Stage XIII: Now, Let's Dance!
The buzzer crackled again.
Shinji dropped to the ground, exhausted and giving up. It has been two days, and he was still lagging dozens of percentage points behind Langley's speed. She, for her part, was rightfully worried and annoyed.
"Get up!" she barked. When he failed to do so, and sat looking down at his feet, she left him in disgust. With a heavy heart, he looked at the flashing error messages on the two machines on which they practiced. She had been completely cold to him. Von Stuhl's message sat in his mind like a bothersome stone lodged in one's shoe. Now that he looked at it from a different angle, all that she did wasn't so innocent and friendly any more.
She returned with, to his surprise, a tray of tea and towels. Confused, he leapt to his feet.
"Sit," she ordered, putting the tray down on a table and throwing him a towel. They sat across from one another, she glaring at him and him trying to avoid her look. Finally, after several minutes of this cat-and-mouse game, she set down her tea cup.
"You're not on my level," she stated. "This may be understandable, but it's intolerable."
He fidgeted. What did she want him to do about it?
"I need to lower my own performance to match yours," she continued with a frustrated edge in her voice. "But I can't feel how you move."
A little confused, he nodded blindly. She took a final sip.
"Do you dance, Ikari?"
Ohgi entered Zero's study with a stack of papers.
"All preparations have been completed," he said. "The Radiant Wave Surge Capsules have all been finished, and sleepers planted."
"Good, good," Zero said absentmindedly. "Now we must wait." The wait was going to be long, however. Mao was proving to be a difficult quarry, and he was using Shirley to bait the man around the Tokyo Settlement in an effort to distract the mind-reader. He was not easily fooled, but Shirley knew next to nothing, so Mao could only trail around. Fingering through the papers delivered by Ohgi, he came across a general alert for Nerv's battle plan. The final point of destruction, as well as a massive bombardment, was centered on a little-inhabited hill just outside city perimeters. There was also a small Shinto shrine, he remembered, around that area, well within the blast zone of an anti-Angel bombardment. It was reasonable to think that if he was anywhere nearby, the pest would be incinerated in seconds. Lelouch was himself on an ostensive trip in the Homeland, and had no definite return date, which was making Shirley feel a little lonely.
He pulled out his cell phone and, making sure that Ohgi was leaving, began to dial.
It was ridiculous
Shinji scratched at his embroidered suit. Soft music droned like so many irritating bees. Amidst all the urgent preparations for battle, she wanted to dance?
"Ikari," she said, approaching from behind in a plush silk dress with a long—almost unnecessarily long—train. The gleaming water silk was light and multilayered, using many thin sheets to cloud rather than block out the more savory parts of her physique. Wordlessly, she came close to him and offered her arm. He gingerly took it, and she put his other hand across the small of her back.
"Follow my steps," she ordered. Starting off with a slow waltz, she took him across the cleared space, while he clumsily mirrored her actions. More than once, he stepped on her foot. The moment they settled into a set pace and synchronized, Asuka raised the speed of the dance, taking him out of his comfort zone forcibly. The silk and equally silky skin under Shinji's hands made his whole body twinge. His beating heart seemingly pushed down the stone von Stuhl had set in place. Langley's face was devoid of all disgust when touching him and letting his hands on her.
"She's also smart. Very smart"
And he was woozy just from dancing with her. The amount of control she exerted over him was astonishing. It had been almost fifteen minutes since they started, and he was already sweaty. The suit clung to his body, inflaming his already red face. She had absolute command over his limbs now. He moved how she wanted him to move. The music was racing now, and her feet were flying over the floor, taking his along. His mind became a blur of silk, hair, and perfume. The music stopped abruptly, and he crashed into her, tumbling to the ground. Langley stayed upright effortlessly, re-arranging her dress where he had knocked it out of place.
"Better," she said. "Take a shower and return here in thirty minutes. We'll resume normal training then." With that, she walked—no; with that billowing train, she must've floated back to her quarters in the cottage. His head still spinning, Shinji sat up, numb from the experience.
The reserve he had felt about her was eroding rapidly. He found that he didn't want to believe that she despised his lineage. Von Stuhl's words and Langley's arousing feminine body fought for dominance in his mind and heart.
Euphemia sat across from her brooding sister, twiddling her thumbs nervously. Cornelia coughed and began in a dark tone of voice.
"The debacle involving the recent Angel, you already know," she said. "But now, Langley's daughter is living alone with that boy, supposedly 'training.'"
"Asuka is not that kind of girl, Cornelia," Euphemia cut in angrily. "You can't possibly—"
"I don't care," Cornelia said. "But rumors are already flying around the Court. You know how eager some people are to take down Asuka Langley. If those stories from…these years ago…if they are true, then she may be in deep trouble."
"They can't be!" Euphemia exclaimed. "Why would—why would he do such a thing? It's horrible!"
"Men and power come together to produce dark things," Cornelia said. "How else would an almost anonymous illegitimate daughter rise so fast in the—in his favor?"
"She was extraordinarily talented," Euphemia countered. "And besides, her piloting style almost completely matches that of the late Empress Marianne. It caught his Majesty's eye."
"That's a bit of a far stretch," Cornelia sulked. "Defending her is costing me far more attention than I can spare. Can't you make a visit? The guards there won't keep you out."
Euphemia stood up with an air of contained indignation.
"I will," she said. "Though there's no reason to suspect her. Good day, sister."
Watching her leave, Cornelia heaved a sad sigh.
"You're too naïve, Euphy; way too naïve."
Exiting the office in a fit of anger, she ran right into a solid wall of a man. In her agitated state, she almost tripped over the hem of her dress and fell, the man steadying her tumble.
"Well, hello, Euphy," Schnizel said. With his usual cold bemusement, he bent to kiss her hand.
"Ah, hello—that is, good afternoon, brother," she said. Schnizel frowned.
"What are you so flustered about?" he asked. Open-hearted as always, Euphy broke out into a tirade explaining the peculiar situation of Asuka Langley. Schnizel winced, a pained, knowing look passing over his face. Reputation could mean everything in a court so dominated by so few.
"I've heard," he said. "Go; Cornelia knows what she is talking about. It would be best if you can say that you saw nothing with your own two eyes. In fact, observe a while before showing yourself. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Schnizel," she answered. The man patted her on the shoulders and motioned her off.
"Our business is a dirty one," he said encouragingly. "Take heart. The rumors haven't spread far, and the girl has some powerful support." The last sentence brought a hint of a smile to Euphemia's face as she walked away. Calmly, Schnizel accessed the extent of the damage. True to his words, they were relatively slight. Without solid evidence, a scandal could not be created. Now, if one of the Imperial Consorts took it into her head to frame Langley, as they have much reason to do,—every noble feared a second Marianne—the situation will get much more complex. It wasn't the first time, either, he thought darkly. Two years ago, there had been a time when both the Emperor and Langley's illegitimate daughter had faded from the radar. Ridiculous as it was, people suspected an affair between the fiftyish man and the barely pubescent girl. What Schnizel feared was that the Emperor might really have seen the ghost of Marianne in Langley's daughter, in which case her cohabiting with a random Eleven would cause serious problems.
Three days until the attack
Their synchronization was barely breaking eighty-five. Still, it was much, much better. Twice more, she had told him to learn to "feel" her movements, and twice more he had failed. Despair, once it has taken root, is a difficult thing to dislodge.
Beneath the starry sky, there were almost none of the pollutions of human life. Shinji Ikari wandered aimlessly in a small garden attached to the small house they were training in, wondering whether it would all be in vain. He sat down, holding a small sandwich, not giving much thought to the excellent taste, and wished that somehow, a miracle would happen and everything would be good.
The night was still and stifling, so something should not be shaking the bushes to the right of him. It was too big to be a small animal, and large fauna were virtually nonexistent around the sea after Second Impact. Curious, he poked through a gap in the bush. Langley lay on her back, nursing a tiny, leather-bound album and seemed almost asleep. She still had on her exercise attire, and looked like she just took a stroll to find some private space to reminisce alone. Shinji crept forward, bewitched by the innocent look on her face, moving ever closer until he could almost kiss her…
She turned, and he jumped back. Expecting the harsh reprisal, he shrunk back to his side of the bush. She didn't look at him, instead sitting up and hugging her knees, looking back at the album.
"Ikari," she suddenly said. "What were you doing?"
"N-nothing, ma'am," he stuttered. "I swear, I was only looking—"
"Looking at what?"
Her hands covered the worn leather covers of the book, stuffing it out of sight.
"I'm sorry…"he muttered.
"I don't care," she said. Shinji leaned forwards as she rapidly wiped a tiny tear from her eye. Something nudged at Shinji's heart to say something nice.
"Um, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," she snapped. "I'm fine."
"But, you were crying," he insisted bluntly.
"I was not!" she yelled. "Who do you think you are, trying to offer me condolences about things you'll never understand?" She was visibly upset by his words, and he groaned in regret.
"Don't you dare apologize," she snarled. "You have no right to even talk to me like that!"
There. She did know that he was an Eleven and an inferior. His heart sank. She looks about, and seeing that her guards were off somewhere else, gave a little sigh of relief.
"You're not very tactful," she said.
He scratched his head. She was only angry, right? Langley had cooled down from her outburst. Those sparkling blue eyes re-focused on Shinji.
"Three days," she began. "It's all we have. Do you understand the importance of this mission? My life's work rests on it. Go to bed. I need you fresh in the morning. As for what happened here…nothing happened."
"It's not just about you," he blurted without thinking. "It's about all the people that will die if—"
He stopped, noticing his egregious mistake. She turned slowly.
"Well then, all the more reasons to dance like you want to win."
Peace and quiet
The man known as Mao exulted in the empty countryside. Birds and insects had no minds to speak of, and the solitary thoughts of the teenage girl he was tailing were of no bother to him. When he had C.C. with him, they could both move to some place like this, where he would never again be bothered…
'Wait, isn't this restricted area today?' the girl thought. Mao started. She was right. There was a Nerv/Britannian military operation here, and all civilians were told to take shelter; odd place for a boy to meet up with a girlfriend.
A faint thought drifted across the sky, 'Holy God, how could something survive that explosion and grow back in six days?'
It was a male voice, mixed in with interpretations of commands. Mao gasped as a pair of Nerv VTOLs crashed through the air. The operation had begun. The girl's thoughts exploded in panicked chaos, and he slapped a hand over his ear as numerous minds began chattering. Something titanic buzzed on the edge of his hearing. He looked up in horror as a triangular monstrosity drifted out of the sky. Its mind—its mind was magnificent, filled with a deafening chorus of unearthly music. Mao's eyes bulged as he shrieked out the name of the Being. His visor clattered to the ground, meters away from the pool of blood that drained out of the facial orifices of a broken man.
Lelouch willed himself not to pick up his cell. He already knew who the caller is. He must distance himself from such things. They will only hold him back…
"Zero, won't you answer that?" Cornelia asked with suspicion. Across the command center, the two exchanged tense looks. After a moment, Lelouch gave in.
"One moment," he said, retreating to a private space where he took up his cell. Shirley's screams were barely audible over the explosions.
"…please stay away! Don't come! It's…"
His blood froze and boiled at the same time. She wasn't asking for help, wasn't angry that he sent her into danger. She was worried that he would be hurt if he tried to meet her.
This was the girl he sent into a death trap to lure a single enemy.
As much as he hated to admit, his eyes watered. The decision to throw Shirley away seemed too logical at the time…yet so dastardly now.
He could not just ask someone to pick her up. A connection cannot be made between him and her.
Her voice had been cut off. Her phone was either damaged or out of service range.
He could afford some chivalry—some humanity—for once, couldn't he?
The door slammed open, and he came striding out.
"Ohgi, proceed as planned; I have to go," he said.
"What business could be more important than this?" Cornelia demanded. Lelouch glared at the woman.
"Very important business," he hissed, storming out of the command center. Cornelia looked confusedly at the tail of his cape. He had just walked out on a vital operation in a rage after a phone call that he refused to answer. Impatience and rashness were not things she thought Zero, of all people, would possess. She motioned at a guard, who nodded and discreetly withdrew. Turning back to the battle, her attention returned in time to hear the announcement that the targets were within visual range, and would be entering the attack area within two hundred seconds.
"Hear that?" she roared. "Ikari, you will not fail this time. Lady Langley, good luck."
"Understood," Langley replied. Shinji swallowed in fear. Their synchronization was barely ninety-five percent, despite both of their best efforts.
"Ikari…Shinji," Langley said quietly over a closed channel. "Did you know…when I was four, my mother killed herself. She couldn't stand the hatred against her from all the other noble dames who hated her for being in the Duke's favor…wherever I went, children beat me, and nobody helped, because I was a bastard, born out of wedlock and a half-breed…but before she died, my mother made me promise her…promise her that I'd take care of myself. I've honored that promise 'till now."
Through the screen, she looked forlornly at Shinji.
"Will you help me? Please?"
Shinji was left in stunned silence by the sudden ejaculation of deep and personal stories. Her pain was evident in her tone. His throat caught; were that woman's pictures what she had been looking at?
"I will," he messaged her. "I promise, too."
Her face cracked into a bittersweet smile.
"Thank you," she said. "Now, let's dance, shall we?"
He nodded, and she gave him a thumb up.
"Targets, ETA in twenty seconds," the bridge operator said crisply.
Asuka shut off the comm.
'Too easy, just…too easy,' she thought. But it hurt her to speak the story, because it was, if only partially, true.
'Mama, I'm sorry for…no, no I'm not. Why would I be sorry, you bitch? You left…you…'
"Evangelions, launch!" Misato bellowed. The music began to play.
"Ma'am, time to go," Shinji's voice came over the intercom. "I promised you…okay?"
Yes, he did, which meant that Asuka Langley, Knight of Two, daughter of the Archduke Langley and an Imperial Field Marshal, could not fail to deliver; not when a measly Eleven could be so strong.
Overhead, the final bulkheads sealing away the Cage sprang open, the launch rails firing into the air. A rush of sunlight engulfed Unit 02, her golden decals and emblems flashing in the sun. The twinkling light played across the gold of her Plug Suit, reminding her of who the hell she really was.
And she was not someone who will lose, even to an Angel.
The two Evas spun in perfect unison, slashing down with MV Blades that sliced the Angel neatly into two halves. Landing on the ground, Asuka wrenched the Eva back into a fighting stance, both Landspinners smacking the ground with a running squeal. The rush of battle sang to her soul, making her feel thousands of times bigger than she was, until she felt the urge to roar like the lioness, flying at her prey with claws extended.
"Just who the hell…do you think I AM?"
End Stage XIII
A/N: Stupid FFN...why do you remove "?(No space)!" s?