Adam Kadmon

Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion

Pre-note: another long one. From a short one. Heh. Me, Adam Kadmon! Grab a sandwich, make yourself comfortable and--wait, scratch that. Make yourself uncomfortable. Otherwise you might fall alseep. Here we go.

He didn't talk much. Not that it bothered her. Much. She heard long ago children usually talked a lot. Vocalization as a means of proving they exist. It made a kind of sense. But he hardly ever talked. She tried to remember when he started speaking, but everything about his birth, his early years of life, even his conception were muddied and fuzzy. It hurt a little to think about them too hard. Still, she didn't regret his birth. At least, she didn't think so. She was happy to have something to fill her days again. Like when she was young. Those days seemed to blend together they went so quickly. But recently things had been a bit slow.

She almost remembered her adolescence. She remembered feeling pride. A satisfaction with herself. She assumed it was real. She remembered feeling anger too. At people who saw her, but did not see her. She remembered it felt nice to be seen, but it also felt bad. Because the person she wanted to see her never could.

So she made other people see her. If enough did, maybe it wouldn't matter if the person she wanted to see her never did. Maybe it wouldn't matter if that person never looked at her, always looking past her, to something without a life of its own. Something false and fake that only moved the way it was told, that only thought the things people spoke to it.

If everyone else saw her it wouldn't matter that the only time the person she wanted to look at her actually did, it was suspended in midair with a rope around the neck.

But because she was not allowed to hate that thing swinging over the floor, she began to perceive those hanging feet in other people. Though she could never let other people know she hated them. Because they would not look at her if she said so. She had to be a good girl and then maybe, just maybe that person would look her way and recognize her once again, and wrap her in all-protecting arms to defend and protect and make everything that hurt her disappear.

She remembered her mother, giant and warm. She remembered waking up inside her, and becoming untouchable and absolute and great and invincible. And safe. Lifted above all others. So that nothing and no one could ever hurt her again. Like she was flying.

The last time she ever saw her mother she was floating above the floor. How peculiar.

Asuka snapped her bra closed and looked at her reflection in the body mirror mounted on the bathroom door. Her shower was done, and it was time to dress. It was important to shower and dress everyday, they told her. So she did. Because they'd be cross if she didn't.

She looked at herself. She supposed she was pretty and nice. She knew she used to be pretty and nice, when she was young. But lately

The scars were troubling. They were always a source of worrisome irritation, it seemed. For as long as she had them. Which seemed a very long time, but she couldn't quite recall when she got them. The how was fuzzy too. She seemed to remember something about the sky, and bolts of tortuous agony raining down upon her and

She remembered it hurt when Ryouji was born, too. Like she was being split in two. It seemed pain was all she could remember lately. Her hands drifted up to her neck. She could almost see the purpling bruises from her memory. The dark stain of slim fingers closing in around her to take self and identity without remorse or regret. Small hands around a small neck all filled with

Hatred. She knew that emotion. At least, she believed she did. It was so hard to be sure nowadays. She said she did, because it was what people expected of her. And she didn't want them to be cross and stop looking at her. But more importantly if they were cross they would take things away.

She remembered right after Ryouji was born bad people wanted to take him away. To take him away from her. His mother. But then they gave him back to her. And she was happy. At least she thought she was happy. They told her to be careful with him, and nice, and never ever mean. And because she did not know what else to do with him, she agreed.

Then they said strange things. About cores, and desired psychological patterns, and controlled pilot growth, and modified ego development, and required influence of mothers. There were a lot of big words, and it hurt her ears to hear all of them.

But she was glad Ryouji was hers again. He was hers when he was inside her, and he was hers when he was outside her, too. Just the way it was supposed to be. Forever and ever. Forever and ever. For

The color orange floated to the forefront of her thoughts.

Yes, that was right. Orange was the forever and ever color. It used to keep her dead. And now it kept her alive. Thinking of orange always brought back hazy memories, memories that were both less hazy and hazier than all the others.

She was floating. She seemed to remember colors, but they were all strange and unnamable. Words did not exist within her. Thoughts barely did. There was just presence and continuation. There was just there.

There was darkness for a time. Then, like a wedding veil, it lifted, and she felt her ruined body buffeted by invisible currents of wind, airy hands cradling and dragging her up into a world of definition and substance. The sea of orange was gone, and suddenly she had thoughts and feelings and memories and sensations. And emotions. Things like fear, things like loneliness, things like disgust. Oh, and of course there was hate.

But before they all pushed themselves inside her, she saw one last thing rising from the orange. A white face. Not the paleness she expected from her, but white. Nothing but white. White skin and white teeth and white hair, but red eyes. Dirty filthy disgusting red eyes. Looking right at her. Like she was some carnival sideshow. Trapped in a cage with only one eye and one arm.

The white thing smiled at her.

A name. A name drifted up to her conscious mind, but it was still hazy. She focused, hard, on the name, and the number one promptly came to her. No, not one. First. First something. First child? Yes, First child. Ryouji was her first child, too. He had red hair. But he had blue eyes. Blue eyes were good. Red eyes were bad. So was the number one.

One. Alone, apart. Alone, she was alone. She was one.


The white thing smiled at her. It was like she was everywhere. And nowhere, too. All around, all over, but not around or over. But the white thing smiled and the everywhere feeling grew and grew until it ripped away from her, and then everything collapsed and rushed inside the nowhere place to fill it with things that belonged to her and she could think and feel again. It was horrible, but it was what she wanted. It was what she thought she thought she wanted.


She woke up with hands around her neck. With eyes above her that saw past her face to her insides, and that bled water when she touched them. A voice that cried. A mind that was always somewhere else.

He looked at her, even though she was dead and inhuman. He thought of her even though she was dull. He said her name when he was supposed to do things to her that would keep him from strangling her again. And that drive began, that motivation to

Days and days passed and they were the only ones alive in the ended places where they walked and slept. They were alone.

They lived in one apartment, the rooms where they shut their eyes divided by a narrow hall. But he made her see him everyday so he could do things to her. Like clean, and cook, and change her bandages. When he did those things it was almost easy to forget what he really was and what he really wanted to do.

After a day, a week, a year, a lifetime, it did not matter. They all felt the same. Without anyone else to look at her time ceased to have meaning. She was no longer able to count minutes until people saw her, or until they would not be able to see her. And without other people to differentiate herself from, she lost the sense of time. Sometimes she would open her eyes and find herself in other places like

The room in the apartment he called the kitchen, and though it did have objects called stove and refrigerator they were all broken and empty. She sat at the thing called the table, but it was cracked down the middle like that giant horrid white face that blotted out the sky. One of the legs was missing, and he had collected wood and boxes from outside to make it stand so they could sit at it and eat at it.

She scrunched her brow in confusion at a gnawing sensation of discomfort, and looked down. There was red coming out from between her legs and onto her chair. She stared at it for a long time. She had seen red come out of her body before. When he changed her bandages sometimes there would be red. He would always look away. Now there was red between her legs. But there weren't any bandages down there. So he needed to put one there.

She rose from her seat and walked to him, leaving a spotty trail of red as she approached. He was at the counter doing things with a knife and a vegetable, and did not see her. She stood behind him, waiting to be seen, but she was not. So she opened her mouth. Words always made him see her.

"Could you fix it?"

He finally turned, not startled at the proximity she had snuck into. She stepped back and sat on the floor before him and opened her legs to find the leak. She lifted the dress he gave to her to replace that red other skin, and pushed that uncomfortable underwear he gave her out of the way. It was red, too.

For a lingering moment he just stared at her. He did not blush. He looked like he was trying to figure something out. Finally he turned back to the counter without a word.

"You can't fix it? Why not? I asked nicely. Why won't you do it? You are good at it."

No response.

"Can't you fix it? I don't like red. And it's uncomfortable and stuffy. Please fix it?"

She crawled over to him on hands and knees, and tugged on his pant leg. It was not right to ask him for things, but he did it before for her, and if he was distracted maybe he wouldn't

"Please? Please? Please? Please? Please? Please? Please? Please? Please? Please? Plea—"

He spun around. The knife and vegetable clattered to the floor. She did not mind. He was finally going to fix it.

He used the leg she was holding to kick her away, and she scooted backwards a few feet. She tried to stand up: that made her bottom sore. He kneeled and shoved her to the floor. She landed on her back and grunted. It hurt a little.

He forced her knees apart. She did not mind. He was going to fix the red coming out. Then she found his right thigh pressed into the place between her legs. It was soon stained with red.

His body dropped, and she thought he was going to fall on her. She shut her eyes. A loud thump opened them again. His hand was spread wide next to her face on the floor. The other was fumbling below his belt. What was he doing? He was over her, but his hands were not on her throat, so there was no reason to worry. But what was he doing then?

No, he snarled. His eyes were screwed shut. They were shaking. No. No. No. No. No.

He took something peculiar out of his pants and held it. She couldn't see most of it: it was obscured by his hand. But the end spilled out of his fingers. It looked very stiff.

Ah, she had thought. A penis. She was glad she figured out what it was.

He gripped it and began to quickly pull up, then down, again and again.

His eyes did not look at her insides this time. Only her outsides. Only on the two things made of flesh on her chest.

Ah, she had thought. Breasts. She was glad she figured out what they were.

No, no, no, he kept saying.

Having him over her like this was uncomfortable too, but it was often uncomfortable when he helped her stop the red from coming out of her body. Sometimes the bandages were sticky and had to be peeled off, sometimes he washed them and it stung. Uncomfortable, but he told her it helped. So she let him. She had to. And now she had to let him stay over her and tug on himself.

If he wanted to do this, she had to let him. She had to. Because if she said no he would

He rocked back and forth as his sweaty hands gripped his penis and clawed at the floor by her face and his eyes stared at her chest.

No, no, no, he kept saying. Each no was a pant.

He wanted it, and she could not say no. Even though she didn't want it. Even if it was


She had to let him do it. She had to. She had to or else

No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no n—

He closed his mouth and grunted through his nose, but it was high and it whined like a screw being tightened. His hand and the thing in it throbbed and pulsed.

One. Two. Three. Four globs of white liquid dribbled from the end of his penis and onto her midsection, right below her breasts.

Finally the hand by her head, the one so close to her neck, lifted and retreated to its own body, and she could breathe and swallow pain without restraint or fear of reprisal. She listened to him pant a few more times, then he calmed, and sat away from her on his knees. His eyes were shut.

He stood. He turned. He stuffed himself back inside his pants. He picked up the knife and vegetable from the floor. He placed them on the counter. He started cutting again.

Confusion, not of what just happened, but of what it made her feel, frowned her mouth. She had vague recollections of something similar happening before, but as more time passed, the more her memories hazed. But it was branded into her mind that that was what she was scared of. Did she do something wrong? She let him do whatever he did, but he almost put his hand on her. What else was she supposed to do to stop that?

She looked down, past the small puddle of milky liquid sliding across her stomach. She looked between her legs. It was still red.

He cut.

The milky liquid crawled over her pelvis and down between her legs. It oozed into the red.

"You didn't fix it."

He spun on his heel and shot an arm forward. He grabbed a fistful or red and yanked her up by her hair. She cringed and tried to bring her hands up for protection, even though it was wrong, and he sent her into the table. It rocked slightly, then collapsed on one of its edges as the makeshift leg crumbled sending it onto the floor.

He bore down over her, forcing her down on the partially overturned table. His mouth was curled back to show teeth. His eyes were flared with hate.

His hands rammed into her shoulders, then away, up to her collarbone, up to her neck. Her jaw halted the hands from going any further. So they didn't. They lay on her throat for a moment, then the fingers began to curl. Wet palms bore down on her throat. Nails dug into her skin.

She did not want this. She did not want it on her throat. Never on her throat. Not like the other time when he


She said. But he didn't listen. He wasn't behind his mask anymore. He was all eyes and hands and teeth now.

And he kept squeezing. Tighter and tighter. She felt the world slipping away from under her feet. Her vision crept with orange. She didn't want this. She didn't want this. She didn't want to die.

She put her hands on his face. It stopped him last time. It didn't this time. He kept hurting her, and she started to push. Her hands began to shove, then lifted off him before thrusting back. It didn't stop him either. She pulled her hand back further to add more force.

Her middle finger snagged the edge of the bandage over her empty eye and ripped it off. Her unfilled socket gaped at him. His grip faltered.

His hands fell away.

He turned. He left. He returned. He was carrying the bandages. And he set to work stopping the red. He did not meet her eyes.

He cleaned and dressed her wounds, starting with her eye, finally stopping the place between her legs, too. Then she felt him start to wrap her neck in gauze to reduce the swelling. She screamed as loud as she could.

He flinched backwards, his face nothing but surprise. Then it turned downwards into hurt. Then it bled into fury.

He showed her his teeth again. He showed her his hands again.

He was that thing again. She could remember. What he stole from her while she slept. When he left her to die. When he left her to be raped. When he left her to choose that white thing.

He let her fight alone. He let her get torn apart. He let her die. He let his hands strip her life and self away. He let her die. He let everyone die.

And she knew then. She knew him. What he was. He was a beast. Something that stole a human form and voice and actions but lacked anything of its own. How could a beast be anything other than a beast?

He was dark, and cruel, and vicious, and hard, and frightening, and brutal, and nasty, and perverted, and perverse, and cold, and ruthless, and mean, and wicked, and harsh, and twisted, and cold-blooded, and merciless, and bad, and sick, and scary, and spiteful, and terrible. He was terror. He was hate.

He was not what she used to think he was, long ago when he hid himself with silly things like timidity, and shyness, and nervousness, and anxiety. When it was so easy to look at him and pretend he was human.

She knew him when he was naked to the world, freed from the confines of sentiment and ego, when he was true to what beat within his heart. When he was the beast she now knew him to be. The thing that ate Angels and ran away and hurt friends and touched itself over sleeping girls. The same thing that let the bitch take him and murder the world.

And she knew him when the world was sad and barren. When they were the only two to live there. Now there weren't things like people or rules to get in his way. Now he could be a beast all he wanted and no one could stop him because that was not possible anymore. He was a beast, and she was his prey. And she was


Of him. But if the beast was sated, he would not bare his teeth. He would not hunt you down and choke the breath from your body.

So her entire life became nothing but a play, a farce of her true intentions to keep him, that thing, satisfied. To keep him from ruining her, ruining the rest of the world again. She would have to give him anything. Everything. All that she did was to keep him pleased.

When she said he could live with her. When she said he could go inside her. When she said she wanted him to be her little angel's father. It was all to keep him pleased. Everything she did was to keep him pleased.

Because she was scared of him. Of what he could become. Of what he did become.

Close my heart and seal it away. Stab my eyes so I cannot see. Anything to stop feeling fear and pain. Anything to keep life numb and buried like before.

But when those men came. When those men came and invaded their home to separate them and took him away, finally freeing her from the ever-present and unblinking eyes of the beast, she could not stop the words that tore past her lips.


He heard her, and he did not look angry. He did not even look sad. He looked relieved. Like he had been waiting for her to say it for all those years.

She had wanted to say it for all those years. But if she did, he might choke or kill her world again. She did not want to die. Not like that. Not ever. But everyday she was with him gave a little more courage to his hands. He did what he always wanted, just like he always did.

So let the world die. Let him die. Let everyone else die. As long as she remained, it would not matter. Even if no one could see her. Being alone and invisible was better than feeling his eyes on her. But he was gone from her now, and she was free again, and that was good. She was tired. She wanted to sleep. She didn't want to pretend anymore. She didn't want to be slowly erased by him any longer.

The longer she stayed alive, the longer she was with the beast, the more her past faded. She still had knowledge, but things about herself got harder and harder to pick out. But as that happened, it was easier and easier to feel things. Emotions trumped thoughts. It was like she was growing up, but backwards.

But when she was freed from him, thoughts and knowledge eclipsed emotion. It was a slow process, but the people who spoke to her, cleaned her, did things for her all filled her with practical applications for the things in her head and she was able to compile suitable responses and reactions to what was happening around her. There were things she still had a hard time with, but they would all teach her everyday, even without meaning to.

They would talk, and cook, and sanitize, and do all sorts of things for with her. They used to go inside her and say how pretty and nice she was and it made her feel pretty and nice and she would thank them, and then they would not be inside her anymore but since they would only say those things when they were inside her she let them go inside her.

But now no one said she was pretty and nice. No one pushed anything inside her and said those good things anymore. Even when she said good things to them. It was sad. Because she wanted to be pretty and nice, like she used to be. She didn't want to be broken and ruined and disgraced and scarred and alone.

The reflection in the mirror stared at her.

"I hate you."

The image of skin and hair and scars faded. A white face with white teeth and white hair and red eyes saw her.

"I hate you."

The white slowly filled with peach. The hair filled with auburn. The eyes became dull flecks of blue.

"I hate you."

The peach darkened. The hair dimmed to brown. The eyes clouded and swarmed with cobalt.

"I hate you."

Her reflection returned. It stared at her. She giggled.

"I guess I hate all of you, don't I?"

Asuka finished dressing as she hummed a tuneless song. She left her dirty clothes and towels on the floor. Someone else would pick them up. He used to pick up things like that all the time. But he would always stare at her neck.

The hall outside was long and narrow. There was a green carpet and blue paint and a yellowish ceiling. There weren't any pictures on the walls because she didn't have any pictures so there weren't any pictures on the walls. To the right was the staircase that led to the downstairs and the rooms where she ate and talked to people who came to talk. To the left was a set of bedrooms, one on either side of the hall, one for her and one for the person that came out of her. She waited under the arch of the bathroom door.

She waited for a minute, then another, then two more, and finally Ryouji stepped out of his room. He stopped at his door and slid it shut behind him and looked up at his mother, and Asuka suddenly had the sensation of floating above the floor, gazing down at this child, her child, and she felt happy.

do you love me mama?

"Do you love your mama?" Asuka asked with a bright sunshine voice.

"I love mama," Ryouji replied, mechanically.

"And does mama love you?"

"Mama loves me."

His red hair was draped over his forehead, dripping into the periphery of his eyes. Red overshadowed blue. She did not like that. She walked to him and gently took a handful of it, then tore it out in one brutal stroke. Clumps of crimson drifted to the floor. Ryouji's face did not change.

There. His eyes were blue again. Good.

She bent down until she was crouched in front of him with thighs on ankles, face to face.

"Is mama pretty?"

"Mama is pretty."

"Is mama nice?"

"Mama is nice."

She smiled warmly and shut her eye. She could smile now, because she was pretty and nice. She worked so hard to be pretty and nice. So people would look at her and not at little soulless things.

She took hold of his hands and lifted them up to make them perpendicular to his torso. She released him, and he stayed in the same position. In a single fluid motion she drew his pants down to his feet. She sighed through her nose in disappointment, yet again.

He was still small and soft. Not hard at all. But no one else told her she was pretty and nice anymore, and putting something inside her was the natural and logical conclusion to make those words real for her. But he couldn't. Maybe it wouldn't matter this time.

"Come come, little angel."

She swallowed his stubby little hand in her own slender one, and led him back towards the bedroom. His or hers, she hadn't quite decided yet, and suddenly like a flash of light she remembered how that beast had done this too. Held her hand to lead her places.

Asuka stopped and turned her head. She looked down at Ryouji. His gait was awkward with his pants around his ankles. He was staring straight ahead at nothing. She could see scars on his face now, the left eye gone, bandages on the chest and arm, a blank nothing gaze on the face.

She looked down at herself. She was wearing dark slacks and a dirty white shirt. She kept looking down. Her free hand was holding a little thing, with white cloth skin and tangled yarn hair and red button eyes, all staring back up at her with an empty smile drawn on its face.

Her feet were floating off the ground

Asuka ripped her hand from her son. She stumbled backwards into the wall. Ryouji didn't bother glancing at her. She started screaming.

Agents were in the hall. They picked up Ryouji, and held Asuka down, thrashing like she was on fire.

I'm not like him, she kept yelling.

She wasn't like him. He was a beast. She was a person. She smiled and talked and ate and slept and gave birth and was pretty and nice. She was not a beast. She was not like him.

I'm not like her, she kept yelling.

She wasn't like her. She was dead. She was a shell. She played with little things with red eyes. She was not dead. She was not dead. She was not like her.

But she was becoming like her. And it was his fault. That beast. That killer who destroyed everything, even the world. He hurt her. He made her die. He made her obedient and fearful and not herself. She hated him. She hated him. She hated him.


Because she knew what he was.

I Knew Him When

Chapter 10

Mana woke up. In that first instant between dream and reality, she could almost pretend she was in her own bed instead of wrapped in a dirty blanket on a cold floor of a smelly apartment. She could almost pretend everything from yesterday was just some sick fantasy or nightmare.

But full consciousness rammed its way inside her quickly and mercilessly, and her sight confirmed she was indeed in the same dusty barren room the cultists had thrown her into last night, and her body was full of heavy weakness from the lingering effects of the gas and fatigue.

But she was alone, at least. No creepy fanboy watching her as she slept, or getting hard and wet over her prone form. She was both expecting and dreading that, given the mental constitution of her captors. They just didn't strike her as the healthiest individuals regarding women. Especially if Aida was their leader.

She rolled over, and wondered who she'd have to beg to get a shower and a toothbrush. She inhaled. And some deodorant. All the sweat from yesterday was ruining her. She sat up, trying to get rid of her mouth's sour stickiness, and ran a hand through her greasy hair.

And it had only been a day, she reminded herself. What a shitty day.

A door opened. Mana looked up, over her shoulder. Light from the hall beyond splashed over her, and she had to shut her eyes. She squinted open, and saw a man enter the apartment she was trapped in, then closed the entrance behind him again. He did not lock it.

"Good morning," Kensuke said, not looking at her. Mana didn't respond.

He walked over to her from the door which led directly to the living room where she was, and set a small plastic bag by her on the floor. When she didn't move, even to glance at what was in it, he sighed slightly, like a disappointed kid waiting for the school day to end.

"There's a toothbrush, some food, some water, stuff I thought you might need," he said. "Use it, don't use it, whatever. The shower isn't working in here, so you'll have to rough it for awhile, alright?"

Mana was silent. She clawed the sheet around her body like a shield. Kensuke let his lips twitch into something resembling pity or regret. He strolled to the far wall and drew the blind from the window. It was still dark outside.

"I'm not doing this…" And he said 'this' to clearly encompass yesterday, perhaps the rest of his life as well, "… because I want anyone to suffer, you know. I just want to help him. And this is the only thing I could do."

She was staring up at him, but her eyes quickly flitted down, looking for a gun. She found it in his front pocket. His hand was hanging lazily at its handle. He saw her as he turned back, and almost smiled.

"Look, I didn't really mean to try and kill you, okay? It just, I was pissed, alright? It was merely the shock of seeing him again, and thinking you might have killed me before I could talk with him… I wasn't thinking. It was a spur of the moment thing. But that other guy…"

He stopped for a breath to let her speak. She did not. He went on.

"The people who, I guess you could say they 'hired' me, they gave me resources and knowledge to rescue Shinji. And in return all they wanted was my cooperation. A list of contacts, meeting points, names, dates, shit like that. I still don't know what they wanted them for.

"But then they asked me to hand Shinji over to them, like a plate of food, right before the operation. And I said no. Not out loud to them, but I vowed never to let anyone use him again. Actually, I had put together a team for something like this even before I sorted out the details of the rescue. Heh. I guess trust isn't a very strong concept these days. If I could have avoided hurting anyone, I would have. But I can't control how everything turns out, you know?"

"Why did you take me too?" she finally asked. "What was your real reason?"

"Because," Kensuke said after a moment spent looking at her, "you like him, don't you?"

Mana flinched backwards.

"You do," he went on. His voice was very soft, not mocking or accusing in the least. There was almost a degree of understanding. "Even though you're a part of the military and your mission is to steal information from him. You like him. I can tell." His eyes softened too. "I first dragged you along because I wanted to see how much the military knew, what they were doing with him. But now… the reason I didn't kill you, why I'm still keeping you around… Shinji would be sad if you were dead or missing."

He paused, internally debating something. He wanted to voice it, but didn't. Eventually he shrugged, and sat down before her on the dirty floor. The gun faced her.

"Shinji… he never had any true affection from anyone his entire life. But I'm sure you know that. All his 'friends' in Tokyo-3 never would have given him a second glance if he wasn't a pilot. And they can delude themselves all they want, saying he became a part of their lives, their families, but it's all a lie to ease their consciences. Because if they accepted the truth, that they were using him to protect their own ungrateful asses while simultaneously kill other people, they wouldn't be able to look at themselves in the mirror anymore.

"Even me," he said. "I would have avoided him like the plague if I hadn't known he piloted the Eva. I hated gloomy people. People who don't have a sense of humor or can't lighten up and at least act like everything's okay. This world is too damn horrible to just focus on it all the time. Humans have to forget sometimes. Sometimes we need to. Shinji put up a good front, but he never stopped thinking about it. He could never let himself have a good time.

"After what happened to Touji I lost all contact with Shinji. I called him once, when I found out he was leaving. But what I really wanted to ask was if I had a chance of becoming a pilot now. We were cut off, probably by NERV. I never spoke with him again.

"I couldn't decide if I was happy, or angry, or sad that he was out of my life. So I tried not to feel anything. It was easier that way. I knew he had something to do with Touji being in the hospital, but I don't know. I honestly don't think he has it in him. To willingly hurt another person. It just doesn't fit who he is."

Kensuke smiled in self-pity.

"I never did visit Touji in the hospital. A part of me hated him. For getting to pilot, for getting hurt… I don't know. The whole situation sucked. And I didn't have anyone I could blame. I wanted to blame Shinji. I mean, I really wanted to blame Shinji.

"But then the Impact happened, and after I returned I looked around this world and I wondered if this was what Shinji wanted all along. A place that would match what he saw life as. A hell or a wasteland. Some kind of punishment for the living. For awhile I thought mankind got exactly what it deserved. Maybe, I thought, Shinji wasn't just punishing himself, but everyone else, too.

"But even if this was his vision of what existence truly was, what he thought he should exist in, Shinji fought. Again and again and again. He never stopped. Even though he hated so many things and so many people, he never stopped. He didn't want this for everyone. He fought because he wanted the world to go on, for humans to live. This…" He gestured vaguely to the room they were in. "This world… he must have thought it was what he deserved or something. He never meant to hurt anyone else.

"Eventually people from the army found me, and started questioning me about Tokyo-3 and the pilots. Like I had all the secrets they were looking for. It was sort of flattering at first, thinking I was helping to make a difference. But I quickly found out they weren't asking me things to help anyone. They just wanted information to get power and hurt people again. I knew Shinji wouldn't have wanted that.

"That's when realized who he was. He was a hero. He put aside his feelings and defended our lives and way of life. Even though he didn't want to. That's what a hero does. He fights and struggles for the greater good, to save people and places, even if it hurts him to do so. That's what Shinji did."

Kensuke blew out a breath, then ran the tip of his tongue across the backs of his front teeth. He shook his head.

"He's not perfect. I know that. But no one is. He's human. But he's different from the rest of us. He isn't consumed with himself. He doesn't lust after adulations or congratulations for what he's done. He doesn't do something just to be praised for it like the rest of us. He doesn't even do things because it's right. No. He does everything he does because he thinks it's what we want. That… that's heroic. He always put himself behind everyone else."

He shook his head again. He nearly smiled again.

"Do you even know why he was in a safe house to begin with, and not a military base? They're scared of him. Of what he can do. Of what he might do if they make him angry again. After the Tokyo-2 Tragedy, no one's taking any chances anymore."

"… what?" Mana asked.

"You don't know? You really don't?" Kensuke laughed once, a short bark. "The military, or the UN, take your pick, they found another Evangelion unit, one built before the Impact. I'm still not sure how they acquired it, but the why is pretty obvious. They wanted power. The kind of power only an Eva can give. So they could take the lead over every other nation. Hold the reins over the entire earth, just like NERV did during the war.

"They had both Asuka and Shinji at the time. They decided to put Shinji in it first, since I heard Asuka was, well, fucking insane. So they put him inside it. And then… he must have seen something when he was inside it, or did something, or they did something… but the Eva detonated, laying waste to the entire city."

Mana's eyes narrowed in angry frustration. That, that was what destroyed Tokyo-2? Why hadn't anyone told her?

"There was an AT-Field detected right before the blast," Kensuke said. "It must have saved him. I don't know if the Eva survived too, but I do know Shinji never meant for it to happen. Never. He was forced into it, just like all the other times. It wasn't his fault.

"Look. Yeah, okay, I know he could get angry sometimes, but hell. Wouldn't you? And besides, that anger was directed solely on the Angels. He never focused it on a human. Never. He knew how to pick his enemies. And he never saw any human as a real enemy. Not one to hurt.

"Anyway. The reason they kept him there, in that prison, and haven't tried anything else with him since the explosion… damn, you really don't know?"

"I… no," she admitted.

"Alright then," Kensuke said. He leaned closer to her, like a child about to impart a great secret. "I don't know the particulars, or when or how it happened, but one day when he was in that safe house, they detected a blue pattern."

"A blue pattern?" Mana repeated in a whisper.

"Again, I'm not sure of the specifics. But I do know it was after the Tokyo-2 mess. That's pretty much it. So they kept him away, somewhere far, far away from those in power, away from all their toys. Did it to Asuka, too. Same with the other higher-ups from NERV. Like they were all somehow dangerous, or he might find out they were mistreating them and do something. Part of me can't blame them. The military around here was always pissing themselves about anything regarding the Evas."

"A blue pattern," she whispered again.

"Yeah. Probably some kind of residual stain that Eva left on him, or all the time he spent around Angels before the Impact. I mean, one of them did swallow him. But the blue pattern, the only reports I was given were sketchy at best, but apparently it took place during some unspecified event one day, and after it happened I heard it somehow changed him. One report read he was a 'different person.'"

His suicide attempt, Mana thought instantly. Good God. Does that mean he's—

"Even if they say that…" Kensuke shook his head emphatically. "No. I don't believe it. He may have changed a little, it's natural that he wouldn't be exactly like he was back then, but to say he was a 'different person'… bull. Nothing would make him transform the way they said."

He doesn't know, she realized. He doesn't know about his suicide attempt, or his insanity. Or… maybe he doesn't want to know.

"Nothing would make him transform," Kensuke was saying again. He turned to her. "Who did you see during the Impact?" he asked abruptly.

"What?" She glanced away in discomfort. This wasn't something you talked about. Not if you had a choice. "That… I don't know what you mean."

"You don't have to tell me. That's okay." He was suddenly smiling. "After it happened, when I came back, I thought I should have seen my mother. Or my granddad who died when I was real little. Heh, I even thought I should've seen Katsuragi. But I saw him. I saw Shinji before I died."

Mana was silent. Was this supposed to surprise her? Was he just trying to keep her off balance by unloading a bunch of unknowns on her in order to remain in control of the situation? Or maybe he was making it up, trying to force himself and everyone else to believe he truly did have Shinji's best interests at heart. Did anyone have his best interests at heart? Did anyone ever? His whole life he was nothing but a tool for others to facilitate their own desires and goals. Something that made him feel less than human. A thing that only wished for death.

Who did he see when he died?

"I've done some research on this," Kensuke continued. "I'm sure you have too. Most people say they saw the person they loved or gave them the most comfort in their lives. A few even say they saw a girl in a school uniform. I always thought she was a bit off… some said they just can't remember, or don't want to remember. Yeah, the memories are tough to process, it's basically remembering the last thing you saw before death, but I never forgot." He chuckled. "Even if I didn't tell you."

"Why are you telling me now?" She fixed him with a tired glare. "I'm not your own personal sounding board. I'm not a priest who'll listen passively and absolve you of all sin. You're not going to suddenly generate some sympathy in me."

Not for him. But gaining knowledge was never a bad thing. She firmly understood Aida now, his motivations and reasoning. After all that she could almost understand why he was doing this. And… even if Shinji was dangerous… he wasn't some monster. He was a person.

But simply saying he was dangerous was a half-truth. Though the knowledge she now all but knew he possessed was dangerous, he, Shinji, as a person, couldn't be. He didn't hurt people intentionally. It didn't fit who he was. It couldn't.

"I know we aren't going to be friends," Kensuke told her with an amused spark in his eyes. "And I know I'm not a great human being. But I'm not some foaming-at-the-mouth terrorist or madman bent on global annihilation. Everything I've done is to get to this moment. Not with you, but with him."

He probably loves him, Mana realized. In a sexual, or a fraternal, or some other way that mixes the two. But it's there. Everything he's done—

The door opened without a knock. A tired-looking man stepped in. Dark hair fell into dark eyes.

"Kensuke. We need to go now."

He sighed, but it sounded like he was expecting, anticipating this.

"Alright. Let's get out of here." His voice was not worried in the least. He stood, and offered a hand to Mana. She rose without it. He watched her fix him with a hard gaze.

"What do you want?" she asked. This can't last forever, she knew. This jumping from one shithole to the next. Whether or not he had planned this far in advance after the rescue operation was open to debate. Even if he had, he was fighting a battle he couldn't win. "What do you really hope to accomplish with all this?"

Kensuke looked at her with a gentleness she did not know he possessed. He smiled warmly.

"I want him to be free."

Like the rest of us

To be free

To make his own decisions

To be happy

To be with

To be free.

They moved, and it was dawn. The sun was a gleaming crimson haze on the horizon between buildings, clouds and blood invading its shine like a hand clawing around a fire.

Kensuke put them both in the back of the same van, lacking the time to locate another vehicle to keep them separated. He did not handcuff them. But he kept the windows covered and the doors locked.

They drove for a time. The van growled and purred, and shook as it rumbled over the road. They could hear other cars occasionally, but it was very early, and the path they took was mostly deserted of normal people living normal lives.

Mana could not look at him. She was still musing on Kensuke's words. It really did seem like he loved Shinji. A strange, unhealthy, obsessive love, but it was definitely there. It was what made him mount this rescue operation, and Mana started to think maybe it wasn't such a bad idea anymore. If it was Shinji who was more or less the cause of the Tokyo-2 explosion, unwitting or not, then giving anyone access to him was risky. Or rather, anyone with means to utilize him.

And if it was Shinji who somehow registered a blue pattern…

She knew it was only a matter of time before someone brave or stupid enough would actively try to use that for some kind of military application. AT-Fields and cross-flares to crush enemy nations. Back before and even after the Impact she lost count of all the higher-ups who talked about recreating an Eva, or even an Angel as a military weapon. Like they could have controlled it. Or the ones piloting them.

Still, a blue pattern… in a human… she had to stop that train of thought. He was not dangerous. She had to remind herself of that. She shook her head. No, she had to remind him of that. Mana was speaking before she realized it.

"I've been meaning to ask you. When the attack happened, when that gas grenade broke into your living room… you seemed like you were expecting it. You kept glancing at the clock. You weren't surprised at all. Did… did you somehow know it was going to happen?"

She waited. He just stared straight ahead at the opposite wall of the van. He looked like he hadn't even heard her. She huffed a little.

"N-never mind, I just… forget it. It was stupid."

"I didn't know," Shinji answered quietly. "I was surprised, I just didn't care. I kept looking at the clock because I was waiting for you to leave. That was probably one of the last times you'd stop over, right?"

"Yeah," she admitted, silently miffed at his choice of words. "I was being pulled off the case to give my final report that week. How'd you know?"

"You had already stayed longer than nearly all the other doctors. I just assumed."

"You really wanted me out of there so badly?"

"I was counting the minutes we would still be together," he said simply.

She looked away slowly. She tried to summon a blush, or a smile, or some feeling of warmth. Nothing arose. The van kept moving around them. She suddenly felt like she was traveling in a hearse.

"We might be dead soon," Mana said. Shinji looked at her, but did not speak. She kept talking. "I mean, the military has to know about the assault by now. They will not let this one slide." She drew a long breath. "Those guys, the ones that helped Aida, the ones in the suits, they weren't military. I don't know who they were. You're pretty popular, Shinji-san."

He looked away. Mana swore in her head.

"Even if I don't know who they were," she went on, "I guess it doesn't really matter. It sounded like Aida killed all of them. So the people who have us now, the people who'll probably have us for the foreseeable future, are those cult guys. I don't know if that's a preferable fate. I suppose you must be a little worried about what they'll do, huh?"

She didn't get an answer.

"Anyway… I talked with Aida this morning. I don't think he's going to hurt either of us. He seems pretty determined to help you. I guess he's just taking me along for the ride."

you like him

"He really seems to care about you. Care isn't the right word. I don't know, concerned, maybe? It just seems like he wants to help you. I guess this was the best way he could show you that." Or show himself. "I mean, he did some really stupid stuff, but… he doesn't seem like a reprehensible person. He just wanted to help you. And I… I guess I can't blame him for that."

because i'm the same

"Even… even if I die soon, I'm ready. And I want to believe everything I've done has made my life worthwhile. A lot of people nowadays, since 2000 I mean, a lot of people think you have to do something with your life, like it's a law or something. Life isn't a free ride, they say. They say you have to work, to try and better the world, to help rebuild and restore the human race. Because if you don't, you're no different than the dead, or all those who haven't returned yet. You might as well get back in the sea."

Her eyes fell to the floor. It was gray and dirty. There was a streak of something slick and black running over the left wheel well. It glittered like morning snow in the dim light of the van.

"All the things I did in the military… I'm not proud of all of them, but I am proud of what I've done since I met you. I know I haven't helped you much, maybe not at all, but you've helped me. You helped me realize you can't get by just hoping for things to get better. You have to make them better. You made me realize that. And in turn, I think that will help me help other people.

"And I know you may not think it, and even though you've been locked up for so long, I think your life was worthwhile, too. You fought to help all of us. You fought against another Impact. You tried to save us. I know you don't like to be called a hero, but… what you did, with your life, it was nobler, better, than anything I have ever done, or could ever hope to do.

"But knowing that, well, at least thinking that, makes me feel like maybe everything people have done for the past twelve, well, the years since the Second Impact, it makes me feel it wasn't a waste. That we've done some good despite all the bad. I don't hate being a human anymore."

I don't hate the people who made me hate humans anymore.

The army stole her childhood with their obsession over the Eva. They took her innocence and purity and crushed them until nothing but their ideal remained. A child soldier, the perfect candidate to infiltrate NERV and regain the dominance the government and UN placed in Ikari Gendo's hands.

She never hated the military. It was the people who ordered it that she detested. Those faceless, brainless bureaucrats, with no sense of reality or combat conditions. They said things and she had to obey, even if they were doing it solely for more power.

But it was her job, just as the army's was to train and mold her. They were following orders. They weren't allowed to question them. Gradually, she stopped wondering if the things they told her and made her do were wrong or immoral, or even mistakes. She had something she could do, was trained to do, and she had to do it no matter what.

And when she was a child, she saw kindred spirits in the Children. They were guided since birth to become pilots and warriors. Except Shinji. He was literally thrown into this world of death without any preparation or mental steeling. And meeting him in person, she could see firsthand what that deficiency caused.

Had she been warped? Was she so indoctrinated that seeing an ordinary boy forced into becoming a soldier caused her nothing more than a pang of regret and pity? But seeing him, being so close to him, it made her subtly rethink what she had been put through. A "normal" childhood was so alien to her actual upbringing that she never really mourned it.

But if she actually had a normal childhood, she'd never know how to deal with killing someone, or following orders she didn't necessarily agree with or want. She'd have a normal mentality, and the concept of fighting for her life would be perplexing and terrifying. It was only because of her training that she had a reason and the ability to cope with this existence. And if she didn't, she suddenly understood it could just as easily be her in Shinji's place.

Was that why he wanted to die so badly? He merely didn't have the mental discipline she was commanded to assume? That was why she couldn't truly relate to him, and his pain. He really was alone in this. She just didn't want him to feel that way.

"So I'm ready to die," she finished. It was the closest equivalence she'd ever be able to draw between them. "I'm ready."

Her speech nearly dissolved all her recent uncertainty about him. She drew an analogous parallel between them, and while it wasn't exact it was clear. Since she wasn't dangerous, neither was he.

The van drove. Sometimes the road was smooth, sometimes it wasn't. There was nothing but estimated movement and the sound of the engine. Once the back wheels jumped up, and the axle made a small clunking noise.

"Third Impact was my fault," Shinji said, very calmly.

"What?" She must have heard him wrong. Though it was just like him to take responsibility for something like that, even that. But she had to have heard him wrong. She had to have.

"It was my fault." He glanced at her, to see how she took it, and saw nothing but bewilderment. "It was set into motion by people who supported NERV and its goals. I'm not sure who or what they were, but they were probably the ones who backed my father when he was gathering people for NERV and the Eva project.

"It was their plan to evolve mankind into a supposedly higher consciousness using the Impact. Everything they did, in a way, everything that happened during the battles against the Angels, it was all because they planned it. It was what they wanted. But the final choice was mine."


"I just murdered Kaworu-kun. They all told me, everyone told me I had to kill him. Like he was a virus or some kind of vermin, and that I had to accept that. Kaworu-kun, he—"

"You mean the last Angel," Mana stated flatly.

"You figured it out," he whispered after a moment. He kept his eyes on the floor. "I know you'll probably never think of him as anything other than the last Angel, no one else did, but… he gave me… more than anyone else had for my entire life.

"I met him on the beach that was created after Ayanami self-destructed Unit-00 to save me during the battle with the Sixteenth. He told me he was the Fifth Children. I was surprised, but I remember thinking it made a kind of sense. Like I should have been expecting it. Unit-00 was gone, Asuka was catatonic, and I was the only viable pilot left. Of course NERV would conveniently find some other kid then. But he was new, and affable, and I thought, 'wouldn't it be nice to just forget everything and pretend it was all okay with him? Wouldn't it be nice if he'd let me run away with him?' So I did.

"He stayed close to me, talking, listening, simply being with me. I was more or less spending my time exclusively with him. I couldn't face anyone else. Everyone else knew me, and had done things to me, and I had done things to them, and I didn't want to remember any of it. So I stayed with him because he let me. And I liked it. I liked him. I had only known him for a few days, but he was so friendly and open I couldn't help but let myself feel, to let him get close. Even after Asuka… and Ayanami… I swore I'd never let anything or anyone into my heart again. But Kaworu-kun…"

Shinji paused. His lips were slightly parted, his front teeth locked together. His eyes were very far away. His next words were utterly mystified.

"He told me he loved me. He said it so easily and freely… but it wasn't like it was a hollow nicety he told everyone he met. His words and emotions were solely for me. And I knew it. He loved me, without requiring anything from me. Without asking for me to clean, or cook, or pilot, or murder… without asking a thing of me. He just loved me.

"I don't remember my mother ever telling me she loved me. I know she did, but I guess I was too young to recall. No one else ever told me that. My father left me after she died, and I grew up thinking I didn't deserve it. That no one could love me. But Kaworu-kun did. He told me. He told me, and I had to believe him.

"I couldn't even fathom it. It was puzzling and scary. I never thought anyone said that without looking for something in return. An ego boost, sex, work, money, something. But not—"

Shinji stopped abruptly. The rush of remembered emotion that carried his tongue desiccated and died. His eyes darkened.

"No. That isn't true. He did ask one thing of me. After… after he was revealed as the final Angel, he took Unit-02, possessing it somehow. He had it protect him when I followed to engage. I fought it as we descended to Terminal Dogma. We were still fighting when we hit the bottom, a strange sea of salt pillars and blood.

"He went on ahead, to a chamber. Inside it was… I'm still not completely sure. Kaji-san once told me it was Adam, the First Angel. Misato-san told me it was the Second, Lilith. It was an Angel, that much I know. It was giant and white, crucified in a sea of LCL, wearing a mask with seven eyes.

"That thing was every subsequent Angel's goal. The reason they attacked Tokyo-3. They wanted to reach it to initiate Third Impact. But when Kaworu-kun got there he just… waited. For me. He was… he was smiling when I captured him in my hand. He—"

Shinji shut his eyes to try and not see what came next.

"He asked me to kill him. He said mankind did not deserve to die. That we need the future. That we deserve the future. The only thing he ever asked me to do was end his existence. So I did.

"He smiled. He was always smiling. He was still smiling when I crushed him. He was still smiling when his severed head fell into the LCL. He smiled as I murdered him."

He spared a breath and a movement to look at the woman beside him. There was no sympathy or understanding in her. He killed another Angel, nothing more. Form meant nothing. Souls meant nothing. Love meant nothing. Shinji looked away.

"I wanted to die with him. But I was too much of a coward to follow. All I could do was… I couldn't even cry about it. I just killed the only person who loved me and all I felt was empty. I recognized emotions inside me, but none of them could get from my head to my heart. So…"

He broke off. Mana nearly screamed at him to continue. Don't stop! her mind cried. Not now! Please! Even if she didn't care that the last Angel said it loved him, or that he probably loved it, she didn't want him to end here. Her mission fluttered behind her mouth for a moment, then she swallowed it. She didn't want to hear this for her commanders.

He didn't stop because he was ashamed. He just didn't know if she'd understand. If she'd want to understand. But out of everyone he had met since he killed the world, he now realized this person sitting at his side was the closest he'd ever get to that ideal. Misato was dead. Ayanami was dead. Kaworu was dead. Asuka was not Asuka. His mother was lost forever. They were not coming back. This woman was all he had left.

He kept his eyes on the floor. It was dark and filthy. Like a mirror.

"I visited Asuka in the hospital the next day," he said. "I couldn't turn to anyone else. The only person I could talk to was in a coma, someone who would never respond. It was a safety. I could pour out all my feelings and problems and not have to fear reprisal or humiliation. Just like Kaworu-kun. Asuka was my last resort. Anyone else would talk and say things I didn't want to hear. So I opted for the one person who couldn't.

"I talked to her. I cried. I begged. I just wanted something. Someone, anyone to send me back to when things weren't so horrible. To make her wake up and call me an idiot or a pervert or something to make me feel better. Even if she talked back to me, she wouldn't really be talking to me. She never did. She just talked and never did anything beyond that. She'd judge, but it was so easy to pretend she cared, not about me as a pilot, but a person. I just wanted to hear her voice, to pretend she cared about me again. To let me escape everything I was feeling.

"She was resting with her back to me when I entered. I shook her and she turned over. The top of her gown opened up. The next thing I remember was that I had my penis in my hand. And I masturbated over her while she was in a coma."

Mana gaped at him in shock. Then she slammed her mouth shut. She forced her stomach closed.

"I wandered through NERV for awhile," Shinji went on easily. "My feet got tired after an hour or so, and I found myself under a small stairwell. So I just stayed there. Even when all the alarms started blaring I stayed there. That's when the invasion began. NERV never stood a chance. And the commanders on both sides knew it. The techs and support staff, the people who facilitated that place, they weren't trained for an attack of that nature. Everyone who died all died not knowing why.

"Eventually a few JSSDF soldiers found me. One jammed a gun into the top of my head. And I thought, maybe this was for the best. I didn't have the courage to end my own life; the only way I'd ever die was if someone else did it for me.

"I heard a shot, and then the gun fell away from my skull. I thought I was dead. But of course I couldn't be. Misato-san had found me, and killed the soldiers. She dragged me away and took me through the innards of NERV.

"She told me things, trying to snap me out of my little self-pitying stupor. She told me secrets, about NERV, the Angels, and the Impact. She was the one to tell me the people who ordered the invasion were planning to initiate Third Impact. They were the same people who caused the Second, because they needed to reduce Adam, the Giant of Light, into an embryonic state before the other Angels awoke. Adam… was what the Evas were made from. Clones of Angels. Which was why they were the only things that were able to stand against them."

Somehow, Mana knew she should have expected that. Robots that bleed and eat things couldn't just be robots. The sickest thing to her was her lack of shock. There was just muted acceptance. Monsters to fight monsters. Just like humans.

"Misato-san led me along the path to the cage," Shinji was saying. "The door was right in front of us. Right in front of us. If I had walked on my own, if I didn't force her to drag me around like a piece of luggage…"

He sighed through his nose. His eyes wavered. So he shut them.

"Some JSSDF troops were below us on a balcony. They saw us and fired. Misato-san covered me with her own body and got hit in her side. She still managed to push the both of us through the door to the lift. I saw her in pain, bleeding out, but I just watched. Seeing her blood stain the wall and her hand didn't spur me to fight, it couldn't even incite a trivial concern regarding her injury. I just stood there.

"She yelled at me, she pleaded with me, she tried to compare her life to mine, anything to get me to pilot again. She won't understand, I thought to myself. No one ever could. I got angry. How could she be so arrogant to think she knew what I was going through?

"She told me about herself, everything she had learned over the course of her life. She told me mistakes were a fundamental part of being alive. That by making them, it was possible to learn from them. Not how to avoid making them again, but about who you are as a person, even if you repeat the same errors over and over.

"I told her piloting the Eva was a mistake. All I ever did when I was in it was hurt people. All I did out of it was hurt people too, but the Eva magnified it. But she said I had to do it one more time. Choices are valid. All choices are valid, even if they aren't all right. And she told me mine was wrong. I had to do it once more to find my answers, or ones that would conform to her interpretation, and when I did she told me to come back to her.

"She kissed me, like lust would be a valid motivator, then pushed me into the lift, but she didn't follow. I was confused at first. Then I wiped the blood out of my mouth. She didn't want me to watch her die. She knew she was going to, and all she thought about was saving me, saving everyone else. She died to rescue the human race."

Mana clamped her teeth together. That's why he took responsibility. He did kill her.

"The elevator carried me to Unit-01's cage," Shinji continued. His eyes were still shut. "It was filled with bakelite, and I couldn't get to the Eva. So I sat down and felt sorry for myself, like always. Like every time someone else depended on me and I failed them to wallow in self-pity. I sat, and I listened to Asuka fight the mass produced series Evas over the comm. I can only imagine it. How she fought, how she shined like so many other times while I watched in wonder. I was never jealous of her skill. I was simply awed by it.

"I listened to her triumph again over impossible odds. Of course she would win, I thought. She had mama watching over her."

Mana scrunched her eyes in confusion, and opened her mouth to voice her puzzlement. Both over "mama" and how Asuka recovered from her catatonia. Shinji again beat her to it.

"But she was running on the Eva's battery," he said. "And with the command bridge and NERV under attack, she couldn't coordinate another umbilical cable set up. Her time ran down and all I heard was her screaming as it hit zero. The mass produced series had manufactured Spears of Longinus. They made the injuries the Eva sustained be realized on the pilot's body. And she was at such a high synch ratio, she had to be…"

His brow beetled slightly.

"She lost her eye, she lost her arm, she…"

He clenched his jaw shut. His sharp cheek bones stood out like sword edges.

"Ibuki-san was screaming at me, pleading like Misato-san did, but I just sat there."

He took a breath and hated the act.

"And then my mother, finally, she finally woke up and gave me the means to hurt the people who hurt us. The men who shot Misato-san. The things that hurt Asuka. Anyone. Everyone. It was—"

"Your mother is dead," Mana stated. Her voice was shaking. She hated to interrupt him but this demanded an explanation. "What are you talking about?"

Shinji stopped to open his eyes and look at her critically. Judging her.

"My mother created the Evangelion, did you know that?" He watched her slowly shake her head, no. "She made a god and that god swallowed her alive. She was the first pilot of Unit-01, and it consumed her. I saw it happen. It didn't kill her, exactly. It… I don't know the right term. A part of her stayed alive inside Unit-01. Her soul, her mind… I don't know. But it was as much her piloting as it was me."

What the fuck!? she mentally cried.

"She was inside Unit-01, throughout all the battles, throughout everything. Even now…" He drifted off as he glanced away. "She was inside Unit-01. Just like Asuka's mom was inside Unit-02. That's how she recovered, it had to be. And as I sat there while Asuka was beaten my mother woke up. I'm still not sure why. Maybe it was my anger, or my self-disgust, my fear… I don't know. It had happened before, three times. Each time I was literally on the cusp of death, but she… didn't want me to die. I'm still not sure why she woke up then.

"But it didn't matter. She let me inside her and I entered. It wasn't like the other times I was in her. The LCL, the start-up, the activation, it all happened without outside direction. The bridge had no control or say. My mother wanted me to be with her, and she made it happen.

"And as I sat in Unit-01 I decided, I vowed, to use it as a sword to cut down anything that stood in my way. To make someone, anyone, suffer the way I was suffering.

"I'm sure you've seen it. Some kind of tower of energy rising from the ruins of NERV. When Unit-01 and I finally entered the battle. I wasn't angry. I was… resigned. To fight, one last time. To put my fears to rest, to make someone suffer. It was different from all the other times I had fought in the Evangelion. Before, I had been scared, or incensed, or reluctant. That time I was ready. Finally ready. To die, to kill, to do something. I didn't care anymore. I didn't care how it would end this time. In my victory, or my death, or the death of others by my hand. I didn't care. I just wanted it all to end.

"A part of me always suspected I'd die inside the entry plug. We, the pilots I mean, were nearly killed so many times. Every sortie was a risk. One wrong move and we'd die. After awhile it jaded us a little. Not completely, but enough to make stupid mistakes sometimes. And I guess when I reached the surface of the Geofront that day, I let go of all worries concerning myself. And it was like feeling that way was enough to make me act without any kind of hesitation. I would simply do what I needed to do and not care about the consequences. Even if I had to crush more people in my hands.

"And then I saw Asuka. Unit-02 was torn apart. Asuka was dead. She was dead."

He shut his eyes again. The motion was slow, almost serene. It was beautiful.

"A part of me couldn't believe it. Out of all of us, I always thought Asuka would be the last of us to die. I mean, sure, she was reckless sometimes, but she was so skilled. And seeing her failed and ruined… dead… a part of me died too. So I gave up.

"I gave up without a fight or a struggle, and… those things captured me. They climbed up into the clouds and all I could think about was how unfair it was for me. About my problems. My suffering. My tragic lot in life. I killed Ayanami. I killed Kaworu-kun. I killed Misato-san. And now I killed Asuka. I just sat in my plug and waited to join them."

He opened his eyes. The movement was fast and quick. Like an animal's.

"And then, like a sheet of mist rising from the earth, I saw…"

He paused only an instant.

"I saw Ayanami Rei. As an Angel, giant and white. I… at this point, I don't know. After Misato-san and Asuka died nothing felt real anymore. And this… this cemented the unreality for me.

"After the Sixteenth Angel, when Unit-00 self-destructed, Ritsuko-san, Dr. Akagi, she called me. To show me something, without anyone else knowing. I met with her in the depths of NERV, the place they called Terminal Dogma, but Misato-san was there too, waiting. To see all the secrets buried there.

"I saw a graveyard stretching far beyond my sight, of failed Evangelions. Hundreds of skulls and spines and arms. All just laying in the dark, piled on top of each other, like some kind of reminder or memento. She told me the Evangelions were humans. Humans without souls. That's why they needed the Children to make them move."

Mana clawed her hand over her lips to keep from throwing up. Evas were human? But he said they were clones of an Angel. What the hell did that make humans?

"She took us to a gray room," he was saying with detached finality, "where Ayanami was… created. Where the people who used her for her entire life planned her existence out for her.

"I saw the core of the Dummy Plug system. It was Ayanami. She was the core, the heart of it. In that chamber, it was Ayanami, a hundred times over. Dozens of Ayanami Reis, all suspended from life, floating behind a glass wall, like some grotesque diorama. Then Dr. Akagi killed all of them.

"Ayanami wasn't born, like a normal human being. She was made. From salvaged remains of my mother and material from the Angel crucified in Terminal Dogma below NERV. That was what Ayanami merged with somehow on the day of Third Impact, and became an Angel herself. To present me with the choice to save humanity, or slaughter it. She gave me my heart's desires… anything I wished, anything at all. Companionship, affection, sex, knowledge, eternity, closeness, intimacy, anything.

"And I chose to kill every single human being on the face of the earth. I chose to let Third Impact occur. I let it happen. I made it happen. I wanted it to happen."

Mana gaped at him in utter horror. This was too much. This was too much. It couldn't be true.

"I honestly don't know how it happened," Shinji said, "or what exactly took place during all of it. I was somewhere else. Between life and the other place. I… I'm fairly sure I saw things, or did things, but I can't really remember any of it. It just…" He shook his head briefly. "All I can recall clearly is that it all felt fake. So… I said no. Really, for the first time in my life. I said no, and meant it."

He didn't sound proud or glad. He sounded like he thought he should be proud or glad.

"But before that, while everyone on earth was abandoning their physical bodies at my command," Shinji said, "I saw Ayanami and Kaworu-kun. I talked to them. I tried to understand myself, and the decisions I had made. But everything I gleaned from them… I lost it when I chose to return. It's all like a dream I can't remember. The AT-Field, it traps us. Without it, we learn, we're free. Now, it's a prison. And now… now I don't know if it was the right choice anymore.

"Everyone has an AT-Field. It's the barrier that separates people from each other. It's as much a weapon that combated Angels as it is a weapon against ourselves. It hurts others as it hurts us. Without it, we're nothing.

"You had to have seen recordings of it. Of pools, lakes of LCL all around the world after and during Third Impact. I personally only saw what it was like in Tokyo-3, after I returned, but I can imagine what the rest of the world looked like, too.

"Did you ever wonder why there was so much? That is what humans are made of. It's what we are, freed from our egos. When I made the decision to 'complete' mankind, I forced every man, woman and child to leave their physical existence, and without their individual sense of self, their bodies could not maintain their form. And freed from physical form, we just… exist. We aren't separate anymore, we aren't unique. We just are. A single being without ends or definitions. Falsely real."

Mana had drawn her knees up and crushed them to her chest. Her hands were in her hair.

"Maybe an existence of peace and inhumanity was the better choice. There we don't have to feel anything. We just are. But that place… it isn't real. It's all fake. Just another escape. But I… I really don't know if it's any worse than this.

"I don't know if I was ever truly sure. But… this…" He gestured to the van they were in with a vague wave of his arm. The hand was limp and frail. "What's happening to us now, the military, the past ten years, everything… I can't live like this anymore, but I don't want to go back there, either. I just…"

His face quickly contorted once, like he had just been stabbed lightly.

"But now, while I'm here and alive, I can't keep lying to everyone who talks to me. I can't pretend to be a good little boy any longer. And I can't risk being used again for the Eva program, or another Impact.

"For a long time I thought Instrumentality was better. Even if it was a sea of nothing, even if I wasn't myself anymore, I thought it might be the lesser of two evils. But that was just a delusion, too. It was supposed to be a world without pain, but it isn't. It's a world of nothing. I don't want to go back to that. But I can't live here, either. I know humanity is sick and filthy, but to simply forget it, to forget everything we've all been through… it's wrong. What was the point of everything if we just end up disregarding it entirely?"

Mana's vision swam so she crushed her eyes into her knees. This was too much. LCL, AT-Fields, Impacts, Instrumentality, this… person sitting beside her so close she could feel his body heat…

"I've never told you this… I've never told anyone any of this."

He sounded utterly calm. She wanted to laugh. What the hell was wrong with him? Didn't he have any idea how fucking horrible everything he told her was? That he just ruined her? But he told her. Why the hell did he tell her, now of all times?

"You've had them, haven't you?" his voice floated down to her ears. "The dreams of an endless orange sea? Where you leave your physical self and become something else? They hurt, don't they?"

He waited until she nodded slightly, still facedown in her legs. Her nails dug into her scalp.

"They hurt so much because, even though that sea of orange is a peaceful place without definitions or boundaries, it works against the one thing humans have now that they didn't have inside it during the Impact. Individuality. The human mind cannot contain or fathom the sea. But it instinctively tries to. And it fails, every time. With your mind, your individuality, your ego, those things try to process everything, all the thoughts and memories and images the sea shows you, and it simply can't cope with it all. Your psyche gets broken to a degree, and as a result, it feels painful. It's literally your brain straining apart then getting picked to pieces while you wait and watch."

Mana shut her eyes to breathe. To try and focus on nothing but the air getting sucked down her throat and the pressure crawling through her teeth. Keep it slow, she told herself. Keep it steady. Do not let yourself pass out. Because you will still be here when you wake up. And so will he, and every horrible thing he's told you. You can't escape anymore.

"I have those dreams, too," Shinji said. "Only… I see more than other people. I see the sea, the collapsed human beings yet to return from it, but I see all of them. I see their dreams and thoughts in a show that takes me years to watch. Every time I shut my eyes to sleep at night this is what I dream."

dreams are reality. reality is an escape.

"Understand, it literally takes me years. Every night, again and again, over and over without end. It takes so long, and there are so many things to see they all become nothing but flashes of images and pain, and they all kind of blend together. All I can really distinguish is how long it takes.

"It was partly what let me achieve insanity all those years ago. I finally reached a level of pain that swallowed my fears completely, and I slit my wrists. As I was on the tile floor watching my life slip out of me, I saw Ayanami again. She didn't want me to die. I still don't know why. I… I don't think it was to hurt me. She was never like that. She just… didn't want me to die. This was the choice I made, the choice to run away and abandon her, and she wanted me to have it, no matter what. She just… wanted me to be happy. To try and be happy."

The blue pattern, Mana thought, almost completely outside herself at this point. Ayanami Rei really was one of those things.

"She cleared my mind," he said. "I could think again. I could act and remember. I could recognize this existence. It's painful and harsh and lonely. But it was what I thought I wanted. This, over the sea. This, the place of everything, over the sea, the place of nothing."

"That… that sea," she said heavily. The words dropped out of her mouth. Her insides emptied as she spoke them. "You've seen it. You know it. Is that really what happens when we die?"

"I'm not sure," he said.

It might have been a lie. His voice was too soft, too unsure.

"It might be," he admitted. "It might be just like the dreams. Those dreams let you see as much as the human mind can handle of that existence without breaking completely. But those dreams… the sea the Impact resulted in is a kind of dream, too. You're there, but you're not really there. You're not really you. The sense of self is lost entirely. Everyone is supposed to 'complement' each other, make mankind complete. To abolish fear and anxiety, pain and suffering. It does, but it also eliminates all other emotion, all other traces of humanity. It erases you. And to see all that, to be broken again and again every night, that is what I have earned.

"It's my punishment," Shinji said. "At least part of it. To pay for everything I did wrong in my life, all the people I disappointed, all the times I failed, everyone I killed, for creating this broken world, for forcing these dreams on every human being alive, for scattering all those who have yet to return. This is my punishment."

Mana jerked her face up to look at him. She wiped her wet forehead with a claw. She was nearly panting.

"Why are you telling me this?" she whispered to him. Her voice was a desperate whine. She thought she wanted this all along. For him to speak to her without restraint or his ever-present guard. But she didn't want him to tell her this. She wanted him to tell her he was a victim and an unfairly tortured soul. That he didn't deserve the pain he was forced to exist with, because she didn't deserve hers. Why did he have to murder the only desire she had left in this world?

"You need to understand. I am not the hero Kensuke says I am. And I am not the devil others say I am. But I'm not a person either. Even calling myself a beast is inaccurate. I'm less than all of that. There are no words to completely describe what I am.

"But I am weak, and selfish, and many other things, but above everything else I am liable. I have made truly horrendous choices, and I have done truly horrendous things, but what sets me apart from everyone else is that my decisions and deeds affected the entire human race. That is what Third Impact gave me. The ability to shape the world any way I wished. And I wished to destroy it all. And then like some pathetic little child, I changed my mind. Only this time, I don't get the chance to change my mind again. This time, when I returned, this time I cannot go back for another try.

"I'm no longer sure that was a good decision. I don't know if I was ever really sure. But at the time, I suppose it was what I wanted. I really don't know what would be better for humanity. But to force everyone into one or the other can't be right. We're supposed to have free will.

"But now… now I just…"

He shook his head in a manner befitting an accommodating man condemned to death. Or a reluctant executioner.

"I want to stop. To not exist anymore in any form. I know… I know this is what I deserve for what I did with my life. But I just can't take it anymore."

"Why are you telling me this?" she said again, almost frantically.

"I want to trust you."

He looked at her with something approaching respect, or at least acceptance. It was difficult to tell. He was fading from her vision. The van was slipping away into murky obscurity that crowded her sight and played with the image of him before her, twisting and changing it into something she did not want to see.

"I feel like you've seen enough of who I am to make an intelligent choice about anything I tell you," he said. "Not a right choice, or what I want. Just a good one."

He stared at her, and she stared at him. He was calm and unperturbed. She was terrified. His eyes eventually lost the hint of emotion that flickered in their depths a moment ago, quickly dulling into his usual dark hollow emptiness.

But he looked the same, she thought. He was still tall and lanky. His face was still long and narrow, his hair was messy and disorganized like it had always been. He looked exactly like the first time she ever saw him, and it upset her in a completely irrational way. He just confessed his life's sins, and he looked no different.

Why didn't he look contrite or remorseful? Why didn't he look sad? He was killing her. Why couldn't he show her his humanity for once? Just to step out of his mask one instant and be the person she knew he was supposed to be.

"I'm sorry," he said, and he sounded like he meant it, or wanted to mean it. "I'm forcing all of this on you. I know it isn't fair. But I truly want to trust you. I want to believe that you won't make a choice that hurts you. Someone needs to remember what happened, why it happened, how it happened. We can't just forget everyone who died and suffered. We can't forget the truth, and the pain everyone went through either. Even though it's dangerous, that alone doesn't justify turning our backs on it all. Mankind does not deserve to be forgotten."

Why the hell not? Mana forced a sob down her throat using all the will power and abilities to adapt to trauma instilled in her by her upbringing.

People were awful. They hated and killed each other, and themselves. What was so worth remembering? Why did she have to remember?

That was his reason? To just remember a bunch of crazy dead people she never even met? Why couldn't he? God, someone, something, anything, just make him keep it all to himself. Make him take it all back and return to playing the martyr, the person she could pretend to know how to deal with.

So he wanted to die. What made him so special? He said he deserved this, and now he wanted to run away from it? Why did she ever believe he had grown out of being a child?

He'd already tried to escape once, and failed. Doomed to life, even after slashing his wrists. The blood remained inside him. Was he even human anymore? Was he ever?

"Misato told me one more thing," Shinji whispered. It wasn't to give importance to his words, or make her feel privileged to receive what he was about to impart. It was a vain attempt to let her avoid hearing it, even though his own voice was filled with desperate surrender. "There is one last Angel. Mankind was created in a god's image. And the god that made mankind was Lilith. Human beings were born from the Second Angel. Human beings are the Eighteenth Angel."

"Stop it," Mana whimpered. She covered her face and started rocking back and forth. "Stop it. Stop it. Stop it, please."

I'm killing her. What's one more?

"I don't want you thinking you knew me or what happened, or thinking I helped anyone so you can help others. Someone… once told me there are as many truths as there are people, but only one truth that is yours. That's right, but my truth affects everyone else's.

"I cannot be out in the open like this. I can't live safely outside of a cage. Someone will just force me to make another bad decision someday. What I did in Tokyo-2 is proof enough. The only thing I've ever been able to do is hurt people. Since I was a child, the only way I've been able to sustain my life is by taking everyone else's."

like right now.

"But you're not like me. You're a good person. You should live. Even if this life hurts, as… as long as you're alive you have a chance at happiness. That's what you should have, even just the chance. I don't merit that, but you do. And if a good person knows all of this, they won't use it to hurt others like I did.

"Even when I'm dead and buried, or used to do terrible things and driven mad again, someone has to remember. That's why I told you."

Misato made him remember, and she made him live. That was the right thing for her to do, right? She believed that, so he had to as well. Even if she died for it, she did the right thing. And what he was doing now, he needed to believe it was right, too. The first thing he had ever done that was right.

He knew she shouldn't die. He was the only one to claim that fate. And while he had lived with this knowledge poorly, he had still lived. But she was a stronger person than he was. She was. She wouldn't be shattered by this the same way he had been.

Guilt was nothing new. He had lived with it for too many lifetimes. Even so

I'm sorry Ayanami, Kaworu, Asuka, father, mother. I'm sorry, Misato, everyone, Mana…

"I'm sorry." For hurting you, for killing you, for being what I am. "I'm sorry."

I can't live, not after all of that.

"Sorry," Mana spat out. "That's all you can say? You're sorry? If you're looking for forgiveness—" She jammed her eyes shut to make him disappear. "God. I… I can't have this. I can't… live with this. I don't want to live with—"

For the first time in her life it dawned on her that she really didn't want to die. Even with this knowledge that crushed and scattered the entirety of her heart, she wasn't ready. Not now that she knew what awaited her. Before, even if it had been unknowable and incomprehensible, existence after death was merely unknown. Scary sometimes, but she knew when she was old and gray she would accept it because it was inevitable and nothing but the final part of life. But now, faced with this strange, weird, horrible manmade sea of nothing filled her with complete terror. If that was all that awaited everyone, everything people said and did was pointless. If that was what waited, then

"Then…" Mana gave a short demented scoff, a sound to sum up her confusion and panic and faltering grasp on reality. "Then what's the point? Of life, of existence? After everything you told me, what is the point?"

He turned his head away further from her, like he was ashamed for what he was about to say, about to further destroy for her. She couldn't see his face anymore.

"There is no point," Shinji said. His voice was quicker now, certain and definite. "There is no meaning to life. There is no God watching out for us. Nothing matters. The only thing that has any kind of worth is how desperately people cling to living, and the memory of those that came before. Forgetting people is the same as killing them. All we can do is remember the dead, and try to make their sacrifices less meaningless. Because the most likely thing waiting for us after death is a blank endless sea of nonentities I created out of my stupidity and perversion and immaturity and utter idiocy. That is all." He shut his eyes. "This is all we get. There is no greater meaning. There is no point."

The van drove on.

The van stopped.

It wasn't like the other times they stopped. The wheels screeched and shrieked, and undoubtedly shed most of their skin over the jagged road. They heard other cars stop the same way, and soon people were shouting, loud words that sounded like weapon fire. Feet pounded the asphalt. The two in the van did not react at all.

Shinji and Mana had not spoken for nearly ten minutes. It still wasn't enough time to assimilate everything he related to her. For the last time it shattered her perception of him. Not just his actions, but the fact he gave so much so freely. Why had he done it?

He told her he trusted her. But her gut didn't believe that. Did he merely need someone to confess to? Was she just the most readily available ear he had? His new last resort? His new Asuka? He told her before he had nothing but knowledge, and that it made him incredibly dangerous. Did he somehow think she would be different? Or didn't he care anymore? Like he said before, to make someone suffer as much as he was?

She didn't want to believe that, to believe him. She really didn't want to believe him.

He hinted at parts of this in their earlier interviews, but being explicitly told was an impossible weight. He had burdened her. Why the hell couldn't he keep it to himself? Why did he have to drag her down into this too? Let him remember by himself. She didn't want this. Why did he have to hurt her like this?

The van door tore open. There was a man there, stocky and broad, with a stubbly face and tiny eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, order something, and suddenly dove to the side as half of his face exploded in a clap of red after a bullet buried itself inside him above his temple. He landed on the street with a hollow plop.

Mana grabbed Shinji's hand. She did not think about blue patterns or AT-Fields or Evangelions or human Angels or his choice to kill her world and her mind and what was left of her soul. She tried hard, to force all of that down below her emotions and desires like she was taught, and only thought of him. The person she wanted to meet, the person she wanted him to be.

He was a person, she told herself. He was still a person.

"Shinji-san," she said, stealing every authoritative inflection she had been subjected to in her life to command him to obey her demands. "Follow me." Obey me.

He obeyed.

They left the van. There were people to their right and left, shooting and shouting at each other, pointing weapons and hate and taking lives, just like everyone else. The people who called themselves rescuers and heroes and loved Ikari Shinji fought with the zeal worship gave humans, but they were opposing trained professionals without attachment and a death-hardened sense of life within the grip of combat. They would win eventually, because they had to. They did not want to do this, they merely had to.

Mana pulled Shinji behind her like a toddler. There were cultists shielding them from the military forces, allowing them a nearly unobstructed path out of the kill zone. They were all caught within the lust for the divine, and could not notice them.

The dirty men and women wielded guns like children with sticks on a playground, the place that always trumped taught morality for impulsive emotion. They were using the vans and cars they had been traveling in as cover, but ardor born of adoration can only postpone death for so long in the face of superior power. They would not win. Mana had to get Shinji out of this place, because he could not die here. He could not die because—

She saw a slim young woman on the ground, sprawled like a model trying to make her death look stylish. Her short black hair was mixed with red.

Mana didn't see Aida. Either he was dead, had run away, or was captured. There was too much chaos to see everything clearly. Despite her steady military eye, she could not catalogue the entire scene. She didn't want to. Just this morning she had admitted to herself that she could see the logic and emotion in trying to free Shinji. And now that he was out of the protective grasp of the military he was

He was still… what was he now? To her? He had just crushed her life's beliefs and work. But he did it using nothing but truth. Or, the truth as he perceived it. She was commanded, a lifetime ago, that truth was subjective. What was fact for one person may be a lie to another. It became clear enough after all the survivors she listened to.

But just like he said, his truth affected everyone else. He affected everyone else. His choices. Or rather, his choice. To end the world.

He was a person. He was still a person. People are fallible. They make mistakes, just like he said. Mistakes are a fundamental part of being human. It was just the way things were. No matter how horrible those mistakes were. He made mistakes and learned about himself from them. Because he was a human.

This was all a weak excuse. A way to try and deny everything he told her. Any way.

She didn't want to hate him. Even for what he'd done to her, and the world, and himself. She just wanted to hold onto him, the Ikari Shinji who fought and bled and smiled and said he was sorry and meant it. Not the thing that hurt her. That thing that was so deserving of its wish to die.

But he had to live. Despite everything else, even his own feelings. Because if he was alive, he could take it all back. He could say it was a lie or a bad joke and she could like him again. She wouldn't have to hate him.

She was still holding his hand. It was warm and soft. Not the hand of someone who killed three billion people. It was a human hand, full of bone and muscle and blood and soul. It was human.

They ran. The streets were deserted, despite the gun fight crackling against the buildings at their backs. The army must have evacuated everyone. They knew the cult, Shinji, was coming this way.

She looked back. Agents had pushed past the faltering cultists, and were pursuing her. They were ordering her to stop. Mana kept running.

She shook her head clear of everything except the functions needed to run. She no longer thought about anything at all. She acted.

She could not stop to think if this was treason or desertion, or just a simple rebellion. This action began as soon as she heard he was a prisoner, as soon as she saw his face in the doorway of that cage, as soon as she listened to his voice and made the words that crawled out conform to what she wanted him to be for her. Because he was human, he was like her, he was what she always wanted him to be. He had to be. If he wasn't, it would be the same as if he was dead. And it would be like she was dead too.

The gunshot was surprisingly loud. It seemed to echo over the entire street and up into the sky. It filled everything for a long moment, then faded to a buzzing memory in her ears. Mana ducked by instinct. After a breath kneeling on the ground and realizing she wasn't hit, she continued running. She stopped when she did not feel Shinji's hand in her own any longer, when his feet were not sounding behind her. She turned around.

He was standing on the side of the road, his brow scrunched up in confusion. He took a step, and staggered, nearly falling down. Mana scanned his body, and quickly found a dark stain spreading over his chest. The earth tilted crazily under her feet.

Shinji blinked slow and hard, then his legs gave out. He collapsed to his knees. He still appeared confused. He hesitantly touched his chest, and the hand came away wet.

He looked up. He couldn't see Mana anymore. He couldn't see the street, or the buildings, or the sky. His body was expanding, the nerve endings growing and drawing away from one another until he could feel the entire world. But his vision narrowed, like a tunnel, and all he could see through a thin veiled gauze of sparkling white red was

"Ayanami," he whispered.

She stood far away from him, but she was all he could see. She wasn't smiling, that smile she gave only him. And she wasn't frowning.

But her eyes. They were his mother's eyes. Filled with longing, and sympathy, and regret, and lamentation over his choices and decisions. But beyond that, behind that, there was a thing he had no pleasurable experience with in this world. She looked at him, and he was loved.

He finally found it. He finally had it in the real world. And now

He was going to die because

This time it was not his hand. It was not his choice. This time she could not save him. This time

you will be hurt again.

that's okay.

"I don't… just don't send me back—"

Thank you.

He fell. His face impacted the pavement with an empty crack. He did not move.


Sound slipped past Mana's lips in an awful breath of concluded hopes.

She ran back to him. She ignored the agents chasing them, she ignored the cultists in the final throes of disobedience, all still trying to shout and kill. The rest of the world dissolved until all she could see was Shinji, lying motionless on the ground.

She reached him. She nearly tripped over him. She kneeled next to him and quickly turned him over. His entire chest was wet. His face was distorted by a crushed nose and small scrapes. His eyes were open. His mouth was open.

"Please, please, please."

She stabbed her index and middle fingers into his soft throat. She jammed them up under his sharp jaw, and tried to stop them from shaking.

"Please please please."

Agents were all but circling her now. They were running. Mana could not find his pulse.

"Please please please please please."

She pressed her tiny hands on his chest. It was hard, all bone, no meat at all. It was still warm. Blood seeped up between her fingers. Some had reached the asphalt beside her. She kept pushing down, to force it back inside. There was too much out of him. Too much to—

He's human, she told herself. He was bleeding to death on a street right under her. He was still human.

He's still a human! He's still a human!!

I don't want to die!!

"Please please please please please please please please!"

He was ripped away from her. She felt hands on her arms, lifting her up, tearing her from the man spilling red at her feet. She struggled, she tried to resist, but there were a lot of hands, and they were stronger than she was. They pulled harder.

The only thing they let her do was stare at him. The agents towed her away, back to the scene of the dead battle, taking her from him.

Eventually she couldn't see him at all. Guards surrounded him, some bent to do something to him, some just standing. But they didn't let her see him. He was gone.

She closed her eyes. There was darkness. It wouldn't matter anymore. She closed everything. There was silence.

The world closed and there was nothing.

The cell door opened. From a brief moment the hall beyond was visible, sterile and white, and two armed guards posted on either side of the door. A man entered, middle-aged, medium height and build, slightly balding, thick glasses. He was clad in a simple button-up and slacks, and held a briefcase and a series of folders in either hand. He smiled as the door shut and locked behind him.

He made his way to the table in the center of the square room. It was metal, but the top was fashioned into a faux wood panel, to give the illusion of comfort and consolation. The rest of the room was clean and bare, only a small toilet and sink, a narrow bed, and a fuzzy fluorescent embedded in the ceiling.

"Hello," the man said. "I'm Dr. Hirasawa. I'm here to talk to you today, alright?" He pulled a chair out from the table and sat. He pushed himself in, placed the briefcase on the floor, and the folders he was carrying before him. "How are you feeling today?"

"Don't ask me that unless you want a real answer," Mana said, shackled to the table. Her hair was unkempt, her eyes sunken and dark. Her lips were split, and freely hung in a perpetual downward arch. It had only been two days since the day on the street by her count, but it felt like years. They hadn't even let her take a shower yet. Her hands still reeked of blood.

"Yes, I'd like a real answer," the man said earnestly. Too earnestly. He was trained to put others at ease to gather information, just like she was. She knew the tricks of the trade. She was a part of it for years.

"How the hell do you think I feel? I've been locked up by the military I served for my entire life because I tried to give a broken man a shred of relief and hope before he died. He was killed by the military I served for my entire life, which also locked him up for nearly a decade like some criminal. He was berated and tortured everyday for no real reason except to cushion the desires and fears of those in power who wanted more power. Yeah, I was part of the system that hounded him, but I had the monumental gall to believe I was really trying to help him. I wasn't. I was helping myself smooth over a past full of regret and shame and to try and put it all behind me. I worked to facilitate my own hang-ups and imagined accountabilities like some little child begging for daddy's forgiveness. All I ever did was relieve myself. My problems. My worries. My anxieties. My suffering. That's all I ever cared about. I was a terrible doctor. Everyone single person I ever interviewed I kept at arm's length. I never felt any genuine empathy or compassion. All I had was an artificial shell that smiled and nodded and put up the front that I had worked so long to perfect. All my friends, my colleagues, my family, the people I'm supposed to care about, all of it's a lie. I didn't care. I put on a happy face, a smile to fool them into thinking I give a shit about them and their problems but I never did. If I never let myself feel anything but superficial bonds, I'll never get hurt. It's selfish, and cowardly, but I don't care. I never let myself feel anything at all. It's the safest way to live in this world. Because it can all get torn away in a heartbeat, again. And if I had succeeded in stealing Shinji-san's memory and soul it very well could end, forever this time. But he's dead now. He's dead and all his thoughts and emotions and experiences are gone forever, and I'm in a prison cell being interviewed by a man who's only after anything he might have told me to take back to his masters for a little praise, while they can try and implement that knowledge to build more Evas, or resurrect the technology of NERV, or cause another Impact, or dominate the earth, or something else that will inevitably cost more lives, and the only reason will be because those in power want nothing but more power.

"So please, don't ask me how I'm feeling."

Dr. Hirasawa took her entire dialogue in stride. He made a brief note, then fixed her with a polite face, waiting for her to continue if she wished. He kept waiting. Finally Mana bit.

"Why are you really here?" she asked, her voice low and dangerous.

"The military is concerned about what happened to you over the course of your investigation with Ikari, and your kidnapping with him, as well as your actions when he was killed. Dependability has become a very serious issue, I'm afraid."

"So they don't trust me anymore."

"They're just troubled with your recent behavior. That, and Mr. Aida's testimony has also raised questions regarding your conduct and motivations."

"Aida's alive? He talked to you?" she asked, in restrained disbelief. Both that he wasn't killed in the battle, and had actually spoken to anyone. There was no way, not after everything he told her, and how much he hated the military. She waited for a response. Hirasawa just stared at her.

"I'm here," he said after a pause, "to try and answer some of the military's questions. Your cooperation will be both greatly appreciated, and a first step at restoring your credibility." He stopped, to let her say more, and she did not. "Shall we begin?"

Mana's eyes fell on her shackled hands.

"Fire away," she muttered.

He briefly checked over something in the file before him.

"You were part of the aborted Trident Project, correct?" He didn't receive a response, and decided he didn't need one. "You were trained to be its pilot. And to approach Ikari, right?" Again, no answer. "How did you feel when you first heard you would be interviewing him?" Silence. "I can wait all day, if you wish."

"I was excited," Mana said, looking away from him. "I felt like a teenager again. I'd always wanted to meet him and the other pilots, ever since I heard about them. I was supposed to become their friend. To do anything it took to achieve that objective." She snorted something out that almost sounded like a laugh. "They told me I should fuck Shinji if it helped the mission. Whatever it took."

you like him, don't you?

"Did you want to?" he asked.

i can tell

"I was fourteen," she said, trying to keep the bubbling fury from exploding out of her mouth. "What kind of question is that?"

"An honest one."

He patiently waited, for a response, or an attack. He sat, and his face was placid. Like the inquiry had been inevitable. Mana glanced off towards the door, and kept a tight leash around her emotions.

"My wants never figured into any scenario my commanders gave me."

"They're not unimportant."

"No, they just don't matter," she stated through her teeth.

He waited for her to continue, or look back at him, and she did not. He straightened the folders in front of him.

"What happened back there?" Mana asked after a sustained moment. "How did you find us?" She was proud she kept her voice from wavering. "Why was he shot?"

Hirasawa hesitated, debating something with himself. At length, he decided to tell her. She watched him die, she knew him better than probably anyone alive. And it wouldn't hurt.

"I was briefed," he said, "and the commanders credited an anonymous informant to the likely path Ikari was traveling on. The army had placed a few agents in several cult sects years ago, but this wasn't one of ours. As to exactly who it was, they did not see it as vital to my own investigation to let me know.

"Regarding the shooting, it was never the objective or the intent the military held. As I understand it, some of the cultists began to struggle and fight back against the soldiers who captured them. They were forced to defend themselves, and a stray shot must have hit Ikari. It's hardly an excuse, but it's all I can offer you."

"That is a pretty shitty excuse."

"It's all I can offer you."

"Bet they're pissed," she said, all but mocking the man across from her. "Their fount of information just dried up. Pity. Guess you're all going to have to do your homework now, instead of beating the answers out of the smart student, huh?"

Hirasawa watched her, as her face gradually collapsed from derision to emptiness. He allowed her little jab to pass, and moved on.

"You were briefed on Ikari in some depth when you were a teenager, correct?"

"I was briefed on all of the pilots."

"Well, yes, I imagine. But Ikari was your main objective, correct?"

"Yeah," Mana answered absently.

"What was your impression of him?"

She quickly decided questioning the relevance of this line of interrogation was a waste of both their time. Not that time was something she was in short supply of anymore. She just wanted this man to leave so she could get back to feeling sorry for herself.

"I only had pictures and reports of his behavior," she said. "If he had been anyone else, if he hadn't been a pilot, I never would have given him a second glance. He wasn't the cutest, or the smartest, or the toughest, or the coolest guy I'd ever run into, and the whole shy and timid thing didn't do it for me. But he was a pilot. He was a pilot who brutalized his opponents. It was something I hadn't seen in the career soldiers that had been around me my entire life. He was so quick to feel things, he didn't try to restrain himself at all. He wasn't trained to. Even if he put on a bashful face, he had something else inside him. Something that tore apart Angels and did whatever else he felt like. Something that let him feel anything he felt freely. That was the boy I wanted to meet."

The boy that made me finger myself at night, she thought in utter disgust.

"And now?" Hirasawa asked. "How did you react to actually encountering him in person?"

"It's easier to see the person that crushed the things that threatened him when he was backed into a corner as opposed to the little boy who wanted friends. With everything that happened to him, I guess it was inevitable that he lost the whole shy kid routine. He still has a lot of unresolved, excuse me, irresolvable anger issues. I don't blame him. He's cold and distant, and uses his intellect and the intimidation that goes with being who he is to keep people away from him. Everyone who he's ever been close to has died, betrayed him, or lost their mind. He's just looking for the easiest way to keep himself safe, from himself and others. He's—"

"You're speaking like he's still alive," Dr. Hirasawa said gently.

"… yeah, I guess I am." Mana hadn't even realized that. Her jaw clenched. "He's really dead." She had said it, thought it, but didn't want to believe it. Now she had to. Her eyes met the man's. They confirmed it.

"So, you felt an emotional attachment to him," he stated, more than asked. "Even though it's something your commanders all but forbade."

"I was never very good at this job, and the face I usually wore, the whole 'I'm here and comforting, but we both know I don't really give a shit' thing wouldn't work on him. I realized that pretty quickly. So, I let myself start to feel. Experience him, who he i— was. It was probably the stupidest thing I could have done, but I didn't care. At first, I told myself it was just to gain his trust, get him to talk. But… I mean, I've been alone for most of my life. The military basically raised me, and discouraged serious relationships, both because of what I was trained for, and to keep me under control. I could put up a pretty convincing flirty mask, but it was entirely fake.

"But Shinji-san… I guess I started drawing parallels between his life and mine. Like we were kindred spirits or something idiotic like that. I wanted to believe I found someone else in this shitty world who was like me, who could understand what I felt. He'd been through so much, more than me, and I thought, I don't know, maybe he'd sympathize with me since we've both had crappy lives. I just… I wanted someone to relate to who didn't have the kind of discipline that was forced on me. I… I wanted someone to feel sorry for me, who didn't know me.

"And… I liked him. He was… a part of me was actually excited to be kidnapped with him. That maybe Aida and the other cultists would let us stay with each other, and talk, but this time it would be free of the underlining fact of all our previous time together, of me stealing information from him. Like we could be real people around each other. And just… just talk."

"Was that why you tried to run away?"

"I know it was completely against orders and against common sense, but… I couldn't help it. I wasn't thinking. And I was getting sick of the military's blind obedience to the idiots who were using Shinji-san. I started feeling sorry for him, not just for what he went through when he was younger, but because… I just… I wasn't thinking. I don't know why I did it. I should have realized we wouldn't get anywhere. I just…"

Her mouth worked for several moments, unable to form anything.

"I just wanted to help him," Mana finally said.

"Did you love him?"

"I didn't even know him."

"I'm not so sure about that," Hirasawa said in a skeptical tone of voice. "You were interviewing him for nearly three months. And the contact the two of you had was probably very intimate. Very serious. You were questioning him about the Evangelion program and NERV, correct?"

"Yes. But he always kept himself at a distance." Mana lied, keeping his final confession to herself without any difficulty. She was trained as a spy, after all. "He realized if he told people they'd just employ what he knew again. The Evangelion was more than just a weapon to combat the Angels."


"Don't play dumb," she grumbled. "You wouldn't be here interrogating me if you didn't know about Project E and NERV. Just like I was briefed before I started my investigation."

"I'm sure you know more than I do."

"I only know what I've been told."

"Hmm." Dr. Hirasawa rifled through his folders again, then pushed them to the side of the table. He glanced down at Mana's cuffed wrists, then sighed through his nose. "You've been a part of the military for most of your life. And your involvement with the Trident Project is well documented. What I'm getting at is this: you know the system. You know the military's goals, what they're trying to do. They kept Ikari Shinji for so long not out of any kind of revenge or retribution, but to keep him and the information he had under control. The Evangelions gave NERV and its commanders incredible power and influence. Even the people who directed the attack on Tokyo-3 and deployed the mass produced series had authority over the JSSDF. The military was keeping him and the knowledge he held safe from malevolent groups looking to misuse what he knew.

"And you're right. I was briefed. I've seen recordings of the battles, I've seen discs taken the day of Third Impact. But I'm in the dark about what really happened. I can guess, but its baseless posturing. And the knowledge behind it, the reason it happened and the cause, I don't know that either. No one does. But we're trying to find all that out to prevent anything like it from happening again. No one wants to live through another Impact, or the hell that follows one. I've lived through two, Dr. Kirishima, and I can say without any doubt we do not want another. It's why I joined the JSSDF. To try and prevent that tragedy from occurring again."

He leaned forward across the table, his eyes shining with sincerity behind his glasses.

"Do you honestly believe the military or its leaders would employ anything they learned from Ikari maliciously or with intent to harm any human being?"

"… I don't know anymore," Mana whispered at her hands.

Hirasawa sat back.

"I do know," he said. "Yes, the Evangelion units were powerful. Beyond anything the military has, or will probably ever have. But using power without conscience makes us no different than some beast out in the wild. You cannot tell me the military has no conscience."

"I don't know anymore," she said again. Her voice was tight.

"I have trouble believing you can just forget about everything you've lived through in the military. Yes, their methods may be dubious, or directed by others, but their heart is never bent on evil. They're doing their job. And as sad as it may sound, it's a necessary job. But even if the politicians and governing bodies that command them are corrupt, the people who are chained to their bidding aren't.

"And even if those in power within this country, or the UN do find out everything there is to know about the Evangelion program, I can assure you without any uncertainty that no one will ever, ever let those things be used for evil again. I swear. If worst came to worst, the rest of the world wouldn't let them.

"Is that the reason Ikari never talked? Because he was afraid of what people would do with knowledge of the Evangelion program? Or did he truly not know?"

"I don't know."

She was trying hard… she was trying so hard not to cry. She hadn't cried when Shinji was shot, or when her efforts to save him failed. She hadn't cried when she knew he was dead. And she didn't want to cry now, not for some lowly son of a bitch interrogator who was just fucking saying words to her.

But her sight was already blurry. Just like after her second interview with Shinji. And that time, like this time, was for nothing but herself. She wanted to cry for someone else for once. If she did it would be okay for her to do it. But it never was. It was always for herself.

She hated being this weak. Weak people were useless in this world. And she was not weak. She didn't think she was weak. She would not start now. She kept her lips and teeth crushed against each other. Not now. Not now.

"Dr. Kirishima, if you know something it will not do you any good to keep it hidden. Ikari must have, and you know firsthand nothing good came of it. Don't make this any harder for yourself than it already is."

She did not respond. He decided on another approach.

"Do you think this is what he would have wanted, for you to keep yourself cut off like this? To keep everything silent? You said you started to feel sorry for him. It's clear you cared about him. And judging on the reports from past doctors who interviewed him, it's clear he must have cared about you, too. I cannot imagine this, you keeping yourself locked up, was what he wanted for you.

"I thought you knew him enough to see that."

"I never knew him," Mana bit out.

That hiccup of speech was all the tears needed. It started as a single droplet of water slipping down her face and falling into her lap. Then another, then two more, then more and more until her eyes were nothing but liquid streaming over her cheeks. And she cried.

She cried like when her mother died, like when her father died, like when the rest of the world died. But it wasn't for their deaths, it was for her own loss when they left her. For so long she had kept no real ties to other people simply because when they ended they would be too sad. All her friends, Musashi, Asari, all the people in her office, in the military, in the city, the people she interviewed, everyone. They would all die or leave or disappear and Mana would be alone again before she knew it and she would cry for herself again before she knew it.

So she isolated herself. It was lonely, but it was safe. Her heart was gradually forgotten, nothing but a wispy memory of another self, and she lived in a harmless static state of existence. But Shinji…

She tried not to be concerned. She tried not to care beyond the requirements of the mission. But her past, her aborted intimacy with him, and the actual contact, along with a lifetime of loneliness and purposeful seclusion… she liked him. Despite his depression and darkness. Despite the situation and her orders. She liked him, because she thought she could see past his shadows. He was like her. She wanted to believe he was like her. She needed to. And she was wrong.

He wasn't like her. He wasn't like anyone else on earth. He carried impossible guilt and shame, and had no hope for ever rising above them. He suffered unthinkable torture every day and every night. It was no small miracle he hadn't been driven insane again.

But beyond all that, she honestly didn't know if he was a good person anymore. Before their last interview she reread all the reports and files on him from 2015 that she had pored over so many times again and again, about how shy and sweet and bashful and caring and gentle and cute he was… but she also knew about the animal that tore apart Angels and left friends to die and gave into selfish self-pity.

And now, the thing that cast the world into Third Impact.

A beast, he once called himself.

Using power without conscience makes us no different than some beast out in the wild.

That was what Shinji had. He had power unto a God, and he had no conscience. He lost it somewhere along the way. Maybe hurting all those people, or killing the final Angel, or taking responsibility for his friends' deaths… he didn't have any sense of right and wrong and he used the power given to him to make everyone else suffer as much as he did. He forced the entire world into the Impact.

Who was he? What was he? All the perceptions and beliefs she had crafted about him were false. None of them were true. They were nothing but self-absorbed fantasies to make him into her ideal, her vision of Ikari Shinji she had carried inside her for over a decade. It was all a reflection of her wants, her dreams, her desires and needs for something in this world that wasn't dirty and twisted and ruined. Something she could believe in, to make her forget her own selfishness and weakness and failings. Anything.

Anything. And now there was nothing. He was dead and she was in prison and nothing would ever change either of those realities. Even if she relented and divulged everything he told her, the higher-ups would never let her see daylight again. She was a resource now, not a person. Just another source of information, a book to be forced open and stole from. She was trapped. Imprisoned. Would they keep her here? In this tiny room? Would they send new doctors every few weeks when the old ones failed?

Would they put her in a safe house outside the city caged in barbwire and surrounded by guards and wait until she cut open her wrists?

Her tears collected on the table by her chained hands. Dr. Hirasawa did not try to stop her, or ease her. He simply observed passively from his chair. Mana still cried.

She didn't know Shinji. She didn't know anyone. No one knew her. No one knew anyone. It was nothing but self-delusion and pathetic longing. A desperate desire to not feel so utterly alone.

But that's all people were. Alone. There were… walls around a heart, that no language, no actions, no thing could ever breach. Even what Shinji told her in the van, it sounded like he was reciting lines from a play. Emotion was there, but it was directed. Like that was how he felt he should feel with the words he spoke. There was still that unseen, unbreakable barrier between them. The same barrier that existed between all people.

She would never know who he truly was.

Because he was finally dead now, the one wish he had left, and she, no one, no one ever knew who he was. No one ever knew him.

I Knew Him When


Author notes: it's like, physically impossible for me to write a happy ending. Or a good one. Ha ha ha. Or a short one. Christ. This broke 49 pages and 22,000 words. Entirely too long. My pretension knows no limits.

Hmm. The opening makes Asuka a little more manic than she was in chapter 4. She kinda fades in and out, I guess. Honestly, my perception of her character in this evolved (or devolved, take your pick) since chapter 4. At first she was just looking for acceptance. She still kinda is, but with a whole new fucked up undercurrent. Well, I've always enjoyed the plot bunny of people being scared of Shinji. Expect to see it again sometime.

So, so many unresolved issues. Oh well. I did promise I'd clear them all up, but my promises are worthless. Remember that. I also said I'd do an epilogue which would explain most of the loose ends in a very boring, straightforward way: the oh so convenient "anonymous informant," the deal with the dreams, who hired Kensuke, etc, etc. I've started to debate the wisdom of it. I kinda like this end.

MidnightCereal gave me some good advice: "When the story's over… it's over."

So take that, resolution and closure. This was never a happy story to begin with, and this ending was just the plot coming full circle. Mana lost her idealism and hope, just like Shinji. She's a prisoner being drilled for information that only she knows, just like Shinji. Blah blah blah. This may not have an apocalyptic battle or the destruction of humanity, but it's still the end of a world. Lame.

And yeah, Mana was more or less nothing but a receptacle in this chapter, hell, in this whole story, but guess what? I don't give a fuck. Besides, what fun would it be if she was all cool and okay with everything Shinji told her? Melodrama, away! And I know his reasoning was convoluted, but come on. Shinji is a selfish person. Utterly destroying the hero image. Eat it, fandom. Eat it all.

Aaaaaand, I'm pretty sure everyone predicted Shinji dying. You had to. If you were shocked, I wasn't doing my job. Partly to finally shut Shinji up after all his bitching and self-deprecation from the past five chapters, partly to drive home the whole "Mana becoming Shinji" crap theme by trying to parallel EoE, I just wanted to end on a sour note. Just trying to communicate the inevitability of the end. And I tried to make his death as lame as possible. Purposefully disappointing. Nobody in this was particularly heroic or noble, so a flashy death would be weird. Besides, a mech pilot getting killed by a stray bullet? Hilarious. I mean, fuck, what did you expect? Him diving in front of Mana to save her life? Pfft. Please. I try to keep from being that clichéd.

Meh. Want the epilogue? Someday.

Thanks for reading.

OMAKE digest of chapter 10

Asuka's fucking crazy. Kensuke's fucking crazy. Mana's deluded. Shinji's the worst kind of suicidal: the kind where you can't actually kill yourself. Also, he's the worst kind of storyteller: the kind who is consumed with himself and can't let go of the past and is needlessly lengthy. I can't write action. Rei's creepy. Still. Bang, Shinji's dead. Mana's a prison bitch. I laugh. The end.

Epilogue preview: Shinji is resurrected by magic! Asuka earns a position teaching fifth grade boys! Kensuke dies from autoerotic asphyxiation! Kensuke is resurrected by magic! Mana is pardoned and marries Shinji and they both forget their lives of horrific abuse and pain and have twins and live happily ever after until (dun dun dun) demons from outer space attack earth (oh no!) and Shinji has to pilot the newly built Eva Unit-#1SuperAssKicker and save the world!! Plus, a disturbing and pointless sex scene spawned from my attempts to be artistically cathartic. Par for the course. Then, the end. For real. I want to move on to a new fic that I'll inevitably get sick of after five chapters, like all the rest. See you then.