[FFML] [Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 57 - The Price of Victory Part 1 of 3

Daniel Jess Gibson dan_s.comments at att.net
Sun Dec 28 19:02:44 PST 2008


[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 at comcast.net or  dan_s.comments at att.net
Stories are available in Rich Text Format and HTML at:
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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 Fianc‚(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 looks 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 Fianc‚(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 spirit, ~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, who's 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," Ranko 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."



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