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Anything That Burns

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In an essay he wrote in his first year of middle school, Ikari Shinji declared that he had no cherished dreams, aspirations, or connections with people, that he had no particular ambitions for any career or profession, and that he did not really mind if an accident claimed his life before he reached adulthood. His teacher gave him a C and did not bother to scold him for his bad attitude. After all, it was fairly universal.

Shinji had genuinely believed that everything that had happened in the first fourteen years of his life had happened as it had to happen, and that everything in the rest of that life, however brief or long, would continue to happen as it had to happen.

And then his father sent him a message telling him to come to Tokyo-3.

And then a mysterious young woman had arrived at the hotel room where he was staying the night before he had to take the train to Tokyo-3, and told him why his father was summoning him.

As he stood on the train platform and tried calling the number given to him to explain that the train carrying him had stopped two stations before reaching the station where he was supposed to meet the person who was supposed to pick him up, owing to a rather mysterious emergency declaration, Shinji was still uncertain how much he believed of what he'd been told. It was all so crazy. On the other hand, crazy was a good term to describe being ordered to attend a meeting with a man who'd abandoned him ten years ago. It would also, he had to admit, describe the notion of someone going out of their way to tell him weird lies.

The cell kept giving him an 'all networks are currently reserved for emergency communications only" message, so he closed it up and pocked it inside his shirt pocket. The station's loudspeakers again repeated the message that all civilians should make their way to their nearest emergency shelter. Shinji had no idea where that was, and, of course, remarkably little motivation to go there if he did. So, with a sigh that was more on the annoyed side than the depressed side, to be honest, he ambled out of the train station and sat down on the steps to wait for something to happen.

Seconds later, he was somewhat startled by the sight of a low-flying fighter jet. Interesting, he thought. Must be doing some sort of military exercises. As he reached this conclusion, he was again startled by the sight of a low-flying cruise missile.

Wait, he thought, what? His head whipped around to follow the path of the missile, and found himself looking up at a rather large, greenish, vaguely humanoid form, with a white mask in place of a face, which had just stepped out from behind a nearby mountain, and which was easily soaking up the impact of the cruise missile.

"Oh shit," Shinji said softly. "It's all true, isn't it?"

The monster, which probably wouldn't appreciate being called that,.proceeded to swat one of the jet planes presently firing ineffectually at it out of the sky with a blow from one its gangly arms. What was left of the jet swept down out of the sky directly into the train station where Shinji had been just a few moments before. Right then, he decided. Motivation discovered. And with that thought, he began running as fast as he could away from the giant creature, to use a more neutral term.

At the very next intersection that Shinji's headlong dash brought him to, a bright blue car which he was insufficiently a car geek to identify squealed to a halt right in front of him. The facing front door swept open, and a woman in a short black dress and a pair of goggles looked at him. "Get in," she said without preamble.

It took an eyeblink and a few seconds for him to recognize in her the face of the woman whose photo he'd been sent to help him identify the person who was supposed to meet him at the station. He considered asking for confirmation but decided that he'd probably wasted enough time, and ran over to the other side of the car in order to, as she'd said, get in.

"Buckle up," said the woman, who had long purple-black hair which had bangs which -- and Shinji realized it was an odd time to notice it -- vaguely resembled the top and sides of a heart. He promptly did so. "And we gone!"

The car took off, pushing Shinji back into the seat.

"Sorry I'm late," said Katsuragi Misato, for it clearly was she, even if she wasn't presently bent over to expose her cleavage to all and sundry.

"S'okay," said Shinji, glancing back towards the creature, which was thankfully receding from view. "So, by any chance do you happen to know what's going on?" he asked, trying to sound as helplessly confused as possible.

"You're very calm, under the circumstances," she replied in a way that didn't sound terribly complimentary.

He forced himself to let out what he hoped sounded like a faintly hysterical giggle.

Katsuragi shrugged. "That thing ... is an Angel."

"An ... angel," Shinji repeated. That's really what they call them?

"Stop thinking what you're thinking," she said. "It doesn't have anything to do with -- oh no!"

A missile, apparently unguided, had just bounced off one of the buildings lining the street down which their car was speeding, and in the blink of an eye it struck that very street and exploded, throwing the car back and overturning it.

Seat belts really do save lives. Incredibly, neither Katsuragi nor Shinji were at all hurt when they regained consciousness a few seconds later and found themselves upside down in the car, staring out an oddly uncracked windshield.

There they sat for a few moments, before she turned to look at him, and, rather warmly, asked, "So other than that, how's your day been?"

Shinji just stared.

Naegi Makoto didn't like to think of himself as a stalker. And yet he had to admit to himself that positioning himself where he could watch Maizono while she ate lunch with her friends, here in Academy City's recreation district, was pretty much the definition of being a stalker. He took what little comfort he could in the notion that, deep down, he wanted her to notice him and then call him over, because she had clear memories of their time together in middle school, so that they could have a nice friendly chat that would probably end up with them dating.

And stalkers surely never had such ideas.

If only his parents had been able to afford to send him to Hakudo Boy's High School! Then, when that school had effectively merged with Sichiyo Girl's High School earlier that year, he'd have once again been at the same school as Maizono. Maybe even the same class again, he thought hopefully. But that was not to be, and he'd been bundled off to Mahora High School, while his little sister was sent to Mahora Girls' Middle School, with both of them getting discounts on their tuition due thanks to their family connection. He supposed that was rather lucky.

And really, he was lucky to be able to watch Maizono like this. Even when they'd been in middle school together, he'd been too shy to even talk to the girl who was even then rising as an idol singer. Then she'd had her big break of being invited to join a new idol group established by 765 Production, and it had become all but impossible to approach her. He was fairly certain that at least one of the girls with whom she was cheerfully chatting at this very moment was actually an implanted bodyguard to make sure no one -- especially no boys -- got too close to the idol of idols.

She was so beautiful.

And he was so ordinary.

Well, no, he wasn't, he reminded himself. Ordinary people did not get scouted to attend Kibogamine Academy, starting at the start of the next school year. Even if he found it completely bewildering to be invited to attend that legendary school, he hadn't been fool enough to to refuse the invitation. He doubted that anyone in the entire history of Academy City had turned down that invitation when it was offered to them. Not only was it supposedly a surefire ticket to success in adult life, but also the academy itself covered the tuition costs, only charging for residence fees. That would make paying for his education so much simpler for his parents. Makoto could hardly wait to enter the doors of that academy.

"Naegi-kun, we need to talk," said a voice from behind him.

He flinched. And then there was the other way that he was anything but ordinary. Slowly he turned to look up at Kirigiri Kyoko, whose cold purple eyes were staring down at him. "Um, hello to you, too. What seems to be the matter, Kirigiri?" he asked, determined to be polite even to someone who never bothered to be polite to him. That determination faded when he saw that she was holding in her gloved hands a certain battered leather tote bag. "Did you break into my room? Again?" he asked through clenched teeth.

"Of course not," she answered firmly. "As with every previous occasion, I used a skeleton key, so there was no breakage involved. In any event, we can't talk here. We need privacy. Follow me," she concluded, and started to walk away.

It was very tempting to just stay seated there and find out how long it would take her to notice that he wasn't following and what she'd do once that happened. On the other hand, she still had the bag she'd taken from his room. So he got up from his chair, tossed what was left of his lunch in the nearest trash bin, and headed after her, unaware as he did so that another pair of eyes had been watching him just as intently as he watched Maizono Sayaka.

Makoto followed Kirigiri down the streets of the recreation district until she turned down an alleyway that brought them both to a concealed nook with a fire escape. She turned then to look at him.

"No," he promptly said.

"I haven't said anything yet," Kirigiri reminded him.

"It doesn't matter, my answer is no. I still have classes today. I cannot do whatever it is you want me to do. Period. End of discussion. Please give me back my bag."

To Makoto's mild astonishment, she actually held out the bag for him to take. Hesitantly, he reached out to put his hand on its handle beside hers ... and wasn't really surprised that she didn't let go.

She took a deep breath. "Please," she said. "Just listen to me."

It was clearly a day for astonishment, because she never said please. "All right, I'll listen, and then I'll tell you --" he started to say.

"There is a giant monster attacking Tokyo-3," she said. "The government has declared a state of emergency and is keeping the media out. Having failed to destroy the monster with an N2 weapon, they are planning on using a giant biomechanical robot that has never been tested. If the robot does not succeed in defeating the monster, the monster will do something that will apparently end the world."

He stared at her. "You can't be serious."

"In our time together, have I spent a lot of time making jokes?" she asked, a tiny bit of asperity showing in her tone. "I don't know how my grandfather found all of this out, just as he does not know anything I know about a certain individual he told me to contact." She breathed deeply, and let go of the bag's handle, though only to reach down and pull the zipper to the side, opening it up to expose what was within it -- a red bodysuit with a white circle on the chest, bearing a red symbol that vaguely resembled the Chinese character for 'center'.

"But this is beyond any doubt the one the suit was meant for," Kirigiri concluded.

"You always say that," Makoto reminded her.

Mankanshoku Mako was not having a good day.

It had started out nicely enough, as she'd been able to head to school with her new girlfriend, even if Ryuko-chan didn't really accept the obvious nature of their bond just yet, and hadn't been willing to hold her hand. But then they'd arrived at school and, before they could even pass through Honnoji's gates, they'd been challenged by the Tennis Club, who were upset that one of their members -- Mako -- had been taken hostage. without permission and thus missed practice the previous day. Mako had to admit that they probably had a point. Ryuko-chan on the other hand had disagreed and offered to fight them off while Mako hurried in to school.

Abandoning Ryuko-chan had been the hardest thing she'd ever had to do.

Worse, it had proved to be utterly pointless. At lunch time, the tennis club members, looking decidedly un-beaten-up, had seized hold of Mako and dragged her off to the courts where they were presently bombarding her with tennis balls while she was tied to a stake, under the supervision of the team captain and Athletics Committee Chair Sanagaeyama Uzu. To their credit, the other five members of the tennis club didn't look all that happy about what they were doing, and Mako was sure that the captain was only doing this because of Sanagaeyama's presence.

"I want to see you bleeeeeed, Mankanshoku," Date Wingfield Reiko announced over the sound of the tennis balls, in a way that might have convinced someone other than Mako that there was a certain amount of personal animus involved here. But Mako was not fooled. It was all the fault of the Elite Four, and the goku uniforms that they handed out. If not for that, the captain would be just as warm and friendly as she'd been when she'd welcomed Mako onto the club with the gentle words, 'Do not screw up or I swear to God I'll make you regret it.'

Therefore, Mako made no cry as the balls slammed against her face and her body. Not only was there no point in doing so, she knew, beyond any possible doubt, that soon, Ryuko-chan would arrive to rescue her. Not just soon, but very soon. Infinitesimally soon. Annnnnnnny minute now.

Abruptly, a guitar case swept down to deflect the latest barrage.

"Ahhh," Mako heard Sanagaeyama's voice purr. "The transfer student."

Once again, Mako had been vindicated by history.

"Come back for another beating, I see," declared Reiko.

"As if," Ryuko sneered, dropping down from the pole where Mako was tied up, and doing -- something -- that caused her school uniform to briefly swell up into a rather horrific shape, before it compressed down again into the exhibitionist battle suit that she'd worn the previous day. "The balls are going to be bouncing off your forehead by the time I'm done with you!"

Silence descended on the tennis court.

"How lewd," Reiko said with disgust. "As expected of an exhibitionist."

"What?" Ryuko asked, bewildered. Realization dawned quickly. "No! Not -- the balls!" she said, pointing frantically at the various small yellow spheres littering the court. "And I'm not an exhibitionist, dammit!"

Now that the attention of the captain and Sanagaeyama were firmly on Ryuko, one of the other members of the club darted quickly forward to untie Mako from the post. Mako opened her mouth to thank her senpai -- Saeki Ai, she abruptly remembered the name -- but the other girl quickly waved a hand to silence her, before quickly heading back into line.

While that brief moment of human decency transpired, the captain had launched her Ten Million Serve assault against Ryuko, who'd promptly cut all the -- um -- projectiles out of the sky with her scissor blade.

"Fault!!" declared Sanaegayama. "The transfer student is disqualified."

"... hah?" Ryuko demanded.

"That was, I suppose, an effective counter to Date's attack," the Committee Chair explained with a faint sniff. "However, you have failed to take into consideration that you are on a tennis court, and such moves would never be permitted in a game of tennis."

"And since when the fuck has it been legal in tennis to pitch a zillion balls at somebody?" Ryuko wanted to know. "What is this, I don't even --"

"You cannot claim victory if you did not win that victory according to the rules!" Sanagaeyama non-sequitured. "Also, you pitch a baseball, you serve a tennis ball."

"Are you all on drugs? Is that it?"

"It doesn't matter if they're on drugs!" Mako suddenly proclaimed, striding forward to stand before Ryuko, who fell into stunned silence at this development. "Because Ryuko-chan will win anyway! Even in tennis, she will win! Just as surely as the person who has won my heart forever has done so, Ryuko-chan will win as she wins at life and friendship!"

"... are you on drugs?" Sanagaeyama asked hesitantly.

"'the person who has won [your] heart,' hah?" Reiko snarled through teeth clenched in a way that made her look a bit shark-like, actually. "Okay. Okay then. We're gonna have another match!"

"Yeah!" Mako enthused.

"Yeah?" Ryuko ... sort-of vaguely enthused.

"Fault! Love-thirty," Sanagaeyama proclaimed as Ryuko's racket snapped again.

"This ... isn't really going as you thought it was going to go, is it?" asked a soft voice from beside Mako.

Mako snapped to look at Saeki-senpai, and blurted, "Ryuko will win!" She was morally certain that she sounded every bit as confident as she had at the start of all this, whatever her personal feelings might be.

"Okay," Ai replied. "But, you do realize that this is only happening because Taichou thinks that your pose of not being interested in Shuuichi-kun is just a way to get him interested in you, right?"

Mako stared blankly at her. "But ... I'm not interested in Shuuichi-senpai."

"That's what I mean."

"I don't get it," Mako told her, bewildered.

"Well, you can't really blame her for thinking that way, after all, we're all pretty much into him. Me, Taicho, Mio-chan --"

"His completely blood related sister?" Mako asked, a little appalled.

Ai shook her head. "No, she's actually his cousin. Anyway -- and Rika-sensei, and Maya-san, and just between you and me, I think he and Kei-kun have something going on, too. And then he's having threesomes with me and Mio-chan, and Taicho and Maya-san, and --"

"I didn't know any of this," said Mako, who really hadn't had any idea. "How have all of you managed to get so good at tennis if you spend so much time screwing around?"

"Well, partly the goku, and partly, we're not all that good, you just really suck," Ai told her kindly.

"Oh. Well, Ryuko will win -- ah, yes!" Mako answered Ryuko's call for her scissor blade, which she'd entrusted to Mako at the start of the match. "See, she's come up with a cunning plan!" she told Ai once that was done.

"If you say so," Ai replied, shrugging helplessly.

"Honestly, I'd be more interested in you or Mio-chan-senpai," Mako said with a confused shake of her head.

"Really?" said Ai, startled. "Well, you know, sometimes we don't just have threesomes with Shuuichi-kun, we sort of get together just the two of us, and you'd be more than welcome --"

"I'm over you, though."

Ai, a bit hurt to have someone declare themselves over her who'd never actually been under her, looked out at the tennis match, and noticed, in the distance, someone rising up, up and away into the sky from the southern sectors of Academy City. Despite the erratic movement of the unidentified flying person, she thought it most likely that someone had been punched into the stratosphere, and so dismissed it from her thoughts.

"Okay, it's definitely down here, that must be the door up here on the ... no, it's another closet. Man, why do we have so many closets in this place?" Katsuragi asked nobody in particular.

Well, Shinji was at least certain that she couldn't possibly be asking him that question, since he'd never been in this place which was apparently the headquarters of an organization known as NERV. Or possibly just Nerv, since she hadn't given any indication that the name of the organization, even if written in capital letters, was an acronym for anything. From the looks of things, though, that meant very little when it came to their relative understanding of its labyrinthine corridors.

"Um, Captain Katsuragi --" he started to ask.

"Call me Misato, please, and drop the rank," she said absently, puzzling over something that looked a bit like a map.

"Misato-san, then --" he started to ask again.

"And we are not lost," she said angrily, now looking at him. "I know exactly where we are, and I know exactly where we are supposed to go."

"Okay," he said. "Do you know the steps to get from the one to the other?"

The map crumpled in her hands. "Shinji-kun," Misato said sweetly. "I'm going to give you some very important advice that will serve you in good stead in the years to come, assuming there are years to come. Asking questions like that will make girls hate you." That last was delivered with considerable venom.

After a moment, Shinji nodded. "Thank you, Misato-san, I'll definitely remember that," he said, and began rummaging through his pants pocket.

"You're welcome," she answered. "Now what are you doing?"

He'd pulled out a pair of earbuds. "I," he answered calmly while putting them in, "am going to trust you to get us both to where we are supposed to go. While you do that, some music would be nice. If there's something that requires my participation, feel free to give me a tap on the shoulder." And with that, he tapped play on his SDAT, closed his eyes, and began making the occasional subtle nod.

Misato briefly considered tapping him on the shoulder to get him to pause the tape so that she could tell him that actions like this would also make girls hate him. However, it was probably more important to try and figure out the map. She stared at it, willing it to reveal its secrets to her.

"Heck with it," she said after a moment.

"Will the head of Project E, Technical Department Division 1, Doctor Akagi Ritsuko, that's Doctor Akagi Ritsuko, please contact Captain Katsuragi Misato of Operations Department Division 1, immediately?" said the voice over the intercom.

"She's lost again, isn't she?" mused the bottle-blonde individual thus addressed, as she began to strip off the dry suit she'd been using to swim in a large pool of red liquid. She shook her head, then raised her voice. "Mizuno! I've got to go rescue Misato and the Third Child. Can you handle things from here?"

"Yes, doctor," her chief assistant answered from her post, setting down her tablet and starting to walk over to where Ritsuko's scuba gear was waiting to be used. A more junior tech promptly took up the tablet, to act as the operation's oversight.

Ritsuko pulled on a lab coat over her swimsuit, and pulled on a pair of slippers, while contemplating Mizuno Ami. She'd been a child prodigy, apparently, but her genius had apparently subsided in adulthood, as that of many prodigies did. The young woman -- who, Ritsuko had to keep reminding herself, was not a 'girl' -- was an excellent technician, who had demonstrated, on occasion, surprising levels of insight into the technologies used at Project E. But she would never equal or exceed her mentor, and Ritsuko supposed that was probably a good thing, even in light of her personal connections to the project.

Still, she thought as she headed over to the elevator, it would have been nice if Mizuno was just a bit more ... needy, she finally chose as the right word. If Ritsuko had the sense that the other girl not only looked up to and respected her, but also admired her, and thought of her as --

"Senpai!" she heard someone call out to her as she looked over all those gathered here to celebrate her ascension.

Arisugawa Juri sighed, and turned to give the person who'd just called out to her a look of mingled amusement and annoyance. "I've lost track of how often I've asked you not to call me that, Maya," she said to her chief TA.

"I'm sorry," Ibuki Maya replied with a not-terribly-apologetic smile. "But you've got to try this cake, it's so delish!"

"Already have, don't need another, I'm watching my carbs," Juri replied. "I'm happy that you're enjoying the catering, though."

The younger woman had not, apparently, waited for a chance to try and persuade her mentor to eat the cake, and was presently noshing on it herself. Once it had gone down, she was able to speak. "Department head at under forty. How does it feel, boss?"

"I have a name," Juri mock-complained. But the sincerity of Maya's gaze made her smile, and she looked over the room again. There were people who were happy for her, and people who were miserable but faking happiness, and people who were just glad of the chance to celebrate. But they were all here because of her hard work and devotion to her discipline in an age that often preferred to believe that history was over. How did she feel?

"I feel amazing," she admitted. "I feel like I am finally, finally becoming the adult I was always meant to be, instead of just an older version of the teenaged girl I once was."

"Ohhh, you were an awesome teenager," Maya mock-complained right back. "I've seen the pictures."

"I was a miserable teenager," Juri replied, smile fading. "Locked in an unescapable and eternally unrequited --" And she broke off as she saw an impossible face across the faculty lounge.

Shiori? she thought.

Then someone interrupted her line of sight, chattering to a colleague as they passed before her, and when she could see where she'd seen a moment before, there was no one standing there, certainly no one looking at her with a look of desolation.

"Juri?" asked Maya, perceiving her confusion. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," she told her. "What could be wrong?"

Yet as sure as she stood in the faculty lounge of the University Division of Otori Academy, she was certain that she'd just lied to her TA, best friend, and lover ... and that something was horribly wrong.

Ding went the elevator, and it opened up in front of Misato to reveal Ritsuko's decidedly unimpressed face. Misato proceeded to give her theoretical best friend her usual "cute and helpless" smile. It was alas no match for Ritsuko's "annoyed and frustrated" frown, as well as the short 'back up' gesture that the scientist gave. Misato obliged, still smiling her "cute and mildly panicked" smile as she did.

Ritsuko stepped out of the elevator, speaking as she walked. "And this must be the Third -- what is he doing? Why are his eyes closed?"

"He's listening to music, apparently. It's kept him quiet instead of moaning and groaning, so I went along with it." Ritsuko was now giving her a full-force glare. "But I guess now would be a good time to tell him to stop," the soldier added quickly, and reached out to tap on Shinji's shoulder.

Shinji's eyes blinked open, then blinked again as he took in the new arrival. He reached down to shut off the SDAT player. "Ah ... hi. Who are you?" he asked, since that was the sort of thing that people might ask if they didn't know the exact name and conspiratorial role of the person confronting them.

"Shinji, this is Dr. Akagi Ritsuko, who's come to help us get to point D," Misato introduced. Then frowned, "Point D?" she muttered. "Why didn't I say Point B? Why did the words 'D Point' come to mind?"

Neither Shinji nor Ritsuko were paying her much attention at that moment. "And this must be the Third Child," Ritsuko said, as she'd been planning to say for quite some time.

"... uh, as far as I know, I'm my parents' only child, actually," Shinji replied.

Ritsuko raised an eyebrow as her blood froze in her veins. Why is he making a joke about that? she asked herself. After Misato's 'cool though clumsy big sister' routine, engineered to make the boy feel safe though confused, everything about her own appearance and manner had been designed to evoke a more fearful response from him, drawing up memories of the parts of his mother's identity that he had been too young to understand and so could only regard with fear. He should be remaining uncomfortably silent in her presence, especially when she used jargon like that.

This was not going according to plan ... which suggested certain intriguing possibilities.

"It's a technical term," she said. "There are two other children associated with Project E, in addition to yourself."

"Wow!" said the boy, who'd been shown the names and photographs of the twenty-seven children associated with Project E. "I'd really like to meet them."

"That may be possible," replied Ritsuko, who had until a few moments ago been almost certain that he would be meeting the Commander's whore today. She was starting to wonder whether that ploy would be necessary. To distract herself from such thoughts, she looked over at Misato, who was still muttering confusedly to herself. "It was the name of a location in Antarctica," she said irritably.

"Oh. Yeah. Hm. I can see why I'd remember something like that," Misato agreed.

Shinji stared at Misato, then slowly rotated to look questioningly in Ritsuko's direction. Ritsuko ignored the look, and turned on her heel. "This way," she said without a backward glance.

After a somewhat lengthy trip that included a discussion about the extremely low probability that something called 'B-Type Equipment' would actually work -- which Shinji knew to be an absurdity -- and a boat ride along a sea of red liquid -- which Shinji knew to be a coolant -- that ended up with the three of them in utter darkness, the lights were turned on and he found himself in front of something that looked like a helmet. His gasp of surprise was entirely unfeigned, for once. Nothing he had been shown, nothing he had been told had prepared him for the first sight of --

"This is the Ultimate All-Purpose Humanoid Decisive Battle Weapon developed by humanity," declaimed Ritsuko. "The android, Evangelion. EVA-01."

"A giant robot?" Shinji asked. "My father ... built a giant robot?" Given the last half-century of pop culture, he felt it was reasonable that he'd be developing suspicions about why he was here at this point.

"Correct," lied a voice from above.

Reflexively, Shinji looked up. And there he was, opening his mouth to say something else.

"Hi, dad, how's it going?" Shinji interrupted cheerfully, waving up at the man on the gantry.

Ikari Gendo blinked. "What?"

"What?" Shinji said back to him. "That's what you say to someone you haven't seen in a while, isn't it?"

"I --"

"Listen, about that whole thing where I ran away from you, last time we talked?" Shinji continued. "I've had a lot of time to think it over, and I was really being immature. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have lost my temper like that. I'll try to do better." He offered a bow, but not a particularly deep one. He could feel Ritsuko and Misato staring at him, but decided that didn't really matter at the moment.

"Shinji," Gendo said after a moment of consideration. "I want you to listen to me very carefully. You --"

"I'm listening," Shinji interrupted.

"Then do not interrupt. You --"

"Sorry, that was rude of me."

"... You," the bearded man continued, pausing as though expecting to be interrupted yet again. When that didn't transpire, he pressed on. "Are going to sortie in the Evangelion, and battle the angel."

Shinji heard Misato gasp beside him, and spoke very quickly to cut off whatever she had to say. "You want me to ride this giant robot into battle?" he asked, quite calmly.

"Yes," said Gendo. "That is why you were brought here."

"Hm. That's an interesting idea," said Shinji. "I think we should discuss it a little more, though." He turned to look at Misato. "Sorry, did I cut you off just now?"

"Yes!" she replied, irritably, before focusing her attention back on the figure high above. "Director, this is impossible! It took Ayanami seven months to synchronize with the Eva! You can't possibly expect a boy who just arrived here to accomplish it."

"I don't expect anything of him," Gendo answered calmly.

"That's sort of a hurtful thing to say, but you're probably still upset about the whole running away business, so I understand where it comes from," Shinji interjected. "But on the other hand, I think Misato-san is making some points that you might want to acknowledge --"

"There will not be any discussion," his father interrupted for once. "The fate of the entire human race rests on your shoulders."

"... really?" asked Shinji, face betraying a certain skepticism.

"Yes. Really."

"And you don't have a backup plan?" he asked. "That's really sort of irresponsible of you. At least, that's how it seems to me. Maybe I don't have the full picture, though," he admitted off-handedly.

"You are the backup plan," Gendou informed him.

"... no backup to the backup, then? I think that would really have been the smarter move, dad."

"Stop --" His father's outburst lasted almost exactly one second. The man spent a few moments in silence. "If you are going to get in the Evangelion, do it quickly. Otherwise -- leave."

"But I just got here," Shinji protested. "Don't you want to talk about the good old days?" Noting that Misato was still staring at him in horrified disbelief, he turned to smile and nod at her. "Yes, there really were some good old days."

"Y'don't say," she said faintly.

"There is no time for this nonsense," said the man on the gantry. "Akagi, have the medical staff bring Rei."

"Yessir," Ritsuko replied, glad of a chance to get a word in edgewise. "After all, she isn't dead yet."

"... indeed."

"Begin reconfiguring Unit 1 for Rei," the doctor began to direct the workers who had been quietly listening in on all this drama. Professionals one and all, they immediately got to work. Ritsuko herself turned to march away. After a moment, Misato did the same.

Shinji quietly noted the way that the lights on the unit's "helmet" shut off. Zazie's description of it hadn't mentioned that it did that, and he wondered what exactly the lights signified. They weren't eyes, he knew that much. Maybe night vision goggles for the thing's actual eyes?

He was abruptly jolted away from such considerations as he heard the doors on the right side of the cage opening up, and the sound of casters being wheeled in his direction. Confused, he turned to see a hospital bed being guided by a trio of nurses, with --

His heart skipped a beat as he realized the identity of the occupant of the bed. When Zazie had shown him the photos of the other children, his eyes had immediately been drawn to the picture of the girl named Ayanami Rei, at the very start of the list. He wasn't sure why he'd felt such an inexplicable sense of recognition when he looked at her picture, but he was feeling it again now as he gazed at her actual face ... and a decidedly explicable sense of horror as he considered how much of her body, wrapped in a skin tight uniform with a pair of zeros marked just above her breasts, was covered in bandages.

She was staring dully up at the ceiling, and did not seem to realize that someone was staring at her. The bed rolled to a stop at the left side of the bridge, and, with great difficulty, the young woman with the pale blue hair began to sit up. Her face twisted in obvious pain as she did so, and yet she did not stop moving as she began to get out of the bed.

This ... wasn't in the notes, Zazie, Shinji thought faintly.

The worst part about flying, thought Naegi Makoto, was how easy the movies made it look. According to them, all you had to do was stretch one or both of your arms out in front of you, and you turned into a jet, with your legs firmly locked together. This wasn't even close to how he experienced it. He found himself buffeted by the winds, which grew faster and faster as he went higher and higher, and his legs refused to lock, but dangled and waved as they might if he were falling, rather than moving horizontally -- or diagonally, really, though ascending rather than descending -- through the air.

He had the feeling that he could probably fly much faster than he actually did, but he had yet to figure out how to speed that up in the same way that he'd occasionally managed to speed up his ordinary movements. Maybe he was wrong, maybe he couldn't combine the two powers. If only he had been able to hold on to the suit's 'instruction manual'! (If he was being honest, he thought it was a bit ridiculous that the documentation hadn't come included in the suit, rather than as a separate object.)

Regardless of his discomfort, however, he'd arrived at the mountains surrounding Tokyo-3 around sunset, while there was still just enough light for him to make out the monster. It really was as huge as Kirigiri had suggested, and while vaguely humanoid, Makoto didn't get even the slightest sense that there was a human being inside the 'rubber suit'. He swallowed a bit, very conscious of how small he was in comparison.

Then he clenched his fists. He'd managed to figure out that was the gesture that activated the suit's strength augmentation. Again, he wasn't sure just how strong he could get. To tell the truth, he didn't really want to know -- the thought of accidentally killing someone with a single punch was a terrifying one. But right now, to deal with this thing, he was going to need every ounce of imaginary muscle.

He was getting closer and closer to the thing. Hovering was not a skill he'd mastered either, and he'd learned that his flight definitely had a 'stall speed'. Really, the one good thing about his ability to fly was the way he always walked away from his inevitable crashes ... and frankly, crashing into something was exactly what he needed to do at the moment.

So he clenched his fists as hard as he could, willed himself to fly at top speed, and directed his trajectory right into the small of the creature's back. Makoto reflexively closed his eyes the instant before he hit.

There was a sound vaguely like a bell ringing, and a bright, orange light that pierced through his eyelids ... and then Makoto realized that he was flying backwards. His eyes jerked open a moment before he crashed into a mountainside, hung there for a moment, and then began to slide down.

"Ow," he said. There wasn't any pain, exactly, but a sense of discomfort nonetheless. In the distance, he could see the monster, utterly unaffected by anything he'd done. Was he imagining it, or was there the fading afterimage of orange hexagons hanging in the air behind the creature?

It didn't matter, he told himself. "All right," he said aloud. "Round two."

Before he could once more take to the air, however, the monster ... did something, causing a bright light to emit from its front. In the distance, in the urban center it was observing, a tall pillar of light sprang into existence.

In the great cavern, or Geofront, below the cityscape just targeted, an upside down cross of light erupted from the ceiling, knocking a number of buildings free from thei moorings on the ceiling, sending them down towards Nerv headquarters on the floor below.

Within Nerv headquarters, the cage of Unit One shook violently, overturning the bed from which Ayanami Rei was attempting to rise. Shinji was also knocked to his feet by the tremors. Above him, almost recapitulating the fall of the buildings above the headquarters, light fixtures detached from the ceiling and began to fall. Shinji helplessly lifted an arm to shield himself from them, knowing it would do no good.

Mirroring his movements exactly, a gigantic purple arm lifted up from the purple coolant and swept over to interpose itself between Shinji and the lights, which deflected off the limbs surfaces and crashed into the coolant. Shinji stared up at the arm in confusion. "So," he said aloud. "Why does this thing need a pilot again?" 

It had actually been a more-or-less rhetorical question, but from the look he was getting from Gendo at the moment, he had the distinct feeling it was about to get answered in some form or another. Before that could happen, though, Shinji heard another voice from up there. It was too faint to make out any of the words, leaving him hearing only his father's half of the conversation.

"Not now, Fuyutsuki. What? Those idiots at the ANEx sent up another drone after turning the situation over to us? What? Male or female? Never mind what difference it makes, just tell me whether the flying person is male or female! Fine, fine."

"Oh, wow," said Shinji, somewhat dazedly. "You think maybe it's a real angel, upset at you guys for using the term for these things?"

"If you will not get in the Evangelion, I have no further use for you. Leave," snapped Gendo.

Shinji wasn't really listening. As soon as his father's voice had yanked him out of his dazed state, he'd turned his attention over to the collapsed bed and the just-as-collapsed girl beside it. Quickly, he hurried over to her, uncertain of what he could possibly do to help but conscious that the actual medical personnel present were crouching on the far side of the room like ... well, he had no real room to talk about anyone else's cowardice, but nevertheless.

She was, he realized as he knelt by her side, still trying to get up. "Hey," he said, softly, reaching out to her with his hands as he spoke. "It's, it's okay. You don't have to -- just hold on, will you? Things are different, now."

Her eyes, clenched tightly closed until this moment, met his. "No," she said, just as quietly as him. Her eyes were filled with pain, but there was something else there, too, something he didn't quite understand. She reached out to press a hand against his shirt, and he realized that she was pushing him away. There was no real force behind it, though, and her arm collapsed after a moment. It wasn't until he looked down that he saw a bloody hand print on his formerly immaculate shirt.

Shinji swallowed. "Okay," he said, pitching to carry even if he wasn't looking at his father. (Couldn't look at him, the dark voice inside him said.) "So this flying person or whatever, that changes everything, right?"

"No," said Gendo, echoing Rei. "Nothing has changed. Rei, you will need to get in it again. Your backup is useless."

"Yes," the girl replied.

This wasn't in the notes, Shinji thought desperately. I didn't know this was going to happen. She told me about you, but not that you were so -- I can't do this. What if I'm wrong? What if he's really going to go through with this? How am I supposed to live with it if -- no. I mustn't back down. I mustn't back down. I mustn't back down. "Mustn't back down," he whispered.

"Shinji," said Misato, who'd drawn closer in the last moment. "Don't you --"

"I'm really sorry, Rei, was it?" he said, clear enough for everyone to hear him. "But if that's how it's got to be, then that's how it's got to be." And unsteadily he stood up, and looked at Misato. "Okay, that side is more of this lake, and you're probably all too busy to give me another boat ride over to the other side. But this other side, where she came from, is that a hospital? Can I get out of here and back to the surface that way?"

"You. Utter. Jerk," replied Misato.

"I understand where that comes from, so I'm just going to let it pass," Shinji replied. "Misato-san, it was interesting meeting you." He looked over to where Ritsuko had paused in her work to watch this. "Ritsuko-san ... you were there too. Um, well, goodbye, father, I hope we can meet again under better circumstances."

"Run away, little boy," said his father.

That just about killed him. He painted on a smile, and replied, "I'll walk thanks. Nice steady pace." And so he did, turning his back on Misato and Rei, and walking serenely towards the door.

At least on the surface.

What if I'm wrong?

What if I'm wrong?

What if I'm wrong?

What if Zazie lied?

What if --

"Get back here, you shit," roared the voice from above as Shinji reached the doorway. And no matter how much anger there was in the tone, it struck Shinji like the most soothing shower he could imagine.

He turned to look up at his father, who was staring down at him. "Was there something else?" he asked mildly, then glanced in the direction of Rei, who, oblivious to all this byplay, had managed to rise to a standing position and taken a number of hesitant steps along the bridge, looking like a mermaid walking on broken glass.

To give the man his due, Gendo was clearly able to pick up on the subtext. Whatever else he wanted to say, what he did say was, "Rei. I am countermanding those orders. Your new orders are to return to your bed and rest there for the duration."

"Yes," replied Rei, who promptly collapsed. Now, apparently, the medical staff were willing to come help her out.

"Well?" Gendo proceeded to snarl in Shinji's direction.

"Well what?" Shinji parried.

"How? How did you know that I was bluffing?"

Answering that he hadn't might be entertaining. The full truth, that he'd been told to remember that he had the power in this situation as the one who could say yes or no, would put Zazie's mission in jeopardy. Nevertheless, Shinji decided that the man deserved a version of the truth for admitting that he'd been bluffing. "Father," he said, using the formal words rather than the informal one he'd been using until then. "I know what you think of me. You wouldn't have brought me here if you had any other viable options."

There wasn't silence, thanks to the ambient noise of the destruction above, but there was a strange stillness.

"Are you going to get in?" Gendo finally asked.

"What's the magic word?" asked Shinji in turn.

After a brief interval of visible struggle, Ikari Gendo sighed. "Please pilot the Evangelion." He sounded weary, if not necessarily defeated. It was a good start, though.

And Shinji smiled. "Sure thing, dad."

A few moments later, Shinji found himself inside a capsule dubbed "the entry plug", waiting to be inserted into the Eva -- specifically, he thought a bit queasily, into the creature's spine. If anything, his knowledge of what was actually going on here was something of a hindrance at the moment; believing that he was just being connected to an actual robot, instead of a mechanically-augmented living being, would have been much easier to handle.

The process was apparently completed rather quickly, judging by the faint thumps he could distantly hear through the plug's metal. Then a voice announced, "Filling the entry plug."

With great difficulty, Shinji was able to resist the urge to hold his breath. He wasn't supposed to know what was going on, when the orange liquid began to fill his compartment, starting from the bottom. "Hey! Hey, what's going on here?" he asked, finding it easy to sound a bit concerned. Zazie's notes hadn't been able to tell him much about this so-called LCL, especially not what those English letters represented. 'Link Connected Liquid?' had been added as an annotation to the official-looking document that mentioned it.

Whatever it was, the LCL was up around his neck when Ritsuko's voice echoed through the plug. "Please remain calm, Shinji-kun. Once your lungs are filled with LCL, you'll be supplied with oxygen directly." She sounded like someone trying to sound soothing despite not having much experience at it. He supposed that was sort of endearing, in a way.

Despite the terror of drowning that he felt, Shinji opened his mouth to let the liquid in so that it could fill his lungs, as the doctor had just said. It tasted absolutely horrible, and felt even more disgusting going down his tubes than it did on his skin. He kept his mouth open, however, since he doubted that anyone in the control room would be interested in listening to his complaints.

"Entering second level contact," declared the unfamiliar voice, and abruptly, the LCL became transparent. For a moment, he could see the walls of a smooth shaft around him, then it shifted into a rainbow, a star-spangled rainbow, the same stars against a black space, against a red space, characters and cubes ... and finally a view of the exterior of the cage, now drained of its pink coolant.

"Okay," said Shinji. "That was kind of trippy."

"Oh no," said Misato's voicee. "Don't tell me you're on drugs."

"What? No! Not unless this stuff I'm breathing counts!" he replied, feeling a bit dizzy as he watched air bubbles rise from his mouth as he spoke.

"Technically, yes," said the unfamiliar voice. "Synchronization rate is ... 39.7 per cent."

"Remarkably high for a first attempt," mused Ritsuko's voice.

"All harmonics values are normal. Everything is condition green."

He felt his jaw clench as Misato's voice declared, "Prepare for launch!" The view outside began to change and shift, as the bridge where he'd been standing not so long ago was pulled away, as were the plates restraining the Evangelion's arms and legs. Then the android itself was rolled backwards, towards something that the third voice he'd been hearing -- it was a nicer voice than Misato's or Ritsuko's, he realized abruptly -- referred to as the launch pad.

The implications occurred to him just as abruptly. "Oh boy," Shinji muttered, scrunching down in his seat.

"Launch preparations are complete," declared Ritsuko's voice.

"Roger," replied Misato. "Everything is good to go. Sir?"

"Unless we defeat the angels," said his father's voice, only faintly audible through the communications link, "humanity has no future."

A brief pause, then Misato snapped, "Launch!"

Sure enough, G-forces almost as intense as those he'd experienced when he'd been in Misato's car slammed into Shinji. That had been good training for this! He should really thank her if she ever deigned to speak to him again!

After what could have been seconds or hours, the Evangelion came to a sudden stop, almost jerking him out of his seat. He let out a long sigh of relief that the ordeal was over, and stared dazedly at the 'angel' that was staring at him from a few tens of meters away.

"Oh, yeah," Shinji said after a moment. "There's still you."

Flying in a circular orbit high above the monster's head, Makoto blinked as the robot Kirigiri had mentioned shot up out of the ground, attached to some sort of mechanism. Just like the monster, it resembled something out of a really expensive rubber suit show ... but with this, there was a sense that there was a human being under all the special effects, even though that was completely impossible, of course.

Did it see him? Was there a way that they could communicate, to coordinate their efforts? He knew that he was probably being ridiculously optimistic, even considering that possibility, but that was probably his only attractive quality.

With a loud bang, the robot was released from the frame, and seemed to slump forward, like a puppet being released from its strings. It straightened a bit, then took a single slow step forward, exerting an immense amount of pressure on the ground where it strode. Then a second step, just as hesitant as the first. The third step was the one where disaster occurred -- it looked as though the foot came up, then hesitated as though it was tripping on something that Makoto couldn't make out, and its other leg wasn't strong enough to keep it standing upright. The robot pitched forward like a comedian slipping on a banana peel, right in front of the monster.

"No," Makoto groaned. Even as he began to angle his flight towards the ground with the half-formed plan of helping the robot to right itself, the monster reached down with one of its dangly arms and grabbed the robot's helmet, pulling it up and -- amazingly -- lifting it into the air so that the robot's feet dangled a few meters off the ground. Makoto felt himself going white as he considered how much power was being exerted at the moment.

And then the monster reached out with its other arm, and both arms seemed to swell with muscle or something like it as it grabbed the robot's arm and began yanking it to the side, as though trying to tear it off. He watched helplessly as it twisted the held arm until it dangled helplessly in the monster's grip.

Knowing that the same thing would happen again, Makoto broke his orbit and made another divebomb dash towards the monster's left shoulder, hoping against hope that it couldn't keep up whatever force field had stopped him every time before this while it was attacking. Before he'd even come close to his target, a blade of light streaked out from behind the monster's left elbow, sending him off course and then seeming to surge up the length of its forearm and crashed against the head of the robot. Repeatedly.

Makoto slammed into the ground. Once again, he felt no pain from the impact, but as he looked up and saw that the robot had been knocked back into the mechanism that brought it to the surface, he found himself feeling no small amount of despair. "What good is being invulnerable when I can't do anything?" he asked, knowing that there was no one who was going to answer his question.

"We have damage to the head, exact extent unknown," declared one of the technicians.

"Control nerves are disconnecting one after the other."

"No readings from the pilot!"

Misato stared, aghast. But it was, oddly, Ritsuko who called out, "Shinji-kun!"

And then everything changed.

The creature dubbed 'Sachiel' by Nerv did not know that was their name. While probably at least as intelligent as a typical human being, they lacked what could be called the social awareness needed to give themself an identifier to distinguish themself from others of their kind -- largely because there were no others of their kind, and their social interactions with other kinds of entities were more or less non-existent, aside from receiving the will of the One whose will must be. 'Sachiel' will therefore be used to refer to them.

Sachiel possessed a variety of senses beyond the classical five (and the actual greater number) possessed by humanity. Their primary senses did not rely on electromagnetic waves of the visible spectrum, for example, though it did possess senses which could interpret such waves. Those senses were presently telling Sachiel that a great fog had quite suddenly rose up in the area where they were active, even as their other senses gave them the somewhat inexplicable message that they were being interrupted. As this had never happened before, Sachiel found themselves somewhat confused.

Another of Sachiel's senses informed them that the temperature of the area had abruptly dropped quite a bit. This was of significantly less interest than their sudden lack of primary sensory input. Due to their use of what human scientists called the AT Field, Sachiel was fully capable of walking on the surface of a star or enduring the depths of space. A relatively minute temperature change was of no moment.

After their relatively brief interval of confusion, a plan emerged from Sachiel's more rational thoughts. They had not moved from their position when the fog had arisen. Based on the injuries inflicted to their target at that point, there was reason to believe that said target could not move from its position. They would therefore target that position with one of their weapons, most likely ending the opposition of that target in a very final matter. If by chance their estimation of that position was incorrect, there was still an excellent chance that the target would be within the blast radius.

Sachiel began to charge that particular weapon.

The fog had an interesting secondary effect on those creatures not protected by an AT Field. It engulfed Unit One and moved through it to reach the theoretically sealed entry plug. For many terrestrial life forms, including humans, injury is experienced in the form of a burning sensation, and lowering the temperature of an injury can therefore soothe that pain.

"Okay," said a somewhat soothed Shinji, who still couldn't open his right eye and was trying very hard to avoid thinking about his left arm. "Android. Evangelion. Shogoki," he said, using the Japanese term for 'Unit 1' instead of the English one that had been used up until this point. "You don't like me, I don't like you, but neither of us wants to die today, right? That damn monster is right in front of us. You were made to fight -- so fight!"

He felt his jaw loosen, and something rising out of his chest -- a howl that shook the entire structure of himself and that which surrounded him. There was a sensation where he was crouching down, and then turning the potential energy of that crouch into a great leap forward, his head rising above the fog for a second before he slammed into the Angel, right hand grabbing hold of its central mass and feet pressed against its lower torso.

"Got you!" Shinji snapped.

The Angel seemed bewildered by this development, and seemed to very slowly reach out with its right arm to grapple with the weaker, broken side of its assailant.

"No! No!" he swore, and forced that broken arm to move, remembering that his own arm was not broken. For a wonder, it worked, and came up to take hold of the other side of the Angel's mass, strengthening his hold. Even when the Angel's arm bulked up again, it wasn't able to throw him off, though the pressure against him was not exactly pleasant.

"Okay," Shinji gasped. "Now what?"

The fog was slowly lowering, and now the upper body of the Angel and all of Unit One were above it. To Shinji's horror, he realized that there was a glowing light in front of the angel, suggesting that it was about to launch some sort of attack on him. He needed to dodge.

But that would mean backing down.

When he heard the crunching noise, Makoto knew that the battle between the robot and the monster had to have been rejoined. He crouched down, tilted his head up and jumped into flight. He was shocked to realize that he was rising upward much faster than he normally flew. Maybe taking off from a leap, instead of a standing start, was the key. But such thoughts vanished when his high jump took him up above the fog line, and he saw what was going on.

The robot, having somehow repaired its damaged arm, had grabbed hold of the monster -- but from the glow from the latter's chest told him that that the robot was about to be targeted with that blast! And there was nothing he could --

Wait, no, Makoto told himself. Think! See the thing that doesn't fit!

How was the robot even in contact with the monster? Whenever he'd tried to hit it, he'd bounced off the thing's force field. He squinted, the key to his vision enhancement, and looked closely. Where the robot touched the creature, he could dimly see the force field manifesting but being held back by a distortion around the robot's structure. Two force fields, interacting with each other to cancel each other out.

He took a deep breath and shaped himself into a missile, both fists clenched tightly before him. The odds of hitting the right spot were terrible. The odds of this working were even worse. But he had to try. He angled his flight towards where the robot was gripping the monster, and threw himself like a stone in that direction.

He hit --

The weapon was no longer functional. Sachiel was rather startled by the number of things that were no longer functional. The mission was clearly a failure, and they were not entirely sure what had happened. However, it didn't really matter. They could still accomplish something, and promptly altered their form so as to wrap around their opponent and, when destruction came, share it with them.

They burned --

"What. The heck. Just happened?" Misato asked as she stared blankly at the whited out screen before her.

"The Angel self-destructed. Are we getting any signals from the Eva?" Ritsuko asked her assistant.

"Nothing yet," Mizuno replied, quietly.

"But what was that thing with the fog, just then?" Misato demanded.

"I have no idea whatsoever," Ritsuko answered.

When she was absolutely certain that no one was looking in her direction, Mizuno Ami gave a small smile, and privately offered a prayer to the God of thieves and conspirators.

"We have visual!" announced one of the techs. "It's --"

And then every voice in the control room fell silent as they gazed at the unshielded form of that which they had called on to defend themselves.

Ikari Gendo smiled like a proud father might.

"I guess angels are sore losers," said Shinji, blinking his eyes to clear them of the spots from the brilliant light of the enemy's self-destruction. "Uhhh. Well, I think we won. Yay us. And --" He turned from one side to another to examine the destruction that the fight had caused, and then fell silent as he caught sight of the Evangelion's unhelmed face in a mirror-sheathed building beside him.

"Huh," he said.

The huge green eye that had just re-opened stared back at him; the four nostrils below it expanded and contracted as it breathed.

"I can see why they make you wear a helmet," said Shinji, rather dazedly. "'Scuse me, this is all a bit much, I think I'm gonna fai--"

"Ow," said Makoto as he dug himself out of the small impact crater he'd made in the ground. "Ow." He was experiencing actual pain this time, whether from smashing through the monster, crashing on the ground, or the explosion that had followed. Apparently the suit only made him nigh-invulnerable. He supposed that was good to know.

With some difficulty, he forced himself into the air once more, flying away from the robot without a backward glance. There would be recovery teams showing up, and he had the distinct feeling that he didn't want to be here when they showed up.

"I really don't want to do that again," he mused as he reached his cruising altitude. Then he flinched. "I just jinxed it, didn't I?" he asked plaintively.

A new day dawned.

"I don't believe this, I don't believe this, I don't believe this," Tendo Akane muttered to herself as she walked along the dilapidated street between her father's home and the bus to Academy City.

"It's a little bewildering on this end, too," agreed Saotome Ranma as he walked slightly ahead of her, looking out for any opportunity to demonstrate his balance but unhappily not discovering any. "Kinda cool going to school for the first time, though."

"Then perhaps you should be in kindergarten instead of my school," his fiance groused.

"Hey! I've got my characters and numbers down, all right?" Ranma said, turning to walk backwards so that he could face Akane while he spoke. "My dad made sure I got that, on top of teaching me our style. We just never settled down anywhere long enough to --"

"Were you under the impression that I cared?" Akane asked.

Ranma let out a disgusted sigh, swiveled on his heel in mid-step so that he was facing forward -- just in time to barely dodge out of the way of a gout of water being flung onto the street by an old lady trying to clean it.

"Are you crazy? Who does this, anymore?" he shouted at her while clinging to the top of a street sign. She smiled warmly at him, then kept right on washing the street. He was left with the suspicion that she was deaf, senile, or both.

To her credit, Akane didn't keep right on walking and leave Ranma behind, though the fact that she knew he could easily catch up to him made that credit somewhat dubious. "So the plan is that you start going to my school so that you get access to Library Island and try to find a cure for your curse there?" she asked once they started walking again.

"That is the plan that the good and decent man who is your dear old dad came up with, yes," Ranma replied, faintly mocking her rant from the last time the two of them had spoken.

"It's probably a good plan, then," she replied, ignoring the tone. "The sooner it works out, the sooner that you can move out of my dad's house and into one of the dorms like a normal person. Or go somewhere else. Somewhere else sounds -- wait, who's paying for all this?" Akane asked abruptly.

Ranma blinked rapidly. "Paying? It's not a public school?"

"This is Japan," she told him, glaring. "There is no such thing as a publicly supported high school here. Are you telling me that my father, who has no income, is paying your way through school?"

"I don't know, maybe?" he answered her, bewildered. "Isn't he paying your way --"

"I'm his daughter," Akane interrupted. "He set money aside for that before any of us were born. Nabiki," she muttered to herself. "This must be Nabiki's idea. I'm going to -- crap, there's the bus. Hurry!" she demanded, and started running down the hill.

Ranma outpaced her without really trying and actually pulled her up onto the nearly full bus as it started moving before she got aboard. For some reason, this demonstration of his manliness and generosity of spirit did not win her immediate gratitude.

"Ah!" cried a girl in a different uniform with a pig on her head who was also fairly close to the bus' door. "It's Akane-chan! Hi Akane-chan!"

"Hello, Mankanshoku," Akane replied in a way that wasn't particularly warmer than the tones with which she normally addressed Ranma.

"This is Akane, the younger sister of the girl who helps Dad out sometimes," Mankanshoku said to her oddly dressed friend with a red streak in her hair. "This is Ryuko-chan!" she continued her introductions. "And this is P-chan!" she concluded, gesturing towards the pig. "Who's that?" she asked then, looking at Ranma quizzically.

"My fiance," Akane explained, as though making such a statement wouldn't normally call out for further explanations.

"Yo," supplied Ranma. Was it his imagination or was that pig glaring at him?

"Ah, what a coincidence!" Mankanshoku continued. "Ryuko-chan is my --" Abruptly, there was a hand over the other girl's mouth.

"Ah-heh-heh, nice to meet you," said Ryuko-chan, whose hand it was.

... and was it his imagination again, or had that chick just assessed and dismissed him?

"Okay, what's the deal here?" asked Ranma as they approached the gates and saw a rather large number of young men in athletic garb loitering just past them.

"Let me handle it, all right?" Akane said through clenched teeth.

"Let you handle what?"

"She's here!" cried one of the boys in a karate gi as Akane came into view, and quite suddenly the entire group was racing towards the two of them --

-- until Akane held up a hand and cried out, "Stop!"

They halted in mid-charge.

"Gentlemen," Akane said after a moment of silence. "I regret to inform you that my situation has changed. As you are all aware, my father is a very traditional man ... and as such, he has chosen to engage me to marry a man not of my choosing." She glanced at Ranma, standing to her right. "This man, as it happens."

Ranma could almost hear the sound of every eye in the horde of boys turning to glare furiously in his direction. "Uh," he said cleverly.

"And as it happens, my fiance is also a very traditional man," Akane continued.

"Whachutalkinbout?" he hissed at her.

She ignored him. "Under no circumstances will he allow me to date other men, even if they should defeat me in battle. Perhaps he can be persuaded otherwise, but you must take it up with him. Good day, gentlemen," she finished, with a warm smile in their direction.

"What the f--" Ranma started to say before he was engulfed.

Casually walking around the violent melee while whistling an old mah-jong song, Akane headed for the steps up to the main entrance, where she was not all that surprised to see Nabiki and some of her sister's friends standing and watching.

"You know, sometimes I have my doubts that you and I are really related," Nabiki mused, not taking her eyes off the fight. "Never gonna happen again though."

"Your approval is neither sought, nor needed," Akane replied as she laid her hand on the doorknob. "We need to talk about --"

"He just finished beating up the horde in less time than it ever takes you, by the way."

Akane's hand tightened until her knuckles went white.

"What was that in aid of?" Ranma demanded in a very traditional manner as he climbed down from the small hill of unconscious bodies.

Shinji first realized that he was conscious when the question of how long he'd been staring up at the unfamiliar ceiling of his hospital room occurred to him. That naturally led to his awareness that he could have awareness of such matters. So he sat up in bed, and took a look around the no less unfamiliar walls and windows of the hospital room. No less unfamiliar, but sadly no more interesting.

He hadn't actually ever spent much time in hospitals before this. The various people who'd theoretically taken care of him over the last decade had never been cruel or hurtful to him, and he had to admit that he'd been rather fortunate in avoiding injuries or diseases. He therefore had no particular basis for comparison between the rather depressing environs in which he currently found himself and any other hospital setting. Well, there were the ones on TV, which seemed much more active and noisy than this, and he supposed that might be influencing his opinion of the place.

Shinji considered lying back down again and waiting to see what would happen next. Then he shook his head and swiveled out of the bed. Somewhat to his surprise, there were a pair of hospital slippers on the side of the bed nearest the door, and he proceeded to put them on his feet -- less out of any concern for getting his feet dirty than because he found the floor rather cold. Having already determined that he wasn't attached to any machinery, he proceeded to head out the doorway.

The hallway beyond afforded him a sight of the floor of the geofront, possibly explaining why things seemed so cold even if it was well-lit. In the distance, he could see recovery efforts underway.

Which of course brought it all back to him. Shinji let out a long, slow breath, and lowered his head to rest his brow against the window. "I'm supposed to do that fifteen more times?" he quietly asked nobody in particular, now that he was away from any listening devices in his room.

'Nobody in particular' really meant 'nobody present', or at least 'nobody likely to be present for some time to come.' Zazie had warned him that it would be difficult, he told himself. That she hadn't made it clear just how difficult probably just meant that she hadn't had the words to do so. Or maybe she really hadn't known just what it meant to work with an Evangelion. How could she, after all?

That, at least, was what the part of him that trusted Zazie kept telling himself. There was another part of him, though, the part that had been carefully, carefully taught to never trust or rely on anyone, that was telling him that he was being used as a pawn in a game that someone was playing. Possibly that someone wasn't even Zazie herself, but rather whoever or whatever was behind the 'consortium of interests' she claimed to represent.

If so, then the vague thought that pawns could be promoted was no real comfort. What he wanted was to get off the gameboard entirely. Which was easily accomplished, he thought bitterly, except for someone who was terrified of death.

He shook his head, rubbing it against the glass or perspex or whatever substance. Thinking like that was no help, not to him, not to anyone else, either. Besides, it didn't matter if he was afraid of death or indifferent to it. If he failed, either as a pilot or as someone infiltrating this organization, death would come to him regardless of his feelings on the matter.

The familiar sound of casters made him look up, and down the hallway. It couldn't be, could it? Apparently, it could. The same group of nurses, guiding the same bed, on which was lying the same girl, all passing by without a glance in his direction.

"Excuse me?" Shinji asked.

They kept right on going.

Okay. "Excuse me," he said, a little louder, and not making it a question this time.

This time one of the trailing nurses paused, and turned to regard him with an expression he chose to view as quizzical.

"I'd like to have a word with your patient, if that's --" He broke off, then repeated himself. "I'd like a word with her. Please," he added with a sense of irony. The worst they could do was say no, right?

The nurse stared at him, then made a vague shrug, before turning to walk up to one of the other nurses, lay a hand on her shoulder, and then lead her and the other two nurses away from the bed. All without saying a word.

Honestly, a straightforward refusal would have been much less creepy than what had just happened. But Shinji was not about to argue with results. He quickly went forward to stand at the side of the bed and look down on Ayanami. "Hi," he said.

She looked at him without apparent expression.

"We weren't introduced. I'm Ikari Shinji, and you're Ayanami Rei. I'd like to say that it's nice to meet you, but, well, any place and any other circumstances would probably be better than this, wouldn't they?" he asked, making an attempt at a smile.

She looked at him without apparent expression.

"Right. Let me just ... I'm sorry I used you like that. But ... I'm going to do my best, my very best, to do this thing so that you don't ever have to, em, 'pilot' Eva ever again. Not just you, but all of you. You, and Shikinami, and Asagiri, and Yuugiri and all of them. And if there's ever anything I can do for you, personally, just ask. I can't promise I'll do it, but I'll hear you out and see what I can do. That's all I wanted to say. And I'm sorry."

She looked at him without apparent expression ... and slowly, her lips moved. "You are a fool," she said.

"Probably," he agreed, nodding. He stepped back, and the nurses came back to take charge of the bed and rolled it away, casters squeaking until it turned out of sight.

"No, definitely," Shinji added a moment later. "Could have said something about the moon being beautiful, but noooo ..."

Unlike some of the schools in Academy City, the gates of Furinkan did not open again once they'd been closed in the morning, so students had no opportunity to head into the city at lunch time. Instead, lunches were typically eaten in the building's cafeteria, or in classrooms, or on the lawn of the school's grounds inside the walls. On his first day at Furinkan, Ranma found himself eating lunch -- the lunch Shanpu had nicely packed for him that morning, as practice for when she really was his step-mother -- on the grounds.

He was a bit surprised that he wasn't alone. After the business this morning, he'd expected other guys to give him something of a wide berth. But two from his class had shown up to offer to show him around campus. Their names were Hiroshi and Daisuke. Being Ranma, he'd forgotten their family names as soon as they'd been mentioned, and, to be honest, he wasn't entirely sure which of them was Hiroshi and which was Daisuke. But they seemed likable enough fellows, and they'd listened with interest to his sanitized stories about China and answered his minor questions about the school and the city.

Time for a more significant question, though. "So what exactly was the deal with all those guys who jumped me when I got here this morning?"

Hiroshi (or was it -- nah, forget it) coughed. "Well, they were actually jumping Akane until she convinced them to go after you. It all goes back to the start of the school year. Back then ... well, she was a lot cuter than she is now."

Ranma, who'd found Akane to be quite cute before she started talking, found that hard to believe. "Okay?"

"And a bunch of guys wanted to ask her out, but then Kuno-sempai, while he was trying to get elected to the Joint Student Council, declared that he wouldn't allow anyone to date Akane unless they defeated her in battle. So --"

"Wait," interjected Ranma. "What the hell is a joint student whatever ... and what does making some declaration like that have to do with trying to get elected -- you know, suddenly I'm not even sure I want to know."

"The Joint Student Council is sort of the combined student government of all the schools in the city," Daisuke-or-not tried to explain anyway. "Kuno-senpai got a lot of votes from the boys at our school, but pretty much all the girls voted for Fujino Shizuru, so even though the candidate from Honnoji won the field, of course, Kuno-senpai didn't even make vice president."

Ranma noted a conspicuous lack of an attempt to explain the link between declaration and election, but decided to let it go. "So what happened?"

"For month after month, Akane fought the boys off. After a while, she tried to make herself less cute so that they'd leave her alone." Hiroshi shrugged. "It didn't work. So finally, one day she lost."

"To one of those losers?" Ranma asked, glancing over to where he could see Akane sitting with two girls from their class, eating lunch and ... huh, not chattering away, but quietly listening to the girls doing so. He looked away before she turned to see him looking at her.

"Yep, some guy actually got lucky. Well, sort of," Daisuke clarified. "She agreed to date him, and he was crowing with excitement about how great it was going to be ... but when he actually showed up at the date, he got stood up. Apparently something had come up, and she didn't have time to call and tell him. And it kept happening every time she got beaten."

Ranma considered this. "So ... you do realize what was going on here, right?"

They nodded as one. "But the horde of hentai never figured it out, for some reason," Hiroshi said a bit smugly.

"And they kept right on challenging her every morning," Ranma guessed, disgustedly.

"And that's where you came in," Daisuke added.

"Well, just great," said Ranma. Then he shrugged. "Eh, well, it'll make for a nice morning workout, anyway. So who's this Kuno-senpai asshole and how does he fit into it? Is he just the biggest pervert in the school, or the pervert with the biggest mouth, or something? Did I kick his ass this morning and not realize it? Or was he sick today in addition to being a sicko? Is he standing right behind me?" he asked the rather terrified faces who were now regarding him.

"Verily," said a deep voice from above.

Slowly Ranma turned to look up at the rather curly haired gentleman in a kendo suit, minus the mask, who was presently regarding him with an expression of maybe seven parts contempt to one part dull curiosity. "Yo," said Ranma.

"You are the one whom I have heard is engaged to the beauteous Tendo Akane," the kendoka declared. "I would have your name, yet it is the custom to give one's own first. Therefore -- I am Kuno Tatewaki, high school sophomore. Captain of the Furinakan Kendo Club. I am known to my peers as the Blue Thunder of Furinkan High School!"

Ranma waited for a moment, then quietly asked, "Is there gonna be any weather effects?"

"No. There will not."

"Good to know. Um, well, yeah, I'm Akane's fiance. Saotome Ranma. How ya doin'? Are we gonna fight now?"

"No," said Kuno, with what was probably intended to come off as great patience. "It would be beneath my station to assail one who has merely spoken in an ill-considered manner. Nor, if the matter was decided by the father of Tendo Akane, would it be proper for me to object in a physical manner. In any event, it has been some time since I realized that ny affections belonged to another, a true embodiment of all that is fair in Japanese womanhood. I speak, of course, of the radiant and unsurpassed Kiryuuin Satsuki!"

"Who?" asked Ranma.

Kuno's eyes audibly narrowed. "Perhaps I misheard. Can it be that you have just demeaned the radiant and unsurpassed Kiryuuin Satsuki by implying that her name is not universally known?"

"No implication about it, I really have no idea who this chick you're talking about is," Ranma told him. "So ... are we gonna fight now?"

"... if your valor is the equal of your temerity, you will face me at dawn on the morrow, beneath the boughs of the World Tree," Kuno replied through clenched teeth. Before Ranma could answer, his date raised his voice, pitching it to carry throughout the school yard. "Tendo Akane-san! In memory of what once was between you and I, I shall do you the courtesy of ending this unwanted engagement of yours." And with that announcment out of the way, the Blue Thunder turned and stormed away.

"... it's been nice knowing you, Ranma," said Daisuke.

"Oh, come on," Ranma replied with a laugh. "He's just gonna try to hit me with a stick a few times. It's not a problem!"

"Ranma ... have you ever heard the term 'goku' before?" asked Hiroshi.

He blinked. What does Dragon Ball have to do with anything? "Well, yeah, of course."

"And that doesn't intimidate you?" Daisuke asked.

"What's intimidating about it?" Ranma asked, increasingly bewildered. Why be scared of a fictional character from a kid's manga?

They exchanged a look. "Bravest man we've ever met, Daisuke," said the one Ranma had thought was Daisuke.

"So what do you think about him, anyway?" asked Yuka, staring at Akane quizzically.

There was no real point in trying to pretend that she didn't know which 'him' the other girl was talking about. "Do I have to?" she asked. "Think about him, I mean?

"Seriously," said Sayuri.

"Seriously, I don't see how it matters what I think about him," Akane insisted. "This is the situation, and I have to live with it, no matter what I think. It cannot be helped."

Her only friends exchanged a look, and then turned it on her.

"All right, all right," Akane said wearily. "The truth is --" The truth is, I'm more jealous than anything else, of the way he seems to move so easily through a world that only hinders and entraps me. The truth is, I think I would really like to be him ... and that maybe just being at his side wouldn't necessarily be so bad. The truth is, I've shot that possibility dead and taxidermized its corpse, and I'm not all that happy about having done so. The truth is ... god, how can someone be so damn handsome?

And then Kuno-senpai showed up, had a short conversation with Ranma, and then announced, "Tendo Akane-san! In memory of what once was between you and I, I shall do you the courtesy of ending this unwanted engagement of yours."

Akane quietly contemplated this. If Ranma should defeat Kuno, who had always stretched her to her limits even before he started wearing one of those uniforms, then it would be further evidence that he was so far beyond her as to be something she could never reach in a hundred years of training. If Kuno should defeat Ranma ... she would owe her freedom to Kuno. And that would be Ranma's fault, too.

"Akane?" said Yuka. Or was it Sayuri?

"The truth is that I hate him so much I could kill him," said Akane.

"So hey," said Misato, yanking Shinji out of his quiet contemplation of things he could and should have said to Ayanami when he had the chance.

He looked up from his chair in the hospital's lounge to see her standing not far from him, in the combination of little black dress and red jacket that she'd worn part of yesterday. "Oh. Hello, Misato-san. Listen, I really do want to apologize for the way that I --"

"Save it," she said flatly. "You cannot expect people to like it when you play mind games at a time when humanity is in jeopardy."

"Well, I agree, but ... aren't you angry at my father for doing the same thing?" Shinji asked her.

"I am angry at him, but -- no," she said, cutting herself off in mid-sentence. "I refuse to have this argument. I am just going to do my job, and take you to the people who will be giving you your housing assignment. That's it. That's all. Maybe I'll be in a better mood the next time we have to interact."

"I hope so," said the boy dubiously as he got up from the chair. "Um ... am I really going there in this?" he asked, looking down at his hospital gown.

Misato handed him a package of clothing that included a familiar pair of pants and shirt. "They've even been laundered," she told him.

After ducking into one of the hospital rooms so that Shinji could get changed, the pair of them made their way to the elevator. Moments after Misato pushed the button, the doors swung open to reveal Gendo glaring down from behind them.

"Hi, dad," Shinji said, smiling broadly.

"Shinji," the director of Nerv replied.

"Going up or down?"

"Up," he answered shortly.

"Ah, too bad, we're going down. I was really hoping we could spend some time together, talk about the good old --" Shinji spoke without paying any attention to the way Gendo's right arm came up to start rapidly pressing a certain button on the out-of-sight control panel in the elevator, perhaps causing the door to close in Mid-sentence.

"I think he's warming up to me a little," the boy mused after a moment.

Misato considered replying to that, but chose to say nothing and just stare at the boy who kept on playing games.

Somewhat later, the two of them found themselves standing in the midst of a gigantic holographic map of Tokyo-3, while an Operations Division lieutenant went over the details of Shinji's new residence. "And it will be in the 6th block, just beyond this one," he said. "Satisfactory?"

"Okay," replied Shinji. "I don't really have any preferences on the subject."

"Excuse me," Misato spoke for the first time in quite a while. "Who'll be supervising his living arrangements?"

"Well, I will, I suppose," replied the lieutenant.

"So you'll be keeping an eye on him?" she asked sharply.

"Well, no, not really. But he'll have my phone number if there's any problems, and --"

"I can add you to my contacts list right now, if you like," Shinji offered, producing his phone.

"But will there be any adults watching for signs of trouble, is what I'm asking?" Misato pressed.

"It's all right, Misato-san," Shinji said, trying to be soothing ... again. "I usually haven't had a lot of adult supervision in my living circumstances before now, and it's never been a problem." And if by chance Zazie tried to contact him again, this would help facilitate that.

"That? That right there, what you're talking about? That is a problem!" she told him. She turned to the lieutenant. "Change of plans, he's living with me."

"Wait what?" said Shinji.

"Wait what?" unwittingly repeated Ritsuko.

"I'm not leaving this kid without any adult supervision," Misato told her over the phone. "Have you noticed that he's kind of crazy?"

"... I'm standing right here," Shinji pointed out quietly as he stood behind Misato on the phone.

She turned to glare at him, ignoring what Ritsuko was saying about Misato's lack of qualification to diagnose mental illness, and made a 'back up' gesture with the hand that wasn't holding the phone. Shinji folded his arms across his chest and stared levelly back at her.

"Then don't complain about hearing bad things about yourself!" Misato hissed while covering the phone's receiver.

"Sorry, what was that?" asked Ritsuko.

"Nothing, nothing," the soldier said hurriedly. "Look, I worked it all out with the brass, I'm just informing you as a courtesy."

"Then I guess it's settled," Ritsuko said wearily. "Just don't seduce him or anything, all right?"

"Excuse me?" yelped Misato. "Which one of us had that affair in college with the guy she kept insisting was way too young to be married with two kids? Hmm? Who was it?"

"Yes, yes, fine. Let me speak to the boy, though."

"Why, are you gonna tell him lies about me?"

"The truth would be scary enough, but he'll find that out regardless. There's still something I want to tell him. Him," Ritsuko repeated, cutting off Misato's demand for details.

Shaking her head, Misato extended the handset in Shinji's direction. "Yours," she said.

Shinji took the phone, looking confused. "Hello, Ritsuko-san? Was there something you wanted to --"

"Two important things to tell you," Ritsuko said, remembering another old boyfriend. "One, Misato's bark is a lot worse than her bite. She's going to warm up to you again, eventually. Never tell her I said that though. And two ... nobody else is likely to say this to you, Shinji, so I will. You did a very praiseworthy thing, today, and you should be proud of yourself. That's all. I'm sure that I'll see you very soon." Click.

It shouldn't have been all that surprising to hear music coming from the rehearsal room that Juri was walking towards. But when she heard the particular piece that began as she reached it, she found herself stopping in her tracks, eyes gone wide. After a moment, she resumed her stride and reached out to push the door open.

"Stop. Stop!" said a familiar voice in an unfamiliar, angry tone. As Juri entered the rehearsal room, the source of the voice, a man with blue-black hair, was facing away from her, standing over the shoulder of a teen-aged girl who was looking up at him in confusion. The only other person in the room, a blond man, did momentarily glance in Juri's direction and offer her a slightly embarrassed smile, before returning his gaze to the other two.

"Is something the matter, maestro?" asked the girl, using the Italian term instead of a Japanese one. She sounded every bit as genuinely bewildered as she looked.

"Are you seriously playing that piece? Do you really think that's going to impress me?"

"... I don't know what you mean," the girl protested. "I just like this piece."

"You're going to stick to that? You're really going to claim that you don't know about my history with this piece?" the maestro demanded.

The girl could only shake her head, but the blond man spoke up. "Miki ... it's been a quarter of a century since then."

The blue-haired man was silent in response, then let out a long, aggravated sigh. "Okay," Miki said. "I don't normally give second chances, so treasure this one. Mitsuru is going to book you another appointment --"

"Next week, same time, same place," said the blond.

"-- and you're going to spend the time until then preparing another piece. Any other piece. Clair de lune may be cliche as hell, but it has the benefit of not being The Sunny Garden. If it's done brilliantly, I may forget about all of this and accept you as a pupil. If not .. then not. Got it?"

"Yes, maestro. Thank you, maestro," she said, getting up from the piano bench, clumsily gathering up her sheet music, and dashing off past Juri without even a glance.

Miki followed her with his gaze, which led to him meeting Juri's gaze. He let out a snort when he saw her. "Kids these days," he said gruffly, then broke into a smile.

"Hello to you too, Miki," she said, returning the smile. "Tsuwabuki," she added with a polite nod in the direction of her friend's partner.

"Arisugawa-sensei," he replied, answering her nod with one of his own.

The smile was gone when she looked next at Miki. "Listen, I am so sorry that I couldn't make my schedule work so that we could attend your party," he told her.

"It's all right," she said, coming forward to reach out and rest a hand of reassurance on Miki's shoulder. "All that your being there would have meant was that I was able to talk to you about what happened sooner --"

"Well, I should hope we'd have talked at the -- wait, about what happened?"

"-- and I wasn't in any fit state to talk about what happened at the time anyway, as poor Maya will certainly attest," Juri concluded, rubbing her face with one of her hands.

"Did something unfortunate happen?" Mitsuru asked, frowning as he approached the two of them.

"Not ... unfortunate, just very confusing. Not just confusing, either. Impossible. I saw something impossible, and now atheistic, materialistic me can't get it out of her head. If you'd been there, I could have asked whether you saw it, too, or if you saw something that can explain it, or ..." She trailed off. "I sound crazy, don't I?" she asked, abruptly.

Miki and Mitsuru exchanged a glance. "You sound ... stressed, definitely," Miki said at length.

"How long has it been since you last saw your sister?" Juri asked.

Miki blinked at the out-of-nowhereness of the question, but answered calmly. "I think it's been nine years since she uninvited us to her wedding, and maybe another four since I was in the same room as her."

Juri blinked in her turn. "You never told me about that. Uninvited? Really?"

"It was a bit more complicated than that," Mitsuru said before Miki could say anything.

"No it wasn't," his partner said firmly.

"He got an invitation that didn't specify a plus one, so he called Kozue-san to remind her that I exist, and she said that she'd send another one. Which never materialized."

Juri flinched. There had been plenty of times when she'd found herself cut out of family gatherings because of her orientation, but it was somehow worse to imagine it happening to Miki.

"Until you asked, I hadn't thought about her since then," Miki said. "As far as I'm concerned, Kozue might as well be dead."

"Right, a poor choice of parallel, then," she said with a shake of her head.

"Forget it, forget it," Miki insisted, waving his hand. "Look, let's go get some coffee, and we'll sit down and talk about this thing you saw."

"Yes, let's do that," Juri agreed.

The three walked out into the hallway, discussing their respective classes, current events, anything but the subject that they were going to be talking about in a few minutes. When they reached the foyer of the performance hall, however, Miki froze in place. "Did I lock the rehearsal room?" he asked uncertainly.

"Oh, feathers," said Mitsuru. "I don't remember either."

"I'll go check, just wait here," the maestro told them, then dashed off.

When he was almost within reach of the doors to the room, he too began to hear a certain piece playing, and stopped in his tracks. Then he got angry. Had that stupid child come back here to keep playing for some reason? He grabbed the door knob and opened it quickly.

"Listen you --" he began to shout, and felt his voice die in his throat. Sitting at the piano was a girl in an old-fashioned school uniform with hair only a bit darker than his own, silently playing The Sunny Garden as only two people had ever played it. The girl's hands stilled, music faded, and she stood up and turned to face him.

Kaoru Miki screamed.

Clustered around the western gate of Academy City were a number of apartment buildings largely rented out to teachers at the city's schools, as well as a handful of properties owned or leased by business owners in the recreation district. This was also the region of the home of the Yuuki family, as the paterfamilias, nominally a member of the faculty at Mahora University, had obtained permission for his three children (two biological, one technically adopted) to reside there with him. Even though said faculty member basically taught one hour a year to a chosen master class, plus the occasional surprise visit, and spent the rest of his time dodging TAs while working on multiple manga series.

Yuuki Mikan frowned as she considered these facts of her life while reading one of those series, about a group of serious space explorers who kept running into a bunch of not-at-all-serious space wizards. She had the strangest sense of deja vu while doing so. Well, maybe not deja vu so much as deja pense. It was probably nothing, this couldn't possibly be the first time that she'd thought about how her father couldn't possibly do the work he was hired to do by the University and his various artistic endeavors, there not being nearly enough hours in the day.

(There it was again! Weird.)

Well, whatever. All that it meant was that, instead of heading to one of the dorms in order to kick off her shoes, lie down somewhere and read manga while her heels kicked behind her and she sucked on a popsicle, she came back to the home she shared with her crazy family and did the exact same thing. She was content in her situation, and wished that her siblings could say the same.

Think of the devil, and he shows up. Mikan heard the front door open, then close, and a set of footsteps moved through the foyer and into the living room. She kicked up her heels all the way, and felt the change in the sofa's texture that told her that someone had sat down on the space behind her. A deep, melancholy sigh from back there confirmed it.

"Soooo?" asked Mikan without looking up from her manga.

"Soooo?" replied her only biological sibling.

"Soooo why are we so depressed today?"

"Well, in addition to all the usual crap that I go through pretty much every day, today Sairenji asked me to come with her to the library to do some independent research."

Mikan's eyes bulged, and she wiggled around so that she was seated upright. "What? That's wonderful! That's a great opportunity to spend time with this girl? Why are you so bummed out about something so -- oh, no, what did you do?" she groaned in anticipation.

"It wasn't me this time! She went off to get the books, and when I realized that she was taking a while I went to see what the matter was ... and I saw that she was talking with a guy." Yuuki Riko brought up her hands to her face, and moaned in a manner befitting the restless dead as she bent over, full breasts crushed against her knees.

"Maybe they were just talk--" Mikan started to suggest.

"And when she finally came back to our table, she told all about him, how much he reminded her of me, how much she wanted me to meet him, what a fascinating person he was and I would be if I were a guy," Riko concluded without looking up.

"Did she really say that last part?" her sister asked, skeptically.

"Well, no," Riko admitted, peeking out at Mikan from between her hands. "But she could not have put up more 'I like boys' flags if she was trying. Maybe she was trying," she added in an even more miserable tone. "Maybe all the little hints finally added up, and she wants to subtly tell me to back off without actually saying that."

"Hey," Mikan interjected. "Remember who you're talking about here, okay? This is the girl who stood up for you in front of the whole class in middle school, when everybody thought you'd wrecked those flowers. Sairenji-san doesn't do things by half-measures. If she wanted you to stop spending time with her, she'd just say that. And wouldn't ask you to go to the library with her, either."

Riko sighed. "I know, I know, I just ... it's so frustrating."

"That's why you ought to put an end to the frustrating," Mikan pressed on. "You need to confess, straight up now tell her how you feel."

"It's just not that simple. I can't just go to her and say, 'Sairenji, I like you. And not just as a friend, but as a woman. I llllllllllllllllllll--" Eventually, the strain of holding this note became too much for Rito's throat, and her voice dissolved into coughs.

"Well, that's further than you've ever managed to get before. On the other hand, she's not even here, either," Mikan sighed, then reached out to give her older sister a hug around the shoulders. "Oh, Riko, you useless lesbian."

"Wahhhhh," Riko replied.

After a few moments, the older sister had calmed down to ask a few questions. "So is Nao out doing Nao things again?"

"'Fraid so," Mikan confirmed.

Riko sighed and shook her head. "Ohhhh, that girl. I think I've got to go out looking for her this time, after supper. I'd better go have a bath now, then."

"Good way to relax, too," Mikan said with a nod.

Her sister got up from the couch, favored Mikan with a weary smile, and went to go up the stairs. Mikan picked up her book again and started reading it, secure in her knowledge that Riko would be in the tub for a while, and that nothing strange was going to --

"YEEEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAA!" came a shriek from upstairs.

Mikan's head jerked up. "Riko?!" she called out.

"It's fine!" came the panicked sounding voice of her sister. "It's just fine. Noooooothing to worry about!"

For some odd reason, Mikan regarded this statement as questionable in veracity, and got up from the couch to walk slowly over to the staircase. Looking up, she briefly saw Riko, wrapped in a towel, running down the hallway at the top of the stairs ... and caught just the faintest glimpse of another person, with bright pink hair, being pushed forward by her sister.

Mikan considered this for a long moment. "Ah," she said eventually. "Visual hallucinations. Interesting."

She turned and walked a bit mechanically back to the couch, where she curled up in a ball and waited for some indication that sanity had returned to the world. When after a few moments she could hear the sounds of a struggle coming from the floor above, she nodded. "Auditory hallucinations, too. Hmmmm."

Eventually the noise subsided, and a while after that Mikan fell asleep.

Kuga Natsuki finished changing her biker leathers for her high school uniform, and unzipped the door of the small portable tent she used for such changes of clothes. She'd have prefered to have a more natural shelter, perhaps a deep woods that no one walked through willingly, but it wasn't to be. The forests of Academy City had all be chopped down for lumber, and anyways, Natsuki had learned through terribly painful experience that she was never going to have everything that she would have preferred.

Even this evening was proof of that, she mused while collapsing the tent's frame and starting to pack it up. She preferred, on those occasions when her journeys led her back to the campus where she was nominally a student, to arrive early in the morning so that she could make an appearance in classes. Yet here she was, in the early evening, preparing to head for the dormitory where she was nominally a resident. Ah well, she thought as she put the tent's bag in her cycle's baggage compartment, it can't be helped.

And then the orange-haired girl she'd run into on the train job the last week came walking briskly into sight, stopping just a short distance from her.

"Oh," said Natsuki. "So you didn't blow up after all."

"Very funny," the girl with purple eyes replied. "Big time yucks. Where the hell have you been, these past few days? I've been looking all over for you!"

Natsuki blinked in confusion. "Why would you even think I was a student here?" she asked, then shook her head. "Right, not important. Look, if you're looking for some sort of apology for what happened, you can just forget it."

"Oh, no," the girl said with a shake of her head. "I wouldn't dream of expecting that from you, Natsuki."

Immediately, Natsuki went on the alert and took a step back away from the cycle. "How do you know my name?" she asked sharply.

"Also not important," the girl answered with a sharp cutting motion of her right hand. "Though ironically, I think I'd probably have an easier time explaining it to you than I would to Mikoto, even if you'd probably never believe it any more than she'd understand it. But the reason I sought you out, Natsuki, didn't have anything to do with explanations or apologies. It was because, when you and I end up meeting, he shows up." Abruptly, her hand snapped up to point at the phone pole just behind Natsuki's back.

Natsuki snorted. "I'm not falling for th--"

"Hah?" said an obnoxiously familiar voice from behind her.

Just as abruptly, flaming magatama burst into being around the girl's hands and feet, and she herself burst into motion, flying up past Natsuki, who whirled to see that she had flown up to and into the face of the obnoxious Homura Nagi, who was perched atop the phone pole.

"You," she said. "You did this to me!"

"H-how did you manage to unlock your powers without my knowing about it?" Nagi asked her, sounding and seeming genuinely startled to Natsuki's eyes.

"I'm going to burn you to ashes. Then, maybe, I think I will beat you to death with my bare hands, a few times," the girl told him though clenched teeth.

"Okay, let's all take a deep breath --" said Nagi.

And then, in the blink of one of Natsuki's eyes, neither he nor the girl were atop the pole anymore. Instead, they were on the ground, Nagi flat on his back and the girl with one of her shoes on top of his neck. "Nope," said the girl.

"I stopped time!" Nagi gasped. "How did you --"

"Well, I was thinking, and I said to myself, 'gosh it would be really convenient if I could keep moving when someone stopped time'. And then it happened, and here we are. Have you ever been flayed, Nagi?" she asked, rather conversationally.

"Seriously, please calm down, Mai-hime!" the white-haired boy asked, sounding almost like someone who was begging.

"Don't fucking call me that!" the girl -- Mai? -- roared.

"Okay!" he nearly shrieked. "I won't! No more calling you that, Tokiha Mai. I swear. And I swear, I haven't done anything to you!"

"I. Don't. Believe you," Mai growled. "I think maybe I should start by seeing whether I can set your blood on fire."

"Stop," said Natsuki. She couldn't quite believe she'd just said that once she did.

"Did you just tell me to stop?" said Mai, slowly turning so that she could gaze in Natsuki's direction. Natsuki flinched at the fury in those eyes. "You? Miss quest of eternal vengeance?"

"How --" Natsuki nearly squawked. "No, not important. If you know anything about me, you know that I want to take vengeance on the people who killed my mother ... but I don't want to take that vengeance on someone who wasn't involved!"

"There's a train that would argue that point," the other girl said.

But the fact that she was talking at all was a sign that she was getting through to her. "That was different, that was ... look, I didn't go out of my way to hurt anybody that night, all right? If Nagi says that he didn't do whatever it is you think he did -- he's an annoying bastard, but he's never lied to me that I know about, all right?"

"So sweet," gasped Nagi from beneath the shoe.

Mai's eyes closed, and she breathed deeply for a few moments. "Such a messed up world," she half-whispered. Then turned to glare down at Nagi. "Okay," she said. "Tell me one more time that you didn't bring me here."

"You're from another world?" Nagi asked, staring up at her in horror.

"That's not what I wanted to hear."

"Tokiha Mai," said Homura Nagi, in a tone more solemn than Natsuki had ever heard him use. "I will now swear on the only thing I hold sacred that I did not bring you here from another world." He then produced a series of sounds that sounded, to Natsuki, like a series of musical tones from a movie about contacting aliens that she'd seen once.

Mai blinked. "I ... understood that," she said, in an uncertain tone. "What are you?"

"That's not important," replied Nagi. "But you understand, now? You understand that I can't break faith with that?"

Slowly, Mai pulled her foot away from his throat, and stood back to let him stand up.

"Come," Nagi said once he'd done so. "Let us reason together."

While she was no more eager to return to the violence that had led to this moment of calm, Natsuki still found Nagi's willingness to negotiate a bit suspicious. "Just so we're clear on this," she said aloud, "I might not think you're lying, but I still don't trust you a bit beyond that."

"And there is no reason that you should, Kuga Natsuki," the white-haired boy said, very formally. "I have my goals, and you have yours -- and they are, as you guess correctly, incompatible." A bit of his old smugness came back for a moment. "I'm not so nice as to tell you how, though."

"Of course not," Natsuki grumbled.

The smug went away as Nagi turned to look at Mai. "But your goal, on the other hand ... forgive me, but I assume that you want to return to your original world. From your familiarity with me and with Natsuki-hime, I gather we have counterparts there."

"Yes," Mai said. "I knew you both there, and everyone else involved in this, this psychopathic Carnival of yours. It's in the past there. It's over, there."

"And you won," said Nagi, nodding slowly.

"No. I fought, we won. We destroyed the Obsidian Prince, and the Hime Star. There would be no more Carnivals, no more HiME, no more ... and everything was good," she concluded, eyes closed. "Okay, it wasn't perfect, especially after Yuuichi and I -- but that's not important. We were all happy --"

"When you say 'all'," Nagi interrupted, looking a bit sick, "are you talking about all the HiME? You all survived?"

"Implying that we're not all going to survive here?" Natsuki asked sharply.

"You already knew the stakes, Natsuki-hime."

"And who the hell is the Obsidian Prince?" demanded the tall, dark bishojo.

"Yes, nobody died." Mai finally seized the chance to get a word in edgewise. "We all made it home. Everyone was there when it happened ..." Her eyes were far away.

Natsuki and Nagi both fell silent at this, exchanging a glance. The boy gestured towards Mai with his head. Natsuki rolled her eyes, but took the hint anyway. "What exactly did happen?" she asked.

"It was a beautiful day on the beach," she said, not really looking at anything present. "There was no reason for it to ... a storm. A terrible, sudden, out-of-nowhere storm. Before we even knew what was happening, it was impossible to see anything. I felt someone's hand in mine. I don't know whose it was. I could hear Mikoto calling out to me ... and then I was being pulled up, and I felt the hand in mine slip out of my grip as I rose up, and ..."

Mai drew in a deep, shuddering breath. When she spoke again, she seemed no calmer, but was at least back to being the hard-edged girl who'd started this explanation. "There was a moment of absolute darkness, and I heard a voice saying 'this world is already over'. And then I woke up and I had Mikoto in my arms again, in a circle of ashes again, but in front of that walled fortress they call Honnoji this time, and beneath that bloody mess you call a sky. And somehow I knew it was starting all over again."

"You have my deepest condolences, Tokiha Mai," Nagi said, sounding solemn once again.

"Oh really," Natsuki said, glaring at him.

"Natsuki-hime, whatever you might think about me, rest assured that I am not so heartless as to wish life in this world on anyone not born to it," the boy told her with a mild glare of his own.

Natsuki subsided, tacitly acknowledging the point.

"If you didn't bring me here, who did?" Mai asked Nagi.

"I don't know that either," he admitted. "I've heard of beings who can exchange minds, but they can't do so ... easily, and not under the circumstances you describe. I assure you, though, I'm going to do everything in my power to help you get back to where you belong."

"That's ... oddly helpful of you," she said dubiously.

"It comes back to goals," Nagi reminded. "My goals are going to be a lot harder to achieve if a HiME of your power and foreknowledge is interfering with them, so it's definitely in my interest to get you back to your own world."

"Or kill her," Natsuki interjected, to break up the love-fest.

Nagi smiled faintly and shook his head. "I wouldn't even if I could, I think."

"Because of the dance in four dimensions," Mai said quietly.

He blinked and gazed at her. "Did the version of me in your world tell you about that?" he asked, genuinely surprised.

She blinked. "You ... must've done," she said, oddly evasively.

Nagi made another sound of surprise. "Well, I will talk to some people I know, see what they can tell me," he said.

"Nagi-san," Mai said, using his name for the first time. "I hope you understand that, until you can actually help me, I'm going to keep using that power and foreknowledge you talked about to help the HiME." There was no real anger in her tone, now, but no warmth, either.

The boy sighed. "That is really going to mess up my life, but, yes, I understand why you'd do that. I hope you'll be a little bit moderate in your approach. Consider this a gift to encourage you to do so."

"Neechan?" asked a voice from behind Mai.

She rapidly turned as a young boy in a gakuran ran up to her. "Takumi!" she called.

"I saw you running off somewhere, and I followed you, but then I lost you, and now I found you again, and my chest --" the boy nearly screeched as he was crushed against the taller girl.

"Hey kid," said Nagi. "Might wanna take better care of this." With that, he tossed a pillbox towards the boy called Takumi.

"I remember this," Mai said softly as she held her brother while he gulped down pills. "I'm not sure you can call fixing a situation you caused a gift." She directed that in Nagi's direction.

He shrugged. "Best I've got. I'll see you when I see you, Tokiha Mai."

"One more question before you go," Mai said quickly. "Where are Yuuichi and Shiho? I've seen everybody else somewhere in this ... place ... but not those two. Where are they?"

"I don't even know who you're talking about," Nagi answered with a shake of his head, and sauntered off muttering to himself.

"Who was that?" Takumi asked a bit feebly.

"A jerk."


"Natsuki, I've got to go take care of my brother," Mai started to say.

"Your brother?" Natsuki replied archly.

Mai paused, then nodded to concede the point.

"What does she mean by that?" asked Takumi, still feebly.

"I'll explain later," said the person wearing his sister's face, then turned back to Natsuki. "I do want to talk to you again, but I'm not sure where you live, this time."

"There's this wrecked gazebo --" Natsuki started to say.

"You use it as a meeting place, even though it's wrecked?" Mai asked, eyes wide.

"Yes, you clearly know what I'm talking about. Be there tomorrow after class," she said.

"Right. First bit of counsel -- could you try to be a little nicer to Fujino? She's crazy in love with you, y'know?"

Natsuki stared blankly as Mai and her brother started to walk off. "Now, listen, Takumi, there's something I should probably tell you about your roommate before we meet them."

"Neesan, how would you know anything about my roommate?" the boy asked bewildered.

"Well ..." said Mai, before she moved out of Natsuki's hearing range.

"What?" Natsuki finally said, just as she was drowned out by a much louder cry of "What?!" from Takumi.

As big on the outside as Mikado's house was, it was even bigger in the inside. as someone had already observed. Even with all the hidden rooms meant to stash illegal alien cargo, patients in recovery best hidden from local or cosmic authorities, and simple adult recreation chambers, there was still more than enough room for three high school students, three middle school students, a child teacher and Mikado herself to gather together.

There actually wasn't much gathering going on, though, or much in the way of conversation. The high schoolers -- Risa, Mio and Sakura -- were sitting together on one side of the room in use, with Yuna, Haruna and Misora on the other. While Risa and Mio had been happy to accept the invitation to come meet the other friends Negi had told them about, they had perhaps been under the impression that such friends would be their own age or older. Meanwhile, Misora was occasionally giving fearful looks in the direction of Sakura, who feigned not to notice them.

"Well, it seems that I'm going to need to get things started," Negi murmured, just loud enough for Mikado to hear as she stood just outside the room's doorway with him.

"Are you going to tell them everything?" the alien doctor asked. "Even about, well, you know?"

Negi tilted his head to look up at her. "There's a lot that could be covered under that 'you know'," he pointed out, just a bit snarkily. "Which part exactly --"

"Them," Mikado replied. "My other houseguests."

"Oh. Nnnno, I don't think ... well, I think I might tell Sakura to see if she can help them, but Risa and Mio don't need to know about them."

"Your call," said Mikado. "Well, go knock 'em up, sensei."

He smiled at that, and walked into the room, taking up a position in the center of the room. "All right, I suppose you're wondering why I've summoned you all here," he began. "Well, you all have something in common, and I'm about to explain what it is."

"Huh," said Risa a few minutes later. "So lemme see if I've got this right -- magic is real, you use it, so does --" Here she nodded in Sakura's direction. "-- and magic is telling you that humanity needs new heroes, and you want to father them with us."

"That's a simplification, but essentially correct," Negi nodded.

"Oh god, we fucked a crazy dude," Mio said, staring blankly. "We let crazy dip its dick in us, Risa-chan."

"Well, that's what I thought at first, too, but then those aliens showed up, and the whole thing started to seem a lot more plausible," Yuna interjected.

"And some other stuff happened to me, and knowing this helped me make sense of it all," Haruna supplied.

"Okay, yeah, I get it," said Risa, holding up a hand before Misora and/or Sakura could confirm that Negi was not actually crazy about the whole magic thing. "I don't think you're lying, Negi-kun, and I don't think Mio does either. I mean, that thing you did with making fire on your finger was clearly not a trick. It's just ... look, I got into this because I thought it would piss off my parents," she confessed. "And while having a baby when I'm still in high school would really really piss off my parents, it'd also make them kick me out of the house when they found out, and then I don't know how I'd take care of the kid!"

"Risa, that's a completely valid concern," Negi reassured her. "And I would definitely do everything I could to support you and our child."

She made a face. "On a teacher's salary? For all of us?" she reminded him.

"Well, in this case, everything I could do would include drawing on my mother's financial resources, and she's probably the wealthiest woman in the world who isn't a member of the Brittanian royal family or the head of the house of Saud." He paused, looked around with a concerned expression, then turned to stare at Mikado who was still in the doorway. "Do you have an old-fashioned cash register in this complex? Because I could swear I just heard --"

"Must be your imagination," she told him, deciding not to mention the way she'd just seen the sclera of Mio's eyes turn into yen signs for a moment.

"I like this plan!" declared Mio, resting a hand on Risa's hip. "I think this is the coolest plan I've ever heard! Let's do it -- for the future of humanity!" She punched the air with her free hand.

Risa looked at Mio for a moment, before sighing. "It's hard being a girlfriend," she murmured, then spoke up a bit louder. "I'm in too. Um. So, if we stop taking birth control pills now, how long will it take before we get pregnant?" The question was directed at Mikado.

"There are too many variables to give you a precise answer, but the pills should wash out of your system within about a week," the doctor answered. "While I could prescribe some treatments to increase your fertility, I think those are probably best reserved for people who've had demonstrated problems, rather than someone on their first time."

"Heh. It's funny because I haven't had something that could be called my first time since I was eleven, and -- nnnnnever mind," said Risa, realizing that every eye in the room was suddenly on her. "I still have a few questions, Negi-kun, but they can wait."

"All right then. Because the reason I called all of you together was not just to explain this to all of you, but also so we could, you know, have some good times together, and get used to each other's presence, and, you know, enjoy ourselves." Negi smiled warmly.

"I knew it," murmured Sakura, shaking her head.

"Well, you said you wanted to try exhibitionism," Risa said to Mio.

"Didn't I!" Mio agreed energetically, and pounced on her girlfriend, kissing her madly as they rolled off the padded chair and on to the floor together, their clothes starting to come off quickly.

Sakura gave them a brief glance before she got up from where she was sitting and walking over to where Misora was hunched up in a ball. "Misora, are you frightened?" she asked gently.

"Nowhatcouldpossiblygiveyouthatidea?" Misora replied through chattering teeth.

"It's all right to be frightened," her partner told her. "And I'm a bit scared myself. But when I think about that, I think about how lucky I am that my partner is going to be going through this with me, all the way." She crouched down before Misora. "So maybe you could try that, and try to be happy, too? Because I can't be happy when the people I love aren't happy."

"I-I-I-I," Misora repeated, then swallowed, breathed deeply for a few moments. "I love you, Sakura."

"I know," she replied, smiling. And she leaned forward to press her lips against Misora's, and felt Misora pressing up against her as their lips, teeth and tongues brushed against each other, and Sakura's school uniform began to get unbuttoned one by one.

"Well," said Haruna, watching this. "I guess the only thing for me to do is to join with someone who has been asking for it for quite a while, who's been really wanting it, and --" She turned then to see that Negi and Yuna were frantically making out and that one of his hands was already in his roommate's panties.

"Okay, then," Haruna continued, then looked over at Mikado. "Are you in or out?" she asked.

Mikado unbuttoned her lab coat to reveal that she'd left off the underwear this time. "Very much in," she replied, and sauntered over to rock Haruna's world.

"Ngahhhh," said Haruna a few moments later, lying flat on her face on the couch with one foot touching the floor and the other hooked over the end cushions, her bra and panties both pulled out of shape and the eyes behind her glasses dazed. Her world had indeed been rocked.

"You're quite good, for a beginner," Mikado assured her from where she was leaning nudely against the other end cushions, just above Haruna's head. "Much better than a certain annoying, clumsy but oh-so-cute blonde I could tell you about." She sighed then, drifting off into bittersweet memories for a moment.

Displaying the recovery time which was the pride of the Saotome family (that and the speed with which to execute the Saotome secret technique) Haruna managed to roll over onto her back and even lift her head a little. From where she was lying, she could see that Risa and Mio had moved into the sixty-nine position, licking and fingering at each other in well-trained unison. She could hear sounds that told her that Misora was clearly enjoying what was being done to her by Sakura, even if they weren't in her line of sight.

She frowned then, turning her head to look up at the top of the couch, where she'd just had the sensation that she herself was being watched as she watched others. Nobody was there, though, and Haruna shook her head to clear it of such delusions as she turned her head the other way, to watch Yuna and Negi.

It was funny, in a way, how those two always ended up the same way, with Yuna astride him, sometimes bending down as she rocked and rolled on Negi so that she could claim his lips. Haruna knew from experience that Negi could take a much more active role in love-making than he did when he was with Yuna. But he nearly always followed the basketball girl's lead ... and in a way, that wasn't funny at all to Haruna.

"Uhhh. Uhhh. Coming, coming, coming!" gasped Yuna then.

Negi let out a loud, sharp grunt as he pressed up against Yuna's spasming hips, and then they both seemed to lock in place for a moment ... before they collapsed together, Yuna once more falling forward to rest her breasts against Negi's mouth.

"Ah," said Mikado, emerging from her fugue. "My turn now, I think."

"M-maybe I could have --" Haruna stammered.

"Don't be silly, you can't even move your legs yet," the doctor reminded her cheerfully as she stood up and walked over to where Negi and Yuna were coupled. "Upsy-daisy," she said to Yuna, gently pulling her off of Negi and rolling her up into a seated position not far away, without any real resistance from the rather blissed-out Yuna. "My my, still hard!" the doctor said once she'd turned back to regard Negi.

"Um, doctor, I think we --" Negi began to say.

"Ryoko," she said as she knelt down and began rubbing the fluid-covered phallus with one hand while the other came up to tease at one of her own nipples. "Call me that, please. It's close enough to my real name, where Mikado is a complete fabrication."

"All right, Ryoko," he pressed on. "I thought we had an agreement that we wouldn't, until you produced findings --"

"I've had some preliminary successes. I could show them to you, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun as this, wouldn't you agree?" And without further ado, she bent forward and took the top of Negi's erection into her mouth, and then the rest of it as well.

"Ahhh," Negi replied, not offering agreement or disagreement, since both were beyond him at the moment.

"Uch muh mau," the doctor muttered commandingly.

Negi blinked, then figured out what she was saying. Well, if that was she wanted. He reached out to take hold of either side of her head and began pulling and pushing it back and forth ... not too forcefully, for this was a bit new to him, but with the understanding that it probably wasn't all that new to his partner.

"Ummmmmm," she hummed in pleasure, working his cock with her extraordinarily flexible tongue.

Yuna watched this until she realized that she was just watching people having sex instead of having it herself. Shaking her head to clear what few cobwebs remained there, she turned to look at helpless Haruna, intending to finally have her wicked way with her. She was rather annoyed to see that someone else had had the exact same idea a few minutes before her.

"Holy fuck, what are they feeding you middle school girls these days?" Risa asked as she rubbed up against Haruna's supine form and cruelly teased the breasts of Yuna's classmate with her hands. "I never had knockers like this when I was your age."

"Ah!" Haruna cried out. "Rewards of a life of virtue. Fucking kiss me, you high school bitch!"

That she did. Meanwhile, Mio had gotten mixed up in Misora and Sakura's scene, which now involved Sakura lying on the floor while Misora hesitantly kissed one of her breasts and rubbed in the vague vicinity of her partner's crotch, while Mio did the same on the other breast and was much more enthusiastic and less vague about the way that she kissed and rubbed. The few times Mio came close to touching Misora's fingers, the young acolyte pulled back quickly, until a few tongue kisses from Sakura pulled her back in.

"Shit," muttered Yuna, who didn't see a place for herself in either situation. Was she going to be reduced to masturbating again? Then she turned to look at Negi, and got a lot more depressed.

Because he was atop Mikado, or whatever she wanted to be called now, holding her legs back with his elbows as he pumped away between them, her head rolled back and voice almost lost in rapid exhalation. "Yeah, yeah!" she shouted, then something in a language no one there spoke.

Yuna let out a sigh. Masturbation it was, then.


She looked around rapidly. Who'd said that? Nobody in sight ...

And on it went, through the evening. Finally, every girl there had to admit to being satisfied, even those who'd taken pride in their insatiability to that point.

"So who exactly is next, anyway?" Mikado asked, as she lay on one side of Negi, playing with one of his nipples. "Your respective roommates?"

"No," Yuna answered from Negi's other side, very firmly.

"Not as against as some people, but I don't think she'd go for this," Haruna mused from where she was being lightly gamahuched by Mio.

"I live alone," Sakura replied quietly, with Misora cradled up beside her.

"Communal dorm," murmured Misora in her turn.

"She's here already," Risa revealed cheerfully, then her face took on a mischievous streak. "But I think we could avoid a lot of trouble, if we brought in a certain Student Executive member in our class who's always on our asses."

"Come to that, I can think of about five people who might benefit from this," Haruna said, the mischief rising on her own face.

"I thought there were more people in your library club than that," Misora said with a raised eyebrow.

"Not them," Haruna said, now with her full evil maniac smile in evidence. "Different bunch of crazy people."

"Okay," said Riko, as she walked homewards, praying to gods she'd never really believed in to keep the Student Council Executive's curfew patrols far away. "I get that you want to stay here. Under the circumstances, I even get why. But there's something you should probably keep in mind."

"What might that be?" asked Lala Satalin Deviluke, following close behind the rather brave young woman who'd protected her from her pursuers.

"You should definitely do something to make yourself not stand out so much," Riko told her. "I don't know whether you have any idea, but just a few days ago, another bunch of alien jerks tried to invade Earth and --"

"I'm well aware of that," Lala interjected.

"Of course you do," Riko sighed. "It was on the Intergalactic News Network or something."

"There's no such thing, Riko," Lala replied with a shake of her pink-haired head.

"This is a truly dull specimen, Lala-sama," declared the tiny voice of the tiny face of the robot that Lala was presently wearing as clothes.

"Whatever," said Riko, really annoyed, stopping in her tracks and turning to face Lala as she continued speaking. "The point that I was trying to make is that everybody's kind of on edge, and if they got the idea that you were an alien, they might do something really really bad to you. So if you could hide the tail and maybe do something about your hair, that might be the smart thing to do."

Lala regarded Riko curiously. "You really think that I should hide who I truly am from all those I meet?"

Riko opened her mouth to give a firm affirmative ... and found herself thinking about how much it hurt every time she had to pretend to be something she wasn't, and how good it had felt when she finally told her family the truth. Her voice, when she finally did answer, was not nearly as certain or stern as she would have liked. "Maybe," she said, weakly. "It sucks, but maybe that would be best."

Unexpectedly, Lala smiled. "You're really worried about the idea that I could be at risk of harm because of these prejudices, aren't you, Riko?"

"Well, I mean --" Riko stammered.

"Shall we demonstrate to the dull specimen the truly terrible vengeance that would be taken on any primitive who dared to harm you, Lala-sama?" asked the robot.

"Not necessary, Peke," Lala answered calmly. "Let us rather use this current encounter as an example of how I shall do things."

"Current encounter?" Riko muttered, then felt her eyes go wide. "Oh, no," she almost whined, before turning quickly on her heel to try and talk her way out of the situation which doubtless involved a patrol.

Oh, no, it's so much worse than that, she thought as she saw the blue-black haired girl who was regarding her with curiosity verging on stupefaction. "S-s-sairenji?" Riko stammered.

"Good evening, Yuuki," Sairenji Haruna said, with remarkable politeness under the circumstances. "I happened to be out letting my dog care of his business, when I happened to see you running around on rooftops in the company of ... well, this person, here, who seems rather unusual, and so I came looking for you, and found you, and ... well ... um ... what's going on here?" she concluded.

"Oh, you must be one of Riko's friends!" said Lala as Riko struggled to piece together some plausible story. She stepped forward and grabbed hold of one of Sairenji's hands, shaking it forcefully. "I am Lala Satalin Deviluke, First Princess of Planet Deviluke, and Riko's fiancee. It is so nice to meet someone who is surely every bit as appreciative of Riko's character as I am!"

"... fiancee?" Sairenji squeaked.

"I'm in hell," Riko said in quiet tones of revelation. "I died sometime, and now I am in hell. Everything makes so much sense if that's the case!"

It had been a long day, and so Shinji was glad of the opportunity to soak in the tub and let some of the tension he was feeling flow out of him. Of course, being alone with his thoughts was also a bad thing, as it gave him time to dwell on them. His current circumstances weren't exactly enviable. Misato's bark might be worse than her bite, as Ritsuko had told him, but he had the feeling that, if she learned that he was infiltrating Nerv on Zazie's behalf, she wouldn't bite him, but rather just shoot him dead on the spot.

Well, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it, he told himself, then got up, toweled himself off and opened the door to the laundry room so he could put on the clothes he'd set out earlier.

Sitting in the laundry room was a duck. Despite the fact that his eyes were pointing out the fact that the creature had arms instead of wings and was just about the same size as Shinji himself, the bill, the webbed feet, and the white feathers all sang duck at him. Shinji stared at the duck. The duck stared back.

"Ah, Misato?" he said, raising his voice. "Do you own a duck, by any chance?"

"Oh, yeah," she called back at him. "Should've mentioned my other roommate. Shinji, meet Howard. Howard, Shinji."

"Nicetameetcha," the duck said in perfectly understandable if American-accented Japanese.

Shinji nodded politely in response. Okay, the world is completely insane, he decided, and went to put on his underwear.

"Very interesting," said Gendo as he oversaw the repairs to Unit One while listening to Ritsuko's report on the phenomena observed during its brief activation. "However, I do have a question."

"Yes, Director?"

He didn't look back at her. "When you revealed the existence of the other Children to the Third, did you mention the names Shikinami, Asagiri, and so forth?"

Ritsuko had a half-second to wonder why he was asking that, and less than that to decide what her answer was. "Yes," she lied. "I thought there was no harm in doing so."

"It was unnecessary," Gendo said, still not looking at her. "Lie face down on the desk, and lift your skirt."

"Yes, sir," she whispered. For Shinji, she thought.

Half an hour later, he began making use of her.

"I didn't mean it," Miki sobbed. "You'll tell her I didn't mean it, won't you? I don't really think of her as dead. I don't think of her as a rotting corpse that will --" He broke down completely then.

"I promise that I will," Juri assured him. "If I meet her, I will tell your sister that." She stepped back to let the EMTs bundle her friend into the back of their ambulance, closing the doors behind them, and then watched them drive off.

"Shouldn't you be with him?" she asked Mitsuru without glancing at him.

"I will be shortly. It's more important that I tell you some things I found out while they were examining him."

Now she turned to regard him levelly.

"The former Kaoru Kozue moved with her husband to Area 11, where his company does a great deal of work with the Brittanic government, four years ago." he told her. "She has not returned to this country since. Takatsuki Shiori moved to America shortly before Second Impact. She has not returned through any legitimate means either."

"I see," she said, though the truth was she was more bewildered than ever. "You're good at finding people, Mitsuru-san. I need you to find Nanami --"

"I've already placed a call to the social secretary for the wife of Tenjoin-sama," he told her without smiling. "She'll be in touch with you shortly. Please excuse me." He offered the minimal bow, and then headed off toward the faculty parking lot.

Kuroido Takiji was fit to be tied.

Once again, the young lady of the Kiryuuin house had defied her mother and, against all logic, gotten away with it. Even now she was walking away with the precious artifact, Junketsu, which had been secured here, under his watch. And she had not even had the decency to be ashamed when she stripped herself of all clothing to take Junketsu onto herself. (Not that Takiji hadn't seen what she had before, having been vouchsafed a few glimpses of the Kiryuuin family's purification rituals in the past.)

If only that idiot Mitsuzo hadn't died all those years ago, saving her life! Takiji was sure that she would have grown up more submissive under the old fool's guidance. Well, that was beyond help at this point; all that he could take comfort in was the likelihood that this would attract her mother's unwelcome attention. He remembered with disgust her proclamation that there was no one on Earth who could surpass her. Like so many would-be gods in the past, she would learn her place beneath the one true Goddess of this ruined world. Whatever she might delude herself to be, he at least knew her as just a spoiled child.

But that reminded him, and as she prepared to leave the manor behind, he spoke up. "Young mistress, there is one other matter."

She paused, but didn't bother to look back at him.

"Your 'servant', Kuno Tatewaki, has sent you a message inviting you to witness a duel he intends to fight tomorrow, at dawn, beneath Academy City's World Tree. Shall I send your regrets?" And now she would of course agree, and he would be able to draw some satisfaction from reminding her of the Kuno family's long history of support for the Kiryuuin family, and play on her guilt and --

"No, I will go and see what may be seen." And with that, she departed, walking into the night without ever once looking at him.

He hated her so very much.

Nagi stared up at the telescope with vague interest, even though the things of man's creation really held no interest to him. He honestly found their appeal to the one whom he'd come to address to be incomprehensible.

"Just a moment, please, the repairs are almost complete," said that individual, working at the telescope's base.

"Sorry, but I'm not interested in waiting. Just let me know if this distracts you. Here's the thing -- someone has been pulled from another world to interfere in my Carnival. And I know that I can't do that, and neither can my opposite number. But I was thinking about it, and the fact that her body is the same as it should be but her mind is different, that made me think of you. So I was wondering, did you do this, Samyaza? Or do you prefer the name Otori Akio these days?"

The tall, tanned man with light hair paused in his labors, and turned to regard his interrogator. "I don't know what you're talking about ... but ... I have an idea who might have done something like that, possibly to bring us into conflict. Would you be interested in learning about that, Homura Nagi? Or should I go back to calling you Tabris?"

"... let us reason together," the pale boy answered.

To Be Continued