-*- John Biles & Rod M. Present A Neon Genesis Evangelion Elseworlds Children of an Elder God Part 3 "Cherubim" -*- It was the same dream as before, Shinji within the maglev train as it made its way around the city. There was no other noise to be heard aside from the seemingly endless thrum of the train as it passed over the tracks. On the whole, it seemed like a rather pointless dream to Shinji. The train plunged for a moment into a tunnel, swallowing Shinji in darkness. Unseen, something scuttled along the floor, making rapid fire tap-tap-tap noises as it moved. Shinji turned nervously, trying to see what it was, but the train was still in darkness. "H-hello?" There was a whisper in the darkness, a grating, squealing, utterly alien voice that said a word that was unknown by Shinji, yet somewhat familiar. "Atlach-Nacha." Suddenly, the train emerged from the tunnel, flooding the cabin with light, revealing an endless entanglement of spiderwebs. On the floor, the ceiling, between poles, over doors, crossing the windows, silver-grey spider webs. And at the center of the train, its back turned to him, was a single spider-like shape, lurking within a thick nest of webs. Despite the fear he felt, Shinji slowly approached the creature, brushing aside cobweb veils with trembling hands. As he came closer, the creature turned to face him, its features still hidden by the webs. His hands shaking badly, Shinji parted the final veils and stared at the creature. And screamed. Hideously twisted, yet still recognizable, the monster within wore Shinji's own face. -*- The world passed by in a blur, but Shinji was numb to it, merely shambling through the streets of Tokyo-3 on the way to school. A serious lack of sleep had drained him of energy, leaving him in his current state. Maybe, thought Shinji, maybe I should just skip school today. He stopped, leaned over, and took several deep breaths. The world faded into black for a moment and he felt himself sinking into the ground. A pair of hands reached out and held him up. "Ikari." Shinji blinked, shook his head, then looked into two very red eyes. "Um, Ayanami," he said weakly. "Good morning." "You are not well." He wanted to believe there was just a hint of concern in that voice, but he was too tired to tell. "I didn't get much sleep last night." "I see." They stood there in silence again, Shinji taking deep breaths while Rei watched over him, ignoring and being ignored by the morning rush of walkers. "I wonder if I should just stay home today." Rei seemed puzzled. "Stay home?" "I don't know if I can make it through the school day." "You are not going to school yet." Shinji looked at Rei curiously. "I'm not?" "We are scheduled for more tests with Dr. Akagi today." Shinji's head slumped, along with the rest of himself. "Oh no." "We should return to school by third period." Great, grumbled Shinji to himself. More lab tests _and_ school. -*- The wretched taste of LCL fluid was something that just wouldn't leave his mouth for hours, an effect Dr. Akagi said would decrease as his exposure to LCL was increased. That didn't help his immediate discomfort. Alone, with his tongue hanging out from his mouth, stumbling around the hallways of NERV in desperate need of industrial strength mouthwash, Shinji settled for a can of cola from a vending machine. He quickly opend the can and drank, holding the liquid in his mouth for a while in hopes that it would dissolve the nasty taste of tar and roadkill that LCL seemed to emulate so well. Instead, the lingering taste of LCL somehow overpowered the soda, mixing with it into an entirely new and amazingly more noxious combination that forced Shinji to find the nearest water fountain and spit into it. And so, as he was gasping for air and wondering if trying to merely drink the soda quickly instead would be a better solution, he passed by the massive vault where the Eva units were kept. And he saw Rei, her back turned to him, talking to his father. His father. Talking. Smiling. Laughing. Shinji felt bitterness and envy rise within him. His father hadn't spoken any words to him since his arrival, none at all. And here he was talking to her and smiling at her and laughing with her and... He stalked away, the bitterness in his soul matching the foul taste in his mouth. -*- Being on the maglev train disturbed Shinji. It was all too much like those amazingly dull dreams he'd been having lately. Yet now seemed as good a time as any to ask... "Rei?" She turned to look at him, her expression as flat as always. It didn't faze Shinji like it used to, but it was still a bit unnerving. "I, um," Shinji scratched his head, not sure how to put the question. "What's my father like?" "Like?" she asked, sounding unsure. "I... I haven't talked to him," explained Shinji. "Not since I came here." He turned away, his expression darkening. "I don't know what he thinks of me. I don't even know if he cares." Rei's expression became subtly more puzzled. "I... I don't even know why I bothered to come here." "You are here to pilot the Eva, as am I." "Is that it?" Rei shrugged. "I saw you talking with father earlier. He was smiling and laughing. Why?" "I don't know." "You don't know?" Rei merely looked out the window, to the ocean. Feeling too tired and puzzled to follow this line of thought any further, Shinji slumped in his seat and caught up on another ten minutes of sleep. And in his sleep, he dreamt of uneventful trips on maglev trains. -*- She stared at the script, along with all the other so-called journalists, and sighed deeply. NERV wanted the press conference to run smoothly, which meant using scripts that were most likely crafted for maximum deception. Of course she went along with it. Everyone went along with it, and anything else the government insisted on ever since the 2nd impact. Catastrophes were an easy way to turn a free nation into a police state. 'Freedom of the Press' wasn't what it used to be, but that wasn't Megumi Kunzama's concern. She was in the business long enough to see that curiosity did kill the cat, and would be a fatal exercise for some time to come. So... just read over the script, say her lines, and go home knowing she'd done her job well. Megumi was dearly trying to ignore that nagging voice at the back of her mind that said otherwise. -*- "Me?! Why me?!" yelled Maya in shock, staring at Commander Ikari. Then she remembered the 'Commander' part of his title. "Er, Sir, Commander, Sir, I mean. Why me, I mean. Um, Sir?" Gendo frowned. "You're photogenic. Now follow your orders. Here's your script." Gendo strolled out of the room, followed by Fuyutsuki, his second in command, leaving a somewhat stunned Maya in the room alone. "I think that's the closest thing to a compliment I've ever heard from him." Maya shook her head, took a deep breath, then left the room as well. Whether she liked it or not, it was showtime. -*- Megumi sat numbly as she witnessed the press conference take place. It was a joke, a sham, a big lie. The rep from Nippon Sun will raise his hand, amongst the many raised, and he will be selected. Whether he raises his hand or not, he will be selected. She'll answer with beautifully made, carefully constructed lies. And then others will raise their hands, selling their souls to keep in line. And what would she do? She'd sell out too. What other choice was there? "Good afternoon," said the spokesperson, a surprisingly young girl, probably ten years younger than her. "I'm Maya Ibuki, spokesperson for NERV. We're a subdivision of the United Nations, specifically created for dealing with such threats as the creature that attacked Tokyo-3 several days ago." The girl droned on, a bit nervously. They probably picked her because she's got a pretty face, mused Megumi. She didn't bother listening carefully as the spokesperson talked. It was going to be packaged and sent to her newspaper anyway, so why bother? Why bother indeed.... Her editor told her of the times before the Second Impact, when the media had _true_ power, a watchdog over the government and society in general. She was always enthralled by his tales, and wished she'd been around back then to enjoy it, the last glory days of the press. "Next question?" Megumi realized it was her turn. She knew her question, her lines. It was time to join in The Big Lie. She could rebel. Toss out her lines. Demand to know what NERV was covering up. "Megumi Kunzama, Japan Today. How many casualties were there in the attack?" A small voice inside called her a coward. She tried to ignore it. -*- She tried to drown out the lingering doubts by doing what many legendary figures of history did: take a long walk. And walk she did, through Tokyo-3's many streets, in the shadows of its many towers, unable to shake the unease that had latched unto her soul. Curiosity killed the cat. Best not to forget that. She was ready to just call it a day, go home and brush her troubles away, even if it meant living in the ignorance NERV tried to wrap around her. Two schoolgirls passed her, absorbed with their own concerns. Perhaps it was luck, or fate, or just journalistic instincts, but their conversation caught Megumi's ear. "Can you be believe _he's_ the new pilot for that giant robot?" "I still can't believe it." "He's weird, don't you think?" "No, just quiet." "Not as weird as the other pilot." Pilot? Those schoolgirls know the pilot? She walked quickly after them, waving her hand. "Excuse me! Girls? Hi, I'm Megumi Kunzama, reporter for Japan Today. I'd like to ask you a few questions..." Unseen by any of them, a small camera by the stoplight adjusted its lens... -*- "Who is she?" "Megumi Kunzama," said Fuyutsuki. "Reporter for Japan Today. She was at the press conference earlier." "Hrm." Gendo gazed at the image of the woman on the screen, his expression neutral. "Put someone on her. I doubt she'll find anything too sensitive, but it's best to be cautious." -*- Makoto was drunk. He was off duty, though, so it didn't matter. He could get drunk off his ass and pass out. Or meander on about his love life to someone he had just met, which was what he was doing right now. His confessor was one of the most gorgeous women he had ever met in his entire life. She was a tall, lithe platinum blonde whose breasts had to be either the result of implants, plastic surgery, magic or the blessing of the gods. They were too big for a slender woman, and too perfect. He was too drunk to really notice or worry, though he did stare a lot. She simply watched him, amused, with twinkling blue eyes and a pleasant smile as she sipped the same kind of beer he was drinking by the goatload. Not that goats were bringing him beer; they were both ensconced at a table at 'The Tokyo-3 Brewery,' which was a bar run by the city's main brewery. Not a very clever name, but the decor of street signs from the original Tokyo had caused quite a few dedicated patrons to become totally lost as they tried to find their way home without leaving the bar after becoming almost, but not quite, too drunk to move. "So, I like, I like...don't know what to do. She's like beautiful, but she's my boss and I'd probably get in trouble and I think there's someone else she likes, but she's got a really nice ass and when she's off duty, she dresses fit to make a man go nuts," he babbled, then chugged another beer. A thought struck him. "What's your name again?" "Akane. Akane Toshiba," she said. "And what's the name of this woman you're so in love with?" "Misato. Misato Kusanagi. Kobachi. Katsuniki. Katsugari? Katsucon. Kitsuragi. Katsuragi? Umm...It's got a K in it. And she's got big..." Akane laughed. "I assume you'd be less blunt when you're drunk." He nodded. "I'd cower instead. She's a good boss though, and a good commander. Given what she's got to work with..." Akane leaned forward, revealing ever so slightly more of her flesh. It got Makoto's attention. "You don't like some of your coworkers? I know how hard that can be." "The fate of the world is resting in the hand of two kids. One's creepy and the other is kinda...well, pathetic. His own father ignored him for most of his life. I dunno why we're letting kids pilot these things. Well, I mean, I sorta know, but..." He took another swig. "Hey, bartender! More beer!" "So why are they using child pilots?" He looked around, looked under his chair, then inside his glass, checking for spies. "You gotta, like, have the right genetics and stuff. I mostly just monitor stuff; Dr. Akagi is the one who really knows how everything works. But I can tell you that all three pilots are about the same age." She blinked. "You said two." "Never met the other one. She's off in another country." He looked at the bartender. "Hey! BEER!" He got his beer, took a swig, then began to wobble. "Hmm. Time to go home, but I don't think I'll make it." She smiled. "Let me help you home." She had always thought of herself as strong, but by the time she helped him stagger to the door, she was rethinking that, or at least wondering how many pounds of beer he had drunk. -*- The woods around Tokyo-3 weren't supposed to be inhabited. Regardless, there was a house, a relic of days long ago. Built in a time of greater freedom and prosperity, it had been intended to be a summer home. Then the Second Impact had come, and its owner died. The government took the land, but had failed to destroy the house; it wasn't worth the effort, and vague plans, now forgotten, had been made to use it. It was being used now. Tiny runners came in and out; unseen by most people, Never mind that rats couldn't have turned the water and power back on. Nor was there much for rats to eat in an abandoned house, unless they wanted to eat wallpaper or suck on paint. If something had been watching from the sky, it would have seen an abnormal number of brooms upon the front porch of the house, the beat up Toyota Corolla that was likely the oldest functional car in Japan with no value to a collector, the plain black van, and the Shinohara Motors SUV-5, whose owner likely thought it was cool, but was rather wrong. Or perhaps this flying observer might have focused upon the deep tire ruts that indicated a fourth car had pulled out at very high speed at some time in the past. Indeed, a sufficiently knowledgeable and eagle eyed observer might have been able to tell the model of the missing car. In fact, something was watching from the sky; Second Impact had done nothing to destroy most of the spy satellites circling the Earth. However, spy satellites have three flaws. First, you can't hear anything through them. Secondly, they're only useful if someone human is both watching and cares. This one belonged to France, which could care less about small houses in the Japanese countryside. It was on its way elsewhere, due to the third flaw of spy satellites: they have to keep moving or fall out of the sky. As a result, no one who cared noticed the rat except for a woman with short spikey orange hair who was expecting it. She ran over, picked it up, and carried it inside, petting it gently. She didn't look like a threat to humanity, but most threats to humanity weren't obvious until it was too late. This one was no exception. The woman carried the rat inside, talking to it, and it talked back. The largest amount of devastation caused by a rat since the Black Plague, if only indirectly, would soon begin. -*- "(I want to rule the world)," one of the students read from the book in English, then everyone chorused, "(I want to rule the world.)" It was English class, and Shinji was in a trance, as were most of the students, as the power of sheer boredom smote them. He had never quite understood how anyone was supposed to learn anything from the teaching method they used in English class. Other than how to speak in unison, anyway. The next student translated the next line of the day's reading. "(The small mouse raised his fists and shook them.)" Everyone repeated after him. Shinji let his mind drift, thinking about the previous day's tests. Dr. Akagi had been looking for something, but wouldn't say what. He couldn't tell if she had been pleased or not pleased to not find it. Although maybe she had found what she wanted; she had the look of someone waiting for something to happen the whole time, though nothing did. He glanced across the class at Rei, who was intently focused on the day's lesson in English; indeed, she was probably the only person in the class fully paying attention. A casual observer might have simply concluded she was the class brain. Shinji knew enough to know the class brain was actually zoning out halfway across the room. Only one other student was alert, and that was Touji, who sat next to Shinji and looked like a mountain was about to fall on him. Shinji glanced over at his desk and soon understood why; the students were supposed to translate the next day's reading at home as homework so they would be ready to read when called upon. However, in practice, because the teacher always called upon people in the same order, most students only translated the sentences they would be called upon to read. However, two people were absent today, which meant that the normal order of reading was thrown off. This meant Touji hadn't translated the correct sentences and now as trying desperately to translate them without the teacher noticing; he wasn't going to make it in time. Shinji had translated the entire thing; not because he had wanted to, but because Misato had caught him doing the same thing Touji had done, and had chewed him out, even though he was quite certain she had done the same thing herself in school. Touji glanced over and saw Shinji's full translation, seemed to hesitate a moment in indecision, then finally looked at him pleadingly. Shinji's first instinct was to let Touji rot in his own juices, but the guy looked so pathetically doomed, that Shinji couldn't help but feel a little merciful. He did some quick calculation while someone was reading "(But where will we find any rubber pants at this hour?)" Scribbling at high speed, he passed what he hoped were the correct sentences to Touji on a note, which the teacher didn't notice, since he was busy chewing out another student for reading the wrong sentence; apparently that one had done the same thing as Touji, but failed to notice that the absences had thrown off the class order. At lunch time, Touji came up to Shinji. "I owe you, man. Umino-sensei was on the rampage today; I think you and me and Rei were about the only people who were ready. And Hikari." Shinji blinked. While he did do Touji a favor, he didn't expect the other boy to become so friendly. Especially since... "Um, about your sister..." "Huh?" Touji blinked. "Oh, hey, I gave ya a few good hits already. Figure we're even, yeah?" Odd logic, but Shinji accepted it with a nod. "Hey," asked Touji. "Did you get that math homework done?" "Yeah, though I still don't understand it." "Don't understand it? Then how'd you finish it?" "Rei helped me finish it. She was at my apartment a few days ago; it was kind of scary." "Helping you with your math was scary?" Touji agreed Rei was a bit creepy, but the only scary thing about math was the grades Touji usually got. "It was like..." Shinji tried to think of a metaphor and failed. "Rei said she needed help, but she ended up helping me more than I helped her. It was like she didn't know why she had come to me to get help." Shinji opened his bento and nearly fainted. Misato had insisted on making him lunch, which usually meant that he got a cup of ramen, but he found a sandwich, a bag of chips, and an apple. Not only was the fact that she had actually gone to the effort of making a sandwich instead of simply putting one of her infinite horde of cup ramen into the box surprising, but the fact that there was actually fresh fruit in it, when he would have sworn they had no food that didn't come out of a can or a box or a cup, was quite a shock. For that matter, they didn't have any fresh bread that he could remember. Maybe she mugged someone, he thought, then dismissed the thought. Touji glanced over at Rei, who was eating by herself. "Maybe she likes you." Shinji's eyes widened. "You gotta be kidding." "Women'll come up with crazy excuses to spend time with someone they like." Touji started eating his own bento, which was full of pickled vegetables and rice. "I... hey, who's that?" He pointed at a nicely dressed adult female who was busily talking to two of the other guys in the class across the yard. She was short with close-cut brown hair with a red streak over her left ear. Her complexion was disgustingly perfect in comparison to a class full of students now starting to 'enjoy the pleasures of acne,' and Shinji guessed she was around Misato's age. She wore a black skirted black suit with a red tie and held a digital assistant which she was using to take verbal notes. Shinji wasn't sure he knew the names of the two students she was talking to, but he thought they might be Taiki and Youta. The woman looked was even less familiar. He'd seen her on TV or maybe in a newspaper or maybe just on the street. "I don't know. She looks like a professor or maybe a businesswoman." "Why'd she be talking to Taiki, then?" Taiki pointed right over at Shinji and the woman turned to look at him. He smiled back nervously; she had a predatory look which made him uncomfortable. She walked over and said, "I'm Megumi Kunzama. I'm from Japan Today. Mind if I ask you a few questions?" "You're a reporter?" Touji asked. "Yes," she said. "Err...aah...sure," Shinji said. He had a nagging feeling that talking to her wasn't such a good idea. "So, I understand you're the third EVA pilot?" "Yeah," Shinji said. "The second one is off in another country, though." "So what sort of training have they given you?" Shinji glanced across the yard at Rei, who was still eating her lunch and giving no sign of being aware of what was going on. "I've been training intensively since I arrived. Combat training, synchro training, shooting practice, all kinds of stuff." "Did you really go into action on your first day here?" Shinji nodded. "I got here only a few hours before the first Angel attacked." "It was awful," Touji said. "Our apartment got overrun with spiders and we had to flee. That's why we were outside when..." He fell silent and stared at the ground. Shinji was pretty sure he knew what Touji meant. That was how his sister had gotten injured. I didn't mean to hurt anyone, Shinji thought. "It was a hard fight, but we beat him." "So they sent you into battle with no training?" Megumi asked. The question was casual, but Shinji could feel the sharp edge. "We had no choice," he said. "Rei was injured and I was the only one who could pilot it." "Why?" Megumi asked. She stared at him intently, and he wilted. "Umm...because..." Shinji had no idea. "Only some people can pilot an EVA." "And the fact that the commander is your father had nothing to do with it? No nepotism at work here?" "My father couldn't care if I lived or died," Shinji said, staring off at a tree instead of Megumi. His voice dropped. "I didn't want to do it, but they need me and..." It had been exciting. He had liked it. Liked it enough to scare him. "So what do you think of the other pilot, Rei Ayanami?" "She's creepy," Touji said. "She's a good EVA pilot," Shinji said. "I hope the other pilot's as good as her." "Any truth to the rumor that you two are dating?" Megumi asked, her voice lightening a bit. Shinji blushed. "I'm not dating anyone." "That's enough," Rei said, cutting abruptly into the conversation. She had come over while they were all distracted, making her way through the crowd which had gathered around them. Her red eyes locked onto Megumi's, seeming to freeze her in place. "You're not supposed to be here." Her voice remained flat, but with a hint of menace. "But I just wanted to ask a fe-" "Ask Ibuki-san," said Rei. She hooked an arm around Shinji's and simply dragged him away. Touji shrugged. "Some guys just can't admit how they feel, I guess." Megumi said nothing, simply watching them go. -*- Makoto should have been at work. He also should have had the hangover that ate New York. Neither of these were the case. When he finally struggled his way to wakefulness, he found himself in a nice apartment that clearly wasn't his. Unless he had gotten so drunk he had bought and put up pink flowered wallpaper, hung new white curtains, painted the carpet blue and thrown out all his furniture and clothing and had it replaced. Even the time he had gotten so drunk he thought the vacuum cleaner was out to get him, he hadn't done anything that bad. Usually, he didn't get very drunk very often, anyway. But the previous day he had gotten caught listening to Misato talking to Dr. Akagi about some old boyfriend of hers, some guy named Kaji, and it had just made him utterly depressed. So he had gone out and gotten hammered. Now, he was awake, and feeling better than usual, but he had no idea where he was. There had been a woman...some blonde who had patiently listened to his entire story. Maybe she had been kind enough to take him in. Then she walked in the door, wearing blue denim shorts and a Kyoto Mariners T-shirt. He'd always thought it strange that a landlocked city like Kyoto had a baseball team called the 'Mariners,' but since the Mariners' original home city, Seattle, was now underwater thanks to the Second Impact, they had moved to Japan. It was hard to understand why that had happened, unless one considered that they were already owned by Japanese investors. "" "Hi, Makoto. I was starting to think you'd sleep all day," she said. Her name was...Akane. Yeah. "Akane?" She walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Yes. How much of last night do you remember?" "Umm. Drinking. Talking to you. Trying to go home...that's about it." She slid a little closer to him. "You forgot the rest, then?" She sounded disappointed. "Uh, rest of what?" He hadn't been this close to a woman since college; he'd had some girlfriends then, but since taking a job at NERV, his love life had gone down the toilet, although getting a crush on his boss hadn't helped with that. She reached out and took his hand; he could feel the softness of her skin and the hardness of the single ring she wore, a plain band of silver. It felt warm, which was strange, given that metal didn't absorb heat from flesh well. Usually, rings felt cold. "I suppose..." She smiled a naughty smile. "I'll have to remind you. I'm sure you're much better sober." He felt remarkably sober, in fact. "You mean..." Soon, he was unable to finish his sentence. In fact, soon, he wasn't able to think about very much at all that wasn't very intensely physical. The fact that he was supposed to be at work completely slipped his mind. -*- Maya said, "So this reporter came by and asked you some questions?" Shinji nodded. He and Rei were in what passed for Maya's office, which was basically a cubicle. It was full of stacked folders and bits of computer code taped to the walls. Other than the Magi terminal, it was a chaotic mess. A dusty mess. It was clear most of her work was done elsewhere now. "She thought Father picked me because I was his son. And she wanted to know...I mean...Actually, I didn't know." "Know what?" "Why was I picked? Why any of us? Why are we all so young?" "Well, my understanding is that it has to do with you being born close to the Second Impact. You know about how there have been a lot of stillbirths and deformities since then in new children, right?" Shinji nodded. "I went to school with a boy with only four fingers on his left hand. No middle finger." He shuddered slightly. "Basically, there was a lot of radiation released in the form of radioactive particles into the upper atmosphere. It's been slowly raining down ever since. It's worst at the South Pole, but luckily no one actually lives there. That's why all the penguins had to be evacuated. Anyway, it causes mutations, and most mutations are malevolent; they either kill the children or cause deformities. But a handful of those affected develop benevolent mutations. For example, you've seen Hinako Kotobuyki, the idol singer, right?" Rei nodded. "Yes." Shinji was surprised at that. "Yeah. She's...a mutant? Isn't she too old?" "She should be your age, but she looks twenty. That's a bad mutation, because she's going to have a shorter lifespan, but she also got a perfect singing voice out of it. Well, probably. We can't prove it, but it does seem likely." Maya tapped a pencil on her coffee cup idly. "Anyway, so each of the Children has a special mutation that greatly enhances your ability to pilot an EVA. Anyone could try, but most people either can't synchronize at all, or they can't deal with the experience. You'd have to ask Dr. Akagi for the details, I'm really a computer specialist. Anyway, so any pilots we find would be your age at the oldest. There's probably a five year old somewhere who would make a great EVA pilot, but we need the oldest people we can find." "So I'm...not human?" Shinji asked nervously. "I said you had a mutation. But lots of people have mutations. You're as human as I am. You just have a special talent. This isn't some comic book where being a mutant makes you fire lasers out of your eyes and everyone will fear and hate you. Probably lots of famous people had some tiny mutation that gave them a little edge in what they did best. You're just special." She smiled at Shinji in the sort of way that no one ever smiled at him; it was a 'Mom smile'. She turned to Rei. "I thought you knew about this." "I never asked." "Well, I'll ask Ritsuko to give you two the full lecture. I'm sure there is one. Hmm. I suppose I'll call this reporter and ask her to not pester you. School is for learning, not for reporters." "Thank you," Shinji said. "The reporter seemed like an okay person, but..." A rat scampered across the floor. Maya threw a folder at it, but it leaped between Shinji's legs and ran. Shinji got hit by the folder and toppled over onto Rei. They ended up face to face. Rei looked calmly at Shinji as if this was as normal as breathing. Shinji blushed. He blushed more when someone spoke. "Can't wait for somewhere private, Shinji-kun?" asked Misato with a gleefully teasing voice. Shinji leaped off Rei, crashed into the entrance to another cubicle, and toppled into it, knocking down a pile of file folders on himself. "It was an accident!" Rei stood up and dusted herself off. "Another rat, Katsuragi-san." "Yeesh, I hope this doesn't mean a giant rat is going to attack next," she said. "Has anyone seen Makoto?" "He called in sick around nine," Maya said. "Akagi-san logged it, I'm sure." "Well, we're not doing anything urgent, but I wanted to ask him about yesterday's test results." She shrugged. "Well, if you two are done slaking your lust, it's time for some more tests." "Someone help me up," Shinji said feebly from under a sea of folders. -*- The Frederick the Great, a German battleship, had a human figurehead as it made its way across the Atlantic towards the Straits of Panama. What had once been a canal had now become ocean as the rising water level destroyed the nation of Panama. While several other nations had been almost entirely wiped away from the face of the earth, such as Bangladesh and the smaller, flatter Caribbean island nations, Panama's annihilation had opened the way for an even greater volume of ocean going traffic as the area, now under UN control, had become toll free. It was one of many areas brought under direct UN control in the crisis years immediately after the Second Impact, when only coordinated action had saved humanity. Asuka stood at the ship's prow, watching the waters part before them in gentle waves. Land could be seen, a fuzzy blur at the far horizon, brown and green against a cloudy sky and deep blue waters. She could hardly wait to make it to Japan. It wouldn't be Germany, her homeland, but she was ready for battle, and there was no one to fight in Germany. Well, no one to fight with her EVA. She was a little worried, though; what if the next one attacked in Germany? The base would be destroyed before she could get back. They'd given her a folder on the other two pilots, but it wasn't very informative. Although knowing they played musical instruments too was nice. All they needed was one more person, and they'd have a string quartet, for what that was worth against monsters... It didn't tell her anything she really needed to know. Could they fight? Would they like her? Did they get along or was she going to have to force them to work with each other? She was used to doing that; her alleged 'bosses' had squabbled all the time back in Germany. "Trying to make the boat go faster, Asuka?" "It's not working," she said, then turned around, smiling at Kaji, who she was quite certain was the man of her dreams. Sure, he was nearly twice her age, but that was no barrier to true love, she was sure. He saw her as a child now, but once he saw her in action, he wouldn't be able to resist her. Kaji was a scruffy man in a suit which was missing a tie and a jacket. He needed to have shaved about two days earlier, and his hair was a mess. But he did have a certain rugged handsomeness, and the heart of a fourteen year old girl was his for the taking if he wanted it. "I'm sure we'll get there before the next attack." "I just...are we sure there won't be any attacks in Germany?" "Not that you could stop by yourself. We have to concentrate our forces so you don't all get picked off one by one." "But an Angel could attack Berlin and destroy it before we got back. I mean, since these things are too big to carry in a plane and even a plane would take hours and hours and..." He stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry about it." "Do you think I'll be able to get good bratwurst in Japan?" "I wouldn't count on it." Asuka frowned. "Ach. Verdammt." And so the day went on. -*- Kensuke gazed across the athletics field, where the solitary form of Rei Ayanami moved amongst her classmates. He wasn't sure if they were doing it unconsciously or not, but they seemed to move out of her way much like water before a shark's fin. "Y'think she likes Shinji?" he asked. "Why?" asked Touji. "Jealous?" "Huh?" "I'd think you'd be into Rei, y'know? She _is_ a pilot, and you seem to be nuts about that sorta thing." "Oh. Well, I am, but I have my limits." They watched Rei run; she was fast, faster than the other girls, even the ones taller than her. And she made it look easy. He had the feeling she could make them eat her dust if she really tried. "So, she might like Shinji?" said Touji. "I dunno if she even likes herself," replied Kensuke. "Maybe if someone at NERV told her to like him, she would. I guess she is the perfect EVA pilot, though," Kensuke said, taking off his glasses and cleaning off the dust in the air from them with his shirt. "What's that got to do with her liking Shinji?" Touji asked. "Haven't you noticed? She hardly does anything, other than act creepy, unless the teacher tells her to. She's like...I'm sure she'd never disobey an order," Kensuke said. "Although if I was her boss, I'd be scared to give her orders." "So, like, do you think she'd..." Touji sounded thoughtful; this was rare. "Go to bed with you?" "I suppose she's probably a virgin." "We're only fourteen, man. I'd like to, but I mean... And who could do it? With her?" "Do what with who?" Shinji asked. He'd just hurled his javelin. To his surprise, while most of the others had hurled their javelin further, he had a lot more accuracy than the others. Too bad accuracy didn't count for much in the sport. Strength, on the other hand, was something he lacked. But he had known that before he picked it up. "So, are you sleeping with Rei?" Kensuke asked bluntly. Shinji got big eyes. "Who told you something crazy like that?" "Just checking. Little Miss Spooky seems to intervene every time you're in any kind of danger or threat." Shinji had a very brief flashback to being saved by Rei from the first Angel, then her saving him from Touji, then her intervening to drive off the reporter. "We're partners. She...I'd do the same for her." Okay, I'd probably run away and hide, actually, he thought. But I suppose I should. "She likes you, man," Touji said. "I can tell, you know. I can just look at people and I know who likes who. And if there's ANYONE in the universe she does more than tolerate, you're the one." "She likes my father," Shinji grumbled. Touji spun on one foot to face him. "What?! Her and your father are-" Shinji waved his hands back and forth in gestures of negativity. "No! I mean she likes him. Like a father. Not a..." He blushed. Please don't let this rumor get around. "She's watching us," Kensuke said. The other two looked, and they could see Rei coming around the bend, looking at them. While they couldn't be sure who she was looking at, Kensuke and Touji both were sure they knew. Then the coach grabbed Kensuke and told him to go again, and soon all three were distracted off the topic entirely. -*- Makoto finally came up for air some time in the afternoon. He was so exhausted, he could hardly believe it. Akane looked like she was ready for another round, but he was almost too tired to breathe. "Wow," he finally managed to say. She laughed. "It's been a while for me. So you work for NERV, right?" He nodded. "Monitor room stuff. I can't really talk about it. It's so classified, I sometimes wonder if I'm allowed to even THINK about it, off base." He sank back onto the pillow and mattress as she crawled on top of him, resting her head on his shoulder and upper chest. "But you've met the pilots?" she asked. "I'm going to have to be jealous, if you have." "Oh yeah. Rei's been at NERV longer than I have, longer than most of us. Commander Ikari practically raised her, I understand. And his son, Shinji, just arrived recently. He's a nice boy; I haven't seen much of him. He lives with Commander Misato." Akane sighed. "It must be awful having this new guy come in and make a move on the woman you love." Makoto laughed. "He's only fourteen. She treats him like her son. In fact, she acts more like his mother than his father acts like a father to him as far as I can tell. If they ever became lovers..." The laughter came louder. "If anyone gets to her first, it won't be Shinji." "So there's just two pilots? To fight all those Angels?" "There's another one, but she's not here yet. She won't be here for days. I think. So what do you do for a living?" "I'm a novelist," she said. "I write romance novels." She ran a finger up and down his chest. "Right now, I'm doing a little research." Giggling, she kissed his cheek. "I bet I could write a very good book about you. You'll get a happy ending, of course." He sighed. "I wish I could be sure of a happy ending." "You'll do fine," she said. "So what are the two EVA pilots like?" "Well, if you put them in your novel, you ought to name them Creepy and Mouse..." He launched into a long anecdote about the day he first met Rei which made her laugh, and then several more stories. She simply listened quietly, asking a question every once in a while when he slowed down. And thus they passed the afternoon. -*- "Shinji-kun!" Misato said. "I have a very important mission for you!" Shinji looked up from his homework. "Huh? Did we just get a report? Is another Angel attacking?" "No. I'm out of underwear, so it's time for you to do the laundry." She pointed at the overflowing laundry hamper, then at the 'job list,' which showed whose turn it was to do what chore. "But I've got all this homework." "I'll do it for you. I'd rather do that than laundry." Eventually, she hustled him out, and he headed down to the laundromat. He arrived just as the sun set. A half dozen people were there, but he didn't have to wait for a machine. He'd taken some paper with him; he didn't trust Misato to write poetry for him, but he thought she could handle his math homework. Once he got the laundry loaded, he went to work. As he tried to think of a way to use the word 'angst,' Rei walked in. She glanced over at him, and he smiled feebly and waved. She stared at him, then moved on, taking her laundry and swiftly loading it into available machines. Picking up her school bag, she came over and sat down by him, looking at his efforts. "Haiku?" "Yeah." "I lack skill at poetry." She looked at him calmly, and he stared back, not sure what to say. "You want help?" "Yes." "Um, sure, I can try. Show me what you've done." Rei's haiku was, 'Five syllable line. This line is seven syllables. Five green blades of grass.' Shinji stared at it, blinking. "Umm...well, you've got the format right. And it refers to nature, but..." Unseen by them, two separate pairs of eyes were watching them. One pair's owner simply clicked a button on her camera, which she had removed the flash from. The other chittered and scampered away. -*- Makoto was surprised to find he had drifted off to sleep again. He was more surprised to wake up back in his own apartment as if the entire tryst had never happened. In fact, he wasn't sure that it had. Normally, he would never have gone to bed with someone the first night he met them, although it was for the reason that no one ever decided to sleep with him the first night. Especially not when he already had a crush on someone else. He scrambled out of bed and got on the phone. Time to make sure I still have a job. One way or another, I definitely missed work today, he thought. -*- Under a starry sky, whistles blew and words were chanted by the old house in the woods near Tokyo-3. It was a call, a summons which was ancient when men still thought that banging rocks together to make flint blades was the greatest invention of all. The whistling had been a bit trickier then, though. The stars shone down serenely, slowly moving in their courses across the heavens, unshrouded by a single cloud. Aldebaraan hung low in the sky, and Fomalhaut could be seen far off. The forest was silent, a thing of beauty. Well, if the five humans making all the noise had shut up, it would have been silent. As it was, three of them were trying to chant in unison and failing, another one kept blowing a silver whistle as if his life depended on it, and the fifth one was trying to surreptitiously do her nails while holding a book for the first three. This wasn't working so well. Still, the summons was more a formality than a necessity, and those summoned heard the mangled call. Indeed, they had heard it before it began; they had to, for while they were fast, they had a far, far journey to arrive in time to aid those who served the same master as they. Slowly, wingbeats broke the not-silence as they came, descending from the sky into the clearing, the frost of space still shrouding their limbs, slowly shaking off the cold that will kill any human. But they had never been such a frail thing as a man. -*- "Oh, I did call in sick?" Makoto said into the phone. "You must be pretty sick if you don't remember calling in," was the reply from the night shift secretary. "But Dr. Akagi logged you as sick. It says you called in around 9 A.M." He shook his head in disbelief. What a crazy day, he thought. -*- Misato frowned. Maybe I should have done the laundry, she thought. Math had never been her strong point and neither was poetry, although she was pretty sure she already had a haiku she'd written in high school about beer that she could have scribbled down. If she had been aware that Shinji was doing the poetry himself, she would have been somewhat relieved, but still not capable of doing the math very well, either. She scratched out more frantic scribblings and started over on problem eight. Why are they giving him math homework, she thought. Math is for science people; it only gets in the...aha! she thought. I bet I can trick Ritsuko into giving me the answer to this. As she got up, heading for the phone, she noticed a humanoid shadow outside her balcony window. Given she didn't live on the ground floor, she concluded this was likely bad news, and sprinted for her bedroom. The sound of breaking glass convinced her that she had chosen wisely. A few seconds later, the phone began to ring. She ignored it, getting her handgun and taking cover behind her dresser. They started trashing her apartment, and with every breaking noise, a little cash register in her mind began to tote up the cost of fixing everything. Shattered glass. 5,000 yen a pane. Broken TV. 50,000 yen. She heard the refrigerator door open and the sound of beer being scattered across the room. Hundreds of yen there. There was a loud squawk of terror. Pen-pen! she thought. And through it all, the phone kept ringing. Footsteps in the hallway, getting closer. More squawking. More wasted beer. She tensed and readied her gun. They would be framed in the doorway. She could see the shadow first...it had wings? Then it stepped into the doorway. It was naked and bipedal, with a black chitinous hide run through with streaks of grey and blue. On a few places, ice clung to its wings and its limbs, and there was a faint sheen of moisture all over it. It had two arms, with ended in thick three pronged claws, and two legs which it stood upon shakily, its legs bent unnaturally. Its black leather wings were folded in somewhat, compacted to allow it passage down the narrow hallway. Misato stared at it in shock; what the hell WAS it? She couldn't move, transfixed by a primal fear like that which traps deer when they gave into headlights. The room's cheery lamp left yellow highlights on its black hide and glittered off its disturbingly human eyes, one on each side of its head, which somewhat resembled a buzzard without any feathers. Two antennae arched backwards from points just above its eyes, twitching about independently as it moved. It looked into the room and sniffed. She tried to shoot, but her fingers wouldn't move. Her brain felt stuffed with cotton. It shook its head and stepped back out, heading down the hallway, where it promptly began to ravage either Shinji's room or the bathroom. Probably Shinji's room, she was sure.
Pen-pen squawked again, and her volition returned. She crept over to the doorway and peeked out into the hallway. The smashing sounds in the living room had stopped, but there was still some scuttling noises and periodic squawks from Pen-pen. There's at least two of these...things, she thought. If the next Angel is a giant version of one of these things...she shuddered. Well, if I don't panic THIS time, I should be able to take it down, she thought. But if there's two... At least Shinji isn't here. She had to get out and alert headquarters. And find Shinji. Even if it means the house is trashed...how am I going to pay for this? she asked herself. While she thought to herself, the creature walked right past her, ignoring her completely. She blinked in surprise. It had to have seen the gun, unless it had no peripheral vision at all. Given the way its eyes were set into the sides of its head, it probably had much better peripheral vision than straight forward. Maybe it couldn't recognize a gun. As it stepped into the living room, Pen-pen stopped squawking. She ran down the hallway, raising her gun to fire. Might as well take them down before they can get away if they're too dumb to recognize a gun, she thought. Then she saw there were four of them in the living room. She froze, and they all turned and stared intently at her. For an endless moment, they all stared at each other across the room. Then they turned and departed, finishing off her window. The living room was a disaster. Pen-pen was unconscious, maybe dead, but seemingly unwounded on the tipped over couch. Shinji's homework was gone. In fact, she now realized one of the creatures had stolen it. I bet his teacher will never believe this, she thought. The phone was STILL ringing. She ran over and picked it up. "Hello?" It was Ritsuko. "Are you alright? We picked up unexpected blips on the radar headed for your apartment, as well as Rei's, the hospital and a few other locations. And now...moving away from your apartment and hers." "We're under attack. Scramble everyone." She sighed. "You're not going to believe this." "I can believe quite a bit when there's evidence, Misato." "Well, to start with, they stole Shinji's homework. Secondly, they weren't human. Thirdly, they looked sort of like...big humanoid insects with beaks and...Anyway, we need to scramble ground forces. Get the EVAs ready, but we're probably going to need flying units and ground forces; these things can go places EVAs can't. And let's see..." Planning the counterstrike was quite soothing. Misato needed soothing. -*- Shinji had concluded he would never become a poetry teacher. "It has a nature reference because it does. That's just what you put in a haiku. It's like asking why you don't use broccoli in sushi instead of raw fish." Rei shook her head. "I would." "What?" "I'm a vegetarian." Shinji resisted the urge to strangle her. It wasn't a very strong urge, anyway. "But do you understand what I'm saying." "Yes. Some things are not to be questioned." She tapped her pencil against one leg in a five/seven/five beat. "Show me yours." "Right." He dug around and pulled it out. "Here it is." It said, 'I stare at the sky, empty just like my life is, and wait for the rain.' She stared at it. "What will you do when it rains?" He blinked. "When it...oh. I don't know. I'm not sure I even want rain. I've just...I don't know why I'm alive. Sometimes." "We live to pilot EVA. That is why we were made," Rei said. Before he could reply, his washer sounded off. It was time for him to go move his laundry to the dryer. Rei silently got up and helped him. As they were finishing off, something caught his eye through the huge glass windows on the front of the laundromat. Something winged and inhuman. Two of them. Watching him and Rei. Coming towards the glass. Instinctively, he grabbed Rei and pulled her back between two of the huge dryer banks. Seconds later, the glass shattered inward; apparently they didn't have much use for doors. The few people still in the area howled in fear or froze in terror. One of the two creatures grabbed one of them with a clawed hand, pulling it close, while the other sniffed the air, then began to lope over towards the row of dryers as the first one enjoyed its snack. The screams of the dying and the sickly sound of flesh being ripped and bones torn asunder snapped the remaining people into action, namely running away. Shinji was terrified, but Rei remained calm. "We must escape," she said. "Shhh!" he said, hoping to not draw its attention. The creature headed over to the dryer which now held Shinji's clothing and opened the door, sticking its head in. He blinked in surprise, then got an idea. Grabbing a hold of the top of the row of dryers, he gestured to Rei to grab the bottom. She did, but gave him a quizzical look. Then he shoved with all his might. Not much happened until Rei straightened most of the way up and shoved also from above instead of below. The whole row of dryers, a huge contraption of ten linked machines, stacked in two rows of five, toppled over onto the creature, which gave out a great howl. The first one looked up from its snack, while the other one twitched feebly under the weight of hundreds of pounds of metal. Tossing the now headless corpse aside, it cocked its head and stared at Shinji and Rei with one beady brown eye. Its gaze was hypnotic, or perhaps Shinji's earlier fears simply rushed back in upon him. He stood, and stared, and slowly, the universe began to fade to black, shrinking in on him and dissolving into darkness. He felt his legs turn to water, but he never felt himself hit the floor. -*- Megumi Kunzama shook her head. She could only take so many shots of the pilots working on homework. Still, that would be something none of the other reporters would have. And the pilot romance angle...that would bring in the readers. She was starting to think it was true. 'Help me with my homework' was a classic ploy of young teens in love. If even half the information NERV HAD been willing to give out on the pilots was true, there was no way that girl could really need help with her homework. So, she had departed the vicinity of the laundromat to go get dinner when she saw two...shapes...flying towards the laundromat. They were faster than her, so they got there before she did. In fact, she never did get there. The reason for this was a blur that came streaking down the street past her. She snapped a photo instinctively, which she had to develop later, in her hotel room. It showed her something she wouldn't have expected to see. The girl pilot, Rei, running full tilt down the street carrying the boy pilot, Shinji, her eyes almost glowing red, though it was probably just the flash, she was sure. Thinking back, Megumi was sure the girl was running...very, very fast. The black streak that shot past in the air a few seconds later...she took a photo, but when she developed it, there was nothing there. She never did quite figure out for sure what it was. But she was glad it had no interest in her. -*- Touji was visiting his sister when the alarms began to go off. "So I was talking to Kensuke and..." He looked around. "I hope that isn't a fire. I'll stay here until they throw me out of here." He tried to remember what he had been about to say. "Oh, right. So we were talking about whether this Shinji guy...you remember him, right?" He paused, even though he knew she couldn't really answer. It was simply habit. "Anyway, he really helped me out. I guess he's not such a bad guy after all. So, we wanted to know if..." Gunfire shocked him out of his monologue. He ran to the door and looked up and down the hallway, then nearly died as bullets whizzed past him. He got a quick glimpse of a black chitinous creature, or maybe two, at one of the hallway and four well armed NERV security guards at the other end. Pulling his head back in, he ran to his sister, picking her up, and hid under her bed until the shooting stopped. -*- "You look a lot better than you sounded this morning," Ritsuko said to Makoto as he settled into his chair. "I feel fine now. Must have been a really messed up hangover," he said. "What are we fighting?" "They stand to the Angels as a rat stands to us," Ritsuko said. "Dangerous to an unarmed human, and terrifying, but capable of being slain with normal armaments. We probably don't need to scramble the EVAs to deal with them, but..." "But I'd rather be ready, in case this is like the spiders," Misato said. "Also, we're hoping to find where they came from and launch a strike, once the spy satellite monitors give us a proper report." "And it will be good practice against live, but not very threatening to an EVA targets," Ritsuko said. "Also, an EVA might be able to take one alive." "Just don't stare them in the eye," Misato muttered to herself, feeling embarrassed. I should have done more when they were in my apartment. She fingered her medallion without being aware of what she was doing. It was simply a soothing activity. "I'm going to be cleaning up my apartment forever," she said. "And how I'm going to replace everything they broke...I don't know." "They broke into your apartment?" Makoto asked, horrified. "And they stole Shinji's homework." "No doubt the whole attack was just a diversion to steal Shinji's homework," Ritsuko said sarcastically. "Perhaps that's what the Angels are after as well." "They did!" Everyone looked at her dubiously, so she simply ignored them and turned to the screen so she could pout without them making too much fun of her. -*- Shinji woke up dressed in his plug suit, inside his plug, already inserted into Unit01. "Hey, what's going on?" A tiny viewscreen window opened. It was Misato. "We're under attack, Shinji. It's time to get even with the bastards who trashed my house." He remembered now. The creatures. He'd squashed one at the laundromat and then...darkness. "They attacked our apartment?" "And stole your homework." He could hear laughter faintly behind her, and she flushed. "They did!" He looked at her, clearly confused. Shinji knew Misato didn't like math, was lazy to begin with, and liked to joke around, so he had to wonder if this was her way of squirming out of it. Then again, stranger things have happened... "They really took my homework?" Misato flushed. "They did!" Louder laughter now. "Dammit. Anyway, you and Rei get to squash them all. There's three major bands, so we get to practice search and destroy. Then we'll likely send you to their base, which we think we've located." "We'll need a longer extension cord," Shinji mumbled to himself. "What's that?" "Nothing. Nevermind." "Ready, Rei?" Misato asked. A tiny viewscreen of Rei appeared. "Yes." "Let's go, then. Launch the EVAs." -*- Gendo looked at a topographic map and compared it to the viewscreen in his office. His second in command stood nearby, looking over his shoulder. "Satellite reports indicate here." A finger stabbed down. Gendo looked over at him contemplatively. "A bit more creative an assault than I expected, I have to admit. A reminder not to underestimate ants; a swarm of weaklings can win through numbers where a lone champion loses through strength." "So what are we going to do?" "Alert the armed forces. A good bombing never hurts." -*- Shinji ran amuck. The only hard part about killing the creatures with an EVA was hitting them; it was like swatting flies. If you hit, they died, but they were pretty small and agile in comparison to an EVA. Rei's EVA was splattered with purple-black goo from dead winged beasts, but the stuff just ran off his EVA onto the ground. One had tried to attack Unit00's left eye, but Rei had trapped it with the mandibles that her EVA now possessed, then ripped off its head. It still hung at mouth level, apparently forgotten. "Try to take one alive," Misato repeated for the eighth or so time. This was easier said than done. It reminded Shinji of the goldfish game often found at festivals, where you tried to flip a goldfish out of the tank and into a smaller bowl or bag or some such thing, using a fragile net. He always ended up breaking the net or killing the goldfish. His 'net' wouldn't break, but he was leaving a trail of 'goldfish' in his wake. He had trouble making subtle motions with his EVA. A strike, a crushing blow, smashing things...that was easy. He was fairly certain he couldn't use EVA to write a kanji yet, or grab something with less than heavy force yet. "They die easily," Rei said. "We need a net." "Ahh, perhaps you can use an AT-field to confine one," Ritsuko said. "Cup your hands around one and concentrate on generating the field. That should do it." "Right," Shinji said, as the last squad of whatever they were closed in down the long street that Unit00 and 01 stood on. "What are these things?" "For lack of a better name, we're designating them as 'Cherubim,'" Ritsuko said. "They are like Angels, but much lesser. Essentially, we can think of a sixth kingdom of life forms, distinct from the ones we are familiar with. Both they and the Angels belong to that kingdom of life, which is quite distinct from ours, but Angels are much greater, in the same way that a human and a termite are part of the same Kingdom, but one is more important than the other." It wasn't a perfect explanation, but it was good enough for Shinji. And the name was comforting, even if the things looked little like the image he had of Cherubs. To name a menace was to lessen it, to make it knowable. It helped. Catching one the way Ritsuko advised was still not easy. The Cherubim buzzed around like a swarm of bees, evading Unit01's flailing arms and Unit00's more careful movements. At one point, he accidentally slapped Unit00 upside the head, knocking it down and crushing a Cherub against the side of its head. Fortunately, Rei did not retaliate. Instead, she began to herd one of them towards Unit01 with a series of one handed blows deliberately aimed to force it to dodge towards Shinji. Unit01's hands then came together, forming a bowl, and as he focused, his hands glowed. "I think I've got it!" He felt excited. It had worked! "Good job, Shinji. Bring it back to base. You can finish the last few off, right, Rei?" "Yes." Shinji looked up, hearing multiple engine noises closing in somewhere above him. The jets zoomed past, heading to the northeast. "What was that?" "Nothing you need to worry about right now," Misato said. -*- "Target acquired," Captain Hikaru Hibino reported. "Fire." Missiles, followed by bombs, streaked from the sky into the small house in the woods. In seconds, it was reduced to a flaming pile of charred boards, shattered bricks, and ash. Captain Hibino enjoyed destroying things, although she rarely got to do so. The best part of it was blowing up all the cars, though, especially the Porsche, which reminded her too much of the car an ex-boyfriend of hers had driven. Seeing it burn made her grin. The death of the Corolla wasn't as much fun, and the trashed SUV wasn't too much of a thrill, but she kept turning over the image of the burning Porsche in her mind. And life was good. -*- "Are you okay, Touji?" the class president asked. She was a brunette, and somewhat cute, but often rather brusque. Not this time. Touji had a bandage on part of his head. "I got grazed by a bullet during the attack on the hospital," he said. "I stuck my head out into a fire fight." "So one of those monsters attacked you?" Kensuke asked. Everyone was out in the yard of the school eating lunch. "A couple of them broke into the hospital," Touji said. "Some attacked Rei and Shinji at the laundromat, too." The small crowd of students turned and stared at Shinji, who blinked. "Uh, yeah." Kensuke got an evil smile. "So you and your girlfriend make out at the laundromat?" "We were NOT making out!" Shinji shouted, drawing more stares. Megumi walked across the yard towards them, keeping an eye on Rei, who was eating by herself. What a shy girl, she thought. But how did you...There was something unusual about her, Megumi was sure. No normal person could run so fast. "Yeah, yeah, that's what they all say. You should be sitting with your woman, Ikari," one boy said. "Or does she scare you too?" "You shouldn't be scared of her!" Shinji protested. "She fights to protect all of you too!" He felt something, like a warmth at the back of his head. Rei was looking at him now, he knew. Megumi stepped forward. "Got a minute, Ikari-kun?" "I...uh...They told me to not talk to reporters," Shinji said nervously. He could feel Rei was coming. "So are you and Ayanami-san really dating?" The notepad was out; the woman was in full reporter mode. "No! We're not dating! I just helped her with her homework!" Rei had arrived very swiftly. "Go," she said to Megumi. "I can tell you about my adventure in the hospital!" Touji said as Megumi and Rei stared each other down. "I'll talk to you later," Megumi said, finally, turning and walking away swiftly. Rei turned to go, but Shinji took her arm. "Why don't you eat with us, Rei?" he asked quietly. She stared at him, looking for something on his face, something that he couldn't tell what it was. Then she softened, ever so slightly. "Okay." She went to go get her food. Kensuke whispered, "Shinji's got a girlfriend." Shinji blushed. -*- "Read yours now, Ayanami-san," the teacher said, straightening his glasses. It was language and literature class, and they were reading their haikus to everyone. She stood, as had the others before her, and read in a monotone. " I pilot an EVA. Under heaven's gaze, I fight. That is why I live." She stood and waited for judgement. He nodded. "Good use of the form, Ayanami-san. Usually, one writes about something one is observing, although that observation may bring one to greater understanding of one's own situation, but you did what I told you to." Rei smiled a tiny smile. "You may sit down, Ayanami-san." "Touji-san, you are next." Touji stood nervously, accidentally crumpling his piece of paper. He carefully flattened it out, then read it. "The class president Really needs some larger breasts. But still, she is cute." He stared at the paper. "Hey, I did NOT write this! KENSUKE!" Kensuke began to snicker, at least until the class president began to beat him to death. -*- Ritsuko watched the creature hurl itself at the glass again. She sighed. "It's going to kill itself at this rate." The Cherub didn't look very healthy, although it hadn't looked very natural when it was brought in, either. It was starting to fade, to turn the same sickly grey the first Angel had turned just before it died, the same color as the flakes that were all that remained of it. "Maybe it's too hot. I mean, it lives in deep space, right?" Maya asked, standing by her. "And maybe it can't take long term exposure to oxygen? Or maybe it's photosynthetic." Ritsuko blinked. "Hmm. You may be right. I wish we had more in order to test...it might die before we find the right thing." "Or perhaps it just can't stand captivity," Maya said. "Some creatures wither away in captivity and die. Or maybe it's moulting or..." "I do remember my biology classes," Ritsuko said, just a little sharply. Maya blushed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...Computers are my specialty. I wish I knew as many different kinds of things as you, though, Akagi-san." Ritsuko nodded, and smiled again. "I know you just wanted to help." She turned to go. "Well, staring at it won't help. I need to go check the chemical tests." Maya nodded. "And I need to go over the reports from the big fight." She took a final look at the creature. "I wonder what I would do if I was trapped in a cage like that." "When you are doomed, it's best to go down screaming into the dark, taking your enemies with you and fighting to the death," Ritsuko said. "I think it's trying to escape. I respect it for that." "I think it wants to die," Maya said. "Poor thing." "Then it is a coward that deserves the death it desires," Ritsuko said from the door. "I have never surrendered to anything, even when it was inevitable. And I won't. I won't give up. There's always a cure. Always." She walked out swiftly, slamming the door. Maya frowned. A cure? A cure to what? She's not sick, is she? Maya didn't want to think about that possibility. -*- Makoto saw a shadow lurking over him as he sat in his cramped, rarely used cubicle. You'd think a secret agency capable of building an entire city that sinks into the ground could build adequate office space in the process, he thought. "Hello?" Misato dropped a letter in his lap. It was a pink envelope with little red hearts all over it. "Somebody likes Makoto," she said in a sing-song voice. "So where have you been hiding her?" Makoto blushed. "I...I don't know what you're talking about." He fumbled with the letter. "C'mon, open it. I bet she scented the letter with perfume. Hmmm...She knew to send it here." Misato grabbed it back and held it to her forehead. "Could it be...Maya?" He snatched it back. "Maya has someone else on her mind, I'm sure." "If you don't open it, I will!" Misato said, lunging forward to grab it. They wrestled around in Makoto's chair, the letter changing hands a dozen times. Finally, the chair toppled over, crashing to the ground, and knocking the cubicle wall over on one side. "Hmm. I see you're busy," Ritsuko said. "When you two are done, I need to see Misato." She turned and walked away. Misato leaped off Makoto and ran after her. "I was just trying to find out who his girlfriend is!" As they passed out of sight into the nearby elevator, he heard Ritsuko say, "I suppose he had it written on the inside of his underwear or something?" The elevator door closed before Misato could reply. Makoto looked around. Everyone else was gone. He set his chair back up and nervously opened the letter. There was no return address. It held a simple note, scented of lilacs. "Had a wonderful time. I'll send you the first few chapters of 'Forbidden Love in NERV' when I finish them. I've got to go plan getting even with a few people who've caused me some trouble lately right now, but I'll come see you again when I can. Good luck with Misato. Hugs and Kisses, Akane Toshiba." He slumped down into his chair. It had been real, he thought. But how did she...why did she...his head spun for quite a while. -*- Megumi slumped down onto her hotel bed, tired. I wonder what my editor will think of all this, she thought. If he won't publish it, it'll come for naught anyway, but... She picked up the sheaf of pictures; she had developed them herself, to avoid them 'vanishing' at the photomat. One by one, she went through them, then paused. One of them was missing. The photo of Rei carrying Shinji at high speed. It had been replaced by a picture of Rei running track. No note, no threat, but someone...someone had to have done this. Right? I couldn't have dreamed that, she thought. Surely not. -*- "Elegant," Gendo said, as he sat at his desk. "But she will likely be trouble." Fuyutsuki shook his head. "Not guided properly. If we lead her, poke her, prod her, give her bits of harmless information, such as pictures of the pilot in school...she will get a reputation for knowing the inside scoop without really knowing anything. Indeed, we'll be able to leak things to her and get them spread around without anyone finger us. After all, surely what we want people to believe is all in our press releases, right?" He sat down. Gendo blinked, then smiled. "Alright, I'll allow this. It does have potential." He picked up the photo on his desk. "Those fools don't really understand what Rei is," he said. "And we do?" the older man said gently. "Just because our methods were less crude than the Massachusetts experiments doesn't mean we fully know what we've unleashed." "She will do what we want. When the time comes, she will be the key to the door we must unlock. That is how and why she was made. And if she proves unsuitable, replacements will be ready." "If we ever get them to stay mentally stable," Fuyutsuki replied. "DAGON has caused quite a few casualties, more than any of our other projects." He paused. "Almost more." "The Fount is not unguarded now," Gendo said. "No fools will stumble into it." He rose. "I must go and confer with my 'superiors' now." "Will the Second Child arrive before the next attack?" "Our scouts indicate he has not yet awakened, though he stirs. And when he does...it will be a long swim from where he slumbers. Although I would not wish to be living in Toronto this year," Gendo said, walking towards the door. "This would be much easier if we could simply order him transferred to a secure facility, but..." "Even we have our limits. Everything has limits," Fuyutsuki said. "And we must remember them or be broken by them." "Mankind exists to transcend its limits," Gendo said. "I will not be bound by limits." He closed the door behind him. Fuyutsuki shook his head. "It is the job of the young to hurl themselves at the limits which their elders know cannot be breached. But as to which of us is right...history will tell." He started for the door, then muttered to himself. "If history itself is not about to be at an end." -*- - end part 3 - -*-