-*- 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."
"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. -*-