Twilight, and with it, the city in change. The sounds of motorcars no longer compete with the sounds of daytime human traffic. Tension eases with the cooling, to be replaced with a mood of stoicism and perhaps temptation. Shadows mutate. Smells transform with the different humidity. One light has been replaced by many lights, the moon paramount of them--had the sun impregnated her to give rise to the light of man? Two shadows moved in parallel, each slowly turning round as their caster passed by a streetlight. Shinji and Touji were almost to the apartment building. Each carried a bag, Shinji's with a plastic bottle, Touji's with one uneaten dumpling. One bag held pragmatic need, the other hope. The two boys tarried outside the front door of the building. "You're not going to be in trouble over this, are you?" Shinji asked concernedly. "You're running really late, do you want to use our phone?" Touji shook his head. "Hikari said she'd call my folks." "She's very nice to you. You're a lucky guy." If Shinji had been expecting a reaction, he was disappointed; Touji accepted the comment at its face value. "I'm real glad she's my friend. She's a great girl. Even if she doesn't act that way all the time." He paused to extract his dumpling, then continued. "Those pills...do you have to take them on an empty stomach?" "No. I can take them at any time of day. I guess it's not that kind of drug." "Oh. 'Cause I was thinking, see, you could tell Misato that you can't eat instant food when you're taking them, and that way you'd get to eat out more." Shinji chuckled at the joke, to his amazement. He glanced up the building, expecting to see one of the women he lived with looking out the window for him, but he wasn't rewarded. Instead, he bowed to Touji and said, "I'd better get home. I'll see you in class next week." "See yuh later, Shinji." He turned and walked off down the road. Shinji watched him go. _He was very nice to me today. He may act uncultured and do things I wouldn't do, but he's my friend, and I know I can depend on him now. Thank you, Suzuhara Touji._ Shinji entered their apartment building, and he felt himself becoming slightly nervous. The whole day--as much of it as he cared to remember--he had been able to detach himself from his day-to-day life. The things that were going on around him were _exceptional_; and so he acted as though it were an exceptional matter. Now, however, he was forced to confront his own normalcy: he was going home. It was the same surroundings he returned to every day, whether he was insane or not. He felt the unease of conflict arising between his past and his future. He rang the bell. Misato opened the door. Shinji fumbled for words, then bowed. "Misato-san, I'm sorry...I did an awful thing today. I stole your gun and took it with me to school...and I don't really know what made me do it." "It was an awful thing, Shinji," she said, "but you're the only one who was hurt by it. Now, come inside, and we'll talk about it, all right?" "All right." Shinji crossed the threshold into the apartment, bewildered. He hadn't known what would happen on his arrival home, but Misato's atypically organized behavior wasn't in line with anything he had expected. Misato led the way to the kitchen. Asuka was picking absently at a plastic tray full of something he thought was food, and Pen-Pen was dozing on a countertop. "Hi, Asuka. What happened at school?" "Nothing, after you left. It's the weekend, I guess all the teachers were as eager to get out of school as the students were." Asuka hadn't made eye contact with Shinji, and her words came out slowly and tiredly. Most evenings, Shinji would have assumed that Asuka didn't want to communicate with him at all; but something in her tone made him think otherwise. Was Asuka _bitter_ at him? His hunch was compounded when she did look in his direction. Her face was in a slight scowl. She was trying to provoke him into doing something; which, to Shinji's mind, was more a hallmark of Sohryu Asuka Langley. "The administration's going to cover the whole thing up, if that's all right with you. Hikari and me and the idiots are all going along, so you'd better, too." "Yes, I will." Shinji then explained about his therapy session, and about the prescription he was going to be taking. "Misato, did you find what NERV's policies on psychoanalysis and prescription drugs are?" "Mm-hm." She set down her can of sake and folded her hands on the tabletop. "And I'm glad I did, because a lot of this is strange. According to NERV's policies, you have waived your rights to subsidies for psychological treatments and drugs." "What?" "That's what I said, waived all rights. I didn't know what to make of that, so I talked with Commander Ikari himself about it. The Commander said that it's always been NERV policy, and he gave a long, detailed explanation involving UN military force procedure and the psychology of extended conflicts that I didn't understand, but the upshot is, you're not covered, Shinji. "On the plus side, your income from NERV operations..." Asuka cut her off. "Give me a break! Shinji's in serious trouble! You know what he did today, and if that's not crazy, I don't know what is! He's gone mad, and he needs therapy!" "Asuka-chan, please calm down. These are the rules, I'm afraid, and much as I'd like to, I can't change them." Unappeased, Asuka nonetheless reseated herself. Misato faced Shinji and said, "What it means is, you'll have to pay for the therapy and prescriptions yourself. Fortunately, since your expenses have been low, your salary will more than cover sessions in the foreseeable future, even if they do run 10,000 yen an hour." Asuka gagged at the magnitude of the cost, and took a moment to recover her breath. When she was respiring again, Misato continued. "The other thing is about your drugs. Now, they shouldn't have any effect on your synch ratio, but if they do, we'll be forced to make you discontinue using them. Is that clear?" "Yes." Before Misato could continue, there was a knock at the door. All four members of the Katsuragi household glanced towards the door perplexedly; none was expecting a visitor. The first to get up to answer was Shinji, who opened the door to discover, "Rei?" "Good evening, Ikari." She was still dressed in her school uniform, and she carried a handbag. She bowed. "May I come in?" "Yes...yes you may, we weren't..." He stood aside as she brushed past him, making for the living room. At the entryway to the kitchen, she saw the others and bowed again. "Langley. Katsuragi." "Good evening, Rei. This is a surprise, have a seat." Misato gestured to the chair across from her, and Rei seated herself. "Want something to eat? What brings you out at all, anyway?" _I don't think I've ever seen her after 10 p.m._ "Commander Ikari requested that I visit." She said nothing more, and silence fell. It was Asuka who spoke next. She had been wrestling with how to begin for a few moments when she said, "Hey, Rei, can I ask you something?" "Yes." "A couple of days ago, you actually asked me a question, and it was about Shinji. Then today, Kensuke tells me you were the one who saw the gun in his backpack. What gives? Are you psychic?" "No." "Then how did you know?" "I did not know. I guessed, and checked my assumptions." "Well, then, how the hell did you know to assume something?" "Ikari's symptoms were similar to mine. I wondered if the underlying cause was the same." "What the hell are you talking about?" shouted Asuka. "Do you mean to tell me you've been taking guns to school with you?" "No. I drank bleach. Two years ago. After I was raped. But Ikari's father brought me back. He wouldn't let me die." There was a stunned silence, and then Asuka and Shinji left the kitchen for their bedrooms. Misato got up from her seat, kneeled next to Rei, and said, "Rei-chan...that wasn't called for." "I'm sorry." -- As dawn broke, Shinji returned to the waking world. The first sensations he felt were from his tongue; something about his mouth was different than the night before. He sat up in his bed and ran his tongue around his mouth and gums. There was not a trace of moisture. He was exhibiting the first symptom of his drug use. Shinji took his bottle of pills from off his desk, then left his room to begin his day. He used the toilet, then went out into the living area. Pen-Pen was nowhere to be seen; the blanket-covered figure on the couch confused Shinji before he remembered Misato's offer to let Rei spend the night (it had been well after midnight before anyone realized Rei wouldn't leave unless told to). The sunlight trickling in from outside made Shinji realize that it was sti ll quite early in the morning. He looked at the clock: it was half past 7, the household wouldn't be up for at least 3 hours. _How can it be that I'm up at this hour?_ He went into the kitchen and poured himself a tall glass of water, and swallowed his medication in a single gulp. There was still water in the glass, and Shinji was disinclined to waste it, so he crossed the living room to the balcony outside to finish. He set his drinking glass down on the railing wall, rested his chin on his arms, and stared off to the east. The dawn was a brilliant maroon; the day would be a hot one. At the very horizon lay a band of white, slipping quickly to orange and then the red- wine color that dominated the foreground. Above him, night's lapis was still richly hued, and a morning star--Venus or Mars?--was in the sky. Surrounding him was the onyx statuary, the still-darkened buildings of Tokyo-3. People were in them, people like himself, and like his friends, and like his co-workers... To his surprise, he found himself feeling something for them. It was almost like ambivalence, but it was still amorphous. Direction, context, STIMULI, these were what the sensation needed. Shinji didn't know what he needed to do. He felt a vague longing for human company, but before 9 or 10 AM, this would be beyond his control. His thoughts turned to the young woman asleep behind him. Shinji set his water aside and returned to the living area. He looked down at Rei, in part because she had taken her shirt off to sleep. Asleep, Rei seemed different from her waking state, and Shinji pondered why. She made no sudden movements in her sleep, nor did she speak. Her breathing was utterly silent. Shinji looked at her mouth. It was ajar...but he saw the crucial difference in the corners of her mouth. They were slightly downturned. She looked sad. THE HANDS UPON THE HANDLE Shinji had borne the "like father, like son" remarks from Misato and Ritsuko with more than his usual stoicism. He alone knew the reason. It was quite the oddest thing that had happened in his life, no doubt: he had asked Ayanami Rei to smile for him, and she had smiled. He was still confused about what had possessed him to make that request. His intuition told him that it was somehow related to the physical exertion he had been through just before...still, impulsiveness alone couldn't explain everything he had done. Ayanami Rei's smile...it haunted him, on this day more so than it had before. It was as beautiful as watching a flower's petals open, or the first snowfall in the park. He had EYE known Rei to be sexually attractive, but the smile told him that there was something of substance there. Did she keep it hidden from someone? For someone? Or was it just lying there, waiting to be awakened? _I would smile for you, Ayanami Rei._ Ikari Shinji smiled. The broader his smile was, the more his heart swelled, and the more he wanted to smile for her alone. The sun rose over Tokyo-3. -- Suzuhara Touji emptied a bag of assorted snack foods onto the table in front of him and proceeded to noisily devour tiny packages of flavored gelatin. Beside him, Aida Kensuke picked his way through a container of leftover noodles. "...so he said that it was OK, but I was under no circumstances to speak out of turn again. That's fine by me, I'm not gonna. I was really glad about how it turned out because I didn't tell my old man anything, and sensei could have..." "Oi! Shinji!" Touji waved as Shinji returned to the room, bearing with him a paper bag. He sat down at the desk in front of Touji and turned around in the seat to face his friends. "How are you guys?" "OK. Kinda bummed the weekend's over." "Yeah, me too. How're you doing?" "All right." Shinji withdrew three juice boxes from his lunchbag. He opened one and set the other two on the desk behind him. "I got sunburned. We went on a picnic, and I didn't bring the sun creme." Kensuke glanced across the room and saw that Asuka was a bright shade of pink. Before he could remark about it, Touji pointed at Shinji's juice. "You gonna drink all of those?" "Probably. Maybe one this afternoon." "S'matter with you?" "It's a side effect of that drug I started taking, thoronyne. It's giving me a dry mouth. I went through most of a two-liter bottle of water on the picnic." Kensuke remarked loudly, "Is that where we got 'Red Sohryu'?" Asuka whirled around and shouted, "What are you idiots talking about?" "We can't tell if you're blushing or sunburned," responded Touji. "Could you get a little angrier? Maybe we could tell then!" Asuka's next remark was in florid German, so both boys turned deaf ears to her. It was when they redirected their attention that they saw Shinji was thinking furiously. "Hey, Shinji," prompted Kensuke, "what's on your mind?" Shinji said nothing, but it was clear he was trying to come to a decision. He looked at Kensuke and Touji, one at a time, and gestured for them to lean forward. When they had formed a tight huddle, Shinji declared, "She's sunburned under her bra strap." His companions exploded in raucous laugher, and Shinji himself was unable to repress a smirk. As they recovered their breath, a thought struck Kensuke. "Wait a minute..." "What is it, Kensuke?" said Shinji. "Since when does Ikari Shinji make remarks like that about the women he lives with?" They exchanged glances; then one by one, each boy smiled broadly, and chuckled. Something was happening. Something important was happening. -- The control room was active, though not on an alert. Men and women went about their jobs efficiently, acting like the nervous system of a superorganism. On a massive screen overhead were the images of the three children. Each looked to be a mimic of the other, eyes closed, fists clenched. "That's sunburn, isn't it?" Maya directed the question to Ritsuko. "I keep wanting to adjust the contrast for the screen Asuka's on." "Yes, it's sunburn," sighed Misato before Ritsuko could respond. "She wore that bikini top of hers and some tight shorts on the picnic we went on yesterday and went sunbathing without sun creme." Ritsuko shook her head. "What an obstinate girl." "I should say so," said Misato in a low voice, "but she's paying for it. All day long the boys kept slapping her on the back and pinching at her bra strap." "Is that so?" murmured Ritsuko. "I'll bet you anything Shinji was behind it all." "You're not serious!" replied Maya. She turned away from her computer terminal. All three women shared the radiant joy of the community of friendship, one that grows irrespective of status or background. "Our Shinji? He'd never do anything like that, certainly not to his roommate!" "Something's happened to 'our Shinji', Maya," said Ritsuko. She pointed at a monitor and the two women looked over her shoulder as she gestured to the undulating data from all three children. "Just look at Shinji's synch rate. It's improved 10% from the last time we measured it a few days ago. Something's been going on inside him." "Indeed?" Their intimacy stolen in an instant, the three women turned to see Ikari Gendou standing behind them. His posture was intimidatingly perfect, and the light from the screen gleamed off of his spectacles. Behind the reflection, his eyes flickered, grasping information from sources throughout the scene in front of him. Three seconds had passed, and the women before him had done nothing more than gulp and stammer with embarrassment for their unprofessional behavior; so Ikari wheeled about and returned to his desk. He pressed a button on the terminal embedded in the desktop and said, loudly and clearly, "Shinji, I want to see you in my office after debriefing." "Yes, sir," came the reply from the screen overhead. Ikari pulled a little at the legs of his slacks and reseated himself. It was on ly then that Maya slumped back into her chair, and Ritsuko and Misato meekly slunk to their former positions. -- It had been a day of novelties. Shinji had gossiped with his friends at lunch and was reeling from the thrill of looking at girls. He had seated himself in the middle row on the left side of the debriefing room, with both Rei and Asuka within his view. His attention, initially, had been directed to Rei, but it soon shifted to Asuka when he realized that her shirt was clinging to her damp skin. _With her sunburn,_ he thought, _she probably couldn't dry herself at all. Her skin's too sensitive._ LANGLEY Evidence of his more rational inclinations and his still-underutilized hormones, Shinji preferred intellectual exercise to lust. He compared and contrasted Asuka and Rei. He had touched Rei's and Asuka's hearts alike, both in the wake of defeating angels. He had thought before about Rei's reactions after battling the angel Ramiel, and Asuka's after Sandalphon. It had occurred to him that while Rei never revealed what she thought of someone and Asuka had no qualms about expressing herself, they had changed when he had acted to save their lives: Rei had agreed to smile for him, and Asuka had refrained from her usual caustic nature. _Even so,_ thought Shinji as he boarded an elevator, _is it really fair to say that they're opposites?_ He considered the problem, and decided that he was trivializing the two girls. Rei's inhumanly quiet nature, Asuka's abusive nature, and their changes in the wake of his mental instability bore more thought. GLOWERING _Asuka...she's certainly beautiful...and we've been living together since August, so I guess I know her by now...but do I want to go out with her? She does yell at me a lot, but Misato never treats her as though she's abusive. Misato probably knows a side of her she wouldn't let me see. Would Asuka go out with me? Would Rei go out with me? I mean, would she want to go out with me? Would I feel good about going out with her?_ The doors of the elevator opened, and Shinji stepped into the hallway without a second thought. Once outside, he felt naked as the importance of his visit took a place in his psyche. His father had wanted to see him. PIN-UP PHOTO "Shinji, I want to speak with you." "I'll make it, Father." ALONE IN THE COCKPIT "You ordered me to go to my death!" "You're our best hope. No...you're our only hope." ANGELS UPON HIGH "I mustn't run away. I mustn't run away. I mustn't run away. I mustn't run away..." Shinji felt the torque within his skull as his mind tied itself in a knot; but then a miracle happened. He concentrated, and the intensity of the vision subsided. His mind relaxed. Shinji pressed a hand against the wall of the corridor to steady himself, and he focused on breathing. In. Out. His skin prickled. What was the ambient air pressure? There was a draft in the hallway. In a moment, his sanity had returned. He walked away from the elevators to his father's office. -- The ceiling and floor were as blue as the sky and the ocean. Above was a stylized rendition of the Sefirotic Tree of Life, symbolically mapping the path of the human to the Godhead along a mystical, esoteric pathway. Each sefirot was labeled in white Roman and Hebrew letters. Below was an adaptation of a photograph of a bubble chamber. Concentric and overlapping circles pictured the interactions of subatomic particles, manifestations of ultra-high-speed units of energy. The walls were slate gray. The eye was irrevocably drawn forward, to where light streamed in from the outside. The line of windows in the room looked to be pure white in the dark of the room. Silhouetted by that light was a desk and a man. Commander Ikari Gendou. A desk and a man, and there was nothing more. "Good afternoon, Father," Shinji said with a bow. "Come here, Shinji," the man replied. Still laden with trepidation, but adjusting consciously to the stress, Shinji walked obediently across the hard floor to the front of his father's desk. Commander Ikari, as always, had his fingers interlaced and raised to the level of his nose upon his face. At his left elbow was a thick book with specific sections marked out by post-it notes. Shinji was at a loss for words. Daringly, he made eye contact with his father; the Commander was looking at him with a keen interest. At once, he stood up from his desk, inserted his right hand into his pants pocket, and set his left hand on the desk's surface next to his book. "Katsuragi-ichii tells me that you have been seeing a psychiatrist. Is this true?" It was not the precise question that Shinji had anticipated, but he was only a moment in replying: "Yes, it's true." "I trust you have said nothing to compromise the integrity of this agency?" "Uh...no. I don't think so." Ikari pondered the reply for a moment and glanced down to the book by his hand. "And you yourself are paying for these visits...well, well, nothing can be done about that, then. However, I am also given to understand that this psychiatrist has prescribed a medication for you, is this correct?" "Yes, it's an anti-depressant called thoronyne. It's..." Ikari Gendou silenced him with a glance. His posture changed as he rose to his full height, now resting only the tips of his fingers on the desktop. "You will cease taking those drugs immediately. They are having an adverse effect on your performance, and it is not within the scope of our efforts to determine what effects particular drugs have on synchronization ratios. That will be all. You are dismissed." Shinji was utterly silent with disbelief. Before his mind could formulate any thoughts, Ikari repeated, "You are dismissed." "Yes." Shinji bowed, turned, and left the room. Ikari watched him exit, then seated himself and closed the tome with one move of his left hand. -- Shinji closed the door, but tarried in the hallway, unwilling to move. He had been wrong. He had been so wrong, and he had hurt himself. He had done what he thought was the right thing, to admit his defeat and reach out to others for help with his problems, only to hear, "They are having an adverse effect on your performance." But he had been so sure! He had _known_ he was making the right choices, ever since that moment he had left the gun behind in the classroom. Everyone had been looking out for him, helping him with his way. The drugs...those were prescription drugs, Dr. Boton wouldn't give them to just anyone. Had he been misled? The dark question rose in his mind, but he rejected it: Boton was a medical doctor, he would lose his license if he had mindfucked a patient. Boton was true. If Boton was true, than the people who had told him to go seek out psychiatric help were true, which was...everyone. Nobody had lied to him. Everyone was honest. WHAT WAS HAPPENING TO HIM? He rushed into the elevator and hit madly at the buttons, feeling anger and sorrow rise in his throat like vomit. His reality, everything he touched and felt and knew to be real, was no longer made of rock. He didn't know what was going on. And when he realized it, he panicked, and the only thing that emerged from his mindless fear was that, if he couldn't trust anyone, and he didn't know what was going on, he was alone. Crippled, he would have to fight. Whom? What if he wasn't "clinically depressed" at all? What if he had just made a few mistakes? He had made mistakes before, though not so many in such a short time at such inopportune moments...but still, it could happen, couldn't it? More likely than everyone being wrong, HE HIMSELF was wrong! "No! I just...I didn't want to lie to people. I just, I thought I was doing the right thing, and I made a mistake, and now I've hurt everyone because I was wrong, I'm wrong, I..." He jumped back into a corner of the elevator and let out a little shriek as the door opened to reveal an empty hallway. Shinji glanced back and forth from the elevator's controls to the open door: he had selected a floor somewhere deep within the Geofront, one used mainly for emergency storage. He tiptoed out of the elevator and looked around. No accusing glances came; nobody was around. As soon as he became aware of his paranoia, he recognized his nebulous enemy: it was himself. He would have to save himself from himself. Again. Shinji walked a half-dozen steps down the hallway to the men's bathroom, closed the door, and pressed his shoulders against it. He tried to cry in the name of catharsis, and a few sobs and tears came; but there was no substance to his crying, no release. He opened his eyes and looked into the bathroom mirror. In it, he saw a weak and worthless boy, incapable of understanding himself or his relationships with other people. He was self-deluding, superfluous, and not fit to live. In a burst of fury, he drove his fist through the boy's image, through the mirror's glass, and into the bathroom's drywall. His fist exploded in joyous pain, pain that let him know that his life was real, and his life was limited, and something was still important to him. Shinji looked with wonder at the blood, passion red, that ran in rivulets down his arm, and at the queer sensation of broken fingers. It was captivating, it was enchanting. Loss of life! Loss of lifeblood! How could it be that he had been squandering his life on such meager passions when all along, the only true and honest substance in his life--the only thing that could sing his sorrows to him--was _right at his fingertips!!!_ Still staring at his right hand, Shinji reached with his left to the faucet and turned it on, as high and as hot as it would go. The pipes shrilled, as if they too enjoyed the suffering, as the water ran softly down the drain into the black pit. Shinji put his right hand under the water, numb to its burning, and then took a shard of glass gingerly with his left. The tip of the glass punctured the skin on the vein just below the wrist. He flinched, but steeled himself and surpressed the reaction. He cut carefully along his arm, following the path of the blood vessel all the while. He knew beyond a doubt that it was the right thing to do. No complications, no preparations, no notes, nobody to hurt but himself. And no chance of recovery. He bet his pride against his life that he'd do it right this time.