The stage was set, and everything had to be just perfect. There was a standard that Shinji realized he held himself to, of being able to do amazing things for the amazing people in his life. The restaurant was unbelievable in its majesty, with wide spaces separating the tables, lit with elaborate candlesticks as tiny islands of glowing ambiance. The shadows settled into a thick and warm cloak upon around his shoulders, and the ubiquitous, faceless waitstaff were on hand with a feast fit to his culinary standards.

Sitting across from him in an elegant, sky-blue dress was one Saneda Ayumi. She looked a little older, more mature, almost as if she'd been catching up to his height when he wasn't looking. Shinji for his part had no complaints. She smiled across the candlelight as a violinist gently painted romance with every note and draw of bow against the string.

Over dinner, they talked about nothing and everything, laughing without a care in the world. At least, until Ayumi sobered. Her smile grew brittle, and she folded her hands in her lap even as the violinist played on without heed. "So... Here we are."

"Here we are." Shinji echoed. He wondered for a second, but somehow he knew what she was going to say before she even said it.

"Are we... Here?" She hazarded. "Or going somewhere? I am your first, after all."

To that, he coughed lightly and let out a short, two-note laugh. "I think we are- or could be, I mean."

Ayumi was persistent though."Not all firsts last though, and I think you know that."

"And not all of firsts end, either. I will do right by you." He offered her a hopeful smile in return, but it was a fragile thing. Ayumi, or what he was now realizing as his view of her, gave him a sad smile of her own.

Standing, Ayumi held out her hand for him and led him out onto the dance floor. Suddenly the woman was in his arms and the music was pounding in his ears from a dozen speakers while neon lights and the sweat and heat of hot bodies steamed into the air. A dozen recognizable faces from his daily life spun into a blur, Kensuke over there, Toji with Hikari opposite. NERV's command staff tended bar while the sea of people threw their arms up and cheered as the tracks changed. The violinist continued to play, wearing a rumpled, trendy business suit and unmistakably eighties mirror-shades. He worked the bow and spun the turntables at the back of the room, deploying pounding beats with an unforgettable flair.

Finding his hands full of Misato's hips wrapped in a fantastic short skirt, Shinji blinked once before deciding he was entirely okay with that. The impression of the first real woman in his life laughed and pressed herself against him, complete with unmistakable curves and unbelievably full of life. The club and the dance beat were easy to read, like those too-cool venues in the soaps and dramas she liked to watch. Fitting that he found her there.

"You having fun yet?" That cat-like lilt in her voice was impossible to miss, and Shinji knew without a doubt that she was 'off the clock'.

"With you?" Shinji smiled and tugged her closer. "Always."

Laughing, she hooked her arms around his shoulders and neck while his hands settled on her waist. "And where do you want to go from here, hm?"

"Not sure." He admitted. "But I definitely want you there too."

The floor pitched beneath him and he felt more than heard the slosh and shift of water against the side of the gondola. Venice had flooded under Impact, but he'd seen pictures in the history books. A lovely redhead landed in his lap, clad in saffron silk and scowling at the cliché indignity of a romantic canal ride. The iconic gondolier pushed them along with the staff in one hand, and a violin and bow improbably cradled in the other.

Somehow, he was still playing.

Asuka glared at him from her place in his arms, but it lacked a certain kind of heat. "I think it's clear that you're trying to convince yourself of something, but I'm not sure what."

"Well, obviously I like you." Shinji declared. His own dark blue eyes met her much brighter ones, and he smirked. "I'd like to be your friend- wouldn't say no to dating you, but wow are you scary. You should work on that."

The indignant shriek echoed off into the buildings as she shoved her hands at his face, sending him tumbling into the first fat flakes of winter snow. Shinji had never seen the real thing before, even at the highest mountains in Japan. Clad in heavy winter kimono and traditional sandals, he walked arm in arm with Ayanami Rei. The pair meandered through a temple shrine during the winter festival, one gone from living memory. Hot rice wine warmed their fingers as they listened to the temple drums and bells. Clad in shrine robes, the violinist drew the bow across the strings between the echoing bell tones.

Rei looked up at him, smiling pleasantly. "I think we are happy where we are, yes?"

"Yep." Shinji scooped up a pile of snow and dumped it down the back of her kimono. "Family is a great place to be!"

The snow and temple grounds faded along with Rei's ringing peals of laughter, and Shinji found himself back in the restaurant from before. He spun idly in place, but there was no sign of Ayumi or anyone else- just the faceless waiters and the ever-present violinist. The musician's tone and performance shifted, almost disappointed with how Shinji and his dreams were so boring. Something heavy shook the dream, and the walls seemed to ripple.

The restaurant tables gave way to rows of ornate theater chairs, but two were occupied. Shinji glanced sidelong and saw Nagisa clad in a charcoal black suit.

"You know, realistically, you can't have them all." Nagisa hummed cheerfully, but the smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "Bench-pressing trucks is impressive, but not even you can carry everyone with you. Something's going to give somewhere."

Shinji nodded, though he didn't exactly know Nagisa that well. It sounded more like his own doubts. "Technically correct, I guess. If I find myself making a rock so big I can't lift it, sounds like time to make that problem into two rocks instead."

"Somehow I knew you'd say something like that. It's rather refreshing." Nagisa's grin widened faintly, then he pointed.

"Hm?" Shinji followed the gesture, turning as the curtains drew back and up to reveal a stage.

The orchestra was tuning- time to face the music. Violins and flutes played together in a familiar arrangement, a swinging composition that had Shinji tapping his toes and bobbing his head without thinking. Someone shouted from behind the music, maddeningly familiar but unintelligible. Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld filled the air as unseen patrons and waiters clapped in anticipation.

Curtains drew upwards, and the dancers bounced on stage. Tall, with legs reaching to the heavens and a smile to die for. Chestnut auburn hair fell in twin tails and their figures were so wonderfully fine- clinched tight and full everywhere it counted. Each and every dancing girl flashed identical grins and features. The music swelled with a rising crash, and classic routine carried on in earnest, with the girls bouncing arm in arm and leading with a rising knee and then a hat-kicking high-kick.

And they all were wearing glasses.

A flash and skitter-step of lost seconds distorted his perception, like jump cuts from a choppy action film. The camera focused, and Shinji found himself flat on his back and drowning in dancers. Through the gaps between smiles, curves and frilly, fetchingly-laced and frilled corsets, he saw the violinist staring down at him with their head cocked to one side, declaring that perhaps he wasn't so boring after all.


Dreams gave way to terrifying consciousness. Not that Shinji was particularly afraid for himself. Surrounded on all sides by cushioning LCL, engineered flesh, armor and nigh-inviolate AT field, he was in one of the safest places in the entire city. No, he was more than a little worried about everyone else. Awake and compensating for a sluggish synchronization, Shinji willed his Evangelion's hands to grab the building-sized hammer by the haft before it bludgeoned him unconscious a second time.

Flashes of red out the corner of his eye told him Asuka was nearby, but neck deep in her own troubles. Twisting, he wrenched the hammer from the latest monster's grip along with the rest of its arm and followed with a swinging right cross. The impact pulverized its mushroom-covered head, and a ruin of spores and shattered stone followed. Vibrant green ichor splashed all over the ruined battlefield, spreading into a thick carpet of mossy loam shot through with toadstools.

The ground shifted beneath his feet- mostly rubble from the past three days fighting. The center of Tokyo-3's fortress city was a ruin- a flattened crater broken up by uneven mounds of debris and destroyed buildings. Whatever these things were, these monster-makers, they had decided now was the time to make a big push. Ranks of soldiers following grey flame banners had marched upon the city- ignoring the railways and access points to the Geofront in favor of their own plan. Unnatural thunder rumbled in the sky overhead, shaking the dust from the still-standing buildings.

They had deployed monsters, building-sized things to clear the way. Then came the infantry, the archers and spear-men, cavalry followed with horse-bodied men and women wielding spears for hands. NERV had replied with rapidly dwindling reserves of modern armor, automatic weapons and bullet-proof vests.

"Ten goddamn weeks of this, huh?" Asuka groaned.

"And a happy fifteenth to you too." He tossed the gargantuan hammer into the enemy formation just ahead and watched the weapon vanish after it rolled through a column of archers and banner-men.

Below in the ruined streets, men and women were fighting for a handful of meters at a time- hideous and unbelievable trench warfare in the modern era. Mortars competed with longbows for indirect fire supremacy, leaving Shinji and Asuka to stand above as unnatural titans facing monsters from a place stranger than myth. Kicking away the fading corpse of the hammer beast, Shinji strode forward towards the battleground center, and soldiers behind him cheered as he broke an incoming cavalry charge with a road-shaking step.

And then out of thin air, the mushroom-headed hammer beast reappeared, summoned or conjured by some unseen author. The original's corpse slumped into a mound of boiling foliage, but the replacement was unmistakably there. Even as it brought it hammer up to bear, fire and arete surged through Shinji's thoughts.

"The fuck. Shinji!" Asuka hissed, less than a block away but mired in her own melee. "Did you see?!"

The monster hit harder but Shinji fought better- he checked the hammer blow and kicked the beast into the enemy army, growling. "Armies and monsters out of thin-air, like a copy machine!"

Surrounded on all sides- outnumbered and out-massed, Sorhyu Asuka Langley was in her element. Only her skill and brilliance kept her safe against the six-mawed crocodile with murder on its mind. Dripping with grey-flame banners and heraldry, her ring of monstrous opponents were armed and armored, barding strapped to strange limbs and bolted into scaled hide with crystal pins and ribbons.

Asuka and her partner were nearly floating, so in tune and synchronized. Dropping into a spinning leg sweep, she knocked out a half-dozen legs and wrecked a company of spear-men who were hiding in the shadows of the towering beasts. Rising fluidly, she reached out for the ribbon pins and yanked their glittering lengths from their backs before spinning them into her hands like fighting knives. As their armor fell apart, Asuka lashed out at eyes, noses and stranger glowing organs played by ten-armed organists nestled in rib cages.

"Misato!" Today there was a madness to the enemy's method, and Asuka couldn't help the oddly whimsical thought. Those magical assholes had to wreck most of the surface cameras. "Is this enough yet!?"

The older woman's voice barely rose over the sound of machinery and heavy metal- not the fun kind. "There won't be "enough" until we get something concrete here Asuka! We're going to need as much combat data as we can get! And keep it clean- we're not playing to the crowd!"

Asuka grinned mostly for herself, laughing despite the ongoing battle. "Fine fine, no showboating! How many more angles do you want on Ikari's new tactic of deflecting sledgehammers with his face?"

"I heard that, Asuka!" Through the gaps in the nearby buildings, Asuka saw Unit-01 grapple with the second mushroom-hammer-beast, and he growled across the city on external speakers. "Incoming on your left!"

"You were supposed to!" Asuka's smile widened as Shinji flung his opponent over the buildings between them, save for shaving a few of the top floors off with trailing limbs. She raised her hand and let the beast cleave itself in half across her palm from sheer momentum, drowning in a mantle of lichen for her trouble.

Two more hulking things surged into the fray, one made of car-sized scrolls sealed with wax, and the other made of swords in shape of man. An arm of blades wrapped around her Eva's bicep and yanked back before she could throw one more punch, and the scrolls unfurled to bind her other arm. Reaching out with her mind and synchronization, Asuka willed her Eva's trailing coat tails to shift, bending and flexing into shape-memory blades and functional limbs.

She ripped hearts from monstrous chests, and her Evangelion was splashed with ink and luminescent blood. "Four-armed and dangerous!"

Rei's voice rippled across the radio and into her mind. "That was terrible."

There were still a double-handful of great beasts to come, and Asuka raised all her limbs as they fanned out. "Okay so it was- can I get some covering fire?"

Riding on the shoulders of those giants were their masters, ugly or beautiful things by turns, beating drums or gesturing imperiously. Rei murmured apologetically as she fired at something out of sight and far off into the distance. "Unfortunately the positron cannon is not useful against ground-based targets."

Asuka nodded absently, mind already turning to how her opponents would move. The fighting had gone on so long, she'd started figuring out how to read their moves- at least some of the time. The controllers and their monsters varied in skill just like people, but there were so many. Asuka shook her head and exhaled harshly into the LCL.

The first attack came as a clawed hay-maker, aiming to rip her Eva's head from its neck. Leaning back, Asuka dodged and only suffered a handful of ragged lines drawn across the paint of her armor. She felt the whip-crack of her Eva's response in her own spine as she swung her head and shoulder forward, stepping into and under the monster's swing and bracing its unnatural elbow beneath her collarbone. It was a move Shinji favored, with a twist of her own.

She reached up with arm and wing to clamp around the thing's wrist and spun against the joint, turning until she wrenched it clean from its socket. Tossing the limb into the eye-chest of the next foe, she threw a rising knee capped in that blunt armor spike into the thing's torso. A sudden flurry of fire support from the surviving armory buildings raked across the remaining monsters, knocking their handlers away from their mounts and leaving the building-sized creatures lost and confused for that vital second.

Rising out of the dust and ruin from finishing those last two off, Asuka exhaled softly. The sky above was dark and tinged purple, thick with clouds that seemed to reach down and touch the tops of the remaining city towers. There was a roar and rush of air high above and masked behind the clouds, sending them spinning and shifting as air-pressure changes and abnormal weather swept over the city.

A dark shape plunged out of the sky, ripping a hole in the clouds and revealing a toothed maw upon the air. Jupiter hung above Tokyo-3 for a split second before the mouth gnashed closed. Above her with claws raked forward, a bird with feathers made of rainbows and joy unfurled its massive wings, casting the whole city in prismatic shadow. Asuka stared up at it, fists clenched against the control yokes.

Then, a beam of eye-searing white and blue screamed across the sky, pulverizing the air as it cut through to spear the titan-bird through the breast and out the back. Rei hummed. "I can however cover you from the air. Nagisa-san is spotting."

Turning to the distant hillside where Rei and Nagisa were camped out, Asuka tossed the pair a jaunty salute. The bird was shattered, falling apart into massive crystal feathers that wrecked more of the city and divided the battlefield up even more. But even as she crushed both giant monsters and throngs of infantry, something nagged at her. The alien infantry scrambled onward, dashing around her Evangelion's toes, blatantly ignoring her and rushing headlong towards the center of the city-crater.

"Misato..." Asuka frowned, more than a little unhappy. "It's looking pretty bad up here!"

The city shook beneath the thunder of guns and heavy artillery, and Misato listened to her pilots banter. Even while Asuka needled Shinji, Misato knew the data was streaming down into the Geofront as fast as it could flow. There had to be something there they could use. Under her feet, the high-speed cargo rail flung a train car full of soldiers and equipment to the nearest surface exit, not even a quarter-kilometer from the central crater of Tokyo-3. If the city were a diamond five fortress blocks across, then the three-day assault had torn the center block down to the first armor layer.

Misato sighed and shifted fitfully as massive engines dragged the train car upwards, wriggling numb toes inside her rugged, trendy boots. They were a poor match to ill-fitting pants and a ballistic vest. She scanned the car full of soldiers- the last soldiers. It was all NERV could afford, after the perimeter defenses and under-city patrols. The spaces between the surface and the Geofront were thick with things that crawled in the dark, and it seemed that neither side wanted to press their luck. NERV had to brave those spaces anyway, if for no other reason than to clear the way for Evangelions and conventional deployment.

Resisting the nervous urge to check her gear, Misato made a point of looking over everyone else's. "Listen up ladies and gentlemen. After us there is no one else. After us, it's just scientists and civilians. Today was the day that someone up there decided to make a big push, and we've got to push back!"

The soldiers surrounding her didn't shout or stomp, but there was an audible bracing as they squared their shoulders. Their equipment jingled in response, and Misato gave them a grim, starlet smile. Brakes hissed and screeched as they wrenched the car to a stop, and the doors blew open on high-pressure pneumatic jacks. Swinging down and onto the platform hard enough to shake teeth, the doors became a ramp for the hundred or so able-bodied soldiers surging out into the cloudy daylight.

Charging out from the concrete bunker in the shadows of a still-standing armory building, Misato and her reinforcements entered chaos. The streets were choked with hastily shoveled mounds of concrete and rubble, riddled with tangled bands of re-bar and twisted steel beams. Glass shards rattled against the street as unbelievably huge super-trucks plowed through the wide boulevards, shoving aside debris with hastily fitted dozer blades and serving as moving shields for advancing squads of infantry. Conventional tanks formed support columns, dripping with regular soldiers as they rode toward the deeper battleground.

Her hair under her helmet frizzed up without cause or warning, and the eye-searing pulse of a positron blast arched over head. The blast was deafening even through her covered ears, throwing everything into a white fog of noise. Rubbing her ears through her helmet, Misato worked her jaw and hoped the ringing would fade. Makoto hunkered down next to her, glasses safely down in the Geofront and dripping with communications gear. He gave her a decisive nod, looking exactly as scared as she felt right then. She just smiled and gave his arm a pat before charging forward.

As the ringing in her head cleared, Misato reached out for her radio and started calling for status reports. Directly ahead of them only blocks away were Evangelions 01 and 02, both wrestling across the ruined city blocks. The forty-meter tall cyborgs punched through thousand-ton wave of ice and curtains of falling rainbow feathers, and each time they swung, the city trembled.

Arrows of gleaming crystal arced through the air, perforating tank armor and punching through kevlar without pause. Cover was their friend, and Misato dragged Hyuuga alongside the rest of her command squad into the shadow of a fallen buildings. One of the super-mover trucks rumbled ahead, its cabin abandoned and wheel locked forward as it bulldozed into the fray. Knee high to an Evangelion, Shinji scooped it up without a word and used it to beat a cobra-centipede into a greasy smear across the battlefield.

One of her soldiers signaled ahead as it was clear, leading them into a ripped open conduit beneath the street. The city and battlefield were crisscrossed with the things, and the melee had come down to trench warfare. Fully automatic weapons cut down the man-horse cavalry- but for every two dozen they felled, one or two of the greater elites would bat the bullets aside with contemptuous ease. Those needed focused fire, mortars or artillery if they could afford it, and even then...

Everything was coming in waves, despite the chaos. It was orderly and direct in a way that could only suggest intelligence, a plan. It wasn't a battle that could be won from the screens and maps in Central Dogma, even if they had live feed. Misato's hand tightened on the grip of her rifle and she put everything she had into seeing. What was their objective, she wondered. The invaders had fought so hard for the center of the city, and for now, she couldn't even say why. Not until she could see more of the bigger picture.

She shook her head and scowled into the swirling dust and grit, combat glasses already scuffed across one side.

"Misato..." Asuka's voice crackled over the radio, her bravado fading by inches. "It's looking pretty bad up here!"

Calling back, Misato couldn't help but agree. "Asuka- you have no idea."

Behind her, something new thudded up out of one of the nearest surviving launch rails. It moved sluggishly, gleaming silver and so new they hadn't even taken the stickers off.

He promised everyone he wouldn't do it. He promised himself, swore to it on the horrors he'd seen and the secrets he'd been entrusted with. He swore it on the smiles of the forty-seven girls he'd successfully dated in the past twelve months.

Guttering in at a borderline thirty-two percent synchronization inside Evangelion Unit 04, Aida Kensuke's shit-eating grin spread from ear to ear. "This is fucking awesome!"

It wasn't really funny, but Shinji couldn't help the tight grin as he heard Asuka start to wind up. Between the two of them, they wrestled and broke the enemy heavy support against their Evas, with Rei and Kaworu as sniper and spotter respectively. Something had told him NERV would find themselves ruing the day that Aida Kensuke got to pilot a Evangelion, but Asuka was already there.

"Nagisa!" The redhead snapped, scalding and desert dry. "You are hereby promoted to Nagisa. Aida Kensuke, you are now Newbie and I am now your one and only god- do not put me to the test. Get your ass into position and geek out if we survive!"

Wrenching a crystal feather from the ground, Shinji swung the surprisingly heavy thing into the nearest great beast, shattering both bone armor and glassy shards in a single blow. Somehow fighting on two fronts with four arms, Asuka managed to call up a tactical map of the city and push it to the pilots. Kensuke's image popped in by way of a communication window along with the four veteran pilots, grinning or ashen-faced depending on where he looked.

"Alright, from this moment forward you listen to me, and you listen with your ears wide open." At Asuka's mental command, a silver pip appeared on the grid and joined the other colored dots, with his marked Unit 04. "As of today all you've seen is the inside of a tuna-can, and this is no simulation."

She dragged a line from the deployment point to another armory building perpendicular to the battle line. "Your sync is hot garbage and that means you will be hot garbage, unless you do exactly as I say, exactly when I say to do it." She punctuated her point by dissecting a monster vividly before their eyes, train of thought unbroken."You will be fighting input delay, so you have to think ahead. Your feet will be eighty-ton bricks, so you have to dance like a ballerina in there to keep standing."

Another monster fell and Unit 02 was already turning away while it slumped, boneless against the building behind it. "You will not be taking chances with that Unit, you will not do that thing they do in the cartoons you have seen. Because you are fire support, and if you stitch a line across my back as I grapple with some unholy monster, the next thing between my hands will be your head."

She had said all this while Kensuke watched her dissect two more monsters for a total of four kills during the diatribe. "Are we totally clear on this?"

Evangelion Unit 04 emerged from the cover of still-standing buildings, hefting an Evangelion-scale gatling cannon in both arms. In his communication panel, Kensuke nodded. "C-Crystal, ma'am."

"Good. Ikari, show him the ropes." Asuka reached behind her Evangelion's back for the hilt parallel to her spine, detonating the rocket assist draw and cleaving a brass and tentacle frog in half with the weight of a building. She readied Wellenbrecher and grinned, shouting across the battlefield with loudspeakers. "Who's ready for the next lesson?!"

The front line stretched in a staggered zigzag, dug into the street or wrought from piled-up debris. Misato and her squad threw themselves into cover, pelted by loosened concrete and bejeweled feather fragments. The giant bird-thing Rei had shot down littered the battlefield with its remains, and the plumage spilled rainbows across the earth and sky. Huddling in the slumped wreckage of city foundation and what looked like a restaurant kitchen, Misato directed her troops to building a forward command post. Shovels and pry-bars ripped free manageable chunks of concrete and wrecked appliances, shoved around as bulwark against the pounding volleys.

As the trench cleared and the defensive wall grew, a small but vocal part of Misato questioned her sanity. It demanded to know why now, today that she had to take to the field and fight. She quashed that pointed question and the unsatisfactory answers aside, instead turning every bit of her attention on what was in front of her- the enemy. The no-man's land between her forces and the invaders was a fortress city block, some five hundred meters wide and piled high with rubble.

Her Evangelions crisscrossed that field, carving uneven footprints into the ruins and abused city surface. The remains of a department store marked one end, and a half-dozen armory buildings had collapsed in the earlier fighting. Unexploded ordnance the size of compact cars stuck out like brass boulders, mixed in with furniture, wood and plastic. The giants fought ahead NERV's lines or overhead by turns, and their brutal kicks and grapples shook the city down to the first armor layer. Brick, mangled steel and people were thrown into the air with every relentless impact.

Peeking over past a rot-filled refrigerator, Misato wrinkled her nose and narrowed her eyes. Scrabbling things hauled around drums alongside well-ordered blocks of infantry, while living horns bugled out orders across the battlefield. Calvary mingled with pikemen and blocks of archers, who screened smaller squads of mole-men and what looked like living bombs. Golems made of clay urns with sparkling wicks for hair and binding joints, they were ushered into place and detonated, ripping deeper into the substructure of Tokyo-3.

Sappers. Misato leaned against the barrier and huffed. "Why here of all places. It doesn't make any sense. Why now."

"Major?" Makoto breathed, winded and pale. He volunteered to stick with her, freeing up a trained and conditioned soldier for more vital duties.

"Something's wrong." Misato admitted, frowning both at the rotted smell and the nearly incomprehensible enemy strategy. "Or, more wrong than normal. What strategic objective could they be after here? There's nothing here- and easier ways into the Geofront!"

Scanning the battlefield, she stated picking out the rhyme and reason to the tactics, of cavalry, spear men and other skirmishers. There was a regularity to their advances, and downright medieval approach. They practiced their own form of combined arms, and only suffered momentarily in the face of armored warfare. In the distance one of the exploding men tripped a natural gas line, and a fireball shot up into the sky-half as tall as an Eva. The flames guttered out as inky black tentacles dripping with diamond-flecked eyes surged out of the smoke, grabbing anything it could reach and crushing them. Whatever lived between the armor layers, it was an enemy to everything.

Makoto handed her a radio before she even asked for it, calling out to the few tanks she had in reserve and telling them to hold position. They didn't question the order. Across the cratered central block, the rival army shifted, beating back the tentacles and stranger things before working to widen the gap. Again the drums and trumpets sounded. A change in formation followed, rippling across the battle line.

"God, what is this, the sixteen hundreds?" She reached for a pair of binoculars, hunting for more detail even as arrows started decorating her cover. "They're signaling each other with horn calls and flags."

The invader's ability to summon an army on demand made getting an estimate of their force difficult, but she could start to see a pattern, even if a weak one. The hand-waved legions folded under heavy fire, and she quickly started to ignore them in favor of the more substantial units that stretched in a half-moon formation on the opposite side of the battle. Backing them up like her own heavy armor and artillery were the massive monsters they seemed to call from nothing or drop in from the sky. The hulking brutes shouldered aside ten and twenty story buildings, adding to the ruins as they moved into the fray. That was fine with Misato- she had her own titans to play.

But even with all of that in her favor, Misato needed Ritsuko most of all.

Everything sounded like she was underwater, and her left eye refused to focus even in the dim infirmary room. A pen light waved in front of her face, back and forth until her senses finally caught up. Shoving the brightness away, Ritsuko heaved herself upright and filtered through her last waking memories. Kaji, underneath the city structure, and ADAM...

"Apologies for the rude awakening, doctor." Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki tossed the pen light aside and pushed a pair of sweats and matching jacket into her arms. "We've not a lot of time to delay."

Her tongue felt heavy and dry in her mouth, but she worked up some moisture, croaking first before speaking. "Wh-What's going on?"

The radio at Fuyutsuki's hip answered her. The radio at Fuyutsuki's hip answered her. "Sub-Commander! Is she awake? Wait, no one answer that." The signal paused momentarily, before Misato surged back through the fog of static. "Listen Rits, given the mood I am in I will shout you back from hell if need be, but right now I need you to pull something together! Anything from all the data we've got so far!"

"Data for what?" Ritsuko shoved her uncooperative legs into the sweat pants before pulling the sweater over her head. Fuyutsuki had vanished for the moment, but left the radio.

"Big battle on the surface! Going three days now. Enemy's trying to blast a hole through twenty odd armor plates and I want you to tell me why!"

Fuyutsuki returned with a folded wheelchair and set to pulling it open while Ritsuko reached out for the radio. She stared at the red signal light, adrenaline banishing the last bits of lethargy in favor of incredulity. "You want me to give you something actionable in what, fifteen minutes?"

"Sooner if you can!"

Of course she'd say that. Ritsuko sighed and swung herself off the hospital bed and into the chair, cradling the radio handset in one hand while the older man pushed her out into the crowded hallway. "Katsuragi, miracle gambits are your specialty."

The chipper quip was almost lost amidst a burst of gunfire. "Says something about our situation now, doesn't it?"

"Fine fine fine-" Dropping the radio in her lap, Ritsuko looked up at Fuyutsuki. "Get us to the nearest MAGI lab."

The enemy was gradually reinforcing the center of the crater with shield walls, javelins and cavalry charges. On top of that, they advanced from the growing strong point towards NERV's own line, punching deeper into the defensive crossfire with every assault. The galling part was that it was working. An assault would boil out of cover into a storm of automatic fire, evading at the last second as bejeweled and banner-strewn drummers rallied the troops. Nestled into carefully defended pockets, the sappers would rush out, dig in and explode. She was pretty sure the bomb-men were laughing when the set themselves off.

Ahead, less than a hundred meters away from the command post, a handful of tanks already engaged in combat had moved into cover, hull down and with their turrets allowed free range of fire. Against those, the incoming enemy split and leaped, flanking the armor and savaging the weaker rear facings. It sounded simpler than it worked in practice, but the obvious tactical acumen gnawed at her.

It reminded Misato of herself.

She watched the battle shift and ebb ahead of her. Well, they wanted to blast their way down... "Designated marksmen, mortars and grenadiers, focus fire on the exploding clay men. Pick your targets and fire at will."

The order raced out across her forces, and though she couldn't see it, she could imagine all her soldiers leaping to action. Less than half a minute after she gave the order, the first muted thumps and blasts of propellant launched mortars skyward. Single-shot cracks of gunfire punctuated the launch as the first few bombers were sniped in their trenches. The first explosions triggered sympathetic detonations, daisy-chained into a line of fire and shrapnel that shredded the enemy's ranks.

Radio in hand, she opened her mouth to arrange for another barrage when the refrigerator she hunkered against unfolded into a storm of hooded cloaks and warriors armed with wicked seven-edged knives.

Suddenly, mortars and exploding pot-men seemed less important.

Falling backwards out of the kitchen and into the foundation trench, Misato landed hard in a puddle, screaming as she groped for her weapon. She flung the radio through the curtain of water at her attacker with one hand, cracking the porcelain mask and watching it bleed smoke. Heedless, the thing crossed its knives and vaulted down from the hastily built wall. Misato rolled, tumbling side over side and slamming painfully into a fallen bank of cook tops. Her hands stung from blood scrapes, but she swung her rifle up and squeezed off a shot, then two more into the thing's chest. The cloak and chest plate collapsed like cheap pottery, slumping to the floor and throwing up a noxious cloud of blue smoke and childish stars, moons and twinkling lights.

Another skirmisher charged her, running along the heads and shoulders of her troops and its own allies before swinging left and right with both blades. The knives left glowing silver arcs as they sliced, crossing over each other so fast they seemed to draw a cutting edge upon the air. Makoto slammed into the fighter from the side shoulder first before scrambling back and jamming his bayonet into the thing's face. Asuka had insisted they go out with them affixed.

Seconds blurred into long hours, where shouts for help and soldiers swearing violently against the sneak attack. When one creature blocked bullets with a deft flick of a knife, Misato rolled away from the redirected ricochet and uncurled at its feet before thrusting her bayonet into the man-vase's gut. Heaving herself upright, she sighted down the trench and squeezed off two more bursts, shattering masked hoods and clearing the way for her squad to regroup.

A whirling shadow was the only warning she had before pair of impacts cracked hard into her back. The blades sheared through her ballistic vest, cutting so thoroughly that her webbing and gear fell away from her chest, back to front. She turned her head, and her helmet slipped off from a cut strap. She had never paid much mind to serendipity, but more than ever Misato was thankful she and Ritsuko had always shared similar sizes, even back in college. This particular borrowing had suddenly become a lot more important than any date with an upperclassman. Behind her was the last raider, and she watched it stare with empty clown eyes at the pearly steel breastplate she wore. Emphasis on breast.

Bruised but not bleeding, Misato spat in its face. "Yeah, we're stealing your stuff now too."

All it could do in reply was die by way of Makoto's rifle. Misato slumped away from the rising cloud and jabbed the trench wall with her bayonet before collapsing fully. The radio was at her feet, housing cracked but functional. She called out for her squad to sound off and suppressed the wince when two of her twelve were KIA and another was wounded. They needed her back up and standing tall, rapidly.

She ignored Makoto's offered hand, but shot him and his dust-covered face a ten-thousand megawatt smile for the offer as she heaved herself upright. Rising up and out of the trench, she mounted the slightly smaller mound of kitchen appliances and concrete. All around her, the storm of battle from Evangelions and high explosives lifted her hair like a trailing flag, and the battle continued with no change or end in sight. Glancing left and right, something red and white caught her eye, holding it inexorably.

The fascination was palpable- through the dust and grit of the battlefield, hundreds of meters away, she saw it. The big guy, the commander in chief, the general.

Standing ten feet tall, its sheer presence made the details stand out like a spotlight despite the distance. Clad in heavy, relentlessly ornate armor and wreathed in dancing tongues of white-grey flame, the enemy commander marched forward from his retainers and elite staff. A pole rose from his back, over his shoulder and trailing a silvery silk banner edged in scarlet. The statement was impossibly clear, and Misato knew without a doubt that he had just thrown down the gauntlet. A challenge, a duel to settle all of this.

She couldn't see his eyes through the slit in his visor, but Misato felt him meeting her stare with a steady one of his own. A not insignificant part of her spoke up again, and she realized she was almost willing to take him up on it. Even knowing she'd probably die in the process, simply because it would have been a fantastic death worthy of song and legend for ten-thousand years and ten more.

Then she remembered the radio in her hand, and that artillery that was still waiting for orders.

Despite the explosions that followed, Misato was fairly certain she hadn't seen the last of him. The bruises spreading out across her back were starting to hurt, they were a problem for tomorrow- like paperwork. The wind picked up again, and the clouds parted for a second time. From the great maw in the sky came lightning, blasting craters in the ground as well as any penetrating munition, faster and harder. The bolts discharged, searing hot-blue light into her retinas even as she threw an arm over her face and dove for cover.

Risking a peek past her wrist, Misato saw the lightning converge and crackle. The strikes danced in three long lines across the battlefield before meeting in the center, and in that fraction of a second, split the earth. Left in the new central crater were things, a hopelessly overused word, but it was all she had to fall back on. Tall, spindly with too many joints, she couldn't take them all in at once. Their limbs ended in blades that ended in blades, and as they moved, dust swirled in spiraling columns.

The three new monsters seemed to look at each other, before they extended wind-cloaked arms and began to dance. Misato blinked past the stinging heat in her eyes, gaping openly. The Evas shifted, changing position on some unheard order. The dancers moved without rhythm, discordant. Despite that, they somehow built to a critical mass of spiraling wind and pressure.. Then, the sound of cracking, cutting rock and stone filled the crater.

Fumbling for the radio, Misato called the local commanders and any friendly NERV forces on the line, well-aware of just how insane she sounded. "They've deployed some kind of living drills here, prepare the Geofront against a possible breach!"

The reply came swiftly, even over the dust and noise of the battle. "Affirmative Major, but we can't maintain visual on the target, there's some kind of windstorm up there."

Coughing around a mouthful of fresh dust from fallen ceiling debris, Misato could only sigh inwardly at the events in her life which had brought her to gunning down storybook monsters. "The target is the windstorm! All units, acknowledge new enemy asset as kamaitachi."

There was over a kilometer of earth, rock and armor between her and the surface, but Ritsuko could feel the battle overhead bearing down on her shoulders. Ritsuko heaved herself out of the wheelchair and onto the bench seat, sliding into place before the MAGI console. Pattern recognition and advanced deliberative modeling were still down, but the system was still a computer, waiting for commands. Her fingers danced over the keys, assembling instructions and gathering her tools. If she could not make a miracle, then she could at least get the things needed to code it in place.

Fuyutsuki moved, silent as an old stalking lion between the rows of consoles, fussing with his own terminal. He piggy-backed on her instructions, forgoing speed in favor of accessing their enemy database and patching Misato's direct feeds through. Video from the surface was intermittent and shredded by static and interference, but Misato made up for it with color commentary.

"It bears repeating- dancers made of wind and cutting blades with too many joints! They're carving into the city like the fortress angel!"

Ritsuko shook her head, urging with all her will for the consoles to boot up faster. "Not the weirdest thing we've seen, Katsuragi!"

Misato didn't bother quipping back.

A map of Tokyo-3 spread out across the monitor, awash in a mix of false-color data and empty voids. Damaged sensors and broken connections carved out silent regions spanning several buildings. The center block of the city was nearly black, save for flashes of pattern data and telemetry delivered by the Evangelions via their power cables. Human red mingled with green, and Ritsuko stared at the pixels as they bloomed across the screen.

We can't do anything about hardware. She grabbed a notepad and sketched out a plan to build man-portable pattern sensors. So we solve it with software. I need to get more information out of what data we're receiving...

She glanced at the screen again, seconds ticking by as the battle surged aboveground. Green washed over the pattern red for a split second. The video feed dissolved into white noise before snow serpents appeared, winding through the remaining armory towers. Red gave way to green, just for a moment, over and over. Tasking Casper with diagnostics, Ritsuko directed Balthazar to start formulating a predictive model. As the two brains bowed to her commands, she frowned and bit her lip.

I'm missing something. Red before green. Green over red. She called up the old pattern data from Aida's forays into Tokyo-3. Thaumaturgy events, Shinij's lingering traces strewn across the cityscape... The diagnostics cleared the hardware and software so far, so Ritsuko shoved the old data into the model along with the new and set it to bake while Casper joined in. Without their third member, the MAGI's pattern recognition faltered, but not so far as to be useless.

Thirty seconds ticked by, and Ritsuko distantly heard Misato order an artillery strike.

Helmetless and for the moment secure in her nascent kitchen-command post, Misato considered the situation and her options. The enemy knew where she was for one, and had already tried calling her out. Obviously they had impeccable taste. Armed with a mental map of the battlefield, she clamped a hand over one ear and held the radio headset to side of her head. What messages she could hear, the wind stole, raking at all and sundry. The sickle-dancers spun into a three-pronged drill of cutting air, building a funnel cloud higher and higher. The storm roared with blast of lightning, while the sudden surging gusts heaved grit and debris into pulverizing sheets.

From her improvised command post, Misato saw her Evas brace into the storm. Electricity thrummed in the massive trailing cables, and their unfurled AT-fields drank in the juice. Makoto grabbed her arm and pulled her around, shouting over the screaming winds.

"Shigeru says they're through the first layer!" He pointed toward the tornadoes. "Thirty minutes to breach!"

Scowling, Misato nodded and inched her way over the mound of wreckage and held her hair down with one hand. Her Evas were still in the thick of it. The bone-shaking rumble of Kensuke's gatling cannon cut through the storm in jerky bursts, and she caught glimpses of red and purple between blinding waves of dust and shredded concrete. The tornado-drill reached to the sky and was thick enough to swallow an Evangelion whole. Glittering arcs of too-bright steel flashed out, attached to unshapely limbs.

Even as she watched, her forces moved. Acting on their own initiative and her standing orders, infantry advanced or retreated in response to the enemy. Two dozen skirmishes played out across the battlefield, wars in miniature. The reports filtered in one ear and the rest was plain to her eyes. Off to one side and not a hundred meters away, two squads of infantry were hard-pressed by a unit of halberdiers.

Her soldiers favored cover, clinging to the trenches and moving unseen between engagements, and the invaders realized this. The bomb-men had given up on blasting into the Geofront, turning instead to aide strange, monstrous little engineers who filled the pits and obstacles. They paved the way for cavalry and massed infantry charges across more even ground. That in turn played to her forces' advantage as well as the heavy automatic weapons fired across unobstructed fields. Misato knew though, down to her bones, that her soldiers would run out of bullets before the opposing force ran out of swords and spears.

She had to get a read on these things. Raising the radio, she licked her lips and tasted powdered rock and concrete. "Armor, advance and engage."

Tanks, and one of the ultra-heavy earthmovers crashed through an already half-demolished building. Together they pounded a new road into the battlefield, and the cloud of dust and glass was swept up into the air from the cutting winds. A positron blast from the hills behind the city flashed overhead, punching through another monster hidden by the clouds and remaining city skyline. On the ground, Misato's eyes narrowed to thin slits. Start signaling, c'mon...

A distant flag-bearer started shouting, raising his standard while another elf-warrior brought a horn to his lips and started trumpeting. Cavalry broke from the dust and smoke of battle, man-horses swinging around while a squad of archers readied their bows. Misato was about to shout for cover when the archers aimed somewhere else and fired. They filled the air with fire, a river of arrow shafts that the mounted warriors galloped across towards the tanks and their unguarded flanks. Dropping back behind cover, Misato ordered her tank commanders to pop smoke and turn.

Shinji must have seen the attack as well, because he stepped into the path of arrows, dashing half the chargers across the battleground with one knee and shin. Dust filled the wide streets and masked the approaches from all directions, and from there, more of the giant monsters emerged. Misato bit her lip and frowned. The big ones favored the Evangelions, for obvious reasons, but she'd seen even the human-sized, glamorous ones survive direct hits from a tank's primary weapon. There was psychology here, but damned if she couldn't see it.

"You want me to what?" Asuka yanked on her control yokes, willing both pairs of arms to intercept the monster of the moment.

Ritsuko's voice was a rasping croak, though some of that was due to just coming out of a soul-damage coma. "Move north-west two blocks- I'm seeing an anomalous reading."

Asuka exhaled hard into the LCL. The snow-dragons spat out bolts of lightning and concussive thunderblasts, and she could feel her Eva's muscles ripple and spasm in the face of the electric surges. One bolt lanced into her fingers and across her chest, hot as a branding iron, but her Eva didn't have a heart to stop. The arc of energy grounded out the opposite leg, and she lashed out with that foot into a driving side kick. Her heel speared the dragon's side, ripping it open and spilling fresh powder snow across the ground.

Tossing a look at Shinji and his battle, Asuka huffed. "On my way."

In terms of distance, two blocks was nothing compared to an Eva, but she had to duck around the enemy armies and dodge two more monsters before Ritsuko told her to stop. Anomalous pattern green, spiking higher than ever seen. Asuka whipped her head around left to right, four eyes filtering her perception into standard binocular vision. Then, at the edge of her view she saw something perched on the edge of a building across the city. She triggered the zoom with an unvoiced thought, and for the life of her, could not think of anything else to say.

"Oh my god it's so fluffy."

The feed from Unit-02 was... interesting to say the least. She had no idea why a specimen of Mustela nivalis was perched on a skyscraper parapet this far south- or wearing a shining white winter coat in a Post-Impact world.

"Despite all appearances, it probably is one of the invaders, pilot." Ritsuko flinched at her own choice of word. She'd known the girl for almost a year now and still called her that?

Shaking her head, Ritsuko focused on the telemetry. Pattern green flooded her screen, overwhelming the fleeting drips of red and Asuka's own resonating soul. She'd already hidden the blue cast out by Unit-02's AT-field. All the souls stood as islands of color, and if the theories were correct, then all life on Earth was in some way red. But only mankind had enough to shine out like beacons. The poetic phrasing was Fuyutsuki's handiwork.

Red gave way to green. Red reacted to green. The MAGI spat out their conclusion, limited, but still the work of the finest supercomputer on the planet. She stared at the text crawling across the terminal, and the dry symbolic data linked together into something comprehensible. Every pattern green event ever recorded had one universal commonality: There was always, without fail, a human being nearby.

Knowing the invaders could carve at souls was not as bad as the realization that Ritsuko knew much less than she previously thought. "Pattern green does not exist in and of itself. We're only seeing the reflection off of our AT-fields?!"

Fuyutsuki stood up, rounding on her as she gripped the console. "Akagi!?"

She looked up at him, blinking owlishly behind her glasses before shoving the data over to his screen. A second later his jaw hung slack. "It's a-a chemical stain? radioactive isotope dye for the soul?"

Ritsuko shrugged, but her mind whirled. I can use that. "Sub-co-Profes-" She took a breath, shaking her head. "Fuyutsuki- you remember the improvised MAGI code Shinji helped develop?"

"The symbolic-logic work, yes." He tapped in the keys and brought up what documentation they had- hardly a complete and mature language, but enough.

Ritsuko bit her thumb, settling back down in her seat. Her eyes tracked left and right, reading noting as her thoughts spun up to speed. "Pattern green resonates across souls. We still can't do anything about hardware, but we can maybe supplement it..."

She started crafting pseudo-code, shoving modules off to the old professor as the drafts were completed. Ritsuko's fingers flew over the keyboard, and new MAGI processes started to take shape beneath her hands. A message to Central Dogma made sure Maya was prepared for a live update to the system, and the younger woman replied back with a terse text message, promising her best.

Ritsuko trusted Fuyutsuki to build the more esoteric parts, the elements of the glorified patch that required the softer, squishier aspects of Metaphysical Biology. If he was writing the heart and soul, she stretched the metaphor into the skeleton, nerve and sinew. Magic was science, science was magic. Ritsuko grit her teeth and laughed.

If her idea worked, they were going to use all of humanity as a signal amplifier and antenna.

There was no point in trying to drill through the center of the city. The top of the Geofront dome had been paved flat just to maximize the armor thickness on all meaningful angles of attack. That one Angel tried drilling, but it was a flying fortress and had incredible anti-everything defenses. Misato bit her lip and exhaled harshly. There were hundreds of weaker points to smash through, Evangelion access tunnels, the railroads and vehicle access. The kamaitachi were drilling right through the street, ignoring the potentially weaker shutters clamped over the armory buildings.

For that matter, why the kamaitachi. She'd seen these things just up and wave their hands, making something into something else. They could have just turned the ground into cheese, or something. Ritsuko was busy, and while that iron was in the fire, she had other resources to draw upon...

Leaning on Makoto and the radio, Misato switched channels. "Shinji, Asuka! You're the closest thing I have to experts- why aren't these guys using magic?"

Busy cleaving through a building and two monsters, Asuka's voice was distant. "Hell if I know! They can interact with AT fields!"

"Ergo-" Nagisa broke in, tone deceptively light. "they can interact with souls!"

Shinji let out a wordless sound of frustration, expressing it with a brutal series of stomps as he disrupted a massing cluster of skirmishers. "Best guess- they either have to dig to the Geofront, or they're choosing to."

Misato didn't like either of those answers.

The fact of the matter was that Ritsuko really was the best MAGI programmer in the world. Part of that was her insider knowledge, and her admitted obsession with outdoing her mother in all things. Acknowledging that was becoming easier by the day, and the threat of impending existential doom seemed to make her more introspective. Cutting off the rush of thoughts, she focused on the code spilling out from beneath her fingertips. The other part, was that the MAGI could code themselves, generating instructions on predictive models that were fiendishly accurate. At peak performance, the machines could simulate souls- anticipating the much more logical structure of code was simplicity itself.

Fuyutsuki completed his own block of code seconds after her, having assembled the thaumaturgical concepts into something resembling a coherent framework. They didn't have time to test the code, to do anything reasonable with implementation. Instead, Ritsuko could only trust the MAGI to address its own faltering steps and adjust accordingly. With Melchior gone, the systems were two-thirds as fast, and they relied on the human element to resolve the inevitable conflicts and interpretations.

Ritsuko forced her fingers to stop shaking and hit enter. "Fifty-fifty says the MAGI brains explode."

He frowned, shaking his head. "No bet."

Seconds crawled by, punctuated by the sound of battle from the radio at the end of the console. Screens were filled with streaming code and progress bars, patch application ticking higher and higher. One faltered, flashing angry warning red before restarting- a stumble, but not a fall. Ritsuko's hands found a counter edge wrapped her fingers around it, knuckles white and taut. Then another meter flickered, a third, more cascading failures as the MAGI rejected the hasty update. Ritsuko hissed, tapping in abort commands and recovering functionality, bypassing the automatic procedures in favor of her mother's shortcuts.

The old man gave her a grave nod. "Again, Akagi."

Scrubbing her eyes, she nodded. Scanning the code once more, she appended a few sections, expanding some, truncating others. There was a significant part of her that was painfully aware she was not following any sane methodology, but Misato demanded her brilliance and her intuition... The second attempt progressed further than the first, and the third almost reached ninety percent. She raised her fist at the screen but held back at the last second, finally tracking down the last errant bracket and closing the code.

One hundred percent flashed on her screen, and though she couldn't see it, the MAGI accepted the new code and turned inward, generating new commands that defied conventional computer science.



"We just taught the MAGI thaumaturgy."

"So we did."

Misato's voice broke out through the radio, pitched high and piqued. "You did what now? Nevermind- I need something here Rits!"

Reaching for the radio, Ritsuko exulted hotly, full of stress and drained."Data's coming in now, Katsuragi!"

The reality was that pattern green did not exist- or better to say they had never detected it directly. Instead they only saw the reflection. But like any phenomenon, what could be perceived could be measured. Pushing the information to a larger screen, Ritsuko watched as the MAGI started to pick out patterns amidst the chaos. The same blooms and whorls, rippling across the pinpricks that represented simple human souls. The Evas by comparison had broader, more dominating blue-type AT-fields that gave superior returns, filling the voids where sensor coverage was weakest.

Despite that, she could still see something else, something in the background. An anomalous return. A lingering afterimage that painted the sensor map... She cast that aside- not important. The patterns started to resolve, and other monitors flickered with useful data. One pattern, two, six, twenty. Recognizable, repeatable traits. Shinji did it, and these things did it too. His technique of promised victory had the same result every time and now she could prove it.

Fuyutsuki frowned, standing up and silhouetted by the glare of the big screen. "Akagi- the MAGI are interpreting pattern intensity, aren't they?"

He was right. The MAGI had taken the thaumaturgic patch and expanded upon it. The brighter patches on screen were active, pulsing with whatever energy and magic the invaders brought to bear. Shinji too. His mark stood out, overlapping the location-data of Evangelion Unit-01. There were a dozen other anomalous hot spots, active and teeming with some urgent power. One though, near Asuka... The MAGI picked it up nearly as fast as she did, bracketing the outlier and offering an assessment.

"Ritsuko?" Misato's voice trampled through her thoughts in a rapid rush. "Data? Anything?!"

Misato grit her teeth, cuddling close to cover. Something loud and fiery surged overhead, and she grabbed Hyuuga, wrenching him around hard enough to wedge his nose into her cleavage. Ritsuko, true to form, always gave her qualified answers.

"It's not the miracle you ordered, Katsuragi!" Static, gunfire and the muted impact of arrowheads nearly overwhelmed the sound of Ritsuko's voice. "But I think I can tune the AT-field against these things!"

A light shove sent Hyuuga twisting away, leaving him sputtering for breath while Misato leaned on the radio strung between them. "Lemme guess- you won't be able to do anything until after the battle."

"Unfortunately no- but we're seeing over a hundred concrete, repeated magical events. Stay safe, Katsuragi!"

Leaving the radio aside Misato reached into her shredded vest and yanked out a thin notebook, hurriedly thumbed through the pages. She heard Asuka shouting for support, calling for Kensuke. Misato heard more than saw the response, where the silver Unit 04 lumbered out of cover and unleashed a torrent of fire across the enemy line of battle. Focusing on the cramped handwriting and necessary shorthand, she scanned what assets she had left. The cupboard was nearly bare, with almost all reserves expended and only the most outlying defenses across Japan even theoretically stocked.

She had less than five thousand soldiers deployed in the city at that very moment, not counting free agents and the skeleton defensive crew below ground. In the hills on three sides, she had four rocket batteries. Just four, and not one replacement. She nodded to Makoto and roughed out a quick plan before trusting him to his part.

As he relayed her orders for the probing assault, Misato called her pilots and those soldiers locked in combat. "Be advised, rocket artillery barrage is incoming. Evangelions- I want you to stay in the field as long as you can. I need to see what these things can do."

The pilots chimed in one after the other, followed by the squads and mechanized infantry. Her radio crackled. "We'll hold them as long as we can Major- ETA on bombardment?"

Misato glanced at Makoto, who waved his hand with two fingers extended. "Two minutes soldier. Be ready to move- the rockets won't wait!"

Seconds after her order, the great batteries fired. The distant roar and rushing air of launching rockets was nearly lost in the fury of the storm. Risking a glance past the barricades and across the battlefield, Misato watched as the enemy signaled. Archers turned to face the new attack, drawing arrows made of glittering dust, strung with musical notes.

Some small part of her still rebelled at the insanity of a bow and arrow being used to intercept rocket artillery, but absurd or not, it worked. The arrows shot skyward in the blink of an eye, splitting the dozen rockets from nose to tail. The heavy ordnance drifted in the air for a lingering second, before fuel and payload detonated several hundreds of meters above and far off target. Even before the last echoes faded, Misato was demanding updates on enemy troop movement and where her forces were at.

Five Evangelions, with a mixed set of gear. Armor and infantry, and her last three artillery barrages. Those wind-drills had to go down- there was no doubt in her mind. The question was how. She looked back over the front line, watching her soldiers shift and move in response to the tide of battle. A sergeant some twenty meters away bellowed at his squad to get down as more arrows raked his position. Above and forward, near the enemy's leading edge, Asuka and Shinji were tearing into the steadily growing mass of great beasts and monsters that were dead set on keeping them occupied.

Another deafening burst of gunfire raked across the battlefield, and Misato followed the line of glowing tracers back to Unit 04 and Aida Kensuke. Some of the shots were blocked like any other, deflected by sword or claw. Others were blithely ignored. The vast majority though tore great gaping holes in ranks of infantry and cut bloody lines through four or so unlucky monsters. Kensuke fired another burst, and from the opposite side a line of tanks opened up with machine guns. Caught on both sides, the elite defenders split their focus to defend against all comers...

By that point, all she had was a hunch... But Misato lived and died by her hunches.

Pulling the radio back from Makoto, Misato switched channels and flooded the battlefield with her voice, roaring into the radio. "We're going to press these things until they break! All forces- pick your targets and fire at will!"

They didn't need much encouragement. The thunderous crash of cannons and rapid fire weapons filled the air, pounding the enemy from three or more directions. Seconds rushed by while the enemy surged to counter. The archers reformed, but Kensuke was ready for them, unleashing hell with his gatling and draining ammo. Misato howled into the sound and dust, laughing despite herself. The long fusillades cut the changing ranks to ribbons, ripping huge gaps in the heaving throngs of faceless infantry. Only the blatantly elite remained in those ragged furrows, standing in mired craters of rubble and churned earth.

But then Misato saw monstrous shapes drop out of the clouds and swirling grit, ambling towards her newest pilot.

"Shinji, Asuka! Kensuke's in trouble!" She pressed on the radio, not caring that she was still broadcasting across all channels. "Kensuke! Protect that weapon!"

Even as she gave that order, the enemy continued its counter-offensive. If they could defend on two or even three sides at once, they could probably attack just as easily. There had to be a limit, and she was going to find it. "C'mon you fancy bastards... pull forward and overextend."

The battle surged in almost liquid waves, where humans and metal lunged headlong into a wall of shields and spears. Something had to give, and soon. Turning back to her ad-hoc command post, she looked around for something- anything she could use to pull ahead. a slash of dingy white stood out against the dry soil and rubble.

"...This is far too convenient." She huffed and started digging. Her squad joined in seconds later, and in moments, they had pulled a ragged Japanese flag out of the rubble.

Misato pointedly ignored Makoto's incredulous stare as she grabbed a bit of refuse and tied the flag to it. "You can't be serious."

Dropping the rifle, Misato ran a hand through her hair before clipping the radio to her belt and pulling out her pistol. Flag in one hand and weapon in the other. "Serious enough- wish me luck!"

She vaulted cover before Makoto could open his mouth, flag in hand and charging forward. Even caked with dirt and sodden with brackish water, the flag was brighter than the smoke and fire of battle. On the ground, her tanks and mortars let loose with all weapons, pouring everything they had into the attack. Raising her sidearm without much thought, she fired into the nearest throng of menagerie soldiers. When she ran out of bullets, she grabbed the flag with both hands and smashed it into the nearest head she could find.

Above, her Evangelions moved. Unit 01 cast a long shadow over the battlefield, having long been stripped of paint and dry gouges carved in its armor. Misato scrambled through the melee, even as the horned Evangelion straddled her tiny slice of the war and wrestled with the nearest clawed and awful monster. Shinji's rising knee summoned a storm that nearly ripped the flag from her hands, almost pulling her off the ground entirely.

She crossed ten meters of unbelievably hellish terrain, then twenty. The air was hot and rough in her lungs, filled with smoke and fury like she'd never felt before. The radio at her hip squawked, demanding orders, clarification. Vaulting the fallen facade of an office building, Misato slid through an open an broken window, weaving through the wreckage and out the other side.

Nearly a third of the way across the battlefield, cut off from her own forces and waving a goddamned flag, Misato stood out for everyone to see.

A hundred thousand teeming, knobby-limbed pikemen raised their weapons in a blood-thirsty cheer. Archers played their bows like harp strings, and the horse-men pounded their chests and shields, howling into the storm. She could read their intent plain on their faces. The enemy boiled from cover, forgoing orderly lines of battle for glory and the flag in her hand.

Her plan was stupid. Absurd. Insane. And yet it worked.

Unhitching the radio from her hip, Misato kept her expression level and waved the flag, waiting. "C'mon. Little closer..."

They moved faster than she did, crossing tens of meters at a time without pause. The cavalry rapidly overtook the infantry, swarming over the ruins and wreckage towards her. There was no diversion- no one calling them back into formation. She started trembling in place as more of the huge monstrous beasts emerged out of the clouds, raining down and joining the charge. Now more than a third of the way across the central crater, the enemy split to weave around the kamaitachi.

When the unbelievable mass of soldier-monsters and stranger things were a hundred meters, ten seconds away, Misato raised the radio to her lips. "Artillery- target the kamaitachi! Fire everything you've got!"

She was close enough that the kamaitachi were pulling the flag straight away from her, and sucking in every other loose bit of refuse, cloth and whatnot throughout the battlefield. Her hair was stretched and plastered dry against one side of her head, billowing while the wind-dancers pulled the air into the drill. Or, more meaningfully, she was close enough that she'd be under the blast radius when the rockets hit.

Ahead, the enemy's raucous, over-extended charge seemed to falter, losing steam as pointed ears picked up on the roar of solid fuel engines. Now the grey flame army moved with a purpose, an urgency that Misato could see even through their unbelievable skill. The counterattack guttered to a halt with the opposing forces line almost a hundred meters away from Misato, and NERV's defenders a bit more than twice that behind her.

Horns and drums heralded the sweeping change in formation as the rush melted. To her left, Kensuke and his silver Evangelion fumbled a reload. That hint of weakness was sign the horde needed. The grey flame army waved their collective arms to call forth more great beasts to the battle, bearing down on the new pilot. Misato's heart pounded in her chest, and overhead, the rockets streaked closer.

Asuka shouted over the battlefield, voice carrying across external speakers and over the wind and sounds of war. "Newbie! Heads up!"

"I know I know!" Kensuke stumbled back, but one heel slipped into a broken surface plate and sent him toppling backwards with a deafening bang.

Tossing the flag away, Misato cast about for cover, painfully aware that she could not outrun rocket artillery. Behind her, Evangelion Unit 01 roared.

Or maybe that was Shinji, over the radio. "Misato- dammit! Asuka! Help! Rockets!"

Before the redhead could answer, Shinji was moving, lunging twenty meters at a time and racing towards the kamaitachi. The Eva all but vaulted over her head, and Misato fell backwards, thrown by the landing impact and tremors. Unit 01 skid forward, carving parallel trenches with its heels before grinding to a halt before the funnel cloud.

Asuka cut across the battlefield towards Kensuke, leaping into the air and releasing her power cable in favor of battery power. Her Eva's coat reshaped into wings and heaved her aloft, and in that same move, she spun and threw her sword. The building-sized blade tumbled awkwardly, passing harmlessly and unharmed through the storm-drill before landing in Shinji's waiting hands. He spun on one foot and drove the tip into the ground, just ahead of Misato.

The archers readied their bows even as the Evangelions turned back to the monsters and massed infantry. NERV's defenders cut into unprotected flanks with automatic weapons, cannons and mortar, but there were still too many. Asuka landed feet first on a pair of statue-warriors, both as big as her Eva. Her wings formed into raking claws and clamped down on two more great beasts, giving Kensuke that precious time he needed.

Sluggish, stuttering and slow, the silver Evangelion drew back the receiver and loaded a fresh drum of ammo. In the center of the battlefield, bows were drawn and arrows loosed. This time the gleaming shafts formed into an almost unbroken river of sparkling silver, like a cutting laser. The massed archers swung their beam skyward, cutting through the high clouds and sighting in on the incoming rockets.

Kensuke didn't bother standing up. Heaving the gatling cannon up and at angle, he let loose with a stream of fire, screaming over the radio. Misato watched the tracers cross the air and slice through the stream of arrows, scattering the defensive beam into stardust. Braced behind Asuka's sword on one side, Misato waited for the boom.

Unbelievable, soul-shaking sounds filled her awareness for the following few seconds. She didn't bother to count the individual explosions. Somewhere, Misato knew the exact ordnance loaded in those distant silos, but the specific number seemed so unimportant right then. The ground jumped and heaved beneath her, banging painfully into her knees and shaking the Eva-scale sword from tip to hilt.

As the last lingering echoes of the barrage faded, a near silence fell over the battlefield. Misato gingerly eased herself out from beneath the sword's shadow, peeking around the edge and at the central crater.

The funnel cloud had vanished, and the three kamaitachi stood motionless, ugly and spindly in all the worst ways. They had too many limbs and not enough bulk, like a ballerina dancer made of melted candle wax and studded with razor blades. A gaping pit had been carved into the top layer of Tokyo-3, and the grey flame army waited, almost pensive. Those with recognizable faces looked at her, then glanced at each other, expressions oddly neutral. For the moment, the innumerable warriors lowered their spears and swords. With a shuddering groan, the dancers slumped like broken puppets.

One by one, the invading army of lurid, beautiful horrors stood tall, threw their weapons to the ground and raised their hands to the air, acknowledging their defeat with thunderous applause.

A gaping hole had been ripped into Tokyo-3's skyline. Even from the low hill of Tokyo-3 Municipal High, Ayumi could see through the toppled skyscrapers and armory buildings. Giant monsters prowled the streets, stomping into the fray while canons, rockets and gunfire echoed off every surface. The high clouds were a nearly solid ashen sheet, and the searing white laser blasts from the outlying hills cast dark shadows across the sky.

The prisoners and their captors watched the battle for two days straight. Or, the prisoners had been forced to watch. They were taken in groups to relieve themselves, while food and water were carried to them by knobby faced tree-creatures. No matter what they did, the tall and glamorous wardens knocked out walls and made the way clear for the captured civilians to see the battle.

The humans were pointedly not allowed to sleep. Ayumi wondered if she would ever sleep again.

With bleary, bloodshot eyes, Ayumi stared across the cafeteria. Past the broken wall and over the low slung buildings that made up the outlying immobile city. A thunderclap and staccato burst of explosions had thrown a column of dust and rock into the air. Just before that she saw the Evas, three of them now, move and shift to each others aide. The red one- Sorhyu - tossed her sword to Shinji in purple. Massive weapons and deafening gunfire shook the city, and the school felt the rumble of guns through their shoes and aching legs.

Their captors were enraptured. The little servants toiled ceaselessly and paid no attention, but now Ayumi noticed. After the whirlwinds were destroyed, the greater and grander individuals stood out starkly by comparison. Be they glorious or grotesque, it wasn't how they looked that mattered. It was their behaviors, the looks in their eyes. Some beheld the battle with vacant adoration. Others took in the distant carnage with a naked lust. The apparent leader, that woman of hands- all her fingers twitched fitfully. Bubbling absurdity crept up into Ayumi's throat, and she choked down the laughter- the thought of them eating popcorn.

Listlessly, she cut her attention across the crowd of filthy, sleepless humanity After... everything, she'd given up questioning the truth of what she was seeing, inside and out. So far though, no pink elephants or waking dreams. A dozen meters away, Toji was pressed against a wall, sniffling audibly, pale and sweating rivulets. He clutched at his stump shoulder with his free hand, and aggressively looked straight forward at nothing. A low, resonant rumble pulled his eyes skyward, and Ayumi followed his attention up. She wasn't alone either- whispers of excitement and interest broke out in a thrumming, expectant wave. Again, Ayumi imagined popcorn.

The mood was contagious, or perhaps they made it a contagion. Prisoners turned to the sky and those who were lucky or privileged enough to have chairs inched forward in their seats. Even the Evas turned to look up.

Above the clouds, the maw of the sky opened wide, throwing out misty white gasses and coating the city with frost. Past gaps in the thunderheads and storm, Ayumi watched the shadow of space give way to Jupiter's curve. Then that was gone, hidden by some formless bulk. The maw snapped closed and drew the storm into an overturned funnel, and the rush of displaced air lashed at the city below. A shadow stretched inside the clouds, and Ayumi's eyes followed the leading edge as it raced overhead and out past the edges of the city.

That was when the rain started.

The fog in sky above Tokyo-3 darkened, rapidly compressed as something unbelievably vast pressed down on it from above. The air and water had no chance to get out of the way. The first raindrops arrived as a nearly uniform sheet that pounded the whole city down to the shores of Lake Ashi. Between blocks and alleyways, the sudden deluge wiped the air clean of smoke and grit. Inside the school cafeteria, broken gutters and holes in the roof let the water rush inside.

Six great white marble pillars punched through the black, sodden clouds. Tall as buildings, they slammed into the ground all around Tokyo-3. Not just the central fortress, but the surrounding static neighborhood. Tremors raced through the ground, knocking over chairs, tables and walls. Distant buildings slumped into further ruin, and Ayumi was sent sprawling. Heaving herself out of a puddle, she looked up to see the clouds part.

An inverted castle-fortress straddled Tokyo-3 and pushed the rain aside. Towers and redoubts mingled with courtyards and a dozen other things she couldn't even describe. None of it obeyed gravity, and Ayumi gaped at the sprawling ranks of monster and soldier. Down in the ruined city center, Shinji handed Sorhyu her sword, while they both helped the silver one to its feet. She watched the Evangelions stand, exhausted and worn.

All around her, the invaders thrummed with anticipation.

The impact of its landing traveled all the way down to Central Dogma. Decades-stagnant dust from the interior dome fell in choking sheets upon the Geofront forest. Inside the command center, more dust sprinkled down in fitful trails onto shoulders, heads and consoles. The holographic projection scattered off of the powder, throwing bands of multicolored light in every direction. Views of the surface were limited- shaky feeds from the Evangelions, or what sensors were still functional on the depleted armory buildings. A carnival of horrors without end rained down from the massive thing straddling Tokyo-3.

Sitting at his proper chair, Ikari Gendo frowned.

The junior staff were busy collating the data, fueled by coffee and thaumaturgical massage. Pressed on all sides by an invader that adhered to no consistent strategic objective or tactical doctrine... Gendo quietly grit his teeth. The technocratic authority of NERV teetered in the balance, and the boy-Solar had done no small amount of damage.

Exhaling softly, he discarded those thoughts in favor of something more presently actionable. The Evangelions were deployed, and Katsuragi continued to apply her myopic brilliance exactly as expected. Gendo however was alone at the high seat, with no Fuyutsuki serving silently and supportive as a granite pillar. No matter. Kihl Lorenz, meanwhile, stared up at the screens, mouth open and hidden by a gnarled, trembling hand. Nerve damage, not nerves. The council head's introduction and reaction to the new and strange magic was telling.

Before he could follow up on that thought, Lieutenant Ibuki let out a squawk. Casper and Balthazar reached out to every screen, declaring anomalous contact detected, flooding the displays with angry red warning graphics.

From her station, Ibuki banished the alerts in favor of meaningful context. "Remote MAGI access?! Melchior's tapped back into the system!"

"Unlikely- Melchior's brain should have expired weeks ago." Fuyutsuki uttered loud enough for the crew to hear. "Diagnostics?"

"Ongoing!" Ibuki focused on her console while Aoba shouldered the burden of coordinating the intra-Geofront logistics and working with the surface.

Gendo waited, needing only to decide.

"Connection traced to-" Ibuki's voice faltered. "Terminal Dogma!"

The commander stood up, hands on his command podium and ready to give the order, when the MAGI intervened again.

Pattern Blue in Terminal Dogma.

As the alert swept across Tokyo-3, Misato let out a long, heartfelt curse. "Sonnovabitch!"

Sighting downrange through her scope, Rei could not help but agree. "Major- be advised the enemy has us surrounded on all sides."

Nagisa had already moved to engage the literal rain of beastmen and monsters that landed nearby, banishing their cloud-mounts with simple flicks of his AT-field. She left him to that task. Taking aim across the city, Rei willed her Eva to squeeze the trigger. A thunderous, white-hot blast of ordered positrons pierced through two already-ruined buildings and into the rising mass of enemy soldiers, while the overpressure wave wiped a kilometer-long span air clean. Shinji and Asuka offered her a distant, Evangelion-scale salute while NERV's conventional forces formed up on Misato's position. Behind them, the enemy boiled, eager to push the charge.

Discarding the spent capacitor, Rei reloaded the positron cannon. That, she decided, would not be allowed.

Biting of another curse, Misato growled across the radio. "No kidding- Okay we've got to punch through the hills and get back into the Geofront! Our fall back point is Access Seventeen-C. Ten minutes out, and I say the universe owes us a favor! Rei, Nagisa, keep us covered on the way in!"

Rei reloaded once more, aimed and fired, carving a new trench into the armor layer. As the metal and concrete slag cooled, shadowy things burst out of the vents and undercity, reaching for anything near by be it friend or foe. The advancing column of tanks and infantry crawled forward, inexorable but slow with Shinji at the lead and Aida-kun bringing up the rear.

"You know these things don't quit!" Asuka lashed out with her sword, cleaving through tentacles and stranger things. "And they're going to be on our asses every step of the way!"

From behind, Rei heard a peculiar, screeching roar. Of air and engines screaming, shifting as the source approached. Gunmetal shapes flashed by overhead, rigid and unmistakably man-made. Rockets tumbled out and blasted forward from their stubby wing-pods, carving brief gaps in the storm of enemy infantry. Rei watched as their engines pivoted, and as one the six or so JSSDF VTOLs waggled their wings in salute.

Perhaps it was their friendship, Rei wondered, that let Misato and Shinji both speak in unison. "...Thank you, universe?"

Misato had designed Tokyo-3 to be hard to assault and difficult to escape, a 'flypaper' strategy that relied on unbroken lines of supply and communication, with means of rapid deployment anywhere in the city. One by one, each of those things failed, and now Tokyo-3 hurt her forces as much as it did the enemy. Harried on all sides, she hunkered down in her simple jeep while Makoto kept an ear to the radio. The Geofront had no Evangelions. No anti-angel weaponry. Their last line of defense was the self-destruct in Terminal Dogma, and that would crack the Geofront open like an egg.

"Goddamned Pattern Blue now of all times." She hissed, before shouting orders up the line to support the Evas. "If they fall- we're all going to walk home!"

Locked onto one of the few roads leading outside the city, Misato and her troops could not afford to climb the slopes-not with the enemy building up like snowdrifts from all over. Arrows rained down from every angle, but her soldiers endured, while the VTOLs overhead turned around for another pass. They loosed more rockets into the forests, burying whole battalions of fairytale warriors under broken tree and earth.

Shinji's voice echoed out over the battlefield, and Misato looked ahead. "Something's coming!"

Seconds after that, Ritsuko took over the whole communication system, broadcasting in the clear. "Incoming Pattern Green Anomaly!"

Misato couldn't quite tell where it started, points of brilliance almost appearing out of thin air between the hills and the castle overhead, blooming into radiant green stars before spreading wide. The bubbles merged into an almost solid, shimmering pane of energy that seemed to wash through the world. Brighter than the darkness and reflecting the headlights of her jeep, it caught the yellow-reds of the fires burning all along the hillsides. It swept and burbled over the earth, frothing like a wave, and when it, all Misato could do was hold on. Sticky, cloying fingers oozed into her body, her soul, and she felt the borrowed breastplate shiver in sympathy.

For a moment, the trees weren't, the air and ground stank of fear, and everything Misato could see was for a brief moment something else. Tanks and APCs changed as the wave passed, unfolding into metal flower-vehicles while their crew bailed out. The lucky ones at least. As the surge passed, she caught glimpses of still-living men and women merged with their consoles. Misato held down her hair with one arm, and her stomach turned as the road lurched. She leaned out of the door to shout a warning up the line, but her voice was silence and doves, spilling out of her mouth and flapping into the air.

Hyuuga stared at her as she sank back into her seat, bouncing while the road groaned.

The ground shook, and Misato pushed those thoughts aside in favor of the new threat. Beneath their tires and feet, the six-lane highway cracked, ballooning up in segments, while earth moved on either side of the pavement. One pair, two pair, six pair of legs, more ripped free of the ground. At the head of the column, Shinji and his Eva reared back, grappling with a monstrous caterpillar-scorpion...

"The road's turned into a goddamned monster!" Misato rubbed her eyes, then grabbed the radio. "All-units, get off the road and make a break for it- Evangelions will cover you!"

As orders went, it was easier said than done. The road-serpent reared back, animated by whatever strange working had overtaken the world. The alien army had fallen back for the briefest of moments.

Kaji Ryoji did not have much direct experience with Ikari Gendo as Commander of NERV. He'd met the man before over the past decade, but had made an effort to stay out from under the man's thumb until the last possible moment. The Committee sending him and his favorite girl to Japan was serendipity, as far as he was concerned. Sneaking ADAM out under their collective noses was the product of some nameless inspiration, a spark caused by the mission to deploy SEELE's little toy against the fortress Angel.

Now though, Kaji considered the past five minutes as entirely too much experience.

The alert came while Kaji was in the command center, on the bridge next to Ritsuko's empty station. Without the right training or experience, he'd been left to do little more than dig his fingers into the seat of Ritsuko's chair, white-knuckled and rigid. The holographic displays only showed slices of the battle above ground; flashes of strangeness that were both fantastic and unhappily familiar after all this time. Asuka and the kids were out there- Misato was still out there, fighting undeniably deadly things out of cartoons, dog-eared paperbacks and ancient video-games.

Ikari turned command over to Fuyutsuki before descending from on high to speak with Kihl. Barely ten words were exchanged, before Ikari made for the exits. That same drive to know, the one that pushed him back to Japan, that stayed his hand when Nagisa dangled secrets in his face, made him follow. Ikari Gendo was not a fool or obviously suicidal, so as they marched through empty corridors, Kaji could at least guess that there was a plan. Realizing that made him all the happier he'd taken to wearing a tactical vest at all times- flashlight, grenades, knife, check...

Ikari barely glanced at him and his inventory as they stalked down Central Dogma's corridors towards an elevator, the same one Rei had led them to just weeks ago.

As the elevator whisked them down until the floor display clicked over to crossed-out cards. Kaji glanced at the older man while idly gripping his pistol. "What do you think is down there?"

"An Angel."

"Well, obviously." The elevator doors opened, revealing the dark cavernous industrial spaces that made of Terminal Dogma. "What can we do about it?"

Ikari did not answer, and that inspired no good feeling what so ever.

Moving along the gantries, Kaji drew his weapon while Gendo straightened his white gloves. "So. You have a plan, I take it. One you don't feel like sharing with the class, that's fine."

"So if I were a betting man- and I can say with some degree of certainty that I am- you have some sort of down-to-the wire contingency down here, other than an Evangelion or the self-destruct." Even as he said that, Kaji mentally paused. The Evangelion graveyards are here, so...

He shook that thought off, humming with more cheer than he felt. "Not that the self-destruct helps. You need unanimous MAGI consensus which we are most certainly not getting- unless Ritsuko pushes the big red button. Plus, we're down here, and I don't think you plan on dying for your scenario, or the Committee's."

Ikari unbuttoned his jacket and pulled a small pistol from a concealed holster. "In that regard, you are correct, Inspector."

Off the stairs and onto the bottom floor, Kaji spun around to get his bearings. A few hundred yards ahead were all of those clones and their tanks, plus the memory transfer machine in the structure above it. There was no hint of the battle going on overhead, not this far down. Ikari moved, with all the stony silence of a sphinx and just as inscrutable. Oh Katsuragi, if only you could see me now. Playing plucky comic relief to the hardest headcase in Japan.

The cavernous spaces of Terminal Dogma were not silent. Installations at least ten years old or more churned ominously in the darkness and faint red light. As far as Kaji was concerned, it was easy on the eyes, but hard on the soul. Seconds ticked by, and the Commander marched resolutely up to a console, possibly the only console in the whole area. Flanked on all sides by rising columns of decade-old concrete, it was something of a defensible position.

Kaji kept his weapon at the ready, scanning both ends of the open-air corridor while Ikari worked. Finally, the older man grumbled. "The intruder was here. Just a moment ago."

"Lovely." The air was chokingly moist. Kaji ripped his tie off completely, dimly aware of the scent of blood coming from the walls. "You do know that conventional wisdom states that we should flee from the monster, right? It's how it always goes in slasher films."

Ikari did not offer much more than a wordless grunt, before adding. "I do not watch films."

Then, the sound of metal on stone echoed out through the maze-like structure. Flashlight in hand, Kaji took note of the grated metal floor. Swallowing thickly, he double checked his weapon before offering Ikari a careful nod. Together they moved toward the sound, step by step. Silent, crimson strobes flashed from all edges of the complex, declaring the Pattern Blue for all of two people.

The metal-on-stone sound echoed out again, then a third time. Not footsteps, but more like grinding. Kaji frowned, and a trickle of sweat beaded down the back of his neck before soaking into his collar. The sound rang out again, closer. Movement out the corner of his eye sent him whirling, flashlight casting a bright cone across a bare stretch of grilled walkway and concrete walls.

"I get the distinct impression I'm forgetting something..." Kaji muttered, walking up to the source of the sound. It was a flake of the walls, chipped off and stuck between gaps in the flooring. "Oh. Right."

Kaji looked up, and his flashlight followed.

Overhead and poised on the edge of the concrete maze was a mass of man-made plastic, flesh joined to metal, and eerie, smooth planes. It was an extrusion, a mathematical sculpture or hole that kinked and stretched out into space in alien ways. The invaders were terrifying because of how fantastic they looked. The Angels, meanwhile, were simply too perfectly alien to allow in a sane universe. Three legs, four arms and two familiar, unadorned electronic faces dripped from the lop-sided, hunchbacked figure, and nestled in the crook of its arm was the MAGI brain case.

The angel-cyborg hybrid screamed, voices distorted, electronic and human. "Rrrr-rRRRUUUUU-UUN!"

The monster itself wasn't the problem, Shinji noted. The problem was that he had a very limited amount of time and power avail bile to kill the monster. Asuka and Kensuke grappled with the bulk of the road-serpent down the road, while Rei and Nagisa followed at the flank. It was up to him to deal with the head, and his batteries were draining second by second. Humans -Mortals, his mind supplied- clashed against gribbly, fey horrors. Trees and foliage were knocked aside by muscle, shredded by gunfire, and who knew what else lit up the darkness.

Pincers the size of cargo ships raked for his midsection, and Shinji urged his Eva to meet the strike with a crooked elbow. Fighting the input delay, he envisioned the battle, acting three steps ahead of the beast as he folded his arm around the chitinous joint and wrenched. His hips twisted hard to the side while his feet dug furrows into the disturbed earth, popping the claw off like a bottle cap. The road-serpent keened, scorpion-mouthparts roaring loud and somehow raising the flames all around the hills into a raging inferno, commanding them to its call. He barely felt the flames, but it would make mortal flesh flow like wax. Uncurling, his body coiled the other way, winding up for an uppercut, while the JSSDF VTOLs strafed the monster's pavement-carapace.

"Look out belooooooow!" Then a new voice masked by a flanging, mechanical reverb overwhelmed the radio and filled his perception. "VESPA IMPACT!"

He had to pause then, just for a second, back in his seat. Did they just call their attack?

He only had time for a glimpse, before the dark shape dropped in from above to drive a broken spire of the hanging castle into the monstrous road's cephelothorax. Pavement blossomed out in an Evangelion-sized crater, driving the whole head and its mandibles into the earth. The coiling, undulating section behind it bowed comically, like a pinned ribbon.

Shinji barely spared the newcomer a thought, and could just note the English lettering stenciled along its glacis and sectioned arms. Jet Alone 2.

Kaji ran, heart pounding hard in his chest, with a scream fighting to break free of his throat. He darted past Ikari, and made it three long strides before he realized the other man hadn't moved at all. Shouting the other man' s name, he spun awkwardly on heel and toe, ankle protesting hotly as he whirled around. Slamming into and shoving Ikari against the opposite wall, he managed to turn the stumble into a mutual dodge.

Despite the impending doom, the realization came in a moment of clarity; the man's expression had not even changed. Just a stoic glare behind orange lenses, still fixated on the moving Angel. In that instant, Kaji dismissed any notions of understanding the man named Ikari Gendo. He was no man of stone, but a mausoleum, devoid of life. How could he or anyone read the motives of a dead man?

A split second after contact, two bubbling, liquid-metal spears raked through the space they'd just occupied, before winding back into the Angel-cyborg's misshapen mass. Now Ikari started moving, picking his feet up while Kaji scampered after.

"So Commander!" Metal raked against metal, and Kaji felt the liquid arms nip at the back of his heels. ""I would very much like to know about your plan now."

Before Ikari could reply, Kaji risked a two wild shots, wincing at the distinct snap-hiss of a manifest AT-field. "Of course they have those."

The concrete structure surrounding Ayanami's clone farm was a kind of hedge-maze, with high walls and narrow passages. From higher up, it reminded Kaji of a dissected brain. At that moment, it was a deathtrap. The Angel stalked along the top of the maze, reaching down with its misshapen right side.

"Pistols and hand grenades." Ikari muttered, already out of breath and still running. "Save your bullets- we must reach the graveyard."

"Secret prototype Eva?" It was a long shot guess, Kaji admitted, but hoping rarely hurt.

Still running, Ikari gave a negligent little wave up at the ceiling hidden in shadows. "Emergency Bakelite restraints. That way."

Kaji's eyes followed the leading arm and taking the indicated turn, he nodded. Alright then- no big deal for a man of action like him. The Angel screeched overhead, lashing down with its tentacles and stranger limbs. Kaji felt the AT-field flicker on, tainting the chamber with the smell of ozone with each intermittent flare. Through it all, the man and woman's voice wailed, distorted by electronic modulation, they sobbed, begging for help or death.

Breaking out of the maze, Kaji vaulted up the stairs and onto the rusted observation platforms and attached walkways. They stretched out into the distance, almost infinite. Below on the lower level, black pits filled with massive, too-human bones were arrayed to either side, and hundreds of skulls with stapled vertebrae hung overhead. Kaji glanced over his shoulder to see Ikari pointing ahead. The emergency console, up a few flights of stairs just a few dozen yards away. The station was covered like a bus stop, edged in hazard striping and covered in dust.

Then the Angel leaped off the maze and landed on him, coating its legs in dark crimson.

Kaji didn't have time to think, curse or lament the man's death. All he could do is pull himself along hand over hand towards the console even as the Angel rose up and started tearing apart the stairway. The machine parts oozed, spiraling up the wrecked structure like alien ferro-fluid, dragging the broken cybernetic agents with it. There it reformed, pausing at the far end of the gantry, almost so Kaji could really see it, appreciate his impending doom. He glanced up at the cavernous ceiling, sweat beading down his nose. Between the hanging lights and skulls, he saw the decade-old spigots.

The Angel stomped closer, faster, picking up speed.

At the console, Kaji broke the plastic shield and reached past the shards to yank the red lever.

The first drop of bakelite landed on Kaji's shoulder, thick and tacky on contact. He stumbled back, over the yellow and black hazard tape and under the cover. More spigots unfurled, discharging untold gallons of the strange resin all across the Evangelion graveyard. The Angel itself boiled, its liquid body seethed with overlapping, three-dimensional shapes. It tried to burrow and undulate away from the bakelite, but the more solid cyborg remains weighed it down. It crawled towards him, hunched over and bearing the weight of thickening restraints. Hands and knees gave way to fitful wriggling, and even the hiss of the AT-field did not help.

It stopped moving just a few feet away from him, and a woman's voice whispered from some hidden speaker. "Th-Thank you..."

Bakelite covered almost every surface, and the open booth around the console had grown misshapen walls as the stuff cascaded down. Kaji forced his way out of the hardening mass, losing his shirt in the process. Drained, he tried not to think about how he was walking over a still-living Angel.

"Inspector." The older man's voice was faint, but it carried over the muted drip and crackle all around.

"Commander?!" Fear not so much forgotten as temporarily set aside, Kaji raced back and slid down a hardened hill of bakelite, back near the concrete maze.

Ikari Gendo was right where he'd fallen, and aside from sitting up, he hadn't even moved. A pool of startlingly bright red stretched out from around his knees, and Kaji was reaching for bandages before he even realized what he was seeing. The older man barely seemed to notice that he'd just lost both his legs at the calves, that he was bleeding out. It didn't even show on his face, save for his pallor.

"Inspector, when you have finished, take me to the elevator." The man's voice was stone cold, not toneless, but just a single, steady inflection. "After that, enter the LCL manufacturing facility and confirm that the automatic self-destruct has been disabled."

It wasn't the cold, adrenaline or his own numbing shock that made him shiver. No, being close to that man just set his skin to crawling. Following his orders was the fastest way to escape, so Kaji bound the man's wounds with a quiet, mechanical quickness. Getting back to the elevator was less exciting but equally terrifying, and when the doors closed between them, Kaji let out a long, slow sigh of relief.

Right. Taking care of the self-destruct.

Earlier, Ayanami and Akagi had both firmly refused to even entertain the thought of allowing Kaji into the LCL manufactory. Not for the first time, Kaji felt like a tool in someone else's hands, but it was the most secret facility in all of NERV. He had to look, self-destruct aside. Armed with the commander's codes and keycard, he broke the decades-old paper seal on the door and watched as what was possibly the most elaborate and secure vault in all the world work is way open.

It was dark in the vast chamber, while machinery pumped fitfully in the distance. So he kept his eyes on the ground and aimed his flashlight just ahead of his feet, until he spotted the self-destruct control system. The details of the console passed through his mind without really registering- see one console, see them all. He let out another relieved sigh when he entered the command to delay the detonation indefinitely- though the Pattern Blue alert was still in effect and the Angel-cyborg was still very much alive. Bakelite was a temporary measure, he was sure.

The machines pumped and thumped harder, out of sync and hardly mechanical at all. Kaji glanced away from the console and towards the sound, then his flashlight dropped from nerveless fingers.

In the far-off distance of the most secret place in all of the world, a pallid white giant squirmed, crucified against a bloody red cross.

Geofront Access Point Seventeen-C was one of the dozen or so super-massive entryways into the underground facility, recessed into the hillside that surrounded the city. It dropped down into a ramp, with wide, angled concrete highways, funneled downward towards doors as tall as an Evangelion and unbelievably thick. At the top of that ramp, five Evangelions and one human machine stood against another surging tide of grotesque creatures. The wave of bodies crashed against interlocked fields, cloned muscle and machine servo, bounced away from the impromptu phalanx.

In the bottom of the wide valley between the two hillsides laid the corpse of the road-beast, choked, bludgeoned and skewered through its spider-head, back painted with perfectly mundane highway stripes and bands.

Misato's voice repeated across radio and speaker throughout the convoy, even as fresh JSSDF troopers hauled the tired NERV soldiers up and towards the dark tunnel entrance. "Move it people- the door's won't wait!"

Trucks laden with soldiers, civilians, and equipment rumbled by in thick streams of green, grey and tan. VTOLs screeched by overhead before spiraling down for rough landings, their pilots leaping out while the engines still spun at a roar. Flight crews riding tow rigs rushed in to lash the aircraft together, and though Shinji couldn't smell it, he could see the haze and vapor of hot jet fuel sweep over the ramp, billowing into the air.

Step by step the Evas pulled back, their shield wall narrowing as Kensuke turned and dashed through the gargantuan entryway. Every time they drew inward, more of the enemy surged to fill the gap, piling up on themselves to batter at their manifest souls. Between the rising mounds of foot soldiers, Shinji watched as siege towers were fashioned before his eye. Each bristled with archer and raider, readying glassy arrowheads and spears of sound.

Behind them, the retreat fragmented, straining against order and discipline. Shinji could almost feel the weight on their shoulders. Regular people, soldiers, expected to fight alongside Evangelions? And against the apparently endless invaders? The castle still loomed overhead, stomping widely in a circle as its shadow chilled the ground.

Nagisa peeled away, then Rei. That left him with Asuka at his left and the new machine opposite, Jet Alone.

And Vespa was singing.

Relying on external speakers, the electronic distortion and flanging barely hurt the performance, and it only took him a second to place the tune- "When Johnny comes marching home again-, hurrah, hurrah!"

He wasn't sure why, but he flipped the mental switch for his own voice before matching thought to action. Even as he stepped back with Asuka at his side, Shinji smiled and picked up the verse, minding the LCL as he sang. "We'll give him a hearty welcome then- Hurrah! Hurrah!"

Asuka and her Eva gave him an incredulous look, but she caught on with a grin. "The men will cheer and the boys will shout-"

"-The ladies they will all turn out!" Misato broke in by radio and loudspeaker.

The verse echoed throughout the air, and the burgeoning panic seemed to deflate as the thousands on the ground slowed. To a one, the pilots plus Misato weren't bad- and of course Asuka could somehow sing effectively in an Evangelion. Shinji shook his head, realizing that more people picked up in the background. The rush to escape gave way to something calmer, and he had to admire the brilliance. He and Vespa might've started it, but Misato made it work.

And there it went, sweeping across the battlefield. It was a marching song, like a spell that picked the defenders up as they rushed for home. If they didn't know the words, it didn't take long for the soldiers and citizens below to pick up the tune. The sound washed over the fighters and refugees, falling into step as Misato's broadcast chant gave them something else to focus on, something that wasn't blind instinct and the rush for salvation.

Vespa and their machine knelt, bracing against the ground while its arms shifted. The song carried on without them, and they caroled. "Cover me!"

Shinji shot a look towards Asuka, and she nodded without a word. Together they stepped forward, angling their AT-fields just so, first creating a cattle-catcher prow to split the tied. Ahead of their matched fields, the invaders massed, pressing hard while the stronger and stranger elite raked invisible claws and hooks of ill-intent against the barriers. An alert in Shinji's plug fought for his attention, and he only had time to see the text before it happened- Anomalous Pattern Red Event?

Jet Alone's arms opened, revealing strange tanks that were surrounded by a scintillating cloud of familiar colors. Magnification made his view jump forward, and he watched as thousands or more tiny AT fields flickered into being. Vespa laughed, howling out for the Evas to drop their fields, and fired. The cloud of altered space shot forward, raking into the enemy lines like a titanic shotgun blast. Siege towers shattered into glittering wreckage, while the rank and file infantry were scythed down en-mass. The commanders and grand elite simply skated away from the blast, but the momentum shifted.

"You're gonna have to explain that one, new guy!" Asuka shouted across open air, before yanking the human machine upright and dragging it backward. "Inside, now now now!"

They had precious seconds- "They're already regrouping!" Shinji picked Jet Alone up by the other arm, and between them the two Evas frog-marched it backwards.

Even as they did, Vespa laughed, unleashing more scattershot blasts of AT field from either hand. Together, the three of them stumbled through the doors, and Jet Alone's knobby fingers just missed the edges before the fifty-meter tall bulkheads slammed shut. Hydraulics shoved bolts into place before the lines destroyed themselves and sealed the way shut. Floodlights and the lamps from hundreds of war machines flooded the cavernous space with light, even as the Evas started to shift over to waiting railway cars.

Just between the Evas and their radio, Kensuke let out a long, sputtering breath. "Do we know if the door's going to hold?"

Rei was the one to answer, even as Shinji considered the deeper concerns. "They've seen fit to not test us yet. All we can do is hope."

"Hope is a lovely thing, Ayanami-san." Nagisa grinned, shifting fitfully inside his Eva. "Sometimes, all we need is hope."

"Gott you suck at flirting, Nagisa." Asuka let out a soundless snort, smirking tiredly. "Rei can do it better than you."

Even as the banter washed over him, Shinji frowned. Rei wasn't wrong, but it was even more obvious now that they lived at the whim of their enemy. For some reason the realization didn't affect him overmuch, barely registering in the face of the more immediate things he cared about. But the impact on morale, he could imagine all too easily. Shinji leaned back in his seat and sighed, exhaling into the LCL and allowed the tension to drain. From where he sat, he could hear Misato pull her radio out with a tired groan.

She huffed as she clicked the transmit button. "Alright- let's get everyone organized and inside. Day's not over yet."

Having finally found a place to stop and take root, Misato felt every inch like a statue. Her limbs were heavy stone and she felt the spreading cracks where she made the mistake of fighting her newfound sedentary lifestyle. It was the kind of tired that made her want to haul her fantastic ass up to that rooftop hot spring and soak. Though, according to Rei and Asuka, the enemy had up and made it lost.

Misato slapped her face and dragged her hands down both grit-smeared cheeks and exhaled. The command center was a riot, boiling with her senior staff as they fielded calls and executed orders at all sides. Makoto had slumped down in his seat, not even bothering to drop his combat gear. He still reached for the phones and did his job.

Looking up at the big holographic board, she frowned. They'd stood down from crisis-level Pattern Blue more than twenty minutes ago, and Ritsuko had all but vanished into the lower reaches of Terminal Dogma. Angels, for good or ill, did not just up and vanish. Of course, she had to remind herself that was exactly what the fortress angel did. Either way, the Commander had ordered the alert rescinded, and now they just needed to clean up. After what, she didn't know.

That being said, it wasn't all bad- she didn't have to fake the smile on her face or in her voice. She reached for the familiar microphone and glanced up at the projection, showing five young faces and one sound-only window. "Great work Pilots, we're sending you to the cages. Take your showers and get something to eat- you deserve it."

Her five Children let out a ragged cheer, while the new allied pilot stood out, still humming and full of energy. On the big screen, Misato watched Shinji give the camera a particularly cheesy thumbs up towards the camera. "On our way, Misato- what about Jet Alone?"

"We're making room for them in the cages, though they'll be under guard until we can fully verify." Misato glanced at Maya, who gave her a quick nod of confirmation. "We'll have a spot for them, don't worry."

Makoto nodded before switching her to another line, also sound-only. "General Kirishima, I want you to work with General Ishida. If there's anyone else still outside the Geofront, we need to get them inside now while we still can."

Over the radio, General Ishida's voice had a particular bark to it, a snappy urgency that reminded Misato of small dogs with lots of fight. "Major Katsuragi, it's a pleasure and surprise to hear from you and the Geofront. It's pretty bad out there."

"How bad, General?" She had to ask, even if it was only to confirm the worst projections.

"As far as we can tell, these things have covered Japan all the way from Hokkaido to Kyushu, and reports from the mainland before long-range radio went down." Ishida declared, and the MAGI provided a map of Japan, cast on the main projector next to the pilot feeds. "It's likely a world-wide event."

Shit. Misato resisted the urge to bite her lip. "Well, we're glad for the reinforcements, General Ishida. We'll make sure you and your people get a chance to rest."

"My staff and I will make everyone is up to speed." Kirishima ran a hand through his sweat-slicked hair, giving her a stiff, resolute nod.

Misato offered him a little grin of agreement and let the men with stars on their shoulders get down to business. That was fine with her, gladly taking a metaphorical step back while her muscles stiffened with a violent twinge. She couldn't just up and leave, but she could stand tall and play the part of with-it leader. Being a figurehead wasn't so bad for the moment. She wished she could have looked better doing it though.

With the JSSDF taking care of itself, Misato considered NERV's problems. The walking castle was still perched over Tokyo-3, rotating slowly in place but otherwise undeniably present. She was already considering plans on how to take it down, but she needed to talk to her pilots first, and the dozen surviving VTOL pilots who had covered Rei and Kaworu on the approach. NERV owed them a lot more than just a hospital bed.

As she was thinking about it, a pair of arms threw themselves around her from behind, and for one moment, she was back nearly ten years ago in Kyoto-2 commons. Kaji shivered against her, actually trembling and shaking like a leaf. The sudden breach of decorum and blatant invasion of her personal space was set aside while she let her arms drape over his crossed wrists.

"Kaji?" She twisted slightly, trying to face him. "Help a gal out?"

"Sorry." He shuddered hard. "Just. Had a day. I'll explain everything later."

Misato's lips thinned, and she squirmed around to give him a sidelong hug. "You'd better."

While she was dealing with that, the pilots had apparently struck up a conversation on the way to the cages, played out live on hot mic. She glanced back up at the screens, content to observe.

"So you're telling me it's all screwed? All of Japan" Asuka moaned, coming off a little off-kilter but otherwise fine.

"A little! We found holdouts in places like historical sites, temples, or places with real clever survivors." NERV and the MAGI didn't have a video feed to the Jet Alone Pilot, and their voice was distorted, flanging. They sounded young. "We honestly weren't sure you guys would have even been here, as opposed to salvage. It's been a bad few months for everybody, you know?"

Asuka slumped woozily in her plug, but managed to muster a glare in what Misato assumed was Jet Alone's general direction. "It doesn't engender a lot of trust when one of the first things out of your mouth is saying you were here to loot our corpses!"

Vespa, that was their callsign- crooned sweetly despite the electronic masking. It certainly didn't sound like any military-minded designation outside of eighties action films. There was a distinct possibility that Vespa was a civilian, and all the risks that implied.

Jet Alone's pilot didn't seem to notice Asuka's ire. "Don't be so sore! Given the circumstances, the smash-and-grab we had in mind was supremely respectful!"

The cages were packed with technicians and engineers at every console and station. Others waited, tense and ready for the order to move. Shinji scrubbed his face more out of habit than anything, before tugging the damp towel off his neck. Of the pilots, Kensuke looked the worst. Nausea had been written plain on his face in bold block letters, and he moaned around the toothbrush in his mouth. Shinji and the more experienced pilots had figured out their own post-deployment coping mechanisms. Asuka and Rei nursed bottles of water, while Nagisa preferred to chew gum.

Soldiers charged in as the cage walls opened to admit their latest guest, ones Shinji recognized as verified Geofront defenders. They could see past Unit-00 and 04, where Jet Alone shambled in. The catapults and cage-berths weren't compatible, so Vespa had to walk their machine in manually. A knot of senior techs and crew pressed past the pilots on the gantry, and Misato appeared as crowds parted. Shinji had about two seconds to acknowledge the fact that she was wearing the salvaged magical breastplate before she scooped him, Rei and Asuka up in a hug.

"So. Proud. Of. You!" Shinji felt more like an anvil against Misato's hammer, but Asuka and Rei didn't seem to mind the crushing embrace.

Misato took a step back, and even disheveled plus wearing half the battlefield in her hair she never looked better. "Nagisa-kun, Aida-kun, you were both excellent out there."

Nagisa just offered her a graceful little bow, while Kensuke gingerly spat into the mug in his hand. "T-Thank you, Major Katsuragi. I think I'll uh... stick to the labs for now."

"Not all awesome and glory huh?" Asuka gave his arm a playful jab and smirked. "You did good out there, Newbie. We can practice more in the simulators later."

Sheepishly, Kensuke glanced low and away before going back to scrubbing his teeth. "Just... might need a bigger gun next time."

Feeling a silly little grin work its way across his face, Shinji let out a quiet laugh. There wasn't any particular need to speak up yet, but he gave Misato a reassuring sidelong squeeze. An all-clear announcement rang out from the far end of the cages. Vespa was free to disembark. Misato was the first to pull forward, tugging Shinji along while the other pilots followed.

Jet Alone was an undeniably human work of engineering. He'd heard of a Jet Alone project, and one of the designers had visited NERV a few months ago, maybe a year ago- Shinji wasn't sure. It was before Misato and Asuka had left for the Pacific at least. As for the machine itself, it was distinctly masculine, with narrow hips and broad shoulders at the top of a conical body. A lot of work had gone into the design, but Shinji saw dozens of compromises and strange shortcuts, highlighted by a touch of his personal reserve. Without knowing how an Eva manifested an AT-field, he couldn't even begin to guess at how Jet Alone did.

While he and the others got closer, Jet Alone's turret-head spun around in its neck and ascended, revealing a cavity where an armored sphere rested within. Devices inside the machine pushed the spherical cockpit outside, before a winch and pulley lowered it down to gantry level. A section of the sphere spun around the vertical axis before a ramp unfurled, slamming down onto the platform with a clang and billowing gust of pressurized mist.

Misato's hand settled on her holstered sidearm, while the activity in the cages slowed to an attentive crawl. Shinji and the others were facing the side of the sphere, close enough to see one small hand grip the edge, then another before Vespa appeared. When one long leg hit the ramp, all Shinji could think of was Orpheus in the Underworld while Offenbach's Infernal Galop echoed in his mind.

She- the form-fitting pilot suit made that unimaginably obvious- skipped and gamboled down the ramp on the balls of her feet, trailing cables and pilot harness as she went. Some of her trailing ends popped off of their own accord, complete with electric crackles and metallic pings, but others she had to pull from her arms and spine. The helmet enclosed her head completely, and she scanned the crowd until she settled on Shinji and the other obviously plugsuited pilots.

Bouncing, on her toes and elsewhere, she raised her hands with wave and flanging laugh before she started walking. "I'm Vespa! Lemme- hrk!"

Two more plugs were still socketed into her helmet, and she jerked to a sudden stop. Shinji wasn't sure if she was a teenager or young woman yet, but she acted young at least. Vespa reached behind her head and pulled the jacks out without much fanfare, revealing spikes as long as his hand. Shinji frowned at that, making a quick estimation of her helmet's dimensions and the likely proportions of her skull...

As she dropped the last cable, Vespa's mask split apart at the bottom into thirds, showing off a cute jaw and a curling, cat-like grin. It took Shinji a second to notice they'd all gotten close enough for introductions, and he was dimly aware of Misato's sly smile and the fitful, plastic crackling sound of Asuka strangling her bottle of water.

"Can't see a thing in this helmet- there we go!" Vespa popped the rest of the helmet off and shook her chestnut brown hair free, letting gathered twin tails fall over her shoulders. Cradling her gear under one arm, she thrust her other fist in the air and beamed. "I am Mari Illustrious Makinami, NHIS test pilot!"

Laughing, Misato added a grin to her introduction, waving at Shinji and the others. "Major Katsuragi, NERV Tactical Operations Director. My pilots."

"Ayanami Rei, First Child." Rei offered the new girl a small, earnest smile. Her voice was almost lost amidst calls for tools and material from all around.

"Right, you were in the orange Eva, who was in the black one?" Vespa- now Makinami-san looked from pilot to pilot, visibly curious. She pulled a pair of glasses out from her suit and put them on with an practiced flick.

With the red-framed glasses in place, Shinji couldn't help but think she looked familiar. The crews all across the cages running emergency maintenance seemed to ignore the light-hearted intrigue brewing amongst their elites and command staff, but Shinji knew they were hanging on every word and gesture as grist for the rumor mill. Human nature found strength in the strangest places.

The grey-haired pilot raised his hand, and Shinji was nearly certain the other boy was fighting a full-blow fit of hysterical laughter. He wiped his eyes and nose with a finger and found his voice. "Nagisa Kaworu, Fourth Children."

"Aida Kensuke, temporary pilot. Envy of men, lover of women." The sandy-haired bow mumbled dead pan past his mug and toothbrush, and Shinji felt a smile break out at the wide-eyed look on Makinami-san's face.

Rei eased back in, giving the giggling Nagisa a sideways look before adding "That is not an exaggeration, Aida-kun has the most dating experience of all of us."

"Master of the awkward first impression, too." Asuka huffed at Kensuke before turning to Makinami-san with an offered hand. "Asuka Langley Sorhyu, Second Child and pilot of Unit-02."

"The awesome red one?" Makinami-san's eyes were shining behind her glasses. She grabbed Asuka's hand with a squeal, beaming. "You and it were amazing! "

Asuka seemed to soak up the praise like a thirsty sponge, but then she frowned and folded her arms over her chest, drumming her fingers along one bicep. One eyebrow arched high. "Gotta ask- why Vespa?"

Instead of answering directly, Makinami-san just planted her free hand on her waist and rocked her hips side to side, letting a playful little smirk stretch across her lips. A few of the younger technicians and civilian volunteers hauled long spools of industrial cable across the gantry, giving her an appreciative eye over as they passed. She answered with a flirty little wink, giggling.

"Oh she'll fit in just fine around here." Misato laughed while Asuka let out a miserable, exasperated groan. The older woman crossed her arms under her chest, and Shinji caught her little sidelong glance. He shook his head with a matching, wry grin. Incorrigible.

Kensuke smiled weakly, and his tone was fairly speculative. "So now we have three lady pilots, three gentlemen pilots...?"

"Did we save the tastiest looking gentleman pilot for last?" Makinami-san turned and focused every inch of her attention on Shinji, and he could feel that unmistakable weight of interest even as he faced her. "I hope you're the most senior pilot. Perhaps we could arrange something of a private, joint debriefing~?"

"Oh God," Asuka rolled her good eye let out another overly dramatic, put-upon moan. "Kill me now. Four-eyes, his girlfriend is still lost out there."

The mood in their little section of the gantry floor and the bubbly look on Makinami-san's face evaporated almost instantly. Misato and Rei both shot Shinji a rueful, apologetic looks paired with wan little smiles.

Makinami-san meanwhile stood up straighter, face paling save for two red spots on her cheeks. "I- I'm sorry I didn't know. I'll... I'll help! If something comes up I'll twist Tokita's arm and get out there with you."

"It's okay." Shinji rubbed the back of his head, sighing. "It's not like people can tell I'm involved with someone just by looking. We're going to save her- and everyone else we can."

"I getcha. I can't be afraid to take that risk, have to live a little." Makinami-san winked, bouncing back to beaming cheerfulness fairly quickly. "Your status aside, I stand by what I said though~"

Shinji just laughed at her lilting purr, shaking his head. She was lively, that was for certain. Makinami-san took a moment to stow her helmet in Jet Alone's cockpit before skipping back to chat with Nagisa and Rei, apparently curious about their Evas and the significance of how many eyes they had. Shinji found himself towering next to Asuka, noting that her head came up to somewhere around the middle of his bicep.

"What is she," Asuka mumbled under her breath."Made of fetishes?"

To that, Shinji could only give a quiet laugh. "...Like you're not, Asuka."

She looked up at him with a saucer-wide incredulous blue eye. "...Touche, golden boy. I never gave you permission to call me by name, by the way."

Shinji just shrugged, nudging her with an elbow. "I can't just call you Sorhyu anymore. I like you too much for that."

Teetering, Asuka gave off another characteristic huff, but she shot him a toothy, fierce and honest smile. "That's not how you address a superior officer."

While Makinami-san attempted to endear herself to the NERV staff and engineers crawling over her machine, Shinji turned to check what they were doing with the Evangelions. Units 00 through 04 were back in their launch cradles, socketed to power while repair teams cut away damaged armor as fast as they dared. Hot work like that was risky, or so Ritsuko told him. There was always a chance an Eva might scratch a particular itch, be it a saw or cutting torch. Either way, they had to be ready for the next sortie.

"Makinami-san." Misato gently tugged the girl's attention back to her, raising her voice over the sudden screech of industrial tools. "I'd like to hear about how you and your JSSDF associates got here, just an overview for now."

Biting her lip, Makinami-san fiddled with the arm of her glasses. "I'm not the best one to ask, but my NHIS engineering group linked up with the JSSDF stationed out of Tokyo-2, and we came in to Hakone from the south-east over the hills..."

"Hills?" Asuka cut in, pausing as someone ordered an armor plate detatched by explosive bolts. Everyone clamped their hands over their ears before carrying on, though Makinami-san was a touch slow. "You didn't pass by the lake?"

The new girl dropped her hands by her side and shook her head. "We had planned to use the roadway into the city, but the ones we found were completely warped and sheared off, like someone grabbed the whole region and twisted."

Nagisa rejoined the conversation with a slight frown. "Twisted around? So are you sure that we're still...?"

She just shrugged. "I'm ambidextrous, so I can' t really say- but! As far as we can tell, its just been you guys here in the little Hakone valley."

At that declaration, Shinji watched as five pairs of eyes turned to stare at him, unmistakably demanding an answer. Makinami-san joined in, though more curious and confused than anything. Honestly, one crisis at a time.

After a long, studied pause, Shinji just threw up his hands. "After all this, yes, I'm sure it's possible!"

That apparently satisfied Misato. She clapped her hands twice and fixed her pilots with a look, nodding kindly to Makinami-san before speaking. "Alright boys and girls, I want you all to get some rest. We're going on the offensive in less than six hours, so I need you all ready to go. Take a bath, eat a big meal, steamy makeouts- whatever you need to get ready, do it."

"Offensive?" Asuka's grin was particularly savage. "What's the plan?"

"Rescue mission; Tokyo-3 Municipal High."

When the castle fell and straddled Tokyo-3, it carried night with it. Mist and fog clung to the underside, spreading out into a thick blanket that swallowed up guttering campfires and lingering blazes from the earlier battle. Snow started to fall on Japan, for the first time in nearly twenty years. The hundred or so hostages Ayumi could see had started shivering, huddling together for warmth while their captors hovered around them.

Thumping and skittering along the edges of the cafeteria was one of the guards. Bristling with scorpion legs, too many sets of claws and three wickedly barbed stingers, it was a towering mass of scuttling awfulness, with its masked head nearly brushing the ceiling. At least, when it bothered to walk on the floor. The thing patrolled against and on the wall, shoving aside overturned tables and chairs as it went. Whenever it passed by, it smelled like the acrid stink of crushed ants, harsh enough to make her eyes water.

Meanwhile, the elegant ones lazed about, full of blithe gesture and hedonistic action. For have seemingly lost a battle, they were in good spirits. Clowns, jugglers and performers seemed to fill the cafeteria, milling between hostages or drawing them into obscene games with silk ropes and smiles that cut like glass. The horrors clapped their hands and servant creatures swanned out carrying trays of succulent looking-

Ayumi forced herself to not think about it. When the aliens deigned to notice the state of their captives, the woman with all the arms clapped six hands. A dozen or so of the little living tree men snapped to attention, practically vibrating with apprehension plain on their wooden faces. Ayumi watched as they were put to the torch one by one and consigned to being burned alive. One soft-stepped with hot feet in her direction, burning with silent screams but dancing the whole time. The heat washed over her, making her skin prickle with sweat and uneasy relief. Were they prisoners or guests, she couldn't say.

Pressed up against one wall, Toji trembled despite the sudden bonfires dotting the cafeteria. He clutched his empty sleeve, eyes wide and casting about at things that weren't there. "Totally fine. I can take care of myself. Just put it down and leave it there, like that..."

The leaden weight in her legs was unbelievably heavy, but Ayumi fought past the creak and twinge in her knees. Slowly, she heaved herself up onto hands and knees, pushing aside the glass and fallen ceiling tiles until she reached him. Elsewhere in the cafeteria, a handful of civilians had managed to muster up the strength to go on hunger strike. She watched the sentries and attendance force food down their throats.

Easing around one of the more majestic, foppish courtiers, Ayumi froze when it turned to look at her. It's face was a perfect, symmetrical blend of beautiful androgyny with antlers curled down like blonde ringlets. Its body looked positively sculpted, and it raised a golden, jewel-encrusted goblet, toasting her as the guttering firelight seemed to sing across the gleaming rim. A pair of car-sized tigers made of silk bounded and pounced on each other on the other side of a conjured oak table, snarling playfully. The amber-eyed creature turned away with a delicate sniff, and Ayumi reminded herself that air was necessary to life.

"Hey. Suzuhara." When she finally reached him, she kept her voice low, but the guards and burning men didn't seem to notice or care.

"S-Saneda?" He wasn't focusing. His eyes kept pointing separate directions.

"We-" She licked her lips. "We'll get through this. Right? I have to tell your girlfriend that you were brave... And you need to be there to show her that."

"...Y-Yeah." Toji managed to get one eye fixed on hers, while the other stubbornly looked somewhere off and to the right. "Got it..."

Huddling in a bit closer, Ayumi snuck an arm around his back, trying not to think too much about how accessible that side of his body was. With the walking bonfires filling the cafeteria with warmth and light, the trembling changed flavor. Chills gave way to dread. They obviously wanted the hostages alive for something, if they cared enough to feed and keep them warm... Toji still wasn't focusing. Shifting again, Ayumi gently cupped her hands around his eyes. Almost immediately, he stilled.

Then the shivers started up, but somehow Ayumi could tell they were healthier. Toji shuddered, quaked hard enough that his shoulders thumped into her chest and arms hard enough to sting, but she endured. When the spasms passed, took in a deep, deep breath and exhaled. Then another. He was unimaginably strong, no wonder he had a girlfriend. She laid her head on his shoulder, not quite good, but feeling better than she had in weeks.

A flash of white grabbed her attention, barely catching it out the corner of her eye. It was tough to tell how far away it was, the mist and night sky was playing tricks with perspective, and she was exhausted too.

It approached, moving with grace and short legs across the snow, while the other hostages and the carnival of horrors seemed to ignore it utterly. She couldn't place it, not for any animal in Japan. Not a fox, racoon or dog. The fur was more white than the snow, casting a shining halo in the air and across the ground. It stepped through the gap in the cafeteria wall, bending its long body around the rubble with sinuous ease.

Sitting down on its haunches, it turned a pair of dark obsidian eyes on her. They were flat, black pools at first, but when its eyes met hers, a spark of knowing appeared. With her heart pounding in her chest, Ayumi could only wait while it's whiskers twitched, and it took her measure. The sublime creature spoke without words, and Ayumi felt peace settle into her chest.

Stories end, you will endure, it told her.

Glancing to the side, she opened her mouth with a question on her lips, but stopped. Ayumi couldn't have asked Toji- he couldn't see anything. She looked back, and the beast was gone, not even leaving footprints in the snow...

Behind her, the courtier with the curling antlers raised its hand and pulled a pair of captives to their feet. With a gesture, it bid them fight to the death for their enjoyment.

"So- what do we know?"

Misato moved through the Geofront forest as the sun around which a cloud of important, impressive and expert people orbited. That half of them were half her age just made her feel better about their chances. Her pilots took up one flank, with Asuka leading even as Shinji towered over everyone else. The JSSDF remnants were setting up shop even as the group moved towards their armories, where fresh effective weapons waited for willing hands, hers included. On her left, Generals Kirishima and Ishida had set aside the bars and stars for body armor and tactical webbing, same as their trailing retinues.

Also close at hand were Ritsuko and Fuyutsuki, the latter swiping away at a bulky tablet while her sun bleached friend huffed- she'd been awake for three hours and walking only half that. "My inexpert opinion is that the enemy continues to display perfect logistics- we've not seen them run out of fighters or material."

"Which is patently unfair, yes." Even as she quipped, the reality was frustrating. A conventional war was doomed to fail, which left her thinking of things unconventional.

"But the MAGI are starting to resolve enemy force composition and categorical identification." Ritsuko's eyes were shining bright behind her glasses despite the exhaustion. "Assuming the pattern sensors hold, we will be able to identify their 'elite' versus the 'fodder'."

Kirishima raked a hand through his sweat-slick hair and sighed. "Which comes back to the original problem of logistics. Still- the ability to prioritize targets is invaluable- thank you doctor."

"And they're not fighting our kind of war." Asuka declared, walking just ahead of Shinji and Nagisa as they entered the armory. In the distance, Unit-02 shifted and helped unload heavy equipment. "I mean- they did warfare, but..."

"It was all pretense- a show." Misato noted. "Spectacular, but they were going through the motions."

Ishida and Kirishima exchanged sour looks, grinding their teeth. Morale was always the true enemy, and the two generals had to maintain face for their subordinates. Misato was on their level though, and could see the strain plain on their faces. Apparently, Shinji could too.

"No, you shouldn't think of it like that." Shinji broke in, looming over the other speakers without meaning. "Whatever these things are- what's pretend to them is deadly serious to us. They're putting on a blockbuster war epic and we're the extras in the trenches."

Racks of weapons spread out before the group, and those so inclined reached for rifles and ammunition. Weeks of constant sorties, patrols and again, conventional warfare. Expertly executed, performed to high standard and worthy of military accolade... and depressingly predictable. If she could see what was coming, then the enemy did too. Just because they looked fantastic didn't mean they were stupid. Shinji was right.

Still clad in the ephemeral breastplate, Misato politely ignored the tables laden with body armor in favor of loading her equipment loops with ammo and grenades. They'd pushed through, but just barely, because the enemy met their force one to one, matching to that known quantity. The big monsters, the drill-dancers, even the castle overhead- the enemy was serving them up a big fat volleyball spike and dared NERV to lunge for it. Dared them into thinking it was the only way to win.

Well, Misato figured she sucked at volleyball, but was damned good at war. Taking the fight to the surface just wasn't going to cut it, no. Not on its own at least.

"Listen, I know I said this before but-" Shinji propped up a teetering palette of ordnance with one arm. "Back during the earlier fighting, these things looked at me, they made a point to look me right in the eye and wink. You cannot take for granted the fact that these things care more about how we're reacting than anything understandable like troop movements and how many bullets we can fire. They're poking us like a child with an anthill, just waiting to watch us boil out in anger."

The group fell silent at that, save for the sound of weaponry and soldiers working to and fro. Asuka, Nagisa and the NERV contingent were islands amidst the military camp, while Misato and Shinji sort of straddled it with their more pragmatic, mis-matched gear.

Slinging her new rifle, Misato reached for her sidearm and checked it, grumbling. She'd have to clean it before too long. "General Ishida- can we count on NHIS and your Jet Alone?"

"Vespa's been chomping at the bit- you'll have her right where you want her, Major." The silver-haired man gave her a decisive nod. "Your other pilots are helping her get settled as we speak."

"That reminds me-" Asuka thrust her hands in her jacket pockets, still swimming in the thing despite her recent growth spurt. "Vesp-Makina-Four-Eyes-" She huffed "-said something about finding refugees?"

Ishida nodded, quietly buckling on a bandolier of grenades. "That's correct. We found most survivors in old shrines and temples- traditionally holy places. Denomination or culture didn't seem to matter much. The other outliers were people barricaded in their own homes. There were corroborated reports of the invaders being 'loathe' to cross thresholds... But there were times many could and did. Or they tried to scare the inhabitants out."

Misato heard Shinji's palm his his face, turning in time to see it dragged down. "I haven't seen the shrine club through all of this yet either." He noticed Asuka's askew look and shook his head. "I'll tell you later."

Turning back to Asuka, Misato's lips thinned. "Asuka and Rei saw the enemy fortifying the high school. As far as our scouts can tell, what's left of Tokyo-3's civilian population and not in the Geofront is there. Tokyo-3 was never a big city, but all reports indicate it's the better part of sixty percent. Civilians. Non-combatants."

Shinji exhaled, shivering. "People caught in the parades, or worse..."

As one, the JSSDF contingent exchanged brief, helpless looks, before Kirishima dispensed with most pretense of invincible, all-knowing authority. "So what can we do against that? What can we do?"

While the adults finished re-arming, Asuka let out a long, hissing breath and to Misato's ear, sounded every inch the successor to the Tactical Operations Director. "We have five operational Evangelions and one operational... Jet Alone. We have enough fresh soldiers for any one operation Misato'd like to run, and for now, the gear to issue them. Akagi's even got an idea of how to protect ourselves after this is all said and done."

"And we know they've got a weakness for the dramatic- I got their whole army hot and bothered with just a flagpole. Imagine what I could do with a proper stage?" Misato smirked before sobering. "After a certain point, they don't give a damn about the Evas or our forces. It's all spectacle to them."

"Playing by different sets of rules, at the same time." Ishida noted. "Spectacle for them, full and terrible war for us."

"Seems like it." The smile came back, more earnest now. shaking her head, she hummed. "Can we out-magic the magician, out-con the con man?"

"With what we have on hand?" Asuka crossed her arms and bounced on her toes, shooting Shinji a glance that just dripped with meaning.

"I can pilot, fight, make music, heal, build and cook." Shinji ticked off on his fingers, shrugging good-naturedly. "Though, I don't think I can craft a sandwich that solves an existential magical war."

"You play, Ikari-san?" Nagisa blinked, and Misato watched his red-eyes go wide.

Misato couldn't help the grin when Shinji ducked his head, suddenly bashful. "Cello, mostly, but I've got more range these days."

"Violin and piano, myself..." The other boy hummed. "Maybe a duet someday."

Wow, Nagisa you just can't turn it off, can you?" Asuka huffed and rolled her eye before turning back to Shinji. "As good a cook as you are, the bad guys don't seem to be flavor-inclined."

Probably not." Misato agreed before Shinji could reply, and her eyes crinkled as she drummed the air with her fingers for emphasis. "But I think you two just touched on something we can work with. Ritsuko?"

"If I'm following you- and I usually do- your crazy plan needs some custom-hardware. Shinji will have to help." Good old Rits, reading her mind in the best of ways. Ritsuko looked up at the pilot, and he gave her a resolute little nod. "Send me the specs when you're ready."

The realization hit the redhead like a thunderbolt- Asuka reared back as if struck, uncovered eye wide as she thrust her finger at Misato's chest. "No. Misato no. You are not we are not going to-"

"- Cannot believe we're putting on a goddamned concert!"

Sitting inside the modified entry plug, Shinji smirked. He forewent the control yokes for the moment, his arms crossed over his chest as the new console spread out over his lap. Fifty-two white keys were broken up by another thirty-six, Roughly shaped out of metal and plastic. His own fingerprints were pressed into the material. His batteries were full, and he could feel the hot weight of the power cable socketed into his back, even through the sluggish synchronization.

Five Evangelions, armed and armored waited in their cages, shuddering with untapped potential. Shinji checked the sensors attached to the expanded weapon modules on his back- all six of the military-green cylinders responded positive-no damage or fault.

And across from him was one fully human machine, wedged into an improvised catapult. Mari's smiling face appeared in a window, eyes crinkling. "So this is a thing you NERV types do, idol battles and awesome one-off gambits?"

Shinji glanced sidelong, and another window popped up showing Nagisa's plug with the pilot in question rehearsing. "In context of putting children in the pilot seats as far as questionable strategic decisions... Yeah."

"Speak for yourself, Golden Boy!" Asuka preened. "Some of us were born for this gig!"

It was experience that allowed Rei to simulate a delicate cough in LCL, even as she offered the tiniest, teasing smile. Asuka winced. "Erk. Sorry."

"Hey! If I had more time, I would've thrown in dance choreography!" Misato's voice broke in over the radio, already on the surface and preparing for her part of the operation. The plug interface bypassed his eardrums completely. "This is our last catapult assault, so make it count pilots! Evangelion and Jet-Alone- Launch!"

The fleeting seconds between standing still and locking onto the magnetic rails were kind of like the wait on a roller coaster, not that he'd ever cared for those. Massive engines and powerful hydraulics shoved the cradles against the contact plates with a crackle and hum. One heartbeat, two. Shinji felt his pulse slow in time with his breathing, and he willed his blood to stay.

Sheer, unrelenting force pulled down every bit of him, adding pounds as acceleration sent him and five other fighters through a kilometer of earth and armor. Strobelight flashes of intermediary layers crossed his sight, and dark things squirmed in the shadows between the Geofront and the surface. Mari's high, keening shriek was joy. The armored shutter overhead whipped open a fraction of a second before his Eva cleared the tunnel, and the catapult launched him skyward, head first into hell.

The sun was low in the sky, painting the ruined city a thousand shades of yellow and orange, as well as the hanging castle. Shinji and his Eva seemed to hover, caught between the monstrous fortress and the more mundane ground. Alien gravity won, and he found himself falling up, into enemy territory. The power cable played out, yanking him back with a jerk, and he released it with a thought. Thirty minutes of battery left- that was fine- they had a plan for that. Nagisa had followed, while the others moved off to their tasks below, and Misato's call to arms shook the city.

Shinji stretched out his hands and brushed the keys, before glancing at Nagisa's black Evangelion. "Get ready- and follow my lead."

Nagisa grinned, red eyes shining. "My pleasure."

The armored APC bumped and jerked across the broken streets, slewing around corners while Misato braced herself against the wall of monitors. She watched the a dozen timers tick down, even as the initial strain of synthesized string orchestra filtered between the ruins of Tokyo-3. Somber and haunting, the music kicked, filling the air with textured sounds. One of her screens showed Shinji conducting, hands splayed wide across his synchro-keyboard as he pounded the keys and called the instruments to battle.

Behind her, men and armor hurtled through the wrecked city, carving a path through the rubble while the alien defenders twisted fitfully, seemingly struck dumb by the display. Shinji had picked the song, having learned it in an hour before helping her pick the cues. At the three minute mark, Misato leaned on the radio.

"Alright girls, hit it!"

Today, the name of the game was blitzkrieg. Vespa was in the lead, breaking through the defensive line with shotgun AT-field blasts. Asuka was on her right, lunging around fallen buildings and bleeding horrors while Rei did the same on the other side. Together, they charged for the school-castle walls. Jack-o-lanterns lining the walls bounced and collapsed, before throwing up gouts of lurid, colorful flames into the air.

And through it all, the aliens and their legions were struck reeling. The orchestra was almost a palpable force on the battlefield, a weight that pressed down on their enemies even as her Eva crushed road and warrior beneath her feet. Unmistakable shouts of joy bubbled up from the city, where the invaders jabbered at each other instead of counterattacking, turning skyward towards Shinji as he played the one-man-band. Glancing up and out the corner of her eyes, Asuka smirked. Even his Eva was getting into it, conducting while Nagisa handled second string and covering fire.

Maybe there was something to this musical strategy- Asuka felt her little smile turn into a wide, toothy grin as the familiar sound rolled over the city.

The charge was quick, slamming into the gate and ringing it like a gong. Shinji compensated, adjusting the orchestra on the fly in time with their attacks. Behind her, Misato and the JSSDF element roared towards the gate, engines screaming as they weaved around and under their umbilical cables. The castle wall was as tall as her Eva, and she watched the sentries on the parapet twist, unable to decide who to engage- Shinji overhead, standing upon their great castle-creature, or the red and black Evangelion right in front of them.

She savored the experience. "Four-eyes, cover us! Rei, help me with the gate!"

Rei's Eva nodded, shouldering her weapon in one smooth move before taking a knee and digging her hands under the portillicus. Asuka felt the muscles in her arms bulge in sympathy as she made her own grip. Then her coat-tails morphed, frayed ends becoming fingers and curling into the strange gnarled grate. Behind her, Vespa stood with both arms outstretched to the side, charging and blasting with her weird AT-field scattergun. The orchestra shifted, favoring brassy trumpets and struck violins with an accelerating beat.

The gate shifted on its own musical cue, bearing down on her fingers like a gnashing maw. Out the corner of her eyes, Asuka hissed. The damn gatehouse was a mouth. "No you don't you sonnovabitch." With all four limbs engaged, Asuka flexed her AT-field, not to cut or defend, but to fly. The pulse of elevation, that axiomatic statement of rise fought against the gatehouse's magical muscle. Absolute Territory dueled for dominance against the stranger powers- and then it won. Rei and Asuka heaved the portillicus upwards through the roof of the gatehouse and in turn ripping the whole top half apart, casting it off their raised arms.

Moving even before it landed, the two Evas covered Misato's approach to an exultant instrumental swell from far overhead, as men and armor deployed inside the school campus.

The school had been expanded, stretching out into an improbably large, sprawling battlefield to match the towering citadel walls. Drumbeats echoed off the fortifications, thumping hard through the pavers and through the APC's suspension. Somehow, the unfurled campus still fit beneath the hanging spires of the walking fortress creature, but by that point Misato had become inured to the inconsequential details.

What was important, was that her crazy plan worked. While the conventional forces spread out and claimed the courtyard in the shadow of her Evas, Misato saw what looked like a third of the aliens just up and give up. Not surrender, but whole chunks of spearmen, archers, and who knew what else just broke ranks and headed elsewhere. Bridges of ice and snow, flying carpets and stairways of feathers lifted the deserters higher, towards the more interesting battle. Shinji was the bombastic, outrageous and delicious carrot...

Misato and her Evas the humdrum, practical, boring stick.

But there was still more than enough fight left for them. Shambling out of the ruined gymnasium, a spindly, seven-armed monstrosity hatched from a silk cocoon ambled forward on hand-mouths with lolling tongues. Asuka charged forward, fists at the ready while Rei and Vespa turned to tug the trailing power cables further inside.

Misato and the conventional forces- treads, wheels and ground-pounders all flowed through the broken gateway. The radio swelled with chatter, dueling for clarity over the crashing cymbals and brass band overhead. Unit commanders called out teeming targets that the Evas could not afford to attend. Misato held a hand over her helmet, even as storm-strong winds buffeted her soldiers from on high. The red Evangelion was in its element- every move shed purpose, slamming into the latest monster as Asuka cut off two arms and held another pair of gilded horrors at bay with her wings. Shinji called down sounds of triumphant horns and flutes, punctuating Asuka's battle. She was no musician, but she could tell he was marking time to Asuka.

And the others were following on-beat. Driving one foot into the squirming mass of flesh and muscle, Vespa caught a wrist and elbow in the crooks of Jet Alone's arms before twisting at the hips. Tendons and muscle tore, before she cast the dead parts aside and stepped back to let Asuka finish the beast. Shinji's improvised overture echoed out over the city, and for a moment, drowned out the gunfire and explosions.

Smoke and mist billowed across the campus, leaving sentry and guardian soldier in the midst of NERV's forces as the wind carried it by. Banner-men raised their standards high, showing pearly grey silk emblazoned with flames. Little legions of clawed horrors raised their spears with a savage cheer, and Misato watched the depleted battle lines form across the courtyard. At the edge of the roof atop the main school building, a familiar ten-foot tall figure in shining mirror-grey armor stood, watching them. The air stilled, and something hushed the music, just for a moment.

The bulky armor moved with sublime grace, standing empty save for tongues of bluish-white flame and two burning points of light behind the visor.

"Alright, round two huh..." Misato breathed over the radio. "I know this guy- pilots! Get set and stick to the mission."

Asuka's acknowledgement rang out over the battlefield, and the two Evangelions stood over the lines of battle while Jet Alone cycled the capacitors in its forearms. Below and behind them, Misato gave the order. "Second squad- advance!"

Tokyo-3 spread out 'above' him, pitted with craters, smoking ruins and the muted, pinprick detonations of high-explosive. All around, legions of the enemy swelled, vaulting castleward, crawling over each other for a chance to duet. Even as he strode forward across the inverted courtyards and battlements, they moved in time to his performance.

Shinji focused on his part of the plan- distraction. In an Eva, his hands were too slow. Forgoing those, he lunged into the forward line and stomped through the armed carnival of horrors with armored Evangelion boots, driving his digital orchestra higher and louder in response. To his right, Nagisa raked his spear across the courtyard, carving a new trench for the enemy to fall into before spinning neatly and cleaving Through a building at the foundations. Ripped loose of its place, Earth's gravity reasserted itself, and the building fell down to the city surface. Trailing notes followed it down, and a ringing drumbeat marked its impact.

In reply, a wave of arrows tipped in magma swept the sky, covering his Eva from head to toe in pinpricks, but Nagisa was unperturbed. Intermingled with combat, Shinji watched his view of the other pilot's plug while his own hands danced across the keys. Both pilots were uniquely suited to the task of fight and perform, with Shinji's arete bolstering his timing and coordination. Nagisa was in turn was sublimely attuned to his Evangelion, second only to Asuka in synchronization.

Casting his eyes towards the city below, Shinji frowned and exercised the discretion Misato had given him. Tchaikovsky had cannons for his overture.

He had artillery.

Explosions and munitions boomed in time with orchestral swells, drawing every eye as Unit-01 and 03 acted as Evangelion-sized amplifiers for the performance. Misato whistled, laughing beneath the detonations as the sky was painted with fiery oranges and searing whites. The invaders shuddered, dropping swords and spears in favor of harps, chimes and stranger things. Of course, they could weaponize music too, cutting her soldiers down with rapid-fire arpeggio and crystal-toned scales. The addition of artillery made Shinji even more irresistible, and still more of the enemy disengaged.

Under the cover of soaring notes and heavy ordnance, Misato shouted for her troops to advance. Lightly armored vehicles surged forward at her order, vaulting over benches, potted plants and decorative landscaping. Steel and ceramic crashed against emerald-faceted shields while the hungry diesel engines roared against the remaining man-beast cavalry. Rei, Asuka and Vespa spread out, orbiting her soldiers as a triangle ward over the stretched quad.

A keening wail backed by resonant temple bells crossed the battlefield, and all eyes were drawn to the roof of the school. The fire-and-armor general raised its arms and called forth a bolt of lightning from the walking castle's underbelly. It struck the waiting palm before flash-forging into a bronze staff dripping with shaking rings. Before Misato could blink, the General tossed the staff over its head and caught it like a spear. The shaft flared white the second it touched his palm, and mandala flared out behind, relentlessly complex and achingly beautiful even as the elite commander reared back, drawing in light and fury with every passing quarter-second.

And Rei was there, intercepting the thrown spear with her AT-field. The impact seared retina for half a mile, and Ritsuko's voice screamed in her ear- pattern green oversaturation. Rei's Eva shook out its hands, somehow stinging through the barrier while the General raised its hand for another lightning bolt. It readied the attack in a flash, faster than Rei or Asuka could-

Misato flew, tossed airborne and landing hard who knew how far away. Earth moved, swept up and boiling as steel and molten rock bubbled to the surface, hissing agony. The spear's detonation ripped a gaping hole in NERV's lines, splitting her forces and smiting hundreds in one blow. Hundreds she couldn't afford to lose. Trucks and tanks glowed cherry red, rolling to a stop and slumping into mounds of burning melted slag. Jet Alone fared little better, armor sloughing off even as it threw up a solid white column of steam into the air, purging waste heat from its taxed reactors.

Ears ringing, Misato pressed her armored elbows into the searing dirt and stone. She had to see. Spots danced in front of one eye, but the other worked well enough to see the General still perched on the administration building. She glanced up at the castle and the concert Shinji was putting on. This one isn't falling for it- this one isn't dumb.

Asuka gaped over the radio before cutting herself off with a snarl. She shifted, darting forward a few hundred meters with booming strides and raising her own field before calling out. "Leapfrog! Cover to cover behind our fields!"

Below, Misato let out a hacking cough, growling. "Shit! Now he's got artillery!" Even as that new spear was brought to bear, her voice carried clear over the radio. "You heard her! Squads form up and advance! Rei, Asuka- call out your move! Vespa, fall back!"

The next spear exploded against the edge of Asuka's field, striking a discordant note against Shinji's rising crescendo, digging a boiling trench into the pavement some ten meters deep and several times as long. Beyond that, the enemy cavalry rushed into the gap, drawing bows and raising swords as they raced towards NERV's open flanks. Jumping forward and letting her field fall, Rei shouted a warning before tucking Unit-00 in to a thunderous roll. Tumbling forward, she pulped the enemy charge beneath the armor around her back and shoulders. Slamming into Unit-02's leg, one of the red Eva's wings reached out to yank the other Eva upright and brush the little creeps and chittering monsters clinging to the power cable.

"We gotta get closer!" Asuka growled over the externals. "Misato!"

"Mortars ready Asuka!" Misato screwed her eyes shut when the spear flared hotly against the manifest AT-field. She shouted over gunfire, radio crackling in their ears. "We'll fire on your advance!"

Unit-02 nodded and the green eyes glowed bright emerald for a second, even as Asuka dropped her field and let Rei step in with her own. In that split-second gap, Vespa paused the waste purge and let fire with both arms, throwing a glittering cloud of rending AT-field into the administration building and shredding the facade. The spear was flung skyward, detonating against the underside of the castle beast and leaving a molten crater that dripped hot, bloody stone. The light and concussive sound drowned out the tiny puffs of propellant behind her.

Explosives sailed overhead, past the overlapping fields and across the courtyard. Some scattered against the enemy infantry on the ground, scything down those too slow to dodge. The rest burst over the general, peppering the collapsed school building with hot metal. Asuka slid forward, digging a trench across the distorted campus with a home-run slide and letting her heel dig into the ruined lobby beneath the general's command post. Misato watched her rise and swing her arm. The armored figure stood as tall as a man, shining spear in hand and lashing out to meet her assault. The armor around her knuckles shattered, exploded into hopeless ruin. The pieces rained down on the battlefield, crushing and slicing through anything unlucky enough to be nearby.

That same massive wave of force and sound picked her Eva up and tossed it back, slamming into Rei's field and forcing her to drop it, even as the other pilot reached out to catch the red Eva in both arms. They skid to a halt just shy of Misato and her forces, racing past Unit-02's scuffed heels and into the interior campus.

"Motherf-" Asuka cut herself off and jumped out of Rei's arms, ready to smite the thing for its offense, but two more spears leaped from its hands. Only she was fast enough to flicker her field and catch them both before they pulped Misato and her soldiers. She cast about for an answer, a solution- when Misato heard more chatter from the radio. Rei and Ritsuko broke into the channel, distorted by static and warning of pattern green- incoming transformative phenomenon. She turned to see the air past the gates and walls surrounding the school ripple.

The wave reached the castle, even as he watched it pour over the city below. It rushed over him and his Evangelion, soaking into the cobblestones, armor and very atmosphere itself. Colors swam in his perception, pricking up the hairs in his arms and changing. The power deep inside him roiled at the invasion, pulsing hot and clean against the chaosmadnesspotentialeffortlessacceptanceofeverything- He gagged into the LCL, sputtering hard and feeling his lungs clench on sluggish liquid.

Something wet and wriggling bloomed in his stomach, focusing his awareness onto that single point of what. His concentration faltered, and while he did not lose time, his AT-field faded with a muted crackle. Retching, he felt something slip past his teeth and out into the LCL around him. When he finally managed to force his eyes open, Shinji stopped and stared for a long, incredulous three seconds.

There was a fish swimming in the LCL around his head.

Warnings and vital signs from the other pilots prompted a thought, and he opened a window to see Asuka squirming in her plug, hands clapped over her head as she moaned. All around them, the world changed. Part of the city gave way to a waterfall that dropped into a thin ravine, while some of the outlying buildings seemed to bloom into mushrooms. The soldiers below screamed, voices soaked in panic but clinging to discipline even as Misato shouted for order and morale. Magnified from his perspective, Shinji saw her stand tall on the transmuted husk of her command vehicle, apparently, thankfully having dodged whatever-it-was- that happened.

"Asuka!" Shinji ignored the fish and turned his eye towards her Eva, one eye watching the battlefield even as the changing wave flowed past them and into the distance.

"'M'fine! My ears are ringing-" She forced her hands back to her controls and Unit-02 stood tall, seemingly no worse for the wear.

His own Eva seemed fine, and the lull in battle lasted seconds. Even the enemy seemed taken by the sudden surge, awed and enraptured by something he couldn't place or name. All around him, the more musically inclined of the invaders arrayed around him. He felt Nagisa bump up against him, back to back with his spear at the ready.

The music faded, slowed in tempo as the battle bogged down. She could hear the armored figure shout orders, wordless roars of flame and clanging metal past the temple-bell impacts of his spear against AT-field. His soldiers jumped at the call, charging into her guns like their lives depended on it. That was loyalty- or brainwashing. The horde rushed forward, heedless of full automatic gunfire, still running even as they were cut down. From where Misato was hunkered down with the remains of her command truck, all she could think was it saying 'I gave you a gift, did you like it?'

This thing is flirting with me. Misato considered her reactions, and settled on not thinking about it.

Then Ritsuko and Rei's warning echoed out over the strategic radio frequency, and Misato could only watch as the world changed.

Wind-drill-dancers, walking castles, armies on demand. All of it utter bullshit and Katsuragi Misato had had enough. The mysterious wave scoured the city, twisting buildings into new forms, erasing rubble and replacing wide paved streets with canals and grassy paths. Electricity seemed to dance up her bare arms and the nape of her neck, forcing every nerve to stand up on end. Her cross burned cold against her skin, wedged under her armor and slick with sweat.

All around her, men and women stumbled, wailing as everything changed. The world had softened like clay, and some mad fear had picked up her soldiers and shook them in its teeth. The courtyard blurred around them all, bubbling into new shapes and textures. Trees gleamed with trunks of burnished metal and jeweled leaves, while decorative rocks grew leering mouths, tongues lisping around strange rhyming verse. The enemy cheered, rattling their weapons and bashing their shields with fist and sword.

Her goggles and helmet slipped off her head, letting her hair fly wild in the chaotic wind. The command APC melted, metal becoming useless mud shot through with squirming worms and eyeless things from beneath a rock. That- that she could deal with.

Watching the man next to her shed his skin, shredding away to reveal scaled flesh underneath, was something else entirely.

Everywhere she looked, her soldiers tossed down their weapons- like one heavy machine gun that shattered mid-operation. The whole thing had turned to glass in an instant. Grenades blurred into papery hornet's nests, hanging from tactical webbing like they belonged. A silvery spear detonated against an AT-field overhead, and a giant's hand of force beat down the air and wind against her back and shoulders, forcing her to the ground hard enough to bruise.

Ahead, she watched a woman scream at her limbs as they took root in the pavement. The marksman ripped her hands free with a sobbing wail, fleshy wooden palms trembling while green ivy trailed out from beneath her helmet. For some, skin became stone- some cracked and craggy while others were marble smooth. Pointed ears, elfin features and otherness that seemed to swell up throughout her forces. The Evangelions above her stumbled, towards the general and his burning spears.

The enemy cheered louder on their side of the line, rattling sabers and raising spears as the wave passed over them like it wasn't even there. Reality twisted again, this time in her favor- the battlefield seemed to shrink, and she realized they were so close to their objective. Less than a hundred yards, then clearing a gymnasium and a cafeteria. Overhead, Unit-00 smashed into the main administration building, careening into Asuka's Eva a second later with a shower of sparks and grinding armor.

Her soldiers and their war machines ground to a halt, clinging to what they hoped was safe, inert cover as the wave carried on. Blinking past the grit and burgeoning terror, Misato let out a low, throaty growl. She heaved herself up off the ground and whirled in place, casting about for a solution. Fuck this- think Katsuragi!

"Katsuragi!" Another voice called out, muffled by explosion and impact of Evangelion combat. "We've got to pull back!"

"No way!" Misato rounded on them all, standing as high as she dared and braving the arrows.

The call to retreat catalyzed her, forced something to lock into place within her mind and take shape. Fear. It came to the fore, sneaking around and raking frigid claws down her spine. She could see it all around her, sinking into her soldiers with every passing second. When one man dropped to his knees, clutching his head as his hair changed to bristly wires, the other three in his fire team recoiled. Even as they moved, she watched their gear and skin flow like wax.

That crumbling morale spread, catching on the wary and fearful in a sweeping surge. Eyes wide, Misato wracked her brain for an answer, some way to turn the fear around. The world turned fluid, shimmering and malleable in a way that left her without words. Well, if there weren't any words, she was going to just make some!

Crushing the creeping shivers with her own pounding heartbeat, Misato raised her voice, shouting strong over the sounds of Evangelions colliding overhead. "We've got the enemy at his gates, and I'm sure as hell not going to stop until we've gotten our people home! They took your weapon, took your hands! Pick up that terror and use it!"

Reaching for the nearest man, she hauled him upright and towards a recently deposited boulder, distantly noting his hands had grown wicked claws and his boots had exploded, giving way to taloned feet. "Get your ass up soldier- the enemy isn't going to wait!"

"M-Major!" He held up his hands, eyes wild and trembling, but Misato shoved him forward and flicked his discarded rifle up with her toe, catching it and pushing it into his grip.

Ignoring the pebbly scaled texture, she pushed his fingers through the trigger guard and slapped him on the helmet.

"If you're not dead or dying, you can still fight!" Misato rounded on her soldiers, voice rising over the howl of battle. "You've got this! If that doesn't work- rip them apart!"

The first cheer was ragged, fear had taken hold and wouldn't let go so easily. Time to correct that misconception.

Misato drew her pistol and whirled to face the enemy, meeting them head on as the lurid infantry counter-charged. Blades and claws skittered against the polished breastplate, slicing her arms and legs bloody even as she shot, elbowed and kicked her way a few feet forward. Behind her, the man with the dragon claws fired into the melee before taking a dive. He lashed out with clawed feet, cutting down two of the midget pikemen with one kick.

As victories go, it was small, but morale lived and died by the little things. Misato twisted in place, catching the eyes of the men and women who followed her and seeing the fire in her stare ignite in their own. The tanks and trucks that survived the distortion effect churned forward, trailing living foliage or shedding bits of themselves that no longer fit. The heart of her army beat loudly, shouting defiance against what might as well been all of existence- Misato had no idea but she wasn't going to complain.

Claws, minds and flesh changed by strange energies... She couldn't be sure, but a change had come over her people. A wild-eyed insight, manic and unsteady. It bloomed in the air, and the wave that had been pushing them down now almost seemed to be picking them up. The world seemed brighter, more vibrant and outlined- some giddy, adrenaline-flooded corner of her mind dared suggest animated.

Tactics gave way to passions, charging forwards into the enemy ranks with pounding boots and mortal resolve. Her lungs and legs burned, but Misato was right there in the lead. She leaned around her fellow fighters, emptying her pistol against tower shield and strange spider-silk armor. Vaulting behind a concrete planter, she reloaded her weapon with a tight grin.

Just ahead of her, a man with stone skin held his weapon aside, instead punching through a mushroom-soldier's helm. That impact shattered his skin, revealing a gold arm, shining bright as he reached up to catch and break a spear shaft against his palm. Misato sucked down a lungful of air and rallying cry built up in her throat, but it stopped in her throat, choking on something strange and primal. She coughed, stumbling while two of her fighters threw arms around and carried her forward.

In that same stutter-step, she caught her breath and reared back, exhaling hot and loud. It was no order, no call to action or battle-ready shout. Misato felt her own torso shake with the force of a tiger's roar. The sound physically pulped two score of the creeping infantry and cleared the way forward. The echo lashed back, whipping through her hair and casting it crimson and gold- for a few fleeing seconds, her hair was fire. Not on fire, not burning, but fire.

That ragged hole let Misato and her forces punch through the enemy line and secure the building entrance. Suddenly it clicked- shredding the enemy with not just fists and bullets, but intent. They were finally fighting on the enemy's terms, and had the initiative!

Asuka and Rei raged overhead, giant fists deflected by a glowing spear to the sound of gongs. Each thunderclap impact shook the city, lifting tanks off their treads and wrecking distant skyscrapers. Urging her forces onward, she watched the last of the active influence fade. Limbs were still clawed, and skin gleamed gold under the brief bursts of gunfire. Shaking embers out of her hair, Misato grabbed her radio and gathered her forces.

All told, they had crossed maybe a hundred yards of campus ground, once expanded by alien energies and strange magic. The cafeteria and gymnasium loomed overhead, perfectly mundane in proportion. Misato ordered her tanks through, and their commanders turned the hulls to serve as barriers against the spears and arrows. While her troops made home around the entrance, Misato reloaded her pistol.

Glass shattered, and Misato's weapon snapped up to face the sound. Little men made of knotted roots tumbled out of doorways and windows, laden with trays of food and pitches of water. Civilians? She put it out of her mind, ignoring them in favor of the plan. With the temporary strongpoint in place, Misato split her teams, refusing to admit exhaustion on the home stretch. Inside, the hallways teemed with more of the little servant things, scattering as Misato and her forces charged through. The man with the gold skin took the lead, rounding the corners and braving the inevitable arrows.

Turn, turn after turn, clearing room after room they moved. The last hallway before the cafeteria seemed, but through the distant doors, Misato saw shapes past the broken windows and guttering firelight- just like recon had said. Dust rained from the drop ceiling as something outside slammed hard into the ground, while rubble and soldiers bounced off the floor.

Twisting to face the twenty or so men behind her- all she could pull into the school itself, Misato grinned. "Who's ready to save some civilians? I am!"

That was all the motivation they needed. The last hundred feet was a fluid charge, slamming into the doors hard enough to knock them off their hinges. The cafeteria was packed, wall to wall with hostages. Drawn, haggard, war-crimes came to mind. Standing taller amidst opulent cushions, wooden tables and majestic thrones were the grander, more beautiful obvious elite. There was a moment that stretched out between the two sides, and for a second, she considered the intelligence of the enemy. Something in her chest rumbled, aching hot, and Misato wondered if she'd roar like a tiger again.

A ranking hot miasma of acid burnt her nose, and a scorpion pincer the size of an engine block clamped around her neck. About a thousand thoughts raced through her mind, most of them pain as she felt her bones creak and tendons tighten like iron cables. The chitinous arm hefted her upright, hauling her into the air by her jaw and leaving her dangling while her soldiers tumbled aside. The scorpion-man dropped from the ceiling and landed on too many legs, burying her soldiers under skittering barbs or catching them in free pincers. Even as the masked thing reared around, her warriors opened fire while her vision greyed out.

Misato raised her pistol, pressed it against the baroque mask and squeezed the trigger.

The first bullet cracked the ceramic, and some small part of her noticed blood as opposed to rainbows or a cat's meow. She yanked the trigger two more times, feeling her eyes flutter shut. The claw swung open, and she dropped to the floor in a heap. Coughing with a hand on her throat, she shoved herself upright and forced her eyes open. Charging in after Misato's distraction, the gold-skinned soldier reached for the scorpion's legs. His fingers sank into the joints and ripped them apart. Guns, knives, claws and horns rained down upon the monster, and Misato stood.

Swinging her weapon around, she took aim and fired. The shot punched through a tall, elfin creature halfway across the cafeteria and blowing a ragged hole out the back. "If you're human get clear!"

In the silent second that followed, the hostages blinked once before dropping to the ground with one move. With the way clear to fire, her soldiers let loose with semi-auto bursts. Misato scanned the far end of the cafeteria- looking then looking again at the thing. Hands- too many hands, all over dripping with hands. It-she-whatever scampered, mincing away from bullets out the far door with a handful of her fellows. Not important. Whatever the enemy had been, these ones hadn't been soldiers. Her troops picked over the enemy's chaotic remains and moved to help the hostages, hushing them with reassurances that they weren't like them, even if her soldiers suddenly had claws or leaves in their hair.

She hadn't even noticed the last of the fey things dying.

Outside, her Evangelions were still fighting, casting deeper shadows across the snowy grounds and making everything quake with their footsteps. Scanning left and right, Misato tugged her radio free and called in the transport trucks. The hostages, refugees now all pulled their hands away from their ears, looking around as if it were all a dream. They were all too thin, listless. Jaundiced eyes and sunken cheeks- she had no idea how long they'd gone without food or water. And the smell- they were not clean, not at all.

As she rattled off orders, she kept her head on a swivel. Then her eyes snapped wide open. "sonnova- Ayumi, Toji! Medic!"

The last was directed to the two soldiers with white bands on their arms, darting forward to join her as Misato cut through the crowd of injured and ill. The two teenagers shifted, turning towards her voice while Ayumi managed to heave herself to her feet. Misato dashed forward, sliding to her knees and throwing her arms around them both.

In an ideal world they would have had command staff and operators whispering in their ear, telling them they had reached critical levels of enemy saturation or a bunch of other vaguely meaningful military-sounding buzz-phrases. Shinji didn't have much patience for jargon, even if he could appreciate the reason. Unfortunately, he and Nagisa were not in an ideal world, and only had each other to rely on at that moment. That and the music.

Back to back, the two Evas stood on the walking fortress's underside, facing off against what appeared to be every single invader in all of Tokyo-3. This was blatantly untrue, as there were simply more of them then stars in the sky, or so they'd have him believe. One human-sized creature tried to convince him with a show of force, spreading his arms wide and revealing that star-shaming army, but Nagisa speared the creature through for the presumption. In his plug, Shinji played his hands over his keyboard, calling forth whole sections of orchestra with a keypress, and continued to put his own spin on the Eighteen-Twelve Overture.

The plaza they had chosen as theirs was a ruined wreck, massive flagstones churned up beneath their feet and errant attacks from all directions. The smaller horrors teemed around their ankles while the greater monsters arrayed all around them, without limit or end. Exactly as planned. Silvery arrows lit up the shadowy battlefield while fires and explosions from below punctuated his orchestra with their own concussive beats. Whatever had been throwing artillery in the school had fallen mysteriously silent.

"About time for the finale, Nagisa!" Shinji ducked under a beast of living magma, armored in hurricane winds. He lashed out with a straight punch towards its chest, elegant in its simplicity. His opponent did not seem to care, and the melee raged on unabated.

Nagisa huffed over the radio, twirling his spear with a flourish, cleaving through a flight of griffon riders before back-kicking a six-headed tyrannosaurus. "Mid-combat witticism do not yet suit you, Ikari-san!"

"Asuka gets better one-liners than us both, yeah." Shinji twisted, weaving around the other Eva's attack while the pair switched around one final time. "Think we have enough of their attention?"

Nagisa was in a better position to check the reports from the city surface, taking hits on his armor for the trouble. "I believe so, yes. Major Katsuragi reports hostages secure and they're preparing to move out. Sorhyu-san has requested that we 'get our asses down there and help'. She expressly told me not to say something smarmy or flirtatious in reply."

"Truly, she asks the impossible." Shinji folded the back of his knee around a warrior root-system's searching limbs and dropped on his haunches, cutting the limbs apart between his Eva's calves and thighs.

Nagisa just gave him a sour look and huffed. "By your leave, Ikari-san."

Shinji nodded, and as Nagisa stepped up to defend him for the vital remaining fifteen seconds, he reached up to his weapon pylons. Hanging from his shoulders were six matte green cylinders- deceptively unadorned and unimaginably destructive. The fish from early swam freely in the LCL, completely ignorant of what was to come. One hand on the keyboard, the other tapping at a mental console. Misato had given him the release codes...

He hit the confirmation key, and a new timer appeared in his awareness. "Five minutes, on my mark. Ready, Nagisa?"

The other Eva gave him a curt salute before hunkering down and charging through the seething masses. Shinji followed through the short gap, dimly aware of the enemy flowing in behind him like crashing waves. Nagisa slammed into a castle-tower, spear flashing out in quick strokes at ground level. Shinji for is part dropped to one knee and drove his hands into the foundation. His Eva's arms and spine throbbed, until the hulking edifice began to tilt.

Nagisa threw his spear aside, over Shinji's shoulder on the inside of his weapon pylon. Even as Shinji turned to watch the strike skewer the lava beast from earlier, he jettisoned both pylons and their cargo. The six canisters thumped to the 'ground', crushing infantry while they flowed over and around them all.

Caught by its height like the towers before it, the collapsing debris bucked upward, falling back to earth and Tokyo-3. Unit-01 and 03 clamped onto the piecemeal tower with hands and legs, the rock and mortar crumbling under their grasp but held sure enough to break free from the isolated gravity of the castle beast. Shinji could almost smile, but he was already plotting a touchdown site, that with any luck would not have them landing on their heads.

"Nagisa, how're we doing as bait?" The black Eva detached from the structure, rolling onto its back like a skydiver.

"Admirably so, have a look for yourself." Another window flickered up in the peripheral of Shinji's vision. Up above, the tide of creatures had begun to boil after them is a growing tether of hurled bodies, the upturned base of the tower totally forgotten save as a launching point to pursue.

Nestled in the crater, unseen and ignored, lay six N2 mines.

"Get everyone into the trucks now, soldier!"

Misato was not apart from the rush and press of bodies. No, she was right in the thick of it, hauling malnourished, trembling and terrified civilians into the waiting transports. Those tanks that could still move were already charging for the breach in the gatehouse, laden with the remnants of her forces and whatever able-bodied prisoners could hang on. The convoy grew, its tail stretching out as it started to head partway downhill. Two great impacts shook the city, rattling concrete and casting plumes of dust and grit into the sky. Half a mile away, Shinji and Nagisa cut across the ruined skyline.

Overhead, Asuka and Rei straddled the retreat, with Vespa and her Jet Alone between their shadows. The human creation spasmed fitfully on hands and knees, damaged. The new pilot laughed, fighting with her machine before rising to an unsteady crouch. The clouds of enemy flyers followed Shinji, even as the last muted strains of the orchestra dropped down low. She knew the finale Shinji had improvised, could hear it in her head as the timers ticked down. Four minutes for the 'cannons' to fire.

Shoving the last rescued captive on board, Misato let her self get hauled up by one of her soldiers, the man with precious-metal flesh. The eerie, changed ones in her scratch force dotted the convoy, keeping to themselves or trying to deal with the obvious upset. I hope we rescued some therapists, we're going to need 'em after this one.

The armored truck bumped over the broken roads and ruined buildings, hurtling towards their next objective. She leaned out the back of the truck and watched as the four Evas joined together, Nagisa helping Jet Alone stand before the machine lurched forward. It lumbered after the trailing trucks and conventional armor, throwing a jaunty wave backwards with one segmented arm.

As Jet Alone approached, the enemy had regrouped, following Shinji from on high and burying the four Evangelions in a distant swarm of psychedelic magic and impossible artillery. A towering beast of crystal swords unfurled out of nothing, cleaving through them all. The Evangelions thrashed, pulsing their AT fields, lashing out with limb and weapon, supporting each other. They were out of her hands now- no assets, no sudden miracle stashed in her back pocket. Misato scrambled for a pair of binoculars, fighting against the shift and way of the truck as it plowed through wreckage. Teeming thousands of the little goblin-things swamped Unit-02, thick enough that she could see no hint of red, white or orange armor.

And then a beast leaped off an enemy tower. Twenty feet long from nose to tail, the weasel bounded across the air itself, before landing on Asuka's head and savaging the enemy that clung to her face with gleaming silver tooth and claw. Icy-blue-silver light poured off it in inky waves, brightest around liquid metal lines that followed its muscles and fur equally close. Burly, sleek and covered in a riot of ichor and stranger fluids, the creature killed with every move and each limb. It paused, and then it looked at Misato, burning silverfire disc on its brow and everything. A disturbingly human arm hung locked between its jaws.

For a lingering second, Unit-02 sat still, and Misato heard Asuka's voice crackle out from the radio. "...Not fluffy. Not fluffy anymore."

The red Evangelion heaved itself upward, brushing the broken assault off her body with hands and wings. The weasel had vanished, leaping off the Eva and disappearing behind some wreckage while her pilots grouped up without a word. Together they charged towards the evacuation point. On the three minute mark, half her people were in position.

Leaning on her radio, Misato called down. "Kensuke- you in position?"

"Y-Yes Ma'am! Are you sure this is a good idea?!"

"Yep! Keep your eye on the ball, pilot!"

He let out a piteous moan at that, and she exhaled. The enemy hadn't followed them yet, but that might change. Switching channels, she radioed ahead- "Prepare for perimeter defense and get set!"

Makoto acknowledged her on the far end, and her truck crested the last ruined hill before their evacuation. Nearly every building in the city had been ripped out down to street level, but not the foundation. She hopped out of the vehicle before it even finished moving, and her boots slammed onto the red and white hazard striping that crisscrossed the whole city. Jet Alone all but tumbled across the warning line, staying well away from the infantry and civilians on the ground before collapsing in an awkward heap.

"Two minutes people!" Radio in hand, Misato joined the human chain that waved people through the broken doors and underground access-ways.

Things prowled in the darkness, but it was a calculated risk. They didn't have MAGI control anymore, not after all the damage had been done to the armor layers and catapult systems, but they did have a backup. Demolition teams rushed through to carefully marked pins and bracers, as wide as a man was tall and sunk into reinforced concrete sockets. Under computer control and city power, they could retract with high-torque hydraulics.

Vespa barged in on her radio, voice undistorted and full of good cheer. "You have a plan for this?"

The four Evangelions arrived at the fifty-second mark, taking up position around the single building and raising their fields high. Light seemed to fade in a corner overhead, and a pyramid of altered space locked itself around them. While her Evas covered their retreat, everyone underground was strapping in to anything and everything they could find. Pipes, gantries, exposed rebar and more.

The last prepatory notes of the Eighteen-Twelve Oveture filtered out the remaining loudspeakers and Shinji's own Eva, playing on automatic as they reached the finale. The demolition team leader dragged Misato back underground while Jet Alone did an admirable job of ducking and covering. The demoman pressed a control into her free hand while Misato raised the radio to her lips.

"Yep." She pressed the button and blew the charges, cutting through two-score support bolts and sending that one foundation plummeting straight down.

Six simultaneous non-nuclear detonations rocked the landscape, flattening the air out in a solid plane and pulse of naked force. Light transformed into heat which in turn burned the air, scouring ethereal rock and paver from the castle-beast's underside. Untold hundreds of thousands died in the blast- immolated by the unleashed energy. The blast was focused, bouncing off the bottom of the six-legged creature and paving its belly flat and cherry red in the process. The initial concussive wave hit the ground, pulverizing the last of the fortress city and grinding what remained to fine powder.

The shockwaves reflected again, over and over as they abraded away the surface layers and structures, reaching through concrete and earth until the first armor layer. A storm built between the castle's legs, heat and pressure lashing out with devastating force in every direction. Rushing for the path of least resistance, the blast swept outward, and the towering feet carved six angled voids. Raging firestorms and rock-tearing winds ripped at the outlying Hakone hillsides, while Ashinoko boiled for a second time.

All that remained of Tokyo-3 was a red-hot crater, glowing in the shadow of the monstrous fortification.

Dust rained from every curve of the Geofront roof, and the hanging train rail snapped loose, dropping to the ground with a wailing shriek of stressed metal. Kensuke barely noticed it, trembling in his seat. Just like Asuka said- visualize and embrace it. Just gotta- ease them down oh whatthefuckamIdoing!?

He couldn't sweat, sob or sniffle- not with LCL pressing in on his lungs and chest and eyes. He could feel his glasses on his nose, but he really saw through Unit-04's green-shielded eyes. There was some distant bit of trivia in his mind, about terminal velocity and how a falling building structure was not strictly-

Kensuke cut the thought off, eyes locked onto the one open infrastructure hatch. As wide as a building, they'd already cut apart the brakes- there was no way to stop the combined three basement levels in one go. He reached up with his Eva's hands, sluggish and unresponsive. His synchronization stuttered, broken and disconnected. For a split second, the vision of the Geofront interior faded to grey plug walls.

And then it was back- the building and Jet Alone already one second in freefall and dropping toward Central Dogma's pyramid. Kensuke felt his Eva drink in the power, guzzling it down through his spine and out through the center of his chest. His AT-field unfurled, not as a defensive plane, but as Asuka described- territory. It was the simplest expression, Rei and Nagisa had explained, that your rule was law. The trees around his Eva's ankles bowed, bent over by the suddenly physical presence.

It was a highly abstract thought, but Kensuke clung to it with every bit of will he could bring to bear. I say gravity is an exception- and you're going to like it!

The building crossed into his Territory, Jet Alone tumbling across that boundary a split-second later. He could feel them, a muted, tingling frission of others brushing against himself. Jet Alone was an indistinct mass of unselfs, no more aware than the trees he was standing around. And in that region of altered space, Kensuke was deity supreme.

Then his concentration broke, along with synchronization.

He had seconds, twisting in his seat, he reached out with all of those little tricks and tips the other pilots had told him, all of the bits of wisdom and vaguely mystical sounding sage advice. Wracking his mind, Kensuke groped for the connection, the strange fleeting helpfulness. A whisper there to his left, and he lunged for it with body and mind. The plug was awash in colors once more, and only a handful of seconds had passed. The field snapped back up with a muted thunderclap, shoving air out of the way and imposing himself upon spacetime. The building remnant and Jet Alone finally slowed, until it drifted to a stop, safe on the ground.

Major Katsuragi's voice coughed into the radio and through his mind. "Aida? You okay in there?"

"N-Never better."

Inured against concussive force, the petty artifice of mortals, and elemental fire itself, a solitary figure pulled itself from the wreckage. Others followed, pushing aside cracked slabs of concrete and tangled knots of broken, melting steel. Glamorous, sublime, the filth and strain of the battlefield slipped off them like water on oiled cloth, pooling around their feet without cause or conscious thought. The remains of the city were cherry red, melting in fitful slurry and throwing up gouts of bubbling steam where they crossed water channel or lake shore. The castle-fortress cast light down upon the crater, painting weak shadows across the world.

Shields and hauberk of dreaming gossamer leaped into their hands, and as one the slowly recovering warhost turned to face the new center of their campaign. The uninmpregnable bastion lasped- those planes of shackled, ancient will and limitless fonts of power faded. Behind them, the four petty behemoths rose from their shared crouch, scanning the horizon with manyfold eye.

Pagentry bolstered the dream legions, supping on the very victory their opponents had wrought. Even now, they reformed and prepared for a new distraction. Among the surviving nobility, a courtier with the curling antlers raised its hand. With a gesture upon the mad tides of the world, it bid the red and purple foes to fight to the death for their enjoyment.

Rei exhaled into the LCL, drawing in fresh hyperoyxgenated suspension. Heat had set the air around her Eva to a rolling, fluid boil. It looked more like bubbling liquid metal than a mirage, and the distant abraded hillsides were distorted into shapeless blobs of color. The paint on her armor curdled fitfully, before peeling away in long ragged flakes. The others were in similar condition. One small mercy was their battery life- averaging at a solid ten minutes of full combat action.

Scanning the crater, Rei flexed her fingers inside the plug. Threats... Manyfold, but none seemed willing to engage. "Nagisa, check the shaft, please."

Unit-03 saluted her with a wave, and Rei turned her Eva's single eye towards Shinji and Asuka. The barest hints of red and purple distinguished them, aside from their more distinct heads and Unit-02's trailing coat. The panels were shifting fitfully, morphing from their storage form to forward raked wings or flat, thin arms. Before Rei could ask what was wrong, Unit-01 stumbled, bare shoulder thumping hard into Asuka's chest.

"Watch it- Golden Boy." The redhead's face popped up on the communication system, and her uncovered eye flashed bright blue. "That shit doesn't fly anymore."

Nagisa waved from the open shaft, dragging Rei's eye from the others towards him. "Backup charges didn't go off, Ayanami-san. Looks like we'll have to collapse it manua- Ikari-kun?!"

00's head swung around, whip-fast and quick enough to witness Unit-01's sloppy haymaker. Shinji just tried to punch Asuka. She jerked hard on her control yokes, power trickled in from her batteries in response. "Something's wrong!"

"You're damn right something's wrong- and stay out of this!" Asuka hissed. She'd ducked the punch with contemptuous ease, her own arm rising up inside Shinji's elbow to defend. "You're going to lose it now, of all times? The fuck is wrong with you, Golden Boy?"

Unit-01 bristled, armor bulging fitfully against alien muscle, and Shinji's on-screen scowl was unsettling, unimpeded by the fish swimming around his chair. "Wrong with me? How about you and your entitlement complex! The second something doesn't go right to plan, you're right there- riding our ass!"

"You-what. No. You did not-" Asuka cut herself off for a moment, mouth working fitfully.

"I damn well did." Shinji cut her off, slipping out of her interception with arms raised and palms open, ready. "The second something goes wrong, the tiniest mistake and The Great Asuka-Langely Sorhyu is there, showing us how it's done and tearing a strip out of us for being mere mortals. How about that shit, Kaiserin Soryhu!"

Nagisa caught Rei's eye with a tiny nod, and they both carefully crept backwards across the blasted terrain. Ahead, Unit-01 and 02 continued to square off. Shinji's fitful synchronization hampered his close-combat brilliance, but it still showed through every stance and decisive step. Asuka tensed up like an overdrawn bowstring, shaking hard with power begging for release.

Inside her plug, Asuka balled up one fist and punched her palm. Her plugsuit creaked loudly over the hot wind and thrum of Evangelion action. "Yeah? How about you and your half-ass, weak-sauce commitment to everything. I've seen feathers with more weight than you, musclehead! If you committed even two percent of the effort you give to shoving your head up your ass, you- I don't even know what you'd be, but you sure as hell wouldn't be a fucking disappointment!"

Unit-01 clashed its forearms together, aggression pouring off it in heavy waves. "Better a disappointment than an entitled bitch!"

"Oh that is it-" Before Rei could even think to intercept, Asuka was moving.

Now the two combatants were slinging invective every breath, enraged. Rei blocked it out, focusing on the immediate tactical and strategic situation- her friends were hurting each other. Nagisa was closer to Unit-02, almost flickering into position and putting himself between the other two pilots while Rei jinked to the side and headed for Shinji. Unit-01 reared back and slammed an elbow into her Eva's side, hard enough to crack armor. The blow sent her sprawling, windmilling aside and out of position. Nagisa fared no better when Asuka intercepted him with one hand and wing, before twisting on her heel and flinging him away.

Unit-01 and 02 whirled on each other, lunging forward and crashing together and scrabbling for purchase. In some ways Shinji was better but in all other ways Asuka was faster. The two Evas grappled, fingers trying to hook onto anything firm enough to pull or control. Rei pulled herself to her feet the same second Nagisa did, and they both were out of position. Between them, Shinji and Asuka twisted, wrenching each other to and fro, until Unit-01's heel slipped over the shaft's edge and empty air.

Asuka hooked a heel behind his ankle and shoved, sending Unit-01 tumbling backwards. Shinji reached out with a chilling laugh, hooking his hand around Asuka's wrist. Together, off-balance, they slipped and fell. Rei dashed after them, hand outstretched but meters short of catching either of them, and Nagisa wasn't far behind. They leaned over the edge, a kilometer drop straight down through infested underlayer.

Her friends were in trouble- there was no question or hesitation. Rei jumped.

Nagisa followed a half-second later, and as they dropped down, they caught strobe light flashes of things squirming around them. Duty battled with concern, and Rei knew they had to seal the shaft before pursuing. Reaching out with arms and legs, she stopped her descent, tearing out long gashes in the shaft walls. Nagisa followed without a word, tearing at the structure until rock and metal began to sag under its own weight.

Shinji and Asuka had already cleared the shaft, and Rei felt her lips compress down to a thin line. The shaft had to be sealed, or it would all be for nothing.

She didn't care about the monsters between the surface and the Geofront. She didn't care about Rei and Rookie, left far behind. Not a damn was given about Misato or the refugees or anything. Some part of her realized that was pretty atypical, but the rest of her was very clear in reminding her that Ikari Shinji was everything that was ever wrong with all life on this planet.

Asuka dropped out of the shaft just after Unit-01, and her AT-field unfurled along with her wings, letting them drift down in a lazy spiral. Ikari for his part fell with all the grace of a particularly moronic rock, landing just aside from Central Dogma's pyramid. Aida was nearby, and she idly noted about half the Geofront was clearly set aside for the prisoners and rescued soldiers. So clearly, that meant Asuka could use Ikari's head for a mop on the other, unoccupied half! She drummed her fingers against the control yokes, oddly forlorn all of the sudden. Normally a good fight would get her grinning, but not today.

Unit-01 finally moved, shambling off towards the empty half of the dome. Broken clocks were right twice a day, apparently.

"So it's finally come down to this, eh Golden Boy?" Asuka's voice echoed out over the Geofront, dire and unrestrained. "How it's all about you-"

"It was never about me!" The damaged Eva shifted, and he'd replied via loudspeaker as well. "You get in my head, under my skin, Sorhyu! You're like the worst kind of rash and there's no fucking cure!"

"Physician, heal-thyself~" The leering grin was plain on her Eva's face, lack of lips aside. "I can barely stand to look at you, Ikari- just knowing you exist gives me a headache. Truly, you are the worst pilot, ever."

"Worst pilot, huh?" There was an odd, wondering tone in his voice, and it brought Asuka up short. "You might be onto something, y'know."

Unit-01's head lolled forward on unnatural hinges, and its back unfurled with the plug spiraling outward. Mangification and enhancement showed his knifehand punch through the side of the plug and rip out, and then he emerged. The golden disc on his brow burned fiery gold, and the six wire-tracery arms unfurled behind. There he stood, one foot braced up on the ragged hole, and every gesture promising total victory.

Like I give a shit.

Misato resisted the urge to yank at her hair, one hand bearing down hard on the radio. Former prisoners, civilians, soldiers and NERV personnel all stood beside her, hunkered under Kensuke's warding shadow. Ayumi was at her left, shivering fitfully and biting her lip. Everyone around had cheered when the two Evas landed, but the odd, tense silence from either cyborg drained the enthusiasm. Asuka's subsequent rant sent a ripple of unease across the thousands of people behind her.

The plastic shell creaked ominously beneath her fingers as Misato mashed the call button. "Shinj- no you're already out of your Eva. Asuka! Stand down!"

"The hell I will, Misato!" Unit-02 called out on speaker, flexing its fingers and facing down the glowing point of light atop the other Eva's shoulders. "This has been a long time coming so let's get it over with!"

Asuka moved, her Eva darting forward fast enough to leave visible distortions in the air behind her. Pressing her binoculars to her eyes, Misato's view jumped and swung like mad, until she settled on the too-bright beacon of sunfire. Shinji's whole body was wreathed in glowing gold, bleaching his own armored plugsuit white. Asuka's leading right smashed into the other Eva, knocking the inert cyborg over while Shinji almost floated over Asuka's knuckles. Technicians with remote terminals sprang up like weeds, thick with camera feeds and telemetry. Ayumi didn't seem to notice- eyes locked straight forward on the battle.

Shinji landed on the back of Asuka's hand and rode it back, unperturbed by the storm-strong winds and wildly shifting platform. He ran up her forearm, skipping handholds for sheer upright speed, and against all conventional wisdom, reared back for a punch. Leaping off her shoulder, his hardened knifehand slammed into Asuka's head, sending it snapping back on straining tendons. A glittering spray of green glass blew out from the impact- one of the Eva's camera sensors was left a sparking ruin.

Lightning quick, Asuka slammed a splayed hand over her face, aiming to catch Shinji against the sealed grill of her jaw, but he slipped aside. Then Asuka's other hand clamped down on him. Wrenching back hard, she pitched him up in a high arc. Misato dropped the binoculars at her feet, tracking the burning point of fire with bare eyes. Shinji slammed into one of the hanging civilian structures, punching through the outer facade and out of sight.

Asuka's AT field unfurled with a soul-teasing thrum, and she took to the air.

Misato raised the radio to her lips, ready to call out orders, but stopped with her mouth hanging open. White fur bristled with dried ichor, and Misato knew those jaws could bite through human bone. She didn't question how, or even why it was there. Two of her pilots were throwing down half a kilometer away, and the giant silver glowing weasel sat down next to her.

She complicated everything. He had a good thing going- steady validation from his peers, gradual maturation, an increasing handle on his crippling anxiety and inferiority complexes, growth spurts notwithstanding. But no, Sorhyu Asuka-Langley of the two-first-names had to make things difficult. Well, Shinji didn't consider himself a man of violence or aggression, but he'd picked up a few things over the years from some people far more colorful than he. Asuka's attitude was in dire need of adjusting, and Shinji had all the tools.

He picked himself up out of the wreckage, distantly noting the office cubicles and ordinary clutter. Surprisingly, almost nothing was bolted down- the city-retraction system was surprisingly smooth. Not that it mattered right then. He turned to face the shattered window, rolling his shoulders and waiting. Sorhyu'd be coming, he could set his watch to it. And lo and behold, predictable as clockwork, she appeared. Her wings beat slowly against the air, more out of belief than proper lift effect- her field was doing most of the work.

She crossed her arms over her chest, and for a second, Shinji could see her out there, instead of her Eva. That ugly, egotistical sneer- even when he towered over her, she did her best to demean him. Striding forward, Shinji drove his hand into a support column without stopping, breaking it apart with one blow and pulling a tangle of concrete and rebar free. An extra twenty kilograms of steel and artificial stone hung from his arm. He reached the edge of the hole, bending the metal bars around his wrist like a cage or strap.

"Looking real badass there, champ." Asuka's voice cracked the glass, purposefully deafening. "I get one good hit on you, and I get a fresh coat of paint."

Nagisa was right- mid-battle banter wasn't his strong suit. He was much better at killing monsters.

Shinji leaped onto Asuka's face- again, sending them both into a furious grapple. They twisted in midair, plowing into other hanging structures by turns. From the ground, Misato couldn't see the details, other than the searing bright flashes and flares of Shinji's corona, punctuating his own counterattack. There was something wrong about a person fighting an Eva and not losing, but she had other problems right then. Kensuke called out a warning, after Asuka smashed her Eva into the first damaged building in an effort to scrape Shinji off her face.

It worked better than anyone expected, and she reached out with her wings to rip the rest of the building apart with Shinji still inside. Hoisting several basement levels, a lobby and several office floors in her arms, Asuka spun and flung her arms out, throwing the wreckage to the ground, not even a hundred meters away from Misato and the others. The half-building bounced even as the concrete shattered in a rising plume of deadly hunks. The pieces flew hundreds of meters, wreathed by trailing clouds of sharp grit.

The civilians and soldiers on their side of the Geofront recoiled, panic spiking free and high as the wreckage sailed through the air. Those who had joined to watch the fight were struck numb for a second, before fear got them moving. Misato whirled in place, before grabbing a uniformed body and ordering him to get the civilians organized and behind cover. He dashed off with a nod, while the growing press of humanity gave the weasel a wide berth, leaving her and Ayumi unaffected. She still wasn't entirely sure if the weasel was real, but it wasn't attacking...

The incoming debris forced her to focus back on the battle. Kensuke brought his own AT-field up, carving a furrow into the soil and felling a handful of trees in the process. The debris pelted the barrier, sliding off the angled surface while those on the ground coughed and braced against the cloudy haze.

Through the billowing haze, familiar faces cut through the sudden rush. Generals Ishida and Kirishima approached, disheveled and filthy. "K-katsuragi! What in-"

Right, they noticed the weasel too, acting oddly considerate and hardly imposing at all. Misato decided that keeping the admittedly handsome beast out of her mind seemed to be the best bet, like a bell that didn't ring.

Movement out the corner of her eye made her turn- "Ayumi!"

She reached out for the girl, but she was already scrambling forward, toward the battle. For a fleeting moment, Misato thought Kensuke's field would stop her, but a second after she slammed into it, the barrier faltered with a crackle. Kensuke tried to give chase, but Asuka had landed in the crater she made, hands throwing up clods of earth and tree in pursuit of her target.

Misato's hand bore down on the radio, and it finally shattered beneath her fingers. She spoke anyway, needing to get the words out. "Shinji, Asuka- you better not kill each other. I can't stand for that."

Rubble spilled out of Unit-00 and 03 tumbled out of the single opening in the Geofront, hanging onto the shaft edge and covered in ichor.

Strictly speaking, Sorhyu had been absolutely correct. If she managed to get a single decisive hit on him, he'd be maimed with absolute certainty. Shinji was pretty sure he could survive anything that didn't kill him instantly. He was in no hurry to prove that though. Deplorable personality aside, she as every bit as good as she thought she was, and he only had to fail once.

He could not take hits, and he could not deflect them- not really. He made a fair show of turning aside her punches with his magically reinforced hands, but evasion was the only viable strategy. Stranded between her feet, Shinji ducked, dipped and weaved through the slumping walls, around her raining hammerblows. One fist, two, four. She pounded and clawed at the building wreckage, scooping out huge handfuls with every blow. The whole time, he heard Allegro con Fuoco playing in the back of his mind. A finger scraped against his backside, and he barely got out of the way in time to avoid her follow-up snatch and grab.

Defense wouldn't win this fight though. Spending fleeting seconds, he bided what little time he could afford until Asuka reared back. Telegraphing, broadcasting more like it, he could read her intention like it was printed in bold a thousand meters high. Whirling in place, his own corona bright enough to cast the Eva's shadow back on the Geofront ceiling, he brought his fist back.

On some unspoken cue, they swung. Asuka's arm launching forward fast enough for her fist and elbow to break the sound barrier one after the other. His own strike sailed straight and true, improvised cestus slamming dead on into the center of Asuka's fist. The cestus shattered, one piece of rebar flying out to cut open his brow. He felt his own arm crack- from his fingers all the way to his shoulder.

Unit-02's hand exploded.

Armor peeled away in ragged rings, pale flesh rippled, blotching heavily with citrine blood before giving way in great yawning rents. Too-human bone and cybernetic socket fell free as Eva's hand seemed to dissolve under the impact. It didn't stop her. She rolled with the impact and swung down with her other arm.

She was past words. Righteous fury sang in her veins, even as she sent her remaining fist hurtling down. Air thickened beneath the falling Evangelion knuckles, building a contrail backlit by Shinji's corona before her eyes. She'd be finally rid of the absurd-annoying-friend-ally-rival-spectacular-opponent.

Heaving on a stomach empty of bile, Ayumi scrambled over rubble and tearing stalks of rebar. She had a second, clambering the broken shell of a wrecked office suite and landing hard. She sprained an ankle in the same move that pitched her forward across the last five feet, into Shinij's chest. Her weight did nothing to move him, but the rage on his face vanished all the same. His face went owlishly blank as he glanced down at her.

The red Evangelion's fist slammed into the ground, and trees for fifty meters shattered.

"Holy shit." Asuka exhaled into the LCL. Everything she had been thinking two seconds ago vanished, and she was only vaugely aware of her flat tone of abject horror. "I almost murdered someone."

Surrounded by shining sunfire, Shinji blinked once, twice. Ayumi shuddered in his arms, and the wrongness clicked into place with a disturbing finality. He cut his eyes to the left, and his view was consumed utterly by Unit 02's trembling fist. He glanced back at his girlfriend- the one he ostensibly had been trying to rescue.

The incongruity clung to his thoughts, but he still moved, scooping her up in one arm, his other hanging limply at his side. "We- What just happened?"

The Evangelion shifted, listing fitfully before its head rolled forward and the plug emerged. Asuka tumbled out, clearing her lungs of LCL and sliding off the cyborg's shoulder into the crater.

She was muttering, and for a second, Shinji thought she was talking to him. "The fuck was that. The fuck was that."

Rei and Nagisa had finally made their way down from the ceiling, having abandoned their own Evas and joined up with Misato. Shinji looked up at the crater edge- the one Asuka made. His friends were there, allies. Asuka was standing a few steps away, and Ayumi shivered in his embrace, hard enough to jostle his broken bones.

Ayumi was talking to herself too, almost too quiet to hear, but Shinji did. "can'tdothiscan'tdothiscan'tdothis."

Twenty minutes didn't sound like a long time, but having multiple compound fractures across one whole limb tended to telescope one's perceptions. Shinji had set and splinted them himself, after pinching the gash on his head shut. The extremely potent painkillers in one first-aid kit took the edge off afterwords. The hurts and wounds of everyone else would take more time to sort. Misato assured him that they had enough medics to stabilize everyone, and she gently shoved him into a seat so he could rest. Ayumi hadn't pulled away, but she still trembled, visibly shaken and sobbing quietly.

Asuka leaned on Rei, oddly disoriented and off balance. Her hair was matted by dried LCL, standing up in odd tufts that somehow competed with her headset. She'd given him the most awful, honest look of hurt, and Shinji knew he looked the same. Neither of them said anything, bu they both knew they were going to have to talk, later. Misato, the rest of NERV's command staff and Mari joined him, setting up an impromptu command center around the pilots. Kaworu and Kensuke had taken on the job of cleaning up, carefully hauling the other Evas into their cages and helping patch up the hole in the ceiling.

With the battle over, NERV, the JSSDF and the rescued civilians got down to business of taking care of each other.

"Can'tdothiscan'tdothiscan'tdothis-" Ayumi shuddered harder, like leaves and branches in a hurricane. Shinji exhaled, feeling the sting of bruises, cracked bones and worse. His arm still hurt, throbbed really, but he could still hug the brown-haired teenager. Didn't she turn eighteen not long ago? During. All of this?

He hadn't focused too much on it but their new ally approached, impossibly lithe and graceful. Ermine or snow weasels were particularly adorable. Less so when they were nearly twenty feet long. Even on all fours, its massive head was level with the center of his chest. Still, it moved with an easy confidence, almost a swagger, making a point to brush and curve around most anything remotely female and attractive. Curling around Rei and Asuka, the redhead was caught between perfunctory indignation and unabashed delight as it brushed against her like a cat, neatly slotting the curve of its side against her back and shoulders.

Civilians and soldiers gave the creature a wide berth, and Shinji could only think about how normal it looked. Everything else the enemy made was wild and lurid, fantastic in a riot of colors and impressions. This was a simple earth creature writ large, albiet one with coal-black, unmistakably intelligent eyes... And somehow overlaying the fur were strange, silvery metalic bands and patterns. Ayumi shivered harder, but forced her eyes up and saw the white fur, before choking.

"You're real- and not one of them?" She coughed, eyes wide.

The weasel, being a weasel, didn't answer with words. Instead, its form shifted. Wreathed in a strange halo of lustrous silvers and glimmering whorls of stark moonlight. Fur and fang gave way to dark, earthy skin and midnight blue hair. A rough-made leather vest and equally sturdy pants hung from broad shoulders and lean muscle. The silver markings persisted, looking more like tattoos now. Bright brown eyes peeked past a choppy fringe, and he smoothed his hair back with a cheerful, scoundrel grin.

And there, bold as anything on his brow was a gleaming silver disc.

"Oh." Shinji found himself muttering. "Well that explains everything."

Their location was secret. The number who knew of it was less than twenty. Four of that group were in Tokyo-3, and the rest of the world was incommunicado.

One by one, five black obelisks appeared within a darkened room before giving way to a table lit from within. Four terrifyingly powerful men drank depressingly distasteful instant coffee, haggard and worn. One by one, they turned to the head of the table. France, England, Russia, America.

England's voice trembled, lost and forlorn. "Seele-OMEGA, what do we do?"

Brilliant, opulent, the greatest and wisest of their number idly stroked the most handsome of white-jewel tigers with long, sensual fingers. Glowing skin of the finest alabaster, elegant and a joy to behold, wisdom mixed with grace issued from every pore or gesture. Truly, they were blessed with such majesty and prowess, humbled at the crown of feathered hair and carmine lips.

The tiger let out a percussive, throaty rumble, and the committee's shining star- their hope at the end of all times and salvation- graced them all with an obsidian smile.