-*-

        It was the usual piano bar that she and Ritsuko met
at, but tonight Misato was alone.  Ritsuko was busy that
night, though Misato did have the option of being with Kaji.

        Ha!

        Instead, Misato decided to lounge about by her
lonesome this night, unwinding from a bit of a hectic day at
NERV.  Giant monsters, she assumed, would be the most
stressful part of her job, but the paperwork she had to
endure proved otherwise.

        "Heya, Jimmy."

        "Heya, Misato.  What'll it be tonight?"

        "Martini on the rocks.  Shaken, not stirred."

        "Comin' right up."

        A moment later, Misato had her martini in hand,
staring blankly outside the bar's window at the Tokyo-3
skyline.  She was as close to approaching a totally blank
state of mind as humanly possible.  Had she been a follower
of Zen beliefs, it would have been an accomplishment.
Instead, it was just a total moment of blankness, soon
interrupted by the lounge singer's music drifting into her
ears.

        o/~ We've got stars directing our fate o/~
        o/~ And we're praying it's not too late o/~
        o/~ Cos we know we're falling from grace o/~
        o/~ Millennium o/~

        Misato blinked.  Something was nagging her,
something about that song...

        o/~ And when we come we always come too late o/~
        o/~ I often think that we were born to hate o/~
        o/~ Get up and see the sarcasm in my eyes o/~

        Misato's brow wrinkled as she turned to see who was
on the piano. A rather ordinary lounge piano man sat, oddly
general in his physical appearance but with a hint of
perhaps middle eastern lineage in his features, casually
playing his song.

        o/~ And when we come we always come too late o/~
        o/~ I often think that we were born to hate o/~
        o/~ Get up and see the sarcasm in my eyes o/~

        o/~ We've got stars directing our fate o/~
        o/~ And we're praying it's not too late o/~
        o/~ Cos we know we're falling from grace o/~
        o/~ Millennium o/~

        As the piano player ended his song, he paused a
moment and looked at her.  Misato suddenly felt lightheaded,
a little dizzy, as she stared into his eyes, and she could
swear that she saw the stars in them.

        With a playful grin, he winked at Misato, then left.

        For a moment, Misato stared at the empty piano
chair, mental gears grinding.  She had that _feeling_, like
something in the universe was trying to tell her of grander
things, or something like that.

        Nah.

        "Hey Jimmy, gimmie 'nother."

        "Righto, Misato."

        As Misato watched the bartender mix her drink, she
asked, "Hey, who was the guy at the piano?"

        "New guy we hired as a temp while Akio's on
vacation.  Neil O'Tip, he calls himself."

        "Neil O'Tip?  The guy doesn't look Irish."

        The bartender shrugged again.  "Hey, as long as he
can play, I'll pay."

        As the bartender resumed mixing her drink, Misato
found herself humming the tune, then singing it quietly.

        o/~ We've got stars directing our fate o/~
        o/~ And we're praying it's not too late o/~
        o/~ Cos we know we're falling from grace o/~
        o/~ Millennium o/~

        She had to admit, it was an awfully catchy tune.


                           -*-


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


                 Children of an Elder God

                          Part 9

                    The King in Yellow


                           -*-

        Namura-sensei whistled merrily as he walked through
the library, thumbing through the many volumes.

        The annual school play was coming up, and it was up
to him to decide upon the play.  What to do, what to do...

        Romeo and Juliet had been done far too many times,
even though it was a classic.  Shakespeare in general was
becoming a bit overexposed, he thought.  The children would
enjoy something new, definitely.

        Ah, what was this?

        A dusty book caught his attention, its bright yellow
cover like a beacon in the darkened shelves.  It seemed to
call for his attention.

        He pulled it from the shelves, then flipped to the
opening page.

                  THE KING IN YELLOW

        Hrm.  Catchy title, yes.

        He slowly flipped through the pages, spellbound by
its words.

        Fascinating.  Yes, perfect.

        This would do.

        He snapped the book shut and walked away merrily,
his purpose for the day fulfilled.  Watching from a few
aisles down, another figure saw the teacher depart with the
book.  She smiled wickedly, then disappeared.

                           -*-

        Gendo frowned at the report.  Those fools in the UN hadn't
been able to stop a group of terrorists from making off with an
N2 bomb.  To make matters worse, several of the bomb's guards
had been found reduced to puddles of ooze that only DNA tests
could identify.

        That could mean only one thing.  Right.  At least
seven different groups were capable of doing that to
someone, and likely more if some damn fool had put the
Pnakotic Manuscripts on-line again.

        There were, however, other factors which inclined him to
believe that the same fools behind the Cherubim attack were
behind this attack.  First of all, they were on his short list of
'people who can reduce guards to orange slime' list.  Secondly,
it fit with the recent attempt to steal Stonehenge.  Why the
fools didn't just buy some concrete and make some molds...he
didn't know.  Then again, crazed cultists aren't noted for being
very smart.  And finally, it was time.  The prophecies indicated
their master would strike soon.

        Gendo just wished the prophecies indicated WHERE.

                           -*-

        "I hate research papers."

        Shinji ignored Touji's whining.  It was easy to do,
since he'd been repeating the same thing endlessly during
their whole stay in the library.

        "I hate research papers," Touji said again, grabbing
a book off of the shelves and tossing it onto the already
large pile Shinji was carrying.

        "Hey!"

        "I hate hate hate hate hate research papers," said
Touji again, just to make the point clear.  The pair reached
a table where Kensuke was sitting and stopped, Touji
slumping into a chair, Shinji clumsily spilling the load of
books as he sat down. he sat down.

        "I hate hate hate hey... what'cha lookin' at?" asked
Touji.  He peered over at the five books spread out in front
of Kensuke, along with the scattered notecards, one of which
Kensuke was currently scribbling on.  One of the books
caught Touji's eye; it was in English instead of Japanese
and looked like a pamphlet rebound into a hardcover book.
There was a picture of a battered looking church next to a
picture of the same church reduced to rubble.

        "I decided to do my research paper on government
coverups.  Only, then I couldn't find anything on it."

        Touji began to laugh loudly, and Shinji giggled.
"Gee, I wonder why," Touji said.

        "So the teacher suggested I go back further in time
to older coverups which nobody was trying to coverup
anymore, or at least where something had leaked.  So I was
looking for some books on how we got dragged into that war
with China by the Kwantung Army, and I found this."  He
pointed to the book in English.  "A couple of months ago,
some high up NERV guy donated a ton of books to all our
libraries, and this was one of them.  It's about the Raid on
Innsmouth in the 1920s."

        "The what?"  Shinji asked.

        "The official story was that it was a raid on
bootleggers, but this guy who wrote this was one of the
soldiers on the raid and he published this book about what
really happened.  They found an underwater city of fish-men
and blew it up!"

        "Uh huh,"  Touji said.  "I suppose the Creature from
the Black Lagoon was ruling it."

        Shinji listened.  It was probably just a silly
story, but after seeing Mu, he had to admit there might be
some truth to it.  "Does he have any pictures of the city?"

        "Uhh...no."  Kensuke said.  "But he's got pictures
to prove the US government leveled Innsmouth."

        "That doesn't exactly prove anything about fishmen,
you know," Touji said.  "I think the teacher's gonna laugh
at you."

        "Get a load of THIS," he said, flipping through the
book.

        "A load of what?  Touji been telling lies again?"
Asuka said idly from over his shoulder.

        The three guys all half-jumped out of their flesh.
"Go away!"  Touji said.  "We haven't got time to kick your
ass."

        Kensuke finished flipping to a blurry photo of a
wall painting.  It was hard to see, but it showed a variety
of winged creatures with bat-liked wings.  Some of them were
humanoid with no face.  Others had long snakey bodies and
wings that seemed inadequate to carry them.  And some...

        "Hey, those look like Cherubim!"  Asuka said.

        "That was on one of the walls of this 'Starry
Wisdom' chapel that secretly ran Innsmouth," Kensuke said.
"They were in cahoots with the fishmen."

        Asuka snorted.  "The Creature from the Black Lagoon
was leading the fishmen, eh?"

        Shinji blinked.  "That's just what Touji said."

        Touji and Asuka stared blankly at each other, then
turned to Kensuke.  "You're nuts."

        "Nuts, eh?  Take a look at THIS!"  He pulled out
another book, which said, 'Legends of the Inuits'.  "There's
all these stories about the Wendigo, who lives in the north
and runs around eating human hearts and stuff.  He controls
the ice and snow and..."

        Touji rolled his eyes.  "And he's in league with the
fishmen?"

        "Sounds an awful lot like the Angel of Winter, eh?"
Kensuke said.

        "Yeah, but he'd have to have been around for
thousands of years to make all these legends," Touji said.
"Why'd he wait so long to attack Toronto?"

        "I don't know, but haven't you ever wondered why it
took fifteen years for the Alien War Machines to go on their
rampage?  And why they don't all wake up at once?  And why
they don't cooperate?  Something funny's going on here."

        Asuka nodded silently.  Something strange was going
on.  Who had dug that tunnel out of Rahab's lair they had
escaped through?  What made those lights?  And those
memories she had experienced...if Rahab was really that old,
it made no sense for him to be an alien war machine.  But if
he wasn't...then what WAS he?  What were the Angels?  She
listened to him ramble on, and began trying to sort the
wheat from the chaff in her mind.

                           -*-

        "Hello, Rei."

        The nearly albino girl blinked and hesitated as she
stepped into the examination office.  Normally, Maya had
overseen the exams.  Seeing Dr. Akagi there instead seemed
to have surprised the girl.

        Ritsuko wondered if Rei would ask where Maya was.
Instead, after the moment of hesitation, Rei merely nodded
and took a seat at the examination table, stripping her
clothes away.

        "Maya's told me you've been feeling strange
lately,"  said Ritsuko as the myriad of scanners went to
work on Rei.  "Are you still having that problem?"

        Rei nodded, seeming more subdued as usual as she
did.

        "You do understand you're not to harm Langley."

        Rei nodded once more.

        "Rei... tell me... do you feel a need to be with
Shinji?"

        She hesitated in responding, averting her eyes from
Ritsuko's.  "I... yes."

        "If he was here right now, what would you do?  What
would you say to him?"

        Rei's face betrayed subtle signs of frustration,
and she replied with a barely audible whisper, "I do not
know."

        The doctor sighed.  In all these years, and with all
the training they'd given her, they always thought of her as
a pilot and never as a person.  As a result, nobody had ever
prepared her for things like this.

        Then again... why now?  Why Shinji?  Rei had been
attending school for a while, after all, though why NERV
bothered to do that was a mystery to her.  Perhaps it was
NERV's feeble attempt to give her a normal upbringing?

        Lots of questions, actually.

        And she didn't have any of the answers.  This whole
things reeked of a need for parental guidence, and she was
no mother figure.

        Mother figure...

        Mother...

        Ritsuko frowned as the phrase echoed in her head,
bringing up unwanted memories from a long time ago.  Her own
mother certainly-

        No.

        She refused to dwell on that.

        Ritsuko sighed.

        "As Maya said, you are not to kill anyone.  Check in
with Maya every other day, make arrangements with her on
what time.  And..."

        And what?

        Ritsuko felt there should be something more, but she
was absolutely clueless what that would be.

        "... and that's it."

        With a silent nod, Rei rose from the table and
gathered her clothing, then left.

                           -*-

        Tired from the day, Shinji had went to bed intending
to skip the usual 'dream training' that he'd been undergoing
lately.

        What dreams may come, let them be.

        The dream that came seemed awfully familiar.

        As Shinji's eyes opened in the dreaming, a single
pink cherry blossom floated down before him.

        A breeze blew, and suddenly the air was filled with
the sight of endless cherry blossoms swirling in a perfect
blue sky.

        He finally regained enough presence of mind to look
around, and found himself in a forest full of cherry trees.
The air around him was fresh and cool, and the breeze had
calmed to a gentle sigh.

        "Ikari."

        He turned to the sound of the whisper of a voice,
and saw a slight glow of red from under the tree's shadows.
A moment later, Rei stepped from under the tree's shade,
dressed in a simple blue sundress.  However, there was
something different about her this time.  There was a look
on her face he'd never seen before, as if she was uncertain
and anxious, a worried sort of nervous frown that spread to
her eyes.

        "A-Ayanami.  Um, hi."

        He couldn't help but notice she was actually
blushing and fidgeting as she stood before him.  She did
seem at a loss for words.

        Shinji looked around once more, scratching his head.
"Um... this place is beautiful."

        "You like it?" asked Rei quietly.

        "Yeah, I guess.  Looks... familiar."

        "It was in the movie."

        "Movie?"

        Rei nodded, giving no more clues.  It was enough,
though, for Shinji to figure out.

        "Oh, um, Springtime Cherry Blossoms?"

        Rei nodded again.

        "I... wish to understand people," said Rei.  "To
understand you."

        "Oh."  Shinji blinked.  "So... what do we do now?"

        Rei shrugged.  Seemed it was up to Shinji to take
the initiative, something entirely alien to him.

        "Let's... let's... go for a walk then," suggested
Shinji.

        Once more, Rei nodded.  This time, and much to his
surprise, she linked her arm with his and leaned her head on
his shoulders as they walked.

        "R-Rei?"

        She looked up at him with curious eyes.  Her face
was close, uncomfortably close, and those lips...

        "W-what are you... I mean..."

        "The people walked like this," explained Rei, "in
the movie."

        "Oh."

        They walked through the forest, emerging into a
pleasant looking plaza filled with nondescript couples
walking arm in arm.  In the distance, the sounds of a
festival could be heard.  The sounds of children laughing
and birdcall from above were heard, though faintly,
from somewhere unseen.

        "Rei?"

        Again, silently, she looked to him instead of
speaking.

        "Why do you want to know me?"

        "Because," she said again, her voice still a soft
whisper.  "I wish to be with you."

        Having a girl express such intense desire for him
was something entirely alien to Shinji.  His first reaction
was to run away, but it only held sway for a moment.  He
couldn't run anyway, with Rei latched unto his arm like
that.

        Then again, was it so bad having Rei feel that way?
Thinking it over, Shinji realized it might not be such a bad
thing, no.

        Wait, this was just a dream.

        It didn't matter anyway.

        Soon, they crossed a very ornate bridge, with a
gently flowing river running below.  Shinji's stride was
suddenly halted when Rei stopped walking... and still held
on to his arm.

        "Rei?"

        The girl looked uncertain again, taking a look at
her surroundings.  "In the movie," she said slowly, as if
thinking about every word, "I did not understand."

        Shinji blinked.  "Didn't understand?"

        Rei nodded.  "This," she said, and Shinji realized
she was slowly moving her lips to his for a kiss.

        "Rei..."

        "WAAAAAAAAAAAKE UUUUUUUUUUUP DUMMMMKOOOOOOOOOOOOPF!!!"

        "Yaaaagh!"

                           -*-

        With an undignified thud, Shinji fell out of bed,
flailing desperately in his sheets.  "Wha- what the?!"

        Asuka's commanding, booming voice brought him to
full altertness with a jolt.  "C'mon, we're gonna be late!"

        "Okay, okay!  Get outta my room so I can change
already!"

        Still half-asleep, Shinji half-shoved a smirking
Asuka out of the room and started his preparations for the
new day.

        He had a nagging feeling that he'd missed something,
but in the mind-numbing haze he was in, it stayed just
beyond his reach.

                           -*-

        Later that day...

        Asuka hung up the phone and danced around in a circle.
"Woo woo!  He said yes!  He said yes!"  She and Hikari high-
fived.  "So who are you gonna ask out?"

        Originally, Asuka had planned this as a double-date
between herself and Kaji and Shinji and Rei.  However, Dr.
Akagi had told her that Rei was going to be fairly busy in her
free time doing some experiments with her and various tests
for a while, so she'd convinced Hikari to come along.  Now who
Hikari would actually ask out...Asuka had no clue.  She wanted
Hikari along, though; she wasn't quite ready for a date alone
with Kaji, although she wouldn't have admitted that.

        "Well..."  Hikari said slowly, as she needed no psychic
powers to see what was likely to happen next.  "I was thinking
I'd ask Touji," she said quickly.

        "TOUJI?"  Asuka's hair would have stood on end if it
could.  "He's so...he's a macho pig idiot!"

        "He is not!  He's a nice guy when you're not picking on
him!"

        "A nice guy?  He's a sexist idiot!  I don't think he
knows any words but oink!"

        Hikari fumed.  "He goes and visits his sister in the
hospital every day.  He doesn't like to show it sometimes,
but he really is a caring guy."

        "He's rude as hell!  He may care about his sister,
but not anyone else!"

        Hikari's eyes narrowed.  "I haven't exactly seen you
feeding the hungry."

        "You know what I mean!  He's just a thug!  I can't
see how Shinji can stand to be around him."

        "He is not a thug!  When did he ever beat someone
up?"

        "Besides Shinji?"

        "They made up and now they're friends!  Why can't
YOU do that?"

        Asuka started to retort, then sighed.  She didn't
want to fight with Hikari about this.  He was bad for her,
but she just wouldn't ever see it.  I can't believe she
likes this guy, Asuka thought.  "Okay, okay, I'll try to get
along with him, but..."  He's a butthead, she thought.

        I'm not too fond of your date either, Hikari
thought.  How can you like that guy?  He's just a playboy.
This is gonna be one big mess.  But it gives me an excuse to
ask Touji out, so...  "Right.  I'll talk to Touji as soon as
I can."
        
                           -*-

        This time, Asuka picked the wrong battle to fight,
or so Touji thought.

        With grim determination, he strode through the
school's halls, basketball in hand, shoes laced up tight.
The German kraut-eating bitch had clashed with him again
today, and it ended with her challenging him to a one-on-one
game of basketball.

        HA!

        Touji Suzuhara, star of the basketball team, beaten
in a one-on-one game?  Never happened before, wasn't gonna
happen now.

        HAHA!

        Oh yeah, this time she picked the wrong battlefield.

        "Touji?"

        He was gonna crush her to the ground, lay down some
thunderous dunks, he-

        "Suzuhara!"

        Touji's line of thought came to a crashing halt as
he suddenly found himself facing Hikari.

        "Um, wha, er, hey," he managed to say.  "Aheh, did I
do something wrong again?"

        "Er, no," said Hikari.  "I just... I..."

        "Um, Hikari, you okay?" asked Touji.

        "Er, I just... doyouwanttogoonadatewithme?"

        Touji blinked.

        "Date?"

        Hikari blushed deeply, fidgeting in place, and
nodded.

        "Um, you'n me?"

        Hikari nodded again, a shy smile on her face.

        "I... er... yeah... sure," he said, still dazed at
the idea.

        Hikari's face lit up like a fireworks display.  "You
will?!"

        "Um, yeah?"

        "Great!" cheered Hikari.  "I'll... er... call you
later, okay?"

        "Yeah?"

        With an extra spring in her step, Hikari skipped
away.  The grin on her face was hard to ignore.  Meanwhile,
Touji was still a bit dazed, uncertain about exactly what
had just happened.

        He apparently had a date.

        With Hikari.

        That was cool.

        Er.

        Yeah, that was cool.

        He idly dribbled the basketball as he walked down
the hallway, wondering exactly what it was he was going to
do...

        Ah, well, if it was important, he'd remember it.

                           -*-

        Meanwhile, out on the basketball court...

        "TOUJIIIII!  GET YOUR LAME JOCK ASS OUT HERE SO I
CAN STOMP ON IT!!!  AAAAAAAGH!"

                           -*-

        The command center of NERV was dimly lit, bathed in
a glow of red that filled the air with tension.  Massive holographic
projections displayed multiple images: a satellite view of a small
wooden building in the woods, a mini-cam attached to a soldier's
helmet, radar, sensors, and other displays.

        Misato watched over it all, herself watched over by
Gendo.

        "So, this is where the N2 was taken?" asked
Fuyutsuki.

        "If our sources are correct," replied Gendo.  "Have
they made confirmation?" he asked, his voice echoing down to
the command floor below.

        "They're working on it," said Misato.

        A few tense seconds passed.  Then a voice filled
with static interference broke the silence.

        //"S-r, -t's conf--med.  N2 p---r sign--ures
ins--e.  Very fain-, --ob-bly und--r--ound."//

        "Good job," said Katsugari.  "Any signs of life?"

        //"A --w, so-- are real st--ge, com--nd-r."//

        On a separate holographic display on the right, a
static-tainted stream of data in the form of charts, graphs,
and something resembling a DNA chain appeared.

        "It could be Cherubim," said Ritsuko, "or something
we haven't seen yet."

        "Your men ready to move?" asked Misato.

        //"Ye- com---der."//

        "Take prisoners if you can, but the priority is
recovering the N2-"

        "Wait," echoed Gendo's voice from above.  "Do we
have the codes?"

        "Codes?" asked Misato.

        "I believe we do," replied Fuyutsuki.

        Gendo nodded.  "Captain, have the team clear out.
Send the detonation codes in five minutes.  There will be no
prisoners."

        Misato looked up at her boss, stunned.  "S-sir?"

        "There are to be no survivors," said Gendo calmly.

        "Yes... yes sir.  Bravo team, clear out fast.  We're
setting it off in five.  You got that?"

        //"Roger, command.  On our way-"//  The message was
cut off by a a scream.  //"What the... GET DOWN!"//  The
satellite image showed the seven dark shapes of the commando
force, scrambling furiously around and shooting wildly.

        From a helmet-cam of one of the soldiers, they saw one of
the men held in the air by unseen hands, flailing desperately.
Spouts of blood suddenly burst from his body, and some thing
made of a mass of tentacles became faintly visible.

        "Bravo team, what's happening?!" yelled Misato.

        //"---re under at---k!  I can't s-- --em!"//

        //"G--E OVER, -AN!  GA-- --ER!  -HIT!"//

        The display of graphs and bars indicating 'angel'
lifeforms began to rise wildly.  Meanwhile, the vital signs
of the soldiers suddenly flatlined, one by one.

        "These are new life signs," said Ritsuko as she
looked over the displays.  "Unknown, sir."

        "Send the detonation code now," ordered Gendo.

        "But sir," said Misato.  "What about the-"

        "Send the detonation code NOW."

        "Yes sir."  Misato looked sadly at Makoto and
nodded.  He typed in the command.

        The helmet-cam view died instantly in a burst of
white, and the satellite view became filled with the sight
of a fireball bursting from the ground.

        "Not as underground as I hoped," said Gendo.  "Is
the threat neutralized?"

        For a moment, Misato stared slowly across the
displays, from the flatlined vital signs of the soldiers, to
the fiery remains of the house in the woods, and finally to
the set of readings that detected 'angel' type life forms.

        "No survivors, sir.  None."

        "Good," said Gendo, rising from his chair.  "The
mission is a success.  Those fools who worship Baraquiel
won't unleash him that way.  Fuyutsuki and I will be on our
way to Antarctica.  I'll trust you to keep things in order."

        "Yes sir."

        And with that, Gendo and Fuyutsuki left the room.

        Misato sighed.  "If it's a success, why do I feel so
shitty?"

        "It's not your fault," said Makoto.  "We're in a
war, there's going to be casualties."

        "Yeah, I know," said Misato, not sounding any
happier. "I know."

        "At least," said Maya, "it didn't end like the last
mission."

        Aoba shuddered.  "Orange goo."

        Misato winced visibly, and Makoto thwapped Shigeru's
arm, giving him a "shut up!" sort of glare.

        "I'm outta here, guys," said Misato wearily.  "Page
me if anything comes up.  Hey Ritsuko, c'mon, let's get
drunk."

                           -*-

        Kaji said, "I'm sorry, but Commander Ikari wants me to
go over all these supply reports.  Someone is pilfering supplies
or else wasting them."   Asuka heard Kaji sigh over the phone.
"So I have to cancel on the outing tonight.  Sorry!"

        "But...but...we've been planning this for so long!"  Asuka
tried to control herself; Pen Pen and Shinji were watching.

        "I'm sorry, liebchen.  I HAVE to read and correlate these
damn things in the next two days."

        "We already bought tickets."

        "Unless you can train Pen Pen to read and correlate
reports in the next half hour...If we wait, we can maybe get
Shinji and Rei to go next time too."

        She laughed, then sighed.  "Okay, I guess," she
said.  "I'll be okay.  I'll find something to do tonight.
Maybe whoop Shinji at one of my wargames or something.  I'll
be okay, really."

        Then she heard a woman's voice faintly over the
line.  "Kaji, who are you talking to?  We need to get
going!"

        Asuka felt the bottom of her heart plunge towards
her feet.

        "Gotta go, liebchen.  Talk to you later!"  He hung
up.

        He...he's with another woman, Asuka thought.  She
struggled to keep her face calm; Shinji was watching her.
Still, her body trembled and it was an extreme struggle to
keep whatever shards of dignity she had left.  He...wouldn't
even tell me, she thought.  I never thought he'd start
hiding things from me.

        She quietly hung up and drifted away from the phone.
There were no tears until she was safely hidden in her room.
        
                           -*-

        Kaji sighed.  Kid's gonna get the wrong idea.  Not
that she doesn't need to move on to someone her own age,
but...I wonder if Misato taught her the 'I'm okay, don't
mind me, but really you need to baste in your own guilt'
thing.

        "Done talking to your little friend?"  Dr. Phelps
asked sweetly, with only the tiniest bit of acid in her
voice as she put the pile of documents down on his desk.
"Or would you like to keep me stuck here a while longer
while you call all your preadolescent girlfriends?"

        "Asuka is hardly preadolescent."

        "Speaking from experience?"

        Kaji frowned.  Hell really is other people, he
thought.

                           -*-

        Shinji, being an adept at the art, could tell Asuka
was moping.

        This surprised him.

        Asuka wasn't the sort of person who moped in his
experience.  He didn't like to see her moping, although he
couldn't have explained clearly why. It stirred him from his
homework when he couldn't take it anymore.  Cheering others
up was something that was entirely alien to Shinji, but he
guessed that some upbeat music would perk her up.
Unfortunately, he didn't own any.

        His sheet music collection, on the other hand, did
have some uplifting selections.  While the cello is not the
world's most chipper instrument, it's not the saddest
either.  He found a polka and started to play it.  Hearing
the music, Pen Pen began to prance about the room;  Shinji
couldn't help but laugh at, if only a little.

        Asuka looked up from playing 'I Crush Your Head' on
her Sega Octopus game machine.  "..."

        "Am I doing this right?"  Shinji asked.  "I haven't
played this piece in a while."

        Asuka stared at Pen Pen.  "He's trying to..."

        "I know I don't have an accordion, which is what I
really need, but..."  Shinji said sheepishly.  "Or sausages.
And it's not October yet, but..."

        "Are you trying to cheer me up?"  She asked.  "Or
have you gone mad?"

        "Er, yes?"  he answered.

        "Well, if we're going to polka..."  She got up and
sprinted to her room, then returned with a CD.  "Let's do
this right."  She put it in the CD player, and a properly
done polka started up.  She came over to Shinji.  "Lose the
cello."

        He blinked.  "What?"

        "I'm gonna teach you to polka."

        Beginning to sweat, he said, "Urr...I'm not much of
a dancer."

        "You can learn."  She stared at him intently.  "You
WILL learn."

        "..."

        "Okay," said Asuka, "step over here."

        "Okaaay..."

        "Now put your right arm around me," commanded Asuka.

        "Um, like this?" he asked, moving his arm around her
side uneasily.

        Asuka noticed his discomfort and smirked.  "We're
dancing, not dating, so take it easy.  Besides, I only have
eyes for Kaji," she said in mock tease with a grin.  "Now
put your right arm out."

        He held his right arm out to the side, and a moment
later Asuka extended her own arm and entwined his fingers
with hers.

        Asuka frowned.  Shinji was a sweaty-palms type.

        Ick.

        Oh well, she'd just have to put up with it.

        "Now, you'll be taking the lead and-"

        "I'm taking the lead?  Shouldn't you?  I mean, I
don't know how to pol-"

        Asuka frowned at him.  "Of course you are, dummkopf!
You're the man, I'm the woman.  The man always leads, it's
tradition."

        Odd, thought Shinji.  Asuka hardly seemed
traditional about anything.

        She spent the first polka teaching him the basic
steps.  By the end, he could not only do the basic forward
movements, he also was spinning both of them around in a
move that involved a quarter turn with each step, so that by
the end of the normal four step pattern, they had turned a
full circle.  It was fun, but also came within an inch of
smashing the TV to rubble.

        As they launched into the second polka, he could
feel Asuka relaxing, the grip of her hands becoming more
gentle, and she began to smile.  He could feel himself
smiling as well.  Despite being afraid of breaking
something, he was enjoying himself.

        And then they stumbled over the table.

        Limbs flailed uselessly in the air as the pair fell
down, collapsing to the floor in an undignified heap.

        "Ow... Scheisse, you clumsy idiot, get off of me."

        "Itai... sorry, Asuka, are you..."  Shinji froze as
he realized that he was remarkably close to her face.  For a
moment, the two stared at each other silently, both
blushing.

        And then Asuka turned away and started laughing.

        Shinji sat up, laughing a little himself, though he
wasn't quite sure why.

        "You know," said Asuka, "I've always seen this sort
of the thing in the movies, y'know?  It's so cliche!"  She
giggled.

        "Heh, I guess it is."

        "Good thing we're not in love, eh?" she said with a
wink.

        Shinji, for a brief moment, looked a little jolted.
Asuka missed it entirely.  After moving the table a little
further away, they tried a second polka.

        When the second polka ended and the CD began to play
a foxtrot, she bowed and stepped away from him.  "Thanks,
Shinji."

        "You're welcome," he said.  "Umm...feel better?"

        "A little.  I just can't believe..."  She growled.
"Kaji, you idiot!!!!"

        He is twice our age, Shinji thought.  "Maybe she was
just helping him with work."

        "Yeah.  That must be it," Asuka said, sounding
distracted.  "Helping him do the reports.  Of course."  She
sighed.  "Have you ever been dumped, Shinji?"

        "I've never had a girlfriend."

        She nodded.  "Well, once I root out your secret
admirer, you will have one."

        "It could be someone playing a joke on me," he said
faintly.  "Happened to me once last year, with a valentine's
day card."

        "That's AWFUL!  If it's someone just toying with
you, I'll...I'll make them regret it."  Her voice was grim
for a moment.  "Toying with people is just WRONG.  If Kaji's
been just toying with me..."  she growled.

        "I'm sure he wouldn't toy with you," Shinji lied,
trying to be reassuring.  "Wanna play poker?"

        Asuka grinned.  "Ready to go bankrupt?  Rei isn't
here to save you this time."

        Isn't here to destroy both of us, Shinji corrected
her in his mind.  "I'll get the cards."

                           -*-

TO:  AgentX42@Users.Mizunonet.Net
FROM:  Moldy567@Coldmail.com
SUBJECT:  Coincidence?  I think not.

Take a look at the two files I attached.  I think you'll
find some suspicious parallels.

__________________________________________________
Want free email at the price of your privacy, your soul, and
your first born child?  Oh wait, that wouldn't be very free...
http://cold.mail.com

        Kensuke opened the first file, laughing faintly.
Probably another set of doctored pictures; the last set had
'proven' that all of the EVA battles were actually created
using computer graphics and the EVA toys being sold by
Bandai.  Kensuke had gone and gotten one of the Shinji
figures to give to Shinji as a gag gift for his birthday,
although he wasn't sure when Shinji's birthday was.

        It wasn't very accurate, unless Shinji was hiding
three inches and fifty pounds of muscle.  The body looked to
have been stolen from another figure line, with a plug suit
slapped on it.  The head was recognizable, though, even with
a frozen plastic smile. The figurines of Asuka and Rei
looked like both of them were in their twenties with figures
to match.  And the rest of the staff had apparently been
completely made up by Bandai, unless his eyesight was
getting worse than usual.  For example, Commander Ikari
certainly didn't ride around in a flying wheelchair in
reality, nor was he bald.  Maybe it was just intended to
conceal classified information.  Everyone and their dog knew
who the Pilots were, but the rest of the staff was invisible
to the public.

        The first file was a text file.  It was in German,
which he could read, but only slowly.  He had to run it
through a text translation page to fill in the blanks he
couldn't, but then the results weren't entirely clear:

                       **********

        As I watched, the two dozen men and women stripped
down to nakedness, and daubed themselves with paint.  As
they did so, the others erected nine monoliths, one for each
of the planets, in a great V which encompassed the field.
With ochre and woad, they painted runes upon each, to sign
out the planets of the heavens above, and runes for the
stars upon which they would call.  Each of the pillars was a
pentagonal cylinder, tipped with a pentagram, in which was
inscribed the Sign of their Master.

        Then the leader, a great priest who wore a black
hood and nothing else, held aloft the sacred knife over the
altar, which stood for the Earth.  Upon the altar sat a bowl
half-filled with water, and he chanted over it, calling it
Hali, the great lake where dwelt He Who Is Not To Be Named.
As the worshippers writhed and chanted and had their
pleasures of one another around him, his fivefold Elementals
each blew a whistle, and Angels descended from the heavens,
their black wings covered with the frost of space.  They
were the Angels of the Nine Worlds, and they took up their
posts, each upon his sacred station.

        Then the Elementals bent and took up a sacrifice, a
man who screamed and flailed and cried out for succor.  It
pierced my heart, and if I had not feared retribution, I
would have aided him.  Strange how one who has renounced the
weaknesses of the human race can sometimes be overcome by
them.  I had watched men ground beneath great wheels and
laughed to see them cry, yet now, I felt pity for him.

        The Angels joined the cry, and lifted their eyes to
the heaven to gaze upon their home world, Aldebaran, which
hung just above the horizon across the plain.  And then the
priest sliced one of the Chosen One's wrists, and let his
blood drain into the lake of Hali, that the Master and
Prisoner of Carcosa might drink the stuff of life and cross
the frozen void that protects us from him.

        I cannot speak of his coming, for words fail me, but
be assured, He Cannot Be Named, but He CAN be seen, if one
takes the precaution of preparing the preparation often
associated with the great scholar Ibn Ghazi...


--Excerpted from Page 305 of _Unausprelichten Kulten_, by
Friedrich Wilhelm von Junzt, 1839 Quarto Edition.

                       **********

        Kensuke blinked.  Funky.  Probably he made this up
and put a monolith picture in the next file, so I'll panic.
He opened the next file.

        The video clip was grainy and badly digitized, but
he could see what was happening.  Men in NERV uniforms were
busily slaughtering a group of scantily clad and rather
hapless people who had things painted on their bodies, or
possibly tattooed.

        Two things caught his attention.  First, one of the
victims pointed a short basalt rod at one of the NERV
agents, who collapsed into a puddle of goo in about five
seconds.  Secondly, as the man collapsed, you could see him
standing next to a monolith.  It was a five sided cylinder,
painted in orange-brown and blue with strange runes.  Most
were unfamiliar to Kensuke, but he could see one clearly;
the astrological symbol for Jupiter was marked on each side,
just below the top.  The footage ended just as a blurry claw
dropped down into the image, landing on the pillar.

        Kensuke frowned.  There was no way Keiichi could
have faked this.  Not unless he'd gotten his own film studio
recently.  And the NERV uniforms looked authentic.  So was
the hardware they had been toting; even with this lousy
film, he could identify all the models.

        Maybe it's time for me to finally go looking for a
full text of 'Nameless Cults', he thought.  I just wish
someone had done a Japanese edition of it.  I'm sure
someone's put it on- line, but where...if I can validate
this passage as true...

        He shuddered and went to work.

                           -*-

        Sae Tamagotchi shook her pretty little orange haired
head.  "Why of course, Namura-Sensei!  I'd be happy to get
you some coffee!"  She bounced off the stage as if fetching
and carrying made her happier than anything else in the
universe.

        "Five will get you ten they're having an affair,"
Touji muttered to Kensuke and Shinji.

        Shinji looked up from his script, still trying to
figure out why he had accepted the lead.  For that matter,
he wasn't sure WHY he had been cast as the lead.  He was no
great actor, yet he had been cast in the lead role by
Namura-Sensei.  "Then why isn't she in a lead role?  She's
only playing my mother.  Touji has more lines.  I have more
lines, and I didn't even WANT to be in this play!"

        "You're playing King Alar, of course YOU have more
lines," Kensuke said.  "At least you get to be sane.  I have
to be the insane bad guy.  I wanted to be Thale!  He gets to
kick some butt."

        Touji preened a little.  "That's why they chose me.
No one would believe you kicking ass, Kensuke."

        "So why do you think they're having an affair?"
Kensuke asked.

        "The damn letch kept making eyes at my sister before
her accident.  And..."  He shut up suddenly.

        "And she made eyes back?"  Kensuke asked, grinning.

        "She did not!  My sister wouldn't..."  Touji
spluttered and fumed.

        Sae bounced back with a cup of coffee, then sat down
next to Namura-sensei in the front row of the Tokyo-3 Junior
High Auditorium.  Namura took a deep draught of coffee, then
said, "Okay, people, let's get going.  Everyone who appears
in Act One needs to go backstage.  Hikari, go stand in the
middle of the stage, just behind where the curtain drops."

        Shinji and his friends headed backstage, soon joined
by a dozen or so other people who had either willingly
joined the cast or been roped into it like Shinji.  Asuka
waved to Shinji, then stuck out her tongue at Touji, who
growled.  Kensuke laughed.  "She's just getting in
character.  Uoht and Thale hate each other, and I remember
Uoht sticks out her tongue at Thale at some point.  During
the duel at the feast, I think."  He began to flip through
his book.

        "Her character's name is even dumber than her real
one.  Uuuuaaaught," Touji exaggerated.

        Rei stepped out of the darkness to stand by Shinji.
Shinji started.  She had worn her school uniform to the last
two rehearsals (unlike everyone else, who had worn casual
clothing), but this time she had changed into a pale green
blouse and a long pleated dark green skirt.  Only her shoes
remained the same from earlier in the day.

        Kensuke said, "Whoa!"

        Touji blinked.

        Shinji said, "Uh, you look nice, Rei."

        "So what's the occasion?"  Kensuke asked.

        "Play rehearsal," she replied.

        While they were busy being nonplused, Hikari began
to declaim the opening monologue from the middle of the
stage.  "Yhtill has fallen.  Only I have survived to tell
the awful tale of how Yhtill by the Lake of Hali, the
Kingdom of Joy, was brought to ruin by a stranger in a
Pallid Mask.  My name is Yhbb, squire to Lady Uoht, who was
the champion of King Alar of Yhtill.  I come before you now
that I might warn you, the people of Celeano, so that your
fate might not be the same as ours.  Heed my warning and you
will live.  Fail to listen, and it may be that you will
share our fate."

        Namura-sensei interjected at this point.  "Okay, now
Hikari, move to the edge of the stage."  She began to do so.
"Now, at this point, the curtain rises upon the opening
scene.  King Genji has just died, and most of the main
characters are attending his funeral.  Tenko, bring out the
'coffin'."

        Tenko, who was short with close cropped brown hair,
hauled a long refrigerator box (minus the refrigerator) to
the middle of the stage.  "Where?"

        "Put it facing the audience.  Shinji, Sae, stand
next to each other at the backstage end of the box.  Rei,
stand on the left side of the coffin, next to Sae.  Asuka,
stand on the right hand side, next to Shinji.  Hikari, AFTER
you deliver your introductory line at the start of the
scene, duck behind the curtain and run over so you'll be
next to Asuka on Asuka's right.  Touji, you stand next to
where Hikari will be.  Kozue, you stand by Rei, and Souichi,
you stand next to Kozue.  Everyone, kind of spread out into
a V.  Really, you wouldn't do this in real life, but the
audience needs to be able to see everyone's faces."

        Everyone scampered into position.  Shinji suddenly
noticed that Rei, Kozue, and Souichi were all wearing green.
It made an interesting visual effect.  Everyone on Asuka's
side was wearing red.  I wonder if I missed some note
telling me what to wear, he thought.  He glanced over at
Sae, who was wearing a red blouse and a green skirt, and
increasingly suspected this.

        They spent a little while during which Namura
directed various other characters into position, although
the other characters would not actually speak any lines in
this scene.  Then they all stood, clutching their play
booklets and trying to remember their lines.

        "It began in the year of the Snowflake, the
eightieth year of the eightieth cycle since our history
began.  During the Saturnalia, King Genji of Yhtill died
while sating his lust upon one of his many concubines, of
whom it was whispered that several of them were made to wear
masks cast in the image of his first wife.  It was a rumor
fiercely denied by his son, Alar, and by Genji's new wife,
Naotalba, a priestess of Yhoundeh, the Elk-goddess, who was
a princess from distant Borea.  Whatever the exact cause, he
was dead now, and he had to be buried.  And this is where my
tale begins, at that funeral."

        She sprinted into position, kicking the box out of
alignment when she skidded slightly.  Souichi shoved it back
into place with his foot as Sae began to speak her lines and
the rehearsal continued.

                           -*-

        Asuka felt confused; she couldn't remember how she
had gotten into her EVA, but she had to be in it, unless
someone had flooded her bedroom with LCL and lined the
walls, ceiling, and floor with view screens.  On the other
hand, what she saw through them was fields covered with
purple vines and short thorny bushes.  A river of pinkish
sludge ran through the middle of the field, and downstream,
she could see a city of burnt orange glass and basalt in an
architectural style she had never heard of before.  The sky
was dark and full of stars in patterns she didn't know,
along with three moons.

        I must be dreaming, she thought.  She looked down at
her EVA, and saw only a mass of tendrils mixed with legs and
arms and gaping maws, eyes, and noses, and ears, random
organs, all covered with a scabby, oozing, pustulent hide,
flowing into and out of one another.  Only the fact that she
would end up breathing and wallowing in her own vomit kept
her from throwing up.

        What's happened to my EVA?  Where am I?  A name
formed in her mind.  Xoth.

        A fear of looking at herself formed in her mind, but
she forced herself to look down at her own body.  Her plug
suit shifted constantly with lumps and knots forming under
it, suggestive of a change in the body it contained, as if
only it held that body in a human form.  She could not see
her face.  She did not want to see her face.  She grabbed a
strand of her hair.  It was red, normal.  Then it wove
together into a rope and became a tentacle with a knob on
the end.  The knob opened, revealing it was an eye.

        She saw herself and screamed, the shout rising ever
higher until the world shattered.

        There was something on her face, something furry and
heavy and a little warm when she awoke, still screaming.
She hurled it off her face before she realized it was one of
her stuffed animals.  Shinji opened the door just in time to
get hit by the tanuki plushie.

        "Asuka, are you...oof!"  He fell down, having been
caught off guard by the stuffed toy striking his face.

        "You need to be more careful."

        "Most people don't scream in the middle of the
night, then throw stuffed animals at people," Shinji
replied.  "Did you have a nightmare?"

        She shook her head trying to forget it.  "I don't
HAVE nightmares."

        "Uh huh.  I was about to reach the top of that
mountain when you woke me up.  You planning on doing this
every night?"  He smiled a little, and she stuck out her
tongue at him, then they both laughed.

        Misato stuck her head in the door.  "You two having
sex or something?"

        They both blushed.  "No!"

        "Damn.  Just a bad dream?"

        "No.  No.  Yes."  Asuka said, sighing.  "I dreamed I
turned into some kind of monster, and so did my EVA."

        "Well, I had a nightmare about turning into my
grandmother once, so it's nothing to worry about," Misato
said.

        Asuka tried to follow the logic and failed.  "Your
grandmother wasn't a monster."

        "You never met my grandmother," Misato said flatly.
"If she showed up as the next Angel, it would not surprise
me at all."

        Shinji laughed.  "Joined by someone I knew at my old
school, I suppose."

        "And Oscar," Asuka said.  "With his cat."

        Misato looked thoughtful for a moment.  "You two are
doing a school play, right?"

        "Uh huh." Asuka said.

        "Good.  You can get me a free ticket."  She stood up
and yawned.  "I'm going to bed.  See you in the morning."
She wandered out.

        Asuka watched her go.  Shinji got up to follow, but
Asuka caught his hand.  "I...You wanna practice some of our
scenes?  Namura-Sensei was saying we were too stiff last
time."

        Probably because we haven't learned our lines yet,
he thought.  It's hard to act with my nose in the script.
"Shouldn't we be sleeping?"

        "I'm not tired," she said, yawning.

        He gave in.  "Let me go get my script."

        "You need to learn your lines soon, you know!"

        "We don't go to not using the scripts for a while,"
he said.  "And I'm not good at memorizing lines.  I'll be
right back."

        She dug out her script and tried to find a good
scene without too many other characters in it.  Ahh...the
one where Uoht tries to follow the King in Yellow, but
stumbles on just the King instead, she thought.  Perfect.

        Shinji returned.  "Uh...what are we gonna do about
no one else being here?"

        "Let's do the garden scene."

        "Which garden scene?"

        She blinked.  "Oh yeah, you run into just about
everyone there at some point.  The one with you and Uoht."

        "Right."  He stood up a little wobbily and pretended
to be looking at a bush.  "Hmm.  The roses are wilting."

        Asuka stood up, book in hand, and moved over by the
door, pretending to creep along.  "Now, I shall catch him
with his...your highness?"

        Shinji straightened up.  "Uoht?  What are you doing
here at this hour?"

        "Uh...nothing," she said, trying to look sheepish.  " You didn't
happen to see...  him...did you?"

        Shinji checked his script.  "I haven't seen Lord
Thale since yesterday."

        "No, not him..." Asuka checked her script as well.
"The stranger.  I think he's making trouble."

        "You thought the ambassador from Celeano was making
trouble too, but he was just having an affair with one of
the maids," Shinji said, doing his best to sound bemused.

        Asuka came over to him.  "Don't you trust me...my
liege?"  She reached out a hand towards him, then pulled it back.

        "I trust you to be a valiant warrior.  And a good
friend.  But Cassilda is the one who is good at ferreting
out secrets, not you, and she has yet to tell me to distrust
this man.  And you know how few people she trusts."

        Asuka frowned.  "So you trust her word over mine?"

        "Uh...er..." Shinji wilted, not entirely acting.
Asuka was scary when she wasn't happy.  "If this was a
matter of battle, I would take your word over hers.  You
each have...different strengths."

        "Perhaps she's in league with him," Asuka
muttered, turning away to stare off at the corner of the
room.  On the stage, she would have been staring at a statue
of the old King.  Well, once it was made, she would be.
Right now, it meant she was staring at a poster of a German
band, Drei Madchen.

        Shinji did his best to frown angrily, but it wasn't
very impressive. "Uoht!  You know Cassilda would never
betray our nation like that!  I know you two don't get
along, but I can't afford to have my left and right hands
arguing with each other!"

        Asuka snapped back around, feeling a bit proud of
finally remembering this little bit of character business.
"You really...think of me like that?" She tried to give it
the proper breathiness.

        He stepped closer to her.  "I need both of you...I
never expected to be King so soon, and you've both always
been such a help to me.  Ever since we were little.  I've
just...never understood why you don't get along with
Cassilda."

        Asuka sighed.  "I try, but...you're the only one
who can get close to her. Everyone else, she clams up around,
except for the old High Priestess, but she's dead now.  And the
way she looks at me...like she's boring through my head into
my mind." She turned, half-looking at Shinji, half gazing upwards
at ' the sky'. "Half the time when she does speak to me, it's to
tell me I'm wrong about something.  I just..." She checked
her script again.  "Just ask her what she thinks about the
stranger in the pallid mask.  Please?"

        He nervously reached over and took her hand,
wondering why he was so scared to do this.  They were just
acting, and it was just a hand, not a poisonous snake.  For
a moment, the memory of the dream he had of walking with Rei
flitted through his mind, and then it was gone, leaving a
little more embarrassment behind.  A mental image of walking
with Asuka like that popped into his head for a few seconds,
and he fumbled to remember his lines, or at least where he
had put the script.  Realizing he was holding it made him
really embarrassed.

        Finally, he said, "As you wish, Lady Uoht.  I will
ask her in the morning." He looked up at the ceiling.
"Aren't the stars beautiful?"

        Asuka looked at the script, glanced over at Shinji,
then stepped next to him, putting an arm around his waist.
He jumped slightly like he always did in rehearsal and she
smiled faintly.  "The stars are beautiful," she said.  "You can
see the Muses tonight," then pointed up at a point that would
be over the audience.  "A good omen."  She leaned over on
him, hoping he wouldn't collapse like he had the last time.  To
her surprise, he simply leaned towards her.

        For a while they stood and stared at the ceiling, feeling
the warmth of each other's bodies and listening to each other
breathe while Asuka continued to point.  The silence grew, and
Asuka wondered if Shinji had forgotten his lines.

        Shinji stood and waited for Asuka to continue.  He was
less nervous than he had expected to be; this scene always
made him jumpy. Instead, it just felt kind of nice, especially
since it was a bit chilly and she was warm.  After a while, he
started to think she must have forgotten her next line, so he
snuck a peak at the script, then sighed.   "This is where Cassilda
shows up."

        Asuka slapped her forehead.  "Dammit, I forgot...umm..."

        "We could get Misato to come do her lines," Shinji
suggested.

        "Do you really think that's a good idea?"

        "No."

        "I'll do them," Asuka said.  She said, as flatly
and emotionlessly as possible, "Sire, look." She pointed
off in another direction.

        Shinji looked.  "What's that?"

        "The ceiling," Asuka said flatly, then began to
giggle.

        Shinji blinked, then laughed as well.  "She would
do that."

        "And she wouldn't know why we laughed either,"
Asuka said, shaking with laughter.

        Misato stuck her head in the door.  "You two making
out this time?"

        Shinji suddenly became acutely aware of how close
he was to Asuka.  He jumped away from her.  "No!"

        "Double damn.  I need to learn to be more sneaky,
then.  Either make out or go to bed. That's an order."

                           -*-

        "Uoht!  Scoundrel!" boomed Touji, holding a broom
before him as if it were a blade.  His poise was straight,
tall and majestic upon the stage, his voice carrying across
the auditorium.  "The..."

        Shinji blinked.

        "The..."

        Hikari frowned, looking very much worried.

        "The... aw shit... the..."

        Asuka hefted her own fake sword menacingly.

        "The... okay, I'm lost."

        *WHAP* "Dummkopf!" yelled Asuka.

        "HEY!  Cut it out, ya beer-swilling bitch!"  Touji
raised his own 'sword' in challange.

        "Asuka!  Touji!  Stop!" cried Hikari.

        "Just born to hate each other, I tell ya," said
Kensuke jokingly.  "In a past life, these two were either
mortal enemies or married."

        Rei observed it all silently, as if committing the
moment to memory.

        "L-let's go to the next scene?" suggested Shinji.
This wasn't a formal rehearsal, so they could skip around as
much as they liked.  On the other hand, it also meant they
didn't have half the cast, and HAD to skip some scenes.
Asuka had wanted to work on a scene with him and her and Rei
in it, and things had snowballed.  Now, he was starting to
worry that the snowball had become an avalanche.

        Asuka and Touji glared at each other a moment long,
their weapons waving between them dangerously.  A moment
later, both slowly turned away, grumbling and with eyes
narrowed.

        "Next scene," said Kensuke as he thumbed through his
copy of the play.  "Let's see... where were we?  Act 3 scene
4?"

        "Ja, act 3," said Asuka.  "Big finale."

        Kensuke frowned.  "Damn.  Lots of me in this one."

        "Fancy that," said Asuka.  "You are playing the
title character, you know!  C'mon, schnell, let's go."  She
sprawled herself out on the floor, clutching an imaginary
wound.  Rei knelt beside her, her face clutched in her
hands, trying to fake weeping.  She had the 'fake' part
down.

        "Okay, okay, I'm going."  Kensuke adjusted his
glasses, put his script away, took a deep breath, then
began.

        "And now, good king," said Kensuke, his voice deeper
than usual with a hint of menace.  "Your lady Uoht lies
broken by my sword, and your lady Cassilda driven mad by my
words.  Good advice I did give, my lord.  Were my words
wasted upon thy ears, king of fools?"

        At this point, Shinji was supposed to step in and
say his lines, but he found it hard to move; Kensuke had
never quite managed to get the tone right before.  Which
shouldn't have pinned him in place, but for just a moment,
he felt like Kensuke was gone, and the Stranger in the
Pallid Mask truly stood before him.

        Glancing at the others, he could tell they were
surprised as well.  He steeled himself; it was just a play
and Kensuke was just acting.  Asuka wasn't really dying, and
Cassilda wasn't on the...  Rei wasn't on the verge of
madness.

        What Shinji had to do next was to portray anger;
this wasn't his specialty.  He summoned up all his memories
of people yelling at him and tried to imitate it.  "You have
come into my kingdom!" he said loudly, pointing a finger at
Kensuke.  He took a step closer, remembering the time one of
his foster parents had yelled at him for stealing a bike,
when really he had just found it.  He still had moments of
bitterness about that, and now it welled up.  "You have
turned my people against each other!"

        "They already hated each other," Kensuke sneered.
"I merely helped them do what they already wanted to do.
Humanity is divided against itself, and that is why it
always falls.  Every society is but a fragile veneer over
the beasts inside every man.  It is the nature of beasts to
fight and struggle and hurt one another."

        Shinji took another step forward, and bellowed as
best he could, remembering the gang that had beaten him up
and stolen his lunch money every day for a month when he was
in the fifth grade, and how the school hadn't done anything
about it because it happened off the school grounds.  "I AM
NOT A BEAST!  I am the king and I take care of my people!"

        "By hiding behind two women and sending them to do
battle for you.  Now they have fallen, and you do nothing,
for you fear me."  Kensuke sneered.  "It matters not.  The
armies are on the march, and Yhtill will be destroyed.
Thale is dead and his followers rise in revolt as we speak."
He pointed out across the auditorium.  "And the storm that
is coming will scourge this land.  My work is done."

        The lights flickered, and Hikari jumped.  Touji
muttered to her, "That twit Uoht never would have gotten me
if it wasn't written into the script."

        There was a feeling of static in the air as Kensuke
smirked at the glowering Shinji.  Shinji took another step
foward, his face red, his eyes dark.  "You will not get away
with this!"  He could see the lights flickering on Kensuke's
glasses, hiding Kensuke's eyes.  For a moment, he remembered
his father looking like that when he sent him away, so long
ago.  Damn you, father, he thought, and the fires within him
rose up another step.  "You're the coward, hiding behind a
mask!  Show your true face!"

        His hand came around; it was supposed to be a slap
that would strike off the mask that Kensuke would be wearing
once they started dress rehearsals.  He had been drilled a
good dozen times by Namura- Sensei on how to make it look
real AND not hit Kensuke.  Unfortunately, Shinji wasn't
thinking in those terms anymore.  The slap struck Kensuke
squarely on the cheek and sent him sprawling.  "Damn you!"

        "That's not in the script," Hikari said.

        Touji stared in shock, as did Asuka.  Rei looked up
and blinked.  Shinji stared at his own hand, snapped out of
it.  "Oh man, I'm sorry!  I didn't mean to hit you like
that!  I just...got carried away."

        Kensuke rubbed his cheek.  "Probably would have
worked better if I'd really been wearing the mask."

        "Shinji, you idiot!  You could have hurt him!"
Asuka bellowed.  "Now if that had been Touji, it would have
been another matter, but..."

        "HEY!"  Touji and Hikari said in unison.

        "I think she meant you could take it better than
me," Kensuke lied, trying to calm the waters.  He felt a bit
queasy.  Now I know what acting is really like, he thought.
It had been so easy to fall into the part all of a sudden;
probably the same thing had happened to Shinji.  "Can we
work on that scene just after the banquet now?  I'm not
quite in the mood to continue this."

        Neither was anyone else, so they changed scenes, and
continued their rehearsing.

                           -*-

        The ship cruised through the Antarctic waters,
unseasonably warm, as they had been ever since the Second
Impact.  Fuuyutsuki looked out across the waters.  "I never
thought I'd be able to use a battleship as a taxi one
day."

        "I did," Gendo replied.

        "Liar."

        Gendo smiled a tiny smile.  He did have a sense of
humor, although it was rarely seen.  "I can hardly believe
our good fortune in finding this," he said.  "The ocean
floor is so big, we could have looked for years."

        "It must be fate," Fuuyutsuki said.  "Or a
trap.  Perhaps we're being lured into something."

        "Our enemies lack the resources to build something
like this as a trap at such short notice."

        "Do they?"  Fuuyutsuki asked.

        They stared silently at each other for a while, then
turned and watched the ocean go by, waves lapping gently, as
they had for millions of years.

                           -*-

        "Hey, you wanna go to the arcade with me and
Shinji?"  Touji asked Kensuke over the phone.  Kensuke was
sitting at his desk, surrounded by books and papers, his
computer in the middle of running a web search.

        "I have to work on that research paper," Kensuke
said.  "Maybe tomorrow."

        "We got play practice tomorrow.  Why waste our night
off?"  Touji asked hopefully.

        Kensuke stared at the passage he'd printed out a few
minutes earlier.

[In latter days, men shall wield the powers of the gods, but
lack their wisdom.  They shall walk the halls of the dead,
where the Great Cauldron of Life waits for the one who shall
master it.  Yet, they shall lack the ancient lore, and find
only destruction instead of life, raising a great funeral
pyre.  That light shall call to he who sings the stars into
place, who will set to his work.

And the day shall come when the endless weaver shall
complete his creation and cross the abyss which shielded the
world from him and once more gaze upon the sun.  And he
shall sound the call, awakening his ancient enemy friends to
come forth.  The heights will sink and the deeps will rise;
the veils will be parted and what is known will be occulted;
the dead shall walk and the living shall die.

Blood calls to blood.  Power calls to power.  Fivefold they
rise from the great chasm, stalking across the land in the
visage of men.  Dreams made flesh, or flesh made Dream they
are, come to renew the ancient cycle.  As before, so it
happens now.  In the end, they too shall yield to despair as
did those who came before.  In the end, they shall become
what they fight.  And the Voice of Endless Chaos will laugh
with them at the shattered ashes of their faded dreams.]

        Kensuke shivered; he couldn't get the words out of
his brain.  The more he read of these books, the less he
wanted to know what they said, yet he couldn't stop.  He had
to get to the truth.  No time for games.  "I'm sorry, but I
REALLY have to work on this.  Go have fun with Shinji while
you can."  He hung up and turned to his computer, flipping
through his sheaves of printouts, making more notes as he
read.

                           -*-

        Namura-Sensei held up the blade.  It was fairly crude, but
it only had to look like a sword from a distance.  "I can
hardly believe the school shop has so many resources," he
said to Sae, who was helping him.  She was hard at work on
the hilts over at another machine.  "You'd think they were
planning to turn this school into a weapons plant or
something.  Or a car factory."


        Sae laughed, pushing her hair away from her goggles.
Normally, she had a spiky hairstyle, but after a few hours
of working with the metal, it was drooping all over the place.
"This is fun!"

        "It's a pity we don't have time to make armor before
the dress rehearsal," Namura said.  "Did you and your friend
get those banners made?"

        Sae nodded.  "Yep!  They should be putting them up
right now."

        "So when do your parents expect you to be home?"

        There was a pause, and then Sae said, "They're gone
all this week."

        Namura put down the sword blade and smiled.
"Perfect."

                           -*-

        Megumi Kunzama strolled through the streets of
Tokyo-3, hoping to catch some inspiration.

        After a nice start in Tokyo-3, things were slowing
down to a painful degree for the ambitious reporter.

        The last few angel strikes had been overseas, and
the press conferences discussing them were, typical of most
of NERV press conferences, tightly controlled.

        There weren't any more bizarre occurrances here
lately, like the Cherubim attack.  That one yielded a good
story, with lots of quotes all around.

        But since then, she'd been reduced to occasionally
prying into the personal lives of the pilots, which she did
feel just a little guilty about.

        After all, they were just kids.

        But on the other hand, they were the only thing
standing between humanity and extinction, so they were
public figures and fair game.

        However, even that particular story seemed dried up.
She hadn't seen any noticable change in behaviour among
them, and the addition of Langley to the team didn't seem to
change things.  A nice love triangle would've been nice, but
from all the talk she'd managed to get from the other
students, Asuka was far from interested in anybody.

        She needed a story.

        Something.

        Blech.

        As she passed by thet high school, she noticed a set
of students hanging up a large banner.

   //Tokyo-3 Central High presents: THE KING IN YELLOW//
                // A tragedy in three acts //

        In the background of the banner was an intricate
circular design, a sigil of some sort.  Just looking at it
disturbed her in a way she couldn't put in words.  It felt
so _wrong_, yet she couldn't take her eyes off of it.

        She walked up to the students and asked, "Excuse me,
what's this?"

        "Oh, the school play," one of the boys replied.

        "Oughta be interesting," said another.  "Those
pilots are the stars of the show."

        Megumi raised an eyebrow.  "Hey, yeah?"

        "Yep.  That Asuka's such a babe!"

        "Is it open to the public?" she asked.

        One of the boys shrugged.  "Should be."

        "Ah, good.  Very good."

        It wasn't a groundbreaking piece, but it would make
for a cute little story.

        As Megumi walked away, she took one last look at the
banner and its ominous sigil.

        Yes, something about it was definitely _wrong_.

                           -*-

        Two moons hung in the sky, and all the stars were
wrong as Kensuke looked up at the heavens.  All around him
were buildings of black stone, leaning at angles where they
should have fallen, doubling back on themselves.  Lights
flickered on and off in the windows, and a layer of frost
covered everything.  Chill winds blew through his pajamas,
and the streets, paved with a black, porous stone, crumbled
wherever he stepped.

        Every so often, a faint rising cry broke the
silence, or the faint flapping of far away wings.  Off to
his right, a great dark lake spread, its surface dimpled
with ripples caused by the wind.  Only one of the two moons,
the brighter one, reflected in its surface, and even that
moon faded to grey when seen in the water.

        Kensuke stumbled towards the water, trying to figure
out what was going on, driven by instinct rather than
conscious thought.  He looked down, but instead of himself,
he saw a man in pale saffron robes, wearing a Greek tragedy
mask the same color as the robes.

        The waters stirred, and five figures in the
semblance of man, though badly distorted, rose from them.  As
their shoulders crested the waves, black wings erupted from
them and began to beat the air, further stirring the waters.
He stared at them, unable to move as they rose into the air.
They encircled him, stretching out their arms to form a
circle of malformed flesh, then began to circle him, moaning
in an unearthly tongue, a river of syllables without vowels
in which he began to drown.

        The ground dropped away below him, and he rose to
join them, suspended on invisible threads.  He began to
dance as they crooned unknowable words to him.  Joy and
terror ran through him, the desire to join them, to become a
warrior giant filled him.  They would stride across the
Earth in glory, doing battle for eternity at his command,
for he was their leader.  And beyond Earth were the stars, a
million worlds to conquer.

        He saw them all, the worlds that would be his to
conquer, plunder, burn, and rule or destroy as it pleased
him.  He gazed upon Cykranosh, where dwelt the headless
Bhlemphroims of whom men had dreamed when they hoped to find
such beings in the inaptly named 'New World'.  He looked
upon three-mooned Borea, where the priests of the Children
of the Wind even now cried out to their strangely-silent
master, for the ice that sheltered them was melting, and
they knew not why.  The woods and rivers of Tykran were
opened to him, and the insect-men of that world stopped in
their tracks and gazed into the sky, driven by instincts
they could not understand.  The dogmen of Yuilo, the lone
world of Polaris which harbored life a human could
recognize, paused in their endless wars and sniffed the air
as he passed unseen.

        World after world passed before his gaze, each an
exercise in warfare to conquer, an exercise that could be
his if he accepted his destiny.  All he need do was to open
his mouth and speak the words they chanted, join the music,
the endless dance, the music of the spheres, a song of war
and glory and power.

        He hesitated, not knowing why he held back.  His
every instinct screamed for him to take the oath, to join
the song, to shout out the cries of war.  Aching with the
need to unleash destruction, to take vengeance upon all
those who had ever hurt him, to finally wield the weapons
that filled his dreams, he nevertheless paused as a tiny
voice within his mind told him to turn back, to reject the
offer, for it came at the price of his humanity.

        Humanity is doomed, the song replied.  You have read
the prophecies of the Final Fall, and seen them being
fulfilled.  The only weapons that can save humanity will
destroy everything that makes that pathetic race human.
Give up your name to the Nameless One, and he shall set you
free, for only power brings freedom, and he has power to
spare.  Be his champion, his voice, his hand.  Give up your
humanity, and you will get what you truly desire.

        Do you want to be someone's butt-boy for the rest of
your life? the voice deep inside him replied.  He will
devour you, and nothing will be left of you but a shell, a
tool for his will.  Better to die!

        You cannot save yourself, the cosmos replied.  You
are but a cog in a machine that tells a story whose ending
cannot be changed.  Accept your destiny and you will at
least enjoy it, reject it and you will know only misery
before you are destroyed anyway.  There is no escape.

        Even the universe can make mistakes.  A great din
erupted through the cosmos, an endless buzzing that drowned
out the music of the spheres, the song of war, the dance of
the great Sultan at its center.  Its call truly could not be
denied, and the world around Kensuke ripped apart.

        He blinked, and he lay in his bed, the sun shining
in the window, his pet cat frantically bolting from under
the bed for the shut door, which it slammed into, knocking
itself down.  The sheets were slippery with sweat as he pulled
them off, as were his pajamas.

        What a nightmare, he told himself.  Reading those
books is just giving me the creeps.  Still, they held much
truth, and he had seen too many things they said come true
to discount the rest.  I have to hurry, he thought.  Time
was running out.  Such a reprieve as he had received does
not come twice.

                           -*-

        As he watched Touji and Asuka run through the
choreography of their swordfight one more time in one of the
last scenes of the final dress rehearsal, Shinji was both
impressed by their skill, and scared they would screw up and
hurt each other.  The swords were dull, but they could still
injure someone badly.  They were both getting into it, more
than was probably healthy.

        This was the scene before the feast, where the play
climaxed.  Everyone was in their costumes, the sets were in
place, and it was all quite impressive.  Shinji had never
seen such an elaborate school play before.  Namura-sensei
had gone all out.

        He was offstage in this scene himself, although he
had a big part in the next one...everyone still alive by the
feast played a big role in it.  Kozue, who played one of
Cassilda (Rei)'s subordinate priestesses, came up to him and
tugged his arm.  She had short brown hair and glasses that
couldn't conceal bright blue eyes.  "This lighting is
driving me crazy."  She looked up at the lights, which kept
wavering around and going on and off at odd times.  "Like
it's some kind of secret message."

        "I think it's just the lighting people being
incompetent."  Namura-sensei had blown up on them a good
dozen times during the first Dress Rehearsal.

        "It's just...creepy.  This whole play is creepy.
Can't you feel it?"

        He rubbed his goosepimpling arms.  "Yeah.  Those ad
banners give me the creeps too.  I don't like the Yellow
Sign or whatever it's called," he said.  It felt wrong to
him, even though it was just a sort of multiple spiral
squiggle with a dot in the middle.

        "Treacherous Fiend!  You have betrayed my king, the
man I LOVE!"  Asuka shouted from the stage as she thrust her
sword 'through' Touji.  Really, it went past his backstage
side, but at the angle they were at, it looked real.

        Kozue elbowed Shinji.  "So which one do you REALLY
like better, eh?  Is Rei really your girlfriend like I
heard?"

        Shinji blushed.  "I...I don't have a girlfriend."

        "Uoht, thou art a sausage eating BITCH!"  Touji
shouted as he toppled backwards, then "OWWW!"  as he banged
his head as he did every time they did this scene.

        Kozue blinked.  "Sausage eating bitch?  That's not
in the script."

        "CUT!!!!!!!!"  Namura-Sensei shouted.

                           -*-

        Ritsuko frowned.  Something was wrong.  Well, not so
much wrong as unexpected.  For the last week or two, the
captive Cherubim had been in a coma, or a reasonable
facsimile.  Now it was awake, and moving about, though
sluggishly.  Its flesh had stopped turning grey and was
beginning to regain its color.  And as it paced, it hummed,
a deep throbbing beat, mixed with occasional cries that
sounded joyful.

        "Perhaps it was just sick," Maya speculated.  "But
it got better."

        "It wanted to die before," Ritsuko said.  "I could
tell.  But now it's waiting for something.  Something it
likes."

        "Is it that intelligent?"  Maya asked.

        "Even a cat can anticipate dinner joyfully," Ritsuko
said, hoping this wasn't the case.

        Seemingly oblivious to anything else, the cherubim
looked up, as if searching for something, and warbled an
incomprehensable song.


                           -*-

        Rei stirred from her bed, an annoyed look on her
face.  She paced the room, slowly, then stepped out to her
balcony.

        She looked up to the stars, searching for something
unknown.  Far away, the star Alderberaan shone in the night
sky, mesmerizing her with its sparkling light.

        And as she stared, she hummed to herself a
disjointed melody.

                           -*-

        Asuka leaned back on the couch, frowning.  "Y'wanna
do it again?"

        "Well.... I...."  Shinji scratched the back of his
head.  "Aren't you tired yet?"

        "Somewhat," admitted Asuka.  "But... I'm still not
satisfied wi-"

        At this moment, Misato stepped into the room, beer
in hand, slice of pizza in the other.  She paused, then
looked at the pair on the couch and scowled.

        "You two at it again?" she asked, exasperated.
"You've been at it every night this week, y'know."

        "Hey, I just don't want to mess up in front of
everyone!"  whined Asuka.  "And I can't seem to rest anyway.
Something's just... bugging me.  How about you, Shinji?"

        He nodded.  "Yeah, sorta."

        "It's just pre-opening-night jitters, you two,"
chided Misato.  "Just relax.  You two have been practicing
so much, *I* know some of the lines."

        "Really?" asked Shinji.

        Misato raised an eyebrow.  She chugged her beer,
wiped her mouth, took a deep breath, then straightened her
posture.  She had a somber and contemplative expression on
her face, something Shinji and Asuka had rarely ever seen
from their commanding officer.

        "The Lady Uoht, or the Lady Cassilda?  Bitter
indecision plagues my heart.  Two women of more opposite
natures, I know not:  Uoht with her fiery passion, Cassilda
with her serene and gentle nature.  Cursed by fortune, I
am."

        Asuka and Shinji watched her, surprised at the
incredible display of acting.  Misato broke the spell by
suddenly smiling and leaning towards Shinji.  "So, who do
you prefer," she asked whimsically.  "Fiery Uoht over here,
or Cool Cassilda?"

        Shinji's eyes widened in shock, a bright blush
quickly settling in on his face.  "I- it's not- er-"

        Misato laughed and tousled his hair playfully.  "Ah,
Shinji, you're too fun to tease."  She put her serious face
on once more and faced them both.  "Now get some rest, you
two.  It's already late.  Don't worry about it so much, and
you'll feel better about it.  Okay?"

        "Er, okay," conceeded Shinji.

        Asuka scowled.  "Feh, Misato just wants to watch the
late adult programming or something."

        "Hey!"

        They left Misato alone with the television and went
to their rooms, but Asuka hesitated at her door.

        "Hey, Shinji?"

        "Yes?"

        "Just curious," Asuka asked, trying to sound casual.
"If you were King Alar..."

        "Hm?"

        Asuka shook her head.  "No, nevermind.  G'nite,
Shinji."

                           -*-

        The next night...

        Misato sat with Makoto and Kaji in the middle of the
auditorium, a male on each side of her.  Ritsuko had been
supposed to come, but she had bailed out at the last minute
due to some work she couldn't leave.  Maya and Shigeru had
been supposed to join them as well, but the auditorium had
filled up, and Maya and Shigeru were trapped in the far
back/top of the auditorium.  Misato wondered if Shigeru had
planned it that way; she'd noticed he had a bit of a crush
on Maya, who seemed oblivious to that fact.

        The play was quite good so far, although somewhat
weird.  The basic plot was easy to follow.  The old king was
dead, and the new king needed to take a wife in order to
produce children so that he would have an heir if something
happened to him.  Everyone in the court was trying to
maneuver to choose a wife for him, but the King himself had
his eyes on two different women.  Typical male, Misato
thought.

        Shinji was King Alar, the indecisive king of Yhtill.
Asuka was one of his potential wives and also the Royal
Champion, Uoht.  Rei played the other love interest,
Cassilda, the High Priestess of Lenilda the Moon Goddess,
the Lady of the Lake.  They were all putting in good
performances, although the director had apparently done his
casting by finding people whose personalities already fit
the characters.  Not that Misato thought that was
necessarily a bad thing.

        Several things were complicating the romantic
mishaps.  Besides the long philosophical speeches which
Misato mostly tuned out, there were several subplots.  There
were dangerous rumblings from the neighboring kingdoms of
Xoth and Hyades, and everyone was arguing over which kingdom
to ally with in the inevitable war, or whether to stay
neutral.  Uoth argued they should ally with Hyades, their
long term ally while her rival Thale (played by Touji)
called for an alliance with the stronger empire of Xoth in
order to share in its likely victory.  Cassilda argued for
complete neutrality, the promotion of scholarship and
religion, and the repair of the roads and castles neglected
by Alar's father.

        Further complicating matters was the plot
between Thale and one of Cassilda's subordinates to dispose
of Uoth, the Queen Mother's efforts to get Alar to marry
someone from her home kingdom, the forbidden love of Uoth's
squire for Thale, and the presence of a mysterious stranger
who delighted in causing trouble, The Stranger in the Pallid
Mask.
        Kensuke was playing that role, and putting on a
great performance, Misato thought.  Unlike the others, his
part wasn't much like his normal personality, for the
Stranger was a devious plotter and manipulator.  As they
headed towards the end of the first act, every feud and
quarrel in the kingdom was about to ignite, and no one knew
he was to blame.

        Misato shivered with anticipation, wondering what
would happen.  She'd never heard of this play, but she hoped
it wasn't going to end with everyone dead; plays like that
were a waste of time.  Makoto and Kaji were enraptured too,
as were the audience.

        A few of them seemed to be a bit too enraptured;
some people over in one corner seemed to be having an
argument on the verge of blows, and another couple was
starting to strip and make out.  She turned her head away
from that, only to see someone staring in horror at the
stage, their mouth frozen in a mask of fear.  She looked at
the stage, and all she saw was the Stranger whispering
something to the Queen in a private audience.

        She glanced back, and the man had crumpled, burying
his face in his lap and weeping.  Indeed, a fair number of
people were starting to weep, or cry, or shout.  It was
getting harder to hear the dialogue on the stage over the
din, and now Misato was getting goosepimples.  I hope this
doesn't always happen at these plays, she thought.

                        _*_

        Backstage, Shinji leaned against the wall, breathing
deeply.  The play was intense, too intense.  When Uoht and
Thale...when Asuka and Touji had been waving their swords at
each other, he had thought they were going to actually stab
one another to death on the spot for a moment.  Touji was
off around the other end of the stage right now, getting
ready to interrupt a meeting between Asuka/Uoht and her
followers which Hikari's character had told him about.  This
would lead up to a fight to the death later; for a moment he
wondered if they would really stop in time.

        He ran over his next lines; they came far more
easily to him now than they had before.  Being Alar felt
natural, so natural he almost felt swallowed up by Alar when
he was on stage.  The fact that he could see himself acting
just like Alar in Alar's position made it very easy to play
the part, although he wasn't vacillating between two women
in real life.  I wonder if my secret admirer is watching
this, he thought.  I hope she's not jealous.  He laughed at
the thought.

        Having a secret admirer was embarrassing, but
exciting too.  He'd gotten three more cards, all weird haiku
he couldn't understand, but heartfelt through the confusion.
I just wish I could figure out who it was, though, he
thought.  Misato had gotten two more secret admirer cards as
well, and a bouquet of flowers.  Asuka had been trying to
find out who was sending them, but no one would fess up.

        Maybe it's her, Shinji thought, then discarded the
idea.  If Asuka thought that way about me, she'd just walk
up, throw me over her shoulder, and drag me off.  Like Uoht
tries to do to Alar in the first scene of act two.  Or is it
the third, he asked himself, suddenly panicking.

        He peeked out at the stage again; almost his cue to
go on.  Rei needs to get here, he thought.  She goes on with
me.

        A hand touched his shoulder briefly; Rei was there,
clad in long, loose green robes with a hood, a 'silver'
necklace hanging down loosely from her neck, with a silver
crescent moon pendant.  A similar crescent moon was daubed
upon her brow with makeup, and her skin was much darker than
usual thanks to base makeup intended to keep the stagelights
from completely washing her out.  Shinji was wearing similar
makeup himself, which embarrassed him faintly.

        She stared at him, though it was a gentle stare, and he
gazed back at her.  Then she nodded and stepped onto the stage.
He followed her, feeling Alar slide into place, letting the
memorized words and actions tell him what to do.  And the
play went on.

                           -*-

        Shigeru was feeling pretty confident; he'd managed
to put his arm around Maya's shoulders a good fifteen
minutes ago, and she hadn't protested a bit.  Given the
number of couples around them doing a lot more than that, he
was starting to feel bold enough to try something more
himself.  If he'd been thinking more clearly, he might have
realized that while Maya wasn't telling him to stop, she
hadn't given any real sign of noticing what he had done
either, since she was enraptured with the events on stage.

        On stage, Yhbb was talking to one of the other
squires, trying to work up the courage to profess her love
of Thale to him.  The squires were trying to discourage her
by telling her that because she served Lady Uoht, he would
never love her, for she served his enemy, but she refused to
listen, or so she said.  The words did seem to be slowly
wearing away at her.

        Maya was muttering, "Don't be a coward," when
Shigeru began to lean over to try and kiss her.  He took
this for encouragement, and swept her into a very solid
kiss.  Her eyes widened, but he didn't notice, lost in the
fulfillment of a dream.

        Only one thing saved Misato from a similar fate.
She didn't notice two incoming heads because she was too
busy telling Yhbb to just TELL Thale how she felt, as were
several other people in the audience.  Kaji and Makoto both
lunged at the same time, and their heads slammed into each
other.  They both fell back, dazed, as Misato stared at both of
them. "What the HELL are you two doing?"  she asked.  Did
they just try to kiss me?, she wondered.  Or each other?  THAT
would have been just the way to end her day.

        Looking around at the developing orgy, she began to
wonder if someone had put drugs in the air conditioning.  A
fight had broken out on the other side of the aisle, three
rows back.  Six people were naked in a pile near one of the
doors.  She glanced back and saw Maya and Shigeru making
out.  Well, I'll be, Misato thought.  Never would have
guessed she liked him.

        Then Maya suddenly stood and tossed Shigeru halfway
across the theatre.  He flew down eight rows, and landed on
a couple making out, one of whom hefted him and threw him
again.  Maya screamed, "RAPE!!!!!"

        Someone pulled Shigeru down, and Misato could see he
was being pounded on.  Kaji tried to kiss her again, and she
grabbed his shoulders.  "Snap out of it!  Something is going
on here!"

        "I want your body, that's what!"

        "You can't have it!  She belongs to me!"  Makoto
proclaimed.

        It can't get any worse, Misato thought.

        Across the theatre, a blonde woman suddenly stood up
and shouted, "NERV is concealing evidence about the true
origins of the Angels!  Two of the EVA pilots are dating,
and I've got pictures of them dating!  You people can't
handle the Truth, but I can!  And I'm going to tell it ALL!"
She began to laugh maniacally.

        Kaji and Makoto both lunged at her again.  Me and my
big mouth, Misato thought.


                           -*-

        The secondary crew of the NERV command center
figured it was going to be a quiet night, one of many for
them.  Whether it was from good fortune or coincidence,
nothing had ever happened on their shift.

        Nothing lasts forever.

        The ladies were into their third round of poker when
the massive monitor screens suddenly came to life in shades
of violent red and orange.

        "What the... uh oh."

        The trio scrambled to their stations, typing
furiously to confirm the power signature that had suddenly
flared out in the city and identify which of the possible
menaces it could be.

        "Damn, there goes our streak," one of them muttered.

        "Confirmed!  It's an Angel!"

        "Get Captain Katsuragi and Dr. Akagi!"

                           -*-

        She'd known some college parties that were almost as
wild as this.

        Almost.

        "Misato-chaaan!"

        "Shit!"  She ducked from Kaji's lunging grab, then
drove a knee to his stomach, and finally knocked him out
with an elbow to the back of his head.

        And then her phone rang.

        Misato's eyes widened in disbelief, grimacing at the
great timing of it all.  She dodged a piece of flying chair,
whipping the phone out as she rolled on the ground, and put
it to her ear as she jumped over an overly-amorous couple.

        //"Captain Katsuragi!//

        "I'm kinda BUSY!" she yelled, spinning and dodging
another set of wildly flying bodies.

        //"We've got an Angel power signature in the city!
It's at the Tokyo-3 High School!"//

        "Yeah, I noticed, I'm right in the middle of it!"
Though not for long, if she had her way.  Misato had managed
to scramble, dodge, and crawl her way through the chaos, and
was nearly at the doors.

        //"You okay, commander?  What's happening over
there?"//

        "Everyone's going nuts here!  We were all watching
the school play, but everyone's gone nuts!"

        //"We'll send forces to you-"//
        "Don't!  Whatever's gotten into the audience
might've gotten to them!  Any ideas on WHOA!"

        //"Captain!"//

        "I'm fine, just had to dodge some soda."

        //"What?"//

        "Nevermind, just find-"

        Ritsuko's voice cut in.  //"Misato, are the pilots
okay?"//

        "Shit!  The pilots!"  She whirled around and
frantically tried to see the stage.  Two brawling men
blocked her view, though that was fixed after she quickly
pistolwhipped them into unconsciousness.

        "The pilots... are still performing the play?"

        //"Is anyone from the audience approaching the
pilots?"//

        Misato looked down at the chaos before her,
surprised to see a pattern there.  "Actually... hold on."
She dodged as another trio of people charged at her, kicked
one away, knocked another one out with an impressive
spin-kick, and took the third down with an elbow to his jaw.
"They're being left alone."

        //"The play isn't called 'The King in Yellow', is
it?"//

        "Yeah, it is."

        //"Damn.  Listen, this is important: stop the
play."//

        "Waitasec."

        Misato dodged and scrambled yet again, finally
making it to the auditorium doors, which she quickly went
through.

        "Okay, now what was that?"

        //"The King in Yellow isn't just a play, it's a...I suppose
the word 'spell' comes closest to expressing it.  It's going to
unleash the Angel Baraquiel.."//

        "Really?"

        //"Yes."//

        "Shit."

        //"You must stop it before they finish, or else the
King in Yellow will be posessed by Baraquiel."//

        "Gotcha."  Misato quickly ran around, intending to
get to the stage from the rear entrances.  A question popped
up in her head, and she speed-dialed the NERV command
center.

        "Hey," she asked.  "Why am I not being affected?"

        //"That's a good question,"// replied Ritsuko.
//"We'll look into that."//

                           -*-

        As she snuck into the rear entrance of the
auditorium, Misato felt a chill run through her.  Something
was wrong, very wrong.

        She snuck by the actors and actresses not on stage,
dressed in their play costumes, and was disturbed by their
utterly blank looks.

        And then she noticed Kensuke.

        His face obscured by a grotesque, pallid yellow
mask.  Merely standing there, he radiated an aura of menace.

        One of the students suddenly came to life, entering
the stage, while Shinji, leaving the stage, took on the
blank look that the backstage cast now had.

        Great timing, thought Misato.

        She went to him quickly, shaking his shoulder.
"Shinji!" she hissed.  "Snap out of it!"  He wobbled as she
shook him, but did little else.

        She hoped this wouldn't hurt too much...

        *WHAP*

        "SHINJI!"

        "Ow!  Huh?  Wha?"  The boy blinked several times,
his gaze finally coming into focus.  "Misato-san?  What's
going on?"

        "We're in trouble.  C'mon, help me get Asuka woken
out of this trance.  And then we have to get Rei."

        "She's on stage, Misato.  She and Thale are about to
have their duel."

        "Shit.  Where's Rei?"

        Shinji looked around, but couldn't spot her.
"Dunno.  She has got to be around here somewhere, though."
He looked at the frozen students scattered around the area.
"What is going on?"

        "The next Angel is here, Shinji," Misato said
quietly.

        "W-what?!  How'd it get into the city without us
knowing?"

        "We invited it in," Misato said, finishing her
search, then slapping herself.  "I'll just...oh dammit, she
won't be carrying her phone!"

        Shinji thought for a second.

        "Have at ye, traitor!" Thale shouted from the stage,
and metal began to ring against metal.

        "This is where I go back on and break it up.  Then
Cassilda enters..."  Shinji's arm wavered about, then locked
on a point on the far side of the stage.  "There."

        "Right.  Go snap Rei out of this.  I'll deal with
Asuka."  Misato drew her pistol, then reversed her grip to
use it as a club.

        "You're gonna shoot her?"  Shinji boggled.

        "Not like this, you idiot!  Go get Rei!"  She turned
and sprinted onto the stage, while Shinji circled around to
where he expected Rei to come on stage.  She was there,
cloaked and veiled in the garb of the priestesses of
Lenilda, her face hidden, though he thought for a moment he
could see her eyes glowing through the veil.  A silver
crescent moon hung on a necklace between her breasts.

        She ignored him completely.  He put a hand on her
shoulder.  "Rei, snap out of it."

        The fact that she ignored him was less surprising
for her than it would have been with most people.  He tried
again.  "Rei, wake up!  Something's gone wrong!  An Angel is
controlling everyone!"

        No reaction at all.  She kept her eyes on the stage,
a toy waiting for its owner to pick it up and play with it.
Utter silence.  Several efforts to shake her didn't do
anything either.

        Out on the stage, Thale and Uoht were going at it
full force.  The fighting far exceeded the simple motions
that had been practiced, for it was Thale and Uoht who
fought, not Touji and Asuka, and the two combatants had
trained with the sword for many years for all that they had
not existed a few hours earlier.

        They were, however, completely focused, and Misato
could tell that they couldn't even see her.  This made it
simple for her to smack Thale in the back of the head with
her pistol.  He yelped and collapsed, leaving Uoht in a
state of confusion; this wasn't in the script.  She turned
and stared at Misato who shouted, "ASUKA, STOP PLAYING
AROUND!"

        "Mother?" Uoht said confusedly.

        "I'm NOT your mother!  You're Asuka Langely!  Now
snap out of it!"

        "Asuka...I heard her name in a story once.  A mighty
warrior she was, but I am not she," Asuka said, her voice
both confused and courtly.

        Rei stirred slightly, and Shinji tried shaking her
again.  However, instead of responding to him, she started
to head onto the stage.  Desperation drove him to an idea.
"Cassilda, it is I, your liege Alars."

        She suddenly turned to him, her face sliding from
utter blankness to simple calm.  "Alars."  A sudden warmth
washed over it, and her voice lost its usual calm, sliding
into a range that would denote happiness for most people.
"You came to see me."

        Now what, Shinji thought.  He tried desperately to
think of something that would evoke Rei-ness.  His flesh
began to goosepimple, and he could feel some- thing coming.
Something he didn't want to encounter.

        Misato was getting desperate; she couldn't slap
Asuka, not while Asuka was carrying two feet of sharp steel.
"I heard she was a total coward."

        Uoht's face darkened.  "She is not."

        Bingo, Misato thought.  Badmouth her enough to make
her switch back.  "I heard this guy Touji was a much better
EVA pilot than her.  She ran off with the delusion she was
some knight from a magical kingdom, so they gave him her
EVA."

        "They...THEY WOULDN'T DARE!"  Uoht shouted, and her
face changed in an instant.  "You've got to be...what the
hell..."  Asuka looked around confusedly, then said, "DOWN!"

        Misato hit the deck just in time to avoid getting
stabbed by Thale in the back.  For a moment, she heard
mocking laughter from somewhere backstage.  Thale shouted,
"Interfering wench!  Thou shalt be punished for thy
transgression against me!"
        Cassilda turned and looked at the stage.  "I always
knew Thale would come to a bad end."

        Shinji took her shoulders and turned her to face
him.  "Rei, everyone's under some kind of mind control!
There's an Angel attack going on!"

        "Lenilda foretold this.  We must aid Uoht. You will
need her."  She started to turn again.

        Dammit, face reality, he thought.  There had to be
some way to get her to snap back to normal.  Something that
would...the movie.  She'd been trying to understand that
movie, he thought.  "Do you remember the movie?  When they
stood among the cherry blossoms?"

        "I remember," she said faintly.  "How you walked
with me among the trees, and we...we..."  Her face became
more troubled than he had ever seen it before.  "I wanted
to..."  She blushed faintly, and Shinji knew it had to be
the effects of the mind control.  Gulping, she turned to
him.  "Your highness, I..."

        "You remember, right?" asked Shinji urgently.  "You
remember going to the movies with me, and Asuka, and Touji,
and Kensuke, and Hikari?"

        Rei frowned, looking ill at ease.  "Those names...
they are familiar."  She shook her head.  "Talk not of these
people, my liege!  I-"

        "You have to remember!" said Shinji desperately.
"We went to the mall after that, and you wore a nice blue
dress and I told you that you're beautiful!  Rei, snap out
of it!"

        "I... the dress..."

        "And then we went to the arcade and you beat up
Asuka, remember?"

        Rei seemed to smile at that, slightly.  "Beat...
Asuka..."

        "Rei?  Do you remember?  Rei?"

        Her eyes clouded over in confusion, her brown
knotted in concentration.  It seemed to be working.

        Shinji glanced at the stage.  Misato was fleeing
Thale, while Asuka tried desperately to save her.
Unfortunately, Asuka wasn't up to Uoht's level of prowess,
and now several other characters had come on and become
tangled up in it. The play was taking off down a new
tangent, trying to adapt itself to Misato's presence;
several other characters now thought she was Uoht's mother,
a notorious drunkard.  Misato wasn't amused.

        Maybe a kiss would snap her out of it, Shinji
thought.  No, I can't just kiss her.  She...She was
puckering up and had her eyes closed.  I might get sucked
back in if I kiss her, he thought.  But...what else can I
do?  He leaned forward, to Rei's beautiful and awaiting
face, and lost his nerve at the last second.

        He kissed her.

        Just on the cheek.

        "I'm sorry, Rei," he whispered to her.

        Rei stepped back from him, eyes wide open.

        "Shinji?" she asked.

        He nodded, apologetically, and that seemed to elicit
from her a little, melancholy smile.  It vanished a second
later as she cocked her head, and seemed to sniff the air.
The smile became a snarl, and Shinji jumped back, feeling a
pang of primal terror.  She spun on one foot, staring off
across the darkened backstage area, where Shinji could see a
figure lurking in the darkness.  Its face was lighter than
the rest of it, though still shadowed.  "Get Langely.  Now."

        Before he could reply, she was gone, streaking
across the backstage, from dead stop to lightning bolt
instantly.  The shadowy figure simply awaited her onslaught.
Leaving a trail of icy footprints behind, she charged right
into him.  But there was nothing there, and she passed
through him as if he had never been.

        Meanwhile, Shinji turned and shouted, "I got Rei!
C'mon!  We can get out the back if we hurry!"

        Asuka and Misato turned and ran for him, arriving
just as Rei returned, her eyes cold, and her jaw clenched,
though her expression was blank.  The blankness seemed
merely a mask, rather than the truth, the habit of calm
instead of its presence.

        "Let's get the hell out of here," Misato said.  "I
dunno how the hell we're gonna beat this thing, but..."

        "Where is it?"  Asuka asked.

        The characters on stage were trying to figure out
where Asuka and Misato had gone; they seemed to not
comprehend that the backstage area existed.

        "It..."  Misato gulped.  "It's name is Baraquiel and
it's in Kensuke."

        "It...how?"  Shinji asked.  "It possessed him?  How
do we stop it without hurting him?"

        "I don't know if we can," Misato said.

        "The exit is this way," Asuka said, pointing to the
doors.

        "Yeah, that's how I got in," Misato said, slapping
her forehead.

        They took off running, but the backstage doors
wouldn't open.  The strange sigil from the advertising
banners glowed faintly, somehow stenciled onto the doors,
and nothing would budge them, though all four of them threw
their weight into it.

        They could hear the play continuing, as characters
came and went, and a new plot took shape.  Asuka glanced
out, and some people from the audience had come onto the
stage and were taking on roles.  The crowd itself was in
full riot, a wild orgy of violence and sex, though they
didn't have any drugs to work with.

        This had better not go on my permanent record, she
thought.

                              -*-


        Across Tokyo-3, it began.  Slow and subtle at first,
with the speaking of harsh words, petty fights at bars,
couples making love on rooftops, lonely men and women in
black fleeing the cruelty of a harsh world, moments of
maternal anger at home.  And it grew, a roar, a cacophony of
shouting that crushed out the normal sounds of the city, a
pulsing throbbing beat of rage and lust and fear and
despair.

        Not everyone was affected; some of its denizens had
a quiet night in front of the TV set, watching Nick
Hatchett: Robot Hunter, or ESPN3, or a rented movie.  But
those were the lucky ones, who had not gazed upon the Yellow
Sign and fallen under its sway.  For those who had, the
night was full of terror and ecstasy, for their lord and
master was coming, with none to bar his way.

        The Carnivale of the King had begun.

                              -*-

        Ritsuko cursed the universe, and desperately
continued her electronic search for the data she needed.
MAGI was doing its best, but Ikari had apparently raised the
security level on certain files she needed.  Damn his
suspicious nature, she thought.

        To make matters worse, the Cherubim was trying to
sing.  What it was singing, she didn't know, but she could
hear it through the wall, a low bass throbbing with a
complex beat.  Still, if it hadn't perked up lately, she
would have been at the play, probably rioting with the rest.

        That was why she hadn't gone to the play; the last
few days, the Cherubim, which had been in a coma, turning
grey and flaking away by inches, had recovered and begun to
heal for no apparent reason at all.  Now, it seemed quite
perky, as such things went, though it was hard to tell.

        It had begun to sing at the very moment when the
play had started, though she hadn't realized it at the time.
Like a reverse mining canary, she thought.  A very ugly one.

        She should have gone up to the bridge, but the
workstation here was adequate, and she wanted to keep an eye
on the thing.  Deep down at the instinctive level, she knew
it was going to do something, and she needed to be ready to
stop it.  Also, she was hacking into files she wasn't
cleared for (which wasn't too many of them), and she didn't
want witnesses.  There had to be something in here, some
contingency plan which Ikari had prepared for this.  The man
prepared for everything.

        Contacting him had failed; he wasn't responding,
even to a Code 1 emergency.  The one time I want to see the
man, he isn't around, she thought.  "File Found," Balthazar
announced.

        Excellent, she thought, and began reading.

                           -*-

        The door to the stage shop opened, unlike the doors
out of the auditorium.  "Bar the doors," Misato said.  "We
need to discourage any pursuit."

        Asuka and Rei quickly shoved a long table in front
of the doors, while Shinji got some stuff to pile on it.
"This is a dead end, you know,"  he said.

        "I know," Misato snapped.  "That's why we're barring
the door.  Now we can maybe figure out some way to deal with
this before we sally out."

        "What the hell is going on?"  Asuka asked.  "It was
like..."

        "The play was performing us," Shinji said.

        "How come you weren't affected, Misato?"  Asuka
asked her.

        Rei stared at the door intently, standing in a ready
pose, not speaking, back to her usual calm, at least
outwardly.

        Misato fingered her necklace nervously, and felt her
tension soothe.  "Unless it was my lucky pendant..."

        Shinji turned and looked at it.  "Maybe it was."

        "What?"  Misato blinked.

        "That thing...there was one like it painted on that
house underwater."

        Everyone stared at him blankly, except Rei, who was
still watching the door.

        He stepped over and touched it.  It felt warm to
him, almost hot, like the one underwater, but stronger.
"Maybe we can turn him with it, like a cross for a vampire."

        Asuka laughed.  "Oh yeah, like a necklace is gonna
scare an Angel.  Unless it's some mouse/elephant thing, I
doubt that would work.  This isn't a vampire, and this isn't
a horror movie."

        "My whole life is a horror movie," Shinji muttered.

        Misato looked at her necklace and frowned.  "I'll
call Ritsuko and see what she thinks."  She flipped open her
cellular and dialed the number.

        "Misato, are you wearing your necklace?" Ritsuko
asked before Misato could even say hello.

        Misato blinked.  "Yes."

        "That explains everything.  Are you familiar with
the concept of grounding?"

        "As in electricity?"

        "Yes."

        "You're saying my necklace is some kind of lightning
rod for Angel energies?"
        
        "Properly empowered, the 'Elder Sign' as it is
known, acts as a grounding, draining off the energies
wielded by the Angels and their servants into other
dimensions.  How this works is unknown.  The more dependent
the being is on these energies, the worse the effects.  A
Cherubim would probably only be annoyed by it, though it
couldn't get through one, while a being largely in an energy
form could easily do serious damage to itself from contact.
On the other hand, such a being could probably turn the
Elder Sign to slag at the same time.  It's not omnipotent,
although the bigger the sign, the more energy it can
handle."

        "So, it can save me from the general effect, but if
he turned his attention on me, it likely wouldn't save me."
Misato said.

        "Exactly.  But if you made a larger one, you might
be able to use it to trap the Angel in the body it's
possessed.  His consciousness is in whoever is playing the
King in Yellow, but not his full power; the energy levels
are still building.  But you've got to do it before the play
ends, or he'll be unstoppable by anything short of an EVA.
And you'd never make it to the EVAs alive."

        Misato looked around the shop.  There was some metal
working equipment in one corner, which had been dragged in
when they'd been making the prop swords a few days ago, and
not moved back to the regular shop yet.  In fact, there was
another door, one TO the other shop, which she hadn't
noticed before, and felt like an idiot for not seeing.  "How
big of one are we gonna need?"

        "The bigger the better, but if it's too big, it'll
be hard to keep on him.  The longer it takes, the bigger
you'll need, though.  And even then, it may only stop him
long enough for us to take more drastic measures."

        "Will it stop him causing this riot?"

        "Yes."

        "We'll try it then."  She turned to Shinji, Asuka,
and Rei.  "Any of you ever had any shop classes?"

        "No."  Shinji said.

        "This is going to be too much fun, then," Misato
replied.

                           -*-

        "I should be the one who does it!"  Asuka said.
"Rei can be the one who distracts him."

        "We don't have time to argue.  Rei is very
stealthy," Misato said.  "And faster than you.  We'll keep
him busy, while she sneaks up behind him."

        "What if he can't be snuck up on?"  Shinji asked.

        "Then we're all so fucked it doesn't matter," Misato
said.  "I have no clue how good this guy is at anything
physical."

        "I can do this."  Rei said.  She hefted the foot and
a half across, incredibly crude star with an eye of flame in
the middle.  Monkeys with typewriters could have done a
better job, and it didn't look like it could hold anything,
let alone an Angel.  A chain closed into a loop with a
padlock ran through the top of the star to use to 'bell the
cat'.  Assuming this would work, which none of them were too
certain of.  It felt like stopping an Angel with a sling
shot.  This is what the A-Team would have done.  Although
they would likely have put the Elder Sign on their van and
run him over.

        They unblocked the door, and headed out into the
darkness.  From the stage, they could hear the ringing of
metal and the faint smell of smoke.  Looking out, the stage
was a sea of chaos, with people fighting in a surging melee.
Many of them were armed, and a fair number were bleeding.
The unconscious were starting to pile up, and some of those
likely dead.  And cries of 'Xoth', 'Yhtill', and 'Celeano'
filled the air. It was a miniature battle between two
maddened armies.  The set was beginning to burn.

        And through the darkness of the backstage, mocking
laughter echoed.  Shinji cocked his head; he could hear
music, though he couldn't tell where it was coming from.  He
could see Asuka looked slightly distracted as well. Glancing
over at Rei, he could see she had vanished into the shadows.
From those same shadows, a figure emerged, the King in
Yellow, slight of frame and clad in the horrid yellow mask
of paper, one side smiling, the other frowning, both frozen
in mania.  "Come, come, you must join the others," he said.
"The battle is joined, and your kingdom depends on it."

        Shinji wavered.  His people were fighting and dying.
It was his duty as king to...no!  I'm Shinji, not some king.
THIS is how we stop this. "You won't snare me this easily."

        "I see your squire is beleaguered," he said to
Asuka, pointing out into the riot.

        "I don't have a...HIKARI!" she suddenly realized.
Hikari was caught in the middle of the fighting, bleeding
from both arms and one leg, fighting desperately against two
grown men, who were pushing her back, and leering at her in
a far too suggestive way.  She started to turn, and felt her
mind beginning to fog.  For a moment, she hesitated, for
both her true and false selves could not bear to leave
Hikari to her doom, yet without a weapon, what could she do?
Her martial arts skills weren't so good, or perhaps her ego
not large enough for this.  "DAMN YOU!  THIS IS YOUR FAULT!"

        "And what of you, Sissila?" he said to Misato.
"Your lover lies wounded.  Indeed, both your earnest suitors
have fallen, searching the field for you."  She could see
Kaji had a nasty gut wound and was down, while Makoto was
limping at the fringes of the fray.  "If you do nothing,
Xoth will carry the day and likely slay all those of gentle
Yhtill. Including both of them."

        She leveled her pistol at him.  "Stop this or I'll
blow your brains out."

        "And kill the one whose flesh I wear?  I think not."

        The gun came up, and Shinji stared in shock as
Misato leveled it.  "Try me," she said.  "It may not kill
you, but if your host body is dead, your little game comes
to an end.  And I bet that won't be any more fun for you
than an abortion is for the baby."
                                        
        "You can't shoot Kensuke!"

        "Kensuke's gone, Shinji.  And I can't let this
bastard destroy humanity."

        "Now, now," he said jovially.  "I'm not the one you
should be shooting.  Do you really think this play could
have been staged without someone in NERV noticing?  It's not
like the slightest effort was made to hide it going on.  And
yet, the ever paranoid Commander Ikari saw no evil, heard no
evil, and spoke no warning."

        She frowned.  "You're claiming he knew this would
happen?"

        "How could he not?  Ask yourself...how did your
friend Ritsuko know what was going on here?  How did she
know the PLAY did it?"

        Misato stiffened.  He was right.  How had Ritsuko
known?  She'd already known about the play being
staged...why'd she only tell them now what it did?  Unless
she'd found the information in NERV's files once the crisis
started, but that meant someone in NERV knew about the play
and what it could do.  And hadn't TOLD anyone.  And how had
this play gotten into the school library, which had been
meticulously approved by NERV?  Unless it was treason.
Someone in NERV was a traitor.

        Asuka gasped.  "He's right."

        Shinji frowned.  It was a trap.  Everything the King
in Yellow said was intended to turn people against each
other.  "Maybe she looked it up.  You won't trick us that
easily!"

        "Do you really have that much faith in your father,
boy?" the King asked.

        What's taking Rei so long, Shinji wondered.  "He's
not very nice, but...he wouldn't betray humanity to the
Angels!"

        The King laughed.  "He's been working for them all
along.  NERV is just a pawn, a toy in the war we fight among
ourselves for amusement.  Did you really think you could
battle the gods with your pathetic little war machines
without help from the gods themselves?  The people of Xoth
thought that, but they were betrayed in the end by those
from whom they thought salvation would come.  And now the
story repeats itself.  Your father would do anything for
power, and he cares for nothing else, Shinji Ikari.  You are
nothing but a pawn to him.  Everyone is."

        Shinji felt himself wavering, and tried to dredge up
something he could use as evidence against that.  The only
image that rose to Gendo's defense was a faint memory of
Gendo smiling at Shinji's mother and Shinji as he sat in her
lap, one of his earliest memories, and perhaps his only good
one of his father.  "He loved my mother!"

        "And he let her die.  He sacrificed her in his quest
for more power.  She didn't die in an accident; she died in
an experiment."

        Shinji found this horribly plausible, but didn't
want to believe it.  I couldn't be the son of anyone that
evil, he thought.

        Misato watched the darkness.  Where the HELL is Rei?
she asked herself.

        There was a creak above, and a sandbag plunged down,
right at the King in Yellow's head.  He lithely dodged to
one side and looked up.  "Ahh, the missing one of the unholy
trinity must be perch..."  He never finished.

        Even as he looked up, there was a blur and the sound
of feet pounding against boards, and then Rei came out of
the darkness.  She didn't put the Elder Sign around his
neck; she slammed him full force in the back of the skull
with it.  It didn't affect him as much as it should have;
most people would have had a broken skull, but he simply
staggered, though his scream of pain was certainly
predictable.  "BITCH!" he shouted.

        "Commander Ikari would not betray humanity," Rei
said.  "Not like you betrayed your race."  She struck again,
knocking him to the floor.  "You turned the Byakhee into
devils."  Her voice sounded different, as if she was
becoming Cassilda again.

        "Rei, stop playing around!  Put it on him!"  Misato
shouted.

        "I am not Rei.  And this is no game," she said.  The
third blow broke his nose by driving his head into the
ground.  "You laughed when the City of Joy burned.  You gave
yourself to the Crawling Chaos for revenge and power.  You
forsook your name, so that you could not be bound.  But this
story binds you.  It gives you power to control others, but
you become part of the story.  And every story has many
different endings."

        "Cassilda?"  Shinji asked faintly, staring in shock.

        "You're dead!  You're dead and gone!  I am a god and
you are a mortal!  YOU CAN'T DO THIS!"

        "You have taken on flesh, you fool, and now I have
you,"  Cassilda snarled.  "Only in this way can you walk
another world freely, and go where you will, but you wear
mortal flesh, and mortal flesh is weak."  She struck him
again, breaking his legs.  "And even a god may die!  Have
you not seen what happened to your brethren?  Ungoliant will
spin no more webs.  Kanser sleeps eternally.  Medusa is no
more.  The Wind Walker's storms have dissipated.  Did you
think you would escape your fate?  That you and your
brothers could ravage the universe as you will?  In the end,
the wheel of fortune turns, and now it throws you into
Gehenna to burn like the trash you are."

        "I will leave this flesh and..."  His voice turned
from anger to panic.  "I cannot get out!"

        "Not while the play continues, any more than a baby
can decide to crawl back in the womb once it is half out."
Her voice had a mocking, cruel edge to it, mixed with anger.
"And since you have turned the play loose to find its own
end in your desperation, the end will not come soon enough
to save you."

        "You can't kill him!  He's in Kensuke's body!  We've
got to save Kensuke!"  Shinji shouted.

        "There is no more Kensuke, only the King in Yellow,"
Cassilda said.

        "Kensuke is dead.  And so are you," the King wheezed
out.  "You are Rei Ayanami, not Cassilda.  She died long
ago."  He made a gesture at her.  "Go back where you came
from, for you are only an expression of my will!"

        "By changing the plot, you freed me to do what came
naturally, instead of repeating what came before.  You were
not the only one to serve a god, Hastur."

        "Don't say that!"  The King in Yellow winced.  "I am
He Who Cannot Be Named!"

        "You're a worthless fool."  Ribs cracked this time.

        "If you kill this body, it might not kill him,"
Misato said.  "But if you bind him with the sign..."

        Cassilda turned and looked at Misato, then smiled.
"Yes, to leave you to rot away in the flesh you have taken,
trapped by those for whom you had only contempt."  Shinji
shuddered at the savageness of her smile.  What had playing
out the destruction of her home done to her?  If this was,
somehow, really a woman named Cassilda.  Had she been human?
Some alien?  What was going on?  Was the King in Yellow a
true story?  She wrapped the chain around his neck, then
smiled darkly as she pressed the sign to his flesh, ripping
off his mask.  For just a moment, Shinji expected her to
announce he was old Mr. Crowley who ran the carnival.  But
only Kensuke's face was revealed, and she said, "Uoht was
right.  We should have killed you the second you arrived."

Rei, or Cassilda?

        "The Crawling Chaos will devour you all!" The King
shouted.  "The Outer Gods cannot be mocked!  I have gazed
upon the Throne of Azathoth!  I have..."

        "You have failed.  And the Herald of the Outer Gods
has no patience for those who fail him."  The sound of
battle faded from the stage, as people began to come out of
their trance.  Cries of pain took the place of shouts of
anger.  Sirens began to sound outside the school.  "Perhaps
he will come down from the limitless void to mock you, but
that's all you can hope for.  Goodbye, and good riddance."
She turned to Shinji, Asuka, and Misato.  "And thus ends the
tale of the King in Yellow, good people of Tokyo-3.  The
last words are spoke, and this play is ended.  If perhaps we
have offended, let this be our amends."  Her voice rang out
clearly across the auditorium, sad and wise.

        "No!"  The king shouted feebly, his voice fading.
"I can sense the power within you!  You have the potential
to be one of us!  To walk among the gods!  Cast out this
shade and set me free and I will show you the way."

        For a moment, Rei's voice rang out clearly in place
of Casilda's.  "I will not betray Ikari-kun."  And then
Cassilda's voice, which was Rei's voice, but older and more
emotional.  "The curtain is closed.  Farewell, and may your
world not meet the fate of mine."

        "You're from another world?"  Asuka asked.  "They
attacked you too?  And he betrayed you to them?"

        "This story is done."  Cassilda sagged, and so did
the King in Yellow, who quietly collapsed.  When she stood
straight once more, she was Rei, calm and impassive.  She
stepped over the King and walked over to them.  "It is
over."

        "This is only the beginning," Misato muttered.

                           -*-

        Medics and police covered the auditorium, checking
on the wounded of body and soul.  Misato looked at the
devastation with sadness.

        They were at war, and every war has its casualties.

        They'd tied Kensuke up immediately after the thing
that was the King in Yellow had passed out, and now it was
conscious again, though still dazed.  It foamed at the
mouth, cursing, muttering, and occasionally screaming, and
did not respond when Touji and Shinji were at its side
calling for Kensuke.

        Poor Kensuke.  The kid didn't deserve that.

        "Misato?" asked Shinji.  "What... what'll they do
with Kensuke?  They can bring him back, right?"

        "They can help him, right?" asked Touji.  His voice
was shaking.

        "I... I don't know, guys.  I really don't."

        As Shinji and Touji talked to Misato, Asuka made her
way inside the NERV transport and sat next to the screaming
thing that was once Kensuke.

        "I think you were on to something," she told him.
"I'll find it, Kensuke.  Just you wait."

                           -*-

        "Couldn't sleep?" asked Asuka.  She sat down next to
Shinji on the balcony floor, and dangled her legs between
the rails, swinging them slowly in the air.

        "No, I... I never thought this could happen."

        "I know," she whispered.

        "I mean... they were always big monsters, like
Godzilla.  Not... not like this.  Kensuke... Touji...
Hikari... everyone almost died..."

        Asuka nodded.  There wasn't much more to say,
really.  They both began to cry, and consoled each other in
an embrace borne of fear and despair.

                           -*-

        The scene in the medical ward of NERV would've been
funny if it hadn't followed such a dire moment.

        The entire NERV bridge crew was there, laid down on
the hospital beds, injured in one way or another.

        "I... really did that?" asked Shigeru.

        Maya, in her own bed, nodded.

        "Oh... boy.  Maya, I'm _really_ sorry," said
Shigeru.  "I mean..."

        "I know what you mean," sighed Maya.  "We weren't
ourselves, it's not your fault."

        "I know... but... sorry."  He tried desperately to
sink into his bed, far more embarrassed than he'd ever been.

        "Aheh..." he laughed nervously, "I guess, er, this
kills any chance I have of a date, huh?"

        To his surprise, Maya actually smiled.  "Sorry," she
said quietly.  "I... I love someone else."

        This surprised Shigeru.  He'd never noticed she had
her eye on someone before.  "Hey, yeah?  Someone I know?"

        She nodded.  "Yeah, but I'm not telling."

        Shigeru sighed.  "Well, I guess it could be worse.
I could be like Makoto over here."

        "Shut up!" yelled Makoto.

        Kaji groaned.  "Hey, some of us have headaches.
Keep it down."

                           -*-

        Shinji was dreaming.

        By now, with all his dream training, he knew the
difference between reality and dreams, and when he was in
one or the other.

        He was sitting under the shade of a cherry blossom
tree, high atop a hill overlooking a valley in the forest.

        Two pale arms wrapped themselves around him from
behind, and he felt a delicate face rest itself on his
shoulder.

        "Rei?" he asked.

        "I'm here," she whispered in his ear.

        They sat there in silence, watching the cherry
blossoms dance in the wind.  Was it minutes?  Hours?  He
couldn't tell.

        Rei broke the silence only once.

        "I will protect you," she whispered to him.
"Always."

                           -*-


        "Pathetic humans!  This little toy won't hold me for
long!"  Kensuke shouted, pounding against the door to his
cell.  "You cannot bind me in flesh again!  I am He Who
Cannot Be Named, and what cannot be named cannot be bound!
I will starve this meatsack!  It will die, and then I will
be free!  And my slaves will bring you down even if that
somehow does not come to pass!  I WILL DESTROY YOU!"  The
large clumsy Elder Sign had been replaced by four well made
ones chained in place around him.

        Gendo watched through a monitor camera, shaking his
head.  "To see Hastur, one of the 'lords of creation',
brought to this."  He pushed a button, and a gas began to
flood the cell, which was no ordinary prison cell.  Its
inhabitant would sink into slumber soon, and then the room
would slowly chill, putting him 'on ice' in a very literal
sense.  He'd already been injected with the special
chemicals which would enable him to survive this.

        "Makes you laugh."  Fuyuutsuki smirked.

        Gendo laughed loudly.  "He's right, though.  We
can't hold him forever like that.  If nothing else, the body
will die eventually.  Of course, by that time, we'll have
finished our plan, and the likes of him will bother us no
more."

        "Or we will die horribly and our souls will slowly
roast over an open fire.  Assuming they can't find a worse
fate for us."

        "They can find much worse than that.  But I would
never have dared this if I did not think I would win.  For
all their power, they are not gods, only very powerful
mortals.  They cannot see everything, do everything, or know
everything.  They are merely incredibly powerful.  And there
is one thing that power does to people.  It makes them
underestimate anyone weaker.  They forget that a horde of
army ants can pull down a wolf and devour it, though the
wolf is far more powerful than they, that a horde of piranha
can kill a cow which is hundreds of pounds heavier and has
powers they could not comprehend, like breathing outside
water.  A single spider bite can kill a human, who is as far
above the spider as the one bound in that flesh is above
us."

        "And what of SEELE?  If they learn, they will not be
pleased."

        "We can deal with them when they are no longer of
use."  Gendo smiled.  "Just as those they believe they serve
would have dealt with them.  Assuming they had even
noticed."  He turned away from the monitor.  "Come, we have
preparations to make for the next trip."

        They departed, leaving the King in Yellow to howl
futilely against the fate the stars had written for him
until sleep took him.  As they gave fortune, so they took it
away.
                           -*-

        Jimmy yawned as he cleaned some of the glasses that
had piled up during the evening.  It had been a boring
night; everyone had been gone for some reason.  Even the
piano player had taken most of the evening off to do
something or another.  A few listless people drank

quietly or watched a rerun of a soccer game on ESPN5.

        Looking perky, Neil finally returned, humming one of
his usual tunes.  "Good evening, Jimmy."

        "Hiya, Neil.  It's been a boring night.  How was
the...the play.  That's where you went, right?"  Why on
earth a grown man went to a high school play, Jimmy had no
idea.  He wasn't even sure what the play had been.  Jimmy
didn't get out much.

        "It was interesting.  They did a twist on the usual
ending.  Puts me in the mood to do a little improvising
myself later."

        "They changed the ending?  Why not just write their
own play then?"

        Neil smiled as he sat down at the piano.  "Everyone
thinks they're writing their own ending, but usually they're
just playing the role given them by someone else.  And those
who break the script are usually punished by those who stick
to it."  He stretched his fingers, then said to the
audience, "This one is for a friend of mine who's fallen on
hard times.  The wheel of fortune has turned unexpectedly,
and he has fallen from grace."  He smiled, flashing perfect
white teeth, then began to sing as he played.

        o/~ We've got stars directing our fate o/~
        o/~ And we're praying it's not too late o/~
        o/~ Cos we know we're falling from grace o/~
        o/~ Millennium o/~

        And the piano player smiled, for in the city of the
blind, the one eyed man is king.

                           -*-