John Biles & Rod M. Present
          A Neon Genesis Evangelion Elseworlds


                 Children of an Elder God

                        Part 16

                  Gazing into the Abyss

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the
Superman--a rope over an abyss.

- NIETZSCHE


                         -*-

	This, thought Touji, was pretty damn cool.

	The pool hall he was in was something out of the
Victorian era ("Sherlock-Holmes-Like" if you asked him),
with large, cushioned furniture that he could lounge in all
day.  The walls where of upholstered greens and blues,
accented by mahogany trim.  In the far side loomed a large
fireplace, the largest he'd ever seen.

	It wasn't just that he was in in a really cool pool
hall, no.

	He was shooting pool with a king.

	Now that was something.

	To be exact, he was shooting pool with King Kuranes,
ruler of Celephais of the dreamlands.  He didn't look much
like a king to Touji, though, more like a refugee from a
Sherlock Holmes mystery.  He wore a lengthy, waxed
moustache, a suit more than a century out of date, and just
lacked the aura of... well... 'Kingness'.

	Watching the two play, seated at the bar, was a
slender, elegant woman with piercing green eyes and brown
hair cascading a little beyond her shoulders.  She too wore
19th century garb, a demure ensemble in purple and blue,
hiding everything about her but her face, hands and neck. As
she noticed his gaze, she gave a small smile.

	In Touji-speak, the chick was hot, though a little
intimidating.  In relative terms of Touji-speak, she was far
hotter than Hikari, but not quite as intimidating.

	They'd been playing rounds of pool for an hour now,
with the king pulling off some odd lucky miracle more often
than not, just enough to keep a winning record for the day.

	The pair took a break and joined the lady at the
bar, where King Kuranes helped himself to a bottle of
scotch.  Touji just stood at the bar for a moment,
indecision briefly gripping him.  He hadn't tried alcohol
before, but he didn't want to look uncool before the king,
and thus it came to pass that he smoothly (at least, he
thought it was smoothly done) picked a bottle at the bar (he
hadn't a clue which one) and poured himself a shotglass of
it.  The king blinked as Touji took the cup and gulped it in
one quick swallow.

	"Ahh.  Good stuff."

	The king seemed to be holding back laughter while
the lady giggled.

	"Sir Suzuhara," she said, her voice light and
mirthful.  "Tis a bit unusual to drink seltzer water in such
a manner."

	To his credit, Touji made as nice a recovery as
anyone could have.  That is, he blinked, grinned sheepishly,
scratched the back of his head and laughed nervously.

	"Thank Kami-sama Langley ain't here," he muttered.

	"How is Sir Asuka?" asked King Kuranes.  "And how
goes the war against those... 'angels'?"

	At the mention of his arch-enemy, the Great Bitch
Langley, Touji frowned.  He was smart enough to keep his
initial thoughts on Langley to himself, as he knew King
Kuranes thought highly of her, although he couldn't
understand why.

	"Oh, s'going alright," Touji replied.  "It's been
kinda quiet for a while, aside from that big thing with the
Kingdom'a Joy.  I haven't even got my EVA yet."

	"Your... EVA?"

	"Big robot thing," said Touji.  "S'like a giant
suit'a armor."

	"Ah, I see."  The king nodded thoughtfully.

	At this point, Touji remembered what was nagging him
before.  "Hey, King."

	"Yes?"

	"What's it take to become a Knight around here?  If
Langley's good enough to be one, so am I."

	The King laughed jovially while his guardian smiiled
once more, though whether they thought Touji brave or
foolish he wasn't sure.

	"In Sir Asuka's case, it was an act of great
heroism, though that is a long tale for another time.  Yes,
an act of great heroism would be the quickest way to go
about it."

	"Great heroism, eh?  Don't I already qualify for
that?" he asked.  "Y'know, with the Kingdom of Joy thing."

	"Yes, you would," conceeded King Kuranes.  "But you
would have to be knighted by the King of Joy, not I."

	"Huh?"

	"You see, Sir Asuka performed a great service for my
kingdom, therefore t'was me who had the duty and honor of
knighting her."

	"Oh.... oh.  Damn!  Shoulda asked'em while I was
there!"  He tapped his finger at the bar rapidly for a
moment, then asked, "I guess it'd take a heck of a lot to
get back t'Joy, yeah?"

	"To say the least."

	"Damn.  Oh well, lemme know if y'need any monsters
t'be smote or something, huh?

	The king laughed once more.  "I shall keep you in
mind, Sir Touji."

                         -*-

	Dear Asuka,

 	I have good news!  My tests have been positive, and
I will soon begin training to pilot EVA units like you.  I
hope to come to Tokyo-3 and join you soon, but right now, I
will be training in Germany while they build another
Evangelion Unit for me to pilot.  The two you had to fight
down under that mound were the last two spares, Frau
Himmelfarb tells me. So it may be a few months.

	Oscar and Pieter send their best regards, although
I'm sure you probably don't want Oscar's best regards. Oscar
says his cat mentioned meeting you in a dream.  I would
think this is silly, but Frau Himmelfarb has begun teaching
me about that strange medieval dreamworld she says she
trained you to enter as well.  Perhaps some time we can try
to meet there, although I am not good at entering it when I
wish to, yet.  Did you meet his cat?  Was it as obnoxious
there as it is here?

	I had a strange dream since starting my training.  
I keep seeing a city burning as stars flew through the
streets, setting everything alight.  I hope I have not
become a prophet.  Have you had this dream?

	Helen and Olga told me to ask you if you have a
boyfriend yet.  I was seeing Hans, but he dumped me to chase
Inga, so now I hate him.  How could I have not seen how much
of a jerk he was before?  How are you and Kaji doing?  You
said you were trying to work up the courage to try something
bolder with him; how did it work out?  He's not still
flirting with your commander, is he?

	Frau Himmelfarb asked me to ask you to give her
regards to Frau Akagi.  Is she doing well?  Health problems
often flare up this time of year; I have heard that her
mother used to have problems around this season.

	I must go now, but I hope to hear from you soon.

			Your Friend,

					Anna.

                         -*-

	She was late.

	Maya frowned as she looked at the clock in the lab,
tapping her pencil as she did.  Ritsuko-sempai was never
late.  She was punctual, always punctual, as close to
perfection as there was on this earth.

	But today she was late for work.

	Maya considered calling Dr. Akagi's home, then
reconsidered.  Would that be considered intruding into her
personal life?  She didn't want to do that, no.

	Before she could worry herself towards an ulcer,
Ritsuko made her entry.  Her hair was a mess, tangled and
unkept.  She staggered into the lab unevenly and sank into
her chair with a grunt.  She seemed a bit more pale than
usual, with a thin sheen of sweat shining on her skin.  
Over her eyes were a pair of dark sunglasses, the wraparound
kind that concealed everything.


	"Um... sempai?"

	Ritsuko grunted in response as she pawed through the
cabinets by her desk.

	"Sempai?  Are you okay?"

	"Just... just a little sick today, Maya."

	From the sound of her voice, it was apparent Ritsuko
was ill.  It sounded slightly hoarse and a bit phlegmatic
too.

	Ritsuko took a few vials from one cabinet, then
opened a fingerprint-lock vault by her desk.  From within,
she pulled out a large square container of opalescent
viridian liquid and placed it upon her work bench.

	Maya was puzzled by it all.  Whatever she was
working on, it wasn't anything she'd seen before, and didn't
seem to be something on the list of scheduled projects.

	"Sempai?  What's that?"

	"Personal project," Ritsuko croaked.

	"Do... do you need any help wi-"

	"NO!"

	The sound of Ritsuko's shout seemed to surprise
herself as well as Maya, as her face curled into an
expression of remorse and guilt immediately.  "No... I'm
fine.  Just... just work on the samples from D-12 and do
Rei's checkup for me, will you?"

	Maya nodded and watched her sempai strangely as she
walked away.  Something wasn't right, no, but she hadn't the
courage to press the issue.  She turned away, defeated, and
would have left quiety had Ritsuko not suddenly growled in
pain, her left arm clutched and covered by her right,
doubled over in pain.

	"Sempai!"

	"I-I'm okay," Ritsuko said weakly.

	"At least go to the infirmary or-"

	"NO!"  Once again Ritsuko's shout made Maya cringe.  
"No... I'll just... I'll just go see the commander then call
it a day... okay?"

	Maya reluctantly nodded.  "Do you... do you need
anything?"

	"No, go ahead, Ayanami should be arriving any minute
now.  Don't... nng... don't worry about me." 

	Maya gave Ritsuko one last worried look, a gaze the
blond scientist wouldn't meet, then reluctantly left. 

                         -*-

        As expected, Rei Ayanami arrived for her appointment
on time, as punctual as Maya had always known her to be. 
She stared at the nearly albino girl as Ayanami entered,
something about the girl seemingly different in a subtle way
she couldn't put her finger on. 

        "Hello, Rei," said Maya.  "How're you?" 

        "I'm fine." 

        Maya blinked.  There was something in Rei's voice,
she couldn't put her thumb on it.  As Maya watched Rei, that
feeling increased.  Her movements, normally mechanical in
nature, seemed more natural and smoother today.  Not elegant
by any means, but awkward in a more human way. 

        Or was she just imagining things? 

        "So, how's school?" asked Maya as she lowered some
of the scanning equipment to the table and above Rei. 

        "It's fine," replied Rei quietly. 

        'It's fine'.... usually Rei replied more stiffly. 
'It goes well,' or, 'There are no problems.'

        "And how about Shinji?" asked Maya. 

        Whereas before Rei would sport a slight blush, this
time her crimson flush was very obvious.  She even twitched
her fingers slightly in agitation. 

        "Shinji's fine," replied Rei, again softly, her
voice with an unmistakable shyness to it. 

        "New surprises every day," Maya muttered.  She shook
her head, wondering if this more human Rei was just
something she was imagining. 

        Rei went through the exam silently, though much more
like a girl being shy than a living animated statue.  The
tests showed a few subtle changes in her brain activity and
body chemistry, but nothing that seemed important. 

        Rei departed as quietly as she arrived, leaving Maya
to look through the numbers a few times more.  She copied
the results to disk and printed out a copy, since the
commander insisted on having both forms turned in, and
marched through the labyrinth of hallways to Gendo's office. 

        She sighed as she went, wondering if her sempai was
fine, blushing at the thought of maybe visiting her at home
and offering to take care of her.  Why, she could almost
hear her sempai's voice now... 

        "I'm running out of time, dammit!" 

        Maya blinked.  That was her sempai.  Treading more
softly, she edged towards the door and peered in.  Through
the narrow croack she could see a flash of white moving back
and forth - Ritsuko's white lab coat - as her sempai
continued to rant angrily. 

        "You promised me a cure!" 

        "I promised you resources," replied Commander Ikari,
his voice a steady steel in comparason to Ritsuko's.  "It is
your own inability to use those resources properly-" 

        "This is my life, dammit!" 

        "I can understand why you're upset, Dr. Akagi, but
venting your anger at me brings you no closer to your goal." 

        "WELL I COULD USE SOME HELP HERE!" 

        "Dr. Akagi, I suggest you calm down," replied Gendo
icily. 

        "I... you're right." 

        "Should worse come to worse," continued Gendo, "We
have a cryo-stasis chamber ready.  We can select a team, or
you may select your own, to carry on your research." 

        There was a brief moment of silence.  Maya stepped
back cautiously, wondering if her sempai was about to leave
the room. 

        Ritsuko's voice replied, "I... I have a candidate in
mind." 

        "Good.  I suggest you take the rest of the day off,
Dr. Akagi, as a stressed mind is an inefficient one." 

        "Yes sir," said Ritsuko, sounding defeated.  "I was
heading for home anyway." 

        "Good.  If that is all..." 

        Ritsuko's footsteps echoed on the hard marble floor,
quickly towards the door.  Maya quickly stepped around the
corner and pressed herself to the wall.  Fortunately for
her, Ritsuko chose to walk down the opposite corridor. 

        The conversation between Ritsuko and Commander Ikari
worried her for obvious reasons.  What kind of illness did
her sempai have?  How long did she have until... 

        Perhaps she could ask the commander. 

        No, that didn't seem right.  Ritsuko had never
confided in her about it.  She didn't want to offend her
sempai, but she had to help... 

        "Ahem." 

        All thoughts were cast aside as she realized she'd
absently walked into Gendo's office while pacing about. 
With a grimace she looked up, her embarrassed gaze meeting
Commander Ikari's stern one. 

        "You have something to report, Ibuki?" 

        "Y-yessir!  Here's the results of Pilot Ayanami's
tests today."  With her hands slightly trembling, she handed
the disk and the folder to the commander.  "Ayanami seemed
different today," she continued, knowing that she was now
nervously yammering, a trait that she fought with little
success. 

        "Different?" asked Gendo as he thumbed through the
papers. 

        Maya laughed nervously.  "Well, she seemed more... 
human, I guess." 

        Gendo raised an eyebrow.  "Human?" 

        "Well, aheh, it's, um, it was the little things she
did.  Normally she seems so cold and distant, but today it
seemed more like she was, well, shy." 

        Gendo frowned slightly, something that surprised and
frightened Maya.  Why would that make him unhappy? 

        "Report any further unusual behaviour to me
immediately," said Gendo.  "That is all." 

        "Y-yessir." 

        Maya beat a hasty retreat, quickly walking down the
corridor and to the elevators.  Only as the elevators slid
shut did she realize that she'd failed to ask about her
sempai. 

                         -*-

	"So what do you think the next Angel will be like?" 
Asuka asked Shinji as they were walking to school. 

	"Nasty." 

	"Would you like to be more vague?" 

	"Bad." 

	Asuka sighed.  "Trying to be like Rei?" 

	"No."  His face was very calm, a little too
studiously calm, Asuka thought. 

	"Trying to drive me insane?" 

	"No." 

	"Capable of saying more than one word?" 

	"Yes." 

	"Say more than one word." 

	"More than one word."  Shinji began to laugh. 

	Asuka frowned for a second, then laughed herself. 
"That's about right." 

	"What's about right?"  Rei asked. 

	Asuka jumped and dropped her school bag, while
Shinji laughed louder.  "We were just having a little fun." 

	Rei fell in along side Shinji to his right.  "Doing
what?" 

	Alarm bells began to ring in a small corner of
Asuka's mind.  There was nothing evil about, but something
was still bugging her and she wasn't sure what. 

	"Being silly," Asuka said, after a second of pause.

	"This is fun?" Rei asked. 

	"It can be," Shinji said. 

	"What else is fun?" Rei asked. 

	They were both nonplussed by this for a few seconds.  
Shinji said, "Everyone has to decide that for themself.  I 
like playing my cello, and listening to music, and sometimes 
watching movies, if they're good."

	"I like playing my violin and listening to music too,"  
Rei said thoughtfully, glancing over at Shinji.  

	Asuka raised an eyebrow and looked at Rei curiously.
If she didn't know better, she'd swear that sounded like shy
flirting.

	A cat wandered across its yard and meowed at them 
in a friendly manner.  Asuka dropped down and petted it.  
"Hi, kitty," she said.

	It then ran over and rubbed against Shinji's leg.  "I 
think it likes you," Asuka said.

	Rei knelt and pet the cat, which to Shinji and Asuka's 
surprise, didn't shy away from her.  "Hello, kitty," she said, 
matching Asuka's tone almost precisely.  The cat jumped 
up onto her shoulder, causing her to fall down from 
surprise.

	Asuka frowned slightly.  Animals always hated Rei.
It was something everyone was used to by now.

	It purred, and she petted it, trying to stand up 
without it falling.  Right as she got to her feet, the cat's 
fur suddenly went up on end.  It jumped off her shoulder 
and ran out of sight.  Rei looked a little disappointed.

	A few seconds later, Touji greeted them.  "Hey, looks 
like a pilot's club meeting ta me."  He was coming down a 
side street that dead-ended into this one.  "Hey, Shinji, 
what'cha think the next Angel is gonna be like?  I'm ready 
to kick some ass."

	"Nasty," Shinji said.  He and Asuka began to laugh.  

	Rei stared at them for a few seconds, then 
shrugged.  "We need to hurry or we'll be late," Rei said, 
picking up the pace of her walking.

	The others quickly matched her, moving down the 
street.  Asuka glanced over at Rei, who seemed perkier 
than usual.  Her face kept flickering towards a smile, for 
one thing, although it never managed to stay there, as if 
she wanted to, but wasn't very good at it. 

	And the cat liked her; normally, they don't, Asuka
thought.  Which probably means it's the next Angel or
something. 

	"You wouldn't happen to play the viola, would you?" 
Shinji asked Touji. 

	"A what?"  Touji asked. 

	"We'll have to make you learn so we can have a
string quartet," Asuka said. 

	"That sounds kinky.  You into that sorta thing,
Langley?" 

	"A string quartet is two violinists, a viola player,
and a cellist!  Not some sort of perverted sex game!" 

	"Speaking as an expert on perverted sex games?" 

	"No!" 

	They continued to bicker as the quartet walked on
down the road.  Shinji tapped his cheek thoughtfully.  "You
know, Rei, they say the more two people fight, the more they
love each other.  What do you think?" 

	"They should marry, then,"  Rei replied. 

	Rei made a joke?  Shinji thought.  I must be
dreaming.  Or maybe she's taking me seriously. 

	"ME MARRY KAISER LANGLEY?  NO WAY IN HELL!!!!" 
Touji shouted. 

	"No way!" Asuka proclaimed.  "I'd marry an Angel
first!" 

	"Does that mean people who don't fight don't love
each other?" Rei asked Shinji.  There was a hint of worry
in her voice. 

	"Huh?  Oh, I was just teasing them," Shinji said.  
"Actually, I've always thought that didn't make any
sense."  She did take me seriously, he thought.  Something's
up with her today. 
	
	"I think it's supposed to mean that you have to have
passion in a really loving relationship, and sometimes
passion goes bad," Asuka said.  "Not simply that you
squabble all the time, which usually happens because you're
dealing with a moron.  Case in point."  She pointed her
thumb at Touji. 

	"Moron?  Which one of us got rid of His Royal
Ugliness?" 

	She frowned.  "By doing something dangerous!" 

	"But it worked." 

	"You could have..." 

	Rei and Shinji slowly drifted ahead of them as they
continued to argue, all the way to school.  Well, whatever's
up with Rei, he thought, it doesn't seem to be a bad thing. 

                         -*-

        The sound of a girl's light humming echoed through
an empty lab.  The cold fluorescent lights illuminated the
room in a cold light, adding to the empty feeling in Maya's
heart. 

        Her sempai was late again, and Maya wondered if she
would even show up for work.  The conversation she'd
eavesdropped on yesterday nagged at her, along with a dozen
questions nagging her about her sempai. 

        Maya's eyes wandered over to Ritsuko's workstation,
and specifically her computer.  No, that would be wrong... 

        Ritsuko or no, there was still work to be done, and
so Maya took a deep breath and did her best.  Unfortunately,
the day's work this time was mostly of a bureaucratic nature,
involving inventories and authorization forms.  She did what
she could, though looking through endless paperwork made her
mind feel numb.  An hour into her work, Maya was mercifully
pulled away by the ring of the phone.

        "Hello?"

        //"Maya..."//

        Ritsuko's voice was ragged and coarse, far from the
calm and controlled tone Maya was used to.

        "Sempai?"

        //"Calling... calling in sick today,"// continued
Ritsuko.  //"Handle... it?"//

        "I'll be fine," Maya replied gently.  "Sempai?"

        Maya paused, bringing in an uncomfortable silence
broken only by the sickly breathing on the phone.

        //"Maya?"//

        "Is there... can I..."  She felt a blush wash over
her cheeks and willed herself to stop stammering.  "If... if
I can do anything..."

        //"I'll be fine,"// Ritsuko said hoarsely.

        "Semp-"

        -click-

        She put the phone down with a dejected sigh.
Whether Ritsuko liked it or not, Maya was going to take care
of her...

        As soon as Maya worked up the nerve to do it.

                         -*-

	The student council stared at each other.  The dance
was coming up in a few days, but none of them had gotten
asked out.  Something HAD to be done.  They'd explored the
idea of a date lottery, but everyone was afraid of ending up
having to date some stupid.  Then an idea struck Hikari. 
"Ahah, we could have a Sadie Hawkins dance." 

	"A what?"  Taiki asked.  Taiki, who had a big nose,
big muscles, and a small brain, never knew what anything
was, but for once he was expressing a common sentiment. 

	"It's this American thing Asuka told me about.  A
dance where the women ask the guys out."  She looked around
at the mostly female student council.  "We needed a theme
anyway." 

	The motion soon passed, and the meeting broke up
once plans were made to publicize the event.  Afterwards,
Shiko, a short girl with curly blonde hair, came up to
Hikari and said, "I bet I know why you proposed that." 

	"Eh?"  Hikari asked. 

	"Because if you wait for Touji to get up the courage
to ask you, you'll die of old age.  Am I right?" 

	Hikari blushed a little.  "I wasn't just thinking of
Touji." 

	"Not _just_ thinking of him," Shiko said. 

	Several of the others laughed.  "He's about as
romantic as history class," one of them said. 

	"Less romantic.  He can probably destroy shojo manga
just by looking at it." 

	"He can too be romantic!" Hikari said. 

	"Like what?" 

	"Ummm...Oh look, I'm going to be late for dinner! 
Bye!"  She ran off, resolving to herself that she would get
Touji to be romantic or die trying. 

                         -*-

        The whole Dreamlands thing, decided Touji, was
certainly cool.  The whole medieval motif thing was great,
something Kensuke would've really dug.  The people, at least
in this kingdom, seemed friendly enough.  It was tempting to
just get himself a room at the inn (with some money
generously given by King Kuranes for his valiant efforts
with the Kingdom of Joy thing) and relax. 

        But no, he was wandering into town with a purpose. 

        Touji Suzuhara was looking for some action. 

        Preferrably of the sort that gets one knighted. 

        He'd kept his ears open, hearing some talk of a
monster roaming the countryside and scaring the hell out of
the peasants.  Nobody had a description for the creature,
aside from it being lighting fast and very brutal with the
livestock. 

        Touji had followed the rumors and whispers left in
the monster's wake, to a small town on the edge of the
kingdom, Ilnak. 

        Goofy sounding name, thought Touji, but beggers
couldn't be choosers.

        Polishing the shoulder of his iron armor (also
generously donated by King Kuranes, a Really Cool Dude in
Touji's book) he strode confidently into the tavern. 

        He almost made it to the door. 

        Something distracted him. 

        A commoner exited the tavern, walking by Touji as he
did.  The two stared at each other oddly for a moment, then
shook their heads and looked away. 

        Touji could've sworn that was Toshi from the student
council. 

        Nah.

        He turned to enter the tavern when he found himself
staring at a girl walking past that looked a hell of a lot
like Ami Mizoguchi from the track team.

        No... no way.

	The way Langley explained it, all people dream but
only a rare few can reach the Dreamlands.  For him to see
two other people from his school in the Dreamlands was an
incredible coincidence.  It was kind of against the odds,
the way Asuka told it.

	He shook his head.  It must've just been a close
resemblance or something, yeah.  Forget it.

        Once more, he turned towards the door, still several
paces away, and set his mind towards entering.  The tavern
door creaked open, and several tall, ominous fellows in
ebony monk robes emerged.  There was something about them
that gave Touji the creeps, but it was the last one that
dazed him, as he thought he recognized the monk's face as
the sunlight briefly illuminated his face.

        Looked hellova lot like Commander Ikari.

        He continued staring at the group of monks as they
walked away, part of him wanting to give chase to confirm
what he'd seen, part of him (the majority part) deciding
that was a bad idea and to just go about his business.

        And so he finally made his way into the tavern.

        It was a very medieval affair, of one large common
room with a high ceiling, a roaring fire at its center, rows
of long tables, and ladies going about serving drinks.

        He was immediately reminded of the role playing
games Kensuke always dragged him into playing.  "Roll dice
fer charisma, or somethin' like that," he muttered to
himself.

        As he stood in the doorway wondering what went next,
the patrons all began to eye him curiously, some with
amusement while others with irritation.  It took him a while
to realize they were all staring at him.

        Oh well, try the blunt approach.

        "Hey!  Anyone 'round here know anything about a
monster?"

                         -*-

        The most beautiful sight met Maya's eyes as she 
arrived for work, a sight that brought relief to her worried
heart. 

        "Ah, hello Maya." 

        "Sempai!" 

        The urge to run to her sempai and embrace her was
nearly overwhelming, but Maya managed to restrain herself to
a smile brighter than the sun and a noticeable blush.  The
subject of her happiness was sitting in her usual place,
giving Maya a brief greeting smile before going back reading
the mess on her desk. 

        "I see you took good care of the place," said
Ritsuko. 

        "I-I did my best," Maya replied.  "There were still
some forms that I didn't have the authority to sign, and I
didn't get around to running the Weisner-Hoffman tests on
sample twelve-" 

        "That's okay, it's okay," replied Ritsuko
non-chalantly.  "I think you did great, now let's get to
work." 

        "H-hai!" 

        And so the day began as it always had and always
should, with Ritsuko cutting through research and paperwork
and Maya assisting her every step of the way.  Ritsuko
looked at Maya strangely when she noticed the younger girl
whistling while she worked. 

        "What're you so happy about?" she asked jokingly. 

        "Oh, nothing, nothing." 

        The light blush told Ritsuko everything.  Maya
must've found herself a man.  Lucky girl. 

        The work went on for a few hours more until noon. 
Ritsuko leaned back from a bank of monitors, stretching her
back.  "At last, noon.  Come on, Maya, let's get lu..." 

        Maya, her back turned as she typed away at her
terminal, cocked her head when her sempai failed to finish
the sentence. 

        "Sempai?" 

        She swiveled around in her chair, then noticed
Ritsuko doubled over once more, like she was before, a
pained and horrified look on her face. 

        "S-sempai!" 

        "Nng... ah... d-dammit..." 

        She ran to Ritsuko quickly, reaching out to help her
stand.  "Sempai, are-" 

        To her surprise, Ritsuko suddenly shoved her away
and bolted out the door. 

        "Sempai, wait!" 

        Maya chased her out the door, but somehow Ritsuko
had already disappeared.  She stood there in the corridor,
stunned and shaken, lingering for minutes, until finally she
found the iron resolve to get some answers. 

                           -*-

        And suddenly she found that resolve melting like ice
in Hell. 

        "S-sir?" 

        Commander Ikari looked up from his desk. 

        "Speak," he merely said.  It was terribly unnerving. 

        "A-about Dr. Akagi-" 

        Gendo brought his arms up into the position, the one
that everyone knew, the one that he assumed when he was
saying something that was going to be listened to without
question, his hands joining and resting upon the bridge of
his nose as his elbows rested on the table. 

        "The Akagi situation is being monitored and under
control." 

        "But what-" 

        "Information regarding the Akagi situation is given
on a need-to-know basis.  You do not need to know." 

        "But-" 

        "That is all." 

        Maya opened and closed her mouth, trying to form
words, but it seemed Gendo's very gaze silenced her voice. 
She sighed and bowed her head down in resignation. 

        "Yes sir."

                         -*-

	The Dance, as it was being referred to now, was
looming close, and had become the talk of the school.  Men
not asked yet grumbled about the stupidity of the 'Sadies'
concept, some declaring it was a ridiculous idea.  Men were
meant to ask the women, and that's the way it should be. 

	This did not mean there weren't girls without dates. 
	
	As girls turned down boys, so to did some boys turn
down girls.  Other girls, however, were dateless because of
other reasons, like the girl sitting under the tree of the
center courtyard, Asuka Langley. 

	"Look at the selection!" she cried to Hikari, waving
a hand to point out the lunchtime crowd.  "Not a one worth
asking." 

	"Not a one that's Kaji-esque enough, you mean," 
replied Hikari teasingly. 

	"Exactly!" 
	
	Hikari sighed.  "Asuka, Asuka, Asuka, you're way too
picky." 
	
	Asuka gave her a wry look.  "Says the girl who's
gonna go with, of all the people, Touji Suzuhara." 

	"Hey, don't get me started." 
	
	"Okay, okay, I'll drop it," said Asuka.  She
dramatically sighed, leaning back on the tree.  "Here I am,
ace pilot and the most beautiful girl in school... no date." 

	"Too picky." 
	
	"Fine, name someone." 
	
	"Um... hmm..."  Hikari looked about the school
grounds, trying to think of someone, anyone.  For a brief
moment her eye rested on her own date, Touji, as he talked
to Shinji. 

	Oh. 
	
	Now there was an idea. 
	
	They even lived in the same house. 
	
	This would be fun. 
	
	Hikari grinned and sidled up next to Asuka.  "Hoooow
abooout... Shinji?"  Much to Hikari's surprise, Asuka was
already blushing. 

	Oh ho. 
	
	To her credit, Asuka managed to keep her cool. 
"Shinji?" she said dismissively.  "He'd probably have a
heart attack and die if I asked him." 

	"C'mon, you said it yourself, sometimes he can be... 
what were the words?  'Like steel', I think?  Hmmm?" 

	"Hey, combat is one thing, dating is another," Asuka
replied defensively.  "Besides, I don't think he likes
dancing a lot." 

	"But you two know each other more than anyone else,
right?  Hey, you two even live together.  If things get... 
romantic-" 

	The blush turned up a notch, though the look on her
face got a bit more irritated. 
	
	"He's not exactly romantic," she grumbled. 

	"Oh well, if the 'most beautiful girl in school'
wants to be the most dateless girl in school too..." 

	"Okay, okay, I guess it can't hurt," she said
grudgingly.  "It beats not going, anyway." 

                           -*-

	"So, Shinji, who in yer harem you gonna bring to the
dance, eh?" 

	"H-harem?" 
	
	"Ya haven't noticed?" asked Touji.  "With the pilot
gig, you're gettin' some fans, man.  I been hearing some'a
the girls talking about you, you stud."  He elbowed Shinji
teasingly, while Shinji blushed badly.  "So, who's it gonna
be for the dance?" 

	"The dance?  But-" 
	
	"Even though I hate the bitch, maybe you'll go fer
Asuka, eh?" 

	"But-" 

	"Cute chick, too bad she's a total bitch," continued
Touji.  "But she seems to treat ya with kid gloves.  Must be
love." 

	Shinji blushed even further.  "B-but-" 
	
	"Or maybe Rei... kinda creepy, but she's got that
cute look, y'know?  Her personality is worlds better'n
Kaiser Bitch too, and I think she's got a thing for ya,
hmmm?" 

	The blush went a tad bit redder.  "But-" 
	
	"But what?" 
	
	"But the girls are supposed to ask us, so I'm not
asking anybody." 

	Touji blinked.  "Oh yeah.  Forgot." 

                           -*-

	Meanwhile, peering down from the third floor of the
building, a pair of red eyes gazed lovingly at Shinji and a
voice usually silent was instead humming a gentle tune.  Had
anyone been there to witness it, they would've been amazed
at the behaviour of the infamous 'spooky' girl, Rei Ayanami. 

	As she saw Touji tease Shinji, she cracked a small
smile.  Shinji was blushing, mainly because Touji was
suggesting he go out with her. 

	Her hearing was better than anyone knew. 
	
	As she gazed at Shinji, she heard a group of girls
walking by in the hall.  Their conversation was full of
giggles and whispers, and with them stopping outside the
door, Rei couldn't help but hear them. 

	"So who're you asking to the dance?" 
	
	"I got Takuma to say yes." 
	
	"You did! Oooh, lucky you.  What about you, Mika?" 
	
	"I-I haven't asked yet, but-" 
	
	"Oooh, you've got someone in mind? We didn't know!" 
	
	"Who?  Who's the lucky boy?" 
	
	"I'm thinking of asking... Ikari." 
	
	The gaggle of girls giggled. 
	
	Rei frowned. 
	
	"He is a cutie, in a homely sort of way." 
	
	"And a pilot too!" 
	
	"So when are you gonna ask him?" 
	
	"M-maybe tomorrow." 
	
	Their conversation would have continued, except with
the interruption of the bell warning of lunch's eminent end. 
The giggles and whispers and squeals moved on down the hall,
leaving Rei Ayanami alone with her thoughts. 

	Had anyone peered into the room at that moment, they
would have seen as rare a sight as Rei humming and smiling. 

	She cried. 
	
	Looking lost, forlorn and dejected, she shed her
tears into her hands and whispered to herself, "he's mine,
Shinji-kun is mine, he's mine..." 

                         -*-

	The forest, that wasn't Touji's thing.

	If anything, Kensuke would've liked it better. 
Touji would've been more comfortable in abandoned towns or
ancient ruins, but this whole forest thing wasn't cool at
all.  Unknown critters run around, bugs get in the damn suit
of armor, it's hotter, muggier, just nasty. 

	"Screw this," he mumbled to himself. 

	So with much determination, he turned back from the
dark forest road (it barely qualified as one, in Touji's
opinion) to the small hamlet he'd passed by.  It was, in a
kingdom of small towns, a really small town, but he figured
to be able to get some rest and food there. 

	It'd been a long day with no success so far.  He
suspected the barfolk in that other town were just yanking
his chain about coming out here, for which he'd have to go
back and give some righteous smiting. 

	And then he heard a scream. 

	Grabbing his sword hilt, he rushed forth into town. 

	"What's going on?!  Where?!" 

	Frightened townsfolk pointed him towards a small hut
at the edge of town, where some were crying as others peered
in sadly and muttered amongst themselves. 

	"Knight'a Celephais comin' through!  S'cuse me! 
What's goin'on here?" 

	One of the peasants, an old woman, looked at him
sadly, then pointed inside.  Touji turned his head towards
the hut, its inside shrouded in darkness.  He took a deep
breath, then strode into it, expecting a dead body. 

	It was far messier than he ever expected. 

	He didn't mean to step on her lung. 

	"Oh shit." 

	A hand here, a leg there. 

	"Ohhhh shit." 

	And as he turned around to walk out, he finally saw
her head.  His eyes met hers, the terrified look in her face
burning itself into his memory. 

	"Dammit... what the hell... what the hell did this?" 

	Touji was a simple man, that much anyone who knew
him would testify, but when he felt the fires of rigteous
anger he was hard to stop, and terribly reckless. 

	"Awright, people, who saw something?!" 

	"I-I saw s-something flee into the woods, sir," said
one peasant. 

	Touji's eyes, wide with anger, looked about the
grounds and spotted a scattered trail of blood.  He drew his
sword out and shouted, "Outta the way!"  The villagers
quickly parted as he followed the trail into the woods. 

	He followed bloodstains, then footsteps in the damp
earth, though the feet the creature left behind seemed to
change shape.  It made no sense, logically, but Touji had
seen stranger things in the Dreamlands.  From footsteps the
trail was reduced to broken branches and shrubs. 

	And then the trail ended. 

	At last, Touji stopped running.  He looked around
angrily, sword still held, searching for the unseen enemy. 

	Still nothing. 

	He sighed, putting the sword back in its sheath,
then trudged back towards the village. 

	"Had to be the damn forest." 

	And just as he turned around, he found himself
staring at two glowing red eyes at point-blank range.  It
was so close that he didn't get a very good look at its
body, but he did manage to catch, at the edge of his vision,
pale white appendages flailing about, some insectoid, others
octopoid, and even more entirely alien in their shape. 

	"Fuck." 

	He drew for his sword, but the monster roared
angrily and knocked it out of his grasp.  Desperately, he
slugged the creature right between the eyes, which, to his
astonishment, actually worked. 

	The creature reared back, bellowing once more as
several appendages covered its face defensively.  Touji
turned to run, but felt a massive limb hit him from behind,
sending him flying through the air, bouncing off of trees,
landing roughly and brutally on the ground.  As he rolled to
his side, he felt his armor creak and break away, the cool
breeze stinging upon his bare back.  In his dazed mind, he
wondered if the king would be pissed that the borrowed armor
was ruined. 

	His head spun and his vision began to darken as he
heard the creature's approach.  He struggled to get up, but
felt a numbing sensation from his back.  Did the monster
manage to poison him with that blow?  It felt like it. 

	The last thing he saw as his vision faded to black
were two baleful eyes attached to a nondescript head and a
long neck, writhing above him.  The creature's shape
morphed, shrank, shriveled and twisted until attached to the
end of that serpantine neck was a crazed, vicious human
face. 

	A familiar face, with eyes unforgettably red... 

                         -*-

	Alone.

	Once more, Maya was alone in the lab.  Ritsuko
hadn't called in, but she had a feeling this time was worse
than last time.  Call it woman's intuition, perhaps, or just
a hunch, but whatever it was she was resigned to it.

	Her humming filled the air once more, but this time
it wasn't a happy tune but more of a sad song.  She had the
blues.

	Looking across the lab at the samples that had to be
taken care of, she gave a long sigh.  Maya turned to the
sink, scrubbed down her hands, then reached absently for the
towel.

	She found herself holding a hand instead.  Maya's
eyes widened and a slight blush spread across her face.
Still looking down at the sink, she shyly spoke.

	"S-sempai?"

	"Wrong guess!"

	"Aiieeeeee!"

	On reflex she jumped away, then stared at the person
that suddenly intruded in her workspace.

	Makoto gave a friendly wave  "Yo."

	She slapped him on the shoulder, mock irritation in
her voice when she said, "Don't scare me like that!  Jeez!"

	He stepped backwards defensively, laughing as he
did.  "Okay, okay, sorry!  Take it easy!"

	"What're you doing down here anyway?"

	"Was on my way back from the command center,"
he replied.  "S'kinda boring over there, so I figured I'd
play a little hookie and see what you guys are up to."  He
pushed his glasses up and looked around, puzzled.  "Though
there seems to be only one of you at the moment.  Where's
Dr. Akagi?"

	"She's sick," said Maya sadly.  "Dr. Akagi wasn't
feeling well yesterday, so she went home early."

	"Oh, so she called in sick today?"

	"No, not yet, but I don't think she'll come in,"
replied Maya.  "She was really sick."

	Makoto perched on a nearby stool as Maya absently
went to work on a sample.  "So, you're worrying about her?"
he asked.

	"Yeah, I am."

	"How long have you known Dr. Akagi anyway?"

	"I met her back in college," she said, a wistful
tone in her voice.  It wasn't lost on Makoto.

	"Wow, so you're really 30?"

	"Oh, shut up!"  She mock-threatened to slap him with
a gloved hand full of ooze. 

	"Just joking!"  he said, laughing.

	"Sempai was working on her PhD, I was in my 2nd
year.  I was running late for class one day, didn't look
where I was going and I ran right into her!"

	Makoto raised an eyebrow.  "Heh, just like in those
shoujo mangas, hm?"

	Maya seemed to miss the innuendo in his voice.  "I
apologized a lot and tried to get out of her way, but she
was really nice and helped me pick up all my stuff.  She
even wished me good luck on the rest of the day.  Wasn't
that nice of her?"

	"Er... yeah... guess it was."

	"We met off and on since then," continued Maya.
"But I was really surprised when I found out she was with
NERV, and my boss too!  It's neat how life works out, don't
you think?"

	Makoto smirked.  Shigeru, buddy, you never had a
chance with'er.  Well, at least she's happy.

	"So Dr. Akagi hasn't called in at all?"

	Maya shook her head sadly.

	"If she doesn't call in at all, maybe you oughta go
make sure she's okay?"

	Her blush came back, along with a shy and nervous
smile.  "I... I couldn't do that.  I don't want to intrude-"

	"C'mon, you might as well.  If you don't do it, some
MIB spook from NERV will.  You know how it goes."

	"I... I guess I could-"

	//"Ibuki Maya, please report to the Commander's
office at once."//

	The mention of Commander Ikari immediately brought a
chill to the conversation.

	"Hey, you in trouble?" asked Makoto, genuinely
concerned.

	Maya frowned, looking anxious as she peeled
away her gloves.  "I... I don't think I am."

                         -*-

 	"Have you noticed anything unusual about Rei's behavior of
late?" Gendo asked, his eyes boring into Maya's skull. 

	She shrunk back in the chair, which was hard and
uncomfortable.  "Rei's behavior is rarely what is normal for
a girl her age." 

	"Don't try to evade me.  Unusual by the standard of
her normal behavior." 

	"Well, she did seem a little...more relaxed than
normal." 

	"More relaxed?"  The tone of voice made her feel she
was hiding something. 

 	"She's seemed more...like a normal girl.  Normally, she's
very cold and stiff and formal.  But last time, she seemed a
lot more relaxed and pleasant.  And..."  She hesitated,
uncertain whether it would be wise to tell Shinji's father. 
"She seems to become a little embarrassed when the subject
of Shinji comes up, as if she...as if she had a crush on
him." 

	"She is at the age for having crushes," he said with
a very neutral tone of voice. 

	"Well, yes, I had the most horrendous crush on
someone at her age too, but I hadn't been hiding all my
feelings before that.  I suppose perhaps it simply means she
feels comfortable enough around me to not have to hide her
feelings."  She smiled a little.  "Love brings out the best
in us all." 

	For just a moment, Gendo smiled.  "Yes, it can.  But
it sometimes makes monsters of us as well." 

	"Commander..." she began, then found herself unable
to continue.  He would just slap her down again, and she was
getting tired of that. 

	"Perhaps you should ask yourself why she refuses to
tell you about it," Gendo said.  "That is all.  Good day." 

	Maya frowned, got up, and walked out.  A second
later, Fuyutsuki walked in and plopped down a pile of papers
on Gendo's desk.  "Arson is up 400% in Lumbasa.  I believe
we have our target." 

	"It's not a 'City of the Bean'." 

	"Perhaps the prophet was mistaken." 

	"He hasn't been wrong yet.  And eight different
prophets, writing in five languages in three different
millennia?  Some of whom didn't know the others existed? 
But there's something else we need to discuss first." 

	"Hmm?" 

	He handed a report over to Fuyutsuki.  "One of the
Children's classmates has been sent to the hospital, in a
coma.  Screamed in the middle of the night and hasn't woken
up since." 

	Fuyutsuki frowned.  "Do you think?" 

	"She has lost her balance.  I hoped that this would
be good for her, but it is happening too fast, and she lacks
the experience to deal with it.  A normal person could not
handle being in her position; for her, it must be much
worse."  He frowned.  "But she cannot be replaced yet.  The
latest report from DAGON was more an obituary than a
progress report.  Only two successes, and one is worthless
as a pilot, while the other is on its way to becoming
worthless in general and a threat besides."  He shook his
head.  "Bring her in.  We will have to take some strong
measures.  And prepare Chamber Five in Sector Thirteen." 

	"What about the Akagi situation?" 

	"Her timing is impeccably horrible.  She could
hardly have chosen a worse moment for the formula to start
to lose its effectiveness.  Especially since she's the only
person we have who can actually be trusted to work on a cure
for her."  He shook his head.  "We may have to put her in
cold storage until this is all over to save her, although I
would rather not."  He frowned.  "Unless..." 

	"Unless?" 

	"It might be possible to summon her mother." 

	"Who wouldn't want to help." 

	"True, but..." 

	"I will make sure preparations for suspended
animation have been made.  Perhaps her assistant would be
willing to help her." 

	"If she knew the truth?"  Gendo asked. 

	"Some people can see beyond the flesh," he said. 

	"But they're rare and precious, and I fear Maya is
still too young and superficial.  We cannot count on her to
do it.  A pity the Monteleone formula didn't work." 

	"Well, if she can hold out until the Day of Return,
then we will be able to do something for her." 

	"Without her, we may not make it to the Day of
Return to reciprocate," Gendo said.  "But we must prepare
for that eventuality."  He pushed his glasses up.  "Call me
when Rei has been brought in. 

	Fuyutsuki got up.  "I will."  He departed, leaving
Gendo to stew in his thoughts. 

                         -*-

	"Hey, Touji, what's wrong with you?"

	The boy in question stretched left and right,
finally leaning back against the tree, and to some extent
Hikari's shoulder.  "Didn't sleep well," he grunted.

	"Bad dreams?" she asked.

	"Somethin' like that."

	Touji's thoughts were restless at the moment,
wandering back to his last venture in the Dreamlands.  The
look of the dead girl's eyes haunted him badly, and death
was something new to him despite his tough attitude.

	He was also amazed that he'd woken up in one piece,
given that the monster he'd fought cracked open his armor
with one blow.  Dreaming these days was proving to be far
more hazardous to his health than he imagined.

	Rei... was that really Rei's face on the monster?
Pale skin, blue hair, those unmistakable red eyes... 

	What did he know about her, the mysterious First
Child?  Nothing, really.  He'd first seen her in school only
a few years back, and all this time she'd always kept to
herself.  Sure, she was kinda spooky, but she never bothered
anybody, not directly anyway.

	And... that was it.

	Since joining NERV, he learned not much else about
the girl, except that she did seem to open up a little
around Shinji.

	Aside from the strange and unexplainable feeling of
intimidation she radiated sometimes, there was nothing to
sug-

	Hrm.

	Maybe that was why everyone was scared of her.

	He shook his head, feeling a dull ache coming on.
Thinking about twisty things like this wasn't to his liking.
Might as well dump it on Asuka and let her sort it out.

	"Hey, Hikari?"

	"Hm?"

	"Where's Asuka?"

	The look she was giving him was murderous.

	"Aw, c'mon baby!  You know I don't think'a that
bitch like that!  I thought we were over this!"

	Hikari giggled and poked him.  "I know, just
teasing."  As he breathed a sigh of relief, she leaned
against his side once more, this time a little sad.  "By the
way, have you heard about that girl?"

	"What girl?"

	"A member of the student council, Mika, she went
into a coma last night."

	"Aw, man.  Anyone know why?"

	She shook her head.  "Can you come with me to the
hospital later?  I don't wanna visit her alone... I don't
like hospitals."

	"Yeah, I know the feeling."

                         -*-

	It was a rather quiet day, thought Shinji.

	Touji was busy being with Hikari, doing the
boyfriend thing as he once put it.  Asuka, for some reason,
seemed a little uneasy around him as of late.  She wasn't
mad, but he wasn't sure what it was with her.

	And so he spent this lunch hour alone, on a quiet
corner of the courtyard near the front gates.

	Idly, he wondered where Ayanami was.

	"Shinji."

	Shinji was surprised.  It wasn't the normal
jump-out-of-his-skin surprised that Rei sometimes inspired,
but something else, something different, something new.

	There was a softness to her voice that he'd never
heard before.

	He turned to his side and saw her, a slight blush on
her cheeks as she stared shyly at the ground.

	"Ayanami?"

	"Ikari-kun.... I..."

	"Ikari Shinji, Ayanami Rei, we're with NERV
Security."

	The two children turned to the front gate to see a
dozen menacing men in black suits, watching them
dispassionately.

	"Er, is there a-"

	"Ayanami Rei is to report to NERV immediately, by
Commander Ikari's orders."

	Rei looked up at them with widened eyes.  "But I..."

	"Commander Ikari's words were to report to base
immediately," the head man in black stated simply.

	Rei looked down again, defeated, and accompanied
them through the gates.

	"Wait!" yelled Shinji.  "What's going on?  Is she in
trouble?"

	One of the men in black answered, not bothering to
face him.  "That's classified." 

                         -*-

	"Perhaps you should ask yourself why she refuses to
tell you about it," Maya muttered in a parrot-like voice,
infuriated at the insinuation that she'd done something
wrong.  What did he know?

	In irritation, she shot a rubber band across the
lab, then hunched down to resume her work.

	Or tried to.

	Commander Ikari had put her in a foul mood, ruining
her ability to focus.  It didn't help that the phone rang
just as she was about to get up for a cup of coffee.

	She picked up the phone angrily.

	"_What_?"

	//*cough* "M...Maya..."//

	The young scientist's eyes widened.

	"S-Sempai?  I'm sorry!  It's a little hectic here!"

	//"S... s'okay,"// Ritsuko replied, her voice
strangely hoarse, with a slight... gurgle to it.  //"Need...
need a favor."//

	"I'll do anything!" she blurted out eagerly.

	//"Vials... cabinet four... by my desk..."//

	Maya went to her sempai's desk quickly, looking
around.  She quickly found the cabinet with the '4' label on
it, though it had a keypad lock on it.

	"Sempai, it-"

	//"Three... two... eight... one."//

	Maya keyed in the numbers eagerly and the cabinet
opened with a hiss. Within were rows and rows of vials, each
holding strange liquids of varying colors.

	//"Bring them... to me."//

	"S-sempai?  What's wrong?"

	Ritsuko kept quiet, the rasping of her voice the
only thing heard.

	"Sempai?"

	//"Bring them."//

	-click-

                         -*-

	She stood before Ritsuko's place, just staring
at the scenery.  She didn't want to go any further, mainly
because she wasn't sure what was going on. 

	High above her was the semi-transparent ceiling of
the GeoFront, filtering in the light with tints of orange
and blue.  To her right was the lake, its waves crashing
gently upon a small white sand beach, across from the
lakeshore drive.  To her left was Ritsuko's condominium, a
modest one, but better than most apartments (including her
own).

	She looked down at the large cooler-on-wheels that
contained the chemicals that Ritsuko had requested and
wondered what they were for.  Maya had taken a look at a few
of them and was familiar with some.  A few were extracts
from the angels NERV had defeated, others were conventional
liquids.  A few were serums used to keep Ayanami stabalized.

	A tiny voice suggested something to Maya, but she
refused to hear it.

	With a deep breath, she went to the door and
knocked.  "Sempai?"

	A moment later, Ritsuko appeared.

	At least, she assumed it was Ritsuko.

	Her sempai was covered from head to toe, much like a
mummy, with medical bandages, scarves, a hat, thick
gloves and dark tinted goggles.

	"Do you havvit," she hissed.

	"S-sempai?"

	"Did... did you bring it?" Ritsuko hissed again.

	"Oh!  Yes, yes I did."  She pulled the cooler next
to her, and Ritsuko pulled it in immediately when she saw
it.  As Ritsuko heaved the case in, Maya followed
reluctantly.

	The inside of the house was a mess, with everything
strewn about in disarray.  Sitting amongst the wreckage,
along the far wall, was some heavy machinery similar to what
she'd seen at work.  Analysis machines, mixers,
microscopes...

	"Sempai... what's going on?"

	Maya reached out to the older woman, pulling on her
jacket.  The moment she tugged, Ritsuko whirled about.

	"DON'T TOUCH ME!"

	Reacting like a wounded puppy, Maya pulled back and
looked at the ground shamefully.

	"I'm sorry," she said quietly.  "I... I'll go."

	As she turned to leave, Maya's hand was suddenly
caught in an iron grip.

	"S-sempai, you're hurting me!"

	"Don't... don't go."


                         -*-

	Dear Anna,

	I hope your training goes well; I'm really looking
forward to having you here and introducing you to Hikari.  I
think you'll really like her.  I hope they have your EVA
ready for you soon. 

	We've been running through VR scenarios involving
fighting in cities.  I hope this is just practice and
doesn't mean we're actually going to have to fight the next
Angel inside one.  Shinji lost his grip on his weapon and
put it through my VR EVA's chest, so we didn't get a very
good grade.  If he does that for real, I'll have to pound
him flat. 

	We're having a Sadie Hawkins' dance, but I don't
have anyone to ask.  Well, I do, sort of, but I'm just not
sure if it's a good idea.  You shouldn't date your
co-workers, you know.  And he's just not as romantic as
Kaji.  On the other hand, going after a guy like Kaji...I
don't know what I was thinking.  He's twice my age
and...damn Misato anyway.  She stole my... 

	Had to pause and take a deep breath.  I'm a pilot,
the world depends on me, and Kaji had bad breath anyway. 
Really.  I have to be grown up about this.  Maybe if
I'd...enough of that.

	Oh, the dream stuff.  I did meet the cat; he helped
us out, which surprised me.  Haven't had any dreams about
a...So, what did the burning city look like? 

	Dr. Akagi is doing well, so far as I know.  I
haven't seen her in a few days, but she was just fine the
last I saw of her.  She seems to hang out with one of her
assistants a lot; I guess everyone needs a best friend. 
Maya is really nice.  I can't remember her last name; no one
ever uses it. 

	Anyway, Shinji's calling me to ask if I've done my
homework, so I'll just close here and go bail him out.  Then
he can bail me out on that boring literature homework.  I
wish SOMEONE in Japan had written something worth reading;
that class is fifty minutes of hell. 

				Your Friend,

				Asuka


                         -*-

	Drip. 

	Asuka crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it in
the garbage can.  Damn poetry, she thought. 

	Drip. 

	Shinji changed the channel.  A giant purple dinosaur
rotated on a spit as small children in masks and grass
skirts danced around him. 

	Click. 

	Drip. 

	'Must write a haiku
	But I think haiku are junk,
	Green grass dies screaming'. 

	Crumple. 

	Toss. 

	Drip. 

	Shinji watched three men fishing and drinking beer. 
Click. 

	Drip. 

	Asuka got to her feet and ran over to the sink,
unable to take it anymore.  She shoved the handle as hard as
she could. 

	Drip. 

	Shinji watched men wearing berets throw knives at a
poster of Jerry Lewis.  Click. 

	"Curse you, faucet!" Asuka shouted.  She exerted as
much force as she could. 

	Drip. 

	Shinji watched a junior high basketball game. 
Click. 

	Asuka gave up, turned around, and looked at Shinji. 
"Could you give me some HELP here?" 
	
	"Like what?" 

	"Ummm..."  She sighed.  "I can't deal with this
anymore!" 

	"Is it really that bad?"  Shinji got up and came
over. 

	Drip. 

	"Yes."  She sighed.  "I'm bored.  I wish Hikari
wasn't busy tonight." 

	"What's she...oh, the dance."  Shinji shook his
head.  "I never thought Touji would be her type, but...I
guess it's hard to tell what kind of guy a girl likes." 

	Drip. 

	"It's not easy for the girl sometimes, either." 
Asuka said.  "Telling what sort of guy she likes.  You get a
crush on some guy, and then he just does something wretched,
and you realize you didn't know him at all." 

	Shinji reached over and gave the cold water handle a
shove. 

	D...  The faucet stopped dripping. 

	"..." 

	"Well, you wanna do something?" Shinji asked.  "I'm
kinda bored too." 

	Asuka thought a second.  "Let's go to the dance.  No
reason to let Touji and Hikari have fun while we're watching
the paint peel, right?" 

	His eyes widened.  "Me and you go to the dance? 
But...I mean...I don't know much about dancing." 

	"You'll learn," she said.  "If you can defeat giant
monsters, dancing shouldn't be that much of a challenge." 

	"I mean..."  He stared just past her head.  "You
wanna go with me?" 

	"Unlike Touji, you're not a fungus in human form. 
C'mon, let's go." 

	"Umm, should I get dressed up?" 

	"Naah, let's blow this town.  Apartment.  Whatever." 
She grabbed his hand.  "C'mon, we need to hurry if we're
going to be there a decent amount of time." 

	Shinji blushed a little and let himself be dragged
off into the night. 

                         -*-

	Maya was scared.

	Whatever Ritsuko was ill from, it'd apparently done
something to her hands, because she refused to take her
gloves off and was impossibly clumsy with them on.

	Instead, Maya had become her hands and eyes, working
as Ritsuko ordered.  Her sempai's orders came quickly and
sharply, and Ritsuko showed very little patience on this
night.

	Most of her labor was circled around testing the
effects of various serums on cell samples.  Some she was
familiar with as Angel samples, one of them was from Rei,
and another was something that resembled slightly mutated
human cells.  None of the samples involved germs or viruses.

	Piece by piece, the nature of Ritsuko's ailment was
becoming clearer, though still terribly vague.  It could
have been anything from a genetic disorder to some exotic
sort of poisoning. 

	Her thoughts on the matter were derailed when
Ritsuko suddenly cried out in pain, doubling over and
falling to the floor.

	"Sempai!"

	"S-stay ba-back."  Ritsuko clumsily groped for the
row of syringes, but her hands failed her badly.

	"Sempai, let me," Maya said urgently.  Without
thinking, she picked up the syringe and reached for Ritsuko.
The older woman feebly pulled away from her touch, but Maya
held her arm firmly.  "Sempai, please," she urged.  "Let me
help you.  Please."

	"Nng..."

	Though Ritsuko still twitched with seizures, she
ceased resisting Maya's touch.  The younger girl gently
rolled up Ritsuko's labcoat, then gasped at what she saw. 

	Ritsuko's arm had a sickly yellowish tint, like
bile, with unhealthy patches of green.  Her skin was cold to
the touch, rough and unyielding, and the flesh underneath
felt hard in a rubbery sort of way. 

	Maya's fears deepened.

	Whatever was wrong with Ritsuko, it had spread
drastically.

	With trembling hands, she inserted the syringe.  It
met some resistance at first, but a firm push from Maya sent
it plunging through the hardened muscle.  She watched, in a
daze, as the strange liquid sank into Ritsuko's skin, and
pulled away slowly.

	Ritsuko's seizures slowly eased, until Ritsuko laid
at rest silently on the floor.  Through it all, Maya kept a
hand gently on her arm, hoping her touch would soothe
Ritsuko somehow.

	Slowly, Ritsuko sat up, pulling away from Maya's
touch slowly as she did.

	"Thank you, Maya."

	Any other day, the words would've sent Maya soaring
in happiness, but Ritsuko's illness was foremost in her
mind.

	"Sempai... what... what's making you sick?"

	Ritsuko turned away, trudging towards the racks of
chemicals and samples.  "It's a... hereditary disorder," she
replied hesitantly.  "Now back to work, c'mon, my time is
running out."

                         -*-

	The tunes of Blue Monday, one of the hottest teen
bands in mid-2010s Japan blared through the junior high
gymnasium while various teachers stuck playing chaperones
tried not to gag.  Many nervous teens milled about, dancing
or watching others dance, depending on how brave they were
while Kanzaki-sensei, one of the gym coaches, stood watch
over the punch and snack table to keep any fool (or any
teacher) from spiking it.  This was not the most exciting of
duties. 

	A blast of cool air rushed in as the gym doors
opened, and many people turned and looked.  The music
changed to "Can't Stop Missing You", by the upcoming singer
Hagesawa Hayao.  o/~ I was walking through the mall / and I
saw you across the way, / tried to run you down / just so I
could say, / 'Can't stop missing you' o/~

	Whispers ran through the room as everyone saw who
Asuka was with, and a few laughs when the gym door nearly
closed on Shinji because he took too long to come in.  Then
he froze up with everyone looking at him.  "Umm..." 
	
	"C'mon, Shinji.  They don't bite," Asuka said. 

	"Uh, I mean, I've never been dancing and..." 
	
	Asuka dragged Shinji out to the floor, and started
trying to move to the beat.  "Come on and dance!" 

	Shinji looked around at everyone, "I don't know
how." 

	"Just move to the music!" 

	Shinji began to sort of bounce back and forth
between his two legs, trying to get a feel for the beat.  It
wasn't hard, since the music was fairly simplistic compared
to what he was used to.  Soon, he was swaying back and
forth, rather like a metronome.  He wasn't sure what else to
do, though. 

	He tried watching Asuka, but her dancing seemed to
consist of random bobbing about, arm movements with no
pattern, and a lot of spinning about.  Then again, so did
everyone else's.  So he watched one of her repeated moves,
which involved swaying her arms like branches in the wind
and added that. 

	Then the song stopped.  Asuka said, "I think you're
starting to get it." 

	I am? he thought.  "But how do you know what to
do?" 

	"You just let the music move you." 

	Easier said than done, he thought.  The music
started up, and he continued experimenting.  Four songs
later, he felt like he was starting to get the hang of it,
although he still couldn't quite figure out how to go past
just imitating other folk.  Especially when they usually
were completely off the beat. 

	Then the music changed, switching over to a soft
song that none of them recognized (because Hasegawa-sensei
had forced the DJ to play it to save his own sanity), but
the girls all knew the drill on this sort of tune.  Many
very nervous guys were soon slow-dancing with the girl who
had brought them.  Shinji saw Touji shuffling along with
Hikari, who was beaming. 

	Asuka said, "Do you know how to waltz?" 

	"Sort of." 

	"Sort of?" 

	"One of my cello teachers taught me, but I haven't
done it much.  She thought I should know since I'd learned
some waltzes." 

	"Good!"  Asuka took Shinji's hands, then paused. 
"Want me to lead?" 

	"No, no, I'll lead," Shinji said. 

	They began to move--left foot forward, then right
foot forward and up on the toes, left foot up on the toes,
then right foot forward, left forward and up, right up. 
Asuka glided backwards, smiling at Shinji, who relaxed a
little. 

	He decided to try a spin, which he sort of
remembered how to do.  She remembered better than him,
spinning outwards gracefully...then nearly crashing into him
when he briefly lost the beat.  But they recovered and
continued to circle the floor. 

	Several more half-remembered moves came out, were
fumbled, and then improved, and by the time the music ended,
Shinji found himself hoping for another slow song, as this
was more fun than twitching randomly. 

	Instead, o/~ Burn Your School o/~ came on for a few
seconds, followed by Hasegawa-sensei whacking the DJ in the
head and changing it to o/~ Rock the Planet to the Ground
o/~.  Shinji said, "I think I could use a drink." 

	"Me too," Asuka said, following him over.  "Hi,
Kanzaki-sensei.  How did the track team do?" 

	Kanzaki-sensei winced.  "We'll do better next time." 
She poured Asuka and Shinji each a glass of punch.  "Nice to
see you two came." 

	"It beat watching TV," Shinji said. 

	"Don't tell me you're not having fun," Asuka said. 

	"Well, I like waltzing." 

	Touji and Hikari emerged from the mob and came over. 
Touji drank an entire glass of punch in one gulp.  "Don't
you ever get tired?" he asked Hikari. 

	"Not when it's important." 

	Asuka laughed.  "Can't take the pressure, Touji?" 

	"Better than you!" 

	"Is that a challenge?" 

	"No, you're never a challenge." 

	"Whoa, calm down," Kanzaki-sensei said.  "We're here
to have fun." 

	"So what was that thing you two were doing?"  Hikari
asked Asuka. 

	"Waltzing," Asuka said. 

	"That some kind of new German dance?" Touji asked. 

	Asuka laughed.  "New to you, anyway.  I doubt you
could handle it." 

	"I can handle anything!" 

	Asuka grinned.  "Time for a little dance lesson,
then." 

			-*-

	Shinji watched Touji nearly trample Hikari again. 
"I can't believe he's having such a hard time of it." 

	"Lacks rythym," Asuka said.  "And a brain." 

	"I heard that," Touji said. 

	"Hmm, maybe we should split up and each of us dance
with one of them to help them get the knack of it," Shinji
said. 

	"You've GOT to be crazy," Asuka said. 

	"I'd appreciate that," Hikari said. 

	Somehow Asuka found herself dancing with Touji,
despite the fact that she would rather dance with Shinji's
father instead.  Or Godzilla.  In fact, it was rather like
dancing with Godzilla.  "Okay, let's take this nice and
slow," she said.  "Left foot forward, then right, going up
on the toes, then both feet up on the toes, then right foot
forward and so on.  A simple promenade." 

	Much to her surprise, he caught on quickly, although
when they tried to do a spin, he managed to step on one of
her feet and nearly lost his grip on her.  Still, fairly
quickly, she managed to get him doing the basic steps
correctly. 

	Hikari and Shinji had pulled ahead, and Shinji
couldn't see what was going on, although Hikari could.  She
said, "I'm glad you two came." 

	"Yeah," Shinji said.  "It beat another night of TV." 

	"I'm surprised Rei didn't ask you to come with her,
but I guess she doesn't like to dance." 

	Shinji nodded.  "Well, I'm not much of a dancer
myself." 

	"You waltz really well." 

	"That's just because I've studied classical music,"
he said. 

	The slow song ended and a faster one began, a tune
called 'Cruel Angel's Thesis'. 

	Touji and Asuka soon joined them, and Shinji danced
with them, feeling somewhat awkward, although gradually his
awkwardness eased as they all kept dancing.  Touji said to
Shinji, "Here, try this," and demonstrated his favorite
routine.  Soon, they were doing it in unison, making Asuka
laugh and Hikari clap. 

	Then it was time for another break, with the promise
of dancing yet to come. 

                         -*-

	At long last, Ritsuko had fallen asleep, passing out
on the couch as she watched over her protege's work.  Maya
looked at her prone form for a moment, wishing she could
join Ritsuko on the couch.

	It was a brief respite from a night that left Maya
with more questions than answers.

	All through the night, Ritsuko had Maya injecting
her with syringe after syringe, each one filled with a
variation of the previous serum.  Each injection seemed to
ease Ritsuko's pain, but at the price of draining her
energy.  After looking some more at the serums that had been
injected into Ritsuko, there was little doubt that they were
variants of the one they used on Rei.

	Why?

	The strange change that had taken a hold of her
sempai, the denser muscles, the drastically mutated skin,
she'd never seen anything like it before.

	What was wrong with her?

	The worst thing was that Ritsuko knew exactly what
was wrong, but she didn't tell Maya, evaded every time she
asked.  Ritsuko didn't trust her.

	What did Maya do wrong?

	The woman with all the answers was just a heartbeat
away, but Maya couldn't bear to wake her up.  Instead, she
turned back to her work, burning away the midnight oil.

                         -*-

	Shinji felt strange.

	Shinji felt good. 

	This was simultaneous. 

	At times, Shinji's life had a soundtrack, and right
now a tiny DJ inside his head was playing 'Walking on
Sunshine'.  Usually, when Shinji felt like this, something
quickly leaped in to ruin it, like a sudden rain shower or
an earthquake or discovering he'd forgotten to do his
homework. 

	Instead, Asuka simply said, "You really waltz well,
Shinji." 

	"Thanks," he said.  "You're pretty good, too." 

	"Aren't you glad I made you come?" she said, sliding
a little closer to him as they reached their building. 

	"Yeah," he said.  "That was a lot more fun than
watching TV.  I hope they have another dance." 

	"Hikari had so much fun, I'm sure they will," Asuka
said. 

	They started up the stairs as Asuka said, "Although
I hope she teaches him how to not step on people's feet and
be such a clutz.  Hikari didn't step on your feet, did she?" 

	"She was pretty graceful," Shinji said, fumbling for
his keys in his pocket. 

	Asuka pulled hers out in one fluid motion.  "I'll
get the door.  I still need to teach you how to just get
down and dance, though." 

	"Maybe tomorrow."  He yawned.  "I'm exhausted." 

	"Me too," she said.  They reached the front door,
and Asuka reached for it, only to have it open under its own
power.  Shinji blinked in confusion, and Asuka got into a
fighting stance. 

	"Wark!" Pen-Pen announced. 

	"Watch out for the vicious penguin," Shinji said
dryly. 

	Asuka stuck out her tongue at Shinji.  "It COULD
have been trouble." 

	Pen-pen preceded them into the kitchen/living room
area, then pointed at Misato sprawled out on the couch.  For
a moment, Shinji thought she'd been hit, then he realized it
was just a hickey on her neck.  Or at least, he thought it
was one.  He picked up three discarded beercans and dropped
them on Misato. 

	Asuka frowned.  "She could at least pass out in her
own room." 

	"Well, it is her apartment."  He pointed at her
neck.  "Is that a hickey?  Or a bruise?" 

	"A hickey is a bruise, I think," Asuka said,
frowning more.

	"I guess she and Kaji had fun tonight too, then,"
Shinji observed. 

	Asuka gritted her teeth.  "That's no way for the
commander of NERV Tactical to carry on." 

	"Well, I'm sure we probably had more fun than them,
or she wouldn't have had to drink herself to sleep," Shinji
said, trying to be conciliatory. 

	Asuka nodded.  "We did.  And what kind of guy leaves
his girlfriend drunk and passed out on a couch?  What a
punk."  Her voice was a little strained.  "Well, Touji
might, but I'd kill him if he did that to Hikari.  You
wouldn't do something like that, would you, Shinji?" 

	"I wouldn't let her drink like that," Shinji said. 
"Hmm, I probably should get Misato a blanket." 

	"Shinji," Asuka said.  "Why do people fall in love
with someone who's bad for them?" 

	"Actually, Kaji seems to usually be pretty good for
Misato," Shinji said, then looked at Asuka's face and
realized that was the _wrong_ sort of answer to give.  He
fumbled for a different response.  "Because people are
stupid?"  Still not quite right.  "Because we what we want
and what we need are often different.  Before I came here, I
thought I wanted to live alone, for everyone to just go
away.  But I dunno if I could live like that anymore." 

	"That must have been really lonely." 

	"Not at the time; I was used to it.  But I guess
you've never been lonely."  Shinji started down the hallway
to get a blanket, and Asuka followed him. 

	"What makes you think that?" 

	"You're smart and cute and, well...everyone likes
you." 

	Asuka blushed slightly.  "I've never had many close
friends," she said.  "A lot of kids don't like smart people,
and a lot of the guys my own age were total idiots, even if
they were supposed to be smart." 

	Shinji pushed Misato's door open with his foot and
got the blanket off her bed, sending a purse, a loaded clip,
three magazines, a report, two pillows, a battered stuffed
dog, and a box of tampons flying in all directions.  "Yeesh,
what a mess," he said. 

	"Her mom must have kicked her butt every day at our
age," Asuka said. 

	"Probably," Shinji replied, heading back out into
the hallway.  "You really had trouble making friends?" 

	"I had a lot of friends, but not many close friends. 
Not people I could trust, who I could really tell my
secrets.  I miss Pieter and Anna a lot.  I hope she gets to
come here soon." 

	Shinji paused and looked thoughtful for a moment. 
"I really don't have anyone to miss." 

	Asuka's eyes widened.  "Really?" 

	Shinji spread the blanket out over Misato. 
"Everyone I care about lives here in Tokyo-3." 

	"..."  Asuka stared at him as he pulled Misato's arm
up from hanging off the couch and put it across her chest,
then covered it.  "Everyone?" 

	"Well, everyone human.  I've had a few pets who
aren't here," Shinji said, picking a small pillow off the
floor and sliding it under Misato's head.  "You know, I've
gotten quite good at this," he said, laughing a little. 

	"No friends you miss?  Not the people you lived with
either?"  Asuka pulled Misato's feet into a more comfortable
position. 

	"Not really.  I was usually alone, and my aunt and
uncle didn't really care about me.  They weren't cruel,
but...I was just a burden to them."  He shrugged.  "I like
living here." 

	"I wish they'd sent you to Germany, then.  Frau
Himmelfarb was very, very good to me after my parents died. 
She'd have taken good care of you too." 

	Shinji stepped back and surveyed Misato.  "Did I
miss anything?" 

	Asuka turned out the living room lights, veiling
them in shadow, although some light shone in through the
window.  Bright stars twinkled around the full moon.  "I'd
hate my father if he'd treated me like he treated you." 

	"Even when I hate him, I can't hate him all the way,
you know.  He's my father.  Sometimes I just..." 

	"You just?"  Asuka came over to stand by Shinji. 

	"I wonder why he had a child he didn't want.  Did he
know I'd be a pilot one day?" 

	"He couldn't have.  There was nothing to pilot
then," she said.  "I guess he just lost interest after your
Mom died.  The bastard." 

	"Don't call him that," Shinji said.  "He's doing his
best to save the world.  I guess that has to take priority." 

	"That is NO excuse for how he treats you.  I'd beat
him down if he was my father and treated me like that.  He
wouldn't even let you live with him!" 

	"Maybe he knew I'd be better off here," Shinji said
faintly. 

	Asuka started to reply, then wondered for a moment
if Shinji was right.  "You are better off here," she said. 
"With people who actually care if you live or die." 

	Shinji blushed slightly at that.  "Ummm..." 

	"Just take some pride in yourself, okay?  Don't let
your father trample on you." 

	He nodded. 

	"You're saying yes to avoid an argument." 

	He nodded. 

	"Sometimes you drive me nuts," she said, looking at
him and at the peacefully sleeping Misato. 

	He nodded a third time, not sure what to say. 

	She laughed.  "But then you do something that
changes my mind, like dancing wonderfully.  I had a lot of
fun tonight, Shinji." 

	"Me too," he said, then yawned.  "I'd better go to
bed." 

	Asuka looked at Misato again, then up at Shinji. 
"Have you ever been on a date before?" 

	"No." 

	"Well, you do know how a date ends, right?" 

	He blinked.  "Umm...no." 

	A second later, she was right in front of him. 
"It's supposed to end with a kiss."  Before he knew what hit
him, her lips met his.  He nearly fell down from surprise. 
Then she was back at a more normal distance. 

	"Huh?" he said, blinking. 

	Asuka smirked.  "Next time, you're supposed to be
the one who initiates that."  And then she was gone down the
hallway. 

	"Next time?" 

                         -*-

	"My feet hurt," Touji said.

	"So do mine, but mine hurt because you kept stepping 
on them," Hikari replied.  She shivered slightly in the cold 
night air as they walked down the street to her house.  

	"Hey, I only did that a few times.  And you stepped on 
mine at the snack table."

	She shivered a little more to try to help him get the 
point.  It didn't sink in, so she said, "It's cold tonight."

	"Y'want my jacket?" he asked.

	Blatant or not blatant, she asked herself.  Not 
blatant.  She stepped a little closer to him.  "You'd get 
cold."

	"I can hack it," he said, taking off his jacket and
putting it around her shoulders.  "Here you go." 

	Courage failed and she couldn't bring herself to
push harder.  "I think I Iike waltzing." 

	"It was funner than I thought it would be. 
Especially since the Kaiser likes it." 

	"Her name is Asuka." 

	"Asuka, Kaiser, Bitch From Hell, same thing." 
	
	"Touji!" 
	
	"Okay, okay, sorry.  Still... I guess she does make
a pretty decent pilot."  He looked over at her.  "You feel
warmer now?" 

	"Yeah," she replied.  "So when's your first
mission?" 

	"We got more training to do, first.  And they gotta
find the next one.  I keep wondering how many of them are,
and if there's some boss monster we'll have to fight in the
end." 

	Hikari laughed.  "Life is not a video game." 

	"Yeah?  Tell that to the NERV guys.  All I been
doin' so far is VR stuff.  The guy with the glasses set up a
scenario where I got to simulate fighting Kooshiel, or
whatever that one crab lizard squeegie thing was.  Langley
lost her EVA's hand when she fought it, but I beat it
without a scratch.  I guess Shinji and Rei must have to
cover for her in a real fight.  She does sorta know a lot
about the Dreamlands, though." 

	Hikari tried to take his hand, then courage failed
her.  "The Dreamlands, that sounds interesting.  What's it
like in there?" 

	"I'll take ya round it some time.  The King's pretty
cool.  Langley'll probably complain, but I can teach you
better 'n she did.  And I promise I won't throw you off any
cliffs.  I'd take you there tonight, but I gotta wrap up
some business there first.  Assuming I don't just dream
about music all night, anyway."  He thought a minute.  "Ya
know, I bet the King probably has dances and stuff all the
time.  Didn't they do that waltz thing back then?" 

	"It's old," she said.  "I know that." 

	Far too soon, they arrived at her front door. 
"You'll go with me to the next dance, won't you?" she asked. 

	"Yeah," he said.  "We oughta practice so we can show
Langley we're better'n she is next time." 

	Hikari laughed.  "Sure, I'd love to." 

	They stood and stared at each other, not quite sure
what to do next, neither of them wishing to make the night
end.  Finally, Touji said, "Pop was right." 

	"Eh?" 

	"You wouldn't think..." he began, then simply closed
his eyes and leaned forward. 

	Hikari felt her heart pound.  Is he going to kiss
me?  It must be, she thought.  Either that or...I don't know
what else it could be.  She leaned forward and upward onto
her toes, then bumped noses with him. 

	Their eyes popped open, and they both laughed
nervously.  With a slight alignment, they met again, this
time lip to lip, for just a few seconds.  Then Touji jumped
backwards like he'd been shocked.  "G'night, Hikari," he
said. 

	"Goodnight, Touji," she said, then opened the door
and went inside, pausing to wave goodbye from the doorway. 

	Man, what a great night, he thought.  Now I just
have to go to the Dreamlands, finish off that monster and... 

	Reality rushed in on him.  Wait, I'd just been
knocked out when I was last asleep.  What if it whacked me? 
Or what if I lost an arm or something?  Man, that would
suck, he thought. 

	His thoughts drifted to the girl, the one he'd seen
in the Dreamlands, torn to pieces savagely.  There wasn't a
doubt in his mind that was the same girl who'd gone into a
coma. 

	Well, since Touji wasn't in a coma, he had to assume
he was still alright in the Dreamlands.  Likely fucked up
beyond belief, but otherwise alright.

	And then the monster... 

	It looked sorta like Rei, he thought.  But Rei
wouldn't go around whacking people, would she?  Creepy as
Rei was, he didn't want to believe she murdered people in
her dreams.  Maybe it's just some monster than can look like
someone you know.

	He wanted to believe that, but wasn't sure if he
really did.

                         -*-

	Touji was pleasantly surprised when he entered the
Dreamlands.  He was out of the woods, which was the first
thing he noticed.  Instead, he found himself on a fairly
comfortable bedchamber, and bandaged as well.  Someone had
apparently found him and patched him up. 

	He blinked, then immediately looked over himself to
make sure nothing was missing.  Touji had worried that the
monster might've gnawed off an arm or something as he laid
unconscious.  Being in one piece was a bit of a surprise,
but nothing he was going to complain about. 

	His back hurt like hell, though. 
	
	Just as Touji tried to rise from bed, an elderly
gentleman in dark victorian gentlemen's clothes (black
breeches, boots, and a frilly and poofy shirt that Touji
would define as 'sissy') entered the room, a large black
bag clutched in one hand. 

	"Ah, Sir Touji." 
	
	"Er, yo."  Touji spent another few seconds staring
at him.  "Who're you?" 

	The doctor gave a slight bow.  "I am Ian Ferguson,
physician to King Kuranes' court.  The King sent me to
attend to you, after you were found wounded and unconscious
in the outskirts of our lands." 

	"Issatso?  Huh." 
	
	Touji strained to get up, groaning as he did. 
Ferguson's hand gently pressed down on Touji's chest,
keeping the boy down. 

	"Sir Touji, you need your rest," the doctor urged. 
"Your wounds are yet to be healed fully." 

	"Ow... I see whatcha mean." 
	
	"Now, please relax as I apply the medicinal
leeches." 
	
	"Oh.  WHOA!  HOLD IT!" 
	
	Touji's cries stopped the doctor just as he held up
a jar, dozens of dark forms writhing within.  "Is
something-" 

	"No leeches!  No freakin' way!" 
	
	"But-" 
	
	"Don't care what you say, no leeches.  I'll chew on
some weird-ass root or drink nasty tea or something if ya
want, but I ain't gonna get sucked on by no leeches."  In
defiance, he crossed his arms.  Something in his back went
'crack', causing his eyes to shoot open as an accompanying
jolt of pain shot up his spine, but to his credit, he
managed to resist the urge to yell out in pain. 

	"Without a proper bleeding, you may become ill due
to infectious substances remaining in the wound or any
poisons you may have..." 

	"I already bled enough fighting that thing." 

	The doctor sighed and shook his head, putting the
jar back into his bag.  "Very well, as you wish, though I
strongly advise you reconsid-" 

	"Nuh-uh." 
	
	"-er... Whatever you do, Sir Touji, do get some
rest, for thy wounds shall take some time to heal." 

	"Yeah?  How much time?" 
	
	"A few weeks, perhaps." 
	
	"Shit." 
	
	Once more, the doctor gave a slight bow.  "Good day,
Sir Touji."  And with that he departed. 

	This, thought Touji, was no good.  He still had a
score to settle, and he still had to know for sure... 

	Was that thing Rei? 

	He took a few deep breaths, braced himself, then
managed to rise to his feet. 

	"Ow... this ain't gonna be a good day." 
	
	At this point, he realized he had no plan.  Just
what was he gonna do anyway?  He didn't see his weapon and
armor anywhere, and his armor was busted in the back anyway. 
Crap, that was a loaner from the king, not good.  Even if he
did, he had to admit he was really too messed up to fight. 

	"Glad the bitch ain't here to see this," he
muttered. 
	
	Touji blinked, then looked around cautiously.  Had
to be sure she wasn't there, after all.  The universe
sometimes worked in mysterious and embarrassing ways. 

	There seemed to be only one thing left to do, and
that was to go see the king and ask what the heck was going
on.  He hoped the king knew who brought him out there and
what hapened to ... whatever that monster was. 

	Oh, and beg forgiveness for getting the king's
loaner set trashed. 

	Grabbing a robe hung by the door, he slowly made his
way through the castle, drawing some curious looks by
servants though none tried to stop him. 

	As he passed through one corridor, Touji suddenly
felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.  Something was
up, something bad, and something nearby. 

	From a dark corridor emerged several ebony-robed
monks, their faces hidden by cowls, the unmistakable
insignia of NERV placed upon their chests.  One of them
noticed Touji staring, and stepped menacingly towards him. 

	"Move on, boy, no business of yours is here." 
	
	"Hey buddy, I'm a NERV pilot and-" 
	
	"It matters not," the monk cut in.  "Move onwards,
else-"

	"Delay not brother, move on," said another voice, as
yet another cowled monk emerged from the doorway.  "I would
speak to this one." 

	Touji's eyes widened.  He knew that voice. 
	
	Commander Ikari. 
	
	A flicker of red behind him made Touji realize there
was someone else in the dark corridor as well.  As the robed
figure of Commander Ikari emerged into the light, the pale
and silent form of Rei Ayanami followed, dressed in a
nondescript dress. 

	"Ayanami?  What're you-" 

	Commander Ikari interrupted his question, speaking
as he pulled down his cowl to make it clear to Touji who he
was speaking with.  "Pilot, you are to make no further
inquiry in regards to the... monster you had been pursuing. 
This is an order." 

	"What?  But-" 
	
	"Further inquiry will be considered treason, and as
such you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent." 

	"But-" 
	
	"You had best consider what is more beneficial to
you...  and your sister." 

	Touji's eyes narrowed.  "Hey, don't mess with my
sister, you-" 

	"I am not threatening your sister," Commander Ikari
said in his unyielding, cold tone.  "I am merely reminding
you where your best interests lay." 

	Touji had to admit it, the bastard was right. 
	
	"Dammit... fine." 
	
	Gendo gazed at Touji for a while, as if peering into
his very soul, then nodded once and pulled the cowl over his
head.  "And pilot..." 

	"Yeah?" 
	
	"You will forget everything you have seen here
today.  This is an order." 

	Without waiting for a reply, Gendo turned away and
slowly walked away, leaving Touji simmering.  Soon after him
walked Rei, though before she left, the albino girl's gaze
met Touji's for a brief second. 

	Her demeanor was incredibly rigid and cold, moreso
than he'd ever seen of her in school, but there was
something he saw... 

	As his gaze met hers, he saw within her red eyes
something moving.  He found his gaze drawn in, as if he'd
somehow gained the ability of zoom lense vision.  As his
focus was drawn into her eyes, he could see something within
them moving, spinning, turning.  First one circle, then
another, and yet another, each one a layer, and with each
layer an intricate series of strange symbols and drawings,
seemingly endless circles within circles within circles, all
within the surface of her eyes.

	And beyond those symbols, circles, arcane markings
and glyphs, he sensed something alive, angry, raging to be
set free. 

	In silence and with no emotion, she turned away and
followed Commander Ikari down the halls, leaving Touji to
wonder if someone had put something in his water.

                         -*-

	The first rays of sunlight streaked through the
tall windows of the condominium, basking Maya in warmth as
she slowly woke up.

	She groaned as the last wisps of sleep fell away,
leaving her groggy and sore.  Falling asleep sitting on a
work stool was never comfortable, and the keyboard didn't
make a very comfortable pillow either.  Maya rubbed her
face, feeling the telltale dents left on her face by
sleeping on the keys, and she groaned.

	Her back popped and snapped as she stretched it,
trying to work out the soreness.  Outside, she could hear
the morning songbirds chirping and the initial stirrings of
rush hour traffic, as well as the gentle waves of the lake.

	"Mmm... sempai... when did I fall asleep?"

	The sofa where Ritsuko had laid was now empty.  Maya
frowned.

	"Sempai?  Where are you?"

	She took a moment to rub the sleep away from her
eyes, then looked aroud curiously, calling out for her
sempai.  The bathroom was empty, the bedroom as well, all
the house quiet and empty.

	The only thing out of the ordinary was that the
front door was slightly ajar.

	Did Ritsuko leave?  Where could she have gone?  Maya
rushed outside, then sighed in relief when she saw Ritsuko's
car was still there.

	So then... where was she?

	A walk on the beach seemed to be the only answer, so
Maya crossed the street and looked about the shore, where
she saw a solitary figure, her back to Maya, gazing out at
the huge lake.

	From far away, she could see Ritsuko had finally
shed her jackets, gloves and glasses, though the shadows of
the trees kept her in silhouette.

	"Sempai?" she called out.  Ritsuko's head tilted
slightly, but she otherwise did not move.

	Something about her sempai made Maya reluctant to
approach too closely.  As she came within a few meters of
the grove of trees, she stopped.  Ritsuko had shifted
slightly, hiding herself within the shadows and trees, but
still remained.

	"Sempai..."

	"It calls to me," Ritsuko said, breaking her silence
softly.  "Every day, for years, it's called to me, you
know."

	"What... what has?"

	"The sea."

	"The sea?"

	"Maya... let me tell you a story.  Come closer, have
a seat."

	She did as her sempai asked, entering the grove of
trees.  Ritsuko had her back turned to her, wearing a simple
white t-shirt and jean shorts.  Her arms, her legs, they
were all an odd pale color, with some odd dark spots here
and there.

	Feeling it was wrong to confront her sempai yet,
Maya took a seat behind her, an arm's length away.

	"Okay, sempai, the story..."

	Ritsuko nodded slowly.  "The story..."  She took a
deep breath, craning her head up slightly as she did.  "Once
upon a time, there was a kingdom, a seafaring kingdom the
likes of which would have put Atlantis to shame, I think,
though some say this kingdom was what inspired the tales of
Atlantis..."

	"They were a large kingdom, their empire covering
most of the world... but times changed, and the kingdom
faded away.  Now, the kingdom is scattered, her children
wandering the world, waiting for a time when their king will
rise again."

	For a few seconds, the only sound was the gentle lapping
of water against the shores of the lake, and the faint but omnipresent
sound of machinery that always filled the atmosphere of the Geofront.  

	"That's a sad story," said Maya quietly.

	"Oh, oh no, it isn't a sad story at all," said
Ritsuko calmly.  "You see, this was a kingdom of monsters,
all monsters, and they all deserved to die..."

	Maya didn't understand what was going on.  What did
Her story have to do with her condition?

	"Sempai, I don't understand..."

	"I can hear them," Ritsuko said again, this time
faintly.  "I can hear the call, and sometimes it's so hard
to resist.  I've been fighting so long, and it's been so
hard, so very hard.  You couldn't possibly know..."

	"Sempai, please, let's go back to the house."

	"Before humanity touched this earth, they existed,
these monsters.  And when humanity came, they used them as
cattle and they used them as sport and used them as
something to fuck..."

	Maya's eyes widened at Ritsuko's suddenly bitter
tone.  Was Ritsuko going mad before her eyes?  Her mind
finally snapped from whatever disease had taken hold of her?

	"And maybe humans are monsters too, Maya, maybe
humans are too, because, you see, they have children, and
those children... those children..."

	"Sempai... you're sick... please come back-"

	Ritsuko let out a sharp laugh.  "Sick?  I'm not
sick, not at all.   This isn't sickness, this is evolution. 
Don't you understand?  I'm... I am my mother's daughter...
I am a monster."

	And finally Ritsuko faced her.

	Maya tried not to gasp, she tried not to scream.
Her sempai's eyes had changed, slightly larger, her irises
seeming to swallow all of her eyes.  She could see the
way Ritsuko's fingers were forming webs between the fingers
as well, fingers that were inhuman.

	"Oh God, Maya," whispered Ritsuko.  "I don't want to
be a monster."  She broke down in tears, burying her face in
her webbed hands.  There seemed to be an endless stream of
tears, neverending, from the woman's eyes.

	Maya reached out, slowly, and put a hand on
Ritsuko's shoulder.

	"Sempai," she said, her own voice on the edge of
sobbing.  "Sempai... you're not a monster.  You're not."
And suddenly she leaned forward and took Ritsuko into her
arms, holding her tightly.

	Ritsuko's eyes widened in surprise.

	"Maya..."

	The younger girl couldn't help it, she cried as
well, and through her sobs she said, "You're not a monster,
you're not.  I believe in you, I always have... I always
will.  Whatever it takes, I'll be there for you, sempai.  I 
won't give up, so please, please don't."

	"It's hard, Maya, it's so hard..."

	"Sempai... I... I love you."

	A silence fell between them, filled by the sound of
the waves crashing on the beach.

	"Maya... look at me... look at what I am..."

	Maya pulled away, slowly, and gave a sad, teary-eyed
sort of smile.  "I'm looking at my sempai," she whispered,
then leaned forward slowly.

	Unseen by the world, hidden amongst the grove of
trees on a lonely beach, two lips met, and two lonely souls
found shelter in the storm of their lives, if only for a
fleeting moment. 

                         -*-

	"C'mon, freakzoid, spill it."

	Touji glared at Asuka as they and Shinji walked to
school, briefly imagining giving the girl a solid boot to
the rear.

	"Spill what, yer royal bitchness?"

	Asuka cracked her knuckles.  "What'd you do to
Hikari last night?"

	"What?!"

	"Knowing you, you probably tried to do something
perverted to her."

	"Hey!  Just a damn-"

	"Suzuhara, if you've made her cry, I'm gonna hit you
so hard your head'll be spinning in your dreams."

	"I didn't do nothin'!" Touji protested.  "On the
other hand, I gotta feel sorry for Shinji here, knowin' yer
freaky abusive perverted nature.  God only knows what ya did
to the poor guy."

	"W-we didn't do anything!" Shinji and Asuka cried.

	At the same time.

	Touji raised an eyebrow, then looked at the two of
them suspiciously.

	"Shinji, buddy, say it ain't so."

	"W-what?"

	"Tell me she ain't got her hooks in ya!"

	"What're you talking abou... er..."

	It struck them all simultaneously, an icy chill up
their spines, the feeling of something wrong in the
universe.

	Something wicked their way came.

	They looked around, and saw the little signs they'd
become familiar with.  A flock of birds fleeing, small
mammals running, insects skittering away.

	And from around the corner emerged Rei, no emotion
on her face, no words from her mouth, just an eerily silent
walk.

	Asuka's thoughts were spinning.  Rei seemed to be...
well... almost _normal_ lately.  Subtly, after weeks and
months, she'd gotten used to the little changes.  She'd
forgotten how... eerie? disturbing? strange?  She'd
forgotten how it'd been when she first saw Rei, and now...

	"A-Ayanami?" said Shinji weakly.

	The First Child turned to look at them, her red eyes
shining even in the daylight.

	All three of them would say later they seemed drawn
in by those eyes, those terribe beautiful eyes.  And within
those eyes they would swear they saw circles within circles,
endless looks of arcane magic, and behind the circles....

	Something... undescribable.

                         -*-

	"Are you sure that was a good idea?"  Fuyutsuki
frowned. 

	"We could not allow another such occurance.  She
might have killed someone important.  She was raised so as
to ensure she wouldn't have any reason to hate anyone, as
best we could ensure that.  And to kill someone she could
have only barely known..."  He shook his head.  "If we had a
replacement available, I'd remove her entirely.  But that's
not an option yet, if ever." 

	Fuyutsuki nodded.  "But this won't last forever." 

	"Hopefully, she will regain her balance.  We can
reseal her if we must." 

	"She will grow too strong for us soon," Fuyutsuki
said.  "I begin to wonder if we will be able to bring
matters to their desired conclusion." 

	"We must.  Everything has gone according to plan. 
On the Day of Return, the Children will be ready." 

	"If we fail, they will destroy us." 

	"If we fail, there will be no good reason to
continue to exist.  Would you like to live in the world
where we failed?" 

	Fuyutsuki shuddered.  "I could not call that
living." 

	"Exactly.  But for now, we simply work towards that
day." 

	"May it come swiftly." 


                         -*-
                    - End Part 16-
                         -*-


OMAKE OMAKE OMAKE OMAKE


	In shades of black and white, projected on Gendo's
private monitor, Maya Ibuki and Ritsuko Akagi shared a
brief, hesitant kiss.

	Fuyutsuki turned away from the monitor, sighing.

	"Great.  Wonderful.  Look at us, Gendo, we're a pair
of dirty old peeping men with a big budget."

	"Hmm."

	"Will you stop watching them!  Have some decency,
man!"

	"Hmm."

	"Gendo!"

	Gendo assumed his usual pose, though his head was
tilted slightly.  "I was aware Ibuki was fiercely loyal to
Dr. Akagi, though it seems I greatly underestimated the
nature of her loyalty."

	"Yes, we can see that, now have some decency and
turn the surveilance cameras off."

                         -*-