Of Steel

Chapter 6

Disclaimer: I do not own Evangelion

/\/\/\/\

She woke beneath an unfamiliar ceiling. She dreamed of her parents for the first time in years. She didn't remember what they looked like but she could not forget the warmth she forever associated with them. She never told about the dreams. There were things they simply did not tell each other. She was okay with that unspoken rule. She didn't want to share her parents with anyone.

She dressed in unfamiliar clothes and ate unfamiliar food in an unfamiliar house. There was an unfamiliar man there but he stayed away and did not do anything besides talk at her.

She left the unfamiliar house and followed other people wearing her unfamiliar clothes. She wasn't scared of being alone. Self-sufficiency was an early lesson the world taught her. She could survive on her own. When she wasn't on her own it was because she chose not to be.

She followed the unfamiliar clothes people to a building on a hill. They talked and smiled and laughed as they entered its gates. She kept her defenses on passive, outwardly relaxed and inconspicuous but searching for anything that ran counter to the flow around her.

Something touched her guard: a thin boy was standing by the gate, watching her. He didn't look physically intimidating and she felt assured she could handle him. He waved and started towards her through the thinning crowd. He stepped close and she tensed.

"Can we talk for a minute?" the thin boy asked.

He was tensed too, but it was a nervous tension, a stressed anxiety, not a combative readiness. She realized he was untrained. The threat level fell a few notches.

She followed him to a tall tree outside the walled gate of the building, away from the other unfamiliar people. He turned and faced her. He had very dark blue eyes, she noticed. She thought it was unusual, but not unwelcome.

"Well, I… I just…" He swallowed hard. He sounded excited and guilty and mortified. He blushed a dark red. "About yesterday… Are you okay? With, with what happened?"

She peered at him. What happened yesterday? What was he talking about? How did this boy know her?

The thin boy laughed once in discomfort, then glanced away. "Sorry. I'm not really… I'm not sure how to, um, act after yesterday."

"Act however you want," she told him. It was no concern of hers.

He hesitated, fidgeting from foot to foot. She looked down with a start and found his hand searching out her own. His fingertips slid over hers and he weakly held her. He was soft and warm.

She looked back up to him preparing a refusal when he lurched towards her, slipping past her defenses to awkwardly touch his lips to hers.

He was too close. She couldn't breathe. She recoiled away from him and lashed a hand out, striking him on the chin. She heard the sharp snap of teeth striking together. She hit him again on the cheek, then the mouth, then the nose. Bright blood shot out.

The thin boy fell and she used her feet. He was curled into a ball, shielding his head. Her foot bent one of his fingers back at a grotesque angle.

There was noise on her left. She looked and found a small crowd of people in the unfamiliar clothes staring and pointing at her. She felt naked and alone. She didn't know where she was. The thin boy was making wheezing sounds.

She ran. She ran on legs too short to be fast. Musashi was at her side, angry and silent. Asari was ahead of her, pulling her hand with gentle urgency. He had to hold so tight it mushed her fingers together. He had to hold so tight because her hand was slippery with blood.

The children led her through the unfamiliar city, past people and places that became alien blurs of color and sound. She stumbled and tripped and hit the blurred people and places but did not stop. Asari pulled her on, mercilessly calm. Musashi guided her path. She ran.

And then she was in the unfamiliar house she woke up in. She fell to her hands and knees, panting, eyes unfocused, and the terror and confusion rushed from her in a desperate stinging surge. Her strength vanished and she crumpled, wanting nothing but to sleep again, to dream of her invisible parents forever and escape this strange, blurry, horrible world.

Someone was near her but she was too tired to be alert. She waited for whatever would happen and accepted her weakness. She hoped Asari and Musashi wouldn't see.

"Kirishima."

Damn it, Asari. Just say my name.

"Kirishima."

"Kirishima."

She looked up. Hiroshi was above her, gripping her shoulders, peering at her closely. He squeezed and she winced.

"Get a hold of yourself."

She was in their apartment. The front hall was dimly lit by the kitchen to her left. Mana searched the dark, finding her clothes disheveled and dirty. Scrapes nipped her arms and legs. Her knuckles were purple. There was red splattered on her hands and shoes. A small puddle of vomit swam in putrid stagnation at her side.

She regained control of her breathing and sat up. Hiroshi pulled away, staring at her the whole time. He was tensed, down before her on one knee.

The morning trickled back in pieces. A tall tree. Shinji's eyes. The middle school's gate. Students walking. Running through the city. Shinji's slender hand. Stumbling on bloody shoes. Shinji's eyes. Shinji bleeding on the dusty ground. Traffic lights. Her palm smashing up against Shinji's jaw. Shinji's blushing face. Shinji's eyes.

Mana's stomach twisted and she doubled over. She covered her mouth. "Oh, no," she managed.

"What did you do?" Hiroshi demanded.

She remembered she wasn't alone. Her handler was deadly calm, waiting for her to explain herself. She tried to gather her defenses. She became acutely aware at how much power he wielded over her. She beat back the cringe tickling her spine.

"What did you do?" he repeated.

"I… I don't know. I—"

"Whose blood is this?"

He would find out soon enough. If not from the military eyes on her every movement than the ones from NERV. Mana fought against a growing sense of absolute panic.

"… Shinji Ikari's." And because she knew she could not hide, she told. A cold acceptance settled over her as the memories righted themselves and the narrative concluded. She felt tired and old.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" Hiroshi said, darkly calm. "How much you've compromised? We never should have trusted you with anything."

Mana kept her head bowed. Everything was numb.

For an agonizing half-minute Hiroshi weighed his options. He sighed. "We should pull you out."

"Wait," she blurted.

Scrapping her mission now meant they'd most likely activate a last-ditch backup plan: She'd "die" in the scenario and her "cousin" Asari would transfer in and gain access to Shinji through that familial connection as a source of comfort, reinforcing her hold over him while forging a new bond.

"I can… I can fix this," she said.

She couldn't leave things like this. She couldn't lose the path to feeling normal that she found for them, even if they were both deluding themselves. Everyone deluded themselves.

"I can fix this," Mana said again.

"Like hell," Hiroshi said.

She never heard him curse before. She felt ill, her life spiraling out of her grip. She was a child again.

Asari? Musashi? Where are you?

"You assaulted a pilot," he went on. "There's no 'fixing' this. Katsuragi has to have agents after you already. They're probably headed here. It's only a matter of time before this whole thing unravels completely. We need to pull you out now."

He straightened and turned from her, pulling a phone from his back pocket. Mana gazed up at him. He seemed impossibly tall and wide, filling up the entire hallway. Then he began talking, angry rumbles from his throat that shook the world.

The floor shifted beneath her and Mana clutched a hand over her mouth again. She forced her insides back in place behind gritted teeth.

Damn it. Damn it.

"Get up," Hiroshi ordered, tucking the phone away. "We have confirmation. NERV agents are out and heading here. They've pulled files on us. Your extraction team is en route."

"What… what about Shinji? Will… Asari's being activated, right?"

"That's none of your concern anymore." He waited for her to rise and lost patience. He grabbed an arm and hauled her to her feet, taking care to avoid the vomit. "Extraction point is 3-C. Go out the back and—"

Mana bolted for the front door and crashed into it, fumbling for the lock. She heard the electronic switch open and reached for the handle. Hiroshi caught her hand at the wrist and pulled back. Mana threw a sloppy elbow at him, catching his bottom two ribs. He grunted and stepped off-balance. She pivoted out of his grip and brought a heel down on his kneecap. He fell and she was out the door.

"Kirishima!"

She ran and did not look back.

/\/\/\/\

The moon hung between a pair of towering skyscrapers. Mana recognized them as NERV owned and operated storage facilities for city defense. During an attack their façades would peel back and heavy artillery would rise to repel invaders.

She imagined they wouldn't prove too much trouble for a concerted effort from the army. At worst the JSSDF would deploy N2 mines and evaporate the entire city and upper shell of the Geofront. Did that make them more dangerous than Angels? Maybe it just made them worse. Angels didn't kill each other. She doubted they lied to each other, either.

Or beat each other senseless, Mana thought. She was glad she couldn't remember Shinji's face after she hit him. She didn't want to see the betrayal.

She travelled the city with the fear of capture at her back. Covert army checkpoints had to be up around Tokyo-3, blocking escape. NERV was scouring the city. She was trapped.

Mana avoided the surveillance points, as well as NERV's security posts she memorized prior to the mission. There were gaps like any system and she exploited them to stay within its boundaries but out of its reach. She swam carefully through the net alone in the dark city.

She finally stopped at a playground on the east side of the city. Only small circles of light from tall lamps lining the pathway of the park showed the way. Mana slipped between them behind trees and bushes, and jumped over a thin creek to reach a public restroom.

It was dark and empty. She ran a faucet, staring at her dim reflection in the mirror above the sink. Dirt and dried blood streaked over her skin. Her hair was mussed and dirty. Her eyes were weak jade.

The sink filled with water and Mana ducked her face into it. She opened her eyes, watching the blood and grime muddy the water until she couldn't see anything. She gripped the edges of the sink and held until her lungs burned.

She pulled back and gasped for breath. She bent over the sink, panting. Mana ordered composure back into place.

She drained the sink and refilled it. She took her shoes off and scrubbed them white. She slipped off her uniform and started washing it.

Mana stood alone in the dark public restroom in her underwear as her clothes dried. She found the mirror and saw the strange girl staring back at her.

Dawn peeked over the spine of mountains curled around the city. Her clothes were dry enough and Mana redressed. The uniform was damp and heavy, her shoes were soggy and squeaked when she moved. Her wet hair clung to her head. It was good enough.

She pulled her phone out. They'd be able to track it but she had no choice. Mana sent a short message, then walked out of the restroom into the morning sun.

This was her last mission.

/\/\/\/\

She asked him to meet her where she said she had to pay him back for dinner on their first date.

Mana waited in the alley by the game shop, crouched low by a colorful placard of a cartoon girl wearing an armored bikini. She waited twenty minutes before she saw Shinji hobble into the shopping arcade, weaving through a crowd that eyed him with pity and suspicion and confusion.

He was looking up at the store facades, trying to remember where the game shop was. She watched him meander towards her, wait before the shop's front, then look around self-consciously and spot her behind the placard. She stood.

His entire body tensed. He looked scared and that hurt Mana more than anything.

"Hi, Shinji," she said, slowly approaching him. She hid her bruised knuckles behind her back. "I was worried you wouldn't show up."

His face was battered, butterfly bandages on his chin, above his left eye and on his right cheek. His nose was a dark purplish lump. His left forearm was wrapped in gauze. Two of his fingers were in braces.

Mana observed her handiwork. Sloppy, she reflexively thought. I was just lashing out. No form, no reasoning to the blows. She restrained a bitter smile. Oh, and it hurt him, too. I just realized that. God, how sick am I?

"How are you?" she asked. He didn't answer.

"Why did you want to see me?"

"Why did you come?"

"… I don't know," he admitted. He couldn't look at her.

Mana ran through possible avenues of attack to penetrate his defenses, and possible reactions. She ignored the cruelty of viewing him as nothing but an objective again and focused on what she could do to win, one more time.

Tell him I like him again. Tell him I love him. Beg for forgiveness. Hurt myself. Kiss him. Let him hit me. Let him fuck me. Tell him the truth. Tell him the truth.

"Ms. Ritsuko…" Shinji began, then stopped. He ran a hand over his bandaged forearm. "I was given something. Pills. So it doesn't hurt. Too much."

"Good," Mana said. She inched a step forward and he inched a step backwards.

"… Are you okay now? Are you… Are you asleep or awake?"

"Awake," she managed to get out.

He nodded once to himself. "Okay."

I am awake now, Mana told herself. It's reality that's become a nightmare. No. Reality was always a nightmare.

The rest of the shopping arcade faded into a dull oblivious hum around them.

"I'm glad I could see you today," she said. "Sometimes, it, it feels like I've known you for a real long time. I guess because a lot's happened since we met, huh? Too much and not enough." She tried to smile and her body rebelled. "There was a lot we didn't get to do together. I wasn't… I didn't do what I should have and now…"

Shinji looked at her, suddenly desperate. "I'm sorry," he told her.

Mana stared at him blankly. "What?"

"I shouldn't have…" His brow trembled and he shook. "I'm sorry for… for kissing you."

Was he that desperate for affection? That he'd accept the blame to resolve the situation? Did he want to go back to how they were that badly?

How many times would I have to hurt you before you wouldn't want to stay with me? she thought. How many betrayals does saying 'I like you' earn me?

She manipulated the situation to her benefit again. She made him afraid of another abandonment and then apologize for getting beaten. She still saw him as a mission objective to be completed.

Then why did she run away from Hiroshi? Why did she escape the eyes of NERV and the military, and spend all night in a dirty public bathroom? Why did she want to see him again today?

Mana strode towards him and before he could do more than look scared she hugged him.

She closed her eyes and squeezed. She could feel his rapid heartbeat, his thin arms pressed under hers, the smooth skin of his neck against her cheek, the hair on the back of his head tickling her nose. He smelled like blood and soap and she did not hate it.

She wanted to remember the feeling of normalcy within abnormality. Of being close to a boy her age and for a moment forgetting half the world was dead, and her parents were gone, and her childhood was lost, and his childhood was lost, and what awaited her after failure, and that the military would most likely have to kill him someday, and the very real possibility that they could all be dead tomorrow.

Mana never wished for a better world because she never knew a better world. She was born to parents she had no clear recollection of, survived a childhood of abandonment on dirty streets, and was groomed to be a living weapon.

She remembered before the army found them she and Asari and Musashi would pretend and live out fantasies inside empty warehouses and dead apartments and in dark alleys. She and Asari would be husband and wife and Musashi was their unruly child because Musashi refused to be married.

Sometimes they were explorers, spelunking ancient shopping arcades. Sometimes they were pioneers, mapping alien forests. Sometimes they were pirates, sneaking into army depots and refugee camps to loot food storerooms. But no matter what they told themselves they were doing, she and Asari were always married and Musashi was always their unruly child.

Mana no longer remembered if they ever had fun pretending. It was a way to make them feel closer than they were, forging some arbitrary and invisible bond to combat the terror and loneliness of their existences. And sometimes it worked.

It was also a way to kill time. Sleeping only lasted so long. It was easier to live pretending they were happy.

"Mana…?" Shinji whispered.

Could she have been happy with Shinji Ikari? She told him he was cute, but truthfully she had no clue if he was. Physical appearances to her were dissected to a combat awareness: how this one moved, how that one gestured, how close they got to her. All she saw were potential threats and all she thought was how to neutralize them.

Other students said he was brave, but to Mana he was simply doing what he needed to do. He had a use and NERV utilized him for it. To her, staring down death, even if death was a building-sized monster, was not brave: it was necessity. Even risking your life to save a comrade was not brave. Rescuing civilians, rescuing the city, rescuing the world were all mission objectives to be completed without fanfare. The dull satisfaction of accomplishing one's duty was more than enough.

Shinji was a good cook. Vending machines were better cooks than the military.

Shinji let himself grow close to her without assessing the dangers, physical and emotional. He was weak, ill-suited for serious combat, and relied on others to initiate and advance. He was passive, lacking the will to actively pursue anything.

Shinji treated her with deference and respect. It proved he was desperate for affection and would behave submissively towards anyone doling it out. It proved he could not discern another's true intentions.

It all proved Mana could never be happy with anyone.

Mana drew back slowly, letting her hands trail down his arms. She sought out his hands and he let her find them. She felt the cold metal braces on his fingers.

"I'm sorry for hurting you," she said. She kept her eyes down. Her lips tugged upwards with a humorless smile. "But I guess… I…" She shook her head. "I don't have any excuses."

Shinji stayed quiet. His hands were limp in hers.

"I'm not the kind of person you think I am. I'm not…" She swallowed thickly. "I'm…" A liar. A fake. A fraud. A freak. A puppet. A programmed machine used for deception and death. Your girlfriend of broken steel.

"You're Mana, right?"

She stared at him and despair shot through her. Being with him, seeing what a normal teenage existence entailed made her realize how utterly broken she really was.

I'm supposed to cry now, right? she thought. This is a situation where I should, right? Where it's okay to?

She couldn't remember the last time she cried, the last time she failed to cope with the world as it was and let her misery and frustration take over. She was trained not to. She was trained to see an objective, complete it, and await the next one, suffocating her humanity to achieve the goal.

I don't know who I am, she thought.

Orphan, soldier, pilot, spy, girlfriend; they were all titles and identities forced on her by others. Somewhere she lost the ability to define herself on her own terms.

Tell him the truth.

She kept her mouth shut. It would hurt him again. The first girl to say she liked him was ordered to tell him that. She was ordered to approach him, talk to him, be nice to him, kiss him. She was ordered to redefine herself through him, so he would redefine himself through her.

She looked at his face, memorizing its curves and shades and imperfections. The bruises and cuts she caused. His nose would heal crooked. The gash on his lower lip would leave a scar. He would remember her every time he looked in a mirror. He would remember how she betrayed him and he would wonder why and he would wonder what was real and what was a lie.

All I do, she thought, all I'd ever do, is lie to you. With everything I'd do and say. Just like everyone else around you.

And she was lying to herself by pretending she was normal with him.

She tried to forget her past. And her past made sure she couldn't. Suppressing it was like tensing a muscle: she couldn't keep it taut forever. She was too tired to try anymore.

Shinji violated her new reality of control and power when he kissed her, forcing action and reaction on her, dictating her normal, like when she was a child. After tasting freedom how else could she respond? She had no choice but to lash out and reject domination.

She didn't want to think of Shinji like that. He wasn't the viciously superficial Rika or the manipulatively composed Hiroshi. He wasn't a faceless operative or an indifferent doctor or a military officer sweeping his eye over her like she was a trained animal.

And he wasn't just a mission objective. He couldn't be. She needed him to be more. She wanted him to be more. She wanted to be more for him.

"I'm sorry," she told him again, and wasn't sure what she was apologizing for anymore.

Movement behind him caught her defensive eye and she stepped back from Shinji, peering over his shoulder. Asuka was stalking across the arcade glaring death at her.

"Get back," she hissed at Mana.

The courtyard came into sharp focus. Section agents were oozing out of the shadows, holding hands to their ears, slipping through the flow of traffic towards them. Dark glasses flashed in the morning sun.

Mana looked back to Shinji, searching out his eyes. He was turned away from her, following her gaze to Asuka.

Not yet, Mana panicked. She reached out to touch his shoulder, to find that break in her armor one more time. I'm not ready to give this up. I don't want to.

Asuka was nearly on them. Her fists were tight. Her eyes slashed past Shinji to Mana. She wondered if she could take the redhead in a fight.

The agents were closing. One was suddenly looming beside her.

Mana dodged on instinct and ran. She bent low to the ground, hiding under the heads and shoulders of the crowd, darting towards the arcade's west exit. She felt hazy and light. Everything was floating around her, the people turned to blank obstacles for her escape, the storefronts became walls of a maze directing her path.

Two agents appeared at the arcade's exit gates and she swerved to the left, wall-kicking over a fence, pausing at the top to glance over her shoulder. Shinji was trying to stop Asuka from following her, holding his hands up and talking. Asuka was glaring at him with a furious jumble of emotions.

Look at me, Mana pleaded with Shinji. Just one more time. Look at me like I'm normal one more time.

Shinji remained before Asuka, even as agents swarmed around them, parting the arcade's current. Asuka's eyes darted up, found her, and held steadily in placid fury. Shinji continued to talk to her.

The last thing Mana saw was the back of his head before agents closed in like curtains, shutting him off from the rest of the world.

Her defenses pricked up. One of the Section men was below her, reaching a meaty hand out for her ankle. Mana slipped through his fingers and hurdled the fence, landing hard on the other side. She ran again, darting through empty, faceless civilians, the world a blur of color and sound as her body moved on its own.

Where am I going? she thought distantly. Where can I go?

Away. Away from here, away from her failed final mission, away from the only person in the world who dared make her feel like she was a real part of humanity.

A thick arm flashed across her vision and curled around her neck. She was yanked off her feet and pulled into a nearby van. There were hands on her shoulders and arms, keeping her in place. The van doors shut.

It was cold and dark. She smelled oil and sweat. She could not see the men that held her with iron hands. She strained to see through the tinted wire mesh windows on the van door, catching distant flashes of sunlit people and places. The shopping arcade flew by out of reach. She could not see Shinji.

Mana relaxed and was pulled deeper into the van. She bowed her head. The invisible men placed her on a slim bench against the wall, jumping and rumbling with the road. Hands stayed on her shoulders. Someone was talking, but she could not decipher the words. She stared down at the dark stained floor and fell into a blank abyss. Musashi's and Asari's tiny hands reached out for her but she recoiled away from them and fell alone, down into the black infinite chasm.

Goodbye, Shinji.

She shut her eyes.

Goodbye.

/\/\/\/\

Of Steel

End

Author notes: Sigh. Will I ever write something for Mana that doesn't end with her emotionally shattered? Chasing happiness and normalcy is fairly popular in Eva. Mana tried, and failed, but she tried. And she began to accept that failure, which is a step up on the rest of the cast.

I always thought Mana had potential as a more serious character. I'm glad many of you seem to agree. I hope I at least offered a slightly new angle to her expected storyline. Thanks for reading my drivel.

Now to wash away a fraction of the disappointment for another lame ending of mine, it's time for some fan service.

OMAKE of Dreams

Shinji finished playing the cello for her. Over the years she learned to appreciate the instrument, and music in general. It became such an important aspect of his life she had to at least try.

Mana knew he was good based on nothing but technical proficiency. Others praised his skill as well, although Soryu was as dismissive as ever. It was an expected response by now, as was Shinji's poorly hidden hurt feelings. Mana realized it was Soryu's perverse way of flirting, trying to spur some kind of reaction from him. Shinji was oblivious to her intent. Mana wanted to keep it that way.

"Good job," she told him referring to the piece, putting everything else out of her mind.

"Thanks." Shinji was reluctant to accept praise. "I'm still working the bugs out of it. Composing is a lot tougher than just playing." He wasn't fishing for compliments; he was stating fact.

Mana was on the floor before his chair. Since the first time he played for her it was their unspoken configuration for his short recitals. She refused offered chairs, or to practice in another room. She liked watching him above her, filling her sight, pushing away the rest of the world as he played. It felt like she was in a hazy dream.

"I'm sure your teacher could help you if you played it for him," Mana said. "I'm as dense as a brick wall."

Shinji colored slightly and glanced away. "I don't want anyone else to hear it. Not yet at least. This is just for you."

The dream got hazier. "Such a romantic," she teased. Mana moved beside him, leaning against his leg. She rested her head on his knee. "I feel like I'm in a dream with you," she told him with a smile. "But it's a good dream. I haven't had a good dream since…" Mana paused in thought. "I can't remember when."

She felt him tense. "I want you to have good dreams," he said. "You deserve to have them."

She knew what she deserved.

"Why are you still with me?" she asked quietly. "After everything?"

Shinji was quiet for a moment. "Because I like you. Because you're fun, and nice, and kind, and generous, and understanding." He paused to blush. "And because you're very pretty."

Even now he was still so easily embarrassed.

He recovered. "I like you because you're a good person." He smiled. "Because you're Mana."

She knew he may never forgive her completely, or he may lose his feelings for her one day, but for now this was enough. For now she knew who she was.

She smiled up at him. "I'm Mana."