Misato stepped out from the lift to find Ritsuko and Commander Ikari waiting for her. "I've left Asuka in Kaji-san's company, he'll keep a good eye on her. What's the matter, Ritsuko?" Ritsuko looked at her coolly to return her to her occupational world, then addressed Ikari with no more warmth in her tone. "I'd like to follow protocol rather than coming straight to the point. Commander, we're on a need-to-know basis here. I need to know--is there any iron in the cooling fluid we use for the Eva units?" Ikari replied, "On the order of parts per billion." "And the LCL?" "Yes, approximately the same amount." "Very well. Come with me, I'll debrief you as we go along." She took the lead as the three entered the elevator, with Misato and Ikari half a step behind her on either side. "At 1655 hours, two maintenance employees named Mishima and Smith were at work on the joints on the upper right arm of the Evangelion-01 unit when Smith announced that he was going to use the restroom. At 1702, when he had not returned, Mishima went after him." The elevator stopped. Ritsuko lead the trio along the familiar pathway toward the Eva's cages. "When questioned, Mishima and Smith both admitted that Smith was smoking a cigarette in the men's lavatory. Mishima and Smith spent about five minutes chatting, and it was 1708 when they returned to work on the Eva. "What had happened isn't entirely clear. The security cameras in the area were set for artificial-color infrared, which is common, since it allows for the cameras to detect some mechanical failures as well as anomalous human activity." The familiar doorway to the bridge across the Eva hangar had been marked off with yellow security tape. Ritsuko pushed it aside, unlocked the door with a swipe of her security card and pushed it open. "This is what they found," she said in a grave voice, motioning her companions to step inside. Misato saw and smelled it at the same time. There was a new fluid in the cage, lapping at the walls and at the Evangelion. It was thick and a bright red color. The smell welling up from the tank was overpowering: it was salty and pungent, staining the air like the liquid would stain the walls. And yet, despite its alien setting, what drained the color from the two was its subtle familiarity. "Akagi-sensei!" gasped Ikari. "What the devil is that?" "We haven't finished our study yet, Commander," she replied severely, "but I have every reason to believe that it's human hemoglobin." "WHAT?" "It's blood, Katsuragi-ichii. Tens of thousands of liters of human blood." Misato's mind whirled. Reality was shifting in her mind like dancing oil slicks on water. Her confusion and the sensations around her were overwhelming, and she felt faint. Her knees buckled and she staggered into Commander Ikari. He held her arms and shoulders as she recovered her breath. Though she calmed her heart, she still looked very pale. She clutched at Ikari's sleeves and, with watering eyes, whispered frantically, "Commander, where's Shinji _right now_???" -- The doctor who led the group through the hallways was faceless, a trait learned from the horrors of his job. "We'll try and reconstruct the chain of events. In the women's bathroom the janitor heard the sound of breaking glass. He went next door, saw what was going on, and grappled with the patient. He doesn't remember striking the patient, but it's clear that he did. "By the time that the patient was subdued, security personnel had been alerted and were on the scene. They misinterpreted the scene as an accident, a rather hasty decision in hindsight. Thus, no provisions were taken to ensure his safety. "When he regained consciousness as he was being loaded into the ambulance, he became violent again. He easily overpowered the one officer there and began bashing his head against the walls. The doctor, now recognizing the patient's mental problems, took action and (at great personal risk) injected a tranquilizer into the patient. "He could not have known that the patient was using antidepressants. I don't know if you're aware, but that class of drugs has a tendency to increase the potency of all depressant drugs, barbituants and tranquilizers included. The patient lapsed into an almost vegetative state immediately. The doctor was able to apply a countermedication quickly, but not quickly enough. The patient is still comatose. Stable, but comatose. "It has been a very bad day." Misato, Kaji, and the two girls had been led to a secure door with two external locks and a small viewing slit at eye level. The doctor flipped it open, pressed a light switch and stepped back. He addressed Asuka and Rei, "You young ladies may not want to see this." "No," they said in unison. The doctor gave a nod and waved Misato to the peephole. Beneath a naked bulb was a land of bright yellow rubber latex padding. On the floor, lying on one side, was something that retained vestiges of the human form. It was a light blue in color. Its feet and legs looked like a person's. Over its privates was a large diaper. Another swath of skin was visible above its waist. On its torso was a straightjacket, typical except for two bloody wads on either side of the jacket. Streaks of dried blood peeped out from the jacket's top onto its neck. Its head was a dark blue, one massive bruise. Only the mouth, indicated by a pool of saliva in one corner, was distinguishable. The space between the mouth and nose was hidden by still-fresh blood. Katsuragi Misato fainted. -- Four figures crossed the parking lot. It was nighttime, the sky was darkening overhead. The bright lights of the parking lot, like angels of old, stood tall and silent, casting their swords against the dark with mute humility of duty. Between them walked Kaji Ryuji. On one side of him, finding protection under his arm, was Katsuragi Misato; on his other, also below an arm, was Sohryu Asuka Langley. Beside Asuka was Ayanami Rei. Kaji found himself in a position he was familiar with but that he had never adjusted to: the women sought him as a source of support in a time when he felt he had none to give. He knew he was no less horrified with the state of Shinji's life than his companions...but... But he was a man. He loved Shinji as much as he could, and he had tried to teach him what it meant to be a man, as much as he thought Shinji could absorb and what he thought was fit. One lesson that he had never been able to demonstrate to his own satisfaction, and--with a pang of sorrow and fear- -that he realized he might not ever teach the boy, was that part of being a man is to kill your own heart. You must sometimes deaden the emotions you feel inside to be a leader. Men are valued for their potency and condemned for their aggression, but these are both the same value, a value with a thousand fists. You must emphasize some at cost of the others. Kaji was entirely self-centered: he had his own interests and they were paramount. However, he did not backstab, at least not overtly and not thoroughly. He knew the importance of being sincere with someone when sincerity would bond them to him, and of insincerity when superficiality could be counted upon. Ikari Shinji was valuable to him: as a friend, an apprentice, even a confidant; but more pragmatically, as the son of Ikari Gendou, as an Evangelion pilot, as a boy popular despite his own efforts, and an adolescent capable of almost anything. Including, he now knew, horrific self-destruction. And when he realized the consequences of Shinji's being and circumstances, he not only felt frustration with his own endeavors, but also an overwhelming rage at the boy and pity for his state of life. Kaji's sensations were exactly those of the three women in his company. He wanted to break down with his weeping, but he would not let himself. Misato, Asuka, and Rei all needed someone at this instant, and that someone could be no other person than him. Rei... They had arrived at Misato's parking space in the hospital's parking lot. Misato was hovering over the door locks as Kaji and Asuka stared at Rei. She was about five meters away from them. She was struggling with words. Her mouth opened and closed again and again, her brow furrowed with frustration. "I want..." she said, and then she continued, "I want...I don't want...to be...alone...tonight." She walked to the group and bowed to Misato and Asuka. "Misato, Asuka, I ask to spend tonight at your apartment." "Of course you can, Rei." Misato and Kaji stared at Asuka. -- The door to the apartment flew inwards as Misato crashed inside. She barely took time to kick off her shoes before she rushed across the apartment and slammed the door. In the entry way, Asuka and Rei stared after her. For the moment resorting to protocol, Asuka bent and slipped off her shoes. She said to Rei, "Come inside, then." "Thank you." Both girls remained at a loss for what to do. Asuka led Rei to the kitchen and invited her to sit in a chair. Rei seated herself, and Asuka sat next to her. Rei sat upright, Asuka was slouching with her head in one hand and her arm prone on the table in front of her. They remained so for two minutes. When Rei spoke, it was with a flutter in her voice. "I'll make some tea." "Uh, thank you, Rei." Asuka returned to Earth and gestured around the kitchen. "The tea bags are in that gold tin, the kettle is right there." Rei rose and set about making the pot. She moved slowly. Asuka watched her face. It was alive. Ideas and emotions, long surpressed, were growing strong and irate. Her eyes were blinking madly, and her chin and lips were seething. Asuka felt a need to go to this girl and comfort her but...only yesterday she had been a mindless marionette, and Rei had never acted like anything bothered her before, and this and that and... Asuka was afraid, afraid for what might happen and how she might feel about it. She stood and said, clutching for confidence, "I'll go invite Misato to join us." "..." Asuka stepped quickly from the kitchen and ran to Misato's room. Misato's door was ajar, probably as a rebound from an ineffective slam. Asuka was on the point of opening it, but she held back and listened. From inside came a few whimpered sobs. They were interrupted by the clink of glass upon glass, a gulp, and then more sobbing. Against her instincts, Asuka knocked at the door. "Misato?" From inside, Misato snarled, "Asuka, if you step through that door right now I'm going to beat you senseless." Asuka staggered back from the door. Her nest, her secure world, was disintegrating. She tasted metallic adrenaline in her mouth and ran the few steps, terror-stricken, back to the kitchen. She saw Rei, and she saw that Rei was more ghostly than ever before. The eyes of both girls welled with tears, and then the Angel of Mercy swung his sword and the barriers between them shattered. Crying, Rei and Asuka collided in a frantic embrace and fell to the linoleum floor, clutching at one another as though for warmth in a windstorm. "Asuka, what...what..." "Oh, Rei, Misato just screamed at me..." "I'm so scared!" "Rei, what are we going to do..." "Doesn't the Commander..." "Hikari!" Still entangled for security and reassurance, Rei and Asuka stumbled into the living room. Asuka failed three times to dial Hikari's number while Rei buried her face in her new friend's shoulder. The fourth time Asuka succeeded. "Hikari, mein Gott, Shinji just tried to kill himself, and then he...Yes! He almost did it, there was blood all over him, we got back from the hospital. No, you can't, he's in a room with rubber wallpaper, he was attacking everybody, but now he's comatose because of some...I don't know! I don't know anything! Gott, and then Misato's getting drunk in the other room, and she told me she'd beat me if I...oh, please, would you? Rei's over here. Yes, she is. Just get over here..." In the next room, Katsuragi was on the verge of losing consciousness. Her brain was deluded by the effect of the alcohol she had ingested. Doubtless, it was an equally effective solution to the problem of Ikari Shinji. -- Midnight came and went, and the group of five children remained seated at a table in a cafe. At first, they had held together out of fear, as though suicid e was some beast stalking the streets of the city, bent on devouring them all. The evening was evolving into a tenuous kind of amity. They tried to give voice to what was going on inside themselves, as it pertained to Shinji and to each other. "But I still don't understand," Touji said to Rei. "It's just a drug. He's live d without it." "C'mon, don't you remember how he was acting today?" replied Kensuke. "Just today...it's like he was alive, really alive, for the first time. What if Shinji really thought it was going to help him, or it was a starting point for him? And then he had it taken away?" There was general agreement with this statement. "And don't forget," Asuka added, "it was his dad who gave him the order. You talk to him about his past, and it's clear that the reason he's so loopy is his dad." "He does talk about the Commander frequently, yes," said Rei. Kensuke chewed at the end of his drinking straw. "Something's not clear to me, though. Why'd Misato-san yell at you, Asuka? That's not like her." "Huh-uh. And she's got Kaji-san for company, for God's sake, why did she go off and get drunk? It isn't," she shifted in her seat, "it isn't like sh e doesn't see him all the time as it is, or some other guy." There was a pause while everyone thought, then Hikari ventured, "Maybe...maybe Misato sees herself as Shinji's mother. He hasn't had a mother figure, what with his real one dead. She took him, and you, Asuka, in on a heartbeat." "Yeah, so why's she getting herself pickled?" "Perhaps she thought she'd failed. She failed to be a loving caregiver to Shinji, and she doesn't feel like there's anyone she can turn to. I guess. I've never seen Katsuragi-san fail at anything." Asuka shrugged. "Going nuts if you screw up, that sounds like the Misato I know." -- "I am shit! I'm nothing but shit! I'm not fit to live! You created me, now you can kill me! You've got a gun right there, why don't you blow my fucking head off! I'd do it myself. What's the matter? Don't want to waste a perfectly good bullet? Come on, do it! Just get it over with. You want to kill me anyway. You threw me in this hole, you locked me away until I play a good boy and kill myself in your name. Save yourself time. Shoot me full of bullets and walk away. I'm nothing. I--" Ikari let the peephole door close, then stepped back and announced, "Drug withdrawal symptoms." "I beg your pardon, Commander?" said Futsuyuki. "Withdrawal symptoms. It's a textbook example." He turned and walked off down the corridor, with Futsuyuki, still glancing nervously over his shoulder, at his heels. "I'm going to speak with the doctors about the medications they're prescribing for him and see if I can reduce or eliminate them." "With all due respect, Commander, are you sure of your analysis?" "I'm quite positive." With that, he stepped into the stairwell at the end of th e hallway. -- A night and a day passed. -- Asuka and Rei left the school together. They didn't speak, because they had nothing to speak about. There were many subjects that they could have discussed; but these were all too trivial, or too supremely sensitive, for them to voice aloud. They walked through the town to the foot of Rei's apartment building. Six people, Rei included, lived within its decrepit walls. Someone who knew Commander Ikari used the building as a tax write-off, and needed only staff and a single occupant to lose as much money as possible on the ramshackle building. Rei needed nothing more than to survive, after all. She made do. Rei paused at the stair to the first floor. She bowed. "Thank you, Langley." "Yeah, whatever." Asuka looked up at the building, graying from age and exposure. "How can you live in this dump, anyway? Why don't you get yourself a decent apartment like a normal person? We can afford it." "There is no need." "Are you blind? LOOK! That wall looks like it could collapse at any instant, and the whole place is dirty beyond words. It's a death trap, Wonder Girl. You could die." "I have not." "You're an idiot." Asuka sighed and shook her head. "Listen to me. There's a nice building with vacancies just one block from where I live. You could move there, it'd take you no time at all because you have no stuff, huh? You could do that." "If ordered, I would." "I don't believe you!" Asuka shouted. She whirled away with a vague wave over her shoulder. "If your building falls over, give me a call. Goodbye!" "Goodbye." Rei watched Asuka leave, and she saw Asuka's steps slow again and again as she passed out of sight. When Asuka had turned out of her view, Rei went to the trash dumpster at the foot of the building. Beside the trash itself was a pile of recyclables, including a number of cardboard boxes. Rei selected one that would accommodate a few clothes, a few toiletries, and one personal belonging. She took it, awkwardly, in her arms, and climbed up the stairs to her apartment. -- The red afternoon light came in through the windows on the western side of Commander Ikari's office. Ikari was at work, preparing some paperwork for a NERV press release. Although his life was filled with stress, it was an inescapable fact that work with NERV had its moments of tedium. All large organizations must have a bureaucracy, and this bureaucracy ties everyone to the real world it works within. Ikari's work and meditations were interrupted as there was a knock at the door. He looked up and said, "Come in." The door was opened and Kaji Ryuji breezed in. "Good afternoon, Commander. Am I interrupting anything important?" "No, you are not. Can I be of service?" "Yes, I hope so." Kaji crossed the expansive room and stood attentively by the desk. "I would like to talk to you about your son." "Shinji. Yes?" "Yes, well, I was discussing his plight with Katsuragi Misato, and we had an idea. Now, while he is, while he can't take antidepressants by NERV rules, we were..." "Please come to the point, Kaji-san." "Yes, sir. I'm sure you're acquainted with the 'Placebo Effect', yes? What we thought we could do is..." "No." Kaji was caught off his guard by Ikari's response, and his composure faltered. "W-what?" "Is there anything else, Kaji-san?" Still reeling from his curt response, Kaji ignored the question. "Commander, what do you mean by 'no'?" "I mean, Shinji is to receive no medications at all, real or counterfeit." Ikar i gazed back at his paper work and repeated his question. "Is there anything else, Kaji-san?" Kaji reached forward to rest his hands on the desk top and began, "Now, listen here..." but his hands never rested. His elbows were blown out to the side by deft chops to their inside, and Kaji's chin slammed into the desktop. Ikari seized a clump of the man's hair and drove his face onto the wood paneling twice, then twisted his hand to drive down the side of his head. With his other hand he boxed his open palm onto Kaji's ear. Kaji screamed. Paralyzed with pain, he made no resistance as Ikari pulled him onto his desk. He felt the pressure as Ikari rested one knee in Kaji's abdomen, and placed his foot up against his crotch. He only reacted when he felt the steel circular barrel of a gun pressing at the reflex point where cartilage met bone on his nose. He tried to move away from it, to find there was nowhere to go. "NOW LISTEN HERE," roared Ikari, "I BUILT THAT BOY! For fourteen years, I have been building that boy to what he is today! I hold the threads of his destiny in my hands, and NOTHING will intercede between him and his fate! Not you, not anyone, will get in my way until he is what I want him to be! Do you understand me, Kaji-san?" "Nnngh...nnngh..." It was difficult for Kaji to hear. "I SAID, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME, KAJI-SAN?" "Nngh..." Kaji tried as hard as he could to answer in the affirmative, but he knew he would not be able to communicate it. His belief was corroborated as he felt a sharp kick in the side of his head, and he rolled off the desk int o a pile on the floor. From his pained and humiliated position, Kaji thought he heard Ikari say, "If you cross me once more, Kaji-san, I will blow a furrow between your eyes. Get out." Kaji scrambled to his feet and clutched at his head. He felt a rivulet of blood coming from his right ear. He loped towards the door of Ikari's office. As the door shut, Ikari drew out a piece of blotter paper from his desk drawer and slipped it onto the floor in front of his desk. With that out of the way, he scribbled a furious note to himself in an appointment book, then tried to return his concentration to his job. -- Shinji sat in the hospital, and that was all. People came and went, and he thought about talking to them, sometimes. Nobody knew. Nobody knew what was going on inside of him. Nobody saw the web he had woven across these eight cubic meters that were home. Soon, he would come around. Soon, his chrysalis would be woven. The straightjacket that held him tightly, like an everlasting embrace, was only the beginning. It was coming, his salvation in silk and cotton was coming, and the knitting needles were hard at work inside him. Then Kaji came. Kaji opened the window and spoke to him in an unusually direct tone. The smell of fresh blood wafted from him. "Shinji, I know you can hear me. Now, I know, the doctors say you're making excellent progress, but we both know that you need the drugs. Hey, I've got some good news. I've bribed one of the interns here, see. This guy, he works in the dispensary. Asuka found your prescription in your room at home, and we can start getting it to you immediately. Of course, this all has to be hush-hush, because it's against the rule, that's why I have to bribe someone. But your doctor, and your shrink, and the intern, they're the only ones who know. Isn't that great news? Shinji? _Shinji_?" Something had changed. The boy's eyes, normally sedate, had begun to rove a little. His mouth quivered, and then his red tongue dashed out, licked his lips. Then he began to speak, not moving his mouth much, but carefully forming each and every word to encapsulate as much meaning as he could. "I remember, when I was just a kid, thinking that my father was the greatest man alive. Maybe it was because we weren't so close, I made him out to be this big, courageous, mysterious man. I thought he could do no wrong, that he would always be right, that everything he saw and did was a fight for what was right. "Then, when I joined NERV, I remember being so confused, because he was my father, but he wasn't like I pictured him. He forced me to work for him. He never saw me. I felt betrayed, because he hadn't lived up to my image. And I looked at all of my friends, to see if their fathers were like that. I was so scared of him. "But now, everything's...all right." He started to chuckle, or giggle. "Everything's all right, you see, because...I just realized it, yesterday, or maybe the day before. My father is God." "Eh?" "My father is God. Don't you realize, Kaji-san? It explains everything!" Shinji lurched up into a kneeling position, and fixed Kaji with a zealous stare. "He's God, and there's fallen angels out to get him, but he's created living beings to fight them! And he's built us an Eden to live in! And he's set up commandments to live by, and he's set up churches for us to worship in, and...and I'M JESUS CHRIST! Don't you see it? I'm Jesus! All those ao-me bastard preachers they keep sending over to convert us? They worship ME!" His giggling was almost overpowering his speech, which was so energetic it was persistently breaking. "It's wonderful, isn't it, Kaji- san? Aren't you happy for me? I get to die for your sins! Go ahead! Fuck Misato, get piss-drunk, do whatever, it's OK, I'm dying for it all! He's going to kill me, and then we'll all be all right! Come on people, now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, who wants to sing a hymn? 'FLY ME TO THE MOON AND LET ME PLAY AMONG THE STARS, LET ME SEE..'" Kaji let the peephole door slam closed, and he ran out of the hospital, through the parking lot, and locked himself in his car. He sat there for a quarter of an hour before he felt calm enough to drive. He resolved never to set foot in the hospital again, whether Shinji was slated to recover or not. Because, for a moment, he had _believed_.