Part 37: Gasping for Breath

"Man, this place is wasted." Muttered Junpei as he moved along the combat zone in Tokyo 3 where a new lake was being filled in the spot where Rei had detonated her Eva. The crews were getting very good at filling large holes with water, since the Evas seemed to like making massive impacts and the Angels favored impressive attacks. From the rising water, the broken, twisted remains of buildings rose from the seawater, which was being pumped from the ocean at the edge of Tokyo 3.

Since Kaji hadn't come back that night, Junpei had been left at loose ends. With Airi and Rit-chan getting more and more involved in whatever they were doing with the Pilots, he had taken to wandering the war zone while awaiting Airi's summons to meet her at some location. Right now, he was thinking that he wouldn't mind being back in the elf world. This place is just too damn depressing. He thought grumpily. Idly, he picked up a small stone and threw it into the forming lake, making a modest splash as it hit. Yawning, he turned for the nearest NERV entrance, deciding that Celsia could use some company.

-

Rei and Shinji were currently sitting in her living room, Rei's head on Shinji's shoulder. For a long time after they had left the Room of Guf, the two had simply wandered aimlessly in the woods outside NERV HQ, eventually deciding to go to her place. Misato had told them that she would be busy at NERV all night, and Hikari was with Asuka, which left only Rit-chan. Rit-chan had told them that she would drop by later. Indeed she had, along about three that morning. Shinji and Rei had been holding each other when she dropped by, but had insisted that she stay with them for a bit, as she looked tired. The older teen had fallen asleep in Shinji's lap, with Rei hugging her warmly. Apparently, the two had drifted off to sleep as well, because they had come to about a half hour ago to find Rit-chan gone. Now, they were deciding what to do. Both wanted to see Asuka.

Shinji's phone rang, and he picked it up and glanced at the screen. Connecting the call, he heard Hikari tell them that she was headed home, and Rit-chan was with Asuka. "Still no change, Hikari?" asked Shinji, knowing what the answer would be.

"Sorry, no." said Hikari tiredly. "I just don't get it. What's wrong with her?" wondered the former inchou.

"If we knew that, we might be able to help her." Said Shinji in reply. "Come on home, Hi-chan." He said softly. "I'll make some breakfast for you before you hit the sack." He said.

"Sleep?" asked Hikari stupidly. "What about school?" she asked.

"Fuck school. This is more important." Said Shinji levelly. Rei favored him with a small nod.

"If you say so, Shin. Be home soon." Said the girl, ending the call. Shinji put his phone back on the coffee table and rose, stretching. Holding a hand out to Rei, he smiled as she took it and rose easily to do likewise. Exhaling a deep breath, he touched her cheek.

"What do you think I should make for Hi-chan?" he asked her.

"She has a preference for rice-based dishes with beef." Noted Rei. "Perhaps beef and seasoned rice?"

"And for you?" he asked her. Rei smiled a gentle smile at him.

"I would like you for breakfast." She said, closing on him and wrapping him in her arms, her lips sealing to his.

-

In a cold, dark room, twelve monoliths appeared, numbered one to twelve. Seele met to discuss this newest development. "This is completely unacceptable!" ranted Seele 4. "Gendo has disregarded the timetable, and now the First has been replaced with one more devoted to his son than to us!"

"We should never have entrusted the Instrumentality scenario to that man." Observed Seele 2 sagely. "Now, we lack any means of learning his true plans."

"Calm down." Came the voice of Kiel. "I have consider the situation and I have devised a new strategy of dealing with Ikari." There were sounds of interest in the ranks. "We need a new pawn; and a pawn that knows the entire truth this time." He directed.

"You have such a person in mind?" wondered Seele 7.

"Yes. I have made the necessary arrangements to bring that pawn to us." Said the leader of the council. "As a matter of fact, she is here now." He said smugly. In the center of the circle of obsidian glyphs, a single beam of illumination fell on a naked Akagi. "How nice of you to join us, Doctor Akagi." Said the head of the council.

"We do apologize for the manner of your appearance." Offered Seele 5. "But precautions need to be taken." Akagi put her hand on her hips, ignoring her nakedness.

"What's this about?" she asked in a clipped voice. Damn you Gendo! You fed me to the sharks, you bastard! "I've got a mountain of work ahead of me, so let's get this over with." She said snippily.

"This shouldn't take long, Doctor." Said Seele 1. "We just wanted to get a better overview of what is going on at NERV in regards to the scenario."

"Yes, especially in the matter of the Second." Interjected Seele 8.

"Former Second Child." Corrected Akagi, her lips curving a bit in a sneer. "For intents and purposes, she's a vegetable." She added. "Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her survival is immaterial in that her mind is gone, so she is as good as dead."

"And yet, Gendo has kept her in NERV headquarters." Noted Seele 3. Akagi nodded.

"He's using her as leverage on the Third and Sixth." She explained. Not to mention as life insurance if Shinji gets carried away. That thought made her shiver. Shinji had been distant when he had spoken to her that morning on his way to see Asuka, and it was painfully clear that he held Asuka's well-being to be her responsibility. With what Unit 1 has been doing lately, I think I'm actually afraid to cross him.

"How interesting. How is the Sixth? A miss Horaki, I understand?" prompted Seele 11.

"She's broken fifty percent combined synch with Unit 4. If she gets another five points, she can start to use the wing system." Said Akagi, sounding bored.

"What of the synthetic S2 organ? Can she utilize that?" wondered Seele 5. Akagi shook her head.

"No. We feel it best to leave that entire thing alone. The possibilities of it generating another Sea of Dirac are too great to risk it. And even if we wanted to, she would have to be above a seventy percent synch to make use of it." Was her conclusion.

"And what of the S2 in Unit 1?" asked Seele 1.

"Completely integrated, though it is still dormant." Came the careful answer. It's true that it is still dormant, but recent sensory sweeps have been noting more blue tab cells in Unit 1, and a corresponding rise in Shinji's blue tab cell count. Something's going on with those two.

"What is the Third's synch at now?" asked Seele 10. Ritsu frowned.

"His last synch was ninety two percent, but I have reason to believe that he can easily reach a synch of up to and including two hundred percent at will." She paused. "It's almost like he's deliberately under synching."

"Two hundred percent? It is our understanding that any synch above one hundred and twenty percent compromises the ego border of the pilot." Challenged Seele 8. Akagi nodded a bit.

"That is the understanding, but since the Fourteenth, I've had to revise the tables developed by Doctor Ikari and Doctor Akagi. It would seem that they didn't know everything after all." She muttered. Or is it that Yui was deliberately misleading the team? I can't ignore that possibility.

"I see." Murmured Seele 1. "Has the Sixth received any training of note on the Eva series?" he asked. Akagi snorted.

"Both Asuka and that doll trained her like a military recruit." She said carelessly. "She's better trained than Shinji by a long shot."

"And what of the people from another dimension?" asked Seele 3. Ritsu frowned.

"They've been pretty quiet for the last month or so. I think that the increasing violence is getting to them."

-

Airi and Misato were crunched together into a tiny crawl space in the mechanical trunk of the MAGI I/O router. Once more, there were cables on both women's bodies, and each carried a compact input device with holo display. Since they had started to work where Kaji left off, they had been unearthing a web of lies, double-crosses and misdirection that was getting bigger and bigger and nastier and nastier. Right now, they were into restricted files in Gendo's personal logs. "Hey, Airi." Said Misato softly, closing out her current document.

"Mmm." Hummed Airi, scanning an old proposal made by Gendo to the Marduke Institute.

"Did you sleep with Kaji?" asked Misato, stretching a little in the tight confines of the ice-cold trunk. Airi paused to look at Misato, seeing the Major's eyes on her.

"Why ask, Mi-chan?" countered the actress. "Surely you're not jealous?" she probed. Misato giggled.

"Of course not - he's not that good in bed!" she replied. Airi had to agree.

"Yes, I did. Why ask?" she repeated. Misato pursed her lips.

"I've been thinking about something, and I was wondering if it was just me or if what I was thinking was nuts." She replied vaguely. Airi raised an eyebrow.

"So, what were you thinking about that made you ask about me and your ex?" she wondered. Misato shook her head.

"It's…not something that I can explain." She said, frowning. "I just…" Misato trailed off. "Maybe I'm just being selfish." She muttered.

"Being with Shinji isn't selfish." Said Airi, guessing what her friend was thinking.

"Isn't it?" challenged Misato. "I'm supposed to the adult here, plus I'm his commanding officer. And yet…" she sighed, her breath causing a plume of condensation.

"And yet, he isn't just your soldier. He's more like your boyfriend than anything else, although I have seen a lot of the `big sister' overlay at work in your relationship up to now." Replied Airi, considering Misato's body language. "And I can tell you for a fact that he doesn't see you as his commanding officer." She added. Misato frowned.

"I figured that was the case. What does he see me as?" she wondered, almost afraid to ask, but unable to stop herself from finding out. Airi smiled at her friend.

"He sees you as his Mi-chan. He sees you as a highly attractive woman who did what she could - if awkwardly - to make him feel at home here. When he looks at you, he sees the woman who stood up for him against his father and his minion, Akagi." Here, Misato giggled.

"I've heard her called many things; even called her many things myself, but never a `minion'!" she snickered. Airi inclined her head. "Still, it does fit her lately." Muttered Misato darkly.

"Indeed. And yet, Shinji has come to trust you completely, Misato." She finished. Misato sighed again.

"Yeah. And now look at the mess I'm in." she shrugged. "Oh well; beats being bored, I guess." Both women shared a laugh at that. "How do you know all this?" wondered Misato. "I know you're good at reading people, but Shin's pretty withdrawn when it comes to his feelings."

Airi smiled a wicked smile at her compatriot. "Not if you know how to ask." She gloated. Seeing the Major's eyes narrow a bit, she went on. "I went to see him while he was at Maya's place. We took a walk and talked. He's very open with the right company and situations." She said. Her lips twisted into a leer. "And he's really…friendly to pretty girls." Her innuendo didn't get the reaction she expected. Surprising her, Misato nodded.

"Tell me about it." She said, her tone a bit grumpy, but mostly just smugly satisfied.

-

Shinji and Hikari were in the sim bodies, running a synch test. With Asuka currently off the roster and Rei's Eva unit completely destroyed, he and Hikari were the only ones left. Still, the information that Misato was getting indicated that the Angels were down to their last line as well. Shinji and Hikari had been told the afternoon before that they were to be on double synch and simulation schedule. The only reason that Shinji didn't tell them to shove it up their asses was that it didn't come Gendo's office; besides, school was closing after tomorrow anyway, and the remaining students were being transferred out. All two dozen and change. He thought cynically.

"Ok, guys, you're done for now." Came the voice of Maya over the comms link. Both pilots began to break off the synch with their sim bodies, their entry plugs going broken spectrum, then fading to the hyper alloy inside of the plug as the synch went totally dead. Both plugs lurched as they were withdrawn from the sim bodies. Knowing what was expected of them, the two climbed out of the LCL-filled cylinders and headed for the Pribnow Box for the customary debriefing.

Maya looked up from the summary of the test generated by the MAGI as the two entered. Sempai has been putting more and more of her workload on me lately. She keeps saying that she had other matters to attend to, but what other matters? Still, it gives me more time with Shinji, so I shouldn't complain! Thought the tech, smiling at the two. "Congratulations, you two!" she said cheerfully. "Hikari, you've broken the fifty five percentile! That means that you can begin training on the Eaton Wing System within the week. Have you gotten a copy of the manual for that yet?" she asked, reviewing the notes on her MAGI-linked PDA. Hikari shook her head.

"No, Ma'am." She said simply. Maya nodded to herself, jotting down a note.

"I can get you a copy by tomorrow evening." She said, hesitating a moment. "It's…kind of thick. Be sure to read it all before you attempt to deploy the wing system." She cautioned. Hikari nodded.

"Yes, Ma'am." She confirmed. Great! More homework on a system I can't understand! And Asuka won't be there to help me this time! The girl glanced to her lover, and saw him give her a small smile. Hikari returned his smile.

"Shinji-kun, you've done far better than expected." Continued Maya, seeing Shinji turn his eyes on her. "You're the first to make it to a one hundred percent synch and maintain it." She saw Shinji simply nod. "It's really a great accomplishment." She added, seeing his less-than-enthusiastic response to winning the synch race. "Aren't you glad?" she wondered.

"Synch doesn't mean much to me, Maya-chan." He said quietly. "Besides, this was just a test. Asuka'd have done it sooner if not for…well, you know." He added. Maya nodded.

"Sorry, Shin." She said contritely. "It slipped my mind." God damn it, Maya! Can you be any more of a bitch to him?! Why not just bleach my hair blonde?! Maya cursed herself. Looking at Shinji, she saw him give her a soft smile.

"It's ok, Maya-chan." He assured her. "I know you didn't mean it like that." Akagi, on the other hand…

"Well, that's about it, then. Hit the showers." Said the tech, sending the results to the MAGI database. The two exited the room for the showers, but Shinji paused at the door.

"Hey, Maya-chan," he called back to her, seeing her look up from her reports. "join us for dinner tonight?" he asked.

-

Rei was annoyed. Instead of being in the Pribnow Box to witness her two fellow pilot's synch test, or being in the mental ward with Asuka, she was instead standing in front of Gendo Ikari in his office. The commander had ordered her to report to him as soon as she had entered the base with the other two. So, she had gone to see him. As soon as she had entered the office, Gendo had told her to strip. So, she had.

It was an hour later, and she was still standing there naked in front of his desk. Not a word had been spoken by either of them. During the entire time she had been there, neither had blinked more than a dozen times. If it was the Commander's intent to make her fidget, he would be sorely disappointed. In crafting his tool, he had made one mistake: he had made a tool that was stronger than the one who would presume to wield it. "What is your purpose, Rei." Ordered the Commander.

"My purpose is to instigate Third Impact." Replied Rei automatically. But no longer will this be for you, Commander. No, I have chosen a new purpose. Third Impact will serve Shinji's purpose.

"Whom do you obey, Rei?" he asked next.

"I obey the orders of the Commander." She replied in her dead tone. Unless I find them to be a threat to my loved ones. Gendo considered his tool. Reaching under his coat, he withdrew a small gun. Standing, he moved around his desk to stop in front of his would-be tool. Handing her the gun, he tested her obedience.

"Shoot yourself in the head, Rei." Said Gendo. Rei took the gun, feeling its weight. Without a noticeable period of hesitation, she put the gun to her head and pulled the trigger. The hammer cycled double action and fell with a click! Rei pulled the trigger twice more before Gendo reached out and took the gun from her. Rei watched without comment as he cycled the slide and tucked it back under his jacket. "You may get dressed now, Rei." He said. Silently, the First reached down and picked up her panties, pulling them on before slipping her black sundress back over her head and settling it in place. "Come. We have reservations at a restaurant in Tokyo 2." Said the commander, moving past her as she turned to follow him.

"Hai." Was all she said. I will not be able to dine with Shinji and Hikari tonight. She thought. Silently, she pressed a few buttons on her cell phone by feel, sending a short but direct message to Shinji's cell phone. When Gendo glanced at her, she was her usual impassive self.

This Rei is much better than the last one. Thought Gendo to himself, very pleased with the replacement. Exiting to the Commander's private launch pad where his own transport waited, the two entered the hybrid chopper/jet as the pilot turned over the engines. Tokyo 2 was only a half hour away by transport. As the craft gained altitude rapidly, Rei snuck a gaze out the window as Tokyo 3 receded below them.

I would rather be with my lover. She thought to herself before turning to stare blankly at the opposite wall.

-

Those who would be gods were meeting to discuss their latest choices. With the information that Akagi had provided, they were presented with little choice in the matter. Still, as with all forms of political interaction, there was debate and dissenting views. Most noticeably from Seele 5, 9, 11 and 12. Kiel was not amused. Still, he wasn't the most influential politician on the planet for nothing. "So, the body of your argument is that you do not believe that what Akagi told us true, correct?" he asked patiently.

"Of course it's true!" shot back Seele 5. "She's been Gendo's main lieutenant now for more than four years! If she has any loyalty, it would be to him."

"And there is the matter of her sexual involvement with Gendo as well." Pointed out Seele 11. "All our agents had thoroughly documented that relationship, as well as her self-admitted love of the man."

"So, I'm sure you understand our concern that she would so easily roll over on him." Concluded Seele 9.

"While I do not agree with their assessment of the Doctor, they do bring up a valid point." Interjected Seele 7. "How did you manage to sway her to our side, Kiel?" she asked. The Chairman smiled thinly.

"I bought her, of course." He said simply. "You are quiet lately." He said to Seele 12. "Don't you have anything to add to this debate?"

"No." said the last Seele member. "I have other concerns." He said.

"Such as?" wondered Seele 2.

"The ones from another dimension should be executed immediately." Said the man firmly. "They had been a major hindrance in the scenario so far, and they are a variable we do not need in this project."

"And yet, all reports indicate that they are quiet lately." Noted Seele 3.

"Quiet does not mean inactive." Cautioned Seele 12. "I've seen the youngest of them in action, and if this Airi Komiyama is as good as I am led to believe, she is a far greater threat than Gendo, Akagi and the UN put together."

"You're worrying about nothing." Scoffed Seele 8.

"Nothing, eh?" snorted Seele 12. "The latest reports from our deep-cover agent shows a pronounced shift in her activity. She has been repeatedly sighted with the Katsuragi woman, who is herself becoming a problem. It is my belief that…"

"And that's all it is!" snapped Seele 3, interrupting the most junior member of the council. "You believe she is a threat, and yet you can show no proof. Stop wasting time on this fluke and concentrate on accomplishing our goals."

"And what of the alliance between her and the Katsuragi woman?" wondered Seele 11. "She's bisexual. Big deal."

"Once more, you assume that that is all there is to the matter." Disagreed Seele 12. "From what I have discovered on my own, she has never shown any sign toward bisexuality before, and was involved with our troublesome Agent Kaji before his liquidation."

"So the late Kaji was so bad in bed that he made her into a lesbian." Said Seele 6, his tone humorous.

"Chauvinistic pig." Murmured Seele 7. "This is all just speculation, gentlemen." She said more loudly. "I do have matters to attend to - not the least of which is making sure that our business does not become public knowledge - so I suggest we decide this quickly. I move to vote."

"Agreed. We send in the Fifth to settle this matter. Yes or no, how vote you?" directed Kiel. With eight of the twelve in favor, the matter was settled. Ending the council, Kiel sent word to send the Fifth to Tokyo 3 immediately. Within two days, we will have the means to take control of the scenario from Gendo. And when that is done, he will answer to us. Thought Kiel, pouring himself a shot of bourbon.

-

In the deepest bowels of the Vatican, in a tiny little room that held little more than a desk, chair, ancient computer and an internet connection, a man in a brown robe sat, reading random-seeming web pages. In fact, the pages were encrypted messages from his network of agents the world over. Since the latest Pope had come to power, he and the Order he headed had been in disfavor, thus, he was buried here in the Vatican, where several of the personal watchdogs of the new Pope could keep him on a short chain; at least, theoretically. The man smiled. Often an order of knights has fallen out of favor with their Church or Lord, only to be needed sorely in a crisis. He thought to himself. The same fate had befallen the original Orders of the Church in the Crusades in the middle ages. And yet, the Orders still survived to this day.

His computer beeped as a picture of a lush tropical island appeared, along with an article on the rare crab that lived there. Tapping some keys, he ran the decryption program on the smallish article, the cipher quickly rendering it to readable format. Seeing the message, his eyes got a bit wider and his lips twisted into a smile. Standing, he tapped the key that sent the decrypted message to a printer in the office of his immediate superior. Striding out the door, he took the time to close the message before making for his watchdog's pen. And now is the hour for the Order to rise again. He thought. He almost forgot not to march like he used to in his former life.

-

"Sir, the team is here to see you." Said the secretary, bowing to her boss before standing aside so the three could enter the office. The minister motioned to the chairs in front of his desk and the three sat down. Silently, they waited for him to speak. It had been a priority call, so they assumed it was urgent, but he seemed to be more interested in the piece of paper in his hands. Finally, he looked up. "Read this." He said, tossing the single sheet of paper across his desk to the closest of the three. Maehira picked it up and read.

"This is confirmed?" she asked, handing the paper to the next man. The minister nodded.

"We should take steps." Was all the second man had to say, handing the paper to the last of the team.

"Sir, I can have the special forces deployed within three hours." Said the last man, slapping the paper down on the desk of the Minister. The minister shook his head.

"What have I told you about attacking NERV, General Shitoe?" he said, sounding a bit tired. "Until the Special Order A17 revoking NERV's immunity from law is revoked, we can't touch them." He repeated himself. Over the last half year, he had had to remind the General of this time and again.

"Then the only choice we have is to get that order revoked." Noted the woman. Standing, she moved for the door. "I'll get it started, sir." She said, exiting the room. The second man stood as well.

"This is going to get messy before it's said and done." He said, moving toward the door as well, cell phone to his ear. "I better get the ground work started for the aftermath." The Minister of the Interior looked to the last man, General Shitoe.

"Well?"

"There's nothing for me to do, sir, since you won't let me do my job." He said stiffly. The minister sighed.

"I didn't say you can't plan and prepare, General. I only told you not to engage NERV until ordered to do so. Now, I'm sure that you need to arrange for the troops to be ready and equipped, for logistical matters to be addressed and for the reallocation of necessary material. So, go do what Generals do." The minister watched the man stiffly salute him.

"Sir." Said the man, turning on his heel like he was on the parade grounds.

"And General," called the Minister as he was opening the door. The General froze. "Only those you can trust implicitly are to be used. Understood?"

"Hai." Said the General, exiting the room. A few moments after the last of the team left, the secretary entered again. In her hands was a tray with some hot water and tea.

"Thanks, Machiko." Said the minister as the woman set out the tea for him.

"Of course, sir." Said the woman easily. The minister sipped the tea once it was ready.

"I need you to prepare a brief for me, Machiko." Said the Minister. Machiko nodded.

"I'll get started on it immediately, sir." Said the woman, leaving the office. It was one of the reasons he kept her on in spite of her exorbitant salary and solid titanium with diamond studs parachute contract. She always anticipated him and didn't have to be told what to do or how. Of course, she does make more a year than Commander Ikari and the Prime Minister put together. He mused. Speaking of that, I better figure out how to explain this to the PM.

-

Shinji was up making breakfast for his `family' in the kitchen of the Zoo. Hikari was deep in study at her and Rei's place, working her way through the manual for the Eaton Wing System. When Maya had told her that she would drop off the manual when she came for supper the night before, Hikari had discovered that the tech hadn't been kidding about the size of that beast. The book was thicker than the Tokyo 3 phone book by a wide percentage, and it weighed a ton. As such, it was almost a thousand times the size of the Eva manual, which was barely the size of a comic book. The Third chuckled at that thought.

A knock at the door interrupted his preparations. Wiping his hands on a dish towel, he moved to the door to the Zoo, hand on his USP. He knew that it couldn't be any of his family, as they all had access to the Zoo and Rei's place. So, who is it? He wondered, peeking out. Seeing the person, he blinked before opening the door, his hand still on his pistol. "Tomo, what are you doing here?" he asked the new inchou. "Didn't they close school yesterday?" he asked. Tomo nodded.

"Yeah. I'm leaving on the train later today for my new school." Said the former enemy of the Pilots. "I just came to say good bye." The two were silent for a moment.

"Come on in." said Shinji softly, tossing his head. "Have you had breakfast yet?" Tomo hesitated. "It's ok, Misato isn't cooking." He offered with a smile. Tomo cracked a smile.

"I've always heard, but is she that bad at it?" asked the other teen, stepping inside the apartment.

"Let's just say that I made her swear not to cook as long as any of us would be eating." He said fondly. Tomo entered the living room and looked around.

"This place looks better than I thought it would." She offered. Shinji nodded.

"Almost a year of work, and it doesn't look too bad." He said, checking his cooking. "Rei-chan and Hi-chan will be here before too much longer. Rit-chan is in the bath, and Misato is still asleep." Explained Shinji, stirring the food.

"Wasn't there another person here?" wondered Tomo. Shinji nodded.

"Airi's with Asuka at NERV." He said, his tone dark. Tomo decided that she should let the issue go. Taking a seat in the kitchen, she watched as Shinji continued working on breakfast. The teen was amazed that Shinji was so proficient in the kitchen. Sure, she had heard Asuka and others brag about his cooking, but seeing him do it was something else. Taking a breath, Tomo did what she came to do.

"Shinji, look," she began, "I came here to apologize to you and the others for…well, everything." She said. "I had some misconceptions about you all and it turned into something of an obsession." Shinji listened patiently. "I'm sure you know by now that I was one of the ones that was egging Shodo and Kodo on." She continued. "We came up with a plan before the challenge; me and my crew, I mean, not Shodo and Kodo. It…wasn't pretty." She waited for him to show some sign of reaction, but his attention remained on the food. Eventually, he spoke.

"I know." He said simply, turning the eggs over and reaching for the bowl of finely chopped vegetables and meat to add to the emerging super-omelet. Taking another deep breath, Tomo went on.

"Keiko and I were the main ones, Shinji. If we had of succeed, then you would have been in a very uncomfortable place, and Sohryu, Ayanami, Inoue and Horaki would have been humiliated and damaged."

"But you didn't win." Said Shinji softly, turning the thick slices of baked potatoes over in the second skillet. "I'm sorry about what happened to Keiko, by the way." He added, his tone sincere. "Is she…ok?" he wondered.

"She's still in the hospital." Answered Tomo. "The doctors are working on her, but there are…complications." She said, remembering the last time she had called the hospital about her friend. "She got torn up pretty good, and there were…well, she's gonna be out for a while." She said, figuring that Shinji didn't need to or want to know exactly what was going on with Keiko. "Look, about what I was saying earlier," she said instead, turning the topic back to the original thread, "if you want to get even with me, that's fine." She said in a rush.

"Get even? What are you talking about?" wondered Shinji. Tomo stood and crossed to where he was standing. Stopping in front of him, she looked him in the eyes.

"If you want to do anything to me, then go ahead and do it." Said the girl quietly. Shinji frowned.

"Why should I, Tomo?" he asked her.

"We were planning on have your girlfriend and her friends raped, tattooed and pieced, Shinji." She said, her eyes on his. "And you were going to be Kodo's little bitch, too." She added. "If it were the other way around, I'd want to get back at you." She watched Shinji carefully. The young man considered this for a bit, stirring the food absently.

"You want me to beat you up or something?" he asked her, sounding a bit puzzled.

"Or anything else you might want to do." Said the girl. "I know I deserve what I get, Shinji." She added. Shinji considered her words.

"Ok." He said, taking her arm and pulling her into his room. Closing the door behind them, he turned to her and took her cheeks in his hands. Pulling her to him, he touched her forehead with his lips. "Forgiven, Tomo." He said, releasing her and exiting the room.

-

"A new Pilot?" wondered Hikari and Shinji as they heard Misato telling them what she herself had only recently learned. Misato nodded. Next to the two was Rei, once more in her black sundress.

"Yes. His name is Kaoru, and he is the Fifth Child. He's been training in NERV's fifth branch in China for the last year. He arrives today at one o'clock." She said.

"And he's got Unit 5?" guessed Hikari. Misato froze for an instant. Shinji didn't miss it.

"He better have his own fucking unit, Mi-chan." He said tightly. "Unit 2 belongs to Asuka." He hissed. Misato exhaled forcefully.

"Commander Ikari has stripped Asuka of the title Second Child after her last combat deployment performance." She said. Shinji's face went red, his lips drawing back in a snarl.

"He dies now." Spat the teen, turning on his heel.

"Shinji! No!" yelled Misato, lunging over and grabbing him in a tight full-body hug. "Don't, Shinji, please." She begged him in a whisper.

"Asuka isn't replaceable." He said, tone hard.

"I know, Shinji." Placated Misato. "She's our Asuka, and nothing will change that." She felt Shinji calm down just a little. "He'll answer for this, but not right now, ok?" she murmured in his ear. Rei stepped into Shinji's line of sight.

"The Major is correct, Shinji." She said softly. "We have things to discuss, but for now, we should see what this new pilot truly is." With two of his lovers asking him to stay his hand, Shinji could do no differently. Besides, Mom promised that if we won, he'd suffer like no one could imagine. He thought, consoling himself that Asuka's pain would be revisited on it's source. Just then the door to the briefing room opened and Akagi walked in, a clipboard in hand.

"Ah, there you all are." She said, seeing but not understanding the situation, as Misato eased back from the hug/restraint she had had on Shinji, Rei turning to look at the woman with dead eyes. "The Commander has ordered an immediate synch test with the new pilot in Unit 2 upon his arrival, so there's a lot of work to be done. I'm going to start on loading the new pilot's data into his assigned unit and…"

"That's Asuka's Unit." Said Shinji in a cold enough tone to make her think that his father was speaking to her. Akagi blinked.

"Former…" she began.

"Shut. Up." Snarled Misato. "She's still my Asuka." Akagi gritted her teeth at Misato's attitude.

"Unit 2 has been reassigned to the new pilot. End of discussion." She said, her tone hot.

"Only temporarily." Said Shinji, his tone certain. "He won't get to make a mistake." He assured the doctor. Looking at the others, he had a suggestion. "Let's get some fresh air before this pirate arrives." He suggested, heading for the door.

-

Shinji sized up the new pilot. He's got an uncanny resemblance to Rei-chan. Thought the Third. Red eyes and pale blue hair combined with damn near chalk-colored skin did have a striking resemblance to Rei, though his eyes were a darker red and his hair closer to silver than blue, like his lover's countenance. The teen smiled at Shinji and stepped over to the Third. Extending his hand, he greeted Shinji. "Hello. You must be the Third Child, Shinji Ikari. I've been eagerly awaiting our meeting." He said. Shinji reluctantly took the offered hand in a brief shake.

"Yeah. This is the Sixth, Hikari Horaki, pilot of Unit 4." He introduced the girl at his side. "Behind us is Major Katsuragi, the Operations Director. She's our boss." He indicated the purple haired woman behind the two active pilots. Kaoru looked around.

"I do not see the First Child here." He noted. Shinji's eyes narrowed a bit.

"She had an important matter to see to." He said frostily. Glancing past Misato's shoulder, the Fifth saw a redhead approaching the group in a steady, purposeful stride.

"I see that former Second Child Sohryu is coming to greet me." He said easily. Shinji's hands tightened into fists.

"She's not Asuka." He spat at the boy. "And even if she was, she isn't a former anything!" he snarled "She's Asuka Langley Sohryu, Second Child, and Unit 2's true pilot." He finished through locked teeth. Hikari touched his arm.

"Shinji." She said softly. Shinji closed his eyes for a moment. Opening his eyes, he saw the new Pilot's eyes on his. He looks…sad. Thought the Third, his anger dying.

"I'm sorry, Shinji." He said, his tone honest and open. "I was told she had stepped down. I was obviously incorrectly informed of her status." Shinji swallowed his curses at his former father. "It was an honest mistake, I assure you." He added.

"It's not like I don't get mistaken for her all the time, right?" chipped in Rit-chan, stopping next to her lover and letting her hand drop onto his shoulder soothingly. "I'm Ritsuko Inoue. I help out as necessary." She said simply, looking at Kaoru. "Welcome to the front lines." She added, tugging on Shinji's shoulder. "Let's go see to that matter, ok, Shin?" she said softly. Shinji nodded.

"I'll come too." Offered Kaoru. All three turned to stare at him.

"You're to report to Doctor Akagi for final checkup before your synch test." Ordered Misato. "Follow me." She added, turning away from the group and moving toward another door. "I'll catch up later, guys." She called over her shoulder as the other three exited the room, bound for Asuka's room.

-

Kaoru hummed to himself as he rode the escalator up a few levels. He had followed Misato when she got lost, and took the opportunity to excuse himself when she ran into a guy with glasses who identified himself as Hyuga, who wanted a moment of Misato's time. The Major had immediately moved off with the man, leaving him to get to Ritsu's lab on his own. Kaoru had memorized the layout of NERV HQ months before. Feeling a familiar sensation, he looked up to see the First watching him coldly from the top of the escalator.

"Hello, Rei." He said with a smile. Rei said nothing, her entire manner cold and distant. Reaching the top, he stopped in front of the girl, standing nearly nose-to-nose with her. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you face to face." He said, pushing carefully against her. She pushed back subtly. "Ah. I see. We truly are alike." He said softly, stepping past her.

"No. We are nothing alike." Said Rei. "And should you bring harm to him, I will prove how dissimilar we truly are." Kaoru paused to look back at her.

"That would be unhealthy." He said simply.

"It is immaterial. I would die for him without hesitation or remorse as many times as necessary for him to survive." She said softly. "His survival is my only purpose."

Kaoru moved forward again. "I see. We will meet again, First." He said calmly. Rei watched him go, then stepped onto the down escalator. I believe that he thinks I refer to Commander Ikari. She thought idly to herself. His misconception is his own fault.

-

"Unbelievable." Breathed Maya, seeing the synch score of the new pilot. "How can he just get in and get a hundred percent synch?" she wondered. Akagi said nothing. Behind the two, Misato grimaced. Well, Kaji was on the money with the theory that Seele had access to Adam to make their own version of Rei. And here he is.

"Well, this is good news." Said Akagi. "His synch is better than Asuka's ever was."

"I don't trust him half as much." Snapped Misato angrily. Fucking whore! Akagi turned to look at Misato's angry face.

"His synch rate is the best of them all, Misato." She pointed out, nearly spitefully.

"No, it's not." Came Maya's voice. Akagi blinked. She sounds…insulted? "Look at Shinji-kun's score." She said, her tone smug. Akagi looked at the score.

"That has to be an error. Run diagnostic." Said Akagi. Shit, he's already at one fifteen? This isn't good! At his current synch, he could conceivably force the MP Evas into a no-win situation, especially since someone got Hikari a copy of the manual for the Eaton Wing System in her Eva, giving the two a flight-capable Eva. Fuck!

"Diagnostic shows clean. Shinji is the leader." Said Maya, her tone near gloating. Akagi hid a grimace.

"So he is. Ok, guys, that's it." She said into the mic. "Get cleaned up and head on home." She said, exiting the room for the Commander's office.

-

Shinji and Hikari entered the locker room along with Rit-chan and Rei. Behind them came Kaoru. Hikari had her suit half off before she remembered that Kaoru was there. Holding her suit top up, she shot a glare at Kaoru. "Do you mind?" she asked acidically.

"Mind?" asked Kaoru, confused.

"This isn't some strip club!" snapped the former inchou.

"But Shinji is here…" he began to protest.

"That's different." Came the crisp, cold reply. "Shinji belongs here." She added. Shinji watched Kaoru's eyes, seeing him thoughtful.

"That locker belongs to Sohryu, doesn't it?" he said, deflecting the issue as he pointed to the dented, scarred locker one down from Shinji's own.

"What about it?" asked Shinji.

"So much anger. So much pain." Said the new pilot. Shinji considered the kid's eyes.

"I prefer to think of her passion and drive." He said softly. Kaoru glanced at Rei, whose red eyes never left his. The First was coiled and ready, though her heart rate was probably lower than sixty. The Fifth nodded.

"I'll clean up in another facility." He said, exiting the room in his plug suit. His suit was black with dark blue markings, nearly identical to Touji's. Shinji pushed that observation away and glanced over to see Hikari's plug suit land in the bin, her naked form turning the corner for the shower block.

"Coming, Shinji?" she called back to him.

-

"So, the new kid is most probably an Angel?" asked Rit-chan of Airi. The two were standing with Celsia in front of Mike's lair, watching the forming Casting Circle - or Jump Station, depending on who was talking - form slowly. Airi nodded.

"Yes. All indications are that he is the Seventeenth." She said. The two were quiet.

"It needs another six days." Said Celsia. "Right now, it's not formed, so we can't use it."

"I don't think that we have six days, Celsia." Said Rit-chan. "If this Kaoru guy really is an angel, then he'll make his move pretty damned quick." She said. Airi nodded.

"Yes. And it's my understanding that he is the last Angel. If we can't jump by then…" she left it unsaid.

"I won't be a guinea pig for that bitch ever again!" said Celsia hotly.

"If Gendo has his way, you won't have to worry about it." Said the actress. Silence reigned for a good while. Finally, Airi spoke again. "Are we ready? Just in case?" she asked. Rit-chan nodded. "Well, let's hope for the best, shall we?"

-

Kaoru moved through the halls of NERV easily and silently. Earlier, he had been instructed to move into Misato's place, but Misato had flatly refused. Gendo refused Akagi's suggestion that Rei's place had room, and since he knew from the murderous look in Shinji's eyes that Misato's place would be out of the question, he had ordered him to be assigned a room in the transient block of NERV HQ.

Now, at a few minutes past four am, he was out looking into things. He had spent some time in his room feigning sleep to fool the people monitoring him, and now, he was out and about. There were a couple of things he wanted to look into. The information I received when I was briefed about this place was incorrect. He mused, remembering the briefing that his Seele handlers had given him. Most grossly erroneous was the condition of the Second. She was supposed to be a mindless husk, but from the reaction of the others, she seems to be in far better shape than that. I need to know for sure. He considered the possible outcomes. If she is deeply enough withdrawn, I can simply overpower the core of her unit and make it do my bidding. If not, I might have to kill her. His handlers had told him that it would be more expedient and simply break her and let her kill herself, but Kaoru felt that the least he owed her was a clean death.

Approaching the NERV medical ward, he spotted a pair of nurses talking to each other. He slowed a bit and drifted along behind them, willing himself to be unnoticed. As busy as the two were gossiping about the Major's bisexual tendencies, he could most likely have been accompanied by a brass band and still not gotten their attention. When they turned off down a separate corridor, he moved toward the cranial ward. Within five minutes, he was at her door.

Opening the door, he saw the Second Child laying in bed, sheet up to her collarbone, eyes closed. She appeared to be asleep. Crossing to stand next to her, he reached out and put his hand on her forehead, closing his eyes and carefully manipulating the contact with his abilities. The Fifth sank into her mind, finding her to be battling herself. Chaotic and violent, her inner battle was the cause of her current situation, and he determined that the soul within Unit 2 would be easily subverted since it's true pilot was currently so withdrawn into herself that it was nearly in hiding within the monstrous form.

Pulling back his senses, he left his hand on Asuka's head a brief bit longer. "In another situation, I might have been able to help you, Asuka." He said softly. "But here and now, all I can do is be glad that I don't have to kill you." Withdrawing his hand, he turned for the door, missing the slightest flicker of movement from her eyelids. It was a good ten seconds after he left that a soft sound came from her throat.

"Shin."

-

Kaoru stopped in front of the Evas, looking at each in turn. The one directly in front of him was the only one he had any real chance of taking, as it was the only one without an active pilot. The day before, he had laid the groundwork for his hijacking the unit, and now it was time to do just that. For a moment, he studied the other two units. First was the one on his left, the gleaming silver and teal Unit 4, with the sharp-cornered mask and twin sets of eyes stacked inside each other. It's stance was a bit different than the other two units, seeing as it had a synthetic S2 unit and the Eaton Wing System in place. Still, the hybrid Angel knew that the S2 unit was off-line, and was unlikely to go active. She pilots a clean unit. He thought, turning to look at the monster of them all, Unit 1.

The horn is so symbolic that it's almost ironic. He thought, feeling the weight of the soul within the monster. She's watching me, even now. He realized. The eyes of the unit were glowing ever so slightly. "Do you wish to stop me, soul?" he said aloud to the mech. There was no detectable reply from the unit. Kaoru considered the unit a bit longer. "Well, there is no real choice now, is there?" he said a few minutes later. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. "So be it." He said, unleashing his AT Field at full power.

The response was immediate, all the alarm klaxons and sirens going off full blast. Kaoru watched Unit 1's eyes glow stronger. For an instant, he was tempted to try to overpower the lead unit, but realized that he had no real chance to do that, even with his angelic power. No, Unit 1 was too big a game animal for him. Besides he didn't need the most powerful Unit to complete his rescue mission. Stepping into thin air, he walked across to Unit 2, whose helmet had sprung open to reveal it's four eyes. Willing his AT Field to change forms, he and the unit moved to the opening of Dogma, crushing, breaking and demolishing all in their path.

The alarm had sounded and within two minutes, the two pilots, their commander and their support element had left in a haze of tire smoke, Misato's foot to the floor. Shinji rode shotgun and the two girls were in the back. Rei had opted to stay at NERV with Asuka, and Airi was left behind just in case. Hikari and Rit-chan held on for dear life as the Major one-wheeled it through intersection after intersection. "Well, on the bright side, the evacuation means no collateral causalities, and no traffic!" she yelled over the roar of the engine and shriek of the tires. Shinji nodded. One more to go. He thought grimly.

"Misato! I'm taking point!" he yelled back to the Major. "Hi-chan! Forget the plug suits! Just run to your Eva as fast as possible and get in!" he yelled back to his other pilot. "You stand by in case things get messy!"

"Right!" yelled Hikari as Misato slid her car to a stop on an emergency rail track to NERV. Before the car had stopped moving, the cart was swiftly dropping in a nearly-uncontrolled descent. Shinji was in shorts and a loose over shirt, while Rit-chan was in a skirt and tight tee-shirt, her nipples stiff and erect from the sudden adrenalin spike. Hikari was in a hastily-donned sundress that Rei had left out. It was a bit loose on her chest, but it was clothes and fit her well enough. She wished she had of grabbed some panties, though.

-

Kaoru and Eva Unit 2 tore the top off of Dogma, revealing the shaft that went straight down to the bottom of NERV and the Geofront. Ignoring the heavy-caliber shells from the automated defense units, he and the stolen unit began a sedate descent to the bottom and his target. Missiles rained down, but failed to do any damage of note, while shells simply bounced off the AT Field of the angel and Eva. "Soon, you will be free, my brother." He muttered to himself.

"Kaoru!" came a familiar yell, amplified by the Eva he piloted. Looking up, he saw Unit 1 literally dive into the shaft, empty-handed, but clearly pissed. "Did you think I'd let you steal her Unit, Kaoru?!" demanded Shinji falling toward the Angel hybrid and the pirated Eva. Reaching them, he hit their AT Field and stopped even with them, Kaoru between his unit and Unit 2. "Seele sent you, didn't they?" he hissed. "This ends now, Kaoru!" he said, raising his unit's hand.

"You can not stop me, Third, until you stop her." Said the boy, pointing his thumb over his shoulder at Unit 2. At his command, the scarlet unit reached up and grabbed it's utility knife-like Prog blade and lunged for Shinji's unit, which jerked back and pulled his own combat-knife like Prog Knife. The two tech blades hit each other time and again as the two titans fought for supremacy, mostly evenly matched. While Unit 2 fought without the full participation of the host soul and Asuka's skillful piloting, Shinji was doing all he could to stop her Unit without destroying it utterly. Evenly matched or no, Unit 2 stabbed Shinji's unit in the shoulder, making the high-synch pilot scream in pain.

"Shinji!" came Hikari's tight voice from the top of the shaft, where her Unit 4 crouched with the particle cannon. "I'm coming down!" she said.

"No!" yelled back Shinji instantly. "There's no room to fight here, and if I fail, you have to finish this!" he yelled, slamming his fist into Asuka's unit's face and slashing with his knife. "Go to the armory and grab every N2 mine there and take them to the mouth of Dogma! If I fail, dump them down the mouth and hit them with the cannon!" he screamed as Unit 2 knifed his thigh, red blood beginning to color the LCL in his plug, as his synch was above one thirty, making his wounds manifest physically on his body as the Eva suffered injuries.

"But that'll…!" began Hikari.

"Better that than the alternative!" he yelled back, grabbing the arm of Unit 2 that held the knife and binding it to his side long enough draw back his own knife. "Sorry, Asuka." He breathed before slamming the blade into Unit 2's neck.

-

Unmindful of the two units slowly descending above him, prog knives flashing, Kaoru landed lightly at the bottom of Dogma. Seeing the massive door in front of him, he focused his AT Field and forced it open. As the mighty doors ground open, he lifted himself into the air and floated forward. Behind him, he heard a thunderous crash and Unit 1 pushed itself upright and lunged for him, only to fall flat as Unit 2 grabbed it's ankle. Roaring in rage, Unit 1 spun and buried it's prog knife in Unit 2's back.

In the control room, Misato leaned over Hyuga's shoulder. "On my mark, Hyuga." She said softly.

"Ready, Major." He said, swallowing with difficulty. The self-destruction command was entered, and all that remained was pressing enter. Misato was in her house wear, meaning the tiny shorts and tight, short tank top. Had the situation not been so tense, he would have dies happy, seeing her nipples through the thin top, and the edges of vaginal lips at the crotch of her less-than-tiny shorts. As it was, he was far too tense to notice, let alone enjoy the sight.

"Heaven's Door is open!" screamed Maya. "Angel is entering!"

"Now." Whispered Misato, knowing that Shinji wouldn't catch the bastard in time. Hyuga's finger hit the button, but nothing happened.

"All signals lost! Massive interlocked AT Field detected over the entire room! Nothing's getting through!" reported Aoba.

"Issue auto-destruct command to the MAGI master system!" yelled Misato as Hyuga reentered the self-destruct order to the NERV main structure command.

"Negative response! MAGI refused the order!" called back Maya.

"Second AT Field detected! It's right above the two unit's last location! Wave phase tuning to cancel the interlocked AT Fields!" reported Aoba. Another alarm went off. "Unit 1's AT Field harmonically matched to second AT Field! Second AT Field vanished! Communication restored!"

"KAORU!!" roared Shinji's voice over the command deck. None of them had ever imagined that the meek boy could be that pissed. Not even when he threatened to kill the Commander after the Thirteenth.

-

Kaoru froze, staring at the giant white being nailed to the cross at the head of the lake of LCL. "You are not Adam." He hissed angrily. They sought to deceive me. He realized. Just then, he heard Shinji roar his name as the massive hand of Unit 1 closed around his body, breaking bones as it closed. Ignoring the injury, Kaoru turned his head to look at Unit 1's demonic face. "I want to thank you, Shinji." He said. "Without you, I might have fallen for their ruse." He said. Shinji's Unit leaned closer to him, the jaws opening.

"Why, Kaoru?" demanded Shinji tiredly. Kaoru looked beyond the massive unit that held him, seeing the red Unit 2 sprawled face-down at the bottom of the shaft, Shinji's Ka-bar like prog knife buried to the hilt in it's back.

"Thank you for taking her from me, Shinji." Said Kaoru, ignoring Shinji's initial question. "With her, I might had lived longer than I should."

"Make sense, damn you!" snarled Shinji. "Asuka's gonna be mad as hell that I had to damage her Unit because you wanted to take it for a joyride!" he yelled. Kaoru smiled at him.

"So. That is why you are so upset." He managed a chuckle. "I see. This is the right thing for me to do." He said, almost to himself. Looking up at Shinji, he spoke more clearly. "I cannot end my life on my own, Shinji. I need you to do one more thing for those you love." He said. Shinji was silent for a moment.

"Fine." He said softly, preparing himself for what he had to do.

"Thank you." Whispered Kaoru as Shinji crushed him flat instantly.

-

"It's over." Said Rit-chan to Celsia a few hours later. "We failed." Celsia simply nodded. The two were in her room at NERV. Numbly, she sat down on the elf's bed.

"What now?" asked Celsia of her friend. Rit-chan shook her head.

"I hope Airi knows." She said.

-

"The operation failed. Begin the final preparations for the conclusion of this matter." Said a cold voice in a cold room. "Use the JSDF. Use the Model Production Evas. We will not be cheated of our rightful place."