Last time on…

EVANGELION: AGE OF MARVELS

Sakura and her companions, Toji, Rei, Mana Kirishima and Maya Ibuki, were surrounded in the night and taken captive by a horde of gamma mutants known as Hulkoids, who forced them to fight for their survival in a gladiatorial arena. Thanks in large part to Maya's strength and Mana's savagery, they managed to survive their first bout, after which they were separated. Toji found himself in a cell with Daniel Connors, the grandson of Curtis Connors, aka the Lizard, who rules a large population of lizard mutants that were forced to travel through Hulkoid territory to escape attacks on their homeland in the Southeast. Sharing the cell with Daniel was a mysterious old man who introduced himself as Patch, and told Toji of the new geography of the Americas- a land carved up between monsters and mutant overlords, with large swathes of land under the control of the Hulkoids, Lizardfolk, and a vast automated factory constructed by the malevolent A.I., Ultron.

Meanwhile, the girls met Jennifer Walters, now permanently trapped in her She-Hulk form for fear that she will die of old age if she revers to her human shape. Walters was present during the destruction of New York in the aftermath of Second Impact- massive tidal waves destroyed the city and much of the East Coast, but the worst came when Doctor Strange's enchantments broke under a combined assault- the "mystic shockwave" that followed second impact on one side, and an incursion from Dormammu's Dark Dimension on the other. Strange's Sanctum was effectively broken, and supernatural creatures took over the Northeastern United States, held in check by the remaining magic and the constant presence of Ultron, who has suddenly expanded and appears to be building something…

After a fitful night in their cells, Sakura's team, along with She-Hulk, Daniel, and Patch, were forced into the arena for another battle. While the others fought, Sakura undermined the Leader's ability to suppress their powers. Rei created a distraction, and Walters was able to kill the Leader and take his place as the ruler of the Hulkoids.

Across the ocean, Ritsuko began dealing with suspicion relating to her involvement with the disappearances of Rei, the clone of Natalie Summers, and Mana, and Maya's absence from work was noted. Fuyutsuki used the Jet Alone demonstration as an excuse to get her alone, and reveal certain secrets about the Eva program and Second Impact, to prepare Ritsuko should Asuka seek her out, inquiring about the death of her mother. When we last saw her, Ritsuko was on her way to the Jet Alone exhibition…


"GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE"


Hikari stepped out of the locker room, and froze. The other girls piling out along with her did the same, and murmurs broke out at once. Miss Katsuragi was in the gym, and she had traded her usual conservative pantsuit for a compression-fit shirt and sweat pants, and her hair was pulled up in a tight ponytail that left a few loose flyers of hair hanging down to frame her face. She stood cocked to one side, her right fist on her hip, while in her other hand, she grasped a compound bow. Lined up along the far side of the gymnasium were archery butts, complete with bulls-eye targets. Hikari scratched her head. Asuka was the first to say something.

"What is this?" she demanded.

"Archery practice."

"We've never done that before."

"You're doing it now. Each of you take a bow from the rack, and line up. There will be no horseplay, am I understood?"

Asuka put her fists on her hips. "You are teaching this class?"

Miss Katsuragi didn't answer her. Instead, she neatly drew an arrow from the quiver on her back, spun, drew it, and loosed in a single, smooth motion, all without breaking Asuka's gaze. The arrow thrummed into the target, standing perfectly in the center of the bull's-eye. A gasp rolled through the class, and Hikari nodded, grinning. Asuka huffed and headed for the rack of bows, and the others quickly followed. Hikari picked one up and turned it in her hands, feeling its spring tension in her grip. The arrows were fiberglass, with narrow, pointed tips, almost like sharpened pencils. Hikari took a quiver and walked to the line.

"Now," said Miss Katsuragi, "We will begin with-"

Maria Vincennes moved in a flash. She knocked her arrow, drew, and loosed, and like Miss Katsuragi, landed a perfect bulls eye.

"I don't see the point of my participation in this," she said, sharply.

Miss Katsuragi smirked. Hikari felt a little uneasy. The older woman stepped next to Maria, overtopping her by six inches and outweighing her- to see her like this, it surprised Hikari how fit she was; the boys always commented about her chest (when they thought they were in confidence, of course) but Hikari never figured her for the athletic type. She drew an arrow out of Maria's quiver, and turned it slowly in her fingers, studying the tip. Then, she set it in her fingers, knocked it, and drew it back. She sighted down the shaft, and went completely still. For a bare second, she looked like a statue. She let go. The arrow flew.

Maria's arrow shattered, splinters of fiberglass spreading across the gym floor as Miss Katsuragi's arrow sank into the target in its place. Total silence fell over the gym.

She looked at Maria. "I see the point. Now," she turned, "the first thing you need to do is…"

Hikari blinked. She felt something, a subtle buzz at the back of her head. She shuddered, and then the evacuation alarm began to wind up, building to an ear-splitting howl before falling again. Hikari perked up, and glanced at Asuka, who was staring at her phone in confusion. Maria had hers out as well. Hikari looked over at Kaworu and Mari, who were both staring at the pilots, until they looked at her. Hikari shrugged.

"You know what that means," Katsuragi snapped, racking her bow. "Get your equipment away and move in an orderly fashion to the shelter. Now."

Hikari moved over to Asuka as the girls began streaming into the hall. "What's wrong?"

"I didn't get an alert," Asuka said, absently. "I should have been ordered to report to the base."

"Your Eva is still on that ship, isn't it?"

Asuka chewed her lip, then looked at Maria. "They didn't call her, either."

"What are you supposed to do, then?"

"Report to base anyway," said Asuka.

Maria pushed through the crowd to them. "We haven't been ordered. We're going to the shelter."

Asuka scowled, and Hikari felt a rush of heat, like opening a hot oven. "Do not presume to give me orders, Vincennes."

"I'm the field commander of the Eva unit," she snapped back, rising up slightly on her heels to lean over Asuka. "You will do as I…"

Mari cut her off with a low, thin growl, peeling her upper lip back to expose her incisors. Maria smirked at her, but backed off.

"Do as you will. I need to make sure Carrington doesn't do anything foolish."

Vincennes melted into the crowd, her golden hair bobbing in the sea of black and brown. Shichi and Hachi appeared, their movements eerily similar as they looked around.

"All of you to the shelter," said Asuka. "I'm going to the base."

"Oh, now you give the orders," said Hikari.

Asuka scowled at her, but there was no blast of heat this time. "I'll find out what's going on. Trust me."

Hikari snickered. Asuka scowled harder, turned, and headed into the crowd.


As it turned out, Ritsuko had enough time to take a brisk shower and change. She put on the most professional, that is the frumpiest, set of clothes she had, 'sensible shoes', and ran her fingers through her hair. She made sure to wear her glasses, went light on the makeup, and skipped any perfume. She even left out her earrings. The drive to the exhibition was a short one- the Heavy Industries facility was outside the city, sort of like a boil on the proverbial ass of Nerv. They supplied components and materials for the Evangelion units, but she knew they were deeply annoyed that a total upstart with in-house manufacturing had taken what would normally be a huge contract. She'd gotten emails from Tokita before, but always deleted them without reading them. The man was a pest when she was in school, and never really got the message.

Now, she was having this forced on her. Why it was so important she attend, she had no idea. She was surprised how many people were in attendance when she pulled into the parking lot, and further surprised by the number of limousines dropping off Very Important People. There were flashing lights and a red carpet, and the whole thing had the air of a celebrity gala, not an exhibition of a weapons system. Ritsuko tried to remain inconspicuous as she fell in the non-VIP line and handed over her ID, had it checked, and slipped it back in her purse. She saw Fuyutsuki already inside, looking around with his hands in the pocket of his coat. He saw her, but his gaze slipped past her, perhaps purposely.

She heard a gasp, and the snapping of the flash bulbs died.

A… thing pulled up to the carpet. It wasn't touching the ground, and resembled a blend of tank and hovercraft, done up in green. The side opened like a clamshell, and Doom stepped out, stomping down onto one armored foot and then the other, surrounded by a ring of uniformed aides. He scanned the crowd, and if he saw her, he gave no sign, but what sign could there be with that damned mask covering his face? The press of reporters hugging the velvet backed up at his approach, like a garden of flowers wilting. He towered over them, and this time she was sure he did see her- her gaze locked with his, and she stared him down until her eyes started to water, and then turned away, facing the inside. She hurried through the door and breathed in the chill air; someone had the air-conditioning set up.

Again, the setting was incongruous with the nature of the event. They were in a hangar, the wall where the main doors used to be given over to an expansive window, crisscrossed with struts. On the other side was an enormous mass under an equally enormous tarp, presumably what the whole thing was about, this "Jet Alone", which was about the dumbest name Ritsuko could think of for a giant robot. She milled through the crowd, filtering between round tables. Fuyutsuki drifted over to her.

"Sure we should sit together?" she said, looking off at nothing.

"We're both from Nerv. I see no reason not to."

She headed towards a table, and Fuyutsuki pulled out a chair for her. Surprised, Ritsuko sank into it as he pushed it back in, then pulled up a seat beside her. A waiter in an actual tuxedo appeared. Ritsuko asked for water, Fuyutsuki muttered something that sounded complicated and mostly alcohol. They arrived not long after, and Ritsuko took the tumbler full of ice water and looked at his drink, something in a martini glass with a curled peel of lemon in it.

"What is that?"

"Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, with a slice of lemon peel. It's called a 'Vesper'."

"Oh," said Ritsuko.

He took a drink, and winced. "They don't make half of those ingredients anymore," he glared at the glass, "so this is gin with cheap vodka and vanilla extract."

Ritsuko snorted. Fuyutsuki took another drink, and glanced to the side, and froze. Doom was looming over someone, apparently conversing. He looked like a tombstone in a flower garden, and just seeing him made Ritsuko clench up with dread. He turned abruptly from whatever occupied him. Ritsuko took a drink of water to cover looking at him, and he looked back. For a moment she was sure he was looking back at her again, but he was clearly staring at Fuyutsuki. The old man convulsed, and his drink lapped over the sides of the glass, dripping into his lap. He quickly turned away and patted at his pants with the edge of the table cloth, and set the drink on the table. He didn't look back at Doom, who had moved on, and was taking his seat at a special side table in a chair clearly meant only for him- the one she was sitting in would have folded up like a toothpick if he'd planted his great metal ass on it. She snickered.

Fuyutsuki finally calmed himself, and drew up to the table. Ritsuko's hands were shaking, so she folded them in her lap. The old man continued to stare at the table, then took a drink- a big drink, downing two-thirds of his cocktail at once. He took a breath, then downed the rest.

"What is it?"

"Not now," he said, sharply.

She was about to say something when the loudspeakers mounted above the stage at the far end of the hangar boomed. She recognized the tune immediately- The Rolling Stones, Paint it, Black. Except it was a woman singing. In French.

Ritsuko groaned.

Tokita strutted onto the stage in a crisply pressed, white suit- white shoes, white tie, the works, and whipped off a pair of sunglasses. Ritsuko buried her face in her hands and groaned. She expected some kind of reaction out of Fuyutsuki, but he just sat there, furtively glancing in Doom's direction without really looking at him. Ritsuko was too buy staring at the spectacle going on before her. Tokita had lost weight since college, and had taken to slicking his hair back like some wannabe gangster. He threw his arms wide in an expansive gesture and scanned the crowd. She saw his facade crack a little when his eyes passed over her. She suddenly regretted going the frump route; she probably looked like she did in his wet dreams.

"Welcome, welcome, welcome," he crooned, making a motion to one of the technicians behind him. The music cut off, and he took the microphone in front of him in hand.

"I'm so very glad you all could make it. Very rarely is such an esteemed gathering of politicians and scientists gathered in one place. I can't tell you how excited I am to finally reveal the first product of the Heavy Industries Revolutionary Development Program. For too long, we've stood in the shadow of Nerv- no longer. We're prepared to unveil an entire line of amazing, nigh magical products that will…"

"Get to the point."

The entire room went dead silent by the time they were aware that Doom had spoken.

Tokita shook, visibly. Ritsuko couldn't help but snicker, quietly, to herself. He turned around, and made a motion. The tarp on the other side of the window came loose as the cables holding it snapped free of their moorings, and spread behind the machine hidden under it in a rolling sheet. It looked vaguely humanoid, but was folded up in a ball, tucked in on itself. Tokita made another motion, and is started to stand up in the jerky, but somehow too smooth motion of a machine. The legs were heavy and thick and broader at the base than at the top, probably for balance, and the whole thing was decidedly hunched, even when it rose to its full height. Hanging arms gave it an ape-like shape, especially given how large its forearms were- probably designed to house weapons, with crude claws for hands. The front of it was clearly, blatantly designed to look like a grinning face, but it looked more like a mid-90's compact car, at least to Ritsuko.

"Jet Alone is the first truly autonomous humanoid weapons platform," said Tokita, gesturing to it. "No pilot is placed at risk during its operations, and unlike the Nerv Evas, it's not limited to a twenty minute sortie- its compact fusion reactor allows up to six hours of continuous operation, one hundred and seventy two hours on standby deployment. Its sophisticated AI is based on a variety of sources, and is fully combat ready. We'll begin today with a simple test- Jet Alone will walk a sort circuit for us."

The machine grunted out a guttural mechanical sound and turned, tipped its upper body forward in a bow, and shuffled around to start moving. Its gait, and its oversized feet and lower legs, reminded Ritsuko of a child's wind-up toy. It turned around and started following a thick red line on the ground. Ritsuko couldn't help but laugh, earning a stare from a few of the other tables. It was walking a painted line. This was a joke, a total waste of her time. She had no idea why…

There were murmurs from the crowd, and Tokita turned around, looking frantic. The robot hadn't turned around the oval track of the line painted on the concrete, but had kept going, and was picking up speed, swinging its arms now. Ritsuko shifted in her seat. Fuyutsuki pushed his empty martini glass away.

"It's headed for the city," he sighed.

"Great."

"With me," he said.

"Everything is fine," said Tokita. "Just remain calm, we'll get the demonstration back on track in a few moments. There are some bugs in-"

Jet Alone stopped, turned, and lifted its arms. A set of pods folded out of either arm.

Ritsuko stood up. "You have got to be kidding me."

It opened fire. Streaks of flame shot out from the back of its hands, and it fell in waves over the power lines in front of the machine. The metal towers folded, crumpling in on themselves, and it pounded forward, tilting a little as it stomped down on a highway bridge and folded it up under the machine's weight. Ritsuko headed across the room, pushing through the crowd, until she was at Doom's table.

"Yes?"

"We should be doing something," said Ritsuko.

"Should we?"

"That thing is headed right for the city. It's apparently armed," she said, gritting her teeth.

"It was only armed for the demonstration," Tokita shouted. "Some flamethrower fuel, a few thousand rounds for the cannons, a couple missiles-"

Ritsuko plunged her face in her hands. "We can't let that thing reach the city."

"Have the evacuation alarm sounded. The Evas are not to be deployed."

"What are we supposed to use, then?" Ritsuko snapped. "Harsh language?"

Doom stood up. She swallowed.

"The conventional defenses can handle this."

She looked over her shoulder. Fuyutsuki was already on his phone. She headed for the stage, brushed past one of Tokita's techs, and then made her way to the control panel. She immediately stopped, and looked over the machinery at the end of the stage. She saw knobs that clearly wouldn't turn, and some of the gauges were decals. She ran her hand down her face, then looked around until she saw a small knot of technicians gathered around a laptop.

"What the hell is going on?" she demanded.

Tokita tried to push her away. "This is an internal-"

She shoved him aside. "Talk to me again and I'll kick you in the balls. Who knows what's going on here?"

The tech with the laptop actually on his lap looked up. "We have a serious problem here. The AI has been infected with some kind of virus. It's activated all the systems, and it's drawing too much from the reactor. It's going to overheat."

"The safeties will…" Tokita started.

"The safeties have been disabled. This is clearly a very sophisticated virus, an AI unto itself. Unless we-"

Ritsuko stepped away from them, and scrubbed her fingers through her hair. She regretted not taking a drink when she had the chance. She put her watch to her mouth, and sighed, "Deploy."


The tram system was deserted. Asuka swiped her card as she passed the turnstile, and the guard barely looked at her. She could still hear the evac alarm blaring outside, and was growing more uneasy by the moment, little swirls fighting in her stomach. There was no drill scheduled for today, and yet she still hadn't been pinged to report in. She stood up in the car as it descended into the Geofront, anxiously tapping the tip of her shoe on the floor until it finished its diagonal descent. She almost pushed the doors open in her hurry to get out and onto the underground train car that would carry her into the base. The second leg of her journey was just as anxious as the first, and she counted the support struts that flashed past the windows until the automated train pulled into the secure arrival area. There was no one to greet her and escort her to the Eva cages- but of course there wouldn't be, as her Eva wasn't even here, but was still being repaired about the Kyoko. She hadn't even been permitted to see it. She was unconsciously clenching and unclenching her fists as she walked through the bowels of Nerv, glancing furtively at the corridors that crisscrossed the main hallway.

The cages were deserted. No flashing red lights, no klaxons, no rushing, jumpsuited technicians tripping over each other to rig the Evas for launch. Unit One and Unit Zero stood in their cages, and she could see, further down, the partially completed Scout Unit that Horaki was to pilot. It stood in its LCL bath, surrounded by plates of armor suspended by cables, waiting to be moved into place, like an exploded anatomical model. She wandered through the cage, past the feet of Unit One and Unit Zero, to the third cage where her Eva once stood beside the others. The glass partition had been retracted and the LCL bath had been drained, leaving it cavernous and empty, and dark with all the internal lights shut off. The dampness and the concrete gave the empty cave a sepulchral air, and she shied away from it.

She turned, and scuffed her foot on the floor. She remembered something Fuyutsuki had said- the truth was all around her, she just didn't know it. She turned and looked up at Unit One, its armored head so high above her that it wouldn't even notice her if it walked past. She strolled right up to the gantry and touched the glass, gazing through it at the gray primer colored armor, where it had been repaired. Shinji had been hurt worse in the fight than she realized- Rei, too, and now Rei hadn't shown up for school for two days. Had Asuka even bothered to check on her? Ask after her?

She pulled her hand back, rubbed her fingers over her thumb.

They risked their lives for her. Why?

There were no answers here. She shook her head, and made her way to the elevator, and rode it impatiently up to the Eva labs, tapping her foot faster now. She charged through the door as it opened, shocking some poor technician as he walked towards the doors with a stack of papers in hand. She strode passed him and looked around. The place was deserted, and Akagi's lab was dark, the door clearly locked. She put her fists on her hips and rounded on the technician.

"Where is everyone?"

"Akagi and Fuyutsuki are at the weapons demonstration," the tech babbled, backing away from her. "The old man called and ordered us to sound the alarm. The robot has gone berserk or something."

"What robot?"

"I don't know!"

Snorting, Asuka stomped back into the elevator, folding her arms under her chest. The tech decided to get the next one, apparently, backing away from her as the doors closed. She stared at the back of the elevator, without pushing the button. A thought was nagging at the back of her mind.

Everyone was somewhere else, and there was an emergency. Her Eva was out of commission, and the others hadn't even been deployed.

Ergo, no one was watching her. A smirk spread across her face. Now, she needed information. The only question was where to find it, and more importantly, what questions to ask. Fuyutsuki had given her everything he was going to give, and she didn't trust Akagi, who was too quick to bow to Asuka's father. That left only one person who might know anything of value.

She turned around and pressed the down button, and headed for the brig.


The light on her watch was blinking, so the suit was on its way. Ritsuko pushed through the crowd and looked for an exit. When she spotted the fire doors, she headed for them and shoved through the alarmed bar with manic glee, feeling a little twinge of satisfaction as the building's fire alarm started blasting behind her. She stepped out into the open air and shrugged out of her jacket, and kicked off her shoes. The difficult part of the operation came next. Realizing that it was a tad impractical to wear a full-length black bodysuit everywhere she went, she'd cut it down to act mostly as a brace for her back, so it would be a cold minute or so until the suit arrived. She looked up and saw it streaking in, twisting around at the head of a contrail. It went high and slowed, turning to drop down on the pavement beside her.

The new, prehensile suit opened completely, so instead of stepping into it she merely had to move towards it, and it molded itself around her, the heavy plates clamping in place. She'd lined the inside with the same material as her undersuit, so no worries about chafing. As the helmet closed around her head she did a little dance to let the boots clang shut around her feet and flexed her fingers in the gloves. Compared to the much heavier models she'd been using before, this new, slimmer version made her feel almost naked. She glanced at the on-screen icons to check to make sure the protection field was working just in time for a synthesized voice to chime in her ear.

"Warning. Target lock detect."

"Wait, what-"

She turned. Jet Alone was grinding to a halt, and coming around. That was good. It had a radar lock on her. That was bad. She stooped at the knee and jumped, and the suit took over, the thrusters on her boots shoving her up into the air. It still had a few rattles, and she could hear the wind rushing between some of the joints, but the freedom of movement was incredible. She forgot all that as she saw the top half of the robot turning, tracking her with its weapons, and pushed harder with her toes, dialing up the thrust. It swept its weapons over the Heavy Industries complex, and her heart caught in her throat until it turned to follow her. So far, so good.

"MAGI, run a scan on this thing."

A tactical overlay appeared in her HUD, pointing out its weak spots. To put it simply, they were few and far between. She could try incapacitating it, go for the knee joints, so she headed that way first- dipping low as the world tilted lazily around her and she felt the backwash as she screamed over the pavement, using her gauntlet repulsors as a second pair of thrusters to give her a bit more boost. Her new suit wasn't rated for supersonics, but she was pushing it. She would have to get close to make the shot, so she spiraled around, faster than the robot could turn to track her. It stomped in a lazy circle, trying feebly to bring its weapons to bear on her. She slowed, rolled onto her side, and aimed both hands at the big, exposed knee joint.

The top half of the robot spun free of the rest of it, and it brought the heavy armor plating of its oversized fist right at her. She had a face full of matte steel rushing at her one second, and then she went flying, spinning wildly. Her back screamed, and the impact shuddered through the armor. She heard a pop and felt a twinge in her arm. Red lines ran through her left shoulder joint. She blinked at the icon and initiated the self-repair routine as she rolled onto her back, in time to slam into the open expanse of old runway and skid along the surface, throwing up a shower of sparks. Jet Alone focused its goofy grinning facade on her, pointed one fist in her direction, and opened fire.

A stream of tracers swept along the ground. She got up in time, but as she twisted one hit her leg. A loud ping rang through the suit, and the red lines on her damage display ran up her thigh. As she pushed off and fired her thrusters she flexed her leg. Still good, but the repulsor field wasn't getting the job done. She'd have to keep moving, and move fast. She poured on the speed, until the armored joints in her leg started to shake, and circled the rogue robot, diving up and down and rolling to keep it from turning its weapons back on the complex. She turned, glancing back at it. Jet Alone was starting to move towards the city again. She wasn't going to take this thing down herself, and her other suit was still being repaired. She had to come up with a plan, something.

A thought crossed her mind. She could call one of the pilots, suggest they head down to the cages. Shinji could remote launch his Eva- he'd done it before, using his powers to move the plug around. Ordinarily she'd have had the Evas deployed by now, but she was down a pilot, and hadn't actually tested Unit Zero with Rei's sisters, Unit One was damaged, and there was the ugly problem of dealing with Doom if she went around him to contact Shinji directly.

Then, it hit her. It was a robot, and robots are made of metal.

"MAGI, give me an encrypted line to Hikari."

The inside of her helmet crackled, and she heard the buzzing of a phone ringing, then the click of connection.

"Who is this?"

"Hikari? It's me?"

"Ritsuko? What's going on? Why haven't-"

"Listen, I need you to do something. Is Shinji with you?"

"Yeah, we're in the shelter, why-"

"There's a heavily armed giant robot headed for the city and I can't deploy the Evas," said Ritsuko. "Can you get Shinji out of there and get him to a rooftop?"

"Yeah, I guess, where should I-"

"Just pick a tall one. Your suit still has the transponder in it, doesn't it?"

"The what?"

"That's a yes. I'll be there in a minute. Just hurry up."


Hikari blinked at her phone, looking at the CALL ENDED screen.

"What was that?" said Shinji.

"Ready to go for a swing?"

He looked around, and lowered his voice. "Now? Are you insane?"

"That was Ritsuko. She said something about a giant killer death robot."

"What?"

"I added the 'killer death' part, but that was the gist of it. You coming, or not?"

"Should I be going to the Eva?"

Hikari sighed. "She said Doom won't let us use them."

"So what am I supposed to do?"

Hikari pinched the bridge of her nose. "Shinji, robots tend to be made out of metal."

"Oh. Right. Let's go, then."

She grabbed her pack -in which she had her folded suit, which she had retrieved from her locker on the way here- and edged towards the door. The other students were occupied, chatting with each other, but Maria Vincennes looked up as soon as Hikari moved. She stopped, holding Shinji's hand, and gently inclined her head in the blonde's direction. Shinji glanced at her and winced, knowing he'd given them away for sure.

"Let's just go," Hikari whispered. "She'll probably figure we're going to run off and make out or something."

"Hmm. Are we planning to sneak out?"

Hikari yelped and spun around. Mr. Lawson was leaning against the wall, beside the door. He shook his head and rolled his eyes, and folded his arms over his chest. "Tisk tisk, Hikari. You can be so much more stealthy."

"We're in a hurry."

"Someone might be able to cause a distraction for you."

"Could that someone do it right now? This is a life-or-death robot situation."

He sighed. "I suppose. Watch this."

Maria glared at them. Then, the girl seated next to her promptly turned, a very green and sickly look on her face, and vomited in Maria's lap. Loudly, and wetly. Hikari clapped her hand to her mouth.

"How-"

"Trade secret," said Lawson.

Maria screamed and launched to her feet, shrieking at the other girl. Shinji set his jaw and gestured with his hand, and the lock on the shelter door came open with a soft pop. Lawson opened it for them, and Hikari pulled Shinji by the arm behind her, and the door clapped shut in their wake. She could still hear muffled shouting on the other side, and snickered for a second before heading up the ramp into the school proper. She yanked Shinji down the hall and through the swinging door into the girls' bathroom.

"I can't go in here!" Shinji shouted, pulling back.

"Oh grow up," Hikari groaned.

He turned to look at the swinging door. By the time he turned back, Hikari had her uniform draped over a stall door and was hopping around in her underwear, yanking on her spider-suit. Shinji turned as red as a beet and spun around, covering his eyes with his hands. Hikari sighed.

"Nothing you haven't seen before," she shrugged. She settled her goggles over her eyes. "You need a mask or something."

"Hold on," he said.

He lowered his backpack to the ground, unzipped it, and shoved some books aside. Struggling a little to free it, he drew the rounded helmet out of his pack, and settled it on his head. It hid most of his face- if he tilted his chin down, it would even bathe his features in shadow. Hikari felt a little shudder roll through her when she saw it. He buttoned his jacket up to his neck.

"Better?"

"It'll do. Come on."

He turned to the door.

"No, this way."

She opened the narrow window at the top of the back wall, pushed it all the way out, and planted her hands on the ceiling until she could snake her legs through it and twist to offer him a hand up. Once she had his arm, she pulled him up and guided him through, and caught his weight as they landed together on the footpath that ran along the perimeter of the building. He stumbled as he adjusted himself, and squared up the helmet on his head.

"You…" he gasped, "You're very… flexible, and your suit is… tight."

Hikari rolled her eyes so hard it almost hurt. "Right. Get on my back."

"Um, that might not-"

"Just do it."

She turned around, and he draped his arms over her shoulders, held on, and kicked his legs up around her waist. She adjusted to his weight easily, as she had before- it had been a while since they'd done this, though. Her eyes widened, and she suddenly realized why he'd protested, and giggled to herself.

"What's funny?"

"N-nothing," she said, and held the edge of her hand in her teeth. "Hold on, here we go."

In typical Shinji fashion, he screamed his lungs out as she bolted across the road at full speed, jumped, hit a wall, and in a single motion pistoned against it and jumped again, until she crested the rooftops and landed on a narrow ledge and sprinted at top speed, leaning into it. The speed gave her enough momentum to jump out into space, prompting another wail of terror from Shinji as she tossed out a web line, and swung to the bottom, kicking her feet so the springiness of the line would carry her a bit higher on the others side of the arc. Pure joy flooded through her as she laughed into the wind, and Shinji held on for dear life, although the way he pressed his cheek to the side of her neck and hugged to her back may have been motivated by something else. She was tempted to do a back flip, but this was work.

The glass vibrated under her fingers and toes as she slapped into the side of the first tall building she could see and sprinted to the top, racing up the side on all fours, throwing her arms under her body like a running cat. Shinji had given up screaming now and was simply clinging to her. When she reached the top she jumped and came down in a crouch, and he quickly, but shakily, dismounted. He took off his helmet and shook his head, and then put it back on.

"You okay?"

"Yeah," he gasped. "That was intense."

"I was in a hurry. Sorry."

He leaned on his knees, and Hikari looked up. The approaching contrail had to be Ritsuko- at least, she hoped it was, because she glanced in the other direction and saw that a giant death robot wasn't as funny when it was headed right at you.


Gendo lay in his cell, staring at Natalie Summers.

She wasn't actually there, of course, but she may as well have been. He could feel the soft weight of her legs resting on his as she sat in the lotus position on his thighs. He could feel the warmth of her skin. He could smell her- lavender and coriander, a little curry and something unpleasant underneath, sepulchral and antiseptic at the same time. She had her elbow resting on one perfect, pale knee and her chin propped on her hand, and rubbed her stomach with her other arm so that her impressive cleavage threatened to spill forth from her gauzy negligee.

"Go away," Gendo muttered.

"You know I can't do that."

He turned over onto his side. He no longer felt her weight, nor did he feel her move or shift. She was lying on the cot next to him now, and slipped her hands up under his shoulders, somehow touching his skin through his clothes, as if he needed any reminder that she wasn't physically there. Her breath was hot in his face and smelled of mint and berries, but that corpse-smell was still there, and it nearly gagged him. No matter how he moved, she was still there, embracing him.

"I want to leave as much as you want to get rid of me," she pouted, lip trembling. "I know you don't want me."

"You're not even a woman."

"That didn't bother you before. How can you be so cruel? Can't you see you're making me cry?"

She sniffed, and a single pearly tear slid down her cheek, in defiance of gravity. "I just want to go home."

He rolled over. She was there, of course.

"I said, go away."

"I can't. I'm trapped in here with you unless you bring me to my spare body. You want to do that, don't you? You want to help me," she purred.

She ran her fingers down his cheek and he batted at her hand with his, but his hand passed through her wrist, like a ghost. He barely felt it, a brush of wind.

"Think about it, Gendo," she whispered in his ear. "Once I get my body back, I can put things like they were. I see my mistakes now. I shouldn't have been so cruel to Shinji. I shouldn't have been so harsh with you. Can't you see how you make me feel?" she shuddered violently, rolling her eyes back in her head. "I need you for real, not like this."

"You're lying. You don't feel anything. That trick isn't going to work on me anymore."

She wriggled closer, until her face was inches from his. "I know you want me, Gendo. I know you miss Yui, but I'm here for you. I was always here for you. I was there for you when that bitch Akagi tried to get her hooks in your son, thinking she could take my place at your side."

"You don't have a place at my side," he growled. "You needed my authority for your schemes, so you twisted my mind and… and… used me."

"You used me," she snapped, imitating his voice. "Oh, Gendo. You make it sound like you didn't have any fun. You seemed to like it when I showed you that trick with my tongue."

"You're sick." He sat up, and passed through her.

"I'm not the one sitting in a jail cell talking to a half naked ghost, sweetie pie. I need your help, honey," she sat on the edge of the bed and laced her fingers in a begging motion, "please. You can get us out of here."

"No."

"I know there's enough of the Goblin formula left for you to break the bars, Gendo. And then…" she smiled, sweetly. "There are things in my lab, secrets I never shared with you. I could give you power beyond your wildest dreams, power to save your son, to-"

"My son hates me," Gendo said, quietly. "I nearly killed him, and I brought him to you. I beat his girl to a pulp. I murdered a good woman and rubbed it in her daughter's face. Everything that's wrong with me is you."

She stood up, and sauntered over to him, "Oh, my poor baby. I know you're upset. We've had our little troubles, but let's kiss and make up."

He rammed his elbow into her stomach and rounded on her. She stumbled and fell back on the bed, and stared at him in shock. Her gauzy shift shimmered and changed, sliding out into a lab coat and slacks, and she backed up on the bed.

"How did you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Ikari?" a voice called. "Who are you talking to?"

He whirled, and paced up to the bars, and blinked. He was not expecting the von Doom girl to visit him. She strolled down the cell block in her school uniform, and he watched her, his practiced eye noting the changes. She'd lost weight, and her hair was a tangled frizz. She looked like she'd gone a while without sleep, and there was a haunted, frightened look in his eyes.

Summers put her hands on his shoulders. "This is it. She can get us out, for sure. You just have to…"

Gendo clenched his teeth. "What do you want?"

Asuka folded her arms under her chest and pouted. Gendo felt a little shock; in that moment she could have been her mother's twin, if she was a six inches taller and her hair a shade lighter.

"I want answers. Answers only you can provide."

"I'd be taking a risk by speaking to you."

She cocked her head. "What are they going to do, arrest you?"

Gendo snorted. "You can ask. Whether I answer is up to me."

He stood his ground, expecting her to use her favorite little intimidation trick- superheating the air around her fist. Instead, her little frown deepened, and her eye twitched. She would be a terrible poker player. "I want to know about… accidents."

"Of what sort?"

"Ayanami had one, during an activation test. Were there any others like that? Did anyone get hurt? Die?"

"Not during an activation test, no."

Her eyes widened. Her lip trembled, and then her jaw clenched. A wave of heat sent him scurrying back into the cell, until his feet went out from under him and he landed hard on his backside. She was glowing, her frazzled hair rising around her head in luminous wisps, and the red-hot glow of her skin peeked out through the stitches and buttonholes of her school uniform.

"Do not toy with me, Ikari."

He forced his breathing to be even. "You would be a poor chess player, Asuka."

She moved closer. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and pooled between his shoulder blades. He licked his lips; they were dry.

"I play at the grandmaster level."

"I'm sure you have the training to play at the grandmaster level," said Gendo, "but you'd let your opponents frustrate you and make your upcoming moves transparent. You're too easy to read."

Her lip peeled back from her teeth. "I wonder how much trouble I would get in if I incinerated you."

"You're asking me the wrong questions."

The heat died down. Her hair fell back into place, and her confident stance shifted as her feet drew together and her shoulders sank. "What do you mean?"

"You're here to see if I know anything about your mother. You've always known she died young, but you're starting to wonder how. It bothers you, gnaws at you, but you've trained yourself never to think about it. Does your father know you wear a locket with her hair in it?"

"How did you-"

"I'm good. See? I've caught you off guard. Now I'm asking the questions."

She clenched her little hands into fists. "I grow tired of your games, Ikari. Fine, then. You know what happened to her, don't you?"

"Not exactly, but I can guess."

"Just spit it out."

He leaned against the wall of the cell. Summers sat on the bed, her eyes darting back and forth. Her outfit changed with every breath, flashing from her lab coat to her skimpy negligee and back again. He ignored her, and stared at Asuka.

"The Evangelions were originally designed to be piloted by adults. Or intended, I should say. Shinji's Eva is called the prototype for that reason- it was the first one built, and the first one tested. The original test pilot was my wife, Yui."

"What happened to her?"

He waved his hand. "There were no safety systems. We didn't even understand that we'd need a safety system. She didn't simply synch with the Eva, she merged with it. Entirely. She was gone." Summers then used what was left to make the Rei clones, but he didn't need to mention that to the girl just now. Let her figure that out on her own.

She grabbed the bars. "Are you saying… what happened…" he voice cracked, "Mama?"

"Your mother was to test Unit Two, using the safety protocols we developed after my wife's accident. All of this took place in Europe, you understand, where it was built. Since she was never seen again, we assumed the same happened to her."

"So the Evas, all of them… my God, they're building new ones, who-"

"They don't need to absorb a human soul," said Gendo. "After the accidents, Doom came to us with a plan to build the Evas to use synthetic pilots- clone bodies that would synch and be able to operate them remotely. From Unit Zero on, they didn't have souls. That's why Zero is the test type- we were testing a remote pilot system. Piloted Evas are a compromise. For some reason, children born after Second Impact can pilot safely. Or safer, at any rate. Don't worry, we don't have a warehouse full of souls in the basement. Only a select few individuals know about this. Even Akagi doesn't know about your mother."

That was technically accurate. Rei was, after all, an artificial pilot, and Zero didn't have or need a soul until Gendo shoved Naoko's screaming, broken body into it while Summers laughed at them both.

The girl sank back from the bars, and clutched herself, doubled forward. "Why… why didn't anyone tell me?"

"Would you really want to know?"

She looked up. "You son of a bitch. Why did you tell me this?"

"As I recall, the word 'incinerate' came up."

She clenched her teeth, bored into him with her eyes, and bolted off into the hall, a sob echoing off the bars.

Summers uncoiled from the cot and moved over to him. "Oh, my darling," she whimpered, "I was so scared. I thought she'd hurt you."

He looked at her. "No, you thought she might hurt you."

She was about to say something, but cut off with a gurgle as his hand shot out and his fingers sank into her throat, squeezing the air out of her. She wriggled under his grip, clawing at his wrist with her fingers. Gendo took a deep breath and focused, and tightened his grip. Her flesh yielded under his touch, but her clawing, prying fingers may as well have not even been there. He stood up, holding her at arm's length, until her toes dangled above the floor.

"Now," he said. "I think it's time for us to redefine the terms of our relationship."


Ritsuko spotted the kids quickly enough. She came it an angle, and used her gauntlets to stabilize herself as she landed, dropping to one knee, and flipped open her helmet. It was hot in the suit; she'd have to adjust that. Hikari and Shinji rushed over to her, and Hikari dropped to a crouch, looking at her askance.

"Are you okay? You look sick."

"I'm fine," said Ritsuko. "Look, we need to get moving on this. See the big robot? Robot smash."

"What do we do?" said Shinji.

"I need you to hold it still."

He blinked. "Um, what?"

"With your powers."

His eyebrows crawled up his head. "Do you see how big it is?"

She shrugged, servos whirring. "So?"

"So it's really big," he repeated. "I don't know if I can move something that size. I've never-"

"You don't need to move it," said Ritsuko, "Just hold it still so I can get at it. Maybe if we get you closer, we can…"

He paled, his throat bobbing as he swallowed. "Uh, I'll try it from here."

Ritsuko sighed. "Right. Let me get clear so you don't cause any interference with my suit. When you see me get close, just try to freeze it up. You don't even have to stop the whole thing, just try to keep it from shooting at me. The weapons are in the arms. Got that?"

"Yeah," said Shinji.

"Right," said Ritsuko. "Let's do this."

She didn't give them time to argue with her, but took off, wincing as her stomach sank down past her belly button from the force of leaving the rooftop. Her back was throbbing dully, and she felt like the suit was squeezing her belly, trying to make her throw up, and it was working. When she banked into a turn, her vision swirled for a second, and an alarm flashed in the corner of her eye before she corrected and leveled off. Shinji was standing on the roof with his arms up, Hikari lurking next to him. Jet Alone was still pounding towards the perimeter, its bulky shape appearing through the skyline of the city now. She had to get in there and shut the bastard down.

It locked on her as soon as she was in range, and brought its weapons around on her. Ritsuko held her breath and cut hard to her left, waiting to see if the weapons would track. They didn't, and she came around, dropping down towards the deck, and then towards the machine's back. Its bulky backside was covered in heavy armor plating, probably to protect its reactor. She went for the top, bringing herself in for a landing at the apex of the back section. The suit's boots skimmed over the surface, throwing up sparks until she got purchase by grabbing what looked to be an in-built ladder rung. Ladders usually went somewhere, so she followed it, keeping her eyes on the next rung, trying not to look down. The whole machine was grinding and moaning as it struggled against something, and she saw warnings pop up on her HUD, prompted by a powerful magnetic field. Swallowing hard, she ripped open the first hatch she saw and dropped inside.

She nearly collapsed. The heat sucked all the air out of her lungs, even inside the suit, and she felt sweat prickle on her forehead and on her back and arms and legs all at once. Her feet skidded out from under her and she nearly fell, managing only to keep her feet at the expense of a sharp grinding noise in her left knee joint.

"Shoulda worn another suit," she muttered, "Shoulda brought Asuka."

It didn't matter, she had to get to the thing's innards and shut it down. She got up and moved forward, then stumbled as the floor jolted under her feet. Jet Alone was moving again. She heard distant booms rippling through the air, and her eyes widened.

They were shooting it. Great.

There was a hatch. She kicked it, it shrieked loose, and a second kick sent it tumbling down the tunnel. She had to get on her hands and knees-awkward in the suit, and painful, her back tweaking her with every subtle movement. She crawled down the tunnel, scraping the floor with her armored knees, until she came to a junction point. Cables went in every direction, and she stared at it for a minute. Her MAGI connection and comms were down, so trying to get some help with the layout was unlikely.

"Oh," she groaned, "The hell with it."

She hit the cables with a blast from both gauntlets. The shock threw her back on her ass, and the sparks that followed crackled against her armor's protective field. The cables snapped, pulling apart like raw meat, and the whole works shuddered, tilting lazily. Her HUD flickered wildly, and a dozen alarms appeared. It was either the heat, or Shinji's magnetic field, but she had to get out and get out soon. She banged on her helmet a few times, as if that would matter, and finally the HUD went clear again. Part of her internal systems were rebooting for some reason. She shook her head, and turned around, heading back up the tunnel, hoping she'd done the damage she needed to do. The temperature looked to be falling, so the reactor, at least, was under control.

A repulsor shot blew off a hatch- she'd gotten turned around somewhere, it seemed- and she dragged herself out onto the open back of Jet Alone. It had stopped in place, arms dangling at its sides, hunched forward. Slowly, she sat up, and then stood up, the suit grinding as it compensated for the faint swaying movements of the machine.


Shinji clenched his fists, and cords stood out on his neck. His lip was trembling, and little grunts of effort bubbled out of his throat. Hikari felt the fine hairs on her arms and the back of her neck rise, the way they might if she was about to be shocked by a doorknob. The giant robot was pushing against him; she could see it trembling as it fought his control. The longer it took, the more he struggled, until his knees buckled and he started to sink to the ground. Hikari moved to his side, haltingly reaching out to touch him. She could feel him, the way she could feel the current in the big overhead electricity towers. He made a pained noise and pushed his hands forward, and she saw the machine react at the same time, flailing as it was loosed from his grip.

Slowly, she put her hands on his sides, just under his ribs. "I've got you."

He grunted in reply, blinking. She pulled him against her, letting him lean back into her chest to hold him up. "I've got you," she repeated.

"I can't," he breathed, his voice a sharp rasp, "I can't h-hold it."

Hikari put her arms around him and leaned her head on the back of his neck. "You can do it, Shinji. You're almost done."

His whole body was trembling, and if she let go, she knew he would fall. A fine trickle of blood slid down his upper lip, and his jaw shivered like he was standing in ice water. He put his hands out and his fingers trembled, curling around nothing, and he leaned into it, groaning. Hikari squeezed him tighter, panic flooding through her in a cold wave. Shinji's legs buckled and he collapsed into her arms, but still he held on. A vein pulsed on his forehead, and he turned beet red. Hikari would swear his eyes were starting to glow, hazed with a kind of fey light.

Then, almost without warning it was over, and he collapse. She caught him, lowering herself to the asphalt rooftop with him, and he slumped against her, his head pillowed on her shoulder. She looked up, expecting the robot to stomp free of his control and pound towards them, guns blazing, but it popped forward in a weird, janky motion and went still, its arms hanging at its sides. Whatever Ritsuko did, it must have worked. Hikari let out a long, slow breath. Shinji groaned and sat up a little, but didn't pull away from her. He clutched his forehead in his hand for a second, then gingerly wiped the blood from his lip with the back of his fingers, two little swipes, and stared at it.

"Are you okay?"

He looked at her, and her breath caught. His eyes locked on hers, and everything else pulled away, like a tunnel, the rest of the world turning into the dull roar one hears while underwater. He licked his lip, and she was suddenly acutely aware of the tangy scent of his sweat and his dad's aftershave, which he still dabbed behind his ears.

Then, he kissed her. Hikari's stomach fluttered and she held him firmly in her embrace, and like every time, it reminded her of the first time- he was insistent, awkward in the touching of his lips to hers until her mouth parted a little and they settled into something so powerful it made the rest of the world just fall away, no matter where they were. This time, though, his eyes were open. After a long time, he pulled back, and she licked her lip, staring right into his eyes as she did.

"Hikari?" he said, weakly, as if he was surprised at himself. "I love you."

Her jaw dropped, and her heart jackhammered against her ribs. Her mouth worked a few times, silently, before she croaked. "I… I… I luh… luh…"

Then, Ritsuko crash-landed on the roof.

Hikari yanked Shinji to his feet, scampering back as Ritsuko scraped across the tar, and rolled onto her back. Her suit was a mess, and the helmet wasn't opening. Hikari lowered Shinji to his feet (she'd picked him up in the process of standing, it seemed) and rushed to Ritsuko's side, grabbed her face-plate, and popped it off. Ritsuko was pale and sweating like a pig, so much so it poured over the sides of her helmet. It was hard to tell how well she was breathing under the armored chest of her suit, but her eyes opened halfway and she smiled weakly.

"I need a vacation," she moaned.


Ritsuko got home around nine. First, there was the matter of prying herself out of that damned suit, which she now considered a miserable failure, and which was presently weighing down the back of her car. She opened the door to her apartment, stepped inside, and sighed. Little Natalie (Clone Natalie?) was curled up on the couch, flipping channels. She looked up as Ritsuko came in, and then sat up, pulling a blanket up to her neck.

"Are you sick?"

"No, hon, I'm fine."

"Can I show you something?"

Ritsuko shrugged. "Sure."

The girl closed her eyes, and furrowed her brows. Her hair changed first- red fluttered down her locks, like someone had dumped paint on her head, chasing out the black. Her skin went from milk white to merely pale, and color appeared under her cheeks. When she opened her eyes, they were no longer dark red, but bright blue.

"How do I look?"

"Grow some pimples or something. I don't need to deal with boys sniffing after you."

The color drained out of her at once, and she curled up as her hair reverted.

"Oh," said Ritsuko. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"

"It's okay," the girl muttered.

"You looked very pretty. I think that's a good look for you," Ritsuko sighed. "Why red?"

"I like red."

"Heh," Ritsuko laughed a little to herself. "Just don't step on Asuka's toes."

"Okay."

"Have you thought of a name?"

She shook her head. "I'm working on it."

"Okay, but you can't stay holed up in here forever. It's not safe."

"I know."

"Did you get something to eat?"

She shrugged. "I don't think I actually need to eat. Besides, all you have is breakfast cereal and liquor."

"Oh," said Ritsuko. "Right. Well, a balanced breakfast is important to a good day. Look, I'm going to bed, okay?"

"Okay."

First, she needed a shower. She threw her frumpy jacket and skirt somewhere and plopped her sweat-sodden clothes on the floor, and stopped. The… infection had spread, and was starting to work its way down her arms. Even twisting to look at it hurt. Gingerly, she prodded the darkened skin around her spinal implants, wincing. Pain was good; if she felt nothing at all, then she'd worry. She wasn't sure who she would go to- seeing a doctor would mean explaining exactly what it was that was powering her implants, unless she wanted to stick another miniature arc reactor in there. If she did that, she had the problem of hiding the S2 micro-drive from Doom. She sighed again, and then froze.

Gingerly, she touched the locking ring that held the reactor in its mounting, right above her tailbone, and then pulled her fingers back. The locking ring was fused. She swallowed, hard.

Shower.

When there was a good head of steam, she got in, wincing at the heat before she let it sink into her sore bones. She mostly stood under it until she felt the throbbing in her back ease a little, then shut it off and threw on a robe. She fell into bed, grabbed the bottle of pills in her nightstand, and swallowed two, dry, and then fell on her pillow. A velvety haze fell over her, and the tension eased out of her muscles until she felt more like a puddle than a person.

She was just on the edge of sleep when she felt a nudge on her shoulder.

"Wha?"

It was Lil' Natalie. "Can I sleep with you?"

"Whu? Why?"

"I…" she rubbed her arm, and glanced at the floor. "I… I had a bad dream."

"'Kay," Ritsuko muttered.

The girl went around the other side of the bed, and climbed in. She wriggled across until her back was pressed against Ritsuko's.

Ritsuko relaxed again. Sleep was almost on her. She felt herself drift, and a hazy blackness reached up and swallowed her.

By the clock, it was four in the morning when her phone began to buzz, skittering across her nightstand. She grabbed it and brought it to her ear, blearily hitting buttons until it beeped.

"This better not be a fucking angel attack," she muttered.

"It's me," said Fuyutsuki. "I need to see you."

"I'm off the market."

"I'm not joking, Akagi. We need to talk."

"So, talk."

"Not on the phone. I need you to meet me. There's a scenic overlook…"

"Look," Ritsuko said, leaning into her pillow. "I don't think it would be a good idea for you to drive right now."

"You mean for you to drive."

"Yeah, that."

"How much have you had?"

"None of your damn business. If you need to see me so bad, come get me."

"Alright. Be outside your apartment in fifteen minutes."

Slowly, she got up. That was enough to stir Natalie from her sleep. She peeked over the covers she'd gathered up in a little cocoon around her head.

"Where are you going?"

"I have to meet somebody. I'll come back."

"Promise?"

"I promise."

"I dreamed about my dad," she said, very softly. "I dreamed he wasn't dead."

"He is," said Ritsuko, "and he won't ever hurt you again. I swear."

That mollified her a little. She rolled over, curling the damn blankets up around her even more, and Ritsuko stood over her until she started snoring. With a sigh, she dressed in the first combination of clothing that came to hand, and put on a pair of rubber clogs from the back of her closet that dated back to her college-era "screw socks" period. She made sure the door was locked and her key was in her pocket, and half-stumbled down to the front entrance to the complex. Fuyutsuki was already there, sitting behind the wheel of what she presumed to be his car. She never had him figured for a hatchback guy.

She dropped into the seat. "So, what is it?"

"Not here," was all he said, and he started driving.

She tried to stay awake, she really did. She was out cold by the time he pulled to a stop and nudged her shoulder with his fist. She sat up and wiped the drool from her lips with her sleeve, and rubbed at her eyes.

"Okay, can we talk now? I want to sleep."

Fuyutsuki shut the car off, but kept his hands on the wheel for a second. "Follow me."

He got out, and left his door hanging open. Ritsuko followed him, up a short path away from the car, to the overlook. The city was pretty at night- a blanket of lights in the darkness that mirrored the stars above.

"We have a serious problem," said Fuyutsuki.

"So serious it couldn't wait until morning?"

He rounded on her. "Do you think this is a joke? I brought you here for a reason. I saw something today, at the demonstration."

"The berserk killer robot was hard to miss."

"No, not that. Did you look at Doom?"

"Yeah," said Ritsuko. "What about him?"

"Did you see his eyes?"

"I guess."

"What color were they?"

"I don't know. I didn't-"

"They were blue," said Fuyutsuki, gripping the railing until his hands shook. "His eyes are blue."

"So?"

When he looked up at her, he looked a thousand years old. "Victor von Doom's eyes are brown."