up unless you have something useful to add," Asuka told him as she shot to her feet and began marching towards them. Shinji cringed back at her approach. "What'cha scared of? Little boy."

    That you've finally flipped, Shinji kept to himself.

    "I, uh, that is -" he tried to explain.

    "Good, then you shut up too, you're boring. Like I was saying. Spineless kept Misato's place livable, if not spotless, Ritsuko's place has been cleaned by pros, and that leaves Wondergirl's place for another pair. Put your hand down Ranko, I know we have seven instead of six, so there'll be one group of three."

    "Perhaps one of three, and the other of four," Ayanami-san suggested.

    "Are you telling me you don't want your place cleaned up Wondergirl?" Asuka asked almost tearfully.

    Ayanami-san looked at Shinji in utter confusion, as Asuka stood there, fumed and waited.


    Ranko brushed out her hair and stared at the mirror before her. Her, me, she thought as she stared at the girl looking back at her, Just me, just a girl. No trace of Ranma looking back at me. I am pretty. Soft in all the right places. She smiled at herself. And able to melt boys' hearts with that smile. She frowned. Maybe because I realize how much they want it, and everything they think goes with it. But it's still me in there, but it isn't the me Ranma thinks I - we - are. I could never give in, be a wife, and all the would require, but I could be a girl, a woman. 'Look but don't touch.'

    Ranko looked at herself, her face, her body. "No, as confusing and frustrating as it was, I want to go back to being me. Without both of us, we'll never find the real Ranma."

    Ranko finished brushing her hair before she went to bed.


    Jeff woke, lifted his head enough to look around, then dropped it back, "I really screwed up this time. I didn't even make it to med-lab. What did you do to end up here? Kill Ikari-chan and die in the escape?"

    "You aren't in Hell," Nabiki smirked.

    "That's what you think."

    "You got them out, what happened?"

    "I was in a mine cave-in, in the Dreamlands, when I was six. I got to listen to 34 people in a lower gallery drown, one by one, and every time I tried to dig down to give them a place to escape to, the chamber I was in got smaller, caved-in. So I spent 17 hours in this tiny space, alone, in the dark, unable to help people I could hear dying. I had nightmares for weeks. But I've never had problems before. I guess the combination of water, dark, the closed-in area, and something else got me agitated. You felt my pulse after we got Ranma and Ranko out. It felt like something was tearing me apart. Pitting one part against another. One of those parts was that scared little kid. The added electric shocks and the EVA continually groaning was too much. I held on until Langley was out . . . then I couldn't make myself move anymore."

    "I heard you talking," Nabiki told him, "You were talking to yourself, scolding yourself, weren't you?"

    "Yes, trying to convince the frightened kid part of me to go on. This time it would make a difference."

    "Why didn't you have me go in for Langley?"

    "I needed all my strength to get Ranma out, I don't think you are as strong as I am, and I knew I had help. If it was the L.C.L. that triggered the fear, I would have been useless getting the pair of you out when you and they most needed me."

    "Another of your secrets I have to keep," Nabiki sighed, "I could make a lot of money blackmailing you. Why don't I?"

    "I'd slit your pretty throat, and you know it," Jeff replied, "How long have we got?"

    "Twenty one hours left."

    "Let me get some sleep, then I'll teach you something."

    "You trust me with more?" she said eagerly.

    "No, but you've earned a few more insights."

    "Frankly," Nabiki said with a sigh, "The insights I've been getting lately, are not the kind of insights I want."


Chapter 26
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