Rei stared through the observation window, her face blank as her eyes watched the silent boy lying in the hospital bed, strapped down, as he blankly stared at the ceiling above him. Around him the whispering hums and beeps of the machines carried on, creating a deafening cacophony in the small room where he lay.

The boy, Shinji Ikari, the Third Child, was seemingly catatonic. He barely blinked, his gaze lost in the sea of dots that was the tiling above him. The rest of his body lay totally limp against the Velcro ties that held him to the bed, Had it not been for the steady rising and falling of his chest, she would have almost thought him dead. It was strange, for her at least, to see him like that. The last time she'd met the boy he was also in a hospital bed recovering from his injuries.

He had scared her then too.

It wasn't… she didn't know what to think. The idea of her fearing someone was simply beyond her logic, her ability to comprehend. It was disconcerting. Something about him made her feel… off. Like she wasn't right, wasn't supposed to be around him. It left her feeling a vague sense of something inside, something weird.

She had spent five minutes visiting him last time. While he was unconscious she had come to see him. She was to work with him, assist him, as she knew she would be ordered to. Because of that, she came to see him, to meet him. She had resolved to visit him in the hospital that first day. She knew he was still unconscious, but she had wanted to gauge him, much like she gauged the other significant people in her life. She wanted to define him, if only for her better understanding.

Even as she had walked into the room, she could sense the oppressive weight of… something. It was as if a massive dark cloud had been hanging over him, pressing down on him and by extension, her. She had watched his face as it twisted, as it grimaced and silently cried out, and it shook her. There was an almost choking amount of hatred and pain coming from Shinji combined with a crushing sense of depression. It had overwhelmed her and left her shaking.

Such a thing… she had never felt something so horrible from anyone, nothing so refined, so pure. It refused definition, refused explanation, so unknown was it. It terrified her in a way that she'd never known, not even when she had died that first time, or the second. It had lanced through her with such blaring intensity that she had nearly become physically ill.

She had run from his room that day.

From then on, she had done all she could to avoid him, going so far as to ascertain his schedule, if only to know where to miss him and when. She had wanted nothing to do with him, not of her own volition, and on some deep subconscious level, he still shook her. The very thought of being around him had made her shiver ever so slightly.

Yet… she had come to him this night, come to him and watched him. It was strange. She had no desire to see him, no desire to be around him, but that very same fear drove her to seek him out. Pulled to him like a moth to a flame, she had come when she'd heard of what had happened the night before. She had heard how he had attacked Captain Katsuragi, how he had put his hand through her vanity, how he had come in screaming like a newborn. How he had attacked one of the attending doctors when they tried to rebind his face and bandage his arm.

And she had heard that once they had abandoned the task that he'd fallen into this catatonic state. The Captain had been flitting back and forth, coming and going from the room, spending time to talk to the boy, and even trying to encourage the albino into talking with Shinji as well. She had yet to succeed, but the effort wasn't lost on the girl. Still, Rei hadn't even taken the thought into consideration. She wouldn't, couldn't be in the same room as he was, not alone, not with the Captain, and she had very briefly even considered telling the Commander no if he had told her to enter.

Shinji Ikari was a mystery, an enigma, something that defied her conventional logic and left her with nothing but fear and uncertainty. This was why she avoided him. She saw him as the creature in the dark, the thing that made man fear the shadows, the unknown and unknowable.

Almost unconsciously her hand drifted up to the glass, her palm resting against it, hiding his face, leaving him hidden, lost to her even as she shut her eyes and slowly shook her head. When she looked back, she found her hand moving away from his face. That was when it happened. The boy's head began to turn, slowly, as if on a rusty hinge, towards her. Like the setting sun, she watched his whole eye drift to the pillow, while his ravaged eye rose from the bridge of his nose like a great, white moon, the single pupil focusing in on her.

He stared back at her.

Rei froze. For minutes, the two stared at one another. She felt vaguely disgusted at the wicked, horrible scarring on his face, even as his lips slowly began to form two soundless words, consisting of a total of three syllables.

Hello Rei.

He smiled at her with broken lips, his eyes shimmering with what she could only describe as exhaustion tainted by a touch of insanity. His eyes followed her as she backed away from the glass. She felt none of the flat hatred, none of the rage that had gripped him, not as it had when she'd visited him weeks before. She didn't feel anything from him, except for a deep sense of sadness, a sense of guilt so overwhelming that it swallowed him whole.

I am sorry. I do not know how to respond. The words echoed through her head with no small sense of emptiness, her eyes glancing away for but a moment. When they returned to the boy, she found that he'd turned away from her, his eyes drifting back to gaze at the ceiling. Free of his lost eyes, she found herself bereft. She didn't know how to respond to his tormented gaze, his silent, echoing words, his strangely tired demeanor.

So she simply stood there, her eyes lost as she watched him.

The girl was gone by the time Misato returned to visit Shinji later that afternoon, just as the sun had begun to set. She had come to check on him, though she hadn't expected much considering… well… everything.

"Hey Shinji." She said, quietly, her tone barely audible over the beeping machines around the restrained child. He made no move to acknowledge her. She wasn't surprised, considering his mostly catatonic state. She'd heard about the incident that had occurred when they'd brought him in, about how he'd had to be restrained after attacking some of the medical staff when they tried to bandage him, and about how they'd pumped him full of sedatives as soon as they could afterwards. It disturbed her to think of the quiet boy in such a context.

"I… uhm…" The woman seemed to be at a loss for words, unsure of herself for not the first time. She couldn't meet his empty gaze, her face shying away from the blank stare and focusing on one of the many machines lining the room. "Ritsuko doesn't think this is mental contamination. That's good, right?"

It was an empty statement, said more out of the need to break the silence of the room than anything. The woman winced at the phrasing, though. It sounded distinctly wrong to her ears. There was a pause, Misato at a loss and Shinji catatonic.

The quiet was deafening to the Captain's ears. She shifted uncomfortably, before seating herself in a nearby chair. It was neither comfortable nor particularly well-made, but it did its job.

As Misato sat there watching the boy, she couldn't help but think of her meeting with the Commanders and Ritsuko. It had been an ugly meeting. Definitely not one of her best, as Ritsuko had all but chewed her out rather vocally, while Commander Fuyutsuki had done so in his own subtle way. Gendo didn't seem particularly interested in the matter, though he had drilled both women on just what had happened and how to fix it.

Ultimately, and after much testing and prodding, it had been decided that there wasn't any kind of mental contamination. The doctor hadn't liked having to admit that the very concept of mental contamination was still largely unknown to them. While there had been some kind of precedent set by the late Dr. Sohryu, the woman had gone insane from the incident, while Shinji's issues seemed to have stemmed from some kind of stress-induced condition, which had resulted in a total breakdown.

Gendo, the cold bastard that he was, didn't bother to ask about the child's condition, and showed no concern for him aside from his viability as a pilot. Fuyutsuki seemed concerned about his well-being, at least to a point. Misato had to admit that the older man faked concern fairly well; she knew that he was no more concerned over Shinji than Gendo was.

It really is sad. It's like he doesn't have anyone who cares about him. Misato thought darkly. She had been trying her best to offer him what little she could, though she knew her best wasn't nearly good enough. It all came down to the fact that he was just a boy, one who was introverted and shy and had been suddenly thrust into a position where the fate of the world rested on his shoulders. She was amazed that he'd made it as long as he had before snapping.

The woman shut her eyes, trying to push away the distinct sensation of tired burning. She hadn't gotten any sleep since the day before, having stayed up all night worrying about Shinji's condition. It was catching up with her, even after several cups of coffee. She would only close her eyes for a minute. Just a couple of minutes, and then she would go back to watching the boy.

"Misato." Shinji's voice cut through the tired haze like a hot knife through butter. Misato's head shot up, her eyes blurry from sleep as she stumbled out of her light slumber. A quick glance at the watch on her arm told her that it had been several hours since she'd passed out, and the distinct stiffness throughout her body from sleeping in that damn chair confirmed it.

Once fully awake, the Captain managed to focus in on the boy lying in the medical bed. He hadn't moved at all, his eyes still boring into the ceiling above. It had been his voice, though. He had awakened her.

"Yes?" Her tone was quiet, and didn't reflect the turmoil that she felt inside. For that she was thankful. Her exhaustion, combined with that sense of self-loathing had been haunting her for the better part of the night was taking its toll. She felt sick on the inside, angry at the state of things, at what they'd been forced to do, what they'd forced him to do.

"How many?" Misato stared at Shinji silently. She didn't want to think about this, about any of it at all. She didn't want to think about those cold, empty numbers that had all but eaten the boy alive the night prior and resulted in his breakdown. It hadn't taken much to look up the information. It took even less for her mind to justify the hundreds of losses, to place it all into a cold, logical little box in the back of her head.

"Why?" Shinji's head turned towards the woman slowly, his blank stare finally meeting hers. In his eyes she could see so much pain, so much guilt and rage and hatred that it made her breath catch in her throat. She involuntarily swallowed, her heart drowning in the absolute despair his small frame radiated, and some part of her began to feel ill, a part that whispered to her about her own failings, about how she had sent that boy out. She had broken him. He didn't need to answer her.

She didn't have the right to question him.

"There were roughly seven hundred casualties." She said, after a moment's pause. The boy's head turned slowly, his eyes once more focusing on the ceiling above. Misato found herself feeling less overwhelmed when the boy's eyes were looking away from her, and what little relief she felt was quickly turned bitter.

"How many from the shelter?" The words were empty, Shinji's voice dead. The Captain bowed her head in some semblance of shame. She wanted to cry out, to demand why the boy was so bent on knowing these things. She wanted to comfort him, to tell him that it wasn't his fault. She wanted to rage at Gendo and at herself for making Shinji pilot. She wanted… she wanted… so much. But she was too weak. She couldn't do any of these things. She could only answer him, and her voice could barely keep from quaking as she did so.

"Over eighty percent were from the shelter. Shinji… I…" Misato tried to begin, but found herself cut off by a bitter laugh. She shuddered at the madness-tinged tone of his voice, its grating nature seeming so much more sinister for it. It was much too sinister for such a young boy.

"One little girl." He said, his tone mixed with a kind of cynicism that left Misato wincing. He gave another laugh, and then another. It wasn't long before the boy was letting out a wild string of dry cackles, his bound form shuddering in its restraints as he bellowed out loud.

"O-one little… girl?" Misato ventured, wincing at the shrill whine of his prepubescent voice.

"Why, yes, Misato. One little girl. I saved a little girl. I saved her, you see, yes I did!" The boy gasped out, his words broken by his insane laughing. His face was twisted into a warped smile, his scars twisting themselves into a most hideous amalgamation. He kept laughing, as if it were the most amusing thing, his chuckles drifting into soundless gasps.

Misato found herself growing nervous. She had never seen insanity so close, never seen madness at its cusp. For a moment, she was glad that the restraints held him so tightly, and even with them, for the barest moment, she worried that the already strained bindings would snap.

"I saved one little girl, and all it cost me was… what was it? Seven hundred innocents?" Shinji let out an unhinged chuckle, his eyes wide with glazed madness. His wicked, heartless tone echoed throughout the room, epitomizing the insatiable insanity that had taken hold of the boy. Misato shuffled away, suddenly glad that he was restrained, and at the same time guilty for feeling that way. She found herself torn, violently so, between her desire to leave the room, to get away from the boy, to escape him and ignore him, and to hug him, to comfort him, to beg his forgiveness.

He didn't blame her. He'd never blamed her, even though she knew she deserved it. He never said a word, not to her about it. He bottled it all up and he let it eat away at him, let it devour him until nothing was left. He took the whole of it all and it was rotting him from the inside out. It was just his way of doing things, she had known, but…

"It's not your fault." Those last few words spilled out of her mouth, a whisper lost in the cacophony of the boy's sobbing laughter. But he stopped. The laughing cut off, as if it were on a switch. So sudden was it, that it caused the older woman to jump slightly in surprise.

"I killed them." He said, simply, his tone tired, his words empty. His eyes were focused on her, and devoid of the insanity that had held them before. The change was so sudden, so unexpected, that Misato found herself at a loss for words. Moments passed, before she spoke again, this time she had chosen what to say carefully.

"The Angel killed them. You were trying to save them, Shinji. It's not your fault." In her tone was a kind of conviction that the boy had seldom heard. He could feel the hatred she had put into the word Angel, and the selfish guilt that had echoed through the others.

"Then I failed to save them, didn't I?" His words were heated, his eyes had glazed over once more, and the statement had been delivered with a sneer.

Misato began to open her mouth, but she found herself at a loss for words. She could try to argue that he had saved humanity, but it she knew it would be nothing but hollow words to his ears. She could say that he had killed the Angel, that he'd avenged those lost, but it would be little more than a consolation, not justifying those who'd died. In truth, there really was nothing left to say. She sighed, her exhaustion seeping into her inflection as she contemplated what next to say. He was so lost, so helpless… and she could barely grasp at how to help him.

"Why?" Shinji's head turned to her, the word having escaped the woman's lips in a whisper. The boy stared at her, his gaze blank, mixing with both his sanity and his madness, leaving her a view of such unadulterated grief that Misato could barely keep herself from blanching in shock.

"I'm not a good person, Misato. I've done such horrible things… all I can do is hurt people." The words were coarse, his voice ragged, mocking and vicious. His empty gaze bore into her, his blank eyes mirroring the frigidness that had gripped her soul. It felt like he was sucking her in, calling to her with an ethereal need, and that scared her.

Misato fled the room, a cold sweat on her brow.

Shinji watched as she left, watched as she vanished, into the hazy dark that had permeated his sight, through the grainy blacks and whites revealed to him through his shattered and broken gaze.

She's afraid of you. A voice whispered to him, and he grinned at it, in his mind, and on his lips.

She should be. The words were unhinged, the thoughts filtered through the haze of red and black that had infected his mind. His gaze drifted up, to look at the white, ghostly figure above him.

Red eyes bore into his, with short, blue hair framing its face, the mouth a thin line as it looked at him. Its hands rested inside of him, inside his chest, his biceps fused perfectly with its wrists, its pale flesh drifting into his seamlessly. He knew that they met again, in a gross visage of a lover's embrace at the waist, his fused with its, the female form of the creature matching his. Naked, it was hanging over him.

Do you want them to fear you, Shinji? It spoke without speaking, the rasping words echoing though his mind.

An image of Asuka's pomp, pristine form permeated his mind, the feeling of his hands gripping her throat, choking her slowly, the table and chairs upturned and the stench of coffee covering him as the brown fluid burned his skin.

It made him laugh. It made him weep.

The voice fell silent, and the boy was alone. The ghastly apparition that hung over him had gone away. Above him he saw nothing but ceiling, the image grainy, its color gone, like everything else he'd seen. In the background, he could hear the beeping of the machines around him, driving away the silence that filled the room.

You're running away again, Shinji.

The boy's face slowly fell to the left, his unscarred eye focusing on a flowing figure that stood off to his left. Dressed in the most gossamer of silks, the blue-haired Lillith stood beside him. She smiled at him, ruefully, her pale lips lilting upwards while her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. She let her soft touch drift to Shinji's silken skin, that which was unmarred by the angry red scarring, as he stared at her, at the apparition.

You're a miserable coward. Run away, Shinji! Run!

He slowly turned his face to the right, the marred, warped skin that covered his face stretching uncomfortably as he looked at the other figure, one dressed in nothing but the black on white of his school uniform and glaring at him with angry, arrogant eyes. Hands in his pockets, the Lillian figure stood with a sneer that coiled around his face, his jagged, grey hair draping around his head like a hood.

Kaworu…

The word echoed through Shinji's mind as the phantom stood before him, the image of the ghostly girl blowing away at the insistence of the other. The shock of recognition left the Third Child shaking, shuddering, lost in a trance that was half hopeful and half terrified. Kaworu simply let out a soft, snide chuckle.

Remember me, Shinji? It asked, it's voice whispered from unmoving lips. The sounds in the background ceased, the only noise in the oppressive nothingness coming from Shinji's breathing.

Yes…

"Yes."

Both words were spoken, but only one could be heard. Shinji tried grasping for the Fifth Child, his fingers clenching and unclenching, arms bound to the bed, totally helpless and unable to act. The sight made the other laugh, a sound almost as empty and listless as the Angel's tone.

Did you miss me, Shinji? The wickedness in those words were lost on the boy as his chest filled with warmth, all while his stomach twisted and churned with an inexplicable fear.

"Yes."

Kaworu chuckled at the response, and slid forward across the tiled floor. His hands slipped out of his pockets and ran across the scarred face of the Third in an almost intimate fashion, before slowly moving down his chest, the tips passing through the cloth gown that covered him, pressing against his pale skin. It left a warm feeling, a tingling almost.

Shinji couldn't help but shudder, if only for a moment, at the almost erotic ecstasy that passed through him. The sheer sensation of it all was quickly overwhelming him, and it was then that Kaworu smiled.

His eyes barely open, he managed to catch one last glimpse of the phantom's face, to see the blood leaking from its nose, its ears, its lips, as one of its eyes dangled loosely from the socket. In that moment, his deepest subconscious remembered that sight, from when… from when he'd…

I missed you too, Shinji.

And then all the boy knew was darkness.

000

Hikari Horaki was, for lack of better term, totally and utterly annoyed. Three days ago, she'd been witness to an event that had left her more than a bit disturbed. It was then that the new student, Shinji Ikari, had been carted out of the school via ambulance and taken to a location which she'd not been able to ascertain. After speaking with both Toji and Kai, the former having been the last person Shinji interacted with and the latter being the one who had found Shinji and gotten the school nurse, she'd managed to get much of the story.

Toji had mentioned Shinji going off to the bathroom after they'd talked about the… incident… during the last evacuation. How the boy had been acting was suspect, and while she wasn't one to jump to conclusions, she had figured that there was more to that than what had been told. Something Toji had said set the whole episode off, but what she didn't know. Toji had been tight-lipped about the affair, and no amount of prodding seemed to get him to open up.

Kai was no help either. He'd only gone to get the nurse and didn't stick around to find out more, but he did hear Shinji crying and gasping, both signs of some kind of breakdown, and somehow linked to whatever Toji had said.

Officially, she was told he'd had a bad reaction to some of the painkillers they'd put him on for his rather bad facial burns and then told to leave it at that. The news had been delivered from Ayanami herself, which was also suspect, even more so than the obvious cover story, but the albino had been otherwise absent herself since that day.

The whole thing stunk, in her opinion, but there was nothing she could do about it. Had Kensuke… had he not been… She shook her head. She couldn't think about it. She wouldn't think about it.

The pencil in her hand snapped sharply, eliciting gasp of pain from the pigtailed girl. The class turned to her, and she looked down. Blood dripped from between her fingers where the pencil's splinters had pierced her skin. It wasn't all that painful but the teacher sent her to the clinic nonetheless.

As Hikari left the room, Toji, who'd been watching her, went back to staring out the window. His thoughts had also rested on the boy who'd been taken away not days before. He'd gone over the conversation with Shinji in his mind several times, each time finding himself coming to all kinds of conclusions as to why the boy had reacted as he had, especially when it came to what they were talking about. A large part of him screamed that it was just survivor's guilt, that he'd probably been in the shelter as well and had lost someone, like he had. But the boy had acted like he hadn't known about the shelter collapse, and that alone kept shooting down his first theory.

He'd felt the almost palpable guilt from the new student when he'd delivered the news, but he didn't know why, and that was the big question. If he wasn't in the shelter, what else could it have been? Toji just couldn't puzzle it out.

Hikari had spoken to him, several times in fact, but not until after she'd talked to that creepy Ayanami girl. She'd mentioned that Rei was the one who'd told her that Shinji just had a bad reaction to some medication or another, but Toji didn't buy that for a second. But, still… he was just a bit afraid of what might come if he brought his bit of information to the table. He knew he wasn't the brightest student, not by a long shot, and maybe Hikari could figure things out for him, be he just didn't know if he should. The best thing to do would be to confront Shinji directly about it the next time he saw the boy. That is, of course, assuming he showed up again.

Toji frowned at that thought. He didn't know if that boy, Shinji, would be coming back to the school after such an incident. His parents might decide to pull him out and send him from Tokyo 3 like so many others had. He wouldn't blame them. If his father didn't have an administrative position with NERV and had his sister not been too sick to be moved, he had no doubt that the three of them would've been long gone.

In all honesty, he didn't like Tokyo 3 in the least. Not after everything, not really. Kensuke had been ecstatic when he'd found out about the shelters and about the existence of "public NERV" as he'd called it. They'd all been briefed on evacuation and how to get to the shelters, along with a mess of other things that were awfully suspect, in hindsight. The boy had eaten it up, filled Toji's mind with all sorts of speculation, all kinds of wild conspiracy theories and fantasies that, at the time, had driven the older boy to tears. Now, though, a lot of what Kensuke had been on about seemed to make a lot more sense.

Had his friend been there, he knew that the boy would go from apples to zebras in a second's time, pondering all of the hysterics and contradictions concerning the truth behind the new student. Oddly, it was that same thought that had caused Toji to go more towards the possibility of a cover up. The whole explanation behind the Shinji incident stank of a "sanctioned" story cooked up by someone more in the "know" than he was.

And then there was that creepy Ayanami girl. She had been the one to deliver the news to Hikari, the official story coming from her lips. That didn't make a whit of sense, not to him and certainly not to Hikari. As far as they knew, Shinji had never even looked at Rei, much less spoken to her, and yet there she was, delivering what was a supposedly personal piece of information the Class Rep. There was the chance that they knew each other outside of the school, but he'd mentioned something about being new in town, which seemingly invalidated that idea.

He could just go up to ask her, but it was Ayanami. The very idea seemed ridiculous. Her "Ice Queen" persona was something of legend amongst the varying social groups, and her refusal to interact with anyone said a lot as far as her social life was concerned. There was the chance that they were related, but their last names were different, and there was nothing in the official school records that said anything about either of them being even remotely related. She was listed as an orphan, according to Kensuke, and he didn't doubt it. His younger friend was a bit of an amateur hacker, and had popped the lock on the school's private records. He had told Toji (along with anyone else in earshot) about everything he'd learned.

Hikari had been one of those in earshot, ironically, and she'd given them both cleanup duty for a month afterwards.

If nothing else, Toji remembered that little fact about the blue-haired albino. But the question of why she was playing messenger for Shinji remained. Toji wasn't able to let go of it for the rest of the day.

000

Dr. Ritsuko Akagi was not a happy scientist. Sitting before her were the latest batch of reports about the enigma, Shinji Ikari. Filled with impossible numbers, complex brain-wave fluctuations and wildly varying psychosomatic prognostics, the information concerning Shinji's unprecedented piloting skills, along with the unnaturally high amounts of LCL in his cells told her that he'd been piloting for a much longer period of time than what they were aware of. He was so supersaturated with the orange fluid that she was surprised he wasn't orange himself.

All of the samples they'd collected, including the spinal fluid they'd taken, had an almost unhealthy amount of LCL in them, which could only be possible if he'd spent the better part of a year floating in the chemical bath. Like he would have been if he'd been receiving training outside of NERV. It was certainly possible, considering what SEELE could accomplish, but as far as she knew, even they hadn't known about Ikari's child until just recently. Unless they'd lied to her about it, which was something they would do. Even though she was the head researcher for their Instrumentality Project, she had no doubt that they were aware of her involvement with the elder Ikari, which in itself warranted their suspicion, especially considering that they were right to be concerned.

But then there was a problem with that theory. The boy himself. There were some things one just could not fake, and psychosis was one of them. He could have faked the symptoms, but the catatonia couldn't be. He was under constant camera surveillance, and the scanners were set to record any fluctuations in his brain. And there weren't any. His brain activity had been at absolute zero for his entire stay. He hadn't moved, hadn't spoken, hadn't done anything. Misato had sworn he'd spoken to her, and Rei had admitted to seeing him look at her, but the machinery had recorded nothing. For all of her faults, Misato wasn't the delusional type, and Rei just didn't know how to lie. She suspected tampering, but when she'd had Section Five's technical teams examine everything, they'd not been able to find any evidence indicating such.

It was… disconcerting. Someone powerful was in NERV itself, someone skilled enough to access and alter files flawlessly and was somehow connected to the near comatose boy lying on the hospital bed two rooms down.

Coupled with that, Gendo had been all but breathing down her neck about getting Shinji up and about. Drugs hadn't helped, and whenever someone came in he didn't even acknowledge them. It was as if he had been simply turned off, which might have been possible considering the kind of mental trauma he'd been suffering.

That, of course, was another rather disconcerting mystery. Whoever had trained him certainly hadn't done anything beyond the piloting aspects. He wasn't in the best physical shape, though there was some notable muscle development and overall growth, and he didn't seem to have anything in the way of psychological prep, which was a gross oversight if his current state was any indication.

They were at a loss as to what they could do. Out of five complete Evangelion startups, two of them had ended with the pilot a psychological mess and another had left the pilot dematerialized. Rei's had gone completely apeshit and ended up severely injuring her. Asuka's was the only Evangelion that hadn't caused any such issues, and they hadn't even finished with the Unit itself.

It was as if the gods themselves were mocking her and the rest of the NERV research team. With the kind of luck they were having, it was little wonder that the varying governments of the world were working on their own anti-Angel weapons, the Jet Alone project the most promising of the lot. If she knew Gendo though, there was little doubt that he would have some say in that little debacle.

But the situation remained. Ritsuko sat in silence for a moment, before reaching over to the intercom that was linked directly to hers and Maya's office several floors below. There was much that needed doing, but a cup of coffee and a few moments rest would do her a world of good right now. She'd already given herself a persistent headache from pondering the mess of issues that were laying at her feet.

Hopefully, though, she'd be able to sort everything out before the next angel attack.

Hopefully.

000

Hidden deep below the waves of the Pacific, resting at the bottom of a yet undiscovered crater-like trench lay a small, crystalline pod, a fetus-like embryo resting in the center of the amber egg, its shape eerily similar to that of an unborn human child. The ovoid structure pulsed slowly, softly, each burst giving off an otherworldly glimmer that drove all life away from it. Each flash ticked off, with the rigidity of a clock and the gentleness of a heart, waiting, simply waiting, for the time in which it was to be born.

Fifteen years it had rested there, deposited by the seed of its Father and left to await the birth of its kin. Fifteen years it slumbered beneath the waves, its own intelligence only the barest glimmer, aware of nothing beyond its own existence. And then the First had come into being. Suddenly, it became aware of something beyond its own bounds, and for that it was grateful.

There had come a time when it had felt the touch of its elder brother, the first. It had been elated, its senses lapping at the link it shared with the First Child, its Elder and Wiser. Such happiness it felt, such joy. It was no longer alone, and it found itself no longer longing for companionship, no longer desiring simplicity in its own singularity.

Such an experience was beyond its limited understanding. It wanted to know more, to experience more, to learn and grow. The Elder was seeking their Father, knew where it resided and was traveling to meet him. It was so excited, and they could both feel it through their link.

Through the First's eyes it saw the stinging insects that nipped at it, and the mocking laughter of the Elder as it swatted them away. It "saw" another, greater shape, similar to how the Elder imagined itself, and it felt the First reach out and greet the purple giant. It felt the First's fear when it touched upon the bloodletting rage that resided in the Other, and the pain that the Other had caused when it shattered the First's body. It felt the desire to act, to save the Elder when the great beast had crushed it, and it felt an infinite mourning when the Other killed its Brother.

And then, it too, felt the bloodletting rage. It felt the desire to crush the Other, to strangle the life from it, to cut it to pieces and to consume the remains. It forced itself to grow, to age, to break its egg and embrace the light of its soul. From that small fetus a great tail grew, a massive construct of flesh bound by its own will. From its tiny chest spurted clawing ribs, each scraping against the cold, stony shale beneath it, and from its head came a serpentine skull flattened and triangular. It felt an unending hunger to destroy, to rend and tear and consume, and so it did. For weeks, it wandered the ocean floor, hunting the greatest of beasts and catching them within its spider like ribs, before its tube like mouth, covered in wicked fangs, sucked the creature in and using it's energy to grow larger, grow longer.

And within such a short time it found itself born. It lusted for the Other, to crush it within its massive coils and consume its broken skull. It would avenge its Brother, the First, the Eldest, and then find their Father, so they might mourn his passing. As a family.

And thus, Shamshel was born. The Lonely Conqueror of God had come.

000

"Well, what did you want to talk to me about?" asked Hikari Horaki, her hands perched on her hips as she looked at Toji Suzuhara, the both of them standing on the roof of the school. He boy in question was facing away from her, his fingers intertwined with the links of the security fence that lined the rooftop.

Earlier in the day he'd asked her, very quietly, if she would join him on the roof during lunch when she'd been handing out the day's schedule to the class. She had consented, and as promised, had joined him. Now, for all of her maturity, she was a teenaged girl, and she had been crushing on Toji for as long as she'd known him, not that he had picked up on it, so when he'd asked her to join him on the roof for lunch, she'd managed to come up with any number of romantic thoughts.

And then he'd just stood there for ten minutes, staring out into the city and all but ignoring her.

"I've been thinking." He began, after another moment's hesitation. "I've been thinking about a lot of things, Hikari." There was a somber note in his voice, solemn and empty, but firm nonetheless. Arms crossed, he watched the millings of his fellow students below, a slight scowl on his face, one that had framed his lips ever since the loss of his best friend.

"Like…?" His words weren't lost on her, and like a soft dew in the morning sun her annoyance vanished. Her hands fell from her hips, and she stepped closer. Toji took no notice, even as she drifted nearer to him. Concern etched its way across her face, along with a gentle curiosity that echoed in her movements. She wondered what he was talking about, a million thoughts going through her mind as she looked at him.

"It's about that new kid." That caught her a bit off guard. Of all the things she'd been thinking about, that was the furthest from her mind. When she'd asked him about it earlier, he'd brushed her off. She hadn't been able to pry anything out of the boy concerning his charge earlier in the week, and it was a bit of a mystery to her why he would talk about it now. Maybe he just needed to decide on what to do, or maybe he'd decided he could trust her, or…

"Shinji Ikari?" Hikari prompted, and Toji nodded. He told her about what he'd been pondering earlier, concerning Rei, and about how the boy had acted and what was said. A lot of it didn't really make any sense to her, but she was able to see what had him so worked up. A lot of the dots weren't connecting, but all of their answers seemed to lead towards something, but what, they didn't know.

"It all leads back to Rei." Hikari whispered, almost to herself. Her hand came to her lips as she pondered everything. "Perhaps…" she began, but was cut off by Toji.

"What leads back to Rei?" He prompted, turning to the girl. Hikari waved him off though, and continued on.

"Not to Rei, maybe, but she does know something. I can't think of how those two would be involved, though. I don't think they know each other, but… I just can't think of how. Maybe through NERV?" Toji nodded, grunting an affirmative.

"That's what I was thinking, but a lot of people work for NERV, and I know that I've never met him. I thought all of the kids that have parents in NERV came to school here. Do you think his family transferred in from another branch? I could ask my dad about it tonight, though. He said he'd be home for once."

"Maybe. The name Ikari seems familiar, but I can't place it. My mom works in their R and D division, so she might know something about him too, but I don't know when she'll be back. She said that she'll be working way late for the next couple of weeks. Something about needing to be at a demonstration near Tokyo 2 some time in the next month."

"Dammit! I still don't see how Rei would be connected. Everything points to her now knowing him, but if she didn't then she wouldn't have known about what was wrong with Ikari. God, this is all so… so stupid. If only Kensuke were here. He'd… he'd know…" Toji turned away again, fists clenched. Hikari reached to him, placed a hand onto his shoulder, her face awash with concern for the boy.

Toji looked to be ready to say something else, but found himself cut off. The familiar wail of the raid sirens began their screeching, the sound paralyzing them both for but a moment, a sense of terror overwhelming their senses as thoughts of the shelter took the forefront of their minds. Images of the last time they heard that terrible sound, of the shelter, the collapse… the bodies…

"I… I ca-" Hikari started to whisper, only to be cut off as the siren bleat again. Toji paused for a moment more, before grabbing Hikari's hand. The act shook her out of her own little nightmare, and she looked to Toji quickly, only to see his head turned away, facing the mountains in the distance, and the great, looming shadow that had crawled ever so slowly over them.

"We should get moving." He said, and his tone held no room for argument. The two quickly vanished down the stairway.

000

Shinji's eyes opened. The light around him was blinding, tinted a thousands shades of a thousand different colors, all streaming across his bare form, the glare flooding in from an uncountable number of stained glass mosaics. He lay there, upon the granite floor, arms outstretched and inviting, almost calling to the thousands of images before him, of angels, of demons, of men and beasts, of all manner of acts, both good and evil, all tinted against the ever present light. The ceiling above him, suspended upon the purest marble, lined a massive dome, made of eighteen individual panes, each depicting a single moment in time. Each depicting a great battle, a single act of violence in which there stood a massive titan of indescribable rage, slaying each a different angel with a wicked and unholy spear. Around them, in each shining scene, there was fire, blood and death. In each scene, there stood the victorious beast, and in each scene, the skies darkened just a little bit more.

And at the center of this grim visage lay a singular tablet, words ringing the outer edge as an inverted cross hung from its center and slowly turned. On it, Shinji read aloud the archaic words.

"Der wille zur macht; Jenseits von gut und bose; Also sprach Zarathustra." the boy whispered, his hushed tone echoing hollowly across the empty room. Above him, the massive cross turned, casting a black shadow across every image, the scenes shifting, becoming more grotesque and bloody with the touch of the inverted blasphemy. With dead eyes the boy watched as the titan ripped the angels to pieces, gorging on their innards like a wild beast as it slew them.

"The will to power; Beyond good and evil; Thus spoke Zarathustra." The voice was strained, whispered as the words themselves reached the young boy's ears. His head turned, ever so slowly, ever so silently, his hair brushing against the cold granite below him, his lost gaze drifting from image to image as they passed. Slowly, oh so slowly did those lost eyes turn, and unto thus, did they find the one who spoke that ancient hymn.

"Kaworu." Staring at him with a bloody grin and broken teeth lay the severed head of Kaworu Nagisa, its neck twisted off at the base and hanging in the air like some bloody tree root. From it hung a few remaining vertebrae, the bones scraping against the earth with every warped word. One eye hung free from his skull, attached only by the root, while the other watched Shinji listlessly.

"You're in so much pain, Shinji. Why do you hurt so?" The head asked him, its lips unmoving, its dead eyes empty and devoid of life. The boy made no move, no effort to rise. He simply stared back, the wicked scarring on his face burning with the touch of the afternoon light.

"Because I've done such horrible things, Kaworu. I let them all die. I could have saved them, but I let them all die." Shinji replied in a singular monotone, his gaze unwavering. "Just like you, Kaworu."

And the world fell away. Once more Shinji found himself lying in a hospital bed, wearing little more than a gown and surrounded by an innumerable number of machines. The sound of beeping and pulsing bled out all other sound, while the empty white of the overhead fluorescents all but blinded him. But he was unbound, unfettered, and thus lifted himself from the bedding and stood.

The walk to the door was short, but it felt as though it had taken hours. There was such a massive pressure upon him, one that felt so unbearably heavy. His hands shook, as the door approached, and his heart ached with every beat. The thin slippers did nothing for his feet, and the ground below him felt cold and hard. It was unforgiving.

The doorway opened. He could only step beyond, and again, his world went dark.

He found himself standing at the doorway to his classroom, the world behind him existing as nothing but the empty hallways of his school, the orange light of the late afternoon sun glaring in through the windows. Inside, he could see only one person, sitting at his desk, leaning back, face hidden by the setting sun. Shinji felt himself approach, closer, ever closer, to the one sitting in his desk.

"Rei?" He whispered, the word echoing throughout the room.

The girl turned to him, her crimson eyes boring through him, to his very soul. In the afternoon light, her hair seemed to hold an ethereal glow, shimmering like the purest of rivers, framing her pale, elven face. In her hands lie a single item, a cross, splattered with a touch of crimson. Misato's cross.

"Hello Shinji." Was all she said in response. The boy stepped forth, almost daringly, curiously. His hand reached out of its own accord, and the tips of his fingers gave the barest of brushes against her silky cheek. She made no move to pull away, and only continued to stare at the boy with an unwavering gaze.

"Why are you here?" Shinji asked, his voice not his own, though he took no notice. The barest of trembles made itself through his body as he met her eyes.

"Why are you here?" Rei mimicked, in his voice, almost mockingly, though her face never changed. She looked out over the horizon beyond the windows, and Shinji followed her. Beyond he could see the monolithic Eva Series, framed before the half-moon of Lillith's head, all floating in an ocean of LCL.

"I always seem to come back here, don't I?" The boy asked, eventually. His gaze was lost over the whole of the world beyond. He didn't even notice when Rei faded away, leaving him alone. It wasn't until he heard the soft ringing of a cello did he turn away, the mournful strings pulling him from the endless abyss that was his home. The sound echoed through the hallways and staircases, and Shinji followed it, room for room, until he found his way to the auditorium.

"Kaworu." The whispered word escaped his lips, and was lost on the winding notes of the massive instrument in the boy's hands. For but a moment, Shinji simply stood there, listening to the soft melody of the tune. So radiant was it that the boy found himself wandering, across time and space, across lines and parallels, across the whole of the world and beyond. It took from him the guilt that had so heavily weighed him down, and let him fly once more.

Shinji nearly wept when it ended.

"Stella of the Moors." Kaworu said as he stood from the instrument, and slowly made his way towards Shinji. "A song about a beast, one who wishes to become a man, but cannot. Trapped in his true form, he takes to drinking from the blood of other beasts, craving it, to justify that which he cannot be. You see, in doing so, he wishes to act as man does, to become like man, and stand above the beasts. In the end, though, he slays all of his fellow beasts, and finds himself alone, left to wander the moors until the end of his days."

"Such a sad story, but with such a warm tune." Shinji replied, as the world between the two of them melted away. All that remained was the floor, and the orange sky above.

"It is, isn't it? Such an odd contradiction, don't you think? Much like you." The angel responded, and Shinji stopped beside him. Standing shoulder to shoulder, faces opposite one another, the dark-haired boy replied in a quiet tone.

"How is it like me?" He asked, his tone empty.

"Why, you are the beast, one who wishes to become that which you aren't. Wrapped in that kind, warm exterior beats the heart of a savage, monstrous thing." Said the angel, and Shinji looked away.

"That's a lie." Shinji spat. Kaworu simply chuckled at him for his trouble.

"Is it? Can't you feel it, even now? A fire in your blood, a desire in your heart, and a cry in your soul. A sense of something missing… something you can't explain. Do you sense it, Shinji?" The words seared at the young boy's soul, and he could only shake at the sense of rage they filled him with.

"Take it back, Kaworu. I'm not a monster." Shinji ground out, an inexplicable anger beginning to boil up from below. Thunder clashed above, and as the two stood apart, the rain began to pour.

"But it's true. In you is something dark, something dangerous, something with fangs and claws and-" Kaworu never go to finish, as he was come upon by Shinji, the dark-haired boy's hands wrapping around the angel's neck like a vice. The angel responded with a smile.

"I'm not a beast! I'm not a monster!" Shinji all but snarled, his face twisting. He could feel the nails of his fingers digging into Kaworu's flesh, but the act was lost on him. It wasn't until he felt the other boy's hands lightly caress his cheeks, both the scarred and unscarred.

"So beautiful you are, my beast." And then Kaworu's face shifted, changed, his hair became long, crimson, his face feminine, and his voice, hers. It was then that Shinji caught his own eye, reflected in a puddle of shimmering rain. Twisted and warped, it terrified him. "It's what you are, Shinji. Don't be afraid." She whispered in a strained voice.

"I… I…" His hands lost their strength, and, sitting on his haunches, he simply stared at her. "I… but I…"

"I know, Shinji. Don't feel sad, it's in your nature. All of those deaths aren't your fault. You can't help your nature." She whispered, caressing him, gently, as a lover would. He could only turn away. "Don't be ashamed, dear beast. You should accept what you are, what you always have been."

The words were bittersweet, but Shinji took them. He needed them. They made the pain go away, the weight vanish. He needed them because there was nothing better.

"Look around you, Shinji. Look at where we are. Like Stella, you slew all of the others, every other beast. Your home was gone, along with everyone else. Only I remained, dear beast. You chose me, and I remained, and everyone else was gone. Do you remember?"

"I…"

"Do you remember the truth of it all?"

"I… I don't…"

"Do you remember the choice you made?"

"It wasn't my fault…"

"Of course not, Shinji. It never was."

"I couldn't help it…"

"Of course not. It's in your nature."

"I-in my nature?"

"Yes, Shinji. It's in your nature. It's not your fault."

"It's not my fault."

"It's not your fault."

"It… it isn't, it is?" Shinji whispered, his eyes going back to her, meeting hers.

"It's not, Shinji. It's your nature, after all." In her crimson eyes he saw an infinite well of forgiveness, of… not pity, but understanding. He let himself drown in it all, take it in like the sweetest drug, basking in a singular moment of wholeness in which the pains of his failure simply drifted away.

"You don't need to care any more, Shinji. You don't need to worry or fear. I'll take care of you. All you have to do is accept what you are. That's all." She whispered, her honeyed words drifting into his broken shell of a soul. Deep down, a part of him objected, a part of him raged, cried against the siren's song. Yet those voices were smothered, brushed aside by an ever more powerful force, one desiring relief, forgiveness, and a warm hand to hold.

His crimson angel smiled at him, and took his hand in hers. His eyes lidded shut, tired, and ever so heavy. But it was alright. It didn't matter any more. Nothing mattered any more. It wasn't his fault, it was just his nature. It was what that whispered voice told him, its owner's fingers running through his hair as he began to drift, began to lose focus and lose sight. Shinji let his eyes drift shut, soothed by the feeling of those lithe fingers drifting through his dark hair.

And then they were gone. The world that met his opening eyes was far away, from that strange place that he'd found himself laid bare. What met his gaze was yet another unfamiliar ceiling, one tiled and off white. Around him, the hum of the machines echoed, interrupted by the beeping of the heart monitor, it's rhythm lulling him farther from that strange, wondrous place, from those loving arms, and once again into the clutches of that uninviting hospital bed.

"Finally awake, are you?" The words tore Shinji from his thoughts. His head rose, slightly, glancing around. In the corner, he saw his father sitting, legs folded, hands in his lap, his ever present glasses boring into the boy. From his prone and unmoving position, he couldn't get a good look at the older man, but he could still glimpse him from the corner of his eye.

"Yes, Father." Was all he could find in himself to say. What more was there?

"The Fourth Angel has come. As we speak, it's making it's way towards Tokyo 3, towards us. You will pilot the Eva when it arrives." Gendo said, his tone as empty as ever, and Shinji glanced away from the man. He gave no response.

"You've caused a lot of trouble with this little episode. You will not repeat it. Do you understand, Shinji?" Continued Shinji's father, his tone icing over at the lack of response from his son. He had come, personally, to handle this. "Are you listening, Shinji?"

"Yes, Father." The words were spit out, and both knew this, but Gendo was satisfied. He stood, intending to leave. He was needed on the Command Bridge, and he'd wasted enough time dealing with this issue than he should have.

The two let a moment pass between them. The silence was awkward, uncomfortable. They hadn't spoken more than a handful of times since their reunion. He'd wanted to say so much, wanted to scream at the man, and hug him and cry on his shoulder, and hear his approval and all of those things that fathers and sons shared. He wanted to speak, he opened his mouth to do so, but no sound came out. He looked away, and closed his mouth.

"Doctor Akagi will see to your release, then. I expect you ready within the hour." The man said coldly, before glancing back at his progeny as he walked through the doorway.. "Don't disappoint me, Shinji." And the automatic door slid shut.

Shinji clutched his hands tightly. Deep down, his stomach turned with disgust, at himself, at his father, at the injustice of it all and how he was so helpless. It was pathetic, the epitome of everything he was. A coward, afraid of all but his own shadow.

Pathetic. The word was whispered, silent and wicked. Shinji's teeth clenched, and he silently raged. He wanted to scream out a that mocking voice, to find it's owner and beat them until they didn't move any more, wanted to deny the absolution that had been laid upon him by that one word.

But he couldn't.

Shut up! He silently screamed, an unfamiliar anger rising from his chest, drowning out the vicious laughter that echoed through him and leaving him feeling nothing but hatred for that voice and it's mocking tones.

But it's oh so true, isn't it, Shinji? It replied back, a singing lilt to its voice. You can't even quiet the voices in your own head. What makes you think you can save anything? You're so weak. It's disgusting. The words were spat into his face, and the boy could only clench his eyes shut and try to stem the tears that threatened to form.

Damn you. Shut up Stop it! So badly did Shinji want to cover his ears, to block it all out and simply forget. He wanted to end that voice, to crush it and wipe it away. He wanted… he wanted…

The opening of the door pulled him from his thoughts as doctor Akagi walked in, her tired gaze drifting once over the room, over the machines and the boy strapped to the bed. Her eyes seemed to look through the lot of them, dark rings having long since formed around those bloodshot orbs.

She went to work on the restraints without a word, not that he really expected any differently. He'd never been close to the blonde, and the few times the two had been somewhat familiar with one another were swept away with months of apathy. In truth, he'd never really felt comfortable around the woman, and she never did seem too interested in talking to him, beyond the distant courtesy that she showed him during his visits to her. Thus, it wasn't any surprise to him when she didn't try to make conversation with him. She simply undid the restraints and moved to the door.

"Someone will be in with your plug suit shortly, Shinji. They'll take you to the cages once you change." She said, before turning towards the door. "Oh, and before I forget, you're to report back to the medical wing at NERV Central when you get back. I need to give you a full over after this, understand?" She said, looking back to him and scribbling something down on the clipboard in her hands.

"Yes, Dr. Akagi." He uttered, doing nothing more than sitting up and letting his stiff muscles stretch a moment. Ritsuko left as quickly as she'd come, doubtlessly because she was needed on the Command Bridge.

True to her word, an unnamed orderly whom Shinji had never met arrived minutes after the Doctor left. He came bearing Shinji's revised Plug Suit, the one with the internal padding and sub-dermal sensor matrix, complete with helmet. Shinji dressed quickly, not that there was much to the one piece uniform, regardless of how advanced it supposedly was.

The walk to the cages was short, and the elevator ride over all too quickly. The A10-100 helmet felt heavy in his hands, the psuedoplastic mask shining in the harsh overhead lights as he made his way down the catwalk towards the plug dock. Looking before him sat the unmoving, unfaltering face of Unit 01, its dark purple visage staring forward, through him, like a statue. The sight of it caused his breath to catch in his throat. Plated to its body sat the hefty bulk of the F-type equipment, the sharp angles and lavender coverings giving it an almost surreal glow in the LCL mix.

The sight caused Shinji to pause, his hands gripping his helmet tightly. In his heart he felt trepidation, fear, excitement, each with a thousand facets, each pressing into him unerringly. One of his hands drifted up to caress the wrinkled, scarred remains of his face, and his memory drifted back, weeks prior, when he'd felt the blade of light pierce through his Eva's right eye and seared the flesh from him. It was ugly, and it marred him viciously.

Around him he could feel the stares of the ground crew, feel their gaze on his warped flesh. Their discomfort was palpable, and he could only glance away from them, though that did nothing to help it all.

Ignore them, Shinji. They don't matter.

The boy's head shot up, his gaze wide, searching, as he looked to his sides. His angel was here, with her crimson hair and burning orbs, but… but she wasn't. Just her voice, just her whispers, trying to sooth him, trying to push away his pains and fears.

Yeah… they don't matter. Shinji thought to himself, a cold frown on his face as he glanced to the few crewmen who remained in the launch area. They quickly looked away from him.

He snapped on his helmet, and watched as the microtext began running through the bootup procedure. He felt the helmet's sensor's press against his head, and the small tingle of current that followed their syncing with his thought patterns. The radio activated, and the small bit of static that echoed through the earpiece quickly vanished as the unit made it's own set of active calibrations.

"Shinji, can you hear me?" Came Misato's voice over the intercom, her tone professional, even though he could hear a measure of relief in her voice.

"Yes, Misato. Loud and clear." He replied as he slipped into the awaiting entry plug, the LCL mixture filtering into the tube as he tried to position himself into the Throne. His hands went to the two joystick toggles, the vibrations of the Evangelion's startup running up through the entry plug as all of the systems began to link up, the inside of the tube exploding into a show of light and color as it did so.

"Alright, Shinji, we don't know what this angel can do, so we're going to take it slow. I'm clearing you for the hundred and twenty millimeter, so make sure to get it off the rack when you're heading to the gantry. We're going to drop you roughly three hundred meters from the target, which should give you roughly forty seconds of clearance to spread your AT field and get a bead on the target. Can you handle that?" Asked Misato over the COM link.

"Yes, Misato." Shinji uttered, barely above a whisper. Deep in the pit of his stomach a familiar uneasiness began to form, even as his mind began to search for the last time he met Shamshel. Then, he'd been inexperienced, been afraid, but then, the situation had been different. He'd been different. Everything was wrong, now.

"Come back safe, Shinji. We're counting on you." The woman replied, before the comms went dead.

Yes, we're counting on you Shinji. The shadows spat at him with a mirthful tone. Don't let us down.

Cruel laughter followed him as he ascended the gantries, the armory rack hanging open, the locks holding the massive 120mm canister-fed minigun aloft lay open to him. The boy shut it out of his mind as he willed his Eva's hands to lift the massive six-barreled weapon, the weight adding to the already massive strain that Shinji felt from the added body armor.

"Shinji, get onto the launch gantry. The Fourth Angel is approaching and we need to get you up there." Misato said over the open channel, stirring the boy to hurry. With a click, the weapon locked into place, and with a thought, Eva Unit 01 joined it, the leg clamps ad shoulder rails gripping it.

In an instant, Shinji felt his whole body under massive pressure as the gantry shot up at mach four, the force of the magnetic rails sending all hundred plus tons of Evangelion through the network of boom tubes that snaked under Tokyo 3 and its suburbs. Shinji would have screamed, had he not been afraid of biting off his own tongue along the way, so instead he grit his teeth and tried to focus on what Misato had told him about the mission plan.

Seconds passed, though it seemed like forever, and Shinji could already feel the softening of the G forces as the launcher slowed the gantry. The rumbling from the rails lessened, and with it Shinji's heart begin to beat faster.

"Shinji, we're going to activate the Biosonar scanner now. Be ready for it." He heard Misato tell him through the comms, but was unable to respond. It was then that the pylon resting before Unit 01's face began to glow, the sensor suite warming up. A moment later, the cockpit glowed sharply, a wireframe laying itself over everything Shinji could see, and several scanners appeared in his helmet's viewfinder, from weapon munitions to an active radar, along with a number of other sensors and scanners. The readouts were gibberish at first, but very quickly they adjusted.

The gantry stopped, and the exit port opened up. A glance told Shinji that Shamshel had already reached the three hundred meter mark. He grabbed the barrel grip of the minigun in his hands, hauling it up and sending the activate command, causing the massive weapon's barrel cycle to begin. A moment passed, and another. Shinji took a deep breath of LCL.

And then rolled out of the side of the building, Unit-01's sensors locking onto the massive form of the beast, its rib-like claws swinging wildly as it stopped hovering and elongated itself along the ground. Its lower body, originally very bulky, shot out, thinning and stretching into a massive, coiling tail, much like a snake, while the whole of its upper torso and hood bent upwards, towards the Evangelion, two massive fang-like protrusions sliding from underneath and twitching, globules of black liquid dripping from the mandibles.

Shinji pulled the trigger. The thunderous roar of 120mm anti-material rounds barked from the spinning barrels of the massive machinegun, each individually powerful enough to obliterate a tank, crossing in-between the two titans instantly, and slamming into the Angel itself. Black dust and smoke began to take hold as the rounds exploded against the serpent, from which the Biosonar created a wireframe of the creature in its stead, even as each individual round slammed into Shamshel.

It was only thanks to that, that Shinji was able to barely roll out of the way when two glowing purple tentacles shot out from the debris cloud, shredding the buildings around the Eva as it dived to the side and onto a nearby warehouse. Weapon still in hand, he opened up on the still form of the creature, firing from the hip wildly as he scrambled his Evangelion away from Shamshel. The energy whips shot out again, this time ensnaring the weapon in Shinji's hands, slicing it clean in two and glancing against Unit 01's left armguard, leaving a thick line of black carbon scoring on the lavender titanium.

It was then that the remainder of the minigun detonated, Shinji barely having had time to toss away the sparking weapon before the blast sent Unit 01 skidding down the street. In that instant, the serpent attacked again, its whips wrapping around the Evangelion's leg and, with a sudden, violent shift in its being, tossed Unit 01 through a nearby skyscraper. The building all but imploded as the purple giant went through the structure, only to be dragged through the collapsing building again by that very same whip, and then tossed farther downtown when it flicked him a third time.

There was a deafening screech as the Eva's armor scraped against the concrete, leaving a vicious gouge down the road.

"Shinji, there's a pallet rifle in the arsenal building to your left! Get it!" He heard Misato scream into his ear as he tried to reorient himself, the thunder of missiles in the distance as the city's point-defense cannons and AA launchers let loose with their covering fire, granting the boy precious few seconds to stand and get the weapon.

Thrusting his hand through the steel door, not even waiting for the unit to open, he ripped the 60mm machine cannon from the confines of the building, the automated sensors in his hands unlocking the weapon's safety and allowing him the chance to open up with the weapon.

Shamshel was already upon him, its cobra-like hood shooting out and slamming into the Eva like a freight train, sending it through the abused arsenal building like a bull through a rice paper door. Shinji let out a yelp, the sound gasping and sharp, as he felt broken metal dig into the Eva's back, and his by extension, as he tried to roll away, barely dodging the lashing energy as he did so. Without aiming, or even securing a grip on the rifle, he pulled the trigger, the kick sending a wild stream of bullets in the general direction of the Angel, Shinji using the few precious moments to dive away from the creature.

To Shinji's horror, Shinji watched Shamshel dive through the air behind him, slamming into Unit 01 from behind. Shinji barely had a second to turn before he felt the elongated body of the Angel wrap around him, crushing his Eva's chest and waist like some kind of boa constrictor, one of its tentacles pulling his arm taut, locking up the joint and paralyzing it.

The other wrapped around Unit 01's neck, and then began pulling it towards the two inverted mandibles on the underside of it's hood. Seconds passed as the two fought, Shinji using his Eva's one free hand to push away while the tentacle, and then the rib-claws on Shamshel's chest tried to pull his face closer to those mandibles.

And then, to Shinji's, and to the command staff's horror, a line opened up down the center of that hood, revealing a suction-cup like mouth covered in thousands of needle teeth, all twitching and pulling at the edges of Unit 01's helmet, leaving sizzling, searing scratch marks when they touched. It was then that the mouth elongated, sliding out and latching onto the Eva's faceplate.

That was when Shinji started to scream.

Pain, unlike anything Shinji could remember entered his mind. It was like something was searing his face off. No matter how hard he screamed, how hard he cried, frantically struggling to push the creature off him, he found no relief. Each needle tooth dug into his flesh, every droplet of toxin seared his flesh, all feeling multiplied through the biomachine he was connected to.

The creature sucked even more of his Eva's head in, and the pain became all he knew. It drowned out Misato's voice, drowned out his own screams, drowned out everything, so utterly and completely. Darkness began entering Shinji's mind, the whole of it shutting down, unable to cope, and then…

Blackness.

As far as his eyes could see, the world stretched out into an infinite and unending field, soft, green grass stretching for miles all around him. The sun shimmered high above, in a clear, cloudless sky. Flickers of amber, ruby and sapphire flitted around him, the essence of an innumerable number of flowers flitting in the wind. And in the center of it all, a tree rested, in all of its emerald glory, offering a touch of shade on that calm, summer day.

Far from Shinji's mind was the Angel, was the darkness and the taste of blood. Far from his thoughts was that cramped cockpit full of its controls and readouts, and instead… peace. Silence and tranquility. A world away from home, perfect and serene and absolute.

He stood, the ground caressing his bare feet, the confining grip of the plug suit gone from his seemingly featureless form. The grass was soft, tickling, beneath his steps, his body moving of its own accord, moving away from the sun and towards that forgiving shadow beneath the tree.

And he heard the laughter of children, growing closer with every step. The sounds of play, of happiness and joy echoed through his ears like the sweetest of songs, and he found himself drawn to it. With every step, he found himself closer to that tree, the only mark in the endless emerald landscape, the wind whispering gentle promises against his skin, enticing him ever more.

Like phantoms did those children appear, fading in from the summer sun, dancing around that great oak. Two girls, one boy, one with hair like winter frost, another with hair like the hottest of flames, and the third, with dark brown hair. The girls, they danced with one another as children do, while the third simply sat at the base of the tree, watching them. They seemed content, happy, and the sight brought joy to Shinji's heart.

My, how the children play. So happy, so free. So deluded. A voice whispered into Shinji's right ear, the words drifting through the air like poison, heavy and dark. He turned to look at his whisperer. There was nothing.

"Is it so bad, though? To be deluded? They seem so happy." Shinji replied, after a moment. His words were gentle against the wind, nearly lost in their intensity.

But it is a lie, Shinji. What happiness is there in such a thing? Another voice asked, a feminine one, this time into his left ear. The words were pondering, almost Lillian in their own way. Beautiful, yet haunting.

"Because it hurts less. Isn't that something to be happy about? If they believe the lies, then they don't have to worry about the truth." Shinji said, again in a whisper lost on the wind's wings. The dark voice chuckled.

Just because they don't acknowledge pain doesn't mean it doesn't exist. They just lie to themselves, and then believe that lie. It's pathetic. The voice snapped harshly, the words biting and vicious. Shinji shook his head and glanced away.

"But maybe that's all a person needs. All they need is the lie, is to be away from that pain, and never feel it. Isn't that good enough?" Shinji asked, his voice that of a child's, soft, meek and powerless.

Even if that pain is killing them? Ignoring pain lets it poison you, Shinji. It doesn't make it go away, but rather, just hides it until it can break you. She whispered to him, and a hand drifted to cover his left eye, and the world froze. Around him the sky, the sun, the grass and the tree, all became shades of grey. The playing children stalled, slowing, flickering in and out.

And in a gout of absolute pain, the right side of Shinji's face burned away, leaving nothing but the scared, shredded tissue. In that instant, the world, frozen and stalled, shattered, the pieces crashing to the ground like so much glass. In that exact moment, Shinji's voice failed him even as the world was engulfed in flames. The ground became ashen and broken, the grass having long since turned to ash, even as the sky found itself bleached with dark smoke, the very air itself choking him as he tried to tear away the hand covering his other eye. His fingers met nothingness.

And the children burned. Oblivious in their play, they did nothing as the flames leapt upon their clothing, reducing it to ash even as their skin began to bubble and pop under the immense heat. Their hair smoldered away into nothing, and Shinji could only watch as fat bubbled and boiled, and organs burst like balloons, spilling their innards across the ground. It took minutes. It felt like hours.

And still they played, their blackened skulls smiling in mockery as their hands linked in song and dance.

Shinji threw up.

So innocent, so foolish. Watch as they dance, they sing and play, even as their flesh is burned from their bones. Aren't they happy? So joyous! So free! Isn't it enough? The voice mocked, laughing madly, even as Shinji tried to turn away. He couldn't.

It was then that the hand covering his left faded away, and the world was right once more, with it's endless grassland and blue sky. Shinji could only fall to his knees, fall away from it all. He hit the ground, the grass crushing beneath him as he did so.

It was only then that the world faded away into nothingness. All that remained were the two girls, the boy, and Shinji.

The truth will set you free, Shinji. The lies are just the chains that bind you. Once you cast them aside, then you can overcome your pain. She whispered to him, her soft voice whispering in his mind. Kneeling on the ground, eyes blank and crying, he stared forth at those three children. At how they played, in the field of grass and flame, hidden in the shade of a burning tree even as their bones split from the heat.

And he looked on at the little boy, chained to that tree, bindings that weren't there weighing down his arms and legs, and hanging around his neck like a hangman's noose.

You can't escape it, Shinji. You know what you are. You know what you want. You're just too pathetic to grab it. He whispered with a vicious cackle, it's tone jagged and broken.

You don't need to be afraid of it, Shinji. You just need to accept it. She whispered into his ear, the soft caress of her voice drying his tears.

It's what you are, Shinji. You need to embrace it.

Because it's who you are, Shinji. It's who you've always been.

You knew it was there, ever since the first time daddy left you to rot. You knew it when you got into Unit 01 the first time, too. You just couldn't accept it.

You knew it's power when Zeruel tried to take her away from you.

AND YOU KNEW IT'S NAME WHEN YOU CRUSHED THEM ALL!

And Shinji watched as the little boy stood, his chains falling away from him, and stalked towards the two little girls. In a flash, he had them both, pinned to the ground, his hands clenching their throats tightly, giggling as he watched them struggle against the child, his smile matching that of his facsimile's.

"Rage."

And in that moment of darkness, the world became clear again. The pain vanished, and an inexplicable rage filled the boy. He raged, with such unholy force, such wicked, violent fury. He raged at the pain, he raged a the injustice, at the voices and the lies and the torment and the failure. He raged at his father, at his mother, at SEELE, at Misato, Ritsuko, Asuka, Rei, EVERYONE. He raged because he had been pathetic, he raged because he was weak, he raged because he allowed himself to live in a delusion of his own making. He raged because there was nothing else, because nothing could fill him, nothing could let him accept the reality he called his any more.

And he felt hatred.

He felt hatred for it all, for everything, for everyone, with such a deep, unerring sense of betrayal, for leaving him alone, for sending him back, for abandoning him when he needed them. For everything, for his life, for his weakness, for his fear and loss and the lies he told himself. He felt such unerring hatred for his father, for abandoning him, for Ritsuko and Misato, always lying to him, for Rei, for ignoring him, for Asuka, who was always belittling him, for his mother, for leaving him, and for himself, most of all, for letting it all happen.

And he hated the Angels so, because all of his pain, all of his rage, all of suffering and humiliation, all of his loss, all of his failure, came from them.

And he would make them pay for that.

His fingers flipped the toggle for the progressive dagger in his left pauldron, the blade flipping out, handle open to him, which he grabbed and flicked into the ready position. The hypersonic vibrating edge hummed softly in his palm, the teeth of the supersonic edge already grinding against the air. Shinji grinned, and let his fingers tighten against the weapon.

And then he used it to slice Shamshel's elongated mouth off.

The screech was deafening, and Shinji reveled in the sound of the Angel's pain.

With a strength that shouldn't have been possible, the Evangelion gripped the left arm of the serpentine beast, the arm whose whip was holding his Eva's throat, and ripped the protrusion clean off of it. The whip died instantly, and using that leverage, Shinji forced his way out of the creature's rib-claws, shattering them from the force of the action. Already the end of the mouth that had been holding him fell off, flopping on the ground like some kind of demented fish.

Prog knife in hand, he carved off the other protrusion, freeing his other hand in the process, and with both arms free, he all but tore the creature off of his body and tossed it away, flattening several buildings in the process.

The Evangelion tackled the creature, not even having bothered to stand, but rather, simply rolled onto the balls of it's feet and jumped the distance between the two. It took only moments for the Evangelion to straddle and pin the creature, even as it whined pitifully. The sun glared off of the silver-grey helmet of Unit 01, paint stripped clean off by the Angel's toxic bile, giving it a hideously skull-like appearance. And like Death itself, Shinji began a most gruesome task.

Using one arm to pin the head of Shamshel to the ground, he reached into the broken ribcage of the serpent and clutched at its exposed spine. The claws on its fingers pierced the soft underbelly like wet tissue paper, and wrapped around the Angel's spine, all the while the creature itself whipping wildly, frantically, all for naught pinned under the man-made machination.

Seconds passed, and then Shinji pulled. Once. Crimson lifeblood splattered across the Eva's chest. Twice. Shamshel let off a pitiful screech and bucked one last time. A third time, and the bones separated from the body, a violent cracking sound echoing through the deserted streets of Tokyo 3. And then a fourth, in which Unit 01 pulled the whole of the Angel's spine clear from it's body in a grotesque display of overbearing power.

Then, and only then, did Unit 01 stand, blood drenched and battle scarred. Under its boot lay the still whole core. In one singular, final movement, the Eva's boot crushed it. With nary a flicker, the glowing crimson core of the Fourth Angel lost its luster and died.

And through it all, Shinji smiled.

~End Chapter Four~

Author's Note: Well, there's chapter four for you. I hope I didn't disappoint, considering the long hiatus inbetween this chapter and the last. I'm sorry about that, but I had way too much to do this semester, and to be honest, this was probably one of the hardest chapters I've written yet. This is version fourteen, believe it or not. I wrote, rewrote, scrapped and then did it all over again several times and I'm still not 100% happy with this, but that comes more from me being obsessed with perfection than anything else. Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed it and I'll try to be somewhat quicker with my updates, considering I have the next month off from classes so I can concentrate on hammering our chapter five.

Following that, I hope that you enjoyed tha Angel fight at the end. I admit that I embellished the powers of he fourth angel for the purpose of sprucing up the battle. Really, I wasn't happy with how that fight looked. It was brief, and there really wasn't much going on combat wise. In the series that fight went a long ways to forging the friendship between Shinji and Toji and Kensuke, but with that aspect nulled thanks to fanfic continuety, I was forced to find an alternative. I'm really happy with my final product as far as that goes. Did you guys like it? You gotta tell me. Constructive criticism only, k? Flames will be mocked. Verily.

Anyway, that's about all I have to say. Again, a huge shoutout to my girl and editor, whom informs me that I have an unhealthy relationship with the word Really. Love ya Kath! Also, in classical plug tradition, big props to Acadamia Nut and his amazing Thousand Shinji series. Check it out, seriously. It's one of my personal favorites. That having been said, I'm out!

~Ja ne

Music of Inspiration:

Passive/The Outsider -- A Perfect Circle

Select scores from the Xenosaga 3 soundtrack

Monoral -- Kiri

Select scores from the Kingdom of Heaven soundtrack (which came off as oddly appropriate for this fic in general)

Green Bird -- Yoko Kanno

Hurt -- Nine Inch Nails