[FFML] Sic Semper Morituri Chapter 55 - Let the Ladies Be Heard From Part 3 of 5

Daniel Jess Gibson dan_s.comments at att.net
Sun Jun 22 13:42:12 PDT 2008


[Ranma][NGE][HPL][AMG][Fusion][Fanfic] Sic Semper Morituri
Chapter 55 - Let the Ladies Be Heard From

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
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Recommended at the price, insatiable an appetite
      I am not in the mood, Nabiki thought as she dragged herself
to her cabin, For anything except falling asleep.
      Nabiki walked into her cabin.
      "Good day, Tendo Nabiki," Belldandy said as she rose from
the room's only chair.
      She's been waiting for me, Nabiki thought but kept her smile
on her face, I thought I'd never see you again.  God really
_does_ hate me.  "Miss Belldandy," she said, trying to ignore the
alarm signals Coffee was sending.
      Belldandy bowed her head.  "Your . . . lessons, in magic,"
Belldandy spoke to Nabiki, but could tell the Nabiki didn't want
to listen.
      "Yes."  What is she so nervous about? Nabiki asked herself,
More than the change in our status would create.  A _lot_ more,
so what's going on?  She's forgotten she's _supposed_ to be my
`master`.
      "I told you that you would find the means to defend your
friends.  There will be . . . problems in the future," Belldandy
could feel the taint on the girl, the crawling uncleanness that
polluted her cells, seemed to defile the very air she breathed.
      "Yes."  Nabiki kept smiling while she waited for the other
shoe to drop.  You aren't comfortable with me now, are you? she
thought, Now that I'm one of the `enemy`?  That's a laugh, some
of them are better allies than you've been.   "When were you
going to abandon me?" Nabiki politely asked with a predator's
smile, "Or was the lack of warning about the Brothers of Chaugnar
Faugh part of a `warning` that I should toe-the-line - or cease
to be human?"
      Belldandy could feel the girl's rage.   In part, I agree
with it, Belldandy admitted to herself, But how to tell her the
truth?   "You fought one of them yourself?"
      "I killed it, others had nearly killed it," Nabiki said
coldly, keeping her true feelings hidden, "I also fought several
dozen Flying Polyps, but I wasn't alone."  Not a lie, all true,
just not complete.  You don't have a problem doing that yourself,
so you can't hold it against me, Nabiki thought as she smiled,
Does she know about Coffee?  I'm certainly not going to tell her.
      "Yes.  There . . . " Belldandy stammered as she hung her
head, "There was something you need to know . . . about you and
your fellow pilots."   I do not wish to tell you this, Belldandy
thought, It will only hurt you.
      "That four of them are to be sacrificed to open the locks on
the Tablet of Destiny?" Nabiki asked innocently, and enjoyed
Belldandy's horrified expression.  "Don't worry, I think we've
already got three of the four volunteers.  Rei of course, Asuka,
and Raccoon," she told Belldandy, who squirmed at Nabiki's calm
tone.
      "Bess, I -" the voice who intruded was particularly
unwelcome.
      Both to me and to Miss Tendo, Belldandy thought as Nabiki
stared at her fellow pilot.
      Speak of the Devil, Nabiki thought worriedly as Raccoon
entered her cabin.  "I can . . . explain," Nabiki stammered, her
smile fading and reforming like a strobe flash.
      "I bet you can.  But it doesn't involve me."  `Raccoon`
walked past her, smiling knowingly all the time.
      Now I feel sorry for Belldandy, Nabiki thought, I would
still love for her to wipe that smirk off his face, but I doubt
that will happen.
      Belldandy was stunned, the change in attitude was almost
physical.   I'd prefer facing Hild herself, Belldandy thought as
she scrambled out of her chair and took a step back, then
another, then glanced at the mirror she'd appeared through, now
cut off from her by the boy's approach.
      "One goddess against two minor Great Old Ones?  We won't
hurt you . . . much.  Your misconceptions . . . I can guarantee
they'll get a _very_ rough handling," he said in a friendly tone,
"Has the mirror been helpful?"  He stared at her as she pressed
herself against the bulkhead to get away from him.
      "Oh, you forgot the one you carry with you," he chided as he
took her chin, "Very careless of you."  He took on an expression
of sympathy.  Belldandy heard Nabiki gasp as he turned
Belldandy's head this way and that.  "Is this your patron?" Jeff
asked, facing Nabiki and pointing at Belldandy.
      Belldandy looked revolted and terrified.
      "Yes," Nabiki told him when Belldandy didn't react to the
question.  I'm not ashamed of it.  I paid for my mistake and I
know what else I'll have to pay, she thought, So he knows.
That's another secret I don't have to keep.   She looked over the
pair and wondered if Belldandy even knew she was in a fight, one
she was losing.
      He frowned at Nabiki.  "A rookie mistake, but one that
shouldn't hurt you _too_ badly."  He returned to his
investigation, "No apparent damage.  I'm glad you were a lot more
careful putting your head back on, after Sharon ripped it right
off your shoulders.  Or is transition through that mirror somehow
uncomfortable or disconcerting, it was not my aim for my gift to
cause you trouble."
      Unintentionally, Nabiki thought wryly, You seem to enjoy
this cruel game though.  Why is that?
      "Of course, _being_ unkillable makes you stupid," he said as
he released Belldandy's chin and stepped away.
      Belldandy stifled the urge to wipe away the taint of his
touch.   Of course I forgot the mirror, she thought, No there's
nothing wrong, except you gave it to me.  So it has to be a trap,
doesn't it.  Or is _that_ the trap, that it is perfectly safe and
reliable, but I'll never rely on it.
      "I'd be amazed if you haven't revealed the connections you
have with the other pilots," he continued.
      His tone and expression friendly, Nabiki thought, His
intention clearly as sharp as a knife.   "What 'other
connections'?" Nabiki asked in a friendly tone.   One that in
Nerima promised pain and anguish, she thought, What _else_ have
you kept from me?  For my own good of course!   She tried to
remain calm.   I thought I left all the real double-dealers and
false friends in Nerima.
      Belldandy stared at Davis, who'd completely lost the playful
aspects of Raccoon.   Please don't reveal it.  I came to
reconcile.  With both of you.   She glanced hopefully at Nabiki,
but saw only the pain at the perceived betrayal.  There were
things you couldn't have understood and dealt with, Belldandy
wanted to shout, Now you can, that's why I'm here, to tell you .
. . more . . .  of the truth.
      "Not my place to say," Davis said, continuing to pin
Belldandy with his gaze, "I, however, have made my positions
clear, to the interested parties."
      Belldandy looked at him, the casual, well-mannered
malevolence.  Then at Nabiki, whose new alienness disturbed her,
and whose new iron-confidence made her even more alien.
      "Have you ever seen an angel?" he asked Nabiki casually.
      Belldandy couldn't believe he'd ask such a question.  Nabiki
just stared unbelieving at Belldandy and pointed.  "She doesn't
seem like the angels you described," Nabiki said.
      " 'The angels' . . . you thought I was talking about
creatures like her?" he asked, chuckled, "Ah, I see the problem.
You _haven't_ seen one then."
      "This?" he asked with mocking hilarity as he approached
Belldandy, "This is just an interface, like a mouse or a
keyboard.  These call themselves 'Goddesses', angels are rather
different.  That's why it has to look sweet and attractive, so it
doesn't scare people.  No, when I talk about angels, I was
talking about the heart of the machine."
      He smiled as he approached Belldandy.  Belldandy wove a
defense around herself.   Don't!  Please don't! she thought as he
reached through what she thought was her best defense, The
wrongness, he's embraced it fully!
      "Then a lesson, a simple spell, practically a meditation,"
he said as he parted her shield like so many cobwebs, "Even a
non-mage can do it."  And he reached inside Belldandy.
      Belldandy couldn't even scream as he reached into her chest,
and pulled.
      Belldandy gasped in surprise as she felt his hand close on
something within her.  She expected violence and blood, but the
touch was alarmingly gentle and bone-achingly _human_.   That
shouldn't be possible! she wanted to shout her confusion to the
All-Father, One of _them_ one moment, and fully human the next.
It isn't possible.  The tug was also gentle, no blood or viscera
accompanied his hand as he carefully drew it out, but with it,
came Holy Bell.  She watched as Holy Bell extended her wings and
looked around.  She could feel Holy Bell's unease with the two
nascent Great Old Ones.
      Nabiki took a worried step back as the huge, winged figure
appeared out of Belldandy.
      Belldandy saw Davis step back in alarm, his surety that he
was doing the right thing had vanished.  Belldandy looked at the
real terror in their faces, and fell to the deck, she felt like
weeping.   Don't fear me, she wanted to console the two terrified
children facing her in her true glory, I won't hurt you.  Holy
Bell won't hurt you!
      "That's why when you meet a real angel, the first thing they
have to tell you is 'Be not afraid'," Jeff told Nabiki, not even
trying to conceal his apprehension.
      You don't exactly seem immune either, Nabiki thought as she
backed away from the beautiful face staring at her and Jeff, its
confusion became disapproval, then outright disgust.   I want to
crawl away and hide, she thought, I know I could never get mercy
or acceptance from that.   No wonder he hates them.  He . . . or
I could try our best, but all we'd get would be disgust and
hatred at what we are.  Where is God's love?  Is that what we
really lost, all of us, when we became Children?
      "When I talked about angels, that's what I was talking
about," Jeff continued in a frightened tone, also backing away,
"Not that weepy pickle jar on the deck, what you've been dealing
with."
      Bell touched her face and her hand came away wet.  I hadn't
realized I was weeping, she thought.
      "_That's_ an angel," Jeff said, "So Pickles," he addressed
Belldandy, "Are you going to tell your catspaw the truth, or
should I?"
      Belldandy could only cover her face and kneel there weeping.
      Nabiki took a step forward, then backed up immediately as
the winged creature _glared_ at her.   I'd pay good money to
learn that stare, Nabiki thought as she found herself standing
behind Jeff, I'd be able to bully anyone.
      "It's a simulation especially for humans.  The pose, the
gestures and the tears, they are all designed to evoke feelings
of sympathy in us.  In other contexts, other emotions can be
cultivated," he warned, "All programmed, like a player piano, she
isn't even aware that she's subconsciously manipulating us.  It
just feels `right` to her."
      "That isn't true!" Belldandy said, "I wouldn't do that!"
It can't be true! she thought.
      Nabiki agreed.   How about some proof, she thought, Okay,
that winged one scares the piss out of me, but that's just one
item.
      "Haven't you ever wondered why everyone reacts strongly to
you?" Jeff asked.
      "People are basically nice," Belldandy replied desperately,
"They want to be - "
      "And the ones who hate your guts on sight?  What about
them?" Jeff asked sharply, and subsequently backed into and
practically over Nabiki, when Holy Bell glared at his tone.
      Okay it's got you spooked too, Nabiki thought, What was this
talk about 'Don't call up what you can't put down'?  If she hates
us, why aren't we both smears on the bulkheads, or charred spots
on the deck?
      They are just misguided, Belldandy thought, Like Skuld and
Urd, they really love - but not everyone loves everyone else as
they should, as they could if they wished.  I'm not forcing them
to like me, I'm not I'm not.  Keiichi loves me, Keiichi loves me.
  She nearly made it a prayer.
      "The ones they call Kami-Samas are the _real_ angels, vast
and ancient and powerful.  They've even developed the most
fascinating and complex mythology around their symbiosis, how
angel seeds need them.  Actually things like Pickles are just
containers who walk around containing and socializing the angel,
until it's fully developed.  The angels, the one that Pickles is
supporting, are what I was talking about.  They use `goddesses`
like Pickles here as interfaces."
      "Like keyboards and monitors?" Nabiki asked in disbelief,
then realized she was babbling, he'd told her that already.
      "Yes, precisely, also like training wheels.  It lets an
angel more effectively work in a human setting, until it learns
how on its own.  Humans are confusing things."
      "That's certainly one way to put it," Nabiki said as she
inched forward, keeping her hands where the glowering angel could
see them, then carefully hauled Belldandy to her feet.
      "I never meant to hurt you," Belldandy told her, tried to
control herself and Holy Bell.  She couldn't bring herself to
look at Nabiki.
      "You, I'm not worried about," Nabiki said as she backed
away, never taking her eyes off Holy Bell, "Her, she'd kill me if
I sneezed."  Nabiki saw Jeff's smirk and wanted to wipe it off
his face.   Only any violence would give that angel an instant
excuse, Nabiki thought, And they'd be picking us out of the paint
. . . if the ship was even still here.  She deliberately stood
behind him, so it would kill him first.
      "This one is called Verthandi, or Necessity.  That entity
has been around for over a millennium, she's just the latest
incarnation.  They get worn out, they get recycled.  Angels that
have learned all they can from their pickle jar go on to greater
things, and like any good jar, it gets emptied out, cleaned and
reused.  Take the old one apart, put a new one together out of
most of the parts, the angel gets the parts they can't reuse and
that helps them deal with humanity.  The fact that Pickles might
get cleaned out doesn't change the fact that the jar is less
important than the contents.  And once the contents doesn't
_need_ the jar anymore, they have no use for them."
      "I thought angels were perfect and immortal!" Nabiki
exclaimed.
      "I've never _heard_ any of this," Belldandy exclaimed,
confusion overwhelming her, "You heard this from the angels you
worked with?" she asked desperately.  When Jeff nodded, her
thoughts spiraled further down.   It can't be true, but he
wouldn't be telling _her_ if he'd only heard it from the demons,
and angels can't lie . . . what does this mean?  Why has no one
told me these things?
      "Only God is perfect, the way you - both - mean.  The
memories and experiences of Pickles here will continue in her
angel.  But they aren't immortal either, they can be killed.  If
you can't die, you can't grow and learn.  Pickles and those like
her can't die, but they can be recycled.  Bits and pieces of
Pickles have probably been used a thousand times before, other
parts are brand new.  Angels have a rigid perfection, which is
why they need time with critters like Pickles here, to broaden
their perfection to allow it to encompass the vagaries of human
imperfections.  The ones I dealt with were more perfect and much
less human, just cogs in a celestial machine, and pleased as
punch to be just that.  Finely honed to do a precise job
perfectly, but completely out of their depth when something
didn't meet their template.  One thing they never understood was
why any of us humans expected extra out of our service.  Just
being in the reflected Glory of God, and serving His needs,
should have been enough."
      "It wasn't?" Bell asked curiously.  It should have been more
than enough . . . but I too have questioned divine wisdom, she
thought.
      "No," Jeff told her, like an amused teacher, "Humans always
want more.  'The World is not enough,' and we also thought,
foolishly so, that they might be grateful for our help to them,
and be willing to help us in return.  But it never happened.  The
demons were equally contemptuous of us, but for entirely
different reasons.  So all we got from both sides was disdain."
He turned back to Nabiki.  "The angels I refer to are those
things, not Pickles."
      "You've said that.  Several times," she pointed out tartly,
"You're so scared you're blathering."   Which is something I've
never seen before, something that terrifies you, she thought, And
I hope it's the last time I see it.   "You got anything _else_
disturbing to report," Nabiki asked sardonically, "I don't think
either of us will sleep for a week.  She'll be too busy crying
and I'll be too scared to turn the lights off for fear of her
angel tearing me to pieces in the night."
      "Oh.  The Children were to be like that."  He pointed at
Belldandy.  "Vessels for the memories of the Great Old Ones.
Except you know that what's put in, permeates the container until
one cannot be separated from the other.  Hence Pickle's disgust
with us.  We're flawed versions of what _you_ are, only you
obviously didn't know what you were for.  Truly amazing."
      Nabiki punched him, hard.  As he lay on the floor, she
shouted, "Do you know what sarcasm is?!"
      "Please don't fight," Belldandy offered.
      "You say -" Nabiki retorted, then spotted Holy Bell's
expression, "Oh boy."  Nabiki backed away until she ran into the
bulkhead.
      Jeff continued from the floor.  "You should remember,
Pickles.  You are what?  Twenty to thirty years old?  But
Verthandi has existed for over a thousand years.  So your
identity is a function, each was subtly different, but you aren't
the first, just one of a chain.  You should investigate what and
who you're history is.  There may be some landmines you need to
be aware of," he told her in a concerned tone as Belldandy stood
over him.
      Belldandy felt the terrible dichotomy of trying to soothe
and comfort this pair of troubled souls, While Holy Bell wants to
destroy them, she thought miserably, the twin looks of mortal
dread they directed at her, hurt worse than the words and
revelations had, What am I supposed to do?   She felt like
weeping, but steeled herself. I will _not_ give into to his
claims I am manipulating them, she thought sternly, But I do want
Keiichi so!
      "I would suggest you avoid looking into the purpose of the
Great Old Ones," Jeff said with a vicious smile, "You _won't_
like what you find."
      "The Great Old Ones are an abomination!" Belldandy told him,
nearly letting Holy Bell vent her growing frustration.
      "See what she thinks of you," Jeff turned to Nabiki and
commented sadly, "They abandoned Sharon.  Gwendolen was sickened
by what she was dealing with.  She was punished."  He turned back
to Belldandy.  "You are walking a fine line Pickles, yet you keep
assuming your interpretation is correct.  I'll tell you this,
someone _way_ above your pay grade is playing a very interesting
and complicated game.  Remember that you are not a queen, but a
pawn like the rest of us, and you'll find the going easier.  And
don't cry too much.  Four of us will end up staked out and
sacrificed, you might even get to watch us suffer and die, so
you'll get full recompense for any indignities you suffer at our
hands.  I figure me, Rei and Asuka will get the chop, and
probably Shinji, since he won't want 'Ayanami-san' to go alone.
That leaves your charge and Ranma to survive after."  He smiled
and threw his arms wide.  "So be of good cheer.  All your
hemipterans will put their necks on the block of their own free
will, and you can dance on our graves."
      Bell lowered her head.   That isn't what I want, she
thought, but knew she wouldn't be believed.
      "Keep a stiff upper lip, Nabiki, it is all happening
according to plan."  He tipped his hat as he stood, and left.
      Nabiki frowned at her.  "I'm not inviting both of you to the
same parties any more," Nabiki said, "You depress all the other
guests."
      Bell drew Holy Bell back within her.
      "So," Nabiki said distractedly, "What are you going to give
me for my research on your behalf?" Nabiki asked with a smile.
      Belldandy stared at her in confusion.
      "Do you _really_ expect that people will just _give_ you
that kind of quality information?" Nabiki asked innocently, "I'll
also bet, you don't have the investigational skills.  I've
learned that what he _doesn't_ say can cover a whole variety of
sins, but when he states something he believes, it is the truth
and it is generally a fact.  So I'd take it as gospel, if I were
you.  I suspect I can get the information you can't."  Nabiki
helped her to her feet.  "I'm just wondering what the information
would be worth to you?"
      "Huh?" Bell stared in shock at the smiling girl.   But she
_is_ smiling, Bell thought.
----------------------------------------
      On the hanger deck, one of the Marines walked close to Unit
04.  The open eyes tracked his approach across the hanger deck.
The Unit felt a danger to - not itself, but something that was
part of it, an important part.  It closed its eyes as the Marine
walked closer.
      "Hey," the Marine called across the empty hanger deck, "Are
the eyes supposed to glow at any time?"
      Unit 04 ignored him, trying to determine where the threat
was, and why it couldn't reconcile the feeling a huge part of
itself was missing, yet it could feel its body was intact and
undamaged.
----------------------------------------
      Davis backed into the room, Holy Bell forcing him back.
      "Please!"  Belldandy knelt, then bowed to them, "I didn't
come to fight or argue . . . I . . . came to beg."
      Nabiki looked at the angel making a graceful bow in stark
contrast with the head down posture of her `goddess`.
      "Beg for what?" Jeff asked as contemptuously as she'd ever
heard from him.
      He really hates them, Nabiki thought, Doesn't he?  And he
doesn't care anymore what happens to him, or he'd acknowledge the
danger he's in.
      "My . . . a girl . . . .  Please, not for me, a friend, a
_human_ suffers.  She has been enchanted, a spell I cannot
break," Belldandy sobbed, "Terrible nightmares of an evil
elephant-Buddha."
      "The Curse of Chaugnar Faugh," Nabiki and Jeff said at the
same time.  Nabiki looked at him and he cocked his head.
      "Your witness," Nabiki said with a touch of despair that
matched Belldandy's, "I'm new at being Chaugnar Faugh."
      "Of course we'll help her," Jeff said with surprising
sympathy, as he gently lifted the girl up, seeming to ignore the
angel glaring at him, "We only have to discuss price."
      Nabiki stared at him.  I thought _I_ was mercenary.  "Jeff -
"
      "No, if it doesn't cost, it isn't respected."  He held up a
hand to forestall her protest.  "My price is: you will tell your
paramour about your sterility."
      "I can't!  Please!"  Belldandy raised her head, tears
streaming down her face.
      Jeff wasn't going to budge.  "Tendo-san, name your price."
      Something I can't do, that will take her some effort, Nabiki
thought, then rolled up her sleeves.  "The people, entities, who
care about Coffee will know he is safe and well, and if I am
killed," Nabiki said as she showed the mark, "He will be returned
home safely."
      Belldandy nodded numbly.
      "Then you will tell us what has happened, all the details,
no matter how insignificant they seem to you," Jeff demanded, not
unkindly.
      "Several days ago, she was afflicted with a bad dream,"
Belldandy said, then sobbed, "I couldn't stop it, I tried and
tried."
      Rather than slap her, as Nabiki expected, he handed the
goddess a pocket-handkerchief.  She wiped her eyes.
      Bell was smart to bring up that the one we're helping is a
human, Nabiki thought, That changed his attitude immediately.
      "When I couldn't dispel the dream, I looked at it."
      "And since I and Unit 04 are Chaugnar Faugh, and that Miss
Tendo and Unit 04 are all the Brothers of Chaugnar Faugh, you
came to us.  Reasonable.  I take it that you want us to break the
spell, dispel the nightmares and make everything right," he asked
in a jocular tone.
      "Yes," Bell said, all full of hope.
      "There is, of course, our price," he added, in the same
tone.
      And Bell is reminded of it, Nabiki thought of Belldandy's
shocked expression.
      "I thought - " Bell stammered.
      "For the spell to have this much bite, and you unable to
affect it, it must be tied to _you_ in some way," he explained
with a smile, "A spell is just a spell, any mage should be able
to dis-spell the girl.  So, to break the spell will take an
extraordinary effort on our part, and a change in your
relationship on yours.  Happily, my price will take care of
both."
      Belldandy's horror increased, she mutely shook her head as
Jeff continued to explain.
      Okay, your behavior has a _reason_,_ Nabiki thought, I still
think you're being needlessly cruel.  Has _she_ done anything to
_you_ to deserve this?  Or am I reacting sympathetically to her
because she's designed to bring out that response?  I _hate_ not
knowing myself!
      "Since she's probably his sister, or close cousin, the news
will disrupt the connection between you two enough to make
unraveling the spell simplicity itself," Jeff explained to
Nabiki.
      Belldandy had covered her face with her hands, silently
sobbing into them.
      "I think you'll find it will save you heartache later,"
Nabiki said soothingly, only the angel's presence kept her from
approaching the girl.  "Secrets are never as terrible as you
think they are.  Take the advice of an expert on that," she added
sardonically, "It _will_ save trouble later on."
      Belldandy looked up at her, tears still running down her
cheeks.  The goddess nodded her agreement.
      So, the right pressure and you fold, Nabiki thought, So much
for being incorruptible.   Nabiki gave Jeff an angry glance.  He
frowned, as if to say 'Fine, spoil my fun and _ruin_ my
reputation.'  Nabiki would have slapped him, then she glanced at
the angel and realized how dangerous _any_ display of violence
might be at this moment.   I got lucky - once, she reminded
herself.
      Jeff broke the deadlock.  "Let's go.  The ready room should
be our best bet."
      Belldandy looked up in confusion matching Nabiki's.
      "It's _her_ responsibility to pay us.  We do the job because
it's right, she knows she owes us.  She's likely to weasel out of
it, but we do the job," Jeff explained, "That's part of being a
mage, occasionally we get stiffed.  Goddesses and angels almost
always find a `higher purpose` to get out of all debts incurred
to mere mortals.  There's nothing we can do about it, but it's
always a good bargaining chip later when you bring up they _lied_
to you."
      Belldandy stared at them as they left.
      "So what do we do?" Nabiki asked.
      "We let her clear out of your room, then we go to our bunks
and go into dreams.  Once there, we deal with the problem.
_Unpaid_, of course."
------------------------------
Then again incidentally if you're that way inclined
      "I'm not comfortable doing this," Spineless whined as he
looked around Wondergirl's apartment.
      Asuka stared at him, trying to control her temper.   I need
him to be part of this, she forcefully reminded herself, I can't
just tell him to scuttle down a hole.   "That's why we are here,
it is part of the overall plan.  If you're afraid Wondergirl will
find us here, don't worry.  I've got Horseface keeping her busy."
      "It's just that - ?"
      " 'Just that' what?" Asuka demanded, confronting him
face-to-face, "We discussed this, you agreed, why all the whining
now?"
      "She isn't going to like this," Spineless offered, staring
at the floor.
      Asuka stepped back and put her hands on her hips.  "And when
did _you_ become such an expert?  It's never _been_ done!  So how
can you know anything about how she'd react?"
      "I don't like it," Spineless muttered, almost too low to
hear.
      Except because of what I'm becoming, Asuka realized, I heard
him clearly.   "Then you can hide behind Raccoon and Ice
Princess!" she told him, "You can blame the whole thing on me, if
that's what it takes.  Now - are you going to keep your promise
and help me?  Or are you just going to stand there and whine?"
      "I'll help," Spineless sulked.
      "Good, because there's got to be a clue in here somewhere."
Asuka returned to her search with a smile at what would happen in
a few days.
------------------------------
      Ranma stood near the edge of a large, brush-enclosed field
on the NERV campus.
      Rei faced him.  Her seemingly placid expression concealing
the fire within.  "I do not see the point."
      Ranma had expected her defiance.  "You can run real fast."
      "Compared to you," Rei replied.
      Expected that too.  Why is it people don't think you're
competitive? Ranma wondered, Why I picked you first.  If I can
convince you, I can convince the others.  "That means you're a
lot faster than anyone else.  So there are certain moves to take
advantage of your speed," Ranma told her, grinned his cockiest
grin and waited.  I'm not going to try to argue you into
position, I'm going to try to draw you in, he thought.
      "Is this applicable to combat in the EVA?" Rei asked,
without any outward appearance of her desperate interest.
      "It _should_ be," he said, "You're going to have to master
the moves out of the EVA, before you test it in the EVA."  Please
agree, please agree, he mentally chanted while he tried to give
nothing away, so Rei would convince herself.
      "Demonstrate," Rei told him.
      "Okay.  Hold out your hand" he replied as he extended his
arm and walked towards her and brushed her hand with his.  "Not
much impact," he said, then ran past.
      And found himself staring at the sky with the wind knocked
out of him.  "Ow."
      "The principle is sound," she told him as she grabbed him by
his collar and lifted him off the ground.  She carefully set him
on his feet but didn't let go, until she saw he could stand on
his own.
      "Okay, yeah," he said, trying to work out the kinks, and how
she'd flattened him so easily.  Hand?  AT field?  Both?
Something else? he wondered.  "The trick will be to run past
something and hit it with the edge of your hand, or for an EVA, a
prog-knife.  But if there are several opponents, you'll have to
move to hit several of them."
      "Maneuver, a combat slalom."
      "Yeah.  Then we can deal with running into something at a
dead run."
      "Moving _by_ something, and moving _through_ something," Rei
said.
      "Yeah," Ranma said.   She's got it, and she wants more, he
thought, I've just got to keep her interested.
      "A course similar to cavalry training, alternating targets.
Mein Grosse Feldmarschall can help set up such a course."
      Of course you think she'll have to rescue me, he thought as
he stepped towards the treeline, and through it when Rei followed
him, But I already thought of that.  "You mean like that?" Ranma
asked as he pointed to the course he'd already set up.   And you
follow.  If I offered something to help the EVA's mission, you'd
follow to the ends of the Earth, Ranma thought, As long as you
believed.  We aren't so different, is that why you hate me so
much?   "It's grabbing, not hitting, but we can work on that part
later.  You need to run - "
      Rei had taken off, at nearly her best speed.
      Geez, she's fast, and a show off, like all the pilots, he
thought as she dashed through the course, grabbing about a third
of the targets.  Small stones set atop the poles.  She swung wide
and charged in from another direction, getting more.   But not a
third, he thought and watched as she ran through the course six
times before she got all the targets.
      Rei walked up to Ranma, no sign of her exertion, and dumped
the pile of stones at his feet.  "With a proper container I could
have completed the task more swiftly."
      Blandly offered, yet every bit a challenge to fight, he
thought, grinned at her, You want a fight, I'll give you one.
"Not _bad_," he loaded the word with contempt, "But if you want
to do better - "  He knelt down and sorted the stones into three
piles, faster than Rei could follow.  "But getting them all with
one pass."  He stared up at her.  "That will be the job to do,"
he said, "The _proper_ job."  He saw the slight narrowing of her
eyes.  You do have some pride in what you do, don't you? he
thought and hurried on.  Before she whips out an EVA-scale
mallet, and pounds me, he thought, Where'd I get that image?
"You'll need to move as fast as you can.  That will let you hit
someone a dozen or more times, or hit people once as you run past
them at full speed."  He stood, brushing off his hands.
      "Begin," Rei told him.
      "Okay.  You need to get the pebble from my hand."  He held
out his hand with one of the stones in it.  "It doesn't make
sense, but you'll be a lot faster extending your hand if you are
trying to pull it back."
      "You are correct."
      "Let's try, if you can run without falling or tripping over
things, you have to move that fast."
      "Yes."  Rei's hand darted forward, but Ranma closed his hand
before she could reach it.
      And no hitting my hand to bounce it loose, he thought, then
Rei closed one hand like a vice on his wrist, while her other
hand darted forward to pry his fingers open.  "That's not what I
meant," he gasped as she easily overpowered his strength.
------------------------------
      Shinji walked with Ayanami-san.  Occasionally, their hands
would brush, and both would glance at the other and blush.  They
climbed to a high hill to look out over the city as the sunset,
turned the entire city fiery.
      "They are our responsibility," Ayanami-san said as she
looked out over the city.
      "I know," Shinji said, "We'll save all we can . . . but what
are we to do - if some don't _want_ to be saved?"
      "Allow them to die," Ayanami-san said, "We cannot allow a
few to hold all the rest hostage."
      Shinji sighed.  "I wish we wouldn't have to make those
decisions," he said.
      "Then allow them to decide on their own," Ayanami-san
counseled, continuing to stare at the fiery-looking city, "None
will be forced."
      "You make it sound easy," Shinji said.
      Ayanami-san paused considered, "Stating a problem simply,
does not give the simple solution."  She glanced at him.
      "What do we do?" Shinji asked.
      "Watch the sunset," Ayanami-san told him as she turned back
towards it.
      He smiled took her hand and watched the sunset.
------------------------------
      Ranma dragged himself into the apartment without a word,
headed straight for his room and flopped onto his bed.  I don't
want to move, I don't want to speak, even my hair is tired, he
thought exhaustedly.  What he least wanted to confront, walked in
sunnily.
      "So, Saotome," Asuka stood next to his bed and happily
chirped, "How did it work?"
      Asuka could only sound so happy when she's making me
miserable, Ranma thought, dropping his head back onto the pillow,
Better get it over with.   "You were right, make her dig for it,
say it will help the mission, and she'll never let go," he
admitted painfully, "You really hate me, don't you?"
      "Just trying to help," Asuka said cheerfully, as she covered
him with a blanket.  She even covered his head, shutting out the
painful light and sound, for which he was oddly grateful.  "I'll
call you when dinner's ready.  I'm making something special
tonight, been planning it all week."
      Ranma didn't know what she had planned.  Don't ask, and it
will remain edible, he reminded himself, Why do cute, smiling
girls make such weird food?  At least if I don't know what it is,
I'll enjoy it.  That's gotta be worth something.   He let himself
drift off to sleep, wondering who he'd offended, to make his life
the way it was.
------------------------------
      Rei stared at the pot of boiling water, patiently waiting in
her kitchen for the pot to return again to a full, rolling boil.
The ball bearings inside occasionally clanked or rattled as the
bubbles moved them around.
      Once the Fourth explained the possible reasons why chestnuts
are utilized, and not some other object, it becomes possible to
understand the true procedure required: high, but not above
boiling temperature, no edges to cool unequally.  Simulating the
practice technique is far easier than extracting the information
from the Fourth was, Rei thought as she watched, I doubt that his
reticence in revealing the secrets was due to his active defense
of the mysteries.  Is it possible he does not understand _why_ he
performs the actions that he does?  That he cannot comprehend
what he does so effortlessly?  Is that why his inability to teach
others required Mein Grosse Feldmarschall's direct intervention?
How can an action be mastered, yet not understood?
      At the appropriate moment, she poured the water into another
pot and the bearings into a colander in the sink.  She grabbed
the balls out of the colander and dropped them, one at a time, as
fast as she could, back into the other pot.  "I believe he really
did not understand the subtleties," she said as she ran cold
water over her hand and glanced at the pot, she sang a Song of
Healing to eliminate the damage the technique had done to her
hand.
      Perhaps he is skilled, but not knowledgeable.  Is it
possible that he understands not with his mind, but only with his
muscles? she considered, Learning in such a situation would be
difficult . . . which explains why Roku-kun adopted the methods
he did to teach Ran_ko_ what she needed to learn.  Teaching
another who thinks would be even moreso, she considered,
Troubling.
      The water was beginning to boil.  Rei set the empty pot
beside the boiling one and waited.
------------------------------
      The girl was weeping, Nabiki knew that without being able to
see or hear her.  Considering what we're walking through, Nabiki
thought, There's nothing to be ashamed of about that.  I'd just
like to know _why_ I'm so certain of it, with no sight or sound
to corroborate.  The pair had come through a nightmare forest of
strange and tortured cries, twisted trees, and glimpses of things
unseen.  They'd heard endless calls of suffering from all
directions.  And far away, something truly massive crept through
the brush, paralleling them.  First on one side, then on the
other.  Nabiki had found herself staying right next to Jeff.
      "It doesn't have the powerful effect on us, because this is
her nightmare," Jeff explained as he stoically ignored most of
it, "We don't know who Keiichi is, so it has less import than it
should."
      Speak for yourself! Nabiki thought as she looked around,
trying to get a good look at a particular predator who'd been
trailing them, It's not because we're unfeeling, inhuman
monsters, Nabiki added as she jumped, and Jeff didn't, at a
particularly agonized cry, We're just ignorant.
      Nabiki paused as Jeff did, trying to take in the sights and
through the wood, get a location for the girl who was the source
of all this.  "Like going after Hikari," she said to lighten the
mood.  Jeff merely nodded.  Unless we _are_ unfeeling, inhuman
monsters now, she thought of her guide and traveling companion,
Or just you are, this place makes me scared sick.
      "Like the injured we walked through to get to the hospital.
We can _do_ something about it when we reach the source and
center," Jeff reassured her as he held the cobweb-laden tree
limbs aside for her to pass.  When he released them, there was a
meaty sound and a cry of pain.  Nabiki whirled to examine their
trail.  There was blood on the tree limbs, but no sign of what
had been hit.
      That's the last time I turn around and look back! she
thought of her grinning companion.  "This is all a game to you,
isn't it?"
      "It's a _task_, that's different," he replied, still
grinning, "All this is designed to frighten someone else to
death, but it cannot inflict real damage on _us_, unless we let
it.  You know that."
      "I guess I can't just turn off my reactions to it, like
someone _else_ can," Nabiki replied angrily, "I can't ignore that
there's a hurt person in here!"
      "Yet you can ignore it long enough to yell at me for not
breaking down and crying with every step?" he folded his arms and
replied coldly, "I want to press on and help, you want to stand
here and feel.  Which one of us is being callous and
self-centered?"
      Nabiki frowned, gestured at the forest.  "Lead on."  I
_hate_ it when he's right! she thought as she fell in behind him,
keeping her gaze locked forward, I still think these trees look
like someone's been torturing them.  She shivered at the thought
that followed, And I know why, I know all about this spell,
although Jeff never taught it to me, and Coffee doesn't know it
either.  _I_ do!  She walked, knowing what they would find at the
center of the dream, A girl, terrified of forests, or trees, and
willing to `offer` herself, body and soul, as sacrifice to
Chaugnar Faugn.  To a carnivorous alien god, that has only one
meaning.  To a pair of teen-aged humans . . .  she shuddered as
she let the thought die away, I'm not interested in a slave, or a
picnic, or a . . . comfort girl, so what _do_ we do?
      "This would have been brought to us eventually," Jeff said,
mercifully breaking Nabiki out of her own thoughts, "But the girl
would have been more traumatized, and possibly beyond even our
help.  So in a way, your patron Pickles did _us_ a favor, but we
don't have to tell _it_ that."
      "Are you always so double-dealing?" Nabiki asked.  Calling
the kettle black, she included herself.
      "Only with people and entities who are equally
untrustworthy.  Like I said, things like Pickles are more
reflections of a greater reality.  So they often have no choice,
because they have little to no freewill as humans understand the
concept.  Do you want to deal . . . no, _you_ deal with the girl.
I'll deal with the spellcaster."
      "Why do I -?" Nabiki found herself arguing with the empty
air, "And why do _you_ keep doing that?"   _How_ do you keep
doing that? Nabiki wondered.  She glanced over to the girl
hugging herself tightly and staring at Nabiki in utter terror.
      The girl steeled herself to look up at Nabiki.  "I . . . am
ready . . . to receive my fate."
      Nabiki's quip died on her lips as the girl exposed her
throat and pulled her robe wide open.  She glanced around as if
for her departed `ally`, Bastard, she cursed silently, Throw me
into the deepest end and expect me to swim.   She glanced at the
girl and quickly looked away.   I know what she's offering is her
heart for me to tear out and eat, but it could imply other things
too, Nabiki thought quickly, She is ready to accept her `fate`,
that could mean anything: death, slavery, anything I could even
conceive of.   She shook her head, remembering the talk with
Ritsuko and all her soul-searching after it.   I'm not my
sisters, I'm not my father, she thought, glancing down at the
marks on her arm, If someone offers me their heart, it's going to
be because they want _me_ too.
      I think I may just kill my good friend and colleague when I
can find him, she thought as she settled her raging thoughts and
knelt next to the girl.  She began pulling the girl's robe back
together, I'm no comforter.  I'm supposed to take ruthless
advantage of the helpless in these situations.  What am _I_
supposed to do?
----------------------------------------


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