Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion or anything associated with it. I'm writing this story simply because I enjoy writing.

Chapter 26: The Stakes Are Raised

As Toji sat in one of the examining rooms within NERV Medical, he couldn't help but glance about the room nervously, twiddling his fingers and making other gestures of impatience. Anything he could do to physically busy himself as he and his father waited for Ritsuko to return.

Anything to keep from thinking of the ugly realities that he had discovered that day. Thinking of the bio-mechanical titan that they had resurrected...and the circumstances that made doing so necessary.

Me...piloting again... Toji thought warily, trying to ignore the way his insides were knotting themselves up at the simple thought of it all. Thinking of how he had first become involved with NERV. Of how much simpler things had been back then.

When a NERV representative had broached the offer, it had seemed like a no-brainer to Toji. If he chose to become a pilot, he would not only bring in better money for his family, but his sister would be transferred to NERV Medical, and would receive the best medical care available. A chance to be able to walk again. And considering that the alternative was to do nothing and let Rika be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, in Toji's eye, that was no choice at all.

He had been wary, of course. Toji was painfully aware that the war with the Angels was deadly serious. If the accident that had resulted in Rika's hospitalization had taught him anything, it was that war was an ugly, deadly business, no matter what Kensuke and his fellow otakus might claim. So while the jock had been as quick to watch the battles and cheer on the Evas and their pilots as the next guy, he knew that victory wasn't guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination, and even if the day was won, that victory could well carry a heavy price. But at the same time, he had seen a couple of the Angels that had marched upon Tokyo-3, had talked to Shinji about the battles and heard Asuka's boasts, and while he knew that the life of an Eva pilot would be dangerous, he had come to the conclusion that it would ultimately be nothing that couldn't be handled.

At that time, he had had a confidence that was born partly of ignorance. But Toji was no longer ignorant. He knew as never before just how dangerous things could and would be for him as a designated Child. And as much as he hated to admit it, he couldn't help but feel a chill of fear creeping through him as he thought about what he was getting himself into again. The fears he had felt when Ritsuko had escorted him to see the rebuilt Unit 03 still with him, even more prominent than before. And as those fears poisoned his thoughts, he couldn't help but thinking of what was to come. The battles he knew he would have to fight, battles that could...

No! Dammit, no! Toji grimaced as he clenched his fists, wishing he could take these errant thoughts and rip them out with his own two hands. Don't even go there, okay?!

As he tried to keep those fears at bay, Toji tried to think of reasons why the accident that had nearly claimed his life wouldn't happen again. He thought of the newly rebuilt Unit 03, the powerful new blades and equipment it sported, making it visibly so much more powerful than before. He thought of the precautions that NERV would likely be taking in the future, to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again.

But none of that worked. Because Toji also knew that it wouldn't take a repeat of the incident that had nearly claimed his life to end with his gruesome demise. And he was also painfully aware of how quickly these most recent Angels had been coming, and even worse, how bizarre and dangerous they had been. And perhaps worst of all, he had heard about that one Angel that had very nearly brought NERV to its knees, the one that had effortlessly crushed both Rei and Asuka, and very nearly cost Shinji his life. A monster that was so terrible that, while much of the details had been kept top secret, there had been no concealing the fact that Shinji had disappeared for a month after the battle. And as the jock thought these things, he found himself massaging the metal of his cast, all the while his imagination went to work, conjuring up images of...

Dammit! I just said don't go there! Toji shouted at himself, once again forcing these things to the side. But even as he did so, he knew this wouldn't last. Those niggling fears and concerns weren't going to just go away, no matter what happened. Man...I've gotta do something...

Toji's first impulse was to look around the examining room, trying to find something to distract himself with. It was a search that lasted all of a few seconds; the room was colored in the typical washboard white such places were typically painted in. There was the bed he was sitting on, the chair his father was occupying, a medicine cabinet against the far wall, an empty table, and a few charts and what-have-you occupying the walls. As boring as boring got, and completely useless for distracting the jock from his inner demons. Except for one thing.

"So, uh...Dad?" Toji began uncertainly, not even certain what it was he wanted to talk about. Only caring about filling the awful silence that filled that room.

"What is it?" Mr. Suzuhara replied, the cloud of gloom shadowing his features as he met his son's gaze making it clear that he shared Toji's feelings about this situation.

"There's...something I need to ask you about..." Toji eventually admitted as he gathered his thoughts together. Once again sorting out everything that had turned his entire world on its head in the span of half an hour. "You...you knew that the doc...that she'd fixed my Eva, right?"

"I'd heard about it, yes," Mr. Suzuhara confirmed with a shallow nod. Then he gave a rueful curl of his lip and added, "As much as things are supposed to be kept top secret around here, there's no stopping the gossip mongers."

"Then...you must've figured...I mean...you had to have least thought that they might...that Shin-man's old man might..." Toji continued, his stomach knotting up at this attempt to put what he was feeling into words. "So...why didn't you say something? You could've -!"

"No, I couldn't have. Not without possibly losing my job." Starting at the way his father cut him off, the jock sat there with his mouth slightly open as Mr. Suzuhara gave a sad sigh. "I'm sorry. I'm not trying to put my employment ahead of you, son, but...you and I both know how hard it is to find something that pays decently these days. And I...I couldn't risk putting your future and Rika's at risk." As Toji furrowed his brows, his father again gave a rueful half-smile. "We both know what kind of man Commander Ikari is. And how well he doesn't tolerate security leaks."

"Hmph. Tell me about it," Toji was soon forced to admit, recalling the events that followed the battle with the 4th Angel. How after being rescued by Shinji and Unit 01, he and Kensuke had been kept within the depths of NERV for a time afterwards, kept in solitary as Section 2 debriefed them, which essentially consisted of making it very clear that if they wanted to keep certain body parts where they were, than they would say nothing about what they had seen to anybody.

"Now...was I suspicious? Did I suspect that they might call you back to NERV?" Mr. Suzuhara continued in a thoughtful manner. "Of course I was. In fact, I was terrified by the possibility. But at the time, that's all it was; a possibility. And I didn't want to worry you until it was something more than a possibility." With a tired snort of a laugh, he then muttered, "Besides, after everything that had happened, I was worrying enough for the both of us."

Not doubting his father's word, Toji nodded to himself as he considered what was being said. And ultimately, he found it made sense that his father didn't want to say something until he knew anything for certain. But even so, even understanding Mr. Suzuhara's reasoning and the position he was in, the fact that he would withhold information such as this was an unsettling prospect for Toji. And one he wasn't sure that he was capable of articulating, or if he even wanted to give voice to it.

Which is why he was relieved when the examining room door opened, revealing a welcome figure that immediately distracted him from this quandary. "Sorry to keep you two waiting," Ritsuko declared, bustling in with a good-sized toolkit in one hand, and a large, silvery suitcase in the other. "Whoever used this thing last didn't put back where it was supposed to be."

"No need to apologize, Doctor. I'm familiar with that sort of thing," Mr. Suzuhara commented in a knowing manner. Pausing to glance over at Toji, who groaned deep in his throat.

Fortunately enough, both glance and groan were lost on the doctor, who nodded absently. "I don't doubt it. NERV certainly seems to have more than its share of gremlins," Ritsuko declared as she set the kit down on the table. Pausing to open it, she spent a few seconds rifling through it before drawing out a power screwdriver. "You ready, Toji?"

Studying the tool Ritsuko held, Toji frowned slightly before looking down at the casts that hid his left arm and leg, and felt his insides twist about. He thought back to when he had still been trapped in a hospital room, attached to the special growth tanks that had begun the regeneration of his lost arm and leg. Unable to move from his bed, unable to even take care of his body's most basic needs without the help of special hospital machines. A prisoner in his own body, until the day that the Head Scientist had first shown him the casts, had explained how they would finish the job the tanks had started, all while allowing him to move about on his own. Allow him to start reclaiming his life.

Toji had watched with a sense of fear and concern as a series of mechanical arms slowly, carefully assembled the components for the casts within the tanks, building them around the bones and simple soft tissues that were growing around them. All the while Ritsuko worked nearby, reassuring him in a cool, confident voice he didn't have to worry. That she knew exactly what she was doing, and that there was no way that she would let this procedure destroy the bare limbs that were slowly growing back.

Ritsuko's skills had lived up to her words, and when he was finally free of those tanks, Toji had found himself smiling at the thought that, one day, he would be free of the casts as well. He would finally be whole once again, as if the disaster with Unit 03 and the 13th Angel had never happened.

But Toji had never imagined that he would again be in this predicament, faced with the prospect of again piloting the titan Ritsuko had somehow raised from the dead. He never imagined how much those events would continue to gnaw at him, plaguing his thoughts and eating away at his confidence, filling his sleep with hideous nightmares drawn from that event. And he never would have imagined how much he would grow to appreciate the metal sheathes he now wore, one of which had helped protect him during the most recent attack, and allow him to save another man's life.

But you can't wear these things forever, dummy! Toji told himself, trying once more to force aside his own feelings. You've got to get them off so you can get back in gear, get training! Be ready to...to pilot...again...

Wincing as his thoughts deteriorated as they once again wended to a future filled with uncertainty and danger, Toji found that this was quite possibly the best reason of all to not have the casts removed. Those instinctual fears causing him to tense up somewhat, but even as this happened, he focused on the image of a tiny girl, one that he had failed before. He took that image and shoved it right in the ugly faces of his fears and self-centered survival instincts.

He had failed Rika once. Toji would not allow himself to do so again.

A hesitant groan escaping his lips as he instinctively massaged the cold, smooth metal that had nursed him back to health, Toji forced himself to nod. "Ready when...ever you are, Doc."

A tiny smile appearing on her lips, Ritsuko answered, "Okay, then. I'm going to need you to lie down now."

"Okay," Toji reluctantly answered. Taking a deep breath, he forced his rigid form to relax, at least enough for him to swing up and around on the bed, positioning himself so that his left side and the casts were presented to Ritsuko. "How's that?"

"Perfect." Not wasting any time, Ritsuko came up alongside of Toji, and moved down to his leg. "Now, this will only take a few minutes, but I need you to stay perfectly still for me. Alright?"

"Got it," Toji nodded, grabbing hold of the bed's surface with his right hand. Unable to tear his eyes from Ritsuko, he watched as she rolled up the pants les that concealed much of the cast. Once that was done, she then took the power screwdriver and fitted it with a tip to fit the well-hidden bolts that held the protective casts in place. As soon as she was satisfied the tool was ready, she slid it over one of the bolts and began removing it.

Wincing at the sound that he felt more than heard, Toji gulped and wished he didn't feel as nervous as he did. Wished that he didn't feel the power tool vibrating his very bones, that he felt like something other than a snail that was about to pulled out of its shell. Forcing himself to look away from Ritsuko as she labored to pull away that shell, and again did his best to distract himself from what was happening to him. "So, uh...tell me something, Doc," the jock started somewhat nervously. "Uh...I'm officially back as the 4th Child, right?"

"That's right," Ritsuko confirmed in a low voice. "Misato's taking care of the formal paperwork right now." Then she paused in her labors and stood up straighter to look Toji in the eye. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, I...my dad and I were talking while we were waiting. You know...just stuff," Toji explained, deciding it would be better not to rehash the situation. Not when it was obvious that his father felt guilty about having to withhold such information. "And...anyway, we were talking about some of the craziness that's been happening lately. Especially with these latest Angels, and - ack!"

The instant the word 'Angels' has escaped Toji's lips, Ritsuko had lost focus on her task. The power tool she was using slipped off the bolt she had been in the process of removing and struck the cast itself, resulting in the jock being jarred by the sudden impact and vibrations like a dentist's drill, only much stronger and being driven into his knee. "Oh!" the doctor started, jerking back a bit and shooting her patient an apologetic look. "Uh...sorry, Toji. I didn't...mean, I..."

"Yeah, uh...I kinda figured that out..." Toji replied in joking fashion, taken aback by Ritsuko's reaction. Frowning as he took in her expression, the wariness she now wore, he sat up and looked over at his father. And frowned when he saw that the elder Suzuhara had lowered his eyes somewhat, his posture that of someone who didn't want to talk about something. "Uh..." Toji hesitated, glancing between the two adults present as his stomach proceeded to tie itself in knots at the bad feeling he was getting. "Am I...missing something here?"

Ritsuko and Mr. Suzuhara exchanged a look, one that deepened Toji's unease. "Yes, you are, I'm afraid," Toji's father admitted with a hint of shame. "It's...one of those things that I'm not allowed to talk about at the dinner table."

Toji opened his mouth to ask for clarification, but was cut off when Ritsuko said, "And it's something you're going to have to know about now." As the jock swung his gaze towards the scientist, she angled her gaze at Mr. Suzuhara. "Would you like me to tell him?"

Mr. Suzuhara offered a shrug. "Might as well. You probably understand this whole mess a lot better than someone in my pay grade."

Nodding, Ritsuko again turned her focus to Toji. "Alright, then. You were wondering why these last few Angels were acting so strangely?" The jock responded with a quick nod. "Well, there's a very good reason for that, I'm afraid; they weren't Angels."

This statement struck fell on Toji's head like an N2, the explosion of which left him momentarily unable to do so much as think. And in its wake, there was no sound, no movement. Nothing as the two adults watched him struggle to comprehend what had just been said. A struggle that Toji ultimately failed, and with sound that was a cross between a cough and a laugh, he looked back and forth between them. "Wh-what do you mean, they weren't Angels?! They had to be!" Again, Toji swung his gaze between the two of them, took in their somber expressions, and felt his concerns grow. "I mean...wh-what else...could they have been?"

"A synthetic form of life based upon the Angels, Toji," Ritsuko informed him flatly. "Monsters created by human beings like us. Creatures that we call the Fallen."

"Fallen - synthetic?!" Toji spat out, his mind latching onto that word and focusing on it like a laser. "You mean - somebody made these damned monsters?!"

"That's right. And before you start asking questions, let me explain what we know about these things so far." Meeting Toji's eyes, Ritsuko gave him a slight smile and placed her hand upon his shoulder. "Now, lie down and let me work. And I'll tell you everything we know about these things so far."

"You mean 'everything that isn't classified up the wazoo', right?" Toji replied, only half-joking.

Chortling somewhat at this, Ritsuko shrugged. "Pretty much," she somberly admitted. "Now please, lie back down. I still have a lot to do here before I can get these things off." Toji opened his mouth to protest, but before he could get out so much as a syllable, the doctor placed her hand on his chest and gently pushed him back. "Just lie down, okay? I can talk and work at the same time."

Forced onto his back and too confused to protest it, Toji looked up at Ritsuko for a while before mentally throwing up his arms in defeat. "Alright, fine," he muttered sourly as he forced himself to lie back down. "You know me; I never question doctor's orders."

"And you have no idea how much I appreciate that," Ritsuko quipped as she returned her attention to the task at hand. "Now, let's see...I know you have to be aware that Shinji and Misato weren't at their apartment for a while right?" Toji made an affirmative noise and gave a slight nod to this, again trying to ignore the sensation of the power screwdriver dismantling his leg cast one bolt at a time. "Did you hear why?"

"Not exactly," Toji admitted. "I mean, I heard about a battle and the devil's Eva getting trashed, but -" Comprehension exploding in his mind, the jock very nearly sat up when he realized what Ritsuko was talking about. "Wait a sec, Doc...are you saying that the thing that did that was one of those...Fallen things?"

"Precisely. That was what we now refer to as the 1st Fallen," Ritsuko confirmed as she removed a bolt and started in on another. "And each of the apparent 'Angels' that have attacked since then have also been more of these Fallen."

His eyes widening as he struggled to comprehend what was being told him, Toji then blurted out, "But why?! Who the hell would cook up these things, and -?!"

His voice falling flat from the sheer absurdity of this revelation, Toji could do nothing but listen as Ritsuko answered his unfinished question. "We don't know who's responsible for this, Toji, let alone why they are sending these creatures against us. All we know is that these creatures are every bit as dangerous as a real Angel, and they are fully capable of exploiting the vulnerabilities in both the Evas and their support systems."

His stomach twisting in knots at this revelation, Toji grimaced and placed his metal-covered left hand to his forehead. "You really know how to inspire confidence in a guy, Doc," he muttered unhappily. "So what you're saying as that these are not only as nasty as the Angels, but they're a lot smarter, too?"

"I wouldn't say the Fallen themselves are smarter, Toji. But they are guided by a human intelligence, and that makes them extremely dangerous." The jock was about to ask something when he felt something drop away from his leg. Jolting at the strange, unnatural sensation, it was all he could do not to fling himself into a seated position. "There we go. One down, one to go," Ritsuko declared with an air of satisfaction even as Toji realized that his leg felt cold, that he could feel air about it. A feeling that grew more pronounced as he felt soft, nimble hands lifting more metal away from his restored leg. "Would you care to take a look?"

His insides still twisting about uneasily, Toji nodded and forced himself into a seated position. As soon as he did so, he looked down at his bare leg...and felt his jaw fall open in shock.

In terms of structure, his restored leg looked more-or-less as it should. Muscle definition, bone structure, everything looked pretty much as it should. But the skin that covered it was an appalling sight for him. It was pale and pasty in appearance, almost a grayish color. It was sopping wet and slimy, and had a texture like a shriveled raisin.

As Toji's eyes ballooned in shock, his father rose up from his seat and examined the hideous condition of the bare flesh. "Uh, Dr. Akagi?" Mr. Suzuhara began, sounding pretty much like Toji felt. "Are you sure we shouldn't put that cast back on? I -"

"Don't worry, you two," Ritsuko broke in, glancing between the two Suzuharas with a slight smile, looking as if she had seen this coming. "I realize that it might not look good right now, but don't you forget that the regenerated skin has never been exposed to air or sunlight. And up until now, it's been soaking in LCL as it's grown. As a result, the skin cells are bloated from oversaturation." Giving Toji a look of reassurance, the faux-blonde went on to say, "It'll take a little time, as well as some sunshine, but in a couple weeks, you won't be able to tell where the old skin ends and the new skin begins."

"Ugh...I sure hope you're right, Doc," Toji groaned as he prodded at his leg with his right forefinger. Wincing at how spongy it felt, as well as how sensitive it was to the touch. "Because, right now, I'm really feeling a snail out of its shell."

This statement garnered a mild chuckle from the doctor. "I suppose that's only natural, all things considered," Ritsuko admitted as she cleared away the parts of the cast she had dismantled. "Now, lie back down. I still need to get the other cast off."

Wincing at this, Toji paused to glance down at the strong, protective metal shell that still covered his left arm, and imagined the flesh beneath looking as horrid as that of his leg, and gave a slight shudder at this. More than ever, he wanted to leave that place, to keep the shell that had protected him and helped him heal that much more.

But even as he experienced these fearful sensations, Toji heaved a deep breath, and reminded himself that there could be no retreat from this. He needed to have his cast removed. He needed to be able to pilot again. Rika and possibly many others depended on this. And so he ignored the chill running down his spine, the way his muscles trembled like jelly, and with a wan nod, forced himself to again lay down. "So, uh...talk to me, Doc," the jock got out, looking away from the cast. Not wanting to watch as this final bit of protection was peeled away from his body. "Anything else I need to know?"

"Quite a bit, actually," Ritsuko admitted as she again set to work. "In fact, you'll probably need a formal briefing in order to catch up with everything that's been happening around here. There's been a lot of craziness since the Fallen started showing up."

Doing his best to ignore the way the power screwdriver made his bones shake, Toji nodded his understanding. "I'll bet. But...you can tell me something now. Right, Doc?"

"Well, what would you like me to tell you about?" Ritsuko asked in a reasonable fashion.

"Hmm...how about Shin-man and Misato?" Toji soon asked.

A beat passed before Ritsuko asked, "What about them?"

"Well, I heard that they'd gotten hurt during the fight with that Angel - I mean, Fallen," Toji explained, suffering a pang as he forced himself to remember the newly learned origins of this enemy. "And Rei told me that they'd been in the hospital, but when they got back...well, Shin-man, he didn't look like he'd gotten messed up or anything." Then the jock gave a mild snort. "Hell, he looked like he was in better shape than he was before."

"I...see," Ritsuko hesitantly answered. "And...I take it you want to know what exactly happened?"

"Well...it'd be nice," Toji replied in a semi-sarcastic fashion. "I mean...I never even found out why he was gone for a whole month after that other battle! And I might be just a dumb jock, but even I can tell when somebody's trying to not give me a straight answer!"

"I'm sure you can," Ritsuko murmured around the sound of another bolt being unscrewed. "And you're right, Toji; there's a lot about both incidents that have been kept secret. And I don't blame you for wanting answers." A beat passed, followed by a heavy sigh. "However, I don't think that now would be a good time to talk about them."

"Why not?" Toji wondered in a somewhat derisive manner. "What, it is classified over a pilot's pay grade?"

"It's nothing like that," Ritsuko quickly reassured him. "But...well, the events responsible for both incidents were extremely complicated, as well as unpleasant. And...I think it would be best if we discussed what happened with Shinji and Misato present. I'd rather not be talking about it behind their backs."

It took only a moment for Toji to decide he didn't like the sound of that. He had already suspected that something ugly and possibly very weird had happened to his friend and Misato, and this latest bit of hesitation from Ritsuko was all but confirmation that there was a lot more nastiness going down than he knew. "Sounds pretty nasty," he finally muttered, reaching for some additional confirmation. "Huh, Dad?"

"It is nasty, Toji. A whole lot of ugly business," Mr. Suzuhara promptly admitted. "And there's a whole lot that you need to be brought up to speed on."

"Agreed," Ritsuko chimed in as she worked. "I think a formal briefing would be in order, so we can give you a thorough explanation. And it would give you a chance to ask any questions you want answered."

"At this point, I'm not even sure what questions I should ask, let alone if I want them answered," Toji muttered somberly. "But...okay. If you think that a briefing's the way to do it..."

"I do." The sound of a bolt falling away punctuated this response, leading to a brief silence as Ritsuko moved to the next one. "I'll talk to Misato and Shinji later, arrange a meeting with them. Then we can all sit down and get you caught up on everything that's been happening."

Toji wasn't particularly satisfied by this answer, but at the same time, he found himself being inwardly grateful for this bit of a reprieve. So much had happened that morning, revelations that had left his mind reeling in shock. And ultimately, he found the idea of not having to deal with all of the changes his return to NERV would bring all at once an immense relief. "Works for me, Doc," he finally told her. "So, uh...anything else you want to -?"

The sound and sensation of metal falling away cut Toji off, as well as the return of sensations he had experienced just a short time ago. Jolted by these things, he looked about, and suffered a pang when he saw Ritsuko lifting away some of the metal shell from his arm. "All done," the doctor proclaimed with a clear sense of pride. Pausing to brush her bangs out of her eyes, she then reached down to the sections of metal that were now hanging loosely about Toji's left arm and began pulling them away. "So what do you think?"

Looking down at his newly revealed arm, wincing when he saw that it looked every bit as repellent as his newly revealed left leg, Toji groaned heavily as he sat up. Pausing to examine his bare left arm, he ran his right hand up and down it, testing the muscle tone, all the while frowning in disgust at how his skin felt. "Well...I guess everything's fine," he finally, reluctantly admitted, despite feeling that the analogy of being like a snail out of its shell was more accurate than ever. Then he looked up to see Ritsuko picking up the individual pieces of the dismantled cast and started putting them inside the silver case she had brought. "But I have to be honest here, Doc," he finally admitted as he looked at the plated metal that had done so much for him, "I miss that thing already."

Pausing in her works, Ritsuko have the young man a smile. "I think I understand. But don't forget that we're talking about millions of yen in micro-circuitry and biotechnology here!" the doctor commented, holding up a section of the cast for Toji to study, giving him a good look at the inner workings that had enabled the cast to help give him back his life. "I'm afraid that isn't the sort of thing we could let you keep. Not with our budget problems."

"I know, I know," Toji replied, unable to stop himself from watching as, piece by piece, the protective casts disappeared into the silver case. Heaving a heavy sigh of loss, the jock forced himself to look Ritsuko in the face. "So...tell me, Doc...what's next?"

"Well...the first thing I have to do is get these components back into safe storage," Ritsuko admitted as she continued to pack up the components of the cast. "And then we'll need to get you fitted for your new plug suit, and..."

"Fitted?" Toji broke in, raising an eyebrow at the faux-blonde. "What, don't you have my measurements from the last time, Doc?" Then he gave a wry grin and gestured at himself. "Or have I put on some weight since last time?"

To Toji's immense surprise and satisfaction, Ritsuko's first response to this was to go into a light burst of laughter. "Only in the right places, Toji, I assure you." After a few more titters, the doctor settled down and went on to say, "But I'd rather make certain that your new suit will fit you properly. It's going to be a lot more complicated than your previous issue, thanks to the modifications to Unit 03. And with a plug suit like this, I'd rather take the time to do everything right than to have to go back and try again!"

"Oh," Toji returned, momentarily uncertain. As he considered the matter for a while, recalling what Ritsuko had told her about Unit 03, as well as how he would be able to control its new equipment, he found himself somewhat chagrined. "Uh, yeah. I guess I can't blame you for that, Doc." A beat passed as the two of them looked at each other, after which the doctor chuckled again. "Hey, what - what is it?" Toji wondered perplexedly. "Did I make a joke without even realizing it?"

"Not exactly." A few chuckles sounded in Ritsuko's throat before she explained, "It's just that - with all the people I have questioning my decisions or demanding explanations as to why I'm doing something the way I am, it's actually refreshing to have someone accept what I'm saying so easily."

Blinking a few times at this, Toji ultimately shrugged. "Well, what can I tell ya, Doc?" he wondered with a sense of mirth. "You're the genius here, not me."

Again, Ritsuko chuckled. "And I appreciate the vote of confidence as well." Exhaling softly, the faux-blonde bent down and closed the silvery case. "However, I also happen to be a busy genius as well. And I have lot to get done today, so if you two will -"

"Uh, hold up for a moment, Dr. Akagi." Starting at the sound of the elder Suzuhara's voice, both Toji and Ritsuko paused to look in his direction. "Excuse me, son?" Mr. Suzuhara began with a raised eyebrow and a meaningful smile. "Wasn't there something else you wanted to talk to the doctor about?" A beat passed before he added, "Something you wanted to give her?"

At the word 'give', comprehension fell down upon Toji like a brick wall, leaving him groaning in dismay and wanting to bash his head against said wall. "Oh, right! Thanks, Dad!"

"What are you two talking about?" Ritsuko wondered, looking blankly between the two of them with a look of perplexity. "Toji...?"

Jumping down to the floor, Toji started rummaging about his pants pockets with his right hand. "Well, Doc...it's like this," he explained, all the while wondering where in blazes the object of his search could have disappeared to. "I - I mean, Rika and me - we - you've done so much for us, and - well...I just wanted to thank you and all, so - ah ha!" With a barking laugh of triumph, Toji fished out the tiny little jewelry case that had done such a fine job of wedging itself into the depths of his back pocket. "Anyway, I...I know it's not much, but...I...just wanted you to have this."

Ritsuko let out a gasp of shock as she took in the small case before her. "Toji!" she gaped, her eyes wide as she looked from the case to the jock. "You...you didn't have to do that..."

"Hey, I - I know that!" Toji immediately retorted in a somewhat gruff, defensive manner. "But...well, I just wanted to, that's all." After a moment of looking from the tiny gift to the woman he was giving it too, he felt some of his forced bravado wane, leading him to say, "Now...I know it ain't much, but...I..."

Clearly dumbstruck, Ritsuko just stood there, looking at the jock for a time before her lips curled upwards. "That's alright. I accept," the doctor replied, gently taking the small case from Toji's hand. Holding it up to her eyes, she studied it for a moment before carefully popping it open, at which point her eyes and mouth also popped open. "Toji...!"

Feeling his cheeks burn a bit, Toji shuffled on his feet somewhat. "I...I talked to Shin-man, and he said you had a thing for cats," he explained, painfully aware of just how lame he sounded. "Anyway, I was looking for something that you'd like, and...well..."

"Like?!" Ritsuko replied, lowering the case enough so that everyone could see the contents; a pair of earrings silvery, ring-shaped earrings, each with a small, ornate cat lounging in the center of them. "Toji, they're prefect! I love them!"

"Uh...you do?" Toji got out, not just a bit surprised by this enthusiastic response. When he had found them at the store and gotten them at a discount price, he had at best expected for Ritsuko to say that it was a very nice gift.

While Toji was deciding that, while he was surprised by this turn of events , he wasn't going to complain about the doctor's enthusiasm, Ritsuko declared, "Here, let me put them on!" Moving to set the case down on the nearby table, she then deftly removed the earrings she was currently wearing, and after a bit of puttering around, replaced them with the cat earrings Toji had given her. Once she had done so, she held up her head in a profile, giving Toji a good view of one side of her head, then the other, with the earrings seeming to dance in delight. "What do you think?"

Again, somewhat thrown by the fact that the responsible, often somber and always serious scientist responding to a pair of a earrings like a girl getting a Sweet Sixteen present, Toji was left floundering for a good response. "Um...well, you look great, Doc!" Then Toji winced as he realized just how he had sounded, and corrected, "I mean, they look great. On you, that is." Still unsatisfied with this answer, he pressed his lips together and tried again. "I - what I mean is that -!"

Stopped by the sound of his father laughing, Toji looked dumbly towards Mr. Suzuhara, who smiled knowingly and stated, "What I think my son is trying to say, Dr. Akagi, is that he's glad that his little gift to you was such a hit." Then the elder Suzuhara eyed Toji and asked, "Isn't that right?"

"Uh...um, right, Dad!" Toji replied. He then returned his focus to the doctor, and gave another lame shrug. "I mean...I just...I wanted to do something for you. After all...you've done so much for us, and...I just wanted you to know...how much I appreciate that."

"Well, I certainly appreciate that, and your gift," Ritsuko assured him. "Now, I'm gonna go take care of this stuff...and show off my new little kitties while I'm at it!" Still smiling, the doctor pent her old earrings in the jewelry case and placed it in her coat pocket. Then she bent down to collect both the tool kit and the silvery case. "And as soon as I'm done with that, I'll be back to get you fitted for your new plug suit."

"I'll be right here, waitin' for you, Doc," Toji replied, to which Ritsuko nodded thoughtfully before exiting the room. Leaving the jock to look down at his bare left arm and leg, at skin that was already slowly drying. And though he still felt ill at ease without the protective casts, the gratitude he felt for everything Ritsuko had done remained as well.

As Ritsuko made her way through the labyrinthine networks of halls that was NERV, the smile that had so naturally erupted on her face when she had seen Toji's gift slowly faded. Driven away as a weight far greater than that of the two cases she carried in her hands settling down upon her shoulders. A weight that grew as the doctor pictured what had just happened a few minutes ago, and felt the unsubstantial weight of the earrings Toji had given her.

I...I can't believe that he...! Ritsuko thought as she walked along, images of the normally brash jock shifting uneasily about on his feet still with her. Seeing in her mind how uncertain he had been about the simple, lovely gift he had given her, how clearly important it had been that she had liked his token of appreciation, and at the same time, that this simple gift was all he could really give her. He...he has no idea how much...how much this means...!

Emotions welling up despite her best efforts to keep them down and out of the way of the rational thought processes of a proper scientist, Ritsuko thought back over her own life, a life in which such clear appreciation was a rarity to say the least. Growing up in the shadow of her mother, friends had always been something that the scientist had had precious few of. She couldn't even remember her father, let alone remember her mother making any mention of him, or why Ritsuko had grown up without him. All she had known during her life was growing up with Naoko, and that life had been a sterile one.

Naoko Akagi's first and foremost concern was her work as a scientist. Everything else in her life was a secondary concern to her, and that had included Ritsuko herself as well, leaving the younger Akagi more often than not to fend for herself. And despite the fact that Naoko would at times would blame herself for this, she never made any effort to change her ways. With the only thing that she really focused on helping Ritsuko improve was her mind, her studies, her grades at school. And thus these things had become the focus of the younger Akagi woman's life, to the exclusion of virtually everything else.

As a result, Ritsuko's social skills suffered, and the people she considered as friends were few and far between. She had grown up with few friends, few gifts and expressions of appreciation for anything she had done. And while this had not bothered her at the time, as she looked back at her life now, she found herself realizing what she had missed. Especially now, after so many years laboring at NERV. Years in which she had found herself more and more isolated, both by her work...and the hideous secrets that had become her world. Secrets that stained her soul that much more every single day.

I don't deserve this... Ritsuko found herself thinking as her emotions shifted direction, giving rise to memories of the things she had been party to since the day she had become Head Scientist of NERV. With the most recent of these memories being the most poisonous, all of them symbolized by the ugly, evil smile she had seen Gendo wearing the last time she had seen him. Toji...don't you understand?! I'm a party to humanity's ultimate nightmare! I'm in league with monsters that are going to kill us all! All starting with -!

At this, another image appeared in the doctor's mind, one that caused her stomach to clench and make her feel like she was about to throw up. Made even worse by Gendo's voice in her head, and the fact that his was the ultimate power within this city. A word from him would result in the death of virtually any person on the planet, and that death could come from any direction, at any time. And for any reason Gendo imagined.

Gendo had a definite purpose this time, a reason to wish this particular person death. A person that had become one of the few precious friends and loved ones Ritsuko had ever known in her life. All so that he could bring even more pain and misery to another of those precious people. And as the doctor continued forward, she paused in the middle of the hallways, tears of consummate pain and misery spilling down her cheeks. Some of the few tears she had been unable to keep in check in the many years since she had hardened her heart and masked herself in the role of a scientist.

There's nothing I can do. Nothing I can I do will save her, Ritsuko told herself for what felt like the millionth time since that horrid meeting where her final efforts to protect those special children had failed utterly. A meeting that once again reminded her whose will reigned supreme. Gendo will get what he wants. Gendo always gets what he wants. And if I try to disobey him, he'll have me killed. All I can do...is die.

It was a painfully familiar line of thought for Ritsuko, one she had gone through seemingly every time Gendo's machinations put her in the position of either being aware of his cruel plans or being instrumental in making them happen. All the while locking herself into the persona of a scientist, conjuring up images of those who had learned something of Gendo's plans, SEELE's ultimate scheme, or both, and had tried to do something. Each and every one of them paying the price for their courage, and ultimately dying for nothing. Each of their bodies proudly presented by Gendo to Ritsuko and Fuyutsuki, all to remind them as to whom was the ultimate power. Whom held sway over the lives and deaths of everyone within his domain.

In the past, this had always worked. It had chased away all those troubling emotions, at least enough to allow Ritsuko to once again assume the air of a detached scientist for whom logic was everything.

But not this time.

No matter how hard she tried, tears continued to roll down Ritsuko's cheeks. Her insides still threatened to rebel as they tied themselves in knots. And the images of two children still hung before her, transforming again and again into the twisted, devastated reflections of Gendo's intended future for them both.

But there's nothing I can do! Ritsuko shrieked desperately in her mind, wishing not for the first time that she could tear out her own heart. Could somehow rid herself of all the guilt and remorse and shame and despair that followed her throughout the day and filled her sleep with nightmares. There's just nothing I can do...!

Shaking her head in despair as those feelings continued to assail her, despite her best efforts to shut them out, Ritsuko felt her head slump forward, feeling as if her inner turmoil had aged her twenty years in as many seconds. "There's nothing I can do..." she moaned aloud, punctuating this statement of hopelessness with a pitiful sniffle. "There's...there's nothing...I..."

As this broken declaration of an all-but-broken woman spilled forth like her tears, Ritsuko stood helplessly, shaking her head in defeat...when her teary eyes fell upon the silver case she still held. The case that held the two dismantled casts that had helped Toji recover. That were part of the reason he had been so grateful to her. And as she studied the case, it inspired the part of her that was a scientist, and gave her an idea.

It was a pitiful idea, Ritsuko knew. It would do absolutely nothing to save either Toji or Rika from the fate Gendo had in store for them. But at the same time, it was something that the Commander would have no reason to forbid. It was something that she could actually do. And maybe - just maybe - on some level...it could help Toji feel just a little bit better.

And as unlikely a possibility as this was, Ritsuko could think of nothing else. And so, with this in mind, she continued on her way, already fleshing out her plans even as she considered her duties for the rest of the day.

What should I do now...? Shinji wondered as he sat in the Ready Room, presently clad in his plug suit and physically ready to make the mad dash to the Eva Cages the instant the alarm sounded. All the while aware that, mentally speaking, he was in no way ready for a battle. Not after what he had just been through.

Despite the fact that his encounter with Toji earlier that day had been brief, so brief that only a few sentences had been exchanges between them, but even so, the sense of pain, despair, and anger had been all but been palpable for Shinji. For in a very real way, it echoed agonizing dilemmas that he had once been placed in himself, and by the same bastard that had put Toji in the position he was in. The position of being forced to pilot once more...or allow someone else to suffer unjustly.

That's how it always is with you...isn't it...Father? Shinji thought, recalling his conversation with Misato the previous day. How after being cuddled and kissed by the woman he loved, they had eventually gone on to further discuss the hideous situation they were stuck with, as well as Gendo's plan for forcing Toji to return to the horror that was the Angel War. You always have to have your own way, no matter who gets hurt because of it. Nothing else matters to you...

Shinji normally didn't like being angry, or engaging in lines of thought that led to anger. It was a destructive, almost pointless emotion in his mind, one that so easily led to arguments, to people hurting one another, to senseless murders and destruction, and was made even worse by how easy it was to let that anger run out of control. To let it dominate you, make you do whatever anger wanted, no matter how much it hurt others or how much damage it caused you personally. And so many things that people were so quick to anger over were so pointless and stupid to begin with, so he really couldn't see any point in that emotion.

But despite all of this, Shinji also knew that there were times when anger was an understandable, even justified reaction. And he knew from personal experience that there were times when anger was the only way possible for someone to react to a situation. Times like when he had first come to NERV, where his father had declared that the only reason that he had summoned Shinji was because he had had a use for him. And when the younger Ikari had initially refused this purpose, Gendo had used the brutally injured Rei to force his son's cooperation. When Shinji had been forced to savage Toji, and Gendo couldn't be bothered to even give a decent response, and instead simply shut him down.

And now this... Shinji thought, slowly shaking his head as a slow surge of anger twisted his insides. He's using Rika to force Toji back into this nightmare...to make him pilot again...

Shinji didn't like anger, didn't like the feeling of fire that was twisting about his insides, the ugly sensation that demanded to be expressed as cruelly as could be. But at that moment, he couldn't help but be allured by the way it twisted his imagination, conjuring images of the retribution he wanted to extract from Gendo, the...

A sharp buzzing sound startled Shinji from his thoughts, prompting him to look up from the floor and towards the entrance to the Ready Room. "Huh...?" he started, needing a moment to focus his mind, and realize that a response on his part was in order. "Oh, uh...who is it?"

"It's me, Shinji-kun!" came Misato's welcome voice. "Can I come in?"

"Huh? Oh, sure! Of course!" Shinji responded after a bit of fumbling.

A moment later, the door slid open, revealing a lovely figure on the other side, who promptly entered and smiled. "Sorry if I surprised you, Shinji-kun!" Misato asked in her usual teasing fashion. "I'm...not interrupting anything, am I?"

"Uh...no. No," Shinji answered hesitantly, glancing about at the many distractions that were available in the Ready Room. The video games, the DVDs, and so many other things that could be used to keep one entertained while on standby. All of which Shinji had completely ignored, simply because none of them could possibly hope to distract him from the turmoil he was being forced to endure. "What is it, Misato? Is...something wrong, or...?"

"No, nothing's wrong." Then Misato made a face and added, "At least, there's nothing wrong that wasn't wrong this morning." As Shinji nodded his understanding, the Major shrugged and made her way over to the couch he was seated on. "Anyway I just wanted to tell you that...Ritsuko's with Toji, getting him fitted for his new plug suit. And his father...well, he's taking this about as well as anyone could, I guess."

Nodding to this, Shinji furrowed his brows somewhat before asking, "Uh...where is Toji's father, anyway?"

"Back on the job with the rest of his detail," Misato reported with a hint of shame. "Unfortunately, the Commander doesn't consider things like having your son being blackmailed as a legitimate excuse for missing work." Then her expression soured like an overripe lemon. "Especially since he's the one doing the blackmailing..."

Wincing at both the clear ire in Misato's face and the undeniable truth in her words, Shinji let himself slump forward a few degrees. "Misato...I..."

"No, I'm sorry." Holding up her hands in apology, Misato smiled sadly as she sat down next to her ward. "I...I shouldn't have said that."

"But...it's still true," Shinji replied after a moment's hesitation. "Father...he is the reason this is all happening..."

"I know, I know. But...I just...I shouldn't have..." Misato fumbled, only to let out a low sigh of defeat. "Aw, damn, what a mess." Taken aback somewhat by the tone in the Major's voice, Shinji frowned somewhat and looked at her with questioning eyes, a look that she returned with one of serious concern. "You know this is just the beginning of Toji's troubles."

Blinking his confusion, Shinji opened and closed his mouth a few times before finally asking, "Wh-what do you mean, Misato?"

"Toji may have had some basic training, Shinji, but he's never seen actual combat in an Evangelion before," Misato quickly explained. "He may have been involved in combat before, seen it for himself, but he's never had to fight an actual Angel or a Fallen. Which means he's almost as raw a recruit as...well, as you were when you first came here." As comprehension struck, Shinji's mouth popped open somewhat, allowing a noise of realization to tumble out of his lips. "Which means we'll need to get him trained for actual combat, and that will take time. And we both know that it probably won't be long until the next Fallen shows up."

At this reminder, Shinji let out a low groan. "I know, Misato. But..." Forcing himself to look up at the woman he loved, he did his best to force a more confident expression on his face, all the while certain he was less than successful in that regard. "But...I'm sure you'll...you'll do your best."

Nodding slightly, Misato then answered, "I just I could be certain that my best is good enough." Narrowing her eyes intensely, the Major went on to say, "We've both been through the simulations, Shinji. And we know they're no substitute for actual combat experience. And besides, we haven't been able to do an activation test for Unit 03, so there's no way of knowing how well it'll work. Especially with all the changes Rits has made to it."

As Misato gave voice to her various concerns, Shinji felt his insides twisting about in knots. "So...do you think...Toji will even be able to pilot it?"

"Pilot it?" Misato repeated warily. "Shinji, I'm going to be completely honest with you; that thing is a regular Frankenstein's monster. Ritsuko brought it back from the dead, took bits and pieces from others Evas to rebuild it, and it still has some of the 13th Angel inside of it, including an S2 organ. I have no idea what the hell is gonna happen when they switch that damn thing on. I'm not even sure if Ritsuko knows, for that matter."

As these words sounded, they spread seeds of fear and worry in Shinji's mind, which quickly found fertile soil in all the pain and fear that had made up his life. And quickly grew into horrendous images of what could happen when they finally flipped the switch and brought to life the nightmarish monster Ritsuko had put together. "So..." Shinji started, uncertain if he even wanted to hear the answer to the question he was about to ask, "is there anything we can do?"

"You mean, other than cross our fingers and hope for the best?" At this less than optimistic statement, Misato shrugged helplessly. "I'll...be talking with Ritsuko. See about arrange a few precautions, just to be on the safe side. But..."

As Misato again trailed off, Shinji sat back on the couch, his imagination still spawning horror after horror. It was bad enough that Unit 03 was a composite of multiple Evas now, but the fact that it now had an S2 organ made things several times worse in his mind. He was fully aware of how NERV America had tried installing and activating one of those organs inside of Unit 04, an act that had ultimately resulted in a Dirac Sea forming and swallowing the entire installation, wiping it off the face of the Earth. It was all too easy to something like that happening again, if not something worse. All with his friend at the center of it all.

As these dismal possibilities sank down into the depths of Shinji's stomach, where they promptly began to rot and burn, they drew down a curtain of silence upon him and his purple-haired companion. Seconds slowly dragged on in total silence, until at last Misato sat up straight and looked at her ward. "You know something, Shinji? I've just realized something!"

Starting at Misato's sudden change in posture and tone of voice, Shinji looked perplexedly at her. "Wh-what's that, Misato?"

"We sure as hell put up with a lot of crap around here, don't we?!" Misato declared, giving the couch an emphatic thump.

His eyes popping out at this, Shinji just sat there, staring in confused astonishment at this statement. "I mean, sure, I've probably said stuff like that before!" she went on, her voice getting louder and more impassioned. "But I think this sets the record for the most crap we've had to put up with! Am I right, Shinji-kun?!"

"Uh...well..." Shinji started, uncertain as to what exactly he should say in response. Until at last he shrugged and got out, "Well, I...I guess so..."

"Damn straight I'm right!" Misato declared, punctuating this statement with another thump to the couch. "And you know something else, Shinji? We shouldn't have to put up with it!"

"Uh, I - I never - said that we should!" Shinji blurted out, uncertain as to where Misato was going with this. "But - well...it's not like there's...anything we can...really do..."

"I know! And that, Shinji, is what really pisses me off!" Somewhat stunned by this announcement, Shinji could do little but sit back and watch as a wonderfully impish smile appeared on Misato's face. "But you know something?" she asked, leaning in so she was practically whispering in his ear. "We might not be able to anything about this mess, but there is something we can do. And I think we should do it."

After taking a moment to jumpstart his mental processes, Shinji asked, "Uh...do what?"

"Enjoy ourselves despite what that rat-bastard does!" Misato declared with a sense of gusto. His eyes and mouth popping open once again, Shinji found himself sitting in stunned silence as the Major's already impish expression became that much naughtier and devious. "C'mon, Shinji! It's bad enough we have to deal with all this crap at work! We shouldn't let it ruin our lives when we're on our own time!"

"Uh..." Shinji hesitated, still uncertain if he was tracking what Misato was saying. "Well...I - guess that makes sense..." After this hesitant concession, the 3rd Child frowned perplexedly and asked, "But...what should we do?"

"Well, seeing as we have less than two weeks before people have to start leaving this place...I say we enjoy that time to max!" Misato declared, giving Shinji a playful wink. "Go out for one great big night out on the town! See movies, have a fancy dinner, do anything and everything we can! Enjoy ourselves for a change!"

"Go out...on the town...?" His garbled brain slowly putting things together, Shinji then gasped at the apparent result. "M-misato...you mean - you want to - got out on a date?! With me?!"

"Well, of course with you, silly!" Misato assured him with a playful giggle. "You don't see anybody else in here, now do you?!"

In an instant, Shinji went from a maelstrom of mental chaos to being elevated to Cloud 9. For as astonished as he had been by the notion of Misato returning his feelings of love, the idea of her wanting to go out with him was even more incredible. And for a time, all he could do was sit there, picturing them doing exactly what she had suggested. Him wearing a fancy black suit, the woman he loved garbed in some slinky, satin outfit, hand-in-hand as they took advantage of every distraction and entertainment the fortress city still had to offer.

But even as baser portions of his imagination took such a magical encounter to their logical extremes, Shinji's resident negativity asserted itself. "But, Misato..." he started as a very nasty problem reared its ugly head. "Won't you...get in trouble?" When the purple-haired woman made a quizzical sound in her throat, he elaborated with, "Well...it's like you said. To most people, I'm fourteen, and you're..."

"Hey! Is there a law that says that your legal guardian can't take you out for a nice night out on the town?!" Misato demanded with a mix of imperiousness and playfulness. Still, Shinji couldn't help but be stunned by the force of her voice...until her expression again melted into one of playfulness. "You've helped save the world more times than I can count, Shinji. You've put up with more crap than I had any right to ask of you. So is there a single reason why I can't treat you to a special night out on the town...to thank you for everything you've done?"

Blinking a few times at this, Shinji frowned in consideration. Upon deciding that there was indeed no law saying that Misato couldn't do something like that, he then asked, "But...I thought you wanted to...?"

"Go out on a date? I do!" Then Misato planted a quick kiss on Shinji's lips, leaving him even more stupefied than before. "And for us, that will be exactly what we'll be doing!" Then she kissed him again, following up with a foxy smile and a playful wink. "But if anybody else asks...I'll tell them that it's just my way of...thanking you for everything you've done. Okay?"

Off-balance from the combination of Misato's kisses and her unique logic, Shinji required a moment to consider what she said before he nervously asked, "You won't...get in trouble or anything...will you?"

This time, it was a broad, girlish grin that spread across Misato's face. "No more trouble than I usually get in on my own, anyway!" Punctuating this statement with a playful giggle, the purple-haired woman then put out her legs and jumped to her feet. "And now that that's settled...it's time for my break!"

"Your break?" Shinji repeated blankly even as Misato made her way over to the DVD shelf. "But, Misato...isn't it a bit early for that?"

"Why? I can take my break any time I want to, Shinji-kun! And after everything that's happened so far today, I sure need a break right now!" As the 3rd Child processed this declaration, Misato visibly scanned the selection of DVDs, running her finger past them, row by row, muttering almost silently to herself. Then she paused at one DVD, let out a whoop of satisfaction, and yanked it off the shelf. "Perfect! A nice, fluffy comedy movie!"

Getting the feeling he was missing something, Shinji watched as Misato skipped over to the TV and DVD player. "But...you won't be able to watch a whole movie during your break..."

"I don't intend to," Misato announced as she inserted the DVD. "I just wanted a nice, stupid, easy-to-ignore movie. Something that we could pretend to be watching if anybody shows up to bug us."

Shinji's first impulse was to ask what they would be doing instead of watching the movie. But then Misato turned to look at him, an expression of tease and love on her face that immediately answered his question. "But..." he asked, glancing over the camera that was part of the communications link to the Ready Room. "What if we're caught? You...?"

"Don't worry! I'll be sure to lock the door! And as for that camera...!" Pausing just long enough to hit the play button on the movie, Misato made her way over to where the camera was. Flashing Shinji another playful smirk, she doffed her jacket, and in a grand flourish, draped it over the camera.

Despite everything, Shinji couldn't help but smile at this. His heart starting to beat just a bit faster, he watched as Misato went over to the door and securely locked. "You...you're sure you want to...?"

"I'm sure." Then Misato paused and looked at Shinji, as if something had just occurred to her. "That is..." she began, an edge of nervousness and hesitation appearing in her voice, "if you don't mind. I..."

"I-I never said that I...I didn't want to!" Shinji protested, his cheeks coloring even as he thought about what Misato had in mind. "But...like I said, I don't want you getting in trouble, or..."

As Shinji trailed off helplessly, the Major's smile took on a somewhat sadder caste. "I know you don't. And I don't want you getting hurt or anything like that." Making her back to the couch, she again sat down to him, Misato paused to place her hand on his cheek. "But...Shinji...it may seem stupid, and...and I know I said that we'd...we'd take things one step at a time, but...right now, there's nothing I...I want more...than to be here. With you."

As Shinji sat there, staring into Misato's eyes, he heard things in her words than weren't said aloud. He heard her say just how much being in the position of forcing a life of horror and conflict upon Toji once more hurt her. He heard her admit that she needed to be with him, not just wanted to. And in a very real way, he heard her say just much she loved him.

So ultimately, after but a moment's thought, Shinji smiled nervously, sadly, and admitted, "And I...I want to be with you..."

Misato's eyes watered somewhat at this admission, and a tiny sniffle was heard, but none of that compared to loving smile that appeared upon her lips. Lips that she soon pressed down upon Shinji's own in a deep, loving kiss. Somewhat surprised by the intensity of this emotional display, he was unprepared for the woman he loved wrapping her arms about him, her hands slowly moving about his back in a way that sent his heart pounding like a racing stallion. And while Shinji was mentally unprepared for something like this, another part of him, a more instinctual part knew exactly what to do, and prompted the teenage boy to return Misato's embrace. And before long, his hands were running up and down the woman's slender frame, savoring every curve they could find, taking in her warmth, and the softness of her body that lady hidden beneath the simple skirt and blouse she wore.

"Ooh!" Misato got out at one point, her eyes widening with surprise, almost causing Shinji to panic. He spent a few seconds wondering what he could have done wrong when a coy smile from the purple-haired woman suspended his fears. "Getting a little daring, are we, Shinji-kun?"

A noise of hesitant confusion sputtered out of Shinji's lips as he tried to figure out what he had down to prompt such a reaction. Furrowing his brows somewhat, he remembered one of his hands reaching down, and encountering some especially curvaceous territory, but before he could put two and two together, Misato lowered her face so that their noses were less than an inch apart. "But that's alright. I don't mind. I'm a bit surprised...but I sure don't mind!" Chuckling in a positively naughty manner, the purple-haired woman shook her head slowly. "After all...I know full well what it's like to be a horny teenager!"

Taking this statement and combining it with the aborted thought processes he had been about to complete, Shinji opened his mouth to protest. But just as his lips parted, Misato placed her own squarely upon them, and pressed the slightly younger pilot down beneath her, still running her hands about his frame and letting out slight moans of contentment.

After a few seconds of experiencing such heavenly bliss, Shinji forgot all about his earlier concerns and worries, forgot about rational thought. Instead, he rode the emotions of the moment, and though his cheeks were burning somewhat, though some of his old fears remained in place, he was being loved. He was being kissed and hugged and cuddled by the woman he loved, who had made it clear that she wanted to be with him. And in the face of these things, and the sheer warmth and adoration Misato was showering him with, he felt his body respond in kind, and though he found himself nervously fumbling some of the kisses he returned to her, though there was some hesitation in the way his hands explored her tender form, after his previous experiences with physical romance with her, it was becoming more familiar and comfortable for him.

As he continued to lay on the couch, Misato's lips kissing him tenderly, her breasts pressing up against his chest, and her legs bracketing his pelvis, a voice sounded in Shinji's head. We'll take this one day at a time, that voice sounded. But one day...I want to do the rest of it with you.

The voice caused Shinji's eyes to briefly pop open in surprise. For while it was completely impossible, he could have sworn those words had been spoken in Misato's voice. But as she quickly reminded him that her lips were occupied with other matters, the normally shy boy again went with the moment, and returned her loving kisses.

I think...I'm looking forward to that... Shinji nervously thought, his imagination conjuring up images of such a happening. Imagination that was being provided with ample ammunition by the woman he loved.

As Asuka sat in her living room, the bean bag she was using as a chair seeming to have developed a few unpleasant lumps, she eyed the TV in a bored fashion. Muttering beneath her breath about the lame programming that consisted of Japanese television, knowing that there was no one there to listen to her complaints.

But she wasn't alone.

There was PenPen, of course. But the warm-water penguin was presently in his refrigerator, napping or something else. He wasn't a factor.

The others that were there with Asuka were.

Shinji, Misato, Kaji, Rei, Hikari, Toji, Kensuke, Ritsuko, Maya, Shigeru, Makoto, and others. All of them were with Asuka now, despite not being physically present in the apartment. They were all there in her mind, simple reflections of the discoveries she had recently made about herself. As well as the thoughts and fears that had resulted of them.

"You truly are pathetic, Pilot Sohryu," the Rei that lived in her mind commented in her usual soft-spoken manner, her expression similar to that the real 1st Child wore, but subtly different. With just enough disdain creasing her features to match the sentiment she was giving voice to.

"She certainly is, isn't she?" agreed the Ritsuko in Asuka's mind. "She spent, what, ten years training to be an Eva pilot? And all she's managed to do is screw up every battle she's been in."

"Yeah, she's so stupid," commented the Shinji that was a part of her. "She just keeps going on and on about how 'great' she's supposed to be, but she can't do anything to prove it."

"Definitely! How sad is that, Shin-man?!" grinned the mental Toji as he wrapped his arms about the shoulders of his fellow illusory Stooges. "The Devil never did live up to her own press!"

"Not that anybody could!" snickered the dream Kensuke as he held up his camera to Asuka's face. "Smile and say 'I'm a loser!', bitch!"

"Hey, c'mon, all of you! Stop it!" the dream Hikari broke in, holding out her hands to the others. "Give Asuka some credit! She's smart, she's graduated from college! And there's plenty of things she can do when she puts her mind to it!" Then the imaginary pigtailed girl smirked cruelly at the German and added, "When she's doing something other than piloting, of course!"

"And when would that be, Hikari?" asked the imaginary Maya with a derisive snort. "The only thing I've seen her do outside of her Eva is brag about having the best synchronization rate when she had it, and moaning and bitching about Shinji's when she didn't!"

"I guess it's all my fault, Maya," declared the illusory Misato, shrugging in a 'what can you do?' fashion. "After all, I'm the one who actually thought that Asuka would grow up a bit on her own." The figment of Asuka's own imagination sighed heavily before going on to say, "Serves me right for actually feeling sorry for her."

"Why would you ever feel sorry for that?" the Toji that lived in Asuka's mind demanded, pointing incredulously at the redhead. "It's probably because she's so useless that I'm being blackballed into coming back to NERV in the first place!"

"He's right, Misato," the imaginary Shinji agreed while the Rei nodded solemnly. "I still remember Asuka whining and complaining while I was trying to save us from the 6th Angel."

"Hey, don't be so hard on her!" declared the Kaji that lived in Asuka's mind, grinning as he spread his arms helplessly. "She's just a little kid, after all!"

"What, you mean like the rest of the children?" the psuedo-Ritsuko wondered with a raised brown eyebrow. "Just being a little kid doesn't account for her being so pathetic!"

"You got that right!" the psuedo-Makoto grinned obnoxiously. "And to think, you actually made us slaves for that useless brat!"

"That was pretty low, Major!" agreed the psuedo-Shigeru.

"Okay, okay! You got me on that one boys!" psuedo-Misato admitted, holding up her hands in defeat. "I guess I really shouldn't have blamed you for betting against Asuka, now should I?"

"And on that note...everybody, place your bets!" came a vague, imaginary bookie. "Just how badly will that useless piece of shit screw up in her next battle?! Just how much damage will she do to her Eva and how badly will she mangle our budget?! How much more of her stupidity can the Commander take before he finally wises up and ships her back to -!"

"SHUT UP!" Asuka shrilled hatefully, jumping to her feet and spinning about to face her illusory accusers and detractors. "All of you, shut up! Shut up, shut up, SHUT UPPPPP!"

As Asuka glared hatefully at the empty apartment, the ghosts that taunted and derided her faded away. One by one, Misato, Kaji, the engineers who wagered against her, even Shinji, Rei, and Hikari vanished into nothingness. Leaving the German alone once more.

Except that they weren't gone. Asuka knew she couldn't even fool herself into believing they had truly faded into nothingness.

Even as she tightened her grip on the remote control, feeling as if it would break at any second, Asuka could feel the shadows of those she knew still lurking about in her unconscious mind. All of them representations of all the ugly fears and doubts she had been forced to cope with lately. All of them having become far stronger recently.

Letting her gaze fall to the floor, Asuka gritted her teeth in frustration. "This...this is just so stupid...!" she muttered disbelievingly. "Why...why am I even mad about this...? It's not like that - that stupid Stooge even wanted to come back...!"

Screwing her eyes shut, Asuka flopped down upon the bean bag chair, curling up and wrapping her arms about her legs. Doing her best to ignore the niggling illusions of doubt and fear and pain as she focused on the events of yesterday. Of what had happened when she had gotten back home after her afterschool talk with Hikari.

She had been in a somewhat better mood when she had arrived home that day. She had spent some time with her best friend, and to Asuka's gratification, she had even managed to help Hikari feel at least a little bit better about all the things that were troubling her. And given all the turmoil and torment the German had been through as well, along with how often Hikari had offered her own support, she had been glad that she had been able to help someone, even if it had only been in a small way.

But when Asuka had arrived home that day and announced her return for anybody who happened to be listening, things had been quick to take a turn for the worst. Starting with her housemates telling her of the bad news regarding the future of Tokyo-3...and Toji being forced to return as the 4th Child.

The revelation of the planned evacuation of nonessential personnel from Tokyo-3 was a shocker for Asuka, but in a way, it really wasn't all that surprising. The fortress city's armaments and defensive systems had been more-or-less ineffectual against the recent Angels, and they had been worse than useless against the Fallen and their creators. So it was understandable that the bean counters wouldn't want to waste money on them or the people needed to maintain them. And as for people being evacuated, the German hadn't been overly concerned about that. For in truth, there was only one person amongst the many potential evacuees that she would miss if she had to leave.

But the resurrection of Unit 03 and Toji being forced to return as its pilot, those things had hit Asuka in an entirely different way. With myriad emotions spread out over the day, that changed and grew more prevalent as night spread across the city.

Initially, Asuka had been shocked and not just a bit horrified by the fact that Gendo was using Toji's sister to force the Stooge to return to NERV. For while she disliked the jock and couldn't even begin to fathom why the normally sensible Hikari would want anything to do with him, she couldn't help but be sickened by what she was being told. It brought back Misato telling her of how Shinji was originally forced to become the pilot of Unit 01, the astonishment and surprise Asuka had felt at that discovery, and gave it a new, more horrifying depth. Made it that much more real for her. And she knew how close Toji had come to dying as a result of Unit 03 being possessed by the 13th Angel, and that it had only been a miracle of modern medicine that had given him back his lost arm and leg. She knew how she would feel if she had been forced to go through that, only to be told that she had no choice but to come back and pilot a biomechanical nightmare that was an amalgamation of the two monsters responsible for her being mutilated.

But as the day had worn into evening and the small group of people had gone about their routines, talking about everything as they had dinner, watched TV, and done what so-called normal people did in such situations, Asuka's initial horror turned into an even more debilitating pessimism. Not just about the situation with Hikari, but the fact that Gendo would do what he was doing. Go to such lengths to bring back a completely untrained pilot for a rebuilt Evangelion. An Evangelion with its own S2 organ, with powerful new experimental weaponry and support gear.

Why? Why is the Commander...doing all this...? Asuka had found herself thinking. Why did they make Unit 03 so much more powerful? I mean, if they can give that rebuilt monster all of that, why not the other Evas? Why not Unit 02? Why not...me?

On one level, Asuka knew that the presence of an S2 organ in Unit 03 was likely a factor. If it worked as it should, Unit 03 would be a perfect fighting machine, potentially on a par with the nightmare beast she had seen Unit 01 become when it had been under the influence of Shinji and Misato's cross-synchronization, and possibly capable of neutralizing the horned destroyer if the need arose. So it made sense that Gendo would want to take full advantage of this. But in that case, why would he want to give such a powerful engine of destruction to a complete novice of a pilot?

She understood why Shinji would not be offered the new, more powerful Unit 03. The younger Ikari had shown more than a few signs of rebelling against Gendo's will, something the Commander of NERV would not like. Furthermore, the ability to cross-synchronize with Misato was apparently connected to Unit 01, so if Shinji tried piloting Unit 03, they wouldn't be able to take advantage of this. The same held true for why Misato wasn't being offered Unit 03 now that she could pilot. Rei had her share of skill, but she was far from being the best pilot. Meaning that, if someone were to be offered such a powerful Eva, Asuka would be the logical choice. Not Toji.

At least...that was something Asuka would have once thought to be perfectly logical. That she had the most training, the most experience. That she was a superior choice to Toji in every possible way.

But now, she could no longer pretend that she was the best pilot. Not even remotely close to that. Asuka had seen what she looked like to the eyes of others, seen her many flaws and failings in the merciless eyes of internal recorders of her own Unit 02. Had seen beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Great Asuka Langley-Sohryu she had always pictured herself as being had ultimately been nothing but a sham conjured up by her own arrogance. All there was a whiny little brat who wanted to be the best...and failed miserably at it, over and over again. And the fact that Gendo was doing all this, pressuring someone without any experience at piloting was like the final nail in the coffin her illusions and self-deceptions now lay in. Something that had haunted her through the night and shadowed her at school.

"I guess I can't blame the Commander for that..." Asuka muttered sourly, wanting to hear her own voice, not the voices of the many phantoms that lay in waiting, ready to return and taunt her over her utter uselessness. "Who'd want to give an experimental Eva to a whiny bitch like that, anyway...?"

As this hollow admission to her own futility sounded in the apartment, Asuka was surprised when it was answered by the sound of the doorbell. A quizzical sound escaping the German's throat, she looked in the direction of the entry hall, wondering it could be. It certainly couldn't be Shinji; he was on standby so as to be able to help break the bad news to Toji, and there was no way Misato could be home so early.

After a brief time considering the matter, the doorbell rang again, leaving Asuka to sigh irritably. Obviously, she wasn't going to figure out who was bothering her just by sitting around, and she doubted she would be so lucky as her unwanted guest would get a clue and leave. So with an irritated grunt, she rose to her feet and started towards the entry hall.

Maybe it's the Commander here to tell me I'm fired...! Asuka fumed, caught between anger and despair as she pictured this event. I bet that would make one of those jerks with their pool happy!

As her thoughts sparked some refreshing anger in her, Asuka reached the door just in time for the bell to be rung once more. "Yeah, yeah, who is -?!" she snarled even as she opened the door. Only for her mouth and eyes to pop open in astonished delight when she saw who it was. "Kaji!"

"Hey, Asuka," Kaji responded with a typical devil-may-care smile. "Sorry if I came at a bad time. Hope I'm not interrupting anything."

"No! No, of course not!" Asuka responded, her bad mood all but forgotten as she backed away from the door. "Uh...you wanna come in?"

"Well, sure. Why not?" Kaji replied with a boyish shrug before following the German inside. "Seeing as I dropped by to see how you were doing..."

Despite being relieved to have company, especially someone she could talk openly with, Asuka was taken aback by Kaji's words. "You wanted to see me?"

"That's right." Cocking his head to the side, Kaji seemed to consider her for a time before playfully wondering, "What, is there some reason I wouldn't?"

Other than the most obvious ones? a more hard-bitten part of Asuka wondered, recalling the mocking voice the Kaji that now lived in her mind had used in referring to her. Shoving that ugly part of her to the side, the German shrugged and, as nonchalantly as possible, responded with, "No, I guess not."

"I'm certainly glad to hear that," Kaji commented in a rueful manner, allowing Asuka to lead the way inside.

"Would you...?" Asuka began uncertainly as the two of them arrived in the kitchen. "Do you want something to drink, or...?"

Smiling boyishly as only he knew how to, Kaji nodded. "Sure. Do you have any juice, or soda?" Nodding to this, Asuka quickly went to the refrigerator. After a moment or so of rummaging around inside, she retrieved two cans of soda. Smiling easily, she handed one can to the unshaven man while keeping one for herself. "Thanks." Pausing just long enough to pop open the tab and take a generous sip from his drink, Kaji then glanced over at the table. "Why don't we sit down and relax a bit, huh?"

"Okay," Asuka replied easily, watching as Kaji made his way over to the table. Following a polite distance behind, the German pressed her lips together in consideration. Already aware that something was wrong.

She knew that Kaji was frequently busy with his own duties, and that those duties frequently took him far away from Tokyo-3, and for extended lengths of time. She also knew from experience that there were many layers to this man; as easygoing as he often came off as being, he had a great deal of intensity to him as well. And more importantly, there was the timing of his arrival. So much was happening in Tokyo-3, and the representative of the UN just happened to show up?

Not a chance. With considerable effort, Asuka forced her concerns to the side, and instead seated herself. "So...how was your business trip?"

"Eh, you know how these things are," Kaji shrugged as he took a chair and swiveled it around. He then sat down on it with his legs spread out to the sides of the back, the folded his arms on top of the back rest. "One boring inspection after another. All to keep the pencil-pushers happy."

"And what else has been happening?" Asuka wondered, wanting to get to the point of all this. "Have you...heard about our new budget?"

"Have I?! It's the reason I'm back in town!" Kaji announced, letting out a low whistle as he slowly shook his head. "The Commander called me in so he could give me the bad news along with everybody else!"

Pausing to consider this, Asuka frowned and asked, "So...wait, you got back yesterday?"

"That's right. And as much as I would have loved to have been able to drop by a visit right away...well, you know how it is," Kaji shrugged, managing a somewhat pouty face. "You have to make reports, you have to see someone in accounting or whatever, and by the time you're done cutting through all the red tape...well, it's already tomorrow. And you haven't even had time for a decent meal or a nap. Let alone both."

Deciding to take this statement at face value, something made easier by Asuka's personal experience with bureaucratic bull, the German decided to try a different tact. "Kaji...do you think this is a good idea? Cutting NERV's budget like this?"

"To be honest, I don't think it matters if I think it's a good idea or not," Kaji admitted, pausing to take another sip of his soda. "It's all in the hands of those who happen to have their hands on NERV's purse strings. Not much that either of us can do about that." A beat passed as the unshaven man considered the German, then asked, "What about you? Do you think it's a good idea?"

Pressing her lips together as the ball was knocked back into her court, Asuka thought back to her own dismal musings from before. "I...I don't know, Kaji. It makes sense, I guess. But..." Heaving a deep sigh, the German glanced out towards the living room. Looking out the windows at the city beyond. "You remember Hikari, right?"

"Hikari?" Kaji blankly repeated, only for recognition to light up his eyes a moment later. "Oh, right! Brown hair, pigtails, freckles...she's a friend of yours, right?"

"Yeah. My friend. Pretty much the only one I've got here." Her insides twisting about, she considered what she was about to say. "And...I think she's going to be leaving."

Both Kaji's eyebrows shot up at this. "Really?" he murmured, his voice completely serious. "What makes you say that?"

"A bunch of things," Asuka admitted, her insides twisting about more and more. "It turns out that her father's scared about the Fallen and how fast they've been showing up, and...he's been trying to find a job elsewhere."

"Easier said than done, I'm afraid," Kaji remarked.

"Yeah, I know." Thinking back to earlier that day, Asuka felt her hands shake ever so slightly as she recalled the brief period of time she had been able to spend with her closest friend at school that day. "Anyway, with the evacuation coming up, Hikari's father is thinking of volunteering to have them all leave."

"Without even finding a new job?" Kaji remarked, downing another sip. "He must be desperate."

Nodding to this, Asuka sighed. "Fortunately, Hikari was able to talk him out of doing anything stupid." Then she grimaced somberly and added, "For now, anyway..."

"But if he thinks he's got a chance at a new job someplace else, you're worried he might decide to throw caution to the wind, am I right?" As Asuka nodded to this, Kaji smiled sympathetically. "And you don't want your friend to go away." Again, the German nodded, prompting a sigh from the unshaven man. "Oh, boy. Am I familiar with that."

"Really?" Asuka somberly asked.

Nodding to this, Kaji cocked his head to the side and studied the German for a time. "Really. I have to say, it certainly sounds like you've got a lot on your mind right now." Unable to argue with this, Asuka lowered her eyes to the table. "Tell you what; how about I take you out for dinner sometime?"

A beat passed as Asuka's overtaxed mind processed what she had heard, and when it finally succeeded, she looked blankly at her crush with a look of confusion. "You...want to take me out to dinner...?"

"Sure, why not?" Kaji asked with a playful smile. "I know I haven't been around very much, and...well, it's like you said. With everything that's going down, this city won't be a real city for much longer. So we might as well spend some time enjoying what we have while we can." Then he shot her a wink and added, "And from the sound of things, I bet you'd like to get away from your worries, at least for a day."

At one time, Asuka would have jumped at what she was being offered. Kaji was asking her out to dinner, virtually asking her out on a date. It was something she had dreamt of for quite some time, something she had tried to win on more than one occasion. Tried to make Kaji see her for a real woman.

But the initial delight Asuka felt at this offer faded quickly. She knew Kaji couldn't possibly see her as the proud, brave young woman she had always thought she came across as. She had seen the reality of her own behaviors, seen what she really looked like to the world at large. And she knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that no one could consider the pathetic, whiny little bitch she had seen via Unit 02's recorders as anything magnificent, proud, or brave.

Besides...Misato's probably the one who cooked this up, Asuka thought somberly, recalling the ill-thought bet she had made with the purple-haired woman, and her subsequent decision to concede the German's victory after the disaster with the 2nd and 3rd Fallen. Yeah, that would be just like her. She probably ran into Kaji yesterday while on base, and asked him to do this as a favor.

Just the thought of this wiped out any and all pleasure Asuka had at the prospect of going out with Kaji. For she knew that Misato was likely doing what she thought was best, this situation wreaked of pity. And if there was one thing Asuka couldn't stand, it was the prospect of anybody pitying her.

For a time, Asuka considered her options, and realized that she didn't have many of them. She could refuse Kaji's offer...but truth be told, the idea of getting away from her worries for a time was a tempting one. And while she was loathe to accept such a thing when she was certain that pity was a factor in it, she also knew that there was a great deal happening, both about her and within her. And despite the fact that her tattered pride would never allow her to admit it to another human being, these were things that were slowly but surely eating her alive. And if there was to be any chance of salvaging herself, of actually becoming the Great Asuka Langley-Sohryu she had always dreamed of being, then she needed something.

She needed help. And in all honesty, there was only one person that she trusted enough to advise her in a situation like this...and she felt that she lower her shields enough around, because that person already knew what Asuka was like. For he, like everyone else at NERV, knew her to be the bitch that she truly was.

And that's probably the most pathetic thing of all, Asuka thought, issuing a heavy sigh before again focusing on Kaji. "Sure...I mean...why not?"

"Great. It's a date, then," Kaji replied, seemingly unconcerned by Asuka's far from enthusiastic response. "How about tomorrow, then?"

"Sounds good," Asuka agreed after a moment's consideration. Rei would be on standby tomorrow, and she really wasn't in the mood to be anywhere near Shinji. Not in the mood to be reminded as to who the great one amongst the pilots truly was. Pausing to take a sip of her own drink, the German then let out a low sigh. "Also, Kaji?" The unshaven man cocked his head to the side as the redhead gathered herself up for what she had to say next. "I...I need a favor from you."

A flash of surprise appeared on Kaji's face at this. "Really?" he murmured, as if unsure what to make of this. "What kind of favor?"

"There's something I need to know. Something really important," Asuka admitted, feeling a minor tremor run up her spine. "I need to know...if I've killed anyone..."

"I just heard from Dr. Akagi," Fuyutsuki intoned, frowning as he looked at his former student. The two of them standing in the darkness of Gendo's Lair, a darkness that matched the emotions the old professor as he tried to keep his aged stomach from rebelling once more. Tried to force himself to stomach the darkness that he was a part of. "The 4th Child has agreed to return to NERV. He's just been fitted for his new plug suit, and Major Katsuragi has filled out all the forms making his return official."

"Excellent, sensei," Gendo oozed cruelly, his hands steepled in his namesake pose. "Tell the doctor to arrange for the Fourth's sister's operation. Schedule it for tomorrow night."

"Tomorrow night?" Fuyutsuki repeated blankly. "Isn't that a bit soon?"

"Unit 03 must be completed as quickly as possible, sensei. We have to give the 4th Child a bit of time to train and become acquainted with Unit 03," Gendo replied evenly. "Everything is in place to raise the stakes a bit...and push the Fourth to be the perfect pilot for our needs."

His insides twisting even more as he thought about what Gendo had planned, Fuyutsuki sighed in weary defeat. "Very well, Ikari."

"Now...all we need to do is make certain the Fourth is present for what's about to happen," Gendo mused thoughtfully, his smile becoming that much colder and crueler. "It would be so much better if he could be there...to watch his sister die..."

Author's Notes: No, it's not your imaginations, readers. I've finally been able to update this story after an unfortunately long hiatus. I just hope that this chapter was worth the wait! So please, read and review! And maybe check out some of my other stories.

Now, I realize that some of you out there may be of the opinion that I'm moving Shinji and Misato's relationship a bit too quickly, but I thought having Misato react this way to the mess with Toji was perfectly in character for her. As seen in the series, when Misato is feeling down, troubled, and so on, she tends to seek comfort from others. And with her being in a relationship with Shinji, even if she's not willing to make it official, it seems natural for her to seek that comfort from him.

TheDivineDemon, consider this story continued. And don't worry, I won't be so long in updating next time.

DirtNap, always a pleasure to hear from a fellow Shinji X Misato fan! And yeah, Mari is lots of fun!

LoveThisStoryGirl, I certainly do intend to finish this and all my other stories!

kriitikko, I haven't given up on this story. Real life just hasn't been very nice to me as of late.

SeanHicks4, glad you're enjoying this.

Mizuno Tenshi2, you have every right to be worried about Gendo's plans.

Janrok24, I hope I don't disappoint!

Xardion, I'm glad you enjoyed everything. And I did enjoy doing Toji in this chapter. He strikes me as being every bit as complex as the main cast, he's just not given much of a chance to shine. And as for me...I'm still trying to cook up an adequate punishment for all of Gendo's evil.

Quathis, well, part of the problem with Hikari is her prudishness. She isn't considering the women at NERV for the simple reason that they're older than Shinji. So you can imagine how she will react when she learns the identity of Shinji's new girldfriend! I'm glad you enjoyed the omakes, though I couldn't take credit for them.

Dark Vizard447, if you think Unit 03's new look is cool, just wait until I debut it in action!

But in the meantime...let's enjoy some omakes!

Omake 1

"Snowballs," Orion mused with a slight sense of disbelief as he recalled the plan Mr. Lee had come up with for dealing with the V.B.I.A. "I still can't believe the Badass Women of Anime were planning on snowballing those bitches while attempting a rescue mission!"

Not even wanting to think about what would have happened if they had gone through this idea, Orion eyed one of the devices that presently littered his office. "I'm just glad you managed to get to them in time so that I could convince them to modify their plans a bit," Orion commented in a thought manner. "Because if you hadn't..."

With a shudder, Orion sat back in his seat, and again thought back to that horrendous adventure that had almost resulted in the ruination of his life and so many others...

As Mr. Lee, the Badass Women of Anime, as well as Toji and Kensuke were chuckling at the audacity of the fanfiction author's plans, Maid Rei frowned as a strange humming sound was heard. Narrowing her eyes somewhat, she looked about, trying to spot the source of the noise, only to see nothing. "What is it, Rei-chan?" Mr. Lee asked. "Is something bothering you?"

"I hear something," Maid Rei responded, holding up her Uzi. "Do you not as well?"

"I do," Erza declared, frowning somewhat as she Ex-Equipped a large broadsword. "And it's getting louder."

"You're right," Tokiko agreed, manifesting the four blades of her Valkyrie Skirt. "But what could it -?"

A moment later, a blinding flash filled the small room, causing the various femmes to hiss and the resident males to shield their eyes. When the light levels quickly returned to normal, another sound was heard; a strange, mechanical humming. And as the eyes of everyone there recovered, they could see what was making that noise.

"Oh, wow!" Kensuke crowed as he looked at the metallic spheroid. The top hemisphere was transparent, revealing a sophisticated electronic interior, and it was ringed by four antenna.

"What the heck is that thing?!" Toji demanded.

"I don't know, but it sure looks cool!" Kensuke decreed even as he pulled out his ever-present camera. "Let me just - hey!"

The otaku cried out in dismay as a hand and arm sprouted from his chest and snatched the camera out of his hands. "Sorry, Kensuke," Nico told them with an apologetic smile. "But we don't allow cameras in here. It's kind of a rule of ours."

"Still, I understand why you're curious," Kushina declared. "Where did this thing come from, and how did it get here, dattebane? This location is top secret!"

"Who cares?" Revy growled, taking aim at the device. "Let's just blow it away and be done with it!"

"Please, I'd rather you didn't," came an electronic voice from the sphere. One that everybody present immediately recognized. "This telepathically-responsive remote communications device is not only experimental...but it took a lot of time for me to have it put together."

"Orion?!" Mr. Lee gasped as the sphere approached. Before their eyes, it generated a bedraggled hologram of the fanfic writer. "Kohai! You're alright!"

"Well, that depends, sempai," Orion muttered somberly. "Do you define 'being captured by the V.B.I.A. and having been used as a therapy bag by Naru' as being alright?"

"Ouch," Saeko murmured sympathetically.

"There sure doesn't sound alright to me," Yoruichi admitted with a wince.

"But - what is this thing?!" Toji demanded. "Did you get away from the V.B.I.A.?!"

"I wish I could say I did," Orion confessed. "As for my remote orb, it's a device I cooked up for emergencies. As we all know, a fanfic writer crosses over to the other side of the Fourth Wall at his or her own peril. So in anticipation of emergencies such as this, I created this device so that I could use it to remotely find help to get me out of messes like this one." Giving this a moment to sink, Orion shrugged and added, "Anyway, I've been listening in on some of what the V.B.I.A. have been saying, so I knew Asuka had sent that letter to you, sempai. I figured you'd put together a rescue team, so I had the orb lock onto your bio-frequency. I was hoping that it would be able to track you down, no matter where you were."

"Well, you were right about that! Nice work, kohai!" Mr. Lee decided. "And you were right about us planning a rescue! We were just about to head out to the coordinates Asuka gave us, and -"

"- and walk right into a trap," Orion informed his fellow fanfiction writer. "Asuka has no intention of letting me go, sempai! This is all one big, nasty trap!"

"Oh, no!" Yoko declared, putting her hands to her cheeks in mock horror. "Did you hear that? It's a trap!"

"You make it sound as if it were a surprise," Hibari declared in a sarcastic manner.

"We figured that might be the case, kohai," Mr. Lee admitted. "But we also figured that heading to those coordinates was our best chance of getting a bead on your location."

"Trust me, it isn't," Orion informed them. "The V.B.I.A. has deployed an army of Zoids and Gundams there, all for the purpose of capturing you. Even with the B.W.O.A., it would take a minor miracle to get out of there in one piece!"

"What?! All that firepower, dattebane?!" Kushina demanded. "But why are they after Mr. Lee?!"

"It's not just Mr. Lee, or me!" Orion explained plaintively. "The V.B.I.A. is targeting every major fanfiction writer in every country! It's all part of their master plan!"

"And what exactly is their plan?" Chou'un asked.

"They're planning on brainwashing us in order to write fanfictions," Orion explained. "And -"

"So what?" Revy asked in a bored manner. "You already do that!"

"Fanfictions that the V.B.I.A. want! That's a whole different story!" Noticing the confused looks on everybody's faces, Orion sighed and explained, "Imagine every single anime and manga in existence being rewritten to play out to the same kind of Double Standard Abuse set up in the Love Hina anime, only with each nasty Trope cranked up to be at least ten times as bad!"

This got the attention of everyone there. "Ten times?!" Kensuke cried out in horror.

"Is that even possible?!" Toji demanded.

"What exactly do you mean?" Ai wondered in a deceptively quiet manner.

"Well...take Fairy Tail, for example," Orion began, focusing on Erza. "You know how you were able to summon two hundred swords to take out those thunder orbs in that one story arc?"

"Yes, I remember," Erza confirmed.

"Basically, the V.B.I.A. want stories where you do that more frequently...and then use all those swords to turn Grey and Natsu into pincushions!" Orion announced.

"What?!" Erza demanded, her voice rife with outrage. "But I would never do something like that to my nakama!"

"If the V.B.I. their way, you'll be doing that pretty much every five minutes or so! Then you'll bring them back to life just so you can kill them again!" Orion explained, prompting a look of horror to appear on Erza's face. "And that's just the tip of the iceberg! They want Mirajane to lock Elfman up in her own personal dungeon so she can beat and rape him every single day, Lucy to make slaves of her male Celectial Spirits, Levy to -!"

"No, no, no!" Erza shrieked in pure outrage. "I will die before I allow myself and my nakama to be perverted and tortured like that!"

"You're not the only one!" Yoruichi added in a dangerously mild fashion. "So you're saying that they intend to make every anime as horrible as that?"

"That's what I'm saying," Orion confirmed. "They want Tokiko to turn Kazuki into a homunculus so she can beat and torture him all day long, and -!"

"Turn Kazuki into a homunculus?!" Tokiko shrieked in a voice rife with hatred. "I'll splatter all their guts!"

"What about my fandom, Orion?" Kushina demanded uneasily. "Do they have any plans for my son, dattebane?"

"Do they?! They're -!" Then Orion caught himself, gulped, his holographic image seeming to shrink back from Kushina. "Um...on second thought...you're probably a lot happier...not knowing what they have in mind for Naruto. In fact...um..."

"You better tell me what those damned bitches are planning on doing to my son!" Kushina shrieked, becoming a picture of such pure rage that even the rest of the B.W.O. back from her. "Tell me before I really get mad!"

"Okay, okay!" Orion cried out, waving his hands defensively. Then he gestured for Kushina to come closer. "Here. Let me whisper it to you; I feel bad enough just having to say it, let alone say it really loud."

"Alright," Kushina growled before leaning forward, allowing the holographic representation to whisper carefully into her ear. As the others there watched on warily, the redhead's eyes went wide, then she gritted her teeth before her entire body exploded into metaphoric flames,. "THOSE DAMN BITCHES!" Kushina roared, chains flying forth from her in every direction. "I'M GONNA KILL EACH AND EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM WITH MY BARE HANDS!"

"Oh, boy..." Mr. Lee moaned heavily. "Kohai, I can't tell you how glad I am that you told us about this." Then the fanfic writer frowned. "Wait a second. You said you're in control of this orb, right? Does that mean it can -?"

"Lead you to my exact location? That's one of the reasons I built it!" Orion confirmed. "But we still have to take down the V.B.I.A. and scrap their brainwashing plans!"

"But how do we do that?" Nico asked in a reasonable manner.

"Well...actually, I might have a few things that can help," Orion explained. "As I told Mr. Lee, I've been working on building a production studio along the Fourth Wall."

"Right, I remember that," Mr. Lee nodded. "But you said it wasn't complete yet."

"It isn't, but I have stashed a few more gadgets of mine there. Experimental equipment for dealing with major emergencies." Then Orion frowned and admitted, "And I think this pretty much qualifies."

"And that, everyone, is the understatement of the century," Yoko declared in a humorless voice.

"So how do we get to the studio?" Toji asked nervously.

"That's the easy part, actually," Orion informed him. "The orb is capable of teleporting a large group of people there, and to other locations." When several raised eyebrows were aimed at the holographic representation, it shrugged and explained, "I figured something like that would be useful for a rescue. You know, just in case."

"Good thinking, Kohai," Mr. Lee commented before looking at the cooler that rested at Maid Rei's feet. "And to think, I was looking forward to just smacking those bitches with some snowballs. But I guess they need some stronger medicine than that."

"Snowballs?" Orion muttered, looking at the cooler. Then he groaned, and muttered, "I think I'll be happier if I pretend I didn't hear that..."

(Disclaimer: I do not own Ikkitousen, Naruto, Black Lagoon, Jigoku Shoujo, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Speed Grapher, Buso Renkin, High School of the Dead, One Piece, Bleach, or anything associated with these assorted anime. I'm writing this story simply because I enjoy writing.)

Omake 2

'What is it now?'

After comforting a distraught Shinji after an earlier day of battling with an Angel (and dealing with the trauma that followed), Misato received a call informing her of an attack on NERV. However, since the alarms hadn't gone off, she could safely assume that it wasn't an Angel attack. 'So then what the heck is it?'

She soon got her answer as she arrived. The central offices of NERV were in utter chaos, almost as though a bomb had gone off there. But the real damage was discovered in the Commander's office, which in of itself surprised her. Along with the damage being greater than before, Section 2 guards were found strewn about on the ground, badly injured and many unconscious, but still alive. Stopping by one that was being rolled out on a gurney, Misato questioned.

"What happened here?"

"A...monster... demon... the Commander..."

Misato blinked in surprise and looked over at the far end of the office, where the Commander's desk was. Ritsuko stood leaning on the desk, a sickly look on her face; an expression Misato had never seen on her face before. And she soon saw why. There, on the floor behind it, lay the mangled body of Gendo Ikari. His limbs were twisted unnaturally, his eyes were rolled into the back of his head and his blood tattered about on the floor. Misato covered her mouth at the horror of the sight. She was no fan of the Commander; that was a severe understatement.

But to see him like this...

But there was more. Blinking again, Misato stepped back and looked to see some of the blood was traced back against the wall. But more than that, it formed a pattern, a kanji symbol.


Reaching the outskirts of Tokyo-3, the demon warrior known as Akuma strode away. Xardion may have put him on this job unwillingly, but the opportunity it presented was enough for the demon to forgive the fanfic writer...this time.

On the one hand, there was no fight to be had here. Despite all his authority and so-called power, physically, Gendo Ikari was just a normal human being; no match for a demon. It was interesting to see his attempt to try though, guns, bullets, security; none of which made any difference to him. But again, there was no fight, just a killing. Despite his techniques originating and designed for assassination, without a fight in the process, the slaying of another was almost boring in his eyes.


The one thing that made it worthwhile was the evil the man had within himself; a sinister soul that surpassed even Akuma's. It was the perfect opportunity to use his deadliest technique to the full; the Shun Goku Satsu, a technique which power is amplified depending on the evil within the target. Given the darkness that Gendo harbored within him, Akuma had the perfect opportunity to see his dreaded technique to the full. And hearing the screams of pain and suffering the man had undergone before succumbing was enough to bring a feral grin on his face.


Meanwhile, Xardion sat back in his office, trying to think of a way to placate the demon warrior (in the hopes that he wouldn't have to deal with an irate Akuma later) when it suddenly occurred to him. A way to deal with two birds with one stone... Without the Commander, NERV would be in serious trouble when the Angels attack. Even though he was confident that the Eva pilots could deal with them, this plan of his would both spare them the pain and give Akuma what he really wants. And with a grin, Xardion went to work...

"Boy is that thing weird."

Assembled at NERV, Misato and the rest of the staff looked on as the next Angel arrived in Tokyo-3. She had already sent for the Children, who were en route to the HQ. But the Angel was close enough to the city to do some damage before the Evangelions could be launched. It was going to be a tight battle, and no doubt a hard one. Misato just hoped that Shinji would be up to the task. Losing his father hurt him quite a bit, despite everything he had done and it may affect him piloting here.

"Colonel (Misato went up a rank since the Commander's death)! We're picking up an huge energy surge."

"The AT-Field?"

"No ma'am. It's not coming from the Angel. Something...in front of it."

The group looked up at the screen to see a bright red glow rising in front of the Angel. The alien creature stopped and glanced down at the new presence, only to be blasted back by some great force. The NERV crew watched in shock as a red human form tore right through the AT field and into the Angel's core, shattering it into fragments.

"Tenshou Kareki Jin!"

(This omake was a gift from Xardion. Thanks a bunch, and sorry to take so long in getting it out.)

(Disclaimer: I do not own Street Fighter or anything associated with these assorted anime. I'm writing this story simply because I enjoy writing.)