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The Human Abstract

Chapter Text

The little oval pills looked a sickly green trapped within the orange pharmaceutical vial, but when Shinji plucked one out of the vial, pinched between forefinger and thumb, it was a pale baby blue (which struck Misato as just a little ironic). There was a nervous tremor in Shinji’s hand, as if the tiny blue pill—small enough that two or three of them could fit comfortably on the nail of one’s pinkie finger—was made of solid uranium.

“You're going to take it right now?” Misato asked. Her voice just sort of naturally defaulted to a hushed, conspiratorial whisper, as though she were some sort of drug dealer. In all honesty, she probably was one now. But what the hell was she supposed to do?

Shinji slowly, deliberately nodded.

“What do the directions say?”

“Allow one-half tablet to dissolve under the tongue once per day.” The letters printed on the vial’s label spelled it all out in black and white amid a mess of barcodes, strings of numbers and letters, dates, and addresses.

“Just one, huh?”

“Yeah.” Shinji did as the instructions said and slipped a snapped-in-half pill under her tongue, handling it as though it would explode if it were to fall to the litter-strewn floor of Misato’s long-suffering car (at the very least, it wouldn’t be fit for human consumption—even by Misato’s admittedly low standards, her car was in desperate need of cleaning inside and out), then secreted the vial away in her bookbag, stuffing it all the way at the bottom as though to own it was some great shame.

“You know, it’s pretty brave, what you’re doing.”

“Thank you, Miss Misato.”

The yellow light streaming through the windows from the sodium-arc lights illuminating the lonely, empty parking structure shifted as Misato eased the car into the nearest parking space. Alternating bands of light and shadow flickered through the windows, painting in brief flashes clothes and skin and hair before plunging them again into shadow.

“Now, what was it Ritsuko said, uh… Dr. Akagi says,” she told Shinji, “that if you feel any sort of heart-attack-ish symptoms, you should stop taking those.”

Ritsuko wasn’t a medical practitioner, but given the environment, one had to wear many hats just to keep apace with whatever nightmare the universe cooked up next. And she was in correspondence with an old mutual friend from college who’d gone into endocrinology, which made her more or less an expert by proxy, or so Misato hoped.

“Uh… Heart-attack-ish?”

“You know, numb arm, unbearable chest pain, that sort of thing. I’m paraphrasing. She also said…” Misato tapped on the dashboard, hoping to jog her memory. “Oh, yeah. If you feel an impending sense of doom, get to a hospital right away.”


“I mean an impending sense of doom out of nowhere, not one that has a reasonable cause. Like, not the kind you get when an Angel shows up and everything goes to shit or when you realize you can’t do laundry for another three days but only have one pair of clean underwear left.”

“Yeah. I figured.”

Misato killed the engine and opened the door. “So when are you going to tell everyone?”

Shinji blinked. “Everyone?”

“If you’re really doing this, they’ll all have to know eventually.”

For a split second, Shinji made a face, then immediately tried to force a blank, stoic mask over it. It didn’t work. Outside of some notable exceptions (such as Rei), fourteen-year-olds didn’t do ‘stoic’ very well—it was almost adorable they even tried. Misato wondered if the poor kid was considering spitting out what little of the pill hadn’t dissolved yet.

She gave Shinji a pat on the shoulder. “It’ll be fine. I can send out a staff-wide memo and inform the school administration, so it’s not like you’ll have to make a coming-out speech to everyone in Tokyo-III.”

A relieved sigh escaped Shinji’s lips.

“You were really worried you’d have to make a big speech to the whole city?”

Embarrassed, with cheeks tinged pink, she turned away, focusing on the scenery passing by the window. “N-No.”

“But some people,” Misato added, standing outside the car and resting her hand on its hood, “you should tell in person. Friends, family, classmates. This is a big deal, after all. How about we give it a few weeks, see how those meds are treating you, and go from there?”


As the two of them left the parking garage through the lonely, sparse streets—parts of the city just seemed to go dead at this time of day—and headed back home, Misato spied out of the corner of her eye a familiar pair of golden arches shining like a beacon against the flagging light of the setting sun. “So, Shinji, how about—oh, are you still okay with being called that?”

“It’s fine. I haven’t thought of anything else yet.”

“Okay, just checking. So how about a little celebratory feast? I’ll buy you anything you want.” Misato dug into her purse and fished for her wallet, fingers curling around a depressingly-small handful of bills and coins. “…As long as it’s on the dollar menu,” she added.

“I’m fine. I’m not hungry.”


“Yeah. W-Wait, Miss Misato, you can’t go into the drive-through lane without a car—”

Misato held a finger up. “I can do anything I want,” she said. “I have government clearance.”

The speaker in the drive-through lane crackled to life and spat out bursts of static as it asked for her order.

“I’ll have two sausage mcmuffins, no cheese.”

The speaker informed her that the breakfast menu had closed nearly eleven hours ago.

Misato sighed. Anything she wanted, except that. Maybe in some other, less shitty version of reality, the breakfast menu was available all day. “I’ll just go with nuggets and large fries, then. Thanks.”

As she walked out of the drive-through lane with her wallet almost empty and a greasy paper bag of food dangling precariously from her grip, she plucked out a fry and held it toward Shinji. “Here, take one.”

“No, thanks.”

“Are you sure you don’t want a fry or something?”

“No. I said I wasn’t hungry,” Shinji insisted as her stomach growled.


“I guess.”

“You know what the best cure for that is,” Misato said, dangling the fry in front of her face.

Shinji relented at last and took it from her, chewing it thoughtfully.

“Okay, don’t worry about the outside world for now. We’ve got time to take it slow and plan things out. This isn’t like piloting the Eva, you’re not gonna just jump headfirst off a cliff…”

Her voice petered out as she noticed that Shinji was already lost in another world, her ears plugged with a set of headphones snaking out from the battered SDAT player nestled in her backpack. Quiet and tinny music—the same track over and over again—leaked out through the gap between the headphones’ cushioned speakers and her ears.

“Everything’s gonna be fine,” Misato told her, tapping with greasy fingers on her shoulder and leaving off-white stains on her white shirt. Though her words fell on deaf ears, Shinji wasn’t the only one who needed to hear them.

She hoped that something would give her a sign she was helping this kid make the right decision—the sooner, the better.

After all, everyone was depending on her.

“You’ve got a look on your face,” Asuka told Shinji, “like you’ve got a secret.”

“Maybe,” Shinji replied, fumbling with the combination lock on her locker, “I just have a good feeling about today’s test.”

“Sounds like someone thinks they’ll come in second place instead of dead last.”

“You know, ‘dead last’ doesn’t carry the same weight when there’s only three of us. It’s just one step down from second.” The locker swung open; within, hanging on a hook, was her limp and wrinkled plugsuit, a form-fitting blue and white spandex onesie loaded in the chest and back with vital signs monitoring and life support hardware. It held its shape as it dangled from its collar, looking like the skinned hide of some cybernetic creature.

“Whatever you say to lessen the sting of defeat,” Asuka said, collecting her own suit and rolling it out. Hers was a vibrant Char Aznable red which perfectly matched the bright, eye-catching paint job of Evangelion Unit-02.

“Yeah, I hope it helps. Don’t want you getting too upset.”

Asuka planted her hands on her hips. “All right. Who are you and what have you done with the real Shinji?”

“I tied him up and stuffed him in the fridge.”

“Well, I like you a lot better than him.”

Shinji shrugged. “Yeah, me too.”

Asuka turned to Rei. “Well? What do you think of the new and improved Shinji?”

Rei cocked her head, her pale bluish hair framing her ashen face. Her crimson eyes flitted in Shinji’s direction. “I don’t see any difference.”

“Get your eyes checked, then.”

Shinji ducked into one of the locker room’s shower stalls to change, climbed out of her clothes, and slipped into the suit. It hung on her, loose and baggy, until she pressed a button on the control panel wrapped around her wrist and the fabric contracted to fit perfectly against her skin and smoothed out everything that felt wrong. The weight of the suit’s array of sensors settled gently, comfortingly on her chest, making up for the weight that wasn’t there.

She sighed. She’d have that weight there soon, and then she’d be able to wear a suit like Asuka’s with pride.

As she trailed behind Asuka and Rei on her way to the hangars, Shinji found herself pursing her lips and whistling. She’d always had a good ear for music—she’d played cello since she was five and still practiced on occasion—but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d whistled.

It felt good. She felt good.

“I like your confidence,” Asuka smugly told her, “but you’ll be singing a different tune when the test’s over.”

Each of the pilots peeled off and headed to their own hangar—Asuka to Unit-02’s, Rei to Unit-00’s—leaving Shinji alone to stand under the shadow of the beast she piloted.

Evangelion Unit-01’s head and shoulders, covered in sleek, angular purple armor with streaks and accents of neon green and orange, loomed over her, silent and inert; the towering pylons affixed to its shoulders cast stark shadows over the metal catwalk crossing the pool of red liquid the giant stood in. It had a frightening visage, a horned helmet that called to mind a prehistoric predator.

It was strange that something that had terrified her so much when she’d first seen it had become so mundane. Shinji ascended the scaffolding at Unit-01’s side and made her way to the long, white, pill-shaped entry plug embedded in the nape of its neck by rote, she’d done it so many times before; she could have climbed into the plug in her sleep.

As she slipped into the hatch, the sharp, heavy metallic scent of blood, stronger here than outside, filled her nostrils. It clung to the inner walls of the plug. She seated herself in the cockpit and sat down, placing her hands on the controls. For an enormous humanoid thing, the Evangelion was surprisingly simple to control. The controls were almost vestigial: her thoughts dictated its movements; the joysticks her hands curled around had less to do with fine motor control and more to do with intensity.

The hatch hissed shut of its own accord; LCL pumped in from the pool below began to fill the plug. Shinji involuntary held her breath. Warm as bathwater, the amber-orange fluid lapped at her legs, then her groin, then her waist, and finally swallowed her chest and head.

She had to fight every instinct in her body and force herself to open her mouth and breathe—to let the LCL pour down her throat and nose and fill her lungs. As much as she couldn’t quite get used to breathing liquid, at least she could force herself to do it without having a panic attack now. A few more deep breaths, cycling the oxygenated fluid through her lungs, and she’d acclimated.

An electric tingle ran through the plug’s interior, raising the hairs on the back of her neck. Chatter from the central command staff drifted through the liquid atmosphere as the entry plug slid deeper into Unit-01’s torso; the viewscreen which wrapped around the interior walls flashed and blossomed with a kaleidoscope of colors before the image resolved into the hangar as seen from Unit-01’s eyes. The orange haze vanished as the LCL turned clear.

She’d done this—how many times now? Dozens?

But this was different.

A chill ran up her spine as her mind connected with Unit-01. It wasn’t quite the same feeling as before—with it came an excited electric tingle running up her legs, a twinge in her chest, the same sensation she’d felt as she’d lay awake that night she’d taken her first dose.

And more than that, Shinji felt what was almost a presence, almost a warm and wet breath against the back of her neck. She suddenly felt like Unit-01 were a wild animal sniffing her to discern whether she was familiar or alien, benign or a threat, predator or prey. As though it had detected a faint change in her scent, a faint change in her very being, and wanted to make certain she was the pilot it had grown accustomed to.

A pang of doubt ran through Shinji’s mind. Would Unit-01 still accept her? If it rejected her, resisted her, then her sync rate would plummet…

Something flashed past her eyes—a faint image, drifting phantom-like in the LCL as if it were a hologram. A pair of red eyes that disappeared as swiftly and unexpectedly as they had appeared.


Satisfied, Unit-01 withdrew its curious probe. The tingling sensation running up Shinji’s arms and legs subsided as an intangible warmth settled over her shoulders. The phantom weight of Unit-01’s armor and its restraints seemed to cling to her skin. She took a deep, relieved breath; she hadn’t realized she’d been holding it.

She curled Unit-01’s hand into a fist. “I’m in,” she announced.

Misato’s voice cut through the thick fog of radio chatter. “All right. We’re ready to begin the sync test. Monitoring vital signs and neural signal strength starting now.”

In Central Dogma’s command center, Misato and Ritsuko monitored the video feeds from the entry plugs of the three Evangelion units. Asuka and Rei looked bored. That was understandable—sync tests like this were usually very boring affairs, since with the Evas immobilized, there was little the pilots could do but focus on their mental connections to their units. Shinji, though, seemed apprehensive, her fingers nervously tapping on the controls.

It was a slow day—there was nothing special about these routine tests. Commander Ikari and Vice-Commander Fuyutsuki were away on business; the rest of the command center staff were lazily triple-checking yesterday’s work or loafing around.

“Shinji’s sync ratio is up almost five percent,” Ritsuko noted, nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee as the results of the current sync test ran across the video feeds. “When did this all start? Two weeks ago?”

“About twelve days,” Misato confirmed.

“And she’s doing well at home?”

“Yes, she seems to be loosening up a bit.”

“Well,” Ritsuko said, “the data checks out. Hormone replacement must be having a stabilizing effect on her psyche to improve her connection with Unit-01 this much. That’s one point in our defense if anyone tries to get in our way.”

“Oh, good.” Misato sighed. “I was worried I was making a huge mistake for a few days there.” She took a look at the readouts. “Wait, five percent? All this from, what, half a two-milligram pill per day?”

“Pill? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ritsuko said, tapping a finger against the side of her nose. “It was only a few days ago that we noticed the unforeseen hormonal effects of prolonged LCL exposure on pubescent males.”

Misato nodded and played along. It was awfully rare of Ritsuko to go out of her way to do something like this. She was going to relish this while it lasted. “Right. The unforeseen hormonal effects. Shocking.”

“Still, though, it’s heartening to see how even the promise of lessened body dysphoria is affecting her—keep in mind that two weeks is nowhere near enough time to see any noticeable external changes. She was already showing improvement, but now she’s skyrocketing. Who knows where she’ll be in another week? Or another month?”

“Oh, great.” Misato crossed her arms. She didn’t relish the idea of Asuka learning the hard way that competition was all fun and games until your opponent started winning often enough that you couldn’t just write it off as a fluke.

“You’re welcome, by the way. Never let it be said that Doctor Ritsuko Akagi doesn’t have a heart.”

“Right. You just misplace it sometimes.”

Ritsuko plucked her reading glasses off the bridge of her nose and polished the lenses on the hem of her labcoat. “That’s why I keep it in a bag in my freezer now,” she said with a wry smile.

Misato leaned over the console, flipped a switch, and opened a channel to Unit-01’s entry plug. “Shinji, we’re seeing some promising results here already. You’re showing marked improvement over the last test.”

Shinji relaxed, her shoulders loosening, the nervous twitch in her fingers subsiding. “Really? That’s great! Thank you, Miss Misato,” she answered, her mousy voice laced with exuberance and a soft background layer of static.

Ritsuko leaned in. “And how are you feeling?”

“Good, mostly, I think? Is this, um… Miss Ritsuko, do you have me on a private channel?”

Ritsuko glanced at Misato.

Misato checked the console again and adjusted the connection. “Yeah, you’re good.”

“My chest feels sore. It’s a little irritating, especially in the suit. It’s not a… heart thing, is it?”

“That’s nothing to be worried about, Shinji,” Ritsuko answered. “The aches will come and go. It’s just your breast tissue starting to develop. Welcome to puberty.”

Asuka nearly leaped out of her seat; her voice burst through the faint layer of interference hissing in the background. “What?”

“I thought you said this was a private channel to Unit-01!” Ritsuko hissed.

“It is! I—” Misato glanced down at the comm controls. Nope. Public. She must have accidentally flipped the switch without noticing. “Shit.”

“Doctor Akagi, did you say ‘breast tissue?’” Asuka started laughing and covered her mouth with her hand. “Shinji, what’s going on here? Are you already giving up on being a man?”

“Asuka, stop,” Misato admonished her. Her words fell on deaf ears.

“Geez, I knew you were emasculated, but I didn’t think you’d actually start turning into a girl!”

“Asuka, you’re being rude. For your information, Shinji is—”

“You haven’t been crossdressing, have you?”


“I swear, if you’ve touched any of my clothes, you little pervert, I’ll—”

“A-As if I’d touch anything you wore!” Shinji shot back, stammering.

“What’s that supposed to mean? Oh, so my clothes aren’t good enough for you?”

With a strangled, frustrated groan, Misato buried her face in her hands as the two pilots kept sniping at each other between the hangars containing their Eva units (Asuka was firing the most shots). What a colossal fuck-up this was. “Ritsuko, are you carrying your sidearm right now?” she moaned.

“I can’t kill a child in cold blood, if that’s what you mean,” Ritsuko replied.

“No, I was hoping you could shoot me in the head.”

The air in Evangelion Unit-01’s hangar was bitter cold against Shinji’s face and hair as she climbed out of the entry plug and descended from the nape of the beast’s neck to the metal catwalk running across the surface of the pool of red liquid filling the hangar, coughing to clear her lungs of fluid.

Now that she was out, part of her just wanted to climb back in there and sit in the entry plug until she dissolved.

She leaned over the railing, looked down at her faint and rippling reflection, and sighed. Droplets of LCL dripped from her sodden hair and fell to the pool, sending out ripples which distorted the shivering reflection into oblivion.

Her heart fluttered in her throat. Now everyone knew what she was. There was no hiding it and no turning back. She didn’t blame or begrudge Misato for pressing the wrong button and broadcasting it to the whole command center staff (mercifully, minus her father)—but she’d never been so thoroughly humiliated.

The door on the far end of the hangar slid open and Rei stepped through. Rivulets of orange LCL trickled down her white plugsuit and dampened the floor where she stepped. She nodded a silent, understated greeting as she walked past Shinji and Unit-01. “Ikari.”

“H-Hi, Ayanami. So… I guess you heard all of that too, huh?” Shinji asked, letting one arm dangle off the railing, the metal bar pressing into her chest. She tried not to look at her.

“Yes.” Rei’s voice, as always, was so soft it might as well have been a whisper.

Shinji watched her reflection reform just briefly enough for more droplets to tear it apart. “Do you… think less of me?”

“Should I?”

“If you want, I guess.”

Without another word, Rei kept walking and exited through the door opposite from where she’d entered. Out of the corner of her eye, Shinji watched her go and felt a familiar pang of envy squeeze her heart, harder and more intense than before. Real girls like Rei and Asuka were already so much further along than she was. Even with those pills, she’d never catch up.

Asuka passed by next, covering her mouth and letting out a muffled giggle as she drew near.


“Oh, nothing,” she drawled as she casually tossed back her long mane of sodden auburn hair and snickered again. “Just trying to picture you in a skirt.” She kept going, making a big show of pretending to wipe fake tears of laughter from her eyes. “See you back at the apartment! Don’t touch any of my stuff!” she called out, waving goodbye as she strolled away.

“I told you I wouldn’t,” Shinji muttered well after Asuka had left the hangar.

She let out a forlorn sigh. It shouldn’t have been surprising that the one thing she’d done because she’d wanted to do it, not because she’d been asked to, not because she’d been told to, would end up like this.

Although she’d spent what had felt like hours moping in the hangar, Shinji was the first to arrive back at Misato’s apartment that day. Asuka must have been out doing something fun; Misato was either still wrapped up in her work or getting drunk as a skunk somewhere.

She sat at the table, rolling her little vial of pills from one hand to another like a housecat playing with a mouse.

It was wrong of her to have these. It was wrong of her to think of herself as herself. It was wrong of her, even though she’d felt alive in a way she hadn’t felt in a long, long time. It was all wrong; she’d only been trying to convince herself otherwise because of how badly she’d yearned for it.

But Misato had believed her. She’d accepted it as the truth with hardly any hesitation, hardly any question. Why?

Asuka returned to the apartment next, slipping off her shoes as the door slid shut behind her. “Oh, there you are,” she said to Shinji. “Thought you were going to spend all day down there. No sign of Misato yet, huh?”

Shinji shook her head.

With a curious glint in her eye, Asuka swiped the vial right off the table in mid-roll, holding it up to the light like a jeweler appraising a diamond. “So these are the magic pills, huh?”


She shook it; the pills rattled around. “‘Do not take if you become pregnant,’” she read from the label. “Well, good thing you don’t have to worry about that, huh?”

Shinji slumped over.

“‘Dissolve under tongue…’ So they’re water-soluble, huh? What if I dumped this whole bottle down the sink?”

Shinji shrugged.

“You’d just let me?”


“What a pushover.” Asuka rolled her eyes and set the vial down on the table. “Look, I was creeped out at first, but I’ve thought it over, and it’s actually kinda flattering that you want to be part of the winning team. So here, have your drugs back.” She reached out and patronizingly tousled Shinji’s hair.


“I actually just came back here to pick up my homework,” Asuka said, grabbing her bookbag and slinging it over her shoulder. “I’m heading over to Hikari’s to work on it. If Misato comes back before I do, tell her that for me, okay?”


She left the apartment, leaving Shinji once again alone with her thoughts. But not for long—it had scarcely been five minutes before the door slid open again.

Misato staggered in. She was still wearing her uniform, though her scarlet jacket was unzipped and hanging off her arms as though she’d tried to take it off and then decided not to halfway through without making the effort to put it back on again. Her cap, emblazoned with a major’s insignia, was perched at a jaunty angle on her head. A large plastic bag hung from her wrist.

“Hey, Shinji. Welcome home.” She all but collapsed onto the chair directly opposite from Shinji, resting her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand. Shinji could smell booze on her breath from across the table. “Where’s Asuka?”

“Went out to do homework with friends.”

“Ah.” Misato sighed. “Well, that’s a relief, huh?”


“Anyway, I’m really sorry about today. Just really, really—” She cradled her forehead in her hands. “God, I’m fucking sorry.” It was unusual to see Misato so maudlin. Typically, when she got soused to the gills, she became uncomfortably outgoing and high-spirited. It seemed she’d tried to drown her sorrows with binge-drinking and had ended up instead drowning in her sorrows. “I’m so, so sorry for ruining this for you…”

“It’s okay. It’s not your fault.” If anything, Shinji thought, it was her fault. If she hadn’t made this decision, Misato wouldn’t have had that mistake to make.

“I meant to talk to her about it in private. Just a little, not naming names or anything—just soften her up for you, y’know? I didn’t mean to… broadcast the latest news about your breasts to all of Central Dogma.”

“What breasts?”

“Just give it time. They’ll be huge in two years, I promise.” Misato flashed her a weary grin. “Chin up. Don’t let Asuka grind you down. She’ll come around sooner or later.”

Shinji’s fingers curled around the pill bottle; she slid it into the center of the table and let go. “Thank you, Miss Misato. But… why did you let me do this?”

Misato’s eyebrows knitted together. “Uh…”

“This isn’t how people are supposed to be. It’s wrong. I shouldn’t be taking these.”

She dismissed Shinji with a flippant wave of her hand. “It’s fine. Look, hormone replacement therapy is an established medical procedure. There’s a ton of medical literature and case studies surrounding it. Y’know why?”

“No. Why?”

“Because that is how some people are supposed to be.” Misato leaned forward. “Okay, look, it isn’t gonna be easy. But I saw how you’ve been acting since you got those, and I wanna see more of that. I know you do, too.”

Shinji bowed her head.

“I heard you humming along to your tape player the other day. Humming. I’ve never heard you do that before! Don’t throw stuff like that away because I fucked up!” The plastic bag Misato had been holding landed on the middle of the table with a loud, soft thump, knocking over the pill bottle. “Here,” she said, pushing it the rest of the way across the table. “This’ll cheer you up. Take a look.” There was a tinge of desperation in her voice, something that said beneath her words, I’m begging you to forgive me.

Shinji reached into the bag and fished out a surprisingly neatly-folded set of clothes.

“I picked up a girls’ uniform for school. Try it on. I need to know if everything fits so we can return it if we need to.”

Shinji’s heart skipped a beat. Her new school uniform. Even the nightmare she’d gone through today couldn’t stop her from feeling excited—but still wary, still a little apprehensive.

Asuka’s laughter rang in her ears.

No, a lot apprehensive.

“I’ll try it on,” she said, making her way to the bathroom.

Her heart pounding, she slowly, gingerly, apprehensively changed clothes, exchanging her shirt for an airy white blouse, her jeans for a blue dress, her socks for knee-length white stockings. The new uniform was surprisingly comfortable, albeit a little stiff and starchy.

Please don’t look stupid, she begged herself as she slipped her stockings on, wriggled her feet into her shoes, and tied the thin red ribbon around her collar in a loose knot. Her hands were shaking.

Everything else seemed to fit well, but the shoes were a problem—they fit everywhere except around the heel, and if she tried to walk in them, she’d walk out of them.

Shinji stood up, smoothed out the hem of her skirt, and awkwardly tried to spin on her heel. The bathroom was too cramped, though; she nearly took down the shower curtains with her. Still, in that instant she’d had before tripping over the toilet and banging her knee against the shower stall, she’d been delighted to see the skirt twirl along with her.

Misato knocked on the door. “Everything okay in there?” she asked, her voice muffled.

“Uh… yeah. I’m okay. Nothing’s broken. Sorry.”

“How are your clothes?”

“Good… mostly. Mostly good.”

“I wanna see!”

Taking a deep breath, Shinji opened the door. Her face was burning, her heart pounding.

Beaming, Misato clasped her hands over her heart. “Aw, they should’ve sent a poet.”

“I-I look good?”

“You sure do. How’s the fit?”

“Seems okay.” Shinji slipped out of her shoes and picked them up. “The shoes are a little too big in the heel. Everything else feels good.”

“Huh. We’ll have to go down a size.”

Misato stood up and fished out what looked like another, smaller purse from her purse. “Oh, and step aside and make room, I’m going in there.” She gave Shinji a gentle push, guiding her back into the bathroom, and followed her inside. “I’ve got some more stuff to show you.”

Shinji watched her pull out a tube of mascara, an eyeliner pencil, and a tube of lip gloss and felt a warm, invisible hand reach into her chest and squeeze her heart.

“Just the basics for now. You don’t really need to worry about foundation and concealer and rouge unless you’re attending a really fancy event or you get a really nasty zit, so we’ll burn those bridges when we come to them,” Misato said. “Take a seat while I—” She hiccuped. “Excuse me. Take a seat and let me work my magic.”

Shinji looked around for a place to sit down and settled for the rim of the bathtub; once she’d sat down, Misato crouched down in front of her, bringing the two of them eye to eye. “Don’t squirm. You gotta sit still for this.”

“I am sitting still.”

Misato furrowed her brow. “Oh.”

Shinji had to admit, though, it was hard not to squirm with a drunk woman holding a pencil so close to her eye.

“Black is pretty standard,” Misato said, “but using a flesh tone on your waterline is great for making yourself look less hungover.”

If that was a makeup tip Misato adhered to, Shinji had never noticed it, but she’d always been able to tell when she was hungover. “I don’t think it works.”

“Damn.” Misato finished with the eyeliner and moved onto the mascara. “I thought it worked.”

“Um… maybe I’m just perceptive?”

Once Misato had done her work—with a surprisingly steady hand for someone who could barely see straight—she stood up and admired her handiwork. “There you go! There’s a smile!”

Shinji turned her head and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. In a flash, all her apprehension and anxiety vanished, the tension draining from her body. The face staring back at her didn’t belong to a boy. It didn’t belong to a crossdressing pervert. It didn’t belong to someone who was making the wrong decision. It belonged to a girl with a nervous, yet hopeful smile, and it belonged to her.

How’s that, Asuka? she asked herself, feeling a twinge of pride.

Wincing and swaying unsteadily on her feet, Misato clutched at her head. “I’m gonna lie down for a bit. You and Asuka can take care of dinner yourselves, right?”

“Y-Yeah, you should get some rest.” Shinji stood up and gently nudged her out of the bathroom and toward her bedroom. “Thank you for all your help, Miss Misato.”

“Actually, I gotta use the bathroom,” Misato said, rushing the words out with foreboding urgency as she made a U-turn and slammed the door shut behind her. Behind the bathroom door came a muffled retching sound.

Shinji sat down at the table and leaned against the back of her chair. At this moment, she was happier than she remembered ever being in years. More than anything, she felt a sense of relief that she’d righted the course of a life on the verge of veering off-track. She wouldn’t grow up to be a man.

That was, she reminded herself, if she grew up at all.

Misato’s pet penguin Pen Pen climbed out of his refrigerated habitat and waddled over to the bathroom, then looked up at Shinji. His feathery red crest twitched upward as though he were raising an eyebrow as he gestured with one flipper at the closed door. A little towel was hanging around his neck like a scarf.

“Occupied. Sorry,” Shinji told him.

Pen Pen lowered his head and let out a weak squawk.

“By the way,” Shinji added, “I, uh… I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, but…”

Pen Pen looked at her, his eyes like shiny marbles. Shinji had no idea what was going on in this creature’s head—he definitely wasn’t a normal penguin and seemed to understand people, but there was no telling how intelligent he was.

“Anyway, I’m a girl.”

Pen Pen cocked his head like a dog and squawked inquisitively.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure,” Shinji replied, making her best effort to guess what the penguin was actually trying to ask.

Pen Pen pointed at the hem of her skirt and let out another, more enthusiastic squawk.

“Do you like it? Thank you. I like it, too.”

Seemingly satisfied with his line of questioning (though stymied in his attempt to take a bath), Pen Pen preened his feathers and waddled back to his climate-controlled bed.

Deep below Tokyo-III, Evangelion Unit-01 stood inert in its hangar, its head bowed as though it were deep in thought. It was disconnected from NERV’s electrical system and had no internal power source, yet somehow, a flicker of cognition ran through the darkness of its mind. It only lasted an instant, so brief and so weak that the sudden electrical surge would show up on the facility’s sensors as nothing more than a momentary hiccup in the system or an errant cosmic ray passing by happenstance through the surface of the Earth.

In the duration of that instant, it thought about its pilot.

A young boy with silver hair climbed out of a tank of luminous LCL sunken into the floor of a cavernous chamber and picked up the towel he’d left on the floor. He mopped up the orange fluid clinging to his ashen face, snowy hair, and midnight-blue plugsuit.

Leaving the sodden towel on the floor, he walked to the stall on the other side of the chamber and stood under the showerhead, allowing a dozen streams of water to cascade over him and wash him and his suit clean.

While showering, he pressed the button on his wrist to loosen the suit’s skin-hugging fabric, unzipped the suit, and climbed out of it like a snake shedding its skin; he then pulled his binder up over his head and dropped it to the floor along with the plugsuit. Rivulets of water mixed with LCL swirled around the drain set in the floor.

He lifted his face and spread out his arms, relishing the feeling of the cleansing stream on his skin; then, when he’d had his fill, he stepped away from the stall and used a fresh towel to dry himself off. Sensing his absence, the showerhead automatically deactivated, its gentle hiss replaced by the sickly gurgling of water rushing down the drain.

The cold air settling on his wet skin, he wrung out the sodden plugsuit and binder, then hung them on a rack next to the stall to dry. A vent under the rack began to hiss; the clothes began to flap and ripple, droplets of water leaping from the fabric and catching in the updrafts and spiraling upward.

Thoroughly refreshed, he slipped into a white bathrobe and tied a sash around his waist to secure it, then retired to the bed at the far end of the chamber, sitting with his legs dangling off the side of the mattress and staring up at the esoteric symbols etched into the ceiling. His eyes met seven other eyes arranged on an inverted, bisected triangle.

A black monolith appeared in the air in front of him, distracting him from his moment of relaxation. Its booming voice projected itself directly into his mind, bypassing his ears.

Rᴇᴘᴏʀᴛ. Wʜᴀᴛ ᴠɪsɪᴏɴs ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴅ ᴛᴏᴅᴀʏ?

He sighed. “None, unfortunately,” he lied. “I saw nothing.”

Is ᴛʜᴀᴛ ʏᴏᴜʀ ꜰᴜʟʟ ʀᴇᴘᴏʀᴛ?


A ᴍᴏᴍᴇɴᴛᴀʀʏ ᴜᴘᴛɪᴄᴋ ɪɴ ʏᴏᴜʀ ʜᴇᴀʀᴛ ʀᴀᴛᴇ ᴀɴᴅ ᴀ sᴘɪᴋᴇ ɪɴ ʏᴏᴜʀ ʙʀᴀɪɴ's ᴇʟᴇᴄᴛʀɪᴄᴀʟ sɪɢɴᴀʟs ᴡᴀs ᴅᴇᴛᴇᴄᴛᴇᴅ. Dɪᴅ ʏᴏᴜ ɴᴏᴛ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴀ ᴠɪsɪᴏɴ ᴛʜᴇɴ?

He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I merely worried, briefly, that I may have left the oven on,” he said, lazily gesturing to the little kitchenette occupying one corner of his quarters.

Vᴇʀʏ ᴡᴇʟʟ. Iɴꜰᴏʀᴍ ᴜs ᴏꜰ ᴀɴʏ ꜰᴜᴛᴜʀᴇ ᴠɪsɪᴏɴs, ɴᴏ ᴍᴀᴛᴛᴇʀ ʜᴏᴡ ᴍᴜɴᴅᴀɴᴇ. Tʜᴇ ᴄᴏʟʟᴇᴄᴛɪᴠᴇ ᴅʀᴇᴀᴍ ᴏꜰ ᴍᴇɴ ᴀɴᴅ ᴀɴɢᴇʟs ʀᴇsᴛs ᴜᴘᴏɴ ʏᴏᴜʀ sʜᴏᴜʟᴅᴇʀs, Kᴀᴡᴏʀᴜ Nᴀɢɪsᴀ.

With a wry smile, Kaworu coyly raised his hand to his forehead and saluted. “Yes, sir.”

The monolith vanished.

Thankful to have cut this meeting short, Kaworu sighed and laid back, cradling the back of his head in his hands as he gazed up at the ceiling and reflected on what he had seen.

With those portentous blue eyes, he wondered, could you, too, see me, Shinji Ikari?

Chapter Text

“Macht schnell! Macht schnell, idioten!”

Asuka’s harsh cries cut through Shinji’s ears like a knife as she took up position at the bottom of the vast vertical shaft. The shaft, one of many that connected NERV headquarters and the Eva unit hangars to the surface of Tokyo-III, was so big that Unit-01 seemed small in comparison; then again, this was one of the tunnels the Evas rocketed through on their way up to the city, so if it seemed unfamiliar, it was only because Shinji had never traveled up it so slowly.

“Ayanami!” Shinji called out to Rei. “I need your rifle!”

A stray droplet of acid, viscous and steaming, sickly orange like flu medicine that had somehow congealed, dripped down onto Unit-01’s forearm; the armor immediately began to sizzle and steam as it corroded. Shinji gritted her teeth and choked down a strained scream as her connection to Unit-01 took the pain it was feeling and funneled it into her body. She felt the Eva’s armor melt like butter in a microwave, felt the acid burrow into its skin, her skin—

She knew it wasn’t real. It never was. The damage done to an Evangelion never translated to its pilot’s body—but the pain did. It was like a drill bit made of lava boring all the way through her forearm, all the way through the bone, and out the other side.


“Almost there, Ikari,” Rei answered. As always, she was cool and unflappable, steadfast as a pillar of rock standing against the turbulent froth and waves of a stormy sea. Shinji envied her composure (though that wasn’t the only thing she envied about Rei).

Asuka screamed. Unit-02 had planted itself midway up the shaft, arms and legs akimbo, gauntleted fingers digging into the metal walls; she’d formed with her prized crimson Evangelion’s very body a living shield of sorts against the acid dripping into the shaft from above. She bore the brunt of the enemy’s attack. “Idiot Shinji, if you and Wonder Girl don’t hurry up,” she shouted, “I’m gonna let go of the wall, come down there, and rip your fucking throat out!”

“This plan was your idea!”

“I’ve never had fucking acid poured on me before!”

Another globule of acid slipped past Unit-01’s leg and cut a trench through its thigh on the way to the closed hatch that made up the shaft’s floor; it burned an irregular hole through the hatch, and then through the hatch below that, and the hatch below that, and the hatch below that…

Unit-00 climbed out of an aperture in the wall and thrust its pallet rifle into Unit-01’s hands, its single camera-lens eye narrowing. “I’m here,” Rei said, as matter-of-factly as if she were answering roll call in class.

“About damn time!”

Shinji hefted the rifle, braced herself, peeked out from behind Unit-02’s body, and tried to get a bead on the enemy.

It stood perched on a dozen spindly black legs over the acid-eaten top of the shaft, the dozen eyes dotting its central body oozing acid like thick, gloppy tears as it tried to melt its way down into NERV headquarters. NERV’s last and only line of defense—the three Eva pilots—were right below it.

The Ninth Angel.

A faint rainbow shimmer wavered under the Angel’s spidery body, luminous patterns of glittering concentric octagons spreading out like a wall of light.

“Asuka! Neutralize its AT-field!” Shinji shouted.

“I’m trying!” The shimmering AT-field protecting the Angel’s body from attack flickered and shuddered as the AT-field produced by Unit-02 ground against it. “Almost there…”

A frantic beeping rang in Shinji’s ear. Panicked, she checked the readout embedded into the wrist console of her plugsuit. Twenty seconds of internal battery power left. Twenty seconds to kill this thing before its tears turned her and Asuka and Rei into steaming piles of mush. Nineteen. Eighteen.

She kept trying to find a good shot. It was too hard to get a bead on the Angel’s core. Unit-02 was in the way, blocking the shaft’s entire cross-section. To boot, she still couldn’t tell how strong the Angel’s AT-field was or how close Asuka was to breaking it—with the power out in the rest of the headquarters, Central Dogma’s diagnostic capabilities were nonexistent. The Eva pilots were blind to all the data the command center staff typically fed them.

Unit-01’s finger curled around the rifle’s trigger. A spray of bullets cut through the air with a throaty, choppy staccato roar that left Shinji’s ears ringing, lightly grazing Unit-01’s neck and shoulder pylons; the bullets pinged harmlessly off the Angel’s iridescent shield. Damn! Too soon! But even if the AT-field had been down, it wouldn’t have mattered, Shinji realized—that shot would have barely grazed the Angel’s body. It would take a direct hit and nothing less to take down this thing.

Asuka shouted something.

“What?” Shinji shouted back.

The AT-field rattled and broke apart, its concentric rings distorting as shards of its rainbow sheen glittered in the air.

“Got it!”

Shinji pulled Unit-01 to its feet and scrambled to the center of the shaft right under Unit-02’s acid-eaten body and jabbed the barrel of her rifle upward, slipping on the holes the trickling acid had burned through floor. “Asuka, to the side!”

Oh, god, what was she doing? What was this devil-may-care feeling spurring her into action? Had just two days on hormones been enough to make her this impulsive?

“Are you crazy?”

“It’s that or I shoot through you!”

Unit-02 let go of the walls and swung to the side, passing by Shinji as it tumbled to the floor with an earthshaking crash. Its brilliant crimson armor was charred, steaming, and pitted; in its abdomen, which had borne the brunt of the acid attack, the armor had almost completely worn away to show the ruby-like red sphere of the Eva’s core stained and splattered with violet blood.

Unimpeded, rivulets of the Angel’s acidic tears bore down on Shinji as she screamed and jammed Unit-01’s finger on the trigger. Whether the scream was from adrenaline, pain, or terror, she couldn’t tell.

The bullets tore through the Angel’s body and killed it instantly.

And that’s when Shinji heard, beneath her own hoarse battlecry, beneath the deafening sustained cannonfire of the giant-size automatic rifle, beneath the thrumming of her racing pulse singing in her ears, something else. Something ringing in her ears, behind her ears, beneath her ears.

Within her head.

It was a wail of mourning, a wail of inconsolable sorrow and loneliness.

A wail of pain. Not human, not even animal, but something she almost couldn’t describe. But though it was alien, she felt the raw emotion behind it.

It hurt.

It hurt so much that she pulled her hands from the entry plug’s controls and clutched at her forehead, gritting her teeth, clenching her jaw.

It passed as suddenly as it had came; exhausted mentally and physically, Shinji slumped back as Unit-01’s power ran out and the inert behemoth fell to its knees and collapsed beside Unit-02. The electric tingle running through the LCL disappeared and the liquid reverted to its normal hazy orange color as the entry plug’s viewport went dead.

What had that been? A scream the angel had summoned on the edge of death? Why had it sounded so… sad?

She took deep breaths as the sympathetic pain from Unit-01’s injuries faded away, leaving numb and tingling patches all over where the Angel’s acid attack had chewed through the armor. She wondered how bad Asuka must have felt, considering all the damage Unit-02 had sustained.

“Woohoo, we did it!” Asuka crowed, euphoric in victory. “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!”

Evidently, she didn’t feel all that bad anymore.

Shinji, though, was still too dazed by the mysterious scream still echoing in her head to revel in the Eva pilots’ shared victory (this was the first time all three of them had sortied against an Angel together).

“Angels…” She closed her eyes. Her racing pulse slowly came down. “Messengers of God, servants of Heaven… Why are we fighting them?”

“Huh? What are you, stupid? Because they’re trying to kill us! If something wants to hurt you, you’ve got to stand up for yourself and hurt it back!”

“Yeah, but… why was it so sad?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Didn’t you hear it scream?”

“The only thing I heard screaming was you,” Asuka replied. “You scream like a girl, by the way.”

Shinji took pride in hearing that from Asuka, even though it had certainly been intended as an insult. One of the perks of starting her transition, she decided, was that nobody could get under her skin anymore by teasing her about being unmanly.

“Huh. I—I must’ve imagined it, then,” Shinji admitted, shaking her head.

Three weeks and two Angel attacks later, Shinji still couldn’t quite get that sound out of her head. She didn’t dare tell anyone, fearing they’d think the Angel had mentally contaminated her, but the mystery of that scream still haunted her. The last one she and the other pilots had fought had screamed like that, too—but perhaps it was only her imagination.

Struggling to cast that and her other anxieties aside, she hummed the tune to a piece she’d been practicing the other day as she set to work making breakfast. Unless she woke up early, mornings in the Katsuragi household were typically rushed—too hectic even for a raw egg over rice. Breakfasts were spartan assortments of convenience store bread, convenience store coffee, and the occasional convenience store banana or apple. But Shinji had slept fitfully and woken up early, plagued with bad dreams, and food preparation did well when it came to taking her mind off things.

Besides, if it wasn’t for her, no one would ever have a proper meal in here.

It was rare for there to be anything in the sparsely-populated fridge that wasn’t processed, but as luck would have it, there were just enough ingredients for a more substantial (not to mention more flavorful) meal for three people. Three bowls of miso soup made with handfuls of leftover vegetables that might not have lasted more than a few more days; three bowls of oyakodon made with the last of the lonely eggs and chicken that had hidden behind a carton of soy milk waiting to be forgotten (and a fourth, smaller bowl for Pen Pen).

As Shinji garnished each breakfast with a generous pinch of dried bonito flakes and watched them dance, Misato dragged herself out of her bedroom and into the cluttered common room not even five seconds before her alarm clock began to screech, rubbing her bleary and reddened eyes.

“G’morning, Shinji,” she groaned, yawning as she fished a can of beer from the fridge and a packet of instant ramen from the cupboard.

“Good morning, Miss Misato. I made breakfast,” Shinji said, bringing the food two-by-two to the table. “I think the chicken in there was close to its best-by date, so I used it all up.”

Misato sighed with relief and set the packet of ramen back. “I thought I smelled something good. You’re a lifesaver, Shinji,” she said, taking her place at the table.

“I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

“Beats an alarm clock,” Misato said with a shrug as the alarm clock in her room continued to wail, its electronic scream muffled by the wall.

“Shouldn’t you turn that off?”

“Nah, it’ll turn off by itself.”

Asuka trudged out next, stretching and yawning, and slumped into her chair.

Shinji joined the others at the table. “Well, let’s eat.”

They ate.

“You’re looking happy this morning, Shinji,” Asuka noted as she drowned her rice in soy sauce. “What’s going on? Did your dick fall off?”

“I should be so lucky,” Shinji mumbled. “Good morning to you too, Asuka.”

“She’s happy because she’s finally being herself,” Misato said. “We wrote up notices to NERV HQ and the school administration and sent them out yesterday. Starting today, our Shinji is officially a young lady! I mean, not officially, we’ve still got to deal with all her documents, but…”

‘Happy’ was an exaggeration. While in general Shinji found herself in fairly high spirits compared to how she’d felt before, today in particular was a nerve-wracking day and she was doing her best to push it away and not think about every single thing that could possibly go wrong.

Too late to back out. It was best to simply resign herself to the fact that she was at the mercy of the universe now.

“Today?” Asuka glanced at her. “Don’t you think you’re going too fast? She hasn’t even picked out a new name yet!”

“It’s 2015, Asuka. Girls can have boys’ names if they want to,” Misato cracked open her beer and partook in her morning tradition of the hair of the dog. “There are neutral names you can choose, too, Shinji.”

“I’m thinking of a name,” Shinji said. “But I don’t want to rush it.”

“Oh, really? What name are you thinking of right now?” Asuka asked.

“Um…” Shinji shoveled food into her mouth, then gestured at her obviously full mouth while she racked her brain for some names she could list. She hadn’t given it any serious thought yet, but didn’t want to give Asuka the satisfaction of knowing that she hadn’t even narrowed it down to a top ten.

She swallowed. “I was thinking maybe… uh…. Uhhhhhh….”

Asuka tapped her foot impatiently as Shinji stalled for time.

“Mana? Or maybe Mayumi?”

Misato’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, those are good. You know what you could do, though? A lot of times, expectant parents will make a list of boys’ and girls’ names for their kids. You could ask your dad if he and your mom had any girls’ names planned for you!”

Shinji contemplated for an instant asking her father for help choosing a name and felt her brain turn into mush from sheer terror.

“I, uh… no, thanks. I’m going to think of something on my own, eventually.”

“Would it be weird if you named yourself after your mom?” Misato asked.

Shinji barely even remembered her mother—she’d been only four years old at the time of her death. How could she choose the name of someone she barely knew? It felt wrong—as though she’d be tethering herself to something she didn’t understand.

“Honestly, I’m surprised you’re so forward-thinking, Misato,” Asuka said, gesturing lazily with her spoon at Shinji. “I didn’t think you could take this in stride.”

I could say the same thing about you, Shinji considered saying to her. Surprisingly, Asuka seemed to have gotten used to the new paradigm rather quickly—once she’d stopped laughing. (It didn’t mean she treated her any better, though.)

“Oh, sure. You’ve got to think of the benefits, Asuka.” Misato paused and took a sip of her soup. “For Shinji, obviously, but for us, too. Ritsy sent me some medical papers she dug up while we were discussing her treatment. Did you know that having a trans girl around has a moderating effect on other women’s menstrual cycles?”

Shinji squirmed in her seat and bowed her head to hide the patch of crimson spreading across her cheeks. Hearing Misato talk candidly about menstruation wasn’t exactly how she'd wanted to start the day. “Can we please talk about something else?” she asked.

“It’s because the amount of estrogen in her body doesn’t fluctuate like ours do,” Misato continued, “since it’s medically sustained. It’s like she exudes some sort of mediating aura that actually stabilizes the hormone levels in the women around them. Post-menopausal women have the same effect.”

Asuka cringed, equally uncomfortable. “You’re making that up!”

“No, I read it. Or, well, I skimmed it.” Misato went to town on the can, lifting it higher and higher until she’d drained it to the last drop, then tossed it aside. “I read the abstract. That’s good enough.”

“Sounds fake, but okay.”

“Trust me, once she gets further into her transition, you’re gonna start thanking Shinji when it’s that time of the month.”

“I’ve never thanked Shinji for anything and I don’t intend to start anytime soon.”

“Shinji, you should stop making food for Asuka until she starts to appreciate your hard work,” Misato said, swiping away Asuka’s half-finished bowl of oyakodon and holding it as high over her head as she could.

“Ugh! Hey!” Asuka leaped to her feet, made a few strained attempts to reclaim her breakfast from Misato, and then resigned herself to snatching away Misato’s unattended and unprotected bowl.


Asuka dug in, a shit-eating grin on her face. “Turnabout is fair play, Misato.”

With an irritated sigh, Misato resigned herself to eating what had moments ago been Asuka’s breakfast, cringing her way through each salty bite. Was it just Shinji’s imagination, or had Asuka’s attitude toward Misato gotten worse over the past few weeks?

Shinji, realizing (not for the first time) that she just might be the most mature person in this apartment, finished her breakfast and stood up, slinging her bookbag over her shoulder. “Well, I’m heading out. I’ll see you in class, Asuka.”

“Good luck, Shinji!” Misato chirped back, waving. “Knock ‘em dead!”

Shinji took one step outside the apartment and into the complex’s narrow hallway, let the door close behind her, and realized that she was terrified. What was she thinking? Was she really going to go to school wearing a dress? In a dress and blouse and stockings?

She had to. Misato had already sent notice to the administration. They’d set this date in stone. There was no going back.


Could she say she was sick? Break an arm or a leg? She wasn’t ready for this. If she could just have one more day to prepare, one more day to push aside the growing, darkening cloud of anxiety roiling overhead?

What was she going to do, run away? That never worked.

No. There wasn’t any reason to be afraid. It was just school. Nothing that happened there could compare to being boiled alive under a searing beam of light. If she could will herself to climb into Unit-01 and charge into battle, she could will herself to put one foot in front of the other right now.

She forced herself down the stairs to the ground floor and stepped out onto the sidewalk. A shaft of brilliant morning sunlight cut through Tokyo-III’s skyline and lit her up like a spotlight.

And then she froze in place yet again, cowed by the pressure exerted by the thought of every person living in the city staring right through her. What if no one accepted her? What if everyone laughed at her? Touji, Kensuke, Hikari, the only other students in her class she could call friends—how would they react? What if they were uncomfortable around her? What if she was uncomfortable around them? Her thoughts were like a wound that kept tearing itself open before it could heal.

The door opened behind her and Asuka slammed into her from behind, sending them both careening to the ground.

Shinji’s head, elbows, and knees throbbed as she picked herself up off the concrete. There was a faint reddish scrape running across her forearm—nothing serious, but it smarted—and another scrape on her knee.

“Ow! What the—Shinji? What are you still doing here?” Asuka huffed, pulling herself to her feet and gingerly rubbing her forehead. “I thought you left!”

“I just, uh… needed a push in the right direction,” Shinji said. “Sorry.”

“Consider yourself pushed.” Asuka jostled past her and headed down the road. “Come on! Your little Rubicon isn’t gonna cross itself, stupid!”

“Uh, right.” Shinji hurried after her. “What’s the Rubicon, again?”

“Well, someone didn’t go to college.”

If going to college made you so smart, why are you still in middle school? Shinji wanted to ask.

As the two of them continued down the familiar route to school, Shinji overheard Asuka muttering something under her breath, nearly inaudible beneath the omnipresent hum of cicadas that filled the air every day. “Huh?”

Asuka stopped. “Hmm?”

“Did you say something?”


“What were you muttering about?”

“Oh, that. Well, you and Misato talking about names got me thinking…” Asuka tapped on her chin. “If you change your name, I can’t call you ‘Idiot Shinji’ anymore.”

“That sounds like a win to me.”

“‘Idiot Mana…’ ‘Stupid Mana…’ ‘Moronic Mana…’ hmm, that’ll work. ‘Moronic Mana,’ ‘Moronic Mayuki…’”

“I’m not gonna pick a name that starts with ‘M’ now.”

Asuka snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it!” Her grin was so wide that Shinji could count her molars. “‘Blunder Girl!’”


“You know, like how Ayanami is Wonder Girl…”

Shinji sighed. She wished Asuka wouldn’t call Rei that. For some reason, there was a venom in that nickname that none of the epithets Asuka appended to ‘Shinji’ could ever dream of matching. For whatever reason, Asuka hated Rei in a much less playful way compared to how she hated Shinji. If it had been Rei who was Asuka’s roommate instead of Shinji, Asuka would be in jail for murder by now.

Between the three of them—Shinji, Misato, and Rei—perhaps Asuka actually disliked Shinji the least.

“But if it’s ironic when you call Ayanami that,” Shinji asked, “then wouldn’t it be ironic for me, too? Then it’d be a compliment.”

“Oh, mein Gott!” Asuka clamped her hands over her cheeks. “Shinji, one of your two brain cells started working again!”

Well, scratch that.

The anxiety Shinji felt waiting for the day to end was as overbearing and oppressive as the sweltering heat. It wasn’t just the humidity that made the air so thick it was like trying to breathe soup.

And it was only nine in the morning.

“So, uh, you can just… decide not to be a boy?” Touji asked. He didn’t seem willing to look Shinji in the eyes, but seemed even less comfortable paying attention to the fact that she was wearing a girls’ uniform now, so instead he’d elected to stare at her neck like some kind of vampire.

“Well, um…” Shinji squirmed anxiously at her desk, feeling as though yet again, just like when everyone in the class had found out she was Unit-01’s pilot, everyone’s eyes were boring holes into her back. “It’s, uh… more like I decided I didn’t want to keep… pretending…”

“Okay, and, uh, are you sure,” Touji asked, leaning forward, “that that time when you had to be perfectly synchronized with Asuka and do everything she did and wear the same clothes and stuff didn’t, like… break your brain or something?” He glanced over at Asuka and then back at Shinji, seemingly finally acknowledging that the two of them were once again dressed exactly alike. “Is she forcing you to do this? If you can’t speak openly, blink once for no and twice for yes.”

“No,” Shinji said, blinking once. To be honest, it had been that incident—the fight against the Seventh Angel, in which she and Asuka had been forced to train arduously to act and think as one—that had cemented the idea in her head that she really, really wanted to wear girls’ clothes.

Come to think of it, Asuka had been instrumental to Shinji’s coming out. The incident with the Seventh Angel, the time Shinji had been stuck borrowing Asuka’s spare plugsuit… both events had helped more than anything else to thrust into the forefront of her mind the truth she’d struggled to accept for so long.

She wondered if she should thank Asuka, or if she’d flip out.

Kensuke leaned forward, sunlight flashing off his glasses. “So you work for the military, pilot a giant robot, and defy the laws of nature? Is there anything you can’t do?”

“Yeah, lots. I can’t drive, I can’t fly a plane, I can’t own a house…”

Kensuke and Touji were such a diametrically-opposed pair of friends that it was almost poetic. Touji was tall, lanky, and athletic; Kensuke was short, scrawny, and in his words, used strength, dexterity, and constitution as his dump stats (whatever that meant). They were two of the three kids in this class (not counting Asuka and Rei) whom Shinji knew well enough to actually connect their names to their faces.

“Is this a side effect of being an Eva pilot, like chemicals in the water turning the frogs gay?” Kensuke asked.

“No, it’s—I don’t think so…” Shinji replied, wondering if she should tell him not to believe everything he read on the internet.

Touji made a token attempt to make it look like he was listening to the biology teacher drone on about life cycles, although he was actually just absentmindedly tracing light circles on the edge of his computer’s keyboard with his fingertip. “I guess this explains why you always acted like you were from another planet whenever anyone talked about, y’know, guy stuff.”

By ‘guy stuff,’ Shinji assumed Touji was referring to ‘leering at their female classmates during phys ed,’ which, yes, did make her uncomfortable. In fact, she hadn’t realized it before (maybe she hadn’t allowed herself to realize it), but a lot of things boys did—that they’d expected her to do, too—had always made her feel uncomfortable.

Shinji glanced over her shoulder at Asuka, who’d taken her usual seat near the back of the classroom. She recalled how when Asuka had first arrived in Japan, Touji and Kensuke had made a killing selling photos of her (taken, of course, without permission) to their schoolmates—a way of ‘paying her back’ for her abrasive attitude. Back then, it had made Shinji feel repulsed for a reason she’d still been afraid to interrogate; thinking back on it now, the memory made her feel nauseous. Boys and girls could be horrible to each other, but there was something uniquely monstrous in the way boys acted about girls, especially when there weren’t any around to overhear them.

“Do all Eva pilots have to be girls, then?” Kensuke asked, still on the same train of thought as before. “Whether the pilot, uh… likes it or not? You know, like that American movie where they brought dinosaurs back to life but they used frog DNA to fill in the gaps? And when the dinosaurs got, uh, desperate, some of them switched genders so they could breed…”

“I just said I didn’t think so.” Shinji sighed and slumped over. “I told you guys. I chose this.”

It was as if Kensuke just couldn’t wrap his head around the thought that someone might want to be a girl. “Did you? Or has piloting the Eva subtly rewritten your brain chemistry? Like, have you heard of the Cordyceps fungus? Maybe there’s some sort of ‘Curse of Eva’ that demands that all pilots have to be teen girls, no matter what…”

Somebody in the classroom loudly shushed him. The teacher cleared his throat, waited a few seconds, and then started talking about chrysalises.

“So, still wanna be a pilot?” Touji whispered to Kensuke from across Shinji’s desk.

“Don’t question how far I’d go if it meant I could pilot a giant robot.”

Eventually, the class period ended and the biology teacher left, granting the classroom several precious minutes of unbridled chaos before the next period began. History was next, and the history teacher was the most boring lecturer in the entire school. Huge swaths of the class would simply fall asleep during his droning, while those who struggled to remain awake would whisper among themselves or wile away the time on their computers. It was generally believed that the history teacher was nearly blind and mostly deaf to be so oblivious to his students.

He always taught the same lesson, too. Again and again, the story of Second Impact. How it happened. The immediate effects. The flooding. The years of famine and refugee crises, the economic collapses, everything. It was a lecture most students had memorized by now, all fifty-five minutes of it.

“Hey, Shinji, um…” Kensuke pretended to bury his nose in a textbook. “Are you, uh…” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Are you going to get the… surgery?” He made a snipping motion with two fingers.

Shinji’s mouth went dry. “I, uh… m-maybe?” she squeaked out, her tongue cleaving to the roof of her mouth. Taking hormone medication was one thing, but the thought of going under the knife was more than she was willing to consider. She wasn’t even sure it would be a legal undertaking until she was an adult, so it was best not to think about it at all. “When I’m older?”

“Is it true that there’s a medical procedure they can do in Germany that can give you a uterus?” he asked. “Have you asked Asuka about that?”

“What? No!”

“Is it true,” he whispered, holding a hand up to his mouth, “that when you get the surgery, you have to get laid three times a day or it’ll scab over?”

Shinji clasped her hands over her mouth. “Ugh, gross! That’s definitely not true!”

A fluffy black eraser collided with the back of Kensuke’s head, enveloping him in a cloud of chalk dust; whatever gross question he’d had on his mind vanished in a flurry of coughing.

Hikari Horaki, class representative of Class 2-A, stood over him with another dusty chalkboard eraser sitting menacingly in her hand. She was a kind girl, but she took her authority seriously and wasn’t afraid to wield that authority as a blunt object if need be. For a girl with freckles and pigtails, which generally made her the most unthreatening-looking person in the world, she had an uncanny ability to exude a menacing aura on command. “Are these two bothering you, Shinji?”

“C-Class Rep, uh… n-no, they’re fine,” Shinji insisted, even though she’d never been so bothered in her entire life. “I’m all right. It’s fine.”

“Oh, good. Can I talk to you in private in the hall?”

“The hall doesn’t seem very private to me,” Shinji muttered, “but sure.” Too relieved to be leaving the spotlight to worry about why someone would want to talk to her in private, she followed Hikari into the hall outside of the classroom.

Hikari kept going and walked her into the girls’ bathroom.

Shinji’s heart caught in her throat and started pounding like a jackhammer. Walking into this place for the first time felt like walking into a sacred place. And her body, just barely starting to show the slightest signs of change after less than a month on hormones, felt profane.

“Um—What is it you want to talk to me about?” Shinji asked, her pulse racing.

“Oh, nothing serious. You just looked uncomfortable.”

“Thanks. I was, a little.”

“Also, you’re not wearing your uniform right,” she told Shinji, guiding her to face the mirror. She set to work adjusting her ribbon. “Here, let me fix it for you. You do the knot right here like this. Like tying up shoelaces, you want it to look like bunny ears.”

“Oh, thanks.” Shinji watched her fix the knot in the mirror. She tried to study the movements of her fingers but ended up just studying her fingers.

Hikari slipped behind her back and moved on to adjust the way her sleeves hung from her shoulders. “And I think your blouse might be a size too big for you. It’s too loose.”

“Sorry, I didn’t notice. It’s better too big than too small, though, right?” Shinji asked. She’d actually selected a size up because it made her feel as though her shoulders weren’t as broad…

“I guess. Is everyone treating you well? I got the memo when the rest of the administration did, so I had time to talk to the class and let them know in advance. They shouldn’t give you any trouble. And if they do, well… I’ve got a good throwing arm.”

“Uh, yeah, no problems so far. Weird questions aside…”

“Yeah. Boys can be pretty gross sometimes, can’t they?”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“It must’ve been rough. You never seemed to fit in with them.”

“I mean… they’re still my friends,” Shinji said. “I think.”

“I know what you mean. Boys will be boys.”

“Except in my case.”

Hikari laughed in spite of herself. Satisfied that she’d done what she could, she took a step back. “I hope you don’t mind my meddling—I have a kid sister, and my big sister’s always working, so helping out people who have, uh, less experience being girls is sort of a habit of mine.”

“I don’t mind.” Shinji shrugged. “I need all the help I can get.”

Hikari smiled. There was something nervous about her smile. “What about your hair?” she asked, hastily, as though she were trying to change the subject without actually changing the subject.

“Oh, uh…” Shinji glanced at her reflection as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She hadn’t gotten a haircut in well over a month; nonetheless, her hair was still rather short and boyish. “I’m growing it out.”

“If you don’t want to wait, you could wear a wig.”

“I dunno. That would just feel like a costume or a disguise. I don’t…” I don’t want people to think I’m tricking them, Shinji thought. Even stuffing a bra with tissues didn’t feel right, as much as Misato had pushed her to do it.

“I get it.” Hikari nodded sagely. “You’ve worn a disguise long enough, huh?”

That hadn’t been what Shinji had been thinking, but sure, she’d go with that.

“Anyway, I think it’s almost time for class,” Hikari said, ushering her back out of the bathroom. “You come to me if anyone gives you a hard time, okay?”

Shinji nodded. “Thank you, Class Rep.”

Hikari smiled. “It’s nothing. Girls help each other out, y’know?”

“I guess.”

The two of them returned to the classroom. Some students glanced away as Shinji went back to her desk, as if embarrassed to have been staring; others remained fixated on her. Were those stares hostile or merely curious? They bored into her like acid all the same.

Once she’d gotten through a few teachers’ interminable dronings, things started to get easier.

Not much easier, but easier. No one was treating her like a leper or a pariah—at least, not to her face.

It helped that Touji and Kensuke weren’t assaulting her with gross questions anymore. Hikari had set them straight. But the classroom did feel a bit lonelier without their chatter in her ears. She just wished they’d talk to her about normal things instead of… her. She didn’t want to talk about herself—just to be seen and understood, not seen and gawked at.

If only everyone could just look at her and see a girl and not care that she’d been a boy only yesterday. If only it were that easy. If only being a girl could be as easy as flipping a switch and retroactively altering the universe, reprogramming everyone’s memories and histories so that the boy named Shinji Ikari would have never existed in the first place…

Shinji took her lunch outside that day, perched on the steps leading to the school’s front door as she picked at the contents of the bento box she’d made up the night before. It was the only way to escape the stifling, stuffy atmosphere inside. That, and the constant buzzing of cicadas—the languid rising and falling tones that filled the air practically from sunup til sundown—made it hard to think, which was terrible for doing classwork but wonderful for escaping her mind.

As long as no one bothered her, she could forget that—

“Hello, Ikari.”

Shinji looked up. Her eyes met Rei’s. “Oh, uh, h-hi, Ayanami.” Rei was very formal and called everyone by their last name, no matter how familiar she was with them; out of respect, Shinji always found herself returning the favor. “What’s up?”

Rei pointed to the empty space on the step next to Shinji, hefting a brown paper bag in her other hand. “Is this seat taken?”

“Yeah. My imaginary friend sits there.”

Bemused, Rei cocked her head. “I…”

“That was a—”

“I’ve never heard you tell a joke before.”

“Yeah, sorry, I… It kinda just… slipped out. I’ve never wanted to tell one before.” Shinji shrugged. “You can sit here if you like.”

Rei nodded, sat next to her, and opened up the bag, pulling out a steel bottle, a thoroughly-unappetizing sandwich made with not mystery meat but mystery everything (even the bread was mystery bread), and a plastic bag with a couple of assorted pills. Shinji, who was no stranger to sad lunches, thought it was the saddest lunch she’d ever seen, and almost felt guilty to have a bento box full of real food sitting on her lap.

“Would you like some?” she asked, lifting the box up.

“Thank you, but no.” Rei downed the handful of pills in a single gulp, washed them down with water, and started nibbling on the sandwich.

“What were those pills for?” Shinji asked.

“Vitamin supplements. Immune system boosters. Nothing exciting.” Rei took another tiny bite of her food. “What do you take?”

“Oh, um—do you want to see?”


Shinji reached into her bookbag, all the way down to the bottom, and felt her fingers curl around her plastic pill bottle. She pulled it out, uncapped it, and shook a single estrogen pill into the palm of her hand. “Here it is. Actually, I only take half of one pill daily, but Miss Ritsuko says that if my bloodwork looks good next week, she’ll double my dosage and add anti-androgens to my prescription…”

Rei looked down at the pill with an intrigued gleam in her red eyes. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah. But it’s hard to explain. It’s like… no matter how much it hurts to think about how I look on the outside, how much I worry that the clothes I wish I could wear won’t fit me, about how other people see me, how they treat me… I can feel myself changing on the inside and becoming something better. I know I’m growing into the person I want to be. It’s… soothing, I guess.”

“How do you know?”

“Hmm? Know what?”

“That you’re growing into the person you want to be.”

Shinji thought for a moment. “Because if I wasn’t… it wouldn’t feel right.”

Seemingly satisfied with the answer Shinji had given, Rei went back to eating her lunch. She ate so slowly it was as though she was trying to stretch out that limp, soggy sandwich to last all day.

Shinji put her pills back. “By the way, do you have any dietary requirements? Allergies, intolerances, things like that?”

“I don’t eat meat.”

“Not even fish?”


“What’s in your sandwich?”

“Not meat.”

Shinji picked at her food. “Would you mind, um… would you like it if I made lunch for you? I already make bento for myself and Asuka every night; it wouldn’t be any trouble for me.”

Rei bowed her head as if contemplating Shinji’s offer. “Yes,” she answered after a brief pause. “That would be nice.”

The two of them finished their lunches in silence.

“I don’t think less of you,” Rei said once she’d finished her so-called food.


“The day we found out. You asked if I thought less of you.”

“Oh, right. Thanks.” Shinji felt herself smile. She’d been doing that a lot lately. It was actually starting to make her cheeks feel sore.

Rei stood up and stuffed the now-empty paper bag and water bottle into her bookbag, then set off for the door. “Thank you, Ikari.”

“No problem. Oh, wait—one more thing.” Shinji stood up and hurried after her.


“I wanted to ask if it would be okay if—you see, I’m growing out my hair—” Shinji tugged on a lock of her hair as if to demonstrate that it was long enough to fall just past her ears now— “And I really like how yours looks,” she said, forcing her words through a mouth that had suddenly gone dry. “C-Can I style my hair like that? When it’s longer?”

“I don’t see why not,” Rei replied. “I don’t have any say in the matter.”

“Well, I just didn’t want to be rude.”

“I appreciate that.”

Shinji thought she saw a brief hint of a smile on Rei’s face as the two of them returned to class together.

Shinji slipped into the bathroom like a thief in the night. Her heart pounded—once again, she thought herself a profane body in a sacred place—moreso this time because she was daring to go in alone. There was only one period left before she could go home; she’d hoped she could hold it in until the end of the day, but her body had been screaming at her for the past five minutes. She took care of her needs as quickly as possible. Relieved, she rushed to the sink to wash her hands before anyone—

“Are you sure you belong in here?”

Shinji froze, caught in the act, alone, indefensible. She slowly turned her head to the door and saw an older student shut it behind her. The older girl’s words sounded accusatory, but with plausible deniability—as though all Shinji had to do to get out of this was say the right words.

Shinji opened her mouth and said absolutely nothing.

“Oh, wait,” the older girl said, maneuvering closer. “You’re the new girl.” She said ‘new girl’ slyly, wryly—so it was clear she meant it not as in ‘the girl who’s new to this school’ but as in ‘the girl who wasn’t a girl yesterday.’

Shinji nodded.

“And you’re one of those pilots, too, right?”

“Y-Yes,” Shinji squeaked.

The older girl ran a comb under the still-running faucet and tended to her long, jet-black hair. “Neat. Which one are you?”

“I, uh… I think that’s classified.”

The girl set aside the comb, satisfied. “Well, you’re cool in my book. Take it easy, new girl,” she said before walking out.

“O-Okay.” Shinji dried her hands and hurried out, relieved that this encounter had ended well but not willing to push her luck.

As soon as she opened the door and stepped out, something hit her across the face hard enough that for a split second, everything went dark.

No, not something—

Shinji stumbled backward, thrown off-balance, and hit the floor; the back of her head cracked against the tiles hard enough that she saw stars—her cheek smarted and stung, blood dribbling from a cut on her lip down her chin.

“What do you think you’re doing? You think you can just put on a dress and go wherever you want?”

“S-Sorry,” she sputtered reflexively. She lifted her head and looked up to find one of the upperclassmen looming over her. Only a year or two older than her but tall, barrel-chested, with craggy features borne of a fast, early, and efficient puberty; he looked like a slab of granite given human form. The back of one of his hairy hands was adorned with a smear of blood.

“You’d better be,” he snarled, his face a crumpled mess of rage. “The girls’ bathroom is a safe space! The last thing girls need is creeps like you in there…”

You’re the creep here, Shinji wanted to say. This guy had been waiting for her to leave the bathroom, waiting to attack her! What was wrong with him?

“Sorry,” she mumbled again. She glanced up and down the hall—it was hard to see from her vantage point, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. If she shouted out or screamed for help, would anyone hear her? Would anyone come running? Would anyone even care?

Why was she still afraid? Why had she forgotten how to say anything but ‘I’m sorry?’ She was an Evangelion pilot. She’d fought things hundreds of times more terrible and grotesque than any human. Asuka would be ashamed of her.

But she’d fought them from within the cradle of a beast under her command. Outside of Unit-01, she didn’t know how to fight, nor did she know how to defend herself. And how could she stand up against an upperclassman?

She’d pierced the heart of the Fifth Angel with a positron cannon fueled by the entire country’s power grid, she’d helped Asuka stuff a battleship’s cannon down the Sixth Angel’s gullet, she’d shot down the Ninth Angel while bathing in a shower of corrosive acid, she’d caught the Tenth Angel as it fell from space before it could wipe the city off the map—

But none of that mattered here. None of that bravado she could summon at the depths of her terror came to her aid.

Footsteps echoed through the hall. Around the corner—a man! A teacher! If she could just shout out—

The older student’s shoe hit her in the nose, driving an iron spike of pain into her sinuses. The man kept walking. Perhaps he’d hesitated for a moment—or maybe she was just imagining it.

Shinji balled her fists in frustration, her fingernails biting into her palms.

The student planted his foot on her chest and pressed down, pinning her to the floor. “If you’re still wearing that dress tomorrow, perv, I’ll beat you into a coma—”

“Oh, my god! Hiroshi, what are you doing to that girl?!”

Shinji recognized that voice. It was—

Startled, the upperclassman stepped back and turned to face Asuka, who’d begun to make a big show of being horrified.

“Stalking girls in the bathroom and attacking them when they leave?” she gasped, her eyes wide. “I can’t believe they allow perverts like you in this school!”

“This boy,” he said, jabbing an accusatory finger at Shinji, “snuck into the—”

“What boy? I don’t see any boys around here besides you, creep!” Asuka pointed her finger at the older student in turn. “If you can even call yourself a man!”

People were starting to take notice of the altercation in the hallway—students and teachers alike poking their heads out from the doors of their classrooms. Unlike the other teacher, none of them looked away.

Asuka rummaged through her bookbag. “It’s against school policy to assault students! And not just that, it’s illegal! I’m going to call the cops!”

Cowed, the older student beat a hasty retreat.

Gingerly cupping her hand around her nose, Shinji sat up. Her chest had already been aching; the student’s boot and the tattoo her heart was pounding against her ribcage hadn’t done it any favors. “Asuka…”

Glowering at her, Asuka wrinkled her nose in disgust. “If something wants to hurt you, you’ve got to stand up for yourself and hurt it back,” she spat. “Go clean yourself up.”

Humiliated and ashamed, Shinji retreated back into the bathroom and washed the blood from her face and her hand in the sink. There was nothing, she noted, crestfallen, that she could do about the speckles of blood on her collar and the broken fragment of a bloody shoeprint left on the front of her blouse. Asuka walked in behind her; at first, Shinji thought she might have come in to look after her.

“Thanks, Asuka. I—”

“You’re just lucky I had to pee,” Asuka told her before shutting herself away in the nearest stall.

Shinji dried her face and dried her tears and wiped away the smear of blood that had trickled down her nose and chin and stained her lips red as lipstick. And then she ran away.

She made it as far as the edge of the school grounds before the strength drained from her legs and she fell to her knees, struggling to choke down the hot, soupy air. Her chest hurt, her heart hurt, her head hurt. It felt as though something inside her was about to burst.

She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t live like this, with friends who did nothing but ask her creepy questions and classmates whose leering gazes burned holes in her skin and a whole school full of people whispering about her and upperclassmen who were willing to slug her in the face for having the nerve to use the girls’ bathroom. She wasn’t ready for this, she wasn’t strong enough, she—

Mustn’t run away.

But this wasn’t anything like piloting Unit-01. She didn’t have a choice, anyway, and besides, she did it because following orders was easier than not following orders, and besides, people praised her for piloting. But this—Being a girl—Who was she doing it for? Herself. She wasn’t doing it because doing it was easier than saying ‘no’ to people. She wasn’t doing it to be praised—as if anyone would. There was no one to force her to be herself, and without that discipline, the temptation to turn away and go back to the way things were was just too strong. She didn’t have the courage to live honestly. She didn’t have the fortitude to be herself in the face of adversity. She was just a fragile insect that had cast aside its pupa too soon, half larva and half-imago, its insides still partially liquefied, waiting helplessly to be crushed under someone’s foot or preyed upon by ants or birds.

It was always futile to run away from piloting—she was too useful, so they’d always bring her back. But no one would stop her if she ran away from this.

No. She remembered the way Misato would beam with pride at the sight of her, the way her face lit up when she saw Shinji wearing a new outfit she’d picked out or trying new makeup. And that—

That would keep bringing her back. Just as she piloted the Eva to hear her father’s words of pride, so too would she be tethered irrevocably to this choice.

What would she say right now?

You’re doing great, Shinji. Keep at it. You can do it!

Tears speckled the concrete. When had the last time she’d cried been? It felt like an eternity ago. Now, she felt like she couldn’t do anything else, chest heaving, heart-wrenching sobs tearing themselves out of her throat—

A hand curled around her arm. “Hey, Shinji. You okay?”

Touji crouched down beside her. “You were gone so long, Hikari and Ayanami went to the bathroom to look for you. What happened?”

“I think she was the one who got attacked out in the hallway,” Kensuke whispered to him.

Shinji shook her head. “I’m fine,” she gasped, her voice barely even coming out as a squeak.

Kensuke took her other arm; together, he and Touji helped her to her feet. “You’re bleeding,” Touji noted. “Do you need to see the nurse?”

Shinji pulled away from the two of them. “Just leave me alone.” She sniffled and wiped her nose and mouth on her hand. There was a faint bloody smear on the back of her hand; she stared at it, transfixed.

She hadn’t even been that badly hurt. After what she’d gone through as a pilot, a slap across the face and a split lip and bloody nose were nothing. What stung was the sense of vulnerability, of powerlessness, of violation.

Angels could be fought. People couldn’t.

Despite her misgivings, though, she allowed Touji and Kensuke to lead her back to class. The room was aroar with whispers whistling through the thick, hot air despite the teacher’s noblest efforts to rein in the class and get back to today’s lesson. Shinji froze up, terrified the whispers were all about her.

Asuka sat near the back with a smug look on her face, surrounded by a gaggle of girls and basking in their adulation. Their voices carried the loudest through the air.

“I can’t believe you stood up to Hiroshi like that!”

“…such a louse! It’s about time someone did something…”

“ noble and heroic, standing up for poor Shinko!”

“…hope he gets expelled over this…”

“And he thought Ikari was the perv here? I bet he doesn’t have to look up ‘projection’ in the dictionary because he just has to look in a mirror…”

“…ran into him outside the locker room once and I swear there was booze on his breath…”

“You’re so brave, Asuka! It’s no wonder you’re the best pilot…”

Of course, Asuka was making it all about herself. Shinji didn’t mind—she’d rather be invisible than the center of attention. If Asuka wanted to wrest the spotlight away from her, she’d give it up without a fight.

She returned to her desk and sat down. Just one more class left to go.

Touji clapped her on the back and gave her a thumbs-up, flashing a warm, rakish grin. “All downhill from here. You got this.”

Shinji shakily returned her friend’s thumbs-up and tried to smile.

Gendo Ikari, commander of NERV, was a man who never betrayed how he felt. One could easily mistake him for an animatronic puppet with only two settings—‘stoic’ and ‘brooding.’ He was a man who hadn’t exactly been the warmest person before the death of his wife and had only gotten colder since. If he held his thoughts and feelings any closer to his chest, his fingers would be clenched around his heart. His right-hand man, Vice Commander Kozo Fuyutsuki, was certain he had once heard the phrase ‘No man is an island’ and taken it as a challenge.

He was so inscrutable that there were department store mannequins that emoted more than he did.

Because of that, Fuyutsuki saw fit to at least make an attempt to pry into his thoughts regarding the memo that had gone out yesterday evening to NERV’s staff (considering that said memo concerned the commander’s only child).

“Good afternoon, Ikari,” Fuyutsuki said as he stepped into the commander’s office.

The room was too big. The space it took up was simply absurd, especially considering there was nothing in it but a desk. The floor and ceiling, which seemed in the right light to stretch on to eternity, were adorned with sprawling esoteric symbols. It all made him look small—but the room’s vastness granted it the gravitas it took from him. One could not stand in the room without feeling humbled.

“Fuyutsuki.” Gendo took a sip from a thermos full of what Fuyutsuki assumed was coffee before retreating behind his steepled fingers, his elbows propped up on his desk.

“I take it you’ve heard the good news.”

“I take it you’re speaking of the staff-wide memo from yesterday.”

“Yes.” Fuyutsuki nodded. “You’ve had some time to digest it. What do you think, sir?”

“I don’t. It’s of no import to me.”

“Is it?”

“Whether Shinji wishes to be he, she, or it doesn’t matter.”

“Commendably forward-thinking, sir.”

“As long as… she can pilot Unit-01,” Gendo said, “it isn’t an issue. I have no problem with it.”

Ah. There it was. In Gendo’s mind, people were either tools for him to use or obstacles for him to surpass. He made a few exceptions, but his own flesh and blood did not seem to make the grade. What would he think about this news if Shinji no longer proved useful to him?

“I wonder, though,” Fuyutsuki said, glancing up and tracing with his eyes the elegant etchings in the ceiling, “what SEELE may make of this, should they find out. Some of the Council’s members are… old-fashioned, aren’t they?” Ironic for a bunch of transhumanists, but then again, what was a man but a mass of contradictions?

“They can complain if they like. But they can do nothing else. I simply don’t care.”

Apathy and indifference, Fuyutsuki supposed, were more desirable than outright hostility.

Still, he thought as he retreated from the commander’s office, all these years later, I still can’t fathom what Yui saw in him. She had been a wonderful woman; Fuyutsuki knew in his heart that Yui would have been overjoyed to learn that she had a daughter, even if the news did come fourteen years later than expected.

Perhaps, though, she knew.

That night, Kaworu knelt at the lip of his tank, his head dunked under the surface of the pool of luminous LCL like a toy drinking bird. Locks of his white hair floated and swirled around his head like a halo as he breathed deeply of the lifegiving liquid and closed his eyes.

There were two other minds out there he knew how to reach. The one that was like him in one way, and the one that was like him in the other way (though both were his opposites).

He was trawling the universe for the one mind he knew best outside of his own.

Of course, now that he’d run into it once before, it wasn’t hard to find. The mind of the Third Child. Making contact with the mind once he’d found it was difficult, though: without his plugsuit on, and with only his head submerged, his clairvoyance was reduced to a tenth; however, it was the only way he could keep this tryst a secret from his masters, who had begun surveilling and scrutinizing his normal scrying sessions much more heavily as of late.

The mind he reached into was slumbering; its thoughts drifted sluggishly and languidly as they twisted around half-remembered and long-forgotten memories, fantasies of pasts that never were, and futures that never would be.

Lilin needed other people as much as they needed oxygen: Kaworu had expected to find the mind of Shinji Ikari all but dying of social hypoxia. Such was the way of things; such was the fate of the Third Child, or so it was said.

But no. This mind was blooming.

Scattered images drifted across Kaworu’s mind. A schoolgirl’s blouse, bloodstained; a pair of delicate fingers gliding across a scarlet ribbon; a rather cute black blouse adorned with blue flowers in watercolors hanging from a store mannequin. Names. Mana, Mayuki, Asuka, Hikari, Misato. Girls’ names. And some of them were not attached to other people, but rather drew inward, swirling around the ego like moons pulled into orbit.

The sweetness turned bitter. Leering gazes, harsh whispers. Nervous shivers. Crippling fear. Cries of not ready and too early and I can’t ringing out between visions of hard-faced boys with hateful sneers. Butterflies half-formed and struggling to keep aloft on crinkled and misshapen wings as the shadows of birds drifted over them. The sorrowful scream of a weeping angel. Boiling water setting skin aflame; acid eating through bone; the snapping of wrist bones and shattering of ribs, radii, and ulnae. The giant green eye of a grinning behemoth. Alien faces, a parade of grotesqueries—

Of course, Kaworu thought. Of course they look like monsters to you.

He took a deep breath and, with all his might, imagined reaching out with his hand to soothe this troubled mind with a gentle touch. Slowly, slowly, the painful visions faded away into blissful sleep.

Satisfied, he lifted his head out of the pool and smiled.

Chapter Text

Shinji tried very hard to breathe.

The dressing room was so tiny that if she spread her arms out, she’d bang her elbow against the door. Nothing in it but a bench, a floor-to-ceiling mirror, and a rack on the wall to hang clothes. She wasn’t claustrophobic. If she were, she’d have a panic attack every time she climbed into Unit-01 (instead of just the first time). But this glorified closet was a claustrophobia-inducing place if anything.

Some people would revel at the thrill, the rush of adrenaline that came with being in a place where anyone could say at any time, “Hey! What are you doing in here?” Shinji was not some people.

She took a deep breath to calm her nerves. There was nothing to worry about. She’d made it this far. No one had stared at her when she’d walked into the thrift shop and started browsing the racks. No one had raised an eyebrow when she’d asked, however timidly, for the womens’ fitting rooms.

And if anything went wrong, her friends were waiting right outside that door.

That was it. Her friends. Of course. It was so simple—other people were camouflage. As long as there was another girl (or three) next to her, all the little differences that made her so sure she couldn’t pass—a stray hair on her chin, the telltale bulge in her throat, the flat chest, the hips-to-waist ratio of approximately one (although she could swear, though it might have just been an overactive imagination, that after nearly two months she was starting to change)—just vanished. No one seemed to see them. Maybe no one would have noticed in the first place, or maybe just having a girl at her side just put her in close enough proximity to some sort of… radiant field of girl-ness that kept her safe.

Was that it? Just be around people and everything will work out? Really?

It was like a bad joke, considering she usually got tired of being around people after about an hour or so. Here’s the cure! It’s as bad as the disease, maybe even worse!

Something crawled up the back of Shinji’s neck. She shivered and clapped her hand down on it, but only felt her hair tickling her skin.

Right. She was still getting used to that. At least her hair was just barely, barely long enough now that she could have bangs. Goodbye, forehead, and good riddance.

Someone knocked softly on the door. Shinji nearly leaped out of her skin. “Everything all right in there, Shinko?” Hikari asked.

Shinko. She hadn’t come up with that name. It had just been a nickname someone had given her at some point that had spread through the class like wildfire over the past few weeks. She didn’t mind it—it was kind of cute. And it’d do until she figured out a real name for herself.

“Yeah. I’m fine.” Shinji forced herself to look at the clothes she’d picked out and laid on the bench, took a deep breath, and slipped out of her school uniform.

She was most excited—and nervous—about the blouse. Light, airy, button-down; black with a printed pattern of cool blue watercolor-painted flowers (roses or maybe tulips, she couldn’t tell). She could swear she’d seen it before. Maybe in a dream or something.

She slipped it on. So far, so good. Then she put on a cream-colored (what was it called again? Midi or something?) skirt and tucked the hem of the blouse into it.

No. Too long, but not long enough—it made her legs look stubby.

She tried a pastel blue pencil skirt. No. Worse. It looked like a tube was eating her.

Black… A-line skirt? Or something like one, at least. Fitted, flared, flowing. Comfy and easy to wear. And twirly. Very twirly. She liked twirly. Twirly was good.

Okay, so there wasn’t much color variation. Black on black. But that was okay. Black went with everything, right? Especially itself.

All right, Shinko, she told herself. You’re a model. Time to get on that runway.

She took a deep breath through her nose, filling her lungs until they were full to bursting, and exhaled through her mouth. What if she was doing it wrong? What if she looked ridiculous?

Her reflection in the mirror put her hands on her hips, Asuka-style. She hoped she could somehow intimidate herself into being less intimidated. Stop being so scared of things that aren’t a hundredth as scary as fighting monsters in a giant robot.

She nodded at her reflection, turned around, and opened the door. Her friends sat on a bench in front of her like a panel of judges. They all politely clapped.

This, Shinji thought, mortified, was a mistake.

“Going for a professional look,” Kensuke said, his face glued to his video camera. “Nice.”

“You look so grown-up,” Touji said. “Like someone’s secretary.”

“A secretary for someone who works in a mortuary,” Asuka scoffed. “Who died? Your sense of taste notwithstanding, of course.”

“That top looks great on you, Shinko!” Hikari said, shooting Asuka a look that seemed to ask, ‘What do you want me to throw at your head?’

Shinji blushed. “Thanks, guys. I-I’m glad you like it.” She glanced at each of her friends in turn. “Uh, where’s Ayanami? And Kensuke… w-why are you filming this?”

“For posterity, of course! It’s your first time!” Kensuke replied. “You’re gonna thank me in ten years when you wanna look back on this moment.”

If any of us are still alive, sure, Shinji thought in spite of herself.

Asuka leaned forward with her cheeks cupped in her hands. “At least he’s not pointing it up your skirt.”

The door to the fitting room to Shinji’s left swung open and Rei walked out to a chorus of approval. For the first time since Shinji had met her—perhaps for the first time ever—she was wearing something that wasn’t either her school uniform or her plugsuit (did she even own any other clothes?).

She now wore a loose, ruffled white blouse and a pale seafoam-colored tulle skirt—airy and ethereal, layers of sheer fabric dancing around her legs like foxfire. The ensemble made her look even more otherworldly than usual, as though she were some sort of fairy princess from a fantasy story.

“Ikari,” she said, nodding politely as she took her place at her side.

Shinji looked away. Something sharp in the air made her eyes water; something cold crawled up her spine and an oddly-familiar buzz rang in her ears. For an instant, Rei—Shinji didn’t know how to describe it—she didn’t quite look… right. Like a cardboard cutout superimposed on reality, or maybe more like the whole world except her was suddenly made of crude paper. Like a badly-composited special effect. It was as if she had become part of another plane of existence.

Then Shinji blinked and whatever it was, it was gone. Rei was back to normal.

“Ayanami,” she said, “you’re, uh… You look nice.”

“Thank you.”

“Alright, what’s next?” Kensuke asked, keeping the camera trained on the two of them. He was really getting into this.

Shinji and Rei both returned to their rooms to show off something new. Show off. She never thought she’d be acting like this.

“Asuka,” Hikari asked, her voice muffled by the closed door, “were you planning on trying anything on?”

“Nah Unlike the Wonder and Blunder twins here, I’ve got plenty of clothes. And a Swiss bank account I can wire money from whenever I want. It wouldn’t be a fair competition if I stepped up.”

“Why’d you even come here, then?” Kensuke grumbled.

“I bet Shinji could beat you,” Touji muttered just loudly enough that everyone could hear it. As she tried on a different shirt, Shinji blushed, though more from nerves than flattery.

“Do you now?” Asuka replied. “Care to make a wager?”

Shinji stepped out to show off a cardigan she’d thought looked nice.

“You look like you’re cosplaying as someone’s grandma,” Kensuke said.


“But like, someone’s cool grandma. Nice choice.”

“Anyway, if you’re so loaded,” Touji asked Asuka, “why’re you sharing a room with Shinji? Can’t you just rent your own place?”

“That’s such a stupid question!” Asuka retorted, crossing her arms. “As if anyone in their right mind would let a minor sign a lease agreement!” She rapped her knuckles on his forehead. “Do you even have a brain in there or is it just bone all the way through?”

Hikari set aside the sundress she’d picked out and put herself in between Asuka and Touji, laying a hand on each of their shoulders. “All right, kids, settle down.”

To Shinji’s surprise, Asuka actually backed down. Somehow, as impossible as it seemed, Hikari was actually capable of making Asuka listen to reason. Was it something inherent in her personality, or a skill that could be taught? (If it was the latter, Shinji would jump at the chance for some tutoring.)

“Asuka, if you wanted your own apartment,” Shinji said, “I’m sure Miss Misato would be happy to sign the paperwork as long as you fronted the cash.” Maybe she was just feeling giddy or tired (or both) from all the excitement, but somehow, she didn’t feel at all afraid to talk back to Asuka. She didn’t realize she might have made a mistake until the words had left her mouth.

“What did you say?” Asuka snapped at her.

Shinji hurried back into her dressing room at the same instant Rei emerged from hers. “Nothing.”

“It’s a fair point,” Rei said to Asuka. “Commander Ikari signed my lease.”

“Bet he pays your rent, too,” Asuka grumbled. With a loud and put-upon sigh, she dropped the subject without actually conceding anything.

Shinji had planned to try on a few more items, but her heart just wasn’t in it anymore. She’d reached her limit.

“Well,” she told the others as she left the room, “I’m gonna put all these back. It was really fun trying them on—but I just… um… wanted to see how I looked. I’m done now.”

Kensuke lowered his camera, crestfallen. “Aw. That’s it? C’mon, Shin…”

“Are you sure there’s nothing else you were interested in?” Hikari asked. “Asuka, do you have any ideas?”

“Maybe some other time.” Besides, Shinji thought, it’s not like I have the money to pay for anything here.

As if she could read Shinji’s mind, Rei turned to her. “Ikari. Give me your clothes, please.”

“Um… what?”

“Your clothes. Give them to me.”

Something subtle in her tone of voice made Shinji feel it was in her best interest to do as she said, so she went back to the fitting room, hastily slipped back into her uniform, and folded up the clothes she’d picked out.

Rei emerged from her room at the same time Shinji did, her choice of clothes neatly folded and set into several canvas bags. Shinji noticed that there were a lot of clothes in there she hadn’t shown to the others—including what looked like a pair of black pants and a fitted blazer not unlike something a boy would wear at a fancy private school.

I wonder why she didn’t show us that outfit, Shinji thought. It would look good on her. Or is she nervous about wearing boys’ clothes?

She handed Rei the clothing she’d tried on (or at least, the ones that fit and didn’t look horrible on her).

Rei looked at them. “Is that it?”

“Yeah. I mean, I wish I’d grabbed this skirt in a different color, but…”

Rei took them, slipped them in with the rest of her clothes, and marched off to the racks to pick up several skirts of the same design and size in different colors, then made her way to the register. Equal parts curious and nervous, Shinji trailed after her, and the rest of her entourage did the same.

“Um… Ayanami? What are you doing?” Shinji asked. How was she going to pay for those? Or was she planning on shoplifting them? Would she be so brazen?

Who was this girl and what had she done with Rei?

“You’ve got at least ten thousand yen in clothes!” Asuka pointed out. “Don’t tell me you can afford that, you weird little robot!”

Rei stopped and held out her hand. “Class Representative Horaki. Your clothes, too, please.”

With just as much befuddled bemusement writ on her face as anybody else, Hikari gingerly gave Rei the sundress she’d been holding onto. “Um… Thank you, Ayanami. That’s very nice of you.”

“Soryu?” Rei asked, turning her head to look at Asuka.

Asuka crossed her arms and made a face. “I said, no.”

Without a word, Rei set the bags of clothes on the counter in front of the bemused cashier, along with a black card she’d withdrawn from her bookbag. On the card was emblazoned the crimson logo of NERV—half of a fig leaf and the motto ‘Gᴏᴅ's ɪɴ Hɪs Hᴇᴀᴠᴇɴ, Aʟʟ's Rɪɢʜᴛ Wɪᴛʜ ᴛʜᴇ Wᴏʀʟᴅ.’

“Put it all on this, please,” Rei told the cashier.

“Hello there, young miss. Aren’t you a little young,” the cashier said, “to be waving around a…”

Noticing the logo on the card, the cashier trailed off and picked it up, handling it as though it were worth one hundred times its weight in platinum.

“Is there a problem, sir?” Rei asked him.

“I-I’ll need to s-see some ID,” the cashier stammered. There were beads of sweat forming on his brow.

Rei handed him her ID card. He held it up to the light, squinted at it, and after a few seconds of scrutiny, handed it back to her.

The transaction proceeded in complete silence. When it was over, Rei took the bags and the card, handed Hikari and Shinji their new clothes, and headed for the exit. Bowled over by what they’d just witnessed, Shinji and the others followed her out of the store at a distance, all half-paralyzed from the shock and unable to keep up with Rei’s brisk walking pace.

“You… You have a company credit card?” Asuka gasped, her eyes wide and gleaming with a mixture of envy and avarice.

“Yes,” Rei said.


“Yes. Commander Ikari entrusted me with it.”


“He had his reasons.”

“I’m a little surprised you don’t have any money,” Hikari said to Shinji. “Aren’t you on NERV’s payroll?”

“I don’t think so,” Shinji answered.

“No,” Asuka answered, “because apparently, if they pay us, it counts as ‘child labor’ and that's ‘illegal’ or something.”

Touji perked up. “So… Any chance you could treat us to dinner, Ayanami?”

Hikari shushed him. “Don’t exploit her,” she hissed in his ear. “That’s a government card, she’ll have to file expense reports and everything.”

“No,” Rei answered. “We’ll be busy this evening.”

“All three of you?” Kensuke asked. “Is it pilot stuff?”

“That’s classified.”

“So it is pilot stuff.”

The six of them broke off into two groups and set out on their separate ways—Touji, Kensuke, and Hikari toward the train line that would take them to their homes, Shinji, Asuka, and Rei to the line that would bring them down to NERV headquarters.

Shinji yawned and rubbed her eyes. She already felt exhausted. She was grateful for having such good friends—really, she was—but being around them just made her so tired sometimes.

Asuka made a noise not unlike a cat spitting out a hairball as she swiped her ID card against the turnstile kiosk’s sensor and stepped through. “I can’t believe they’re making us take a sync test this late in the day. We’re already tired from school, we’re hungry—”

“More like hangry,” Shinji mumbled.

“And how are we supposed to find time to do our homework tonight?”

“Testing our synchronization with the Evas in extenuating circumstances gives NERV a better idea of how we perform under pressure,” Rei explained.

“I know that. I don’t have to like it.”

“That’s right. You don’t,” Rei said. “That’s the idea.”

“I don’t even know why they make us bother with school in the first place,” Asuka said.

Well, in your case, I’m guessing it’s because you can’t read, Shinji wanted to say. Though Asuka was fluent in speaking Japanese (along with German, English, hell, Shinji wouldn’t be surprised if she could speak Swahili), her reading skills left much to be desired. In fact, she was almost functionally illiterate (not that all the boys at school who fawned over her exotic beauty cared).

Shinji didn’t say that, though, because she was actually starting to enjoy her life for once and didn’t want it to end right now.

“Clearly piloting is more important than such mundane affairs,” Asuka fumed, adjusting her interface headset. She wore the headset like hairclips every single day, in the cockpit and out of it, always proud to tell anyone who asked, ‘Oh, these? These A10 nerve clips aren’t a fashion accessory. I use these to pilot Unit-02 and save the world from the Angels. You’re welcome, by the way.’

“We should be devoting all of our time to honing our skills,” she continued. “I mean, what’s more important, our grades, or the fate of the world? We can be kids, or we can be humanity’s first, last, and only line of defense against those things, but we can’t be both!”

As much as Shinji didn’t like school, she had to admit that if she had to choose between that and spending every waking moment of her life learning how to pilot Unit-01 and fight monsters, it wouldn’t be a hard choice to make. If she could erase everything she knew about how to shoot a gun, she would.

The three of them rode an aerial tram beneath the surface of Tokyo-III, through the layers of armor plating that rested under every street and every building, and into the vast cavern of the Geofront. The underground cavern—lit by mirrors, reinforced windows, and fiber-optic cables running from solar collectors on the surface—was lush and verdant, with forests and hills and even a sparkling lake stretched out below the city. In the center of the cavern was NERV headquarters—or at least, its uppermost levels. Shinji had no idea how far below the ground the headquarters extended, but the pyramid poking out of the ground was undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg.

Shinji put some distance between herself and Asuka—who’d resorted to staring grumpily out the tram’s window while munching on a bag of chips she’d bought from a vending machine—and sat down next to Rei.

“Ayanami? Can I ask you something?” she whispered.

Rei didn’t look up from the textbook she’d set down in her lap. “I believe so.”

“So… you can buy anything you want, right?”

“Commander Ikari intends for me to use it only for emergencies.”

“Thank you, but… this wasn’t an emergency.”

Rei said nothing.

“What about… Why couldn’t you have used that when Miss Misato wanted to take us all out for dinner?” Shinji asked.

During the last Angel attack, the only viable course of action had had an astronomically slim chance of success; as incentive, Misato, as NERV’s acting commander in Commander Ikari and Fuyutsuki’s absence, had promised a steak dinner to any pilots who survived the operation (all three of them had). After checking her account balance, though, ‘steak dinner’ had been downgraded to ‘ramen dinner.’ It had been great ramen, but ramen was not steak. Shinji hadn’t ever even had steak before. It was one of the many mundane things of the pre-Second Impact world that had become a luxury by the time she’d been born.

It hadn’t occurred to her until now that the idea of splurging on such a fancy dinner must have meant a lot to Misato. She must have been around Shinji’s age when Second Impact had happened. She still remembered life before then, when the world was so much bigger and so much more bountiful…

“I didn’t think I could,” Rei answered, as if it were obvious.

“I… guess that makes sense,” Shinji said. “Why’d you change your mind?”

“I’m still figuring that out.”

“Well… thanks. I—I had a lot of fun here. And it’s nice to have some clothes that Miss Misato didn’t help me pick out.” Not that Shinji wasn’t grateful that Misato had helped her get a start on her new wardrobe. It was just that Misato didn’t really have a good idea what kind of things a fourteen-year-old transgender girl who was still self-conscious of the shape (or lack thereof) of her body would want to wear and Shinji didn’t have the heart to tell her that.

Rei smiled.

Shinji opened her locker only to find it empty.

“Wow,” Asuka said, peering into the empty abyss over her shoulder. “As far as ways to tell you you’ve been replaced go, that’s rough.”

“What? No! It must be, uh…” Shinji pressed her hand against the back of the locker in the vain hope that there was some kind of false bottom to it. “Maybe it’s just in the wash.” She rifled through her bookbag. “I still have the interface headband, so I can get by without a plugsuit…”

“Nah, I’ve got the feeling they’ve found a new pilot for Unit-01,” Asuka goaded her. “Maybe it’s Kensuke or Touji.”

“You hate Kensuke and Touji.”

“True. What if it’s Hikari? Hikari and I would get along so well as Eva pilots…”

“Yeah, like an old married couple.” Shinji crouched down and felt the bottom of the locker.

“What are you saying?”

“There’s nothing wrong with liking girls, Asuka. I like girls.”

“Could’ve fooled me.” Asuka rolled her eyes and adjusted the fit of her plugsuit. “See you in the hangars, Shinko. Or not,” she said as she left the locker room.

“You’re not being replaced, Ikari,” Rei assured Shinji before walking out after Asuka.

“Yeah, uh, see you in there.” Shinji stood up, put her hands on her hips, and aimlessly prodded the locker’s bottom with her foot. A plugsuit wasn’t necessary to pilot an Eva, but it boosted the mental signal-to-noise ratio and had a whole host of sensors to monitor her physical and mental condition. It would be embarrassing to do a sync test without one… not to mention, the data would be skewed.

What was she going to do? Were spare plugsuits kept anywhere in Central Dogma?

Someone knocked on the door. “Excuse me? Is Pilot Ikari in there?”

Shinji headed for the door and opened it. “Uh, yeah? Hello?”

Lieutenant Maya Ibuki and Makoto Hyuga, two of the command center’s three full-time computer technicians, stood at the threshold.

“Hi,” Hyuga said, pushing his horn-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Major Katsuragi just remembered that she didn’t assign anyone to drop your new plugsuit off at your locker. Whoops.”

“Here it is,” Ibuki said, offering her a carefully-folded bundle of space-age fabric and technology. “Sorry again about this.”

Shinji took the new plugsuit. “New plugsuit? This is the first I’ve heard about it.”

Hyuga and Ibuki shared a bemused glance. “Well, surprise, I guess,” Hyuga sheepishly mumbled.

“Someone,” Ibuki added, glancing at her cohort, “must have forgotten to CC you on the email.”

Hyuga looked away, withering. “Well, no harm, no foul, right? It all worked out.”

“I guess. Thank you,” Shinji said.

“No problem. Good luck with the test, Shinko!” Hyuga said, tossing off a casual salute as he and Ibuki departed.

Shinji closed the door behind them and unraveled the plugsuit. It was a departure from her old one—in lieu of the two-tone white and blue color scheme, it was a bright primary blue—as blue as Asuka’s suit was red—from tip to toe with white accents.

It fit like a glove. That shouldn’t have been a surprise—of course it did—but it still caught Shinji off-guard.

This plugsuit was different, more like the other girls’ in its design than her old one. The hardware in the suit was slimmer, more compact (more advanced?), the reinforced armor plating around the chest was diminished, and there was padding in… certain places (for shock absorption?).

Shinji took a deep breath and exhaled, taking stock of the new suit’s fit. It wasn’t something she was used to, but it didn’t feel uncomfortable to breathe or move in—just different.

What if she just wore this forever?

“So this is the girl I’ve been hearing so much about.”

Shinji glanced over her shoulder and whirled around to face the man who’d been standing behind her.

With his rakish Han Solo scruffiness and James Bond swagger, it wasn’t hard to see why Asuka was constantly falling head over heels for Ryoji Kaji. Shinji, though, found his attitude to be somewhat imposing, exhausting even—too outgoing, too charismatic, too cool. Being around him for fifteen minutes was like being at a party for an hour.

He was a womanizer, too, darting with reckless abandon around the women at NERV—mostly Ritsuko and Misato, the former of whom seemed just as repulsed by him as she was attracted to him. Maybe women liked men like that. Adults were weird sometimes.

He’d always been pretty earnest in Shinji’s experience, although a lingering doubt in the back of her mind left her wondering if his attitude toward her would change now that she was… out.

Also, he could’ve knocked first.

“Uh… hello, Mr. Kaji,” said Shinji as Kaji leaned nonchalantly against the side of the doorway.

Kaji waved to her. “Shinko, is it now? I was hoping I’d get a chance to meet NERV’s resident newtype in the flesh.”

“Uh… ‘n-newtype?’”

A momentary bemused look fluttered across Kaji’s face, his brow furrowing for an instant. “No, I said, ‘newhalf.’”

“New—Um, I—I haven’t r—I mean, it’s not like…” Shinji looked away and tugged at her collar, feeling all of a sudden as though the room had gotten twenty degrees hotter. “I—I’m a long way off f-from surgery…”

Kaji crossed the room with surprising swiftness and leaned against the locker next to Shinji. “Some people are very interested in people like you, Miss Ikari.”

“I-Is that so?” Shinji asked, wondering if she could make a mad dash to the door if Kaji got any weirder around her. “You mean, people with a fetish or something?”

“In many ancient cultures across the world, people who crossed the boundaries between men and women were destined to be shamans and soothsayers,” Kaji explained, loosening the already-loosened necktie that hung like a scarf from his collar. “In ancient Greece, for example, there was Tiresias, the prophet of Apollo in Thebes. The legend goes, he was transformed into a woman for seven years and then was granted the gift of clairvoyance.”

Shinji couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. “I, uh… can’t see the future, if that’s what you’re asking. Sorry.”

Kaji laughed. “You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes in ancient myths these days, kiddo.” He stroked the stubble lining his chiseled jawline pensively. “But who knows? We live in a world with angels. Clairvoyant transsexuals aren’t such an outlandish concept compared to giant screaming rhombuses.”

“I guess not.”

“Stupid idea, though,” Kaji added, chuckling. Shinji nervously joined in. “Although maybe there’s something to it. It sure must be a special gift, getting to spend time in both worlds… I can think of many women who’d kill to have the insight into men that you must have.”

“I’m not too sure about that.”

“Just saying. You’ve seen the wickedness men can do from the inside. It takes a lifetime of experience for most women to build up that knowledge.”

Shinji relaxed. “I don’t know. I never fit in, even when I was pretending.”

“But you must have pretended pretty well,” Kaji said, a warm and earnest smile on his face, “if coming out came as a shock to anyone. Don’t sell yourself short, kid. We all have our talents. Some people have a natural aptitude for hiding themselves. Their motives, their actions, their hearts and minds…”

The next thing she knew, Shinji felt one hand clamp around her wrist and the other around her waist as Kaji’s breath tickled her ear; the overpowering scent of his cologne, thick and cloying, clogged her nostrils and nearly made her dizzy. Her pulse raced, her head throbbed, her heart pounding against her ribs like a hummingbird in a cage; her breath caught in her throat and her tongue cleaved to the roof of her arid mouth. She could barely breathe, let alone speak.

“They might already be looking for you,” Kaji whispered into her ear. “Keep your head down and watch your back. You’d be surprised how much you can see with seven eyes.”

Shinji yelped as he released her from his grip.

Kaji chuckled, casually sweeping back his hair with his hand. “Scared ya, didn’t I? But don’t worry,” he said, clapping her on the shoulder, “I’m not some lowlife who goes after teenagers—I have standards. But don’t tell Miss Soryu, or she’ll be heartbroken, okay?”

“W-What?” Shinji asked, regaining her ability to speak as Kaji made for the door.

“Just my particular sense of humor, Shinko; I’m sorry if I disturbed you. Good luck on your sync test.” He looked back over his shoulder and gave Shinji a stern nod and mirthless wink—one that seemed to scream at her to take everything he had said with the utmost seriousness.

“Wait, what was that about the sev—”

Before the door slid shut in front of him, he held a finger to his lips and said no more.

Shinji caught her breath. What an opaque man Kaji was. Which of his behavior had been an act, and which had been in earnest? Any of it? None of it?

And what was with that comment about eyes?

Her heartbeat began to slow as she made her way to Unit-01, climbed inside the entry plug, and prepared for the next synchronization test. It all felt so routine to her now—the LCL filling the interior of the plug, her first breath of the liquid atmosphere that engulfed her, the electric tingle running through the back of her mind as lights flashed across the viewscreen and resolved into a picture of the outside world.

She laid back as the sensation of the Evangelion’s body clung to hers like a second skin; its gargantuan mass and heavy armor hung over her like a phantom limb, but for an entire second body.

Something felt different about it. Almost comfortable. If anyone had told her after or even before her first time piloting this thing that she wouldn’t feel afraid to sit inside it anymore, let alone that she’d actually feel at peace doing so, she would have called them crazy.

She smiled. Maybe she was crazy. She’d have to be, if this place suddenly felt like home to her.

“Everyone sitting comfortably?” Misato asked, her voice piped into each pilot’s plug. Three holographic panels flickered to life in front of Shinji, suspended in the atmosphere of clear LCL filling the plug—one showing the other two pilots, the other showing the command center’s crew, with Misato front and center.

The pilots nodded.

“Hey, Shinji,” Asuka whispered to her. “Red letter day for your wardrobe, huh?”

“Uh… yeah, I guess. You like it?”

“Add a couple red stripes and you’d be a dead ringer for Captain America.”


“Anyway, was that Kaji you were talking to earlier?” There was a tinge of jealousy in Asuka’s voice.

“Uh, y-yeah, but we weren’t really talking. He just wanted to know where you were,” Shinji lied. “So he could, uh, say hi to you. I told him you were already getting set up for the test and he’d have to wait.”

“Hmm,” Asuka replied, sounding as though she wasn’t sure whether or not Shinji was lying.

Misato cleared her throat. “All right, girls. We’ll start the run n—”

“Wait!” Lieutenant Ibuki piped up, poking her head up over the top of her console.

Misato looked a little irked. “Yes?”

“Shinko, does your new plugsuit fit okay?”

Taken aback, Shinji hastily nodded. “Uh, yeah, okay. It’s good. I like it.”

“Yeah, it really accentuates your mosquito bites,” Asuka interjected. “And there must be some crazy compression technology in there, because your crotch looks like a Ken doll’s—”

Misato crossed her arms. “Asuka.”

“It’s a compliment! Or should I have said ‘Barbie doll?’”

“Here’s a third option,” Lieutenant Aoba spoke up. “How about we not talk about people’s crotches?”

“Let’s just get this over with,” Misato said, groaning. She hurriedly cut the audio and visual feed from the command center to the entry plugs, leaving the pilots alone with each other.

The sync test proceeded as normal—slow, tedious, and boring. Like always, it was almost like trying to meditate with a needle pressing into the back of her head, trying to be as conscious and as aware of having two separate bodies as possible. There was Shinji-on-the-inside and Shinji-on-the-outside, Eva-on-the-outside and Eva-on-the-inside, both separate and yet together, one and yet two, divided in body yet singular in wills.

“Hey, Aoba. You read the latest JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure yet?” Lieutenant Hyuga asked.

“Yeah. Am I just illiterate or something, or does everyone else not know what the hell’s going on either?” Aoba replied.

“It’s not just you.”

“Oh, good. God, I miss Steel Ball Run. That was fucking good.” Aoba sighed. “Yasuho’s pretty cool, though. I like Paisley Park.”

“Yeah, she’s neat. I don’t think I totally get how Paper Moon King works, though—”

“Excuse you! Some of us are trying to synchronize with our Evas here!” Asuka shouted at the chatting technicians. “A little peace and quiet would be nice!”

“Major, your elbow’s on the comms console again,” Ritsuko said.

“Oh, sh—”

The audio link to the command center went mute and the test continued, dragging on for what seemed like an eternity.

“All right, girls, we’ve gotten your final results in,” Misato said at long last, restoring audiovisual connection to the entry plugs. She was beaming. “Rei, you’ve shown marked improvement. Your sync rate peaked at eighty-eight percent today. That’s a five-point increase since last time.”

Rei nodded, but no expression showed on her face. If she was at all pleased with the result, she didn’t show it.

“What about me, Major Katsuragi?” Asuka leaned back, grinning like a cat in a sunbeam as she expected her results. “How’d I do?”

Shinji just sighed and waited her turn. If she did well, that was good; if she didn’t, there was always next time. She didn’t have the hyper-competitive streak Asuka did and was thankful for it. It just seemed to make the world a worse place, having that kind of outlook all the time. And it was obvious who’d have the top score this time. It would be…

“Asuka, your sync rate peaked at eighty-seven percent.”

The smug smile on Asuka’s face faded away. She leaned forward. “Um… Are you sure? Can you double-check that?”

Shinji glanced at Rei. Even she seemed caught off-guard.

Misato glanced at a nearby terminal. “Yeah, it’s eighty-seven. It’s one point higher than your previous high, isn’t it?”

Asuka furrowed her brow. “Yeah, but… are you sure there wasn’t a fluke with the sensors?”

“We’ll look into it,” Ritsuko interjected, the tired look in her eyes saying quite clearly that she wouldn’t bother to put herself through that trouble, “but I don’t think the results will change substantially.”

“This is good progress for both of you,” Misato told Asuka in a vain attempt to cushion the blow to her ego.

Frustrated, Asuka rolled her eyes.

So, Shinji thought, Ayanami’s the top performer in today’s test. I guess I came in last. Oh, well. “Miss Misato, how did I do?” she asked.

“Oh, last but not least, Shinji,” Misato concluded, a twinkle in her eyes, “today your rate capped out at ninety percent. Congratulations. You’re number one!”

Shinji gasped, her heart skipping a beat out of sheer shock, and then laughed. “Really?”

“What?” Asuka hissed. “You can’t be serious! She cracked ninety percent?!”

“Margin for error is plus or minus zero point two percent,” Ritsuko noted. “We can be serious.”

Asuka crossed her arms, fuming. “This is unreal,” she muttered under her breath.

“You’ve all done very well and shown marked improvement,” Misato reiterated, resting her hands on her hips. “Take pride in setting your new personal bests! And under these conditions, too!”

“Right, right, okay. Can we get out of here already and go back to doing our homework?” Asuka asked. She punctuated her question by terminating her visual connection; the holographic panel showing her face vanished in a fizzle of static.

Still reeling from the shock, Shinji laid back and closed her eyes, trying her best to take in the unexpected news.

She remembered the way Father had praised her after the last Angel attack. His exact words—I’m proud of you, Shinji. The words that made it all worth it—the pain, the injuries, the suffering, the weariness, the nightmares. She felt that way again. That elated fluttering in her heart, that swelling in her chest.

Was she really three percentage points higher than Asuka? Was she really… the best?

Or was it something other than her own strength pushing her forward? The medication, the new clothes, the new plugsuit? Ritsuko had mentioned to her during her last medical examination that they’d expected increased performance as a result of treating her dysphoria…

Am I stronger because of my own skill, she wondered, or because of the way my body is changing?

And if it was just her transition, then what would happen if it stopped enhancing her performance? What if she plateaued or even got worse? Would she be taken off hormones? Was this moment of success nothing but the result of a science experiment that could be called off at any time if it stopped yielding positive results?

She curled her hand into a fist. It didn’t matter what the root cause was. If being a pilot was all she was good at and all she was good for, then she could take comfort in being the best at it. And if she had to maintain this lead to be herself, then she would do it, even if Asuka didn’t like it.

After all, that was what she would do.

“Congratulations, Ikari,” Rei told her.

“Thanks. You, too.”

Rei’s screen blanked out.

“Good work, Shinko.” Misato gave her a thumbs-up. “I knew you had it in you. Now get out of Unit-01 and let’s go home.”

Shinji nodded and began the shutdown and ejection procedure. She was exhausted, after all, and with the test behind her, she could barely muster the strength to hold her eyes open any longer. Breathable air sounded nice.

Before the entry plug’s viewscreen went dead, Shinji caught a glimpse of Asuka hurrying past Unit-01 on her way to the showers. The humiliated pilot paused momentarily, looked up at the Eva, and scowled before continuing on her way, head bowed, fists clenched.

Tonight’s gonna suck, Shinji thought, not relishing the thought of sharing a bedroom with someone who was so majorly pissed off at her. But it’s Asuka’s own fault for being upset. If you like to compete, then you shouldn’t mind losing. She shouldn’t rest so much of her self-worth on her piloting skills.


Asuka kicked her locker. “Verdammt!”

Stupid Shinji! Damn her and her test scores and her sync rates and Misato’s oh I’m so proud of you my darling little Shinko! Damn that Rei and her stupid, soulless, vapid, doll-like face and her unlimited access to NERV funds! It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, it was a cosmic injustice—third place in the sync test?! Dead last? She’d eaten Shinji’s dust! And Rei’s, too! She’d barely improved at all and those two had just leaped past her!

‘Take pride in setting your new personal bests?’ Was Misato trying to rub her performance in her face?

She was the only one of the three of them with real training, with real experience! She knew how to fight, she knew Unit-02’s specs backwards and forwards, she’d been training for years when all Shinji had done was fall ass-backwards into the cockpit! How could this be?

It wasn’t fair. Asuka wasn’t just a prodigy, she worked her ass off! Nobody could coast through an accelerated two-year undergraduate program at a prestigious university without finishing middle school first on innate talents alone—it was work, work, work! But none of that mattered next to Wonder Girl and Blunder Girl, the twin freaks who seemed to get everything they wanted without the slightest modicum of real effort!

Shinji was Major Katsuragi’s favorite, Rei was Commander Ikari’s favorite, but Asuka—what was she? Whose favorite was she? Nobody’s, but she was the best of them! Sync tests be damned! Nobody was a better pilot than her, synchronization rates be damned, and nobody appreciated it!

Stupid fucking Shinji! She was even catching Kaji’s eye—next thing she knew, she’d be better at being a girl than Asuka was, too! Fucking upstart! Waltzing right in and taking away everything she was good at! Just another stupid doll to take her place so that everyone could just cast her off to the side and ignore her!

Everyone was always trying to find something to replace her. Something to be praised and fawned over and doted on, whether it was a person or some little porcelain thing they could dress up as they pleased and coo over as they pleased—

That doll isn’t me. Stop calling it by my name. I’m me! Look at me, Mommy, I’m right here! Look at me! LOOK AT ME!

“Um… Asuka?”

Speak of the devil and she will appear. Asuka whirled around and saw Shinji standing at the door, still in her fancy new blue plugsuit (even though she wasn’t anywhere close to having the figure to pull it off), still dripping with LCL.

Shinji instantly recoiled, repulsed by the white-hot rage emanating from every cell in Asuka’s body as if it were her very own AT-field.

“Ikari,” Asuka hissed, gritting her teeth.

“H-Hi. I, um… I wanted to talk to you about the sync test…”

“Oh.” Clenching her fists, Asuka took a step toward her. Shinji’s eyebrows furrowed in concern; as though she were mentally calculating how likely Asuka was to punch her in the face. “Has Blunder Girl come to rub it in my face? The golden child of NERV? Little Miss Ace Pilot? Did you come here to laugh at me?”

“N-No, nothing like that. I’d never—” Shinji wrung her hands. God, she looked pathetic. Which made it even worse! How could Asuka lose to such a dope? “Having the best sync rate isn’t everything. It’s about being the b—”

“Oh, so you’re gracious in victory, too?” Asuka snapped. “You can’t do anything right! You can’t even win right!”

“I’m sorry—”

“Oh, and there you go again with the apologies!” Asuka threw up her hands. “Is there anything you don’t apologize for? Whether a teacher or a student calls you a boy, you say ‘I’m sorry!’ Someone says, ‘Hey, aren’t you in the wrong bathroom?’ and you say, ‘I’m sorry!’”

With every repetition of ‘sorry,’ Asuka took a step forward and Shinji flinched.

“Asuka,” she said, “I just came here to—”

“Halt deinen Mund! Do you know why I’ve been standing up for you over all this trans shit? Because I like you?” Asuka laughed and jabbed Shinji in the chest. She knew exactly which buttons to press. “Fuck no! Because it’s irritating to see you apologize all the time! You say being a girl means so much to you, but you never stand and fight for it and you throw it away and mumble ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’ as soon as you face any pushback, like you’re not even proud of it, du Fickfehler!”

“Okay, I didn’t mean to—”

“I bet you only wanted to be a girl in the first place because you thought it’d be easier!”

“Of course not. That’s ridiculous!”

“You can’t replace me so easily!”

“I’m not trying t—”

“Well, good, because you’d fail!” Asuka kicked at her locker again and stubbed her toe. “Ow! Motherfucker!”


She hopped on one foot, clutching at her throbbing toes. “Fuck you!” she spat through grinding teeth.

Shinji looked close to tears. “W-Well, fine! If that’s how you want to be!” she petulantly shouted at her before storming out.

Asuka took a deep breath and exhaled through her nose. She clenched her fist and her jaw. God, she wanted to punch Shinji right in the face so hard right now.

Just to see how easily the doll’s porcelain cracked.

Shinji fell asleep that night with her cheek plastered to the open pages of her physics textbook, slumped over at the table amid the debris piled across every flat surface in Misato’s apartment.

She had that dream again.

The sky was black as tar. Or was it even a sky, or just stone? There was an ocean beneath her, an ocean of rippling orange liquid just like the LCL that filled the entry plug, so deep and so vast that there was a ship bobbing in it off in the distance. She felt as though she were pinned to a wall by her hands—as though someone had driven nails into her palms. Her arms ached, her back screamed for mercy, her burning lungs craved air. A long red spear with two prongs like a tuning fork protruded from her chest, its shaft stretching out into the darkness.

A man stood below her. No, not a man, a boy. And no, he wasn’t standing, but rather floating several meters above the surface of the still waters, his arms crossed expectantly, locks of silver hair fanning out around his head like a halo. An aura of unrealness surrounded him, like cheap CGI or a poorly-composited puppet effect from a movie, as he raised an arm and reached out with an upturned hand toward her, as though he were beckoning her forward to join him.

There was something calming about his eyes. Red eyes. Eyes like Ayanami’s…

She looked down into the rippling sea and caught the reflection of a grotesque, bloated creature with pasty, blubbery, maggot-white flesh staring up at her. It had no face but a weathered, timeworn mask half-embedded in its marshmallow-like skin, its pitted and scarred metal surface engraved with the symbol of an inverted triangle flanked by seven eyes.

The next day, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, Tokyo-III fell under a creeping shadow.

The shadow was cast by a strange, zebra-striped orb that hung in the sky over the city’s tallest skyscrapers. Alarm klaxons rang through the city; businesses closed and apartment complexes went empty as the city’s civilian population fled to the underground bunkers installed in the Geofront. Most of the city’s buildings retracted underground, trembling as they ran on rails through the city’s armor plating.

The stripes of black and white on the orb hovering above Tokyo-III shifted and twisted.

“Bad to look at,” Kensuke commented as he leaned out an abandoned apartment unit’s balcony, camera pressed to one eye, the other eye squeezed shut.

“Yeah, I got it,” Touji said. “Bad to look at. C’mon, let’s go back to the shelter before they lock us out.”

“We don’t know it’s dangerous,” Kensuke insisted. “It hasn’t harmed anything yet.”

Touji’s stomach churned. That weird orb was like the living avatar of vertigo. “Looking at it makes me wanna puke. I’d say that’s harm done. It’s giving me motion sickness!”

“Maybe it’s not an Angel.”

“Okay, so it’s just a giant space flea from nowhere. That doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous.” Touji reached out and grabbed Kensuke by the collar. “C’mon, let’s go before we get in—”

“There you are! What on Earth are you knuckleheads doing out here?”

“—Trouble,” Touji finished, turning around to see Hikari behind them. “Oh, hi,” he said. “I was just, uh, running after—”

“No, seriously, what are you doing?” Hikari asked. She was red-faced and sweat-drenched, panting for breath as she rested her hands on her knees.

“We wanted to get footage of this weird thing,” Kensuke said, “since it’s not an Angel, apparently—”

Touji elbowed him in the side and nearly made him drop his camera. “What do you mean, ‘we?’”

“Pretend I didn’t ask.” Hikari grabbed him by the wrist. “You two, come on. It’s not safe here.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Touji grabbed Kensuke. “Come on. It’s not safe here.”

The building shook hard enough that everyone lost their footing and tumbled to the floor; the sound of distant shattering glass rang in the air from a dozen different directions. Car alarms echoed through the air, mingling with the omnipresent sound of the evacuation klaxons and emergency sirens.

“Okay,” Kensuke said, hastily stuffing his camera into his bag, “time to go.”

“Finally, he gets it.” Touji helped Hikari to her feet. “You okay, Class Rep?”

“I’m fine.” Hikari smoothed out her skirt. “Now let’s get out of here before the next—”

She stopped and turned sickly pale as she gazed out into the middle distance.

“Uh… Class Rep?” Touji waved a hand in front of her face. “You okay there?”

Hikari snatched his hand out of the air. “Look. The skyline’s all… wobbly.”

Touji turned around and looked out the balcony window.

The city skyline, just as Hikari had said, was all… wobbly. Touji had a sinking feeling in his gut that told him that was bad.

Another tremor shook the building; the three Evangelions emerged from beneath the ground at a distance from the orb, each step they took as they inched closer rattling every window in the city.

Touji had an even worse feeling in his gut that told him that was really, really bad.

Chapter Text

Looking at the black-and-white striped sphere hovering in the air hurt Shinji’s eyes, so she tried not to.

“It’s strange,” Lieutenant Aoba said from his console in the command center. “I’m sure I detected a blue blood pattern a second ago, but…”

“I’m reading a pattern orange,” Hyuga said. “Not picking up an AT-field either.”

“If it doesn’t have a blue pattern, it might not be an Angel, right?” Shinji asked hopefully. If only this thing wasn’t an Angel.

“It could be a new type of Angel,” Ritsuko noted.

“Results from the MAGI incoming.” Ibuki paused. “Inconclusive.”

“Angel or not, I’m sure it’s up to no good,” Misato said. “Shinji, Rei, Asuka—stay on your toes. We don’t know what its field of vision might be or what its offensive capabilities are.”

Shinji nodded and pressed forward; Unit-01 lowered its profile, ducking behind the few buildings that hadn’t retracted down into the Geofront, and crept through the city’s empty streets.

“If it doesn’t have an AT-field, then it’s defenseless, right?” Asuka asked. Unit-02 readied its rifle. “C’mon. Let’s blow this thing and go home.”

“Negative. We don’t know how it’ll react,” Misato said. “Try to draw it out of the city before engaging.”

Asuka nodded. “Right.”

“Asuka, can you take point on this operation?” Shinji asked. She still felt as though she were walking on eggshells around Asuka; hopefully, she could appease her with an olive branch.

“Me? Oh, nein, nein. I’m just the third-best pilot here, after all. If anyone should lead here, it should be Shinji, our top pilot.” Asuka wore a catlike smile—catlike in the sense that it could turn into a snarl in an instant. “Isn’t that right, Major?”

Misato cleared her throat. “Well, Shinji?”

“I, uh…” Shinji swallowed. She didn’t know how she could have a dry mouth when she was breathing liquid, but somehow, she did. “I mean, I’m not the most tactically-minded…”

“Oh, Shinko, don’t be so modest! This is a job for the most highly-skilled Eva pilot, isn’t it? Or aren’t you confident in your performance?”

Shinji took a deep breath. She knew she was being goaded, but she did have to put her best foot forward here. Her performance as a pilot was proof-of-concept for her transition, wasn’t it? “Okay. I’ll take charge of this operation. If that’s all right with you, Miss Misato.”

Misato nodded. “You’ve got the green light, Shinji. Go for it.”

“All right, um…” Shinji drummed her fingers against the controls. “First things first, I want to, uh… investigate this thing’s field of vision. I’ll approach it from one klick due south; Asuka, Rei, you two fan out. Asuka, you approach it from one klick west-northwest; Rei, you approach it from one klick east-northeast. Take your positions and we’ll start on my mark. We’ll see which of us three it notices first.”

She looked over to Misato in the command center for guidance. Misato sagely nodded.

Rei nodded and began to move Unit-00 into position.

“And then what, Shinji?” Asuka asked.

“You’ll, uh… You’ll receive further instructions,” Shinji said, not willing to show that she hadn’t come up with the rest of her plan yet, “when the Angel—or whatever it is—starts to react.”

“Well, I’m just a third-rate pilot what don’t know nothing about tactical advantages, so that sounds good to me,” Asuka said, taking off in Unit-02. She reached the limit of her power cable, disconnected it, and hurried to the nearest charging station to plug in another cable into the outlet on Unit-02’s back.

Misato let out an exasperated sigh.

Shinji maneuvered Unit-01 through the city as well and took up her position due south of the zebra-striped orb, keeping an eye on her radar to track the position of the other two Evas. The strange sphere did not move, although the patterns on its surface seemed to twist and pulsate.

“All right,” she said. “Eva pilots, move out.”

The three Evangelions slowly began to converge on the sphere. Shinji bit her lip in anxiety as the distances began to close.

“Ikari. Do you notice anything strange about the city skyline?” Rei asked.

“Huh? The skyline…” Shinji looked around and seized on something odd underneath the sphere. “Under the orb, the buildings are all crooked,” she noted. They all teetered and leaned precariously, as though their foundations had all been smashed.

“The Angel’s abilities might be gravity-related,” Rei guessed. “It’s pulling the buildings down.”

“Got a plan for that, Shinji?” Asuka asked.

“Uh… In due time. Keep approaching.”

The three of them crept closer, closer. The sphere grew larger in the viewscreen of Unit-01’s entry plug; Shinji had to squint past the throbbing, pulsating stripes winding around the sphere’s surface—

The sphere disappeared.

“What the—” Asuka gasped. “Which of us did it see first?”

“Blood pattern blue!” Hyuga shouted out. “It’s an Angel!”

The zebra-striped sphere reappeared directly over Unit-00.

“Ayanami!” Shinji cried out, pushing Unit-01 toward Rei.

“Angel is directly beneath Unit-00!” Aoba said.

Beneath? No, that couldn’t have been right—it was hovering right on top of her! “Ayanami, get out of there!” Shinji shouted as Unit-01 sprinted through the streets toward her.

“I can’t move—”

Shinji scaled the nearest building and hastily took up a new position on the rooftop; she took Unit-01’s rifle, aimed it at the sphere, and fired.

Just before the bullets could hit it, the sphere vanished yet again.

Shinji breathed a sigh of relief, her pulse singing in her ears as her heart pounded. “Ayanami, are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Ikari. Unit-00’s feet have been damaged, though,” Rei answered, as cool and collected as ever. Despite the calmness in her voice, Rei was wincing in pain. “It can’t stand anymore. Anything on the ground beneath the Angel—”

The Angel reappeared directly over Unit-01’s head, looming over it like a falling moon; Shinji gasped, gritted her teeth, and squeezed her eyes shut, her head caught in an iron vise as a deafening whisper ran through her head.


Shinji pointed Unit-01’s rifle straight up, but just as she squeezed the trigger, the building under her shook and pitched wildly to the side, throwing off her aim and sending Unit-01 careening off the roof. As Unit-01 fell, she drove its fingers into the side of the building and dug in its right foot, forcing her descent to come to an abrupt stop.

Unit-01’s left foot dangled just a few meters above the road—except the road wasn’t there anymore. Beneath the Angel was a sea as black as tar; street lamps, traffic lights, and abandoned cars stood at odd angles in the muck, half-submerged and quickly sinking. Unit-01’s rifle, dislodged from its grip by the fall, hit the surface of the black sea and immediately began to sink.

Shinji struggled to regain Unit-01’s footing and climb back to the top of the building she was clinging to as it swayed and shuddered precariously.

“Shinji, the Angel isn’t that thing in the sky! It’s its shadow!” Misato warned.

“Asuka, shoot the sphere!” Shinji shouted out.

Another guttural blast of rifle fire rang out, booming like staccato cannons in the silent air; the sphere vanished, and with it, the Angel. “Now run!” Shinji shouted to Asuka. “Before it reappears!”

Shinji dropped Unit-01 to the road—its asphalt surface now littered with the half-eaten remains of lights, lamps, and cars, as well as the neatly-sheared-in-half remains of her rifle—and took off for the nearest weapons cache. She pulled open the skyscraper-sized cabinet and pulled out a new rifle, slamming a fresh magazine into it by rote memorization.

The sphere reappeared over Unit-02 and with it, the shadow; the buildings under it immediately began to buckle and sway as the shadow gobbled up their foundations. Unit-02 deftly and nimbly leaped across the streets to safety.

“What’s next,” Asuka snarled, “oh mighty Shin Tzu? Got a strategy?”

“Uh… Give me some time,” Shinji wheedled, suddenly noticing that Unit-01’s power cable had been sliced through by the shadow—she was on battery power now.

Something flickered in the corner of her eye, a flash of movement on the periphery of the entry plug’s wraparound viewscreen.

She glanced over Unit-01’s shoulder and thought she saw a person standing in the middle of the street behind her—a boy with grayish, silvery hair—but when she blinked, he vanished as though he’d never been there in the first place.

“Lead it out of the city,” Misato said. “Keep leapfrogging it until it’s reached the outskirts. Then we can figure out how to beat it!”

“All right, Shinji,” Asuka said, “you shoot the Angel next while I get ahead of you!”

Shinji nodded. “Right!” She fired at the sphere—it vanished. Now she only had a few seconds before the Angel appeared below her—

Something very small, but very purposefully-thrown, bounced off Unit-01’s eye.

Shinji turned the Eva’s head and spied, on the balcony of the apartment building across from her, three people.

People? But everyone should’ve evacuated! Shinji zoomed in Unit-01’s camera. There on the balcony were…

Touji, Kensuke, and Hikari.

“Oh, god, not them again,” Misato muttered.

“Oh, shit,” Shinji said as the Angel’s living shadow appeared beneath Unit-01. The apartment building immediately bucked and leaned forward; the kids gripped the railing with all their might as the potted plants resting on the balcony slid off and vanished into the Angel’s depths.

“Shinji, what’s going on up there? You need to move!” Misato shouted out.

“There are civilians up here!” she shouted back. She tried to move, but Unit-01 had already sunk up to its ankles in the Angel’s tar-like body. She aimed the gun downward and fired at the shadow; the bullets sank in as easily as everything else.

“Leave them! We’ll send a helicopter for evac! Asuka, shoot the sphere again!”

From a distance, Unit-02 readied its rifle. “Got it!”

The pattern of stripes on the sphere’s surface writhed and twisted with renewed vigor. And suddenly, not just the buildings under it, but the entire block around it began to sink. Asuka’s shot went wide as Unit-02 scrabbled backward to avoid getting swallowed up.

“The Angel’s body has widened to six hundred meters in diameter!” Hyuga shouted out. “And Unit-01’s right in the middle of it!”

“If she ejects Unit-01’s entry plug,” Misato asked the rest of the command center’s staff, “will it fly clear of the Angel?”

“With the right headwind, it should,” Ritsuko replied.

The metal scaffolding of the sinking apartment complex groaned and twisted; windows cracked and concrete began to crumble. Shinji tossed aside her rifle and cupped Unit-01’s palm under the balcony. “Touji, Kensuke, Hikari, climb onto my hand!”

The three of them gingerly dropped themselves into Unit-01’s waiting hand, the wind whipping at their clothes.

“Asuka, shoot the sphere!” Misato barked.

“I’m out of ammo! I need to get to another cache!”

“Climb up onto Unit-01’s shoulder,” Shinji told her friends, making Unit-01 hunch its back and reaching up with its other arm to grab the roof of the building across from the apartment complex. “Then, climb across its back and its other arm to the roof.”

“Ikari. I still have my rifle,” Rei told her. “I have a clear shot at the sphere.”

“Don’t take the shot, Rei,” Misato warned her. “Unit-00 is immobile; if the sphere relocates to you, you’ll be swallowed up in an instant!”

“It’s okay. I can be replaced,” Rei replied.

“Ayanami—No!” Shinji shouted out as a single shot roared through the air.

It passed right through the sphere and came out the other side. The striped pattern on the sphere’s surface rippled, but nothing else happened.

“It won’t move anymore?” Asuka gasped.

As the city continued to sink, Shinji’s friends made it across Unit-01’s armspan and climbed up onto the roof of the building across from the apartment complex; as if on cue, the suffering complex groaned its last and collapsed in on itself, raining debris down on the hungry shadow below.

Unit-01 was nearly sunk up to its hips now; Shinji could still feel its legs and could even move its feet, but the surface tension of the living shadow was so strong that she couldn’t break free. She looked up at her friends as they peered down at her at the edge of the roof. They were all still in the middle of this black sea—how would they escape now?

“Miss Misato,” Shinji said, “I need you to scramble a helicopter! My friends are up here!”

“Don’t worry, Shinji! We’re on it! The chopper’s just a few minutes out. Stand down and eject Unit-01’s entry plug.”

The building shuddered and began to teeter, its facade looming over Unit-01.

“Wait! The building’s coming down! Just give me a few minutes to hold it in place!” Shinji called out, bracing Unit-01’s hands against the side of the building. “AT-field at full power!”

“The building will hold, Shinji! Projecting your AT-field will just—”

A glossy sheen of concentric octagons spread out from Unit-01’s hands, pushing against the gravity pulling the building down.


“I just have to hold it up until the chopper gets here!”

“They’ll be fine—you need to eject your entry plug now!”

“Just a little longer!”

“Get out of the damn robot, Shinji!”

“Please, Miss Misato!”

Unit-01 sank up to its waist.

“Shinji, if you don’t eject now,” Misato said, “the ejection mechanism will sink beneath the surface of the Angel! Leave the building—it’s fine!”

As if to prove Misato wrong, the building groaned and shuddered, large fractures beginning to run up the facade where its concrete and glass face met Unit-01’s shimmering AT-field. Shinji strained harder; Unit-01’s battery timer kept ticking.

“Almost there…”

The unmistakable roar of a helicopter drew nearer, the thump-thump-thump of its rotors like the heartbeat of a hummingbird. A portion of the building’s corner sheared off and slid down to the shadow like an iceberg calving off a glacier; the roar and squeal of metal grinding against metal and the sound of glass shattering drowned out the helicopter’s beating rotors.

“Shinji, now! That’s an order!”

“Almost there…”

“Lieutenant Ibuki! Send the force-eject signal to Unit-01!”

“No!” Shinji shouted out. “The building’s falling apart!”

As the building continued to slide deeper into the black sea and its face continued to crack and shear, a weathered, olive-green JSSDF helicopter hovered onto the roof; two soldiers leaped out and herded the kids in.

“The signal isn’t getting through, Major!”

“Shinji! Eject your goddamn entry plug right now!”

As the helicopter took off, Shinji pulled Unit-01’s hands away and dispersed the AT-field; the building all but disintegrated, showering Unit-01 with rubble. She tugged on her controls and flicked the eject switch—

Nothing happened.

She tried again.

Nothing happened.

“C’mon, c’mon!” she hissed through gritted teeth.


“I’m trying!” Shinji kept working the controls harder and harder until she felt she were close to ripping them apart.

“Unit-01 is up to its chest!” Aoba reported. “The entry plug ejection system is already caught in the shadow!”

“No, no, no, no!” Shinji pounded her fist on the control panel. “Unit-01, please! Miss Misato!”

“Up to its neck…”

“Shinji, listen to me,” Ritsuko said, a calm veneer layered over the urgency and panic lacing her voice. “If you kill all systems but LCL oxygenation and waste recycling, Unit-01 can keep you alive for up to sixteen hours. I’m—”

All of the sights and sounds of the outside world vanished in an instant, replaced with nothing but darkness and silence.

“M-Miss Ritsuko?” Shinji took a shallow, ragged breath; her heart was beating like a hummingbird’s. “Miss Misato? Asuka? Ayanami? Anyone?”

No one answered.

Shinji was alone.

“Shinji, listen to me,” Ritsuko said. “If you kill all systems but LCL oxygenation and waste recycling, Unit-01 can keep you alive for up to sixteen hours. I’m certain we’ll find a way to get you out by then.”

“We’ve lost Unit-01,” Hyuga reported. “It’s been completely submerged.”

“Dammit!” Misato threw her hat to the floor and stomped on it. She trembled with rage, the scar on her side aching and throbbing as though it were fresh. Damn Shinji for defying a direct order like that! Damn those kids for being in the wrong place at the wrong time! Damn that Angel for taking away yet another person she cared about! And damn her for not taking this threat seriously enough until it had been too late!

“Major, what are we gonna do now?” Asuka asked.

Misato clenched her fist. “Withdraw,” she spat through gritted teeth.

“What? But the Angel—”

“That’s an order, Asuka. Head to the nearest lift station and return to HQ. Rei, we’ll send a collection team up for Unit-00.”

Rei nodded. “Yes, Major Katsuragi.”

“How can we just run away when there’s an Angel up here?” Asuka asked, scandalized by the very suggestion of a retreat.

“It’s very easy, Asuka. You just put one leg in front of the other. I’m sure even a third-rate pilot like you can manage it.”

Asuka was shocked into silence—as was the entire command center. Aoba let out a nervous bark of laughter and hurriedly tried to disguise it as a cough. Ritsuko shot Misato a look that seemed to say, ‘Are you feeling okay?’

Misato crossed her arms. “Need I remind you that in Ikari and Fuyutsuki’s absence, I’m NERV’s acting commander? If you don’t follow my orders, I’m not above making you spend the night in lockup. Understand?”

Asuka sighed and pulled Unit-02 away from the edge of the Angel. “Yes, ma’am.”

A solemn quiet settled over the command center.

Misato rubbed her sleeve against her sweat-caked forehead. “Lieutenant Hyuga, assign a retrieval team to Unit-00 and Rei. Lieutenant Aoba, contact the JSSDF and have them set up a defensive perimeter around the Angel. Doctor Akagi, Lieutenant Ibuki, organize a research team. I want to know everything about how this Angel works. We have sixteen hours until Unit-01 loses life support.”

There was nothing inside the Angel’s shadow. Radar and sonar picked up nothing but the fragmented remains of the city it had feasted upon. There were no other structures, no walls, no floor, no ceiling. It might as well have been deep space.

Since there was nothing to do but wait to be rescued, Shinji did exactly as Ritsuko had instructed and powered down all of Unit-01’s systems save for LCL oxygenation and waste recycling. Turning off one of the two systems might have given her a few hours more, but then she’d either end up with nothing to breathe, or with nothing to breathe but her own piss.

Sixteen hours, maximum. By that time, she’d either be rescued or dead. There was nothing she could do but wait.

She closed her eyes, laid back, and set herself adrift in the endless sea of darkness and silence.

Four hours passed before she woke up. She still felt tired. In fact, she felt more tired than she’d felt before she’d fallen asleep.

Nothing but white noise from sonar and radar. The rest of the debris the Angel had swallowed up had drifted so far away that Unit-01 couldn’t pick them up anymore. Shinji turned the systems off, lest she drain too much of what little power Unit-01 had left.

What if Asuka and Rei killed the Angel with her trapped inside it? What would happen to her?

Would they do it? Was she expendable compared to all the lives threatened by the Angels? Of course she was. She was just one stupid girl. Barely one at that.

If sixteen hours passed and nothing happened, what would that mean? That this space wasn’t a part of the Angel and didn’t disappear when it died? Or that the Angel was unkillable?

The LCL was becoming hazy; there was an unpleasant, metallic tang to it. Shinji wondered how long it would really remain breathable.

She started to feel hungry.

Another few hours passed. Shinji was awoken first by the rumbling of her stomach as it wrapped itself around her backbone, then by the sharp odor filling the entry plug.

The whole place stank of blood.

“Miss Misato?” she called out, her voice hoarse. “Miss Ritsuko? Ayanami? Asuka?”

No response.

It was starting to hurt to breathe. Just a little, as though someone had stuck a tiny thumbtack in one of her lungs.

What if no one was coming for her?

She pulled herself out of her seat and climbed across the length of the entry plug to the exit hatch. “Miss Misato? You’re coming back for me, right?”

Something fluttered in the corner of her eye.

“Who’s there?”

She grabbed the lock on the hatch. Her heart fluttered, her pulse pounded; the sharp ache in her chest worsened. “Please let me out! Please!”

Her trembling fingers slipped over the locking mechanism. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t get a good grip on it. Her head pounded, her throat ached, her eyes burned.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I disobeyed orders. I’m sorry I didn’t eject when I had the chance. I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself, if I didn’t save them then I wouldn’t have anyone left—I know it’s all my fault, and I’m so, so sorry. I’ll be good next time, so please, Miss Misato, please let me out!”

She pounded her fist on the hatch. “Father, please, don’t let me die here! Please! I know I’m useless, I’m not worth the effort, but please, take me home, I want to go home, I want to go home…”

Her limbs weak and her head and heart heavy, she crawled back to her seat and curled up, tucking her knees against her chest. She shivered.

It was starting to get cold.

Ten hours in, Ritsuko returned to the command center with her findings. “We’ve put together a plan for our salvage operation,” she said. “We’ll use Unit-00 and Unit-02 to negate the Angel’s AT-field, then bombard it with all of our remaining N2 warheads. With any luck, we’ll be able to recover what’s left of Unit-01 afterward.”

“‘With any luck? What’s left?’” Misato parroted, equal parts indignant and horrified. “What about Shinji?”

“If she dies, she dies.” Ritsuko put on her reading glasses and leaned over a PC terminal, the light from the screen playing on the lenses of her glasses and hiding her eyes. “Recovering Unit-01 is paramount.”

“You can’t believe that!”

“We all have our priorities.”

“If you could save Shinji and lose Unit-01, though—”

“We all,” Ritsuko repeated, steeling her voice, “have our priorities.”

“I thought you cared about her! Or was Shinji just your pet science experiment all along?”

Ritsuko wrinkled her nose. “Excuse me?”

“When I told you about her and asked you for help, you lit up at the chance to see if hormone treatment would improve her sync rates. Was that all that mattered to you? Proving your hypothesis right?” Misato clamped her hand on Ritsuko’s arm.

“Bold words coming from you, Misato.” Ritsuko said, pulling herself free. “You and I both know she’s nothing but a weapon to you.”


“You praise her, you dote on her, you smother her with love and affection.” Ritsuko lit a cigarette and took a drag from it, exhaling a cloud of bitter smoke. “But she’s not your daughter or your kid sister.”

“So what if she’s not related to me. What are you saying?”

“It isn’t affection that drives you. You don’t really want her to be happy for her own sake—only so she’ll be a more effective killing machine. You’ve pinned your hopes on her to have your vengeance on the Angels. That’s all there is to it.”

The scar running across Misato’s side, the remnants of the wound the Angels had inflicted upon her body, her own personal Second Impact wrought across her body, mind, and soul on that fateful day fifteen years ago, ached and burned as though it were fresh.

“And what’s wrong with wanting vengeance? What’s wrong with cheering the deaths of the things that killed the world?” she shouted back, enraged. “So what if I want Shinji to kill every last one of those monsters?! So what if it makes me happy?”

“It’s not my place to make a moral judgment. But when you point your finger at me, four others point back at you.”

Before she knew what she was doing, Misato had flung out her hand and struck Ritsuko across the face hard enough to knock her cigarette from her mouth and leave her glasses askew. “That doesn’t mean she doesn’t matter to me as a person!”

Ritsuko shot her a bitter, icy glare.

Realizing what she’d done with slowly dawning horror, Misato stepped back.

“You three,” Ritsuko said, gesturing to the command center staff, “Major Katsuragi is obviously emotionally unwell. Please escort her out of Central Dogma.”

Hyuga, Aoba, and Ibuki rose from their stations without protest and flanked Misato, binding her hands behind her back.

“What’s this about?” she asked Ritsuko. “What’s so important about Unit-01 that you couldn’t just build another? What is it about the Eva series I’m not being told?”

Hyuga took her by the arm as gently as he could given the circumstances. “Ma’am, please come with us.”

Misato pulled herself away. “Get off of me. Ritsuko, answer me!”

“Every Evangelion costs the GDP of a small nation to build and only slightly less to maintain,” Ritsuko explained matter-of-factly as she adjusted her glasses. “It’s a matter of protecting our investment.”

“Bullshit! There’s more to it than that, isn’t there?”

Aoba radioed for a guard.

“You know everything there is to know about the Eva series, Major,” Ritsuko said, lighting up another cigarette. Her hand was shaking. “I wish it weren’t so simple, but such is life. We’ll do our best to salvage Unit-01’s pilot as well, but I can’t make any promises.”

Misato felt a pair of handcuffs clap across her wrists, the metal cold on her skin, as a pair of MPs arrived on the scene and dragged her away. Hyuga and Ibuki followed her out.

Once she’d been dragged her from the command center into the outer hallway and the door had slid shut, Misato felt the tension and anger drain from her body, replaced by a crumpled, hollow feeling in her heart.

“I’m sorry they had to do that, ma’am,” Hyuga told her. “I know this is hard for you. Why don’t you lie down for a bit in sick bay?”

Misato glumly nodded; the chain linking the cuffs jangled as the MPs unlocked them.

“Have faith in Doctor Akagi,” Ibuki told her. “There’s still six hours before Unit-01’s life support gives out. I’m sure she’ll figure out a way to save both the Eva and Shinko by then. That was just… a last-resort plan. I’m certain.”

Fighting back tears, Misato fell to her knees. Ritsuko was right. It was because of the lust for revenge dwelling in her heart that Shinji was trapped within the depths of the Eleventh Angel. If Shinji died in there, her blood would be on Ritsuko’s and Misato’s hands alike.

Her fingers curled around the cross-shaped pendant hanging from her neck as her tears began to speckle the floor. I’m so sorry, Shinji. If you survive, I pray you’ll forgive me.

The graveyard was vast; there were so many dead that each plot was barely one square meter, the monuments nothing but thin, waist-high poles buried in the ground. Most of the people interred here had died during Second Impact.

Shinji stood at her mother’s grave; at her side, but at a distance, her father looked on with a dispassionate, steely gaze behind the tinted lenses of his glasses as the bitter wind ruffled his coat; Shinji shivered, ill-prepared for the coldness of the air.

She didn’t remember anything about her mother. Yui Ikari, the woman who had brought her into this world, might as well have not existed at all for how little of her remained in Shinji’s memories. Father had kept none of her belongings, no mementos of the life they’d shared. Not even photographs.

It had been three years since she’d last come here; three years since she’d ran away from home. Three years since she’d excised her father from her life, only to find herself drawn inexorably back to him. She hadn’t visited the grave alone. It felt oddly empty to her.

“I wish I remembered her better,” she timidly mumbled. “I don’t even remember her face…”

Her father bowed his head. “It is only by setting aside the past that we live on. A lifetime of memories is too much for any one man to bear.”

“Don’t you have anything special of hers? Like a photograph?”

“Nothing of her remains, not even photographs. Even this plot,” he said, gesturing to it with a gloved hand, “is empty. The grave is nothing but a decoration.”

Something pulsed and throbbed in the back of Shinji’s head as her eyes drew themselves across the arc traced by her father’s hand; the whistling wind left a sonorous ringing in her ears.

“So it’s true—you threw everything away.”

“Everything rests within my mind. Some memories must be kept close to one’s heart, no matter what. That’s what I learned from her. The life we shared… I do not share with the world.” He cradled one gloved hand in the other, gingerly, as if it were injured. “One day, you’ll understand.”

Shinji felt her brain pound against the inside of her skull. She felt queasy. Another frigid gust of wind rolled up the hill; she clutched her jacket tighter around her shoulders.

Her heart heavy as she gazed upon the hollow monument, she wondered if her mother would accept her if she were still here.

“It doesn’t matter,” her father said.

Shinji gasped and held her hand reflexively over her mouth, realizing she’d accidentally spoken aloud.

Her father tucked his hand into his jacket. As if he’d set a pellet of uranium behind a lead screen, the wave of nausea Shinji had felt immediately subsided. “That’s enough. I have to go.”

By the time Shinji noticed what he’d said, he was already walking down the gentle slope of the hill, cresting the waves rolling through the short, rough grass as the helicopter lying in wait for him idled.

“Wait! Father!” she called out, stumbling down the hillside, buffeted by the gusts summoned by the helicopter’s rotors. “What about you? Do you—”

“This isn’t how it went.”

A young boy in a striped shirt, scarcely more than eight or nine, stepped between Shinji and her father.

“That isn’t how it went,” he said, his tone almost accusatory. “You didn’t ask that.”

Shinji raised a hand to her aching forehead. “What’s wrong with that? It’s what I wanted to ask.”

“You worry if he sees you as his daughter.”

“Of course I do! He’s my father…”

The little boy cocked his head. There was something familiar about him, but Shinji couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. “Would you really destroy your past?”

The scenery melted away into darkness.

“I-I don’t know.”

“Aren’t you already?” The little boy took a step closer. “You’ll even change your name someday. And it will be as if the boy named Shinji Ikari had never existed.”

“Is that so bad?” Shinji turned away from the child’s accusing glare, those hauntingly familiar eyes. “I—I hated him. The boy named—”

“So you destroy his past and erase his future.”

“I’m just trying to be myself.”

“And destroy an infinite potential of selves.”

The sunlight was miserably hot. Shinji nestled herself in whatever paltry shadows she could find on the roof of the school. Her sweat-drenched shirt and shorts clung to her skin; in this heat, even sitting still felt like a workout.

The same old songs she’d always listened to filled her ears, and for a while she could drift away into a nostalgic haze, shutting out the world and all its difficulties…

“There you are!”

Shinji jolted out of her stupor, yanked out her earbuds, and hurriedly stuffed her battered SDAT player back into her bag.

“See, Hikari? I told you she’d be up here,” Asuka said, wiping the sweat from her brow.

“Shinko, you can’t keep skipping phys ed,” Hikari scolded her, her hands on her hips.

“I-I’m not skipping, I just… got lost,” Shinji lied. Of all the lies she’d ever told, it was without a doubt the worst.

Asuka grabbed her by the wrist and roughly pulled her to her feet. Shinji wasn’t sure if it was the sun or something else, but she felt nauseous—like her stomach was wildly out-of-sync with the rest of her body. “You know you need to keep yourself fit to pilot the Eva.”

“I did some exercises up here. I don’t need to be down there.”

Asuka scoffed at her. “You didn’t look very active to me. I bet you’re not even doing cardio.”

Shinji pulled her arm free and gingerly rubbed her wrist. “I’m not comfortable down there.”

“What? Scared someone’s gonna notice your bulge and go, ‘Oho, what’s this?’ Everyone in class knows you have a dick, Shinji. You’ve got nothing to hide.”

The little boy stepped between Shinji and Asuka. “You’re afraid of the other Shinji Ikaris, aren’t you? The ones that live in the minds of others.”

Shinji took a step back. “I-I, uh, I don’t know wh—” The waist-high wall around the edge of the roof pressed against her backside.

“You fear what other people see when they see you. The adults who turn away when they catch sight of you, as if they’d seen something perverse and profane. The children who stare, mouth agape…”

“N-No one looks at me like that,” Shinji insisted.

“Your male classmates who ogle the girls from afar. You’re afraid of what they think when they see you among them, aren’t you?”

“Of course! J-Just like any other girl, I don’t want guys to look at me like that!”

“Every person you meet creates their own Shinji Ikari within their mind. Before you changed your path, your teachers, your classmates, your family and friends, all created their own mental images of you, which took on a life of their own inside your head. And then, suddenly, you snuffed them out.”

“But any change would have done that. I could have cut my hair,” Shinji said, “and it would have done that. Are you saying I’m never allowed to change because it would kill the me’s everyone else has created?”

The little boy shook his head. “But the image you created in their place, for all your classmates and teachers and friends and strangers was—”

“A girl. What’s so wrong about that?”

“A freak. A weirdo. A pervert. Someone with a mental illness, a delusion. Worthy of scorn, or of pity.” The child’s face scrunched up. “You destroyed an infinity of possible futures for that. You forced them to feel hatred, disgust, pity. Was it worth it?”

Shinji backed up against the railing, feeling her back arch. Her heart pounded in her chest, her pulse racing, her breath catching in her throat. “No, I—No one thinks about me like that!”

She hit the floor hard enough that she heard her skull crack; blood trickled down her lip.

“Doesn’t he?” the child asked, pointing with his thumb to the upperclassman who’d struck her across the face.

“But my friends—”

“Do you know their hearts and minds?”

“Stop it.”

“Hey, Shinji, um…” Kensuke pretended to bury his nose in a textbook. “Are you, uh…” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Are you going to get the… surgery?” He made a snipping motion with two fingers. “Is it true that there’s a medical procedure they can do in Germany that can give you a uterus? Have you asked Asuka about that? Is it true,” he whispered, holding a hand up to his mouth, “that when you get the surgery, you have to get laid three times a day or it’ll scab over?”

Shinji shot to her feet and slammed her fists against the desk. “Shut up!”

“You’re just a curiosity to him,” the boy said. “A novelty. Something for him to gawk at.”

“So, uh, you can just… decide not to be a boy?” Touji asked. He didn’t seem willing to look Shinji in the eyes, but seemed even less comfortable paying attention to the fact that she was wearing a girls’ uniform now, so instead he’d elected to stare at her neck like some kind of vampire.

“And he won’t even look at you,” the boy said. “See how uncomfortable your very presence makes him.”

Shinji stepped backward, stumbling over an empty desk. “Stop it.”

Hikari set to work adjusting Shinji’s ribbon. Shinji watched her fix the knot in the mirror and tried to study the movements of her fingers but ended up just studying her fingers. “Here, let me fix it for you. You do the knot right here like this. Like tying up shoelaces, you want it to look like bunny ears. And I think your blouse might be a size too big for you. It’s too loose.”

“She pities you,” the boy said. “You’re a confused wretch to her.”

“I don’t think less of you,” Rei said once she’d finished her so-called food.


“The day we found out. You asked if I thought less of you.”

“Oh, right. Thanks.” Shinji felt herself smile.

“How do you know,” the boy asked, “she isn’t merely lying to spare your feelings?”

Shinji threw her empty bento box at the boy. Somehow, it didn’t leave her hand, even though she could have sworn she’d thrown it. “But Miss Misato—”


“Miss Ritsuko—”


“Stop it!”

“Did you come here to laugh at me?” Asuka spat, kicking the locker again for good measure.

Shinji shook her head. No… I, uh, came here to thank you.”

“For what, pray tell?”

“I think the only reason I’m doing better in the sync tests is because I’m transitioning,” she admitted.

“So it’s all up to performance-enhancing drugs?” Asuka shook her head and let out a bitter laugh.

“It’s not like that.”

“And of course, you get what you want, because you’re the Commander’s brat and you’re Misato’s favorite and everyone else in NERV just fawns over you! Stupid—”

“I’m transitioning because of you!” Shinji blurted out.

Her words hung in the air like a fart in a crowded elevator.

Struggling to parse what Shinji had just told her, Asuka wrinkled her brow. “What?”

“I mean…” Shinji’s eyes darted to and fro. “I-I mean, I’ve known since I was twelve, at least, but—but I pushed it all down because it hurt so much to think about and I didn’t s-start thinking about it again until after the Fifth Angel and I realized I could have been burned to a crisp and I’d have died a boy—” She took a deep breath. “A-And then I met you and we fought the Sixth Angel on those boats and you made me wear your spare plugsuit and I really liked it, and then we fought the Seventh Angel and had to do that synchronized routine and we were wearing those matching leotards or whatever and I realized that I—I realized I really, really, really liked dressing like a girl and I wanted to be a girl and then Miss Misato found out and she talked to Miss Ritsuko and now I’m here.”

Shinji bent over and rested her hands on her knees, gasping for breath as though she’d just run a marathon in record time, her chest heaving, her face beet-red from the tip of her chin to the tips of her ears. Tears were rolling down her cheeks and dripping off her chin.

“This is what you wanted to tell her yesterday?” the little boy asked.

Shinji fell to her knees. “Please,” she croaked, “whatever you are, let me go…”

“You erased a promising future out of envy?”

“What promising future?”


“Stop it!” Shinji balled her fists and pounded them on the floor. “I—I just want to be a girl. What’s wrong with that?”


“I just do.”

“Why do you want to be something you’re not?”

Shinji shook her head. “It’s not that simple.” She sat at the table, rolling her little vial of pills from one hand to another like a housecat playing with a mouse.

It was wrong of her to have these. It was wrong of her to think of herself as herself. It was wrong of her, even though she’d felt alive in a way she hadn’t felt in a long, long time. It was all wrong; she’d only been trying to convince herself otherwise because of how badly she’d yearned for it.

Shinji’s fingers curled around the pill bottle; she slid it into the center of the table and let go. “Thank you, Miss Misato. But… why did you let me do this?”

Misato’s eyebrows knitted together. “Uh…”

“This isn’t how people are supposed to be. It’s wrong. I shouldn’t be taking these.”

Misato took the bottle away. “Maybe you’re right. You shouldn’t try to be something you’re not.” She uncapped it, turned on the faucet, and dumped its contents down the sink.

“Wait!” Shinji shot up to her feet and dashed around the table, her socks skidding and slipping against the floor. “That’s not how it happened!”

Shinji stumbled backward, thrown off-balance, and hit the floor; the back of her head cracked against the tiles hard enough that she saw stars—her cheek smarted and stung, blood dribbling from a cut on her lip down her chin.

“What do you think you’re doing? You think you can just put on a dress and go wherever you want?”

“S-Sorry,” she sputtered reflexively. She lifted her head and looked up to find one of the upperclassmen looming over her. Only a year or two older than her but tall, barrel-chested, with craggy features borne of a fast, early, and efficient puberty; he looked like a slab of granite given human form. The back of one of his hairy hands was adorned with a smear of blood.

“Oh, and there you go again with the apologies!” Asuka threw up her hands. “Is there anything you don’t apologize for? You say being a girl means so much to you, but you never stand and fight for it and you throw it away and mumble ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’ as soon as you face any pushback, like you’re not even proud of it!”

“You fear being hated,” the boy said.

“Of course! Who doesn’t?” Shinji clutched at her head. Her heart pounded like a jackhammer against her ribs; her lungs ached as she struggled to draw anything more than shallow, ragged breaths.

“Then why did you choose this?”

“Because I…”

“You want the other selves that exist in the minds of others to be liked. As a result, you fear opening up to people long enough for them to see anything they might find ugly or undesirable. You want your image in their heads to be simple, uncluttered, and bland—like tepid water.”

“Leave me alone.”

“That’s why you keep your head down. That’s why you apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. Obedience, compliance. Even piloting Unit-01.”

“Piloting Unit-01 is all I’m good at. I might as well do it.”

“Even fighting the Angels.”

Shinji clutched at her arm and screamed as the Angel snapped Unit-01’s forearm like a twig. “Fight through the pain!” Misato shouted at her. “It’s all in your head! It’s not your real arm!”

“Hurting yourself.”

Releasing a feral, primal scream, she plunged the knife deeper into its core, pushing it in harder, harder; red lights flashed all around her as Unit-01’s power supply ticked down to zero—at last, as the final second passed, the red jewel cracked in half.

“Dehumanizing yourself.”

The LCL boiled around her; she screamed as the sensation of the beam of light burrowing through Unit-01’s armor tore through her nerves. She was being boiled alive. Never in her life had she felt such agony, as though her skin was being ripped from her bones.

“Torturing yourself.”

She opened her eyes and found herself staring up from a hospital bed at yet another unfamiliar ceiling. The boy crouched on a chair beside her, staring down at her with a sense of detached curiosity.

“You do it all because it’s easier than saying no.”


“You pilot because you want the people who tell you to pilot to like you.”

Shinji sat in the entry plug, cradling her throbbing wrist. Her heart still pounded, her pulse still raced; it was always like this after killing one of those things. She could feel the sharp ache in Unit-01’s legs, too, the weariness of its flesh imprinted onto her own. She breathed deeply, gratefully, her chest swelling with every breath.

“Incoming transmission from Central Dogma. Forwarded connection from Commander Ikari in Antarctica.”

Shinji’s breath caught in her throat.

“I’m sorry, Commander,” Misato said. “I take full responsibility for the damage incurred to Unit-01.”

“No matter,” Fuyutsuki chimed in. “The destruction of the Angels is the Eva’s first priority. We’re lucky the damage was as minor as it was.”

As if to dispute him, Shinji’s wrist burned and stung, the buzzing ebb and flow of pain growing strong enough to make her dizzy.

“Yes. You’ve done remarkably well, Major,” Commander Ikari said.

“Thank you, sir.”

“By the way, is the pilot of Unit-01 here?”

Shinji’s ears perked up. “Y-Yes?”

“Excellent work. You did well. I’m proud of you, Shinji.”

The sound of her father’s pride numbed the pain.

“So why,” the boy asked, curling stubby fingers around Shinji’s wrist, igniting the screaming nerves anew, “have you done this to yourself?”

Shinji stood up, smoothed out the hem of her skirt, and awkwardly tried to spin on her heel. The bathroom was too cramped, though. Still, in that instant she’d had before tripping over the toilet and banging her knee against the shower stall, she’d been delighted to see the skirt twirl along with her.

“It only causes you pain,” the boy said, taking a seat on the rim of the bathtub and kicking his little legs. “It hurts the ‘you’ which exists within everyone else. It tarnishes your carefully-cultivated outward image. Why sabotage yourself? Why do you invite that pain upon yourself? Father will never praise you for this.”

Shinji tried to take a deep breath to quell her nerves as she entered Ritsuko’s office. As soon as the door opened, though, she was assaulted by the stench of smoke. It hung in the air and clung to everything in the office like a miasma.

Ritsuko didn’t look up from her computer. “Ah, Shinji. Right on time. Take a seat, please. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Shinji sat down and waited for the doctor to finish her work. Her chest ached the way it seemingly always did now. Fraught with anxiety, she focused her gaze on the smoldering remains of a cigarette resting in the ashtray on Ritsuko’s desk.

“I’ve received the results of your bloodwork from my colleague,” Ritsuko said, pivoting in her chair to face her and setting aside her reading glasses. “He says it’s very promising; in terms of your hormone levels, you’re reacting very positively to treatment.”

Shinji sighed in relief. “Thank you, Miss Ritsuko.”

“I’ve noticed a direct correlation with your improved harmonic resonance with Unit-01 as well. Based on these results, I’d feel comfortable increasing your dosage. How do you feel?”

“Good, but… different. Everything feels different. And… this might sound strange, but I feel like I feel things more now. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Ritsuko nodded. “That makes sense. Methods to alleviate dysphoria often have an emotionally ‘liberating’ effect on patients. You look good, too.”

“I-I do?”

“Oh, come closer. I want to see something.”

“Um…” Shinji stood up and took a few steps closer to her. “What is it?”

Ritsuko peered at her, squinted, and stroked her chin thoughtfully for a second or two. Shinji withered under her scrutiny. What did Ritsuko see in her face that she had overlooked? Had she done something wrong?

“Major Katsuragi’s been ‘helping’ you with makeup, hasn’t she?”

“Yes.” Shinji nodded. “Miss Misato’s been a great help.”

“Well, if you want my advice, don’t listen to her.”


“If I weren’t so busy, I’d consider giving you some pointers.” Ritsuko put her glasses back on. “Otherwise, you might want to ask Lieutenant Ibuki if you run into her off duty. I think she’d be very eager to lend you her assistance.”

“Why are you doing this?” the boy asked.

Touji fidgeted anxiously. “So, uh, Shinji—You’re still cool with ‘Shinji,’ right?”

“Uh… yeah,” Shinji said. She slumped back in her desk. Great. Another conversation she didn’t want to have.

“All right, well, uh… Dunno how to say this. I mean, I don’t really get what you’re doing and all, but whatever it is, I’m cool with it…”

“He means,” Kensuke translated, patting Shinji’s shoulder, “we’re behind you one hundred percent.”

“Uh, yeah. What he said.” Touji laughed nervously, then slammed his hand on Shinji’s desk, looming over her. “Sorry we’ve been so weird to you. We’re one hundred twenty percent in your corner, okay?”

“Okay,” Shinji mumbled. Did Touji have to look so serious about it? She hadn’t seen such a hard look in his eye since the day they’d first met… when he’d punched her in the face. (Touji insisted he wouldn’t have done it if he’d known back then.)

“I mean it. One hundred fifty percent. If any of the guys gives you shit like Hiroshi did, tell me, and I’ll, uh… I’ll keep ‘em away from school for a couple days or a week or something.”

“And for the record,” Kensuke chimed in, “if I ever ask you a gross question, just tell me and I’ll back off, okay?”

“Yeah, or else I’ll hit him,” Touji said.

Kensuke nodded. “Or else he’ll—uh, what?”

“Why are you doing this?” the boy asked.

Shinji turned her head and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. In a flash, all her apprehension and anxiety vanished, the tension draining from her body. The face staring back at her didn’t belong to a boy. It belonged to a girl with a nervous, yet hopeful smile, and it belonged to her.

“Because when I saw that face,” she answered the boy, “for the first time, I… I felt that this self, me… was worth caring about. If only just a little.”

Shinji found herself sitting in an abandoned streetcar, the boy in the striped shirt sitting across from her. Deep, dull orange sunlight poured through the windows, illuminating the motes of dust glittering in the air.

“Is this the me I become, then?” the boy asked her.

“It’s who I’ve always been. I had to embrace it, or I’d fall apart.”

“So you’re no longer afraid of the Shinji Ikari who exists in the minds of others?”

“Of course, I’m afraid. Of course, I’m afraid of being hated. But…”

“You know, it’s pretty brave, what you’re doing,” Misato told her as she let her first dose dissolve under her tongue. She was so terrified, she could barely speak—but those words galvanized her.

“But I can be brave,” she said, “doing this. And maybe someday…”

Shinji stood in Unit-01’s hangar, gazing with equal parts awe and terror into the empty eye sockets of the monstrosity’s fearsome helmet. Above the two of them, her father stood, staring down at her with an implacable scowl.

“Father…” Shinji felt her knees buckle. She couldn’t believe that what she was seeing, that this thing standing before her, was real. “Why did you call me here?”

“For the exact reason you think. I called you,” Commander Ikari said, “because a need for you arose.”

“You want me to climb inside that thing? No way! I’ve never even seen it before! That’s impossible—that’s ridiculous!”

“Either get in Unit-01 or stop wasting my time.”

Shinji clenched her fists. “I didn’t come here to do what you asked, Father! I came all this way, after three years, to tell you that I ha—”

“Of course, you didn’t say that,” the boy said as the scene faded to black. “No, you did as you were told.”

“No, I wasn’t brave enough.” Shinji traced a line in her palm, then curled her hand into a fist. “But…”

“Don’t you trust your father?” Rei asked.

“Truthfully, I hate him. That was why I ran away.”

“But you long for his praise.”

“I want to love him. If he praises me, I can forget that I don’t. And maybe,” Shinji said, “someday, if I’m strong, I can tell him—”

What is this child doing here?

He’s Director Ikari’s son.

Ikari, this is not a nursery school.

I’m sorry, Professor Fuyutsuki. I’m the one who brought him.

Yui, need I remind you that today is the day of your contact experiment?

I know. I want to show my child the future.

Shinji stood on the balcony, peering down through the railing at the mass of steel and wires below. It all seemed familiar—this enormous room, its ceiling so high up that it she couldn’t even see it; the corrugated steel catwalks stretching across the room, technicians crawling across them like ants and making hollow echoes with every step; the two white-skinned giants lying in the trench down below, both conjoined at their hips, one with a seven-eyed mask covering its blubbery face, the other with an enormous red jewel surrounded by machinery embedded in its chest.

Her mother milled around on the ring-shaped platform raised around the giant’s gleaming heart, checking and double-checking the machines and inspecting the forest of wires until she was satisfied. Then she hooked herself up to the machine.

A loud voice began to speak in a language Shinji couldn’t understand as a loud, low, resonant hum filled the air. Dread filled her heart; her fingers curled around the bars of the railing and she shook them with all her might.


The humming grew louder, pitched higher and higher and higher until it rang just around the periphery of her hearing; the entire room felt as though it were filled with electricity. The red jewel began to shine brighter, brighter, brighter—first red, then orange, then white, then blue; the air began to waver and shimmer. The hand of one of the two giants twitched, fingers curling inward. Sparks began to fly from the machines; the wires sprouting from them writhed like live snakes.


Her mother looked up at her. Shinji couldn’t see her face from this distance, but she felt her smile.

Then there was a searing flash of blue light. Spots and speckles danced around Shinji’s eyes as her vision cleared; the last she saw of her mother was her empty clothes falling to the floor and crumpling in a heap atop a puddle of shimmering orange liquid.

He’s suspected of killing his own wife.

He killed his own wife.

No! That’s not true! Mommy and Daddy loved each other—

Her father bowed his head. “It is only by setting aside the past that we live on. A lifetime of memories is too much for any one man to bear.”

“Don’t you have anything special of hers? Like a photograph?”

“Nothing of her remains, not even photographs. Even this plot,” he said, gesturing to it with a gloved hand, “is empty. The grave is nothing but a decoration.”

Something pulsed and throbbed in the back of Shinji’s head as her eyes drew themselves across the arc traced by her father’s hand; the whistling wind left a sonorous ringing in her ears.

“So it’s true—you threw everything away.”

“Everything rests within my mind. Some memories must be kept close to one’s heart, no matter what. That’s what I learned from her. The life we shared… I do not share with the world.” He cradled one gloved hand in the other, gingerly, as if it were injured. “One day, you’ll understand, Shinji.”

You’re selfish, Father, Shinji thought. You want to keep her all to yourself. You won’t let her be a part of anyone else’s memories. Not even her own daughter.

Shinji felt her brain pound against the inside of her skull. She felt queasy. Another frigid gust of wind rolled up the hill; she clutched her jacket tighter around her shoulders.

“They said you killed her,” she said.

Her father turned to face her, the color leaving his cheeks. “What did you say?”

“I was three years old. You made me testify. They said you killed her. I said you would never—”

Her father’s eyes widened; he stepped backward. Never had Shinji ever seen him so rattled. “Shinji—”

“What did you do to her?” Shinji snarled, reaching out and grabbing him by the wrist. “You don’t even have any remorse—”

The white glove slipped off her father’s hand, fluttering away in the bitter wind. And Shinji could see affixed to the palm of his hand a patch of twisted, deformed, graying flesh like the putrefying remains of a sea creature beached upon a lonely shore; a single wide eyeball stared out amid the tumorous mound of flesh, its tiny black pinprick of a pupil fixated on her.

The little boy smiled. It was the kind of smile a child would never make.

The pain in Shinji’s head reached a howling crescendo as she screamed and leaped back, disgusted and horrified; the air was burning in her lungs, the sky spinning around her, the thousands of poles marking thousands of dead dancing around her, as Gendo Ikari clutched at the monstrous growth on his hand.

Shinji’s eyes snapped open and she found herself in darkness—Father, the graveyard, the mocking avatar of her younger self—all gone. The LCL filling the entry plug was cloudy and thick, like clotting blood; breathing it in hurt as though she were breathing fire. It reeked of blood everywhere, filling her nostrils, pouring down her throat and into her ears and pressing against her eyes. It was so cold that she didn’t even have the energy to shiver.

Sixteen hours had passed. Now, even Unit-01’s life support had failed.

And nobody had come to get her.

If they’d even tried at all to rescue her, then any attempt they had made had failed.

This was the end.

“Thank you,” the boy in the striped shirt told her, perched atop her controls, his hair drifting like seaweed in the murky LCL. “We had a good talk. It was nice getting to know you.”

He faded away; the last lights on the entry plug’s controls winked out one by one after him, dancing and shimmering like fairy lights, as the last dregs of energy in Unit-01 ran dry.

“Asuka, Rei, prepare to generate AT-fields.”

Asuka brought Unit-02 to its knees and rested its hands just above the edge of the Angel’s shadowy body. “Ready.”

Rei did the same in Unit-00. “Ready.”

“Bombing to commence in T-minus sixty seconds.”

“So they didn’t find a way to rescue her, huh,” Asuka mused as she waited for the countdown to hit zero. “So much for our ace pilot…”

Shinji had no one to blame for this but herself. It had been her fault for playing hero and trying to swoop in like Superman. If she’d just kept her head down and deferred to Misato’s orders, she wouldn’t have gotten trapped in there, and her friends probably would have been rescued all the same.

So why was there such a gloomy feeling in Asuka’s gut? Sure, she’d expected Shinji to fall flat on her face and embarrass herself, but it was ridiculous to suggest that none of this would have happened if she hadn’t egged Shinji on. The fool would have just blundered into it regardless.


For some reason, the idea that Asuka would have the bedroom to herself tonight didn’t make her feel much better.

Shinji choked down one last mouthful of liquid, gagging as it seared the inside of her throat. The whole world was vanishing into a deep, dark, vast tunnel, what little she could still see receding farther, farther from her like the road in the rearview mirror of a car. She and Unit-01 would both die down here, down here in these unfathomable black depths where no one else dared to venture.

Miss Misato, I’m sorry.

Miss Ritsuko, I’m sorry.

Ayanami, Asuka—I’m sorry.

Touji, Kensuke, Hikari…

I hope you’re okay. I hope I saved you. I hope—please, please, I hope this was worth it.

I don’t want to die. I want to see you all again. I want to go to school tomorrow and I want to try on new clothes and think of new names. I want to make breakfast and I want to get high scores on the sync tests. Please, don’t let me die. I only just started living. Please, please, I want to live, please let me live…

She began to feel oddly warm as the tips of her fingers and toes began to turn numb. The last of the fairy lights faded away.

At the end, she didn’t feel cold or sick or hungry or tired anymore, or even afraid.

Is this really what it’s like to die?

Why was I afraid of it before? It feels good…

She felt a soft, warm hand rest itself against her cheek; for an instant, a specter lit up the entry plug with a silvery glow. She struggled to lift her arm, to reach out and touch the specter’s shimmering face, but her muscles were so weak, her arm so leaden…

Ghostly fingers threaded themselves around hers. Familiar fingers, sparking distant and long-forgotten memories of a woman’s soft voice.

Shinji tried to lift her head. “Mom… my…”

Misato almost couldn’t bear to watch, but she forced herself to oversee the operation. She owed Shinji that much—to witness what would be her final moments in person.

Past a line of blast shields and tanks, Unit-02 and Unit-00 knelt at the shore of the Angel’s perfect black sea. Three hundred meters past them, the Angel’s decoy—Ritsuko had described it as a ‘hyperdimensional shadow’—hovered in the air.

Misato checked her watch. Not much time left now.

At least Asuka would probably be a lot more manageable from now on. Despite Misato’s best efforts to get the two of them to play nice, something about Shinji just set her off.

That would never be a problem again. Asuka would probably forget about Shinji entirely, Misato figured, once they’d gotten rid of the last of her belongings.

The idea that she’d have to clean out all of Shinji’s stuff after today clutched at Misato’s heart with icy fingers. It wasn’t a thought she could bear to think right now—it came chained to all those happy memories she had of the poor kid. As painfully shy as Shinji was, having her around these past few months had brought so much brightness to the apartment…

She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and choked down the lump in her throat. No sense crying over the inevitable. Ritsuko had tried—Misato was sure she had tried—and this had been the best her team could come up with.

No point crying over things you couldn’t change.

A thunderclap rattled the city; the ground shook. Misato struggled to keep her balance, bracing herself against the treads of one of the tanks lining the street. When the tremor had subsided, Misato lowered her arm and peered over the barricade toward the Angel.

A jagged fissure had formed in the surface of its jet-black body, its interior a burning red—as though a crack had opened in the ground that led all the way down to the depths of Hell. A matching fissure marred the shadow floating in the sky from pole to pole. Blood began to trickle down the sphere’s face from the fissure, dripping down onto the Angel’s body.

Almost without thinking, Misato drew her radio from her hip. “Central Dogma, this is Major Katsuragi! Belay the bombing order!”

“What are you talking about, Major?”

“Stop it—Something’s happening!”

More fissures opened up in the Angel’s body; inky black geysers spewed ejecta hundreds of meters in the air. The crack on the zebra-striped sphere widened to the point at which Misato could clearly see what was making it.

Unit-01—its hands braced on either side of the fissure, its purple armor stained red, its eyes burning white like floodlights cutting through the sky. With a long, loud, deep bellow, it spread its arms and tore the sphere apart from the inside. The sphere’s surface shattered, scarlet blood spraying outward in all directions and splattering against the walls of the skyscrapers lining the turbulent black sea.

As the sphere fell to pieces, Unit-01 leaped down and landed on the Angel’s troubled surface—but rather than being swallowed up anew, the force of its impact tore new crevasses in the Angels’ body. The black surface, once impossibly calm, now writhed and spasmed as though in the throes of a seizure as Unit-01 lifted its head, its helmet splitting open to reveal a row of white teeth like tombstones. As blood streamed from between its enormous teeth and ran down its jaw, it let out an earsplitting howl.

Misato had been right about the Evangelions. There was more to them than anyone else had let on. There was something underneath the armor, she feared, more terrifying than any Angel.

Over the radio, Asuka muttered something in German, awestruck as much as she was horrified. “That thing… that’s what I’m piloting?”

A fine mist of blood speckled the fronts of the blast shields and tanks gathered around the Angel’s bizarre corpse. Unit-01 knelt down in the remains, head bowed, its shoulders and chest heaving.

“Shinji!” Misato shouted out, running through the blockade, brushing past the soldiers stationed in front of her. “Ibuki, eject Unit-01’s entry plug! Hyuga, send out an extraction team and paramedics!”

Unit-01’s eyes darkened as the entry plug inserted into the back of its neck ejected itself, falling to the crimson-stained ground with a heavy, earthshaking thud. Misato waded through the ankle-deep pool of blood where the Angel’s impossible body had once been (the last traces of its form dissolving in the shallow pool) and seized on the entry plug’s exit hatch, pulling out the emergency release handle with all her strength and straining to pull the hatch open. A torrent of brackish, rotten-smelling LCL nearly knocked her off her feet.

Undeterred, she climbed into the entry plug and dragged Shinji out. Her skin was pale and icy cold, her lips nearly blue, her frail, scrawny body as limp as a ragdoll and just as unresponsive. Misato felt for a pulse. Nothing. Breath. Nothing.

She laid her on the ground, placed her hands on the center of her chest, and started compressing her chest with all her might. “Come on, Shinko!”

Thirty chest compressions. Two rescue breaths. Pressing her lips against the kid’s cold, dead fish lips. Thirty chest compressions. Two rescue breaths. Thirty chest compressions. Two rescue breaths. Again and again.

“Come on! Live!”

Thirty chest compressions. Two rescue breaths.

“That’s an order!”

Thirty chest compressions. Two rescue breaths.

“I order you to live!”

A heartbeat. A cough. The plugsuit’s built-in defibrillator kicked on, delivering a shock to Shinji’s heart; her spine arched, her eyelids fluttered.

She had a stable pulse.

Misato rolled Shinji onto her side; she coughed up and vomited out a torrent of clotted, putrid LCL mixed with bile, then started to breathe.

Kneeling at the feet of the bloodstained behemoth towering above her, Misato held Shinj close and wept tears of gratitude and relief.

Deep in the tank of luminous LCL in which he spent most of his days, Kaworu held out his hands once again to receive the bounty he was about to be offered.

The living shadow Leliel, the Jaws of God, materialized over his outstretched hands, rolling and twisting sensuously like a sea slug before swirling and contracting into a lustrous red pearl.

Kaworu cupped his hands around the pearl of Leliel’s core and let his eyes fall shut. It was a pity that the lonely angel’s ravenous hunger had led to the destruction of its body—but with Kaworu waiting in the wings to snatch its soul away at the moment of its death, its heart, mind, and the knowledge it had gleaned would live on in him until the promised day arrived.

There was no other way to keep Shinji’s hands and conscience clean.

When he opened his eyes and pulled his hands away, the pearl was gone.

This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend: we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world shall have whether they will or no.

Chapter Text

Commander Gendo Ikari sat at his desk, the light from his computer monitor transforming the lenses of his glasses into opaque white sheets. The vast expanse of his office and the esoteric symbols etched into the floor and ceiling engulfed him.

Though his glasses hid his eyes, Rei could feel him glaring sternly at her.

“The accounting department has brought to my attention some… odd expenditures on our ledger,” he said. He peered at his monitor, the light dancing on his glasses shifting just enough that Rei could see his eyes. “Women’s blazer. Sundress. High-top sneakers, size six. Mary Janes, size seven. A pair of women’s slacks. Sports bra. Three pairs of socks. Tulle skirt. Three A-line skirts. Two fitted blouses…”

Rei felt her stomach churn as Commander Ikari rattled off the contents of her spending spree in an itemized list. It was impossible to tell from the sound of his voice whether or not he was angry.

“These clothes, totaling exactly sixteen thousand, two hundred five yen, were purchased from a thrift store in Tokyo-III three days ago using a certain credit card tied to NERV funds.” Gendo lowered his head, allowing his gaze to drift just over the rims of his glasses. He stared at her sternly, but not angrily. It was, if anything, more of a disappointed glare; somehow, that was worse. “Rei. Did you use the card I gave you to buy these clothes?”

Rei tried to speak, but a hard lump had formed in her throat. She struggled past it. “Yes, Commander Ikari. I am responsible for those charges.”

She bowed her head, ashamed. She’d known it had been wrong of her, but she just hadn’t been able to help herself. Something about the notes of resignation and disappointment that had played in Shinji’s voice that day…

“You’ve never wanted for clothes before. You have clothes for school. You have your plugsuit. You have something to sleep in.”

“Yes.” Rei found herself anxiously kneading her hands. Anxiety. Something she had felt around people like Doctor Akagi, but never around Commander Ikari. And she had brought it upon herself. “I did not buy them for myself, though,” she lied.


“I bought them for Ikari.”

“The Third Child.”

“Yes.” Why, she wondered, wasn’t she willing to tell him that some of those clothes had been for herself?

“You bought clothes for my son.”

“Daughter,” Rei corrected.


“I bought clothes for your daughter,” she said.

“Ah. Right.” Commander Ikari stroked his beard. He seemed almost bemused. “It slipped my mind. Still, of what use are they to her? She has clothes for school, a plugsuit, and something to sleep in, I presume.”

“I presume. But it made her happy. I thought it would improve her performance.”

Commander Ikari removed his glasses and set them down on his desk. He seemed tired. “Rei. Come closer.”

Rei nodded and took a few steps closer to the desk.

“NERV is a government-funded institution. Its budget cannot be wasted on frivolities such as clothing.”

Rei nodded again. “Yes. I understand, Commander.”

“If the Third Child desires such luxuries, she will have to ask her guardian, Major Katsuragi.”

“Yes. I understand.” Rei reached into her bag and fished around in it for the card. “If you’d like, I can give you back the card…”

“No, keep it,” Commander Ikari said with a dismissive gesture. “It is for your own safety. Do not misuse it again.”

“I won’t. Thank you, Commander.”

“I’m not angry, just disappointed.”

“I understand. I won’t disappoint you in the future, Commander.”

“Good. You are hereby dismissed.”

“Yes, sir.” With a curt, polite bow, Rei turned her back on the Commander and exited his office. She took the elevator down to the ground level of NERV headquarters and stepped out into the verdant Geofront.

It was late in the afternoon; the bright sunlight bathing the city above shone through reinforced windows and bled through tangles of fiber-optic cables to brighten the massive cavern. The light from captured sunbeams warmed Rei’s ashen skin. Cicadas droned on as birdsong flitted around her across the lush expanse.

To think that this place could be so beautiful, when only recently there had been such chaos above. Down here, it was almost possible to forget that things such as Angels even existed.

Rei headed to the hospital, checked in at the front desk, and asked for Shinji’s room number. The staff were all very polite—Rei was well-acquainted with them all by now—but some seemed strangely bemused by the way she talked about Shinji.

She found Shinji’s room with little difficulty—she knew this place’s hallways like the back of her hand—rapped softly on the door just in case she was awake, and when nothing happened in response, she let the door slowly swing open and stepped over the threshold.

Shinji lay asleep in bed under a thin, rough sheet, her complexion wan and pallid. A breathing mask clung to her face, a steady rasping sound ringing hollowly through it as her chest gently rose and fell. Plastic tubes and wires snaked out from her bare arm and from under the sheet draped over the hospital bed, flowing outward like veins pulled from her body and terminating at IV and catheter bags, a hemodialysis machine, and assorted monitoring equipment. It was as if the organs had all been pulled out from her body and replaced by the machines crowded around her. False lungs and a false heart.

Rei hadn’t looked much different, she mused, when Shinji had first met her.

“His body temperature was twenty-eight degrees yesterday morning,” the nurse told her. “He’s no longer in critical condition, but we’re still in the process of raising his body temperature until his body can maintain it on its own.”

“Her,” Rei found herself muttering.

“Excuse me?”

Ikari is a girl, Rei wanted to remind the nurse. Surely this hospital would have such details in their patient records; Doctor Akagi would not be so sloppy (not for Shinji, anyway—she seemed to like Shinji). Nevertheless, she felt it unwise to talk back to medical staff. She was well aware that they had many creative ways in which to retaliate. “Nothing,” she said. “What are these machines for?”

“The hemodialysis machine,” the nurse said, gesturing to one machine in which two tubes both filled with burgundy liquid ran through, “is there to rewarm his blood. The oxygen mask feeds warm air into his lungs.”

“I see.” Rei walked in a slow arc around the foot of the bed, careful not to trip over or let anything snag on the network of tubes and wires, and took a seat at the chair next to the bed. “Thank you, nurse.”

She was glad to rest her feet—the damage Unit-00 had incurred from the Angel hadn’t yet faded from her mind. Just a short time standing made her feel as though she’d been walking all day; still, though, she had soldiered on. She hadn’t realized that sitting down would be such a relief.

The nurse left the two of them alone, letting the door swing shut on the way out. No sound filled the room but the whirring of the false lungs and heart warming Shinji’s body and the soft, regular beeping of her heart monitor.

Rei softly placed her hand over Shinji’s forehead and bushed aside her bangs. Her hair was rough and gummy from dried LCL that hadn’t been washed out; her skin underneath was still cold and clammy. Shinji had her father’s dark brown hair, but the way it framed her face reminded Rei of someone she thought she knew. Not herself, but… someone else. Someone lingering just on the periphery of her memory, like a flicker of movement spied just out of the corner of one’s eye…

She traced a damp lock of Shinji’s hair with her thumb. Although it was still quite short, Shinji had made good on her declaration that she would style it like Rei’s, although Rei wasn’t sure she would call her hair a style, per se. Style implied intent. It was just how the barber always decided to trim it. Nevertheless… she felt flattered that Shinji seemed to see her as something of a role model.

Changing herself, for all the new problems it had created, made Shinji happy. Rei thought back to the clothes she’d bought for herself and wondered if those would make her happy, too. She’d felt a strange sense of delight, a sort of rebellious frisson, when she’d picked them out—something uncharacteristic of her. Just like Shinji before she’d begun transitioning, Rei had never cared about what she was expected to wear. To finally try something new had felt…

It was irrelevant now. The knowledge that she had disappointed Commander Ikari, in whom her faith was absolute, had soured that experience in her mind. She couldn’t relive that feeling as she had previously remembered it, even though it had only been a few days ago.

Rei didn’t remember dozing off, but when she came to, her mouth felt and tasted as though it had been stuffed with cotton balls and she felt even more tired than before; the light streaming through the hospital windows had turned a deep amber as the afternoon began to give way to evening. She must have been asleep for two or more hours.

She stood up to leave. Shinji’s head turned just a few degrees in her direction, her eyelids just barely parting, the tempo of the heart monitor picking up ever so slightly; her dark, steely gray-blue eyes fixated on her from behind a cage of eyelashes for a few seconds before she closed her eyes again and fell back asleep.

Rei stepped out in the hall and found Asuka leaning against the wall, head bowed, arms crossed, looking as though she’d fallen asleep standing up. As the door to Shinji’s room quietly swung shut, the belligerent Second Child lifted her head, narrowed her eyes, and wrinkled her nose.

“Should’ve known it was you,” she spat, tossing her mane of auburn hair over her shoulder and adjusting the cherry-red A10 nerve connector clips that held her tresses in place. “Took your sweet time, huh, Wonder Girl?”

“If I’d known you were waiting, I’d have left earlier,” Rei said, stepping aside to grant her entrance to Shinji’s room.

“Oh, so it’s my fault?”

Rei chose not to press the matter further; Asuka was clearly in a worse mood than usual. She had a feeling the Second Child had gotten what she’d wanted the other day, only to find what she’d wanted to be sorely lacking.

She simply wished Asuka a good evening and set out down the hall.

To her shock, she found Commander Ikari standing in the hospital foyer. He was speaking to the man at the front desk, but stopped when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rei approaching.

“Commander Ikari.” Rei bowed politely. “Are you here to see—”

“That will not be necessary. I’ve already received an update on the Third Child’s condition,” Commander Ikari coolly replied.


“Come along, Rei,” he said. “It’s time for dinner.”

Rei nodded and followed him out. “Yes, sir.”

She walked alongside Commander Ikari, looking up to him every so often. In public, and often in private as well, there was never any change in his stony expression; the stoic mask he wore to show the world never slipped. But when he looked down at her and their eyes met, there was a moment when his eyes and the stiff curl of his lip softened.

Rei thought about how Shinji felt about Commander Ikari.

Don’t you trust him?

Of course not. How could I trust him?

Back then, she’d been so incensed at Shinji’s anger toward the commander that she’d slapped her across the face. Thinking back on it, she wondered if Shinji had ever once seen him the way Rei had—kind, caring, vulnerable.

Maybe there was something she could do to help. To show Shinji the kindness and tenderness her father kept buried.

Rei racked her brain about it all the way to Commander Ikari’s apartment, trailing just a step behind him. She could have walked there blindfolded with how often she’d traced the path, but he disapproved of her traveling alone in the evening unless it was out of necessity.

The commander’s home was sparse and lifeless, much like Rei’s own living quarters, though much neater. The walls were pristine and bare, shelves utterly lacking in any mementos save for worn and dog-eared texts on biology.

The two of them had dinner in silence; neither of them had anything to say to each other. They never did. They never needed to.

Rei did not speak until her bowl was empty.

“Thank you for the meal,” she said.

Commander Ikari let out a noncommittal grunt and nodded.

“When Ikari is discharged from the hospital,” she added, her pulse quickening, “may I invite her and Soryu to dinner with us?”

Commander Ikari looked at her as if he was scanning her mind. He was silent.

“I would like to prepare dinner for the four of us. It would be a bonding activity for the pilots.”

He spoke. “It’s unnecessary to fraternize with one’s superior officers.”

Rei tried to smile. “I think it would build trust between us.” It would be a good way, as well, for her to pay Shinji back for the lunches she’d made for her. “It would improve our performance.”

An almost-wistful spark flickered behind the lenses of the commander’s glasses.

“Yes,” he said, “you may.”

“Thank you, Commander. I appreciate your hospitality.” Elated, Rei stood up with a polite bow and took her empty bowl to the sink to wash it out. “Since this will be an official organizational function, may I use the card to cover any expenses?”

“Yes. Just make sure to file an expense report with the accounting department.” Commander Ikari brought his bowl to the sink and washed it out as well. “I’ll escort you home. Are you ready to leave?”

Rei stared down at the commander’s hands, mesmerized by the sight of the ragged patches of shiny, smooth skin covering his palms. Something odd tickled at the back of her mind—a sort of nebulous pressure throbbing in the air.

She blinked and it was gone.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m ready to leave.”

About three days after Shinji had been retrieved from the Angel, she was discharged from the hospital.

Misato’s battered old car prowled through the streets of Tokyo-III, not-so-deftly maneuvering through the construction and cleanup sites speckling the city where the last Angel attack had done the most damage. The buildings in the immediate vicinity of the bizarre Angel’s destruction were still smeared and speckled with blood.

Shinji leaned against the passenger side door, her forehead resting against the window. The way the vibrations rattling the glass bled into her bones was somehow soothing.

She couldn’t recall much about what had happened after she’d been swallowed up by the Angel. She remembered panicking in the entry plug. She remembered that every time she’d passed out and woken up again, she’d had a harder time breathing, the LCL had been colder and thicker, and the stench of the plug had grown even stronger.

She could still smell blood on her skin.

She remembered having strange dreams, too—but only vague impressions. Something about a white giant, a boy sitting in a train car asking her questions, and her father having a dead octopus grafted onto his hand…

“They had you on an IV,” Misato said, “but I’m sure you must be starving for some real food, huh? How about we stop somewhere and grab a bite to eat?”

“I’m not hungry.” Shinji glanced at one of the blood-spattered buildings as it drifted past the car. Who had killed the Angel? she wondered. Ayanami? Asuka? She hoped it had been Asuka—maybe getting back in the spotlight would lighten her mood.

“Feeling okay?”

Shinji gingerly prodded her bruised ribs and winced. That wasn’t everywhere she’d gotten hurt—there was a long, discolored, yellow-and-blue bruise winding up her shin as well, more bruising around her shoulders and chest, and an aching knot at the back of her head. They were minor injuries compared to the hypothermia and asphyxiation that had kept her in the hospital for more than three days, but they were the ones that lingered.

“I’m fine,” she told Misato.

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t think anything’s broken.”

“Warm enough?”

“It’s thirty degrees out.”

“I brought a blanket, if you’re cold.”

Shinji watched the buildings drift by with quiet indifference.

“What’s wrong?”

She was a terrible pilot. Top marks in the harmonics tests, but abysmal at everything else. Slow reflexes, no tactical thinking, utterly unfit to do anything but trip up everyone else and get herself hurt. Who was she kidding? Piloting was the only thing she was good at, and she wasn’t even good at that.

“Shinji? You okay there?”

If she’d just listened to Misato and followed orders, none of this would have happened. Her friends would have still been safe and sound and she wouldn’t have spent half a week lying in bed and staring up at yet another unfamiliar ceiling.

She didn’t belong here, or anywhere else.


“Nothing’s wrong,” she said. “I’m okay.”

Misato drove the car into the parking garage near home and parked it. Shinji wasn’t such an expert about driving, but she was fairly certain cars were meant to be parked between the yellow lines instead of across them, but she didn’t see any point in telling Misato that. “Well, here we are. You know, I don’t think she’d ever cop to it, but I think Asuka really missed having you around.”

Doubting that very much, Shinji unbuckled her seatbelt, opened the door, and eased herself out, favoring her bruised leg. It hurt a little bit if she put too much weight on it, but she could walk.

Misato got out and circled around the car. Shinji was certain she could notice her limp. “You sure you can walk?”

“It’s okay,” Shinji insisted. “It just aches a bit.”

Not satisfied with her answer, Misato looped her arm around Shinji’s. “Just in case,” she told her.

For the first time, Shinji noted that Misato had gauze bandages wrapped around both of her hands. And she recalled the time she’d seen her father with wrappings like those around his palms. He’d burned his hands pulling Rei out of Unit-00’s entry plug during a failed activation attempt (something, Shinji figured, feeling a pang of envy, that he would never do for his own daughter). Had Misato done the same?

I can’t believe she did that for someone as worthless as me…

“Y-Your hands…” Shinji was surprised Misato had been able to drive in her condition. “Don’t they hurt?”

“Nah, the doc’s got me on some good shit,” Misato replied with a weary grin. “Say I can’t drink any alcohol while I’m on it or I’ll, uh, die or something, which is a bummer, but I’m getting a nice buzz anyway…”

Shinji hadn’t realized it at first since she’d been so spaced out, but Misato had been in no condition whatsoever to drive. Even climbing stairs up to her apartment might be too much for her.

And it was all because of her.

“I’m sorry,” she said, feeling the lump blocking her throat harden and thicken. Every tender bruise on her body throbbed and ached anew. “I—I should’ve listened to you.”

“Eh. Pobody’s nerfect.”

“If I’d just done what you said, everything would have worked out. I thought I had to take charge of Asuka and Ayanami to prove myself and instead I—I almost got everyone, you, my friends, e-everyone I know…” She sniffled and wiped at her eyes, fighting past the tears spilling down her cheeks. It felt as though her bruised ribs were tightening like talons curling around her heart. “The only people in the world who care about me—and I could’ve…”

“Whoa, kiddo.” Misato slung another arm over her shoulder and brought her in for a hug. “There, there. You were doing okay out there until everything went to shit.”

“It’s all my fault.”

“Hey. Don’t beat yourself up over this. No one died. Everyone’s okay now.” Misato pulled her closer, her muffled grip tightening around her shoulders. Shinji could hear her voice hitching. “You’re breathing and your heart’s beating again. That’s enough. That’s enough for now… that’s all I need from you right now.”

Shinji closed her eyes, rested her head on Misato’s shoulder, and let her heart beat.

The two of them left the parking garage and traced the familiar path to the apartment, leaning all the while on each other.

“Still got about an hour or so before Asuka gets back from school,” Misato noted, fumbling with her keys. “So you’ve got the run of the place. Don’t exert yourself. I tried not to let the mess get any worse. We’ll get something delivered for dinner tonight.”

Shinji reached out, took Misato’s wrist, and helped her guide the key into the keyhole. In hindsight, she was glad she’d spaced out on the way home, because if she’d paid any more attention to how Misato must have been driving it probably would have stopped her heart again.

As the door slid open, Shinji and Misato were greeted by a hoarse squawk. Pen Pen flopped his flippers at them and let out another elated squawk.

“Aww, I think he missed you!” Misato cooed.

Shinji crouched down and ruffled Pen Pen’s slick, damp feathers. Pen Pen rubbed his beak along the side of her hand as though he were preening her. “I, uh, missed you too.”

As Shinji and the penguin reacquainted themselves, Misato made a beeline for the master bedroom and shut the door behind her. It only took a few minutes before Shinji started hearing her snoring through the wall.

Sighing, Shinji sat down at the table and took stock of the place. Same old apartment. Same old unwashed dishes piled up in the sink. Same old boxes and bags of bric-a-brac scattered on the floor and table. As much as she tried to keep the apartment nice, she’d reached a sort of equilibrium where the mess seemed to grow as quickly as she could clean it.

She made her way to the bedroom she shared with Asuka, tiptoeing lightly over a bag full of empty cans waiting to be taken to recycling that had tipped over. The leaf of paper taped to the door gave her pause.

When Shinji had first moved in, Misato had written on the makeshift sign in her bold, sloppy handwriting Shinji’s Lovely Palace. That had later been revised to Shinji’s Fortress of Solitude, then Shinji and Asuka’s Honeymoon Suite ♥ once Asuka had arrived (to no one’s surprise, Asuka had hated it), then Shinji and Asuka’s Executive Penthouse Suite. After Shinji had come out, Misato had appended to the sign No Boys Allowed.

Shinji smiled and wiped the mist from her eyes.

Home sweet home.

Shinji returned to class the next morning and found a small box wrapped in brown paper sitting on her desk.

Before she could investigate the mysterious gift, Touji and Kensuke flanked her desk. They both looked more or less okay, although Touji had a black eye and a small bandage plastered across his forehead and Kensuke was wearing a new pair of glasses that didn’t quite fit and kept slipping down his nose.

Touji grinned. “Hey, you’re back!”

“We knew you’d make it,” Kensuke chimed in.

“I knew you’d make it,” Touji said. “He started crying in the helicopter over you.”

“That’s a lie! I was crying over my camera!”

“That’s not much better, dude.”

“It was my dad’s camera and you threw it at Unit-01’s eye! It had three hours of footage on it!”

Touji shrugged. “What was I supposed to do? Wave my arms and yell?”

Shinji felt her heart swell. Her friends were the same as ever. “I’m so glad you guys are all right,” she said, struggling to keep her voice from cracking.

“All thanks to you, man,” Touji said. “Um, I meant man in like, a gender neutral way—”

Before she knew what she was doing, Shinji had thrown her arms around Touji and hugged him; once she realized what she’d done, she let go just as suddenly and sheepishly sat back down.

“Okay,” Touji said, bemused.

“So what’s this?” Kensuke asked, prodding at the box on Shinji’s desk.

“I dunno.” Shinji shrugged. “You guys didn’t leave it?”

“No, we got the whole class to sign a get-well card,” Kensuke said, pulling an envelope out of his bookbag and setting it down on the desk. “But which hospital they had you in and the room number were both classified info. So we couldn’t give it to you. Sorry.”

“Oh. Thanks.” Shinji took the card and slipped it into her bag. “That’s really nice of you.”

“Maybe,” Touji said, “that’s a gift from a secret admirer…”

“I wonder who it could be.” Kensuke stood up straight and glanced across the room. “Think it could be someone in the class?”

“Maybe it’ll say on the inside,” Touji said.

“But then it wouldn’t be a secret admirer,” Kensuke said.

“Well, it’s a secret until she opens it.”

“Guys, really, I don’t think anyone admires me,” Shinji said.

“I admire you,” Kensuke said.

“Oh. You do?” Shinji picked at the edge of the tape binding the paper-bag wrappings. “Well, here goes…”

“Oh, Shinko!” Hikari hobbled over to her desk, her crutch tapping against the floor. Despite the leg she was favoring and the splint binding two of the fingers on her left hand, she was in high spirits. “You’re back! Looks like you’ve made a speedy recovery.”

“Yeah. I was really lucky.” Shinji leaned over and stared over the edge of her desk, noticing the telltale bulge of a bandage wrapped around Hikari’s ankle underneath her stocking. Was it broken, she wondered, or just sprained?

All the same, she thought, how pathetic—I can’t even save my friends’ lives properly.

“Are you okay?”

“Oh, this? It’s nothing.” Hikari smiled. “I must’ve sprained it when we were climbing onto the roof. No sense missing school over it, right?”

“I guess not. What about your fingers?”

Hikari cringed and bit her lip. “Okay, this is gonna sound embarrassing, but when we were boarding the helicopter, I accidentally got my fingers caught in the door. How clumsy of me, right?” She chuckled. “In the middle of an Angel attack and the worst injury I get comes from the guys trying to save me.”

Shinji slumped over. “Sorry.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Hikari told her. “You were great out there. Anyway, it’s Kensuke’s fault the three of us got stuck in that mess,” she said with a pointed glare directed at Kensuke.

“I-I didn’t make you two come with me!” he retorted, stammering.

Touji crossed his arms. “Nah, you just ran off like a moron and expected your buddies to just not do anything about it. That’s entrapment.”

“I really don’t think that’s what ‘entrapment’ means. Entrapment is when you ask someone if they’re a cop and they say no. I saw it on a TV show.”

“Bullshit. If cops had to do that, how would they pull off any undercover shit?”

“By the way,” Hikari told Shinji, ignoring Touji and Kensuke’s bickering, “if you’re feeling up to it, I could really use someone to help me tidy up after school today, considering that, well…”

“Gee, Class Rep, putting her straight to work right after she gets out of the hospital?” Touji ribbed her. “That’s cold.”

“Yeah, I think I can handle that,” Shinji said, shrugging. She turned her attention back to the mysterious package.

“Ooh, what’s that?” Hikari asked, her curiosity piqued.


“We think she has a secret admirer,” Kensuke said. “Know anything about that?”

Asuka walked past the commotion and swiped the package off the desk. “Hey, what’s this?”

Shinji bolted to her feet. “Asuka—”

“It’s from a secret admirer,” Kensuke said.

“I-I don’t have a secret admirer,” Shinji stammered, flustered. “Asuka, just give it back, please. I was just about to open it.”

“Oh, well, of course the Number One Eva Pilot has a secret admirer.” With a simpering smile, Asuka set the package back down on Shinji’s desk. “Well, go on. Let’s see what’s in that thing.”

“Maybe I should open it in private,” Shinji said, feeling herself blush all the way to the tips of her ears. She slumped over in her seat. “If it’s meant to be a secret…”

“C’mon, we’re all involved in this now! We’re invested,” Asuka insisted. “What’s in the box?”

Shinji relented. “All right, all right, I’ll open it.” She peeled away the tape and ripped the paper off the package.

It was a box of tampons.

Shinji hadn’t even been excited and she still felt her face fall.

“Oh,” said Touji. “That’s, uh…”

“You don’t, uh, need those, do you?” Kensuke asked, cringing.

“I expected nothing,” Asuka said, “and I’m still let down.”

“Oh, of all the sick jokes!” Hikari fumed. “That’s just cruel!”

“Maybe they thought I needed them,” Shinji mumbled, trying to sink even lower into her seat. She was more trying to convince herself than her friends. Obviously, someone was mocking her. “Maybe they were trying to be nice?”

“What are you, stupid? You’d have to be an idiot of the highest degree to think a couple of pills would be enough to change someone’s boy parts to lady parts.” Asuka scanned the room. “There are some real knuckleheads in this class, but no one here’s that dumb!”

“Asuka’s right,” Hikari said. “This class is one of the highest-achieving classes in the school.”

“Well, that explains a lot about this place,” Asuka said. “No wonder everyone else is such a drooling troglodyte.”

“No, this is definitely a prank,” Hikari said, pounding her hand on the desk. “Ow.”

“You okay, Class Rep?”

She winced and cradled her hand. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this and bring whoever’s behind this to justice!”

If Shinji could sink any lower, she’d be underground. “No, no, you don’t have to—”

“Asuka, can I count on you to help out?” Hikari asked.

Asuka cracked her knuckles. “Sure. Sounds fun.”

“All right. We’ll carry out our investigation during lunch period, when we can move freely through the school—”

The teacher for first period walked through the door.

Hikari clapped as best she could. “Teacher in the class! Everyone back to their desks!” she shouted out, her voice ringing through the cacophony of a dozen hushed conversations and silencing them one by one as the rest of the students milled around their desks. “All rise!”

As the class stood at attention, Shinji cast a nervous glance around the room. Two dozen suspicious eyes focused on the front of the class, none of them meeting hers.

Today was going to be a long day.

All Shinji wanted to do during lunch was eat lunch, but the investigative duo of Hikari and Asuka had other designs.

“Okay,” Hikari said, all but slamming the box of tampons down on the table, “let’s start with what we know. First off, the culprit has to be in our class. She knew where Shinji’s desk was.”

Kensuke slid his bento box off to the side, as if he was worried it would be contaminated by proximity to feminine hygiene products. “Do we have to do this while we’re eating?”

“Yes, we’ll need the whole lunch period to investigate,” Asuka chimed in. “Secondly,” she said, opening the box, “the culprit is definitely a girl.”

“Hey. That sounds like misandry,” Touji said. “A boy could’ve done this, too.”

“No, he couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

Asuka pulled out one of the tampons and held it by its tail. “Because…”

She tossed it in Touji’s face. Touji screamed and threw up his arms over his face, lost his balance, and hit the floor.

“That’s why,” Asuka said, struggling to keep herself from laughing. “You boys are terrified of these things.”

“There were better ways to make that point, you bi… uh, you witch,” Touji grumbled as Hikari helped him back up to the bench.

“Yeah,” Asuka admitted, “but not as funny.”

“Asuka, don’t terrorize your fellow investigators,” Hikari said.

“‘Fellow investigators?’” Touji parroted. “I just wanna eat lunch.”

“Your friend has just been the victim of a vicious and hateful prank,” Hikari said, rapping her knuckles on his hand, “and you ‘just wanna eat lunch?’”

“Class Rep, it’s fine,” Shinji insisted. “You’re making a big deal out of this. It’s nothing, really. It’s just a prank. It was just a bully. No one got hurt.”

“Just a bully? Just a bully?” Asuka slammed her hands on the table and leaned over it, putting her face right up close to Shinji’s. Their noses nearly touched. “It’s never just a bully, Shinji! You give these flachwichsers an inch and they take a mile! Do you want them to take a mile? Do you?”

Shinji leaned back, turned away, and wiped the spittle off her face. “Uh… no?”

“Then stop being such a graue maus and fight back! Today it’s tampons, tomorrow they’re dumping a bucket of pigs’ blood over your head!”

Shinji groaned. “Okay. I get it.”

Satisfied, Asuka returned to the bench. “Okay. So who are the usual suspects?”

“Hmm…” Hikari tapped her fingers. The splint binding her two broken fingers clinked against the surface of the table. “You know, I can’t imagine any of the girls in our class doing something so mean-spirited.”

Kensuke lifted his head and pushed his glasses up the bright of his nose. “What if whoever left the box of… stuff on Shinko’s desk was just a, y’know, a courier or something? Like, a patsy?”

“You think someone from another class wrapped up a box of tampons, gave it to someone in Class 2-A, and told them to give it to Shinji?” Hikari asked.

Kensuke shrugged. “Maybe.”

“We’ll have to find a delinquent and interrogate him,” Asuka said. “They all know what’s going on. It’s like the yakuza.”

“I don’t think it’s like the yakuza,” Hikari said.

“Whatever. We’ve got like half an hour to find a lead. Better start somewhere.” Asuka stood up and looked around the cafeteria. “Hmm…”

Shinji stood up to see what Asuka was staring at and locked eyes with the upperclassman who’d attacked her on her first day. The one who looked like he’d stepped out of a panel of Fist of the North Star.

She blanched. “Asuka, you don’t think it’s…”

The upperclassman’s eyes widened and he immediately did an about-face and left out the hallway.

“Oh, no, you don’t!” Asuka shouted out, shoving the box into her bookbag, slinging the bag over her shoulder, and taking off through the cafeteria. “Hikari, Shinji, follow me!”

Hikari hobbled off in pursuit of Asuka; with a resigned sigh, Shinji did the same. By the time the two of them had caught up with Asuka, she was already standing over the felled student, her hands on her hips.

“What the fuck? Not you again!” the upperclassman moaned, trying to right himself only for Asuka to plant her foot squarely on his solar plexus. He flailed like a turtle on its back. “Y-You can’t assault a student! That’s illegal!”

“Oh, I’m not gonna assault you. Just wanna ask a few questions, if you don’t mind.”

“I’m not telling you shit. Fuck off and leave me alone!”

Asuka glanced over her shoulder and held out her hand. “Shinji. Gimme your pills.”


“The blue ones. I’m just gonna borrow them.”

“I’m not giving you my estradiol.”

“I’ll give it back.”

Shinji sighed. “Okay, fine.” She rummaged through her bookbag and with more than a little trepidation, handed the precious bottle over to Asuka.

“Um, Asuka, what are you doing?” Hikari asked.

“There we go.” Asuka uncapped the bottle and shook one of the pills into the palm of her hand. “This pill here is two milligrams of estrogen, and there’s more where that came from.” She pinched the pill between her forefinger and thumb and leaned over, letting it hover above the student’s terrified face. “It’s enough to blow your dick clean off. So, do you feel lucky… punk?”

“Y-You wouldn’t!” the upperclassman whimpered, cringing and turning his head away as Asuka crouched down and lowered the pill closer to his face.

“Go ahead. Make my day.”

“Okay, I’ll talk! What the fuck do you want from me?”

“Who put tampons on Shinji’s desk this morning?”

The upperclassman knitted his eyebrows together. “What?”

“You know who it was, don’t you?”


“Don’t play dumb, lustmolch!”

Hikari grabbed Asuka by the shoulder. “Asuka! That’s enough!”

The upperclassman relented. “Okay, I’ll talk! It was Murata!”

Asuka stood up, put the pill back into its bottle, and handed the bottle to Shinji. “There. Mystery solved. You’re welcome.” She took her foot off the upperclassman’s belly and let him go; he scampered to his feet and took off. “Now let’s find this Murata guy.”

“Mystery not solved!” Hikari retorted.

“Oh, come on. He just told us who did it!”

“You tortured him! How do you know he wasn’t just picking the first name that came to mind?”

“Torture him? I did not torture him!” Asuka insisted. “Shinji, was that torture?”

Shinji slipped her pills back into her bag. “I-I mean, you did step on him and threaten to chemically castrate him…”

Asuka rolled her eyes. “Ugh. You’re no help at all! What would you have done?”

Shinji shrugged. “I dunno. Ask politely.”

“Oh, yeah, that’ll get results.”

Hikari put her hand on her hip. “Well, I’m gonna keep investigating. But you’re off the case, Asuka.”

“You can’t take me off the case!”

“You’re a loose cannon! I can’t afford to have you terrorizing the student body!”

“I’m going to finish my lunch,” Shinji said. While the other girls kept bickering, she turned around and walked back to the cafeteria. It didn’t seem like either Hikari or Asuka even heard her.

She sat back down at the table.

“So, did Asuka get the bad guy?” Kensuke asked.

Shinji shrugged and went back to picking at her food. “Eh. Probably.”

Just as she had promised, Shinji stayed after school to help Hikari clean up the classroom. It was menial work, but she didn’t mind it. In fact, she actually enjoyed it, in a way. That one of the reasons why she could stand to live in Misato’s apartment. These simple tasks—sweeping the floors, wiping down the chalkboards, collecting any litter that had fallen to the floor, emptying the trash—let her put her body on autopilot and set her mind adrift, untethered from the world and free of its burdens.

She could probably do this for a living, if only the pay wasn’t so bad. What a career path that would be!

She could imagine Asuka going back to college and getting a doctorate or something after all the Angels had been defeated and the Evangelion project was no longer necessary. Maybe even running for political office somewhere. She’d never stop achieving. She’d keep climbing until she couldn’t anymore.

And meanwhile, Shinji could see herself being quite content to keep sweeping the floors.

Hummed strains of Ode to Joy drifted through the air, carried onward by the omnipresent drone of cicadas. Shinji began to hum along. A countermelody came to her more easily than she’d thought.

“Is that Ode to Joy? Hikari asked. “I’ve never heard it like that.”

Shinji snapped out of her reverie. “Huh? Oh, I was harmonizing.”

“With who?”

Shinji kneaded her brow in confusion. “Y-You? You started it. I just joined in…”

Hikari gave her a quizzical look. “I wasn’t making a sound.”

“Then who was…” Shinji glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see someone else in the room with the two of them.

There was.

The third child in the room was a boy with mussed, whitish-silver hair that was almost pearlescent; his skin was even paler. His face was sharp and foxish; the edges of his nose and his jawline could have cut steak. Like a fox, too, his eyes were gleaming and red.

And just like Rei’s eyes.

He was crouched atop one of the desks as though observing the room’s inhabitants, his hands on his knees, a genial smile gently curling his lips. He wasn’t wearing a school uniform—instead, he wore what looked like Shinji’s old plugsuit, albeit entirely midnight-blue instead of white and blue.

He seemed off somehow, improperly superimposed on the world, like a badly-composited special effect. The edges of his form were too sharp; the sunlight streaming through the windows cast no shadow on his face or under his feet. He seemed at once too real and unreal.

The boy didn’t seem anything but harmless; his sudden appearance, though, shocked Shinji enough to make her yelp in surprise and fear. She dropped her broom to the floor as she whirled around and stumbled back, hastily gripping the edge of the nearest desk to steady herself before she could trip over her own feet and fall to the floor.

I’ve seen this boy before, Shinji thought, though she couldn’t recall where.

The boy cocked his head, bemused. “Shinji Ikari?” he asked, his eyes widening as he leaned forward. “Can you… see me?”

“Shinko, what’s wrong?” Hikari asked, slowly crossing the room, her crutch tapping on the floor with every step.

“There’s a—” Shinji glanced over at her, then returned her focus to the strange boy.

He was gone. It was as though he’d never been there at all.

“I thought I saw a boy there,” she muttered. Her heart was still pounding. “He was all white… like a ghost.”

“Huh.” Hikari was nonplussed. “Well, it’s been a long and stressful day for both of us. Let’s take the trash to the incinerator and finish up here. Thanks again for all your help.”

Shinji smiled. “It’s nothing. Girls help each other out, y’know?”

Hikari smiled back, but quickly looked away. “By the way,” she added as Shinji helped her carry the bag they’d filled out to the incinerator on the edge of the school grounds, “I, uh, found out who left you that ‘gift’ this morning.”

“Huh? Who was it?”

“Well, you were right. There wasn’t any malice behind it at all.”

“Oh,” Shinji said. “Um, I didn’t actually believe that. I just didn’t want you and Asuka to make a big deal out of it.” She sighed, relieved. She’d really thought someone had been mocking her, throwing in her face that no matter how many pills she took and how much surgery loomed in her future, when all was said and done, she’d be nothing but a pale imitation of who she wanted to be.

She just hadn’t wanted to fight it.

Like Asuka had said to her last week, she never wanted to fight, no matter how important of a fight it was to her. She was starting to get sick of it.

“So here’s what happened,” Hikari said. “One of the girls in 3-C was a bit, uh… confused? About your situation. She thought you were a girl who’d been forced to live as a boy, not…”

“Oh. Well, I mean, psychologically, she’s not wrong, I guess. Biologically…”

“Yeah. She really thought she was being a good Samaritan. Wanted to do something nice for the heroic ace pilot.”

Shinji laughed in spite of herself. “Yeah. Ace pilot.” Though Hikari had meant it in earnest, she couldn’t help but hear it with sour, sardonic overtones.

“It’s almost too bad. Asuka was really hoping for a bad guy.” Hikari laughed. “But I was right to trust your instincts. Turns out all it took to sort things out was asking politely.”

Hefting the trash bag into the incinerator’s waiting maw sent a sharp ache through Shinji’s raw and bruised side, but she soldiered on through it. “I wish I could solve all my problems like that.”

“It’s really sweet how often Asuka goes to bat for you, though. I hear Germany’s a pretty progressive country, so maybe it’s just how she was raised.”

Shinji shrugged and clapped the dust from her hands. It wasn’t really sweet. As she’d said, Asuka just did that because it irritated her that Shinji didn’t do it herself.

The two of them left the school and prepared to go their separate ways—Hikari eastbound to the train stop that carried her to her home in the suburbs just outside Tokyo-III, and Shinji northward to Misato’s apartment just a twenty-minute walk away.

“Thanks again for everything,” Hikari repeated, looking up at the cloud-streaked sky as it slowly shifted from periwinkle blue to the deeper blue of the evening. “Not just for today, but… Sometimes it just hits me, right out of the blue. I’ll be doing homework or making lunch for Nozomi and Kodama and I’ll realize that if things had gone just a little differently, if you hadn’t come along when you did, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Sorry.” Shinji bowed her head. If she had done more, if she’d been smarter, if she’d been a quicker thinker, she’d have come up with a better plan, a less risky plan, one that wouldn’t have put her friends in so much danger…

“I’d have died.” Hikari raised a hand to her mouth. “I came so close to dying that day. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, it just strikes me. How powerless I’d felt, how terrified I’d been, the sound of concrete tearing apart, the vertigo…”

Shinji nodded. She had flashbacks, too, sometimes. Actually, she was surprised she didn’t have them more often. Maybe she was becoming desensitized. That was an unnerving thought—if there came a time when she no longer felt troubled by the horrors she had experienced and continued to endure, would it mean she’d lost something important within herself? The part of her mind that told her it wasn’t natural for humans to stumble senselessly through a constant haze of absolute terror?

“You, Asuka, Rei… You’re all such amazing people. I can’t imagine how any of you manage to be as brave as you are…”

“I can’t, eith—”

Shinji stopped before the pithy remark had left her mouth when she realized that Hikari was crying—her shoulders quaking, tears tracing glistening paths down her freckled cheeks.

“You don’t know what it means to my sisters,” she sobbed, throwing an arm around Shinji’s waist, burying her face in her shoulder, “that I can still be here for them today, but—thank you, thank you, thank you so much…”

Shinji froze up. She had no idea what to do. She’d never had a girl cry into her shoulder before. Was it wrong that part of her mind couldn’t stop thinking that Hikari was cute? It wasn’t appropriate to think such things about someone who was sobbing her eyes out on top of her—have some decency, Shinko!

It wasn’t appropriate, either, to—


Shinji squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. Please, she told herself, don’t get a boner. Please, god dammit, if there’s one thing that would ruin this…

Finally willing herself to move, she tried to very gently pry Hikari off her. “Um… There, there,” she said, patting her on the back. She wasn’t sure what to say. Normally, when someone was thanking you, you said something like ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘no problem.’ When someone was thanking you for saving them from certain death, it felt like kind of a dick move to say either of those things.

“It’s, uh… It’s all gonna be alright. You’ll… get used to it? No—I-I mean, it’s all gonna be okay. You’re safe. For now. No, I—I mean, you’re safe now.”

“You’re so brave, Shinko. Being a pilot, being a girl, all those choices you had to make—” Hikari collected herself and wiped the tears from her eyes with her forearm, taking a deep breath and swallowing a lump in her throat. “I owe you my life.”

Shinji almost wanted to tell her that when she’d been trapped inside the Angel, she hadn’t been brave at all. She’d cried and screamed and begged for help and no one had come. She’d died begging for more time and woken up in the hospital. That was the person Hikari owed her life to. Would it make her any less grateful if she knew that?

“Okay,” she said instead.

“Okay,” Hikari repeated. “I guess I’ll see you at school tomorrow.” She turned around and hobbled down the sidewalk, her crutch clacking rhythmically against the concrete. She wasn’t going to walk all the way to the train station alone in her condition, was she?


She paused and looked back over her shoulder.

“Would you, um…” Shinji kneaded her hands together, suddenly feeling as though she were being watched by a million pairs of eyes. “Do you need someone to escort you to the train?”

“Isn’t it out of your way?”

“Not really,” Shinji lied, well aware she’d be doubling, if not tripling, the length of her trip back home and yet unable to stop herself.

“And your leg is all bruised. You’re limping.”

“It’s fine. I’ll walk it off.”

The two of them headed down the sidewalk together.

“Touji and Kensuke said getting caught in an Angel attack is kind of a rite of passage,” Hikari said, “for anyone who wants to be your friend.” Though her eyes were still misty and her voice still weak, she was wearing a faint smile now. “I guess this means we’re all officially friends now.”

“Yeah. I guess it does.”

“A shame there isn’t an easier way to make friends, though.”

“Yeah,” Shinji said, not realizing until after she’d answered that Hikari had probably been sarcastic there. It was a gentler form of sarcasm than she was accustomed to.

She considered reaching out and taking Hikari’s hand. Ostensibly to keep her steady. But she got too flustered and settled for just taking her by the wrist.

That night, she found herself back in Unit-01’s entry plug.

Shinji was awoken first by the rumbling of her stomach as it wrapped itself around her backbone, then by the sharp odor filling the entry plug.

The whole place stank of blood.

“Miss Misato?” she called out, her voice hoarse. “Miss Ritsuko? Ayanami? Asuka?”

No response.

It hurt to breathe. Like she was drowning.

She pulled herself out of her seat and climbed across the length of the entry plug to the exit hatch, her arms and legs flailing helplessly as she struggled to inch her way to the hatch. The LCL was thick and cloudy, pressing down on her like water. “Miss Misato? You’re coming back for me, right?”

She fought against the pressure, holding her breath to spare herself the pain. She was going to die in here. Drown to death in here. She couldn’t even swim.

Something fluttered in the corner of her eye.

“Who’s there?”

She grabbed the lock on the hatch. Her heart fluttered, her pulse pounded; the sharp ache in her chest worsened as she sucked down another searing lungful of LCL. “Please let me out! Please! Let me out, let me out!”

Her trembling fingers slipped over the locking mechanism. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t get a good grip on it. Her head pounded, her throat ached, her eyes burned. Everything was going dark. It was so cold, she couldn’t even shiver anymore; the heat and feeling were both beginning to fade from the tips of her fingers, making it even harder to manipulate the lock on the hatch.

And then a soft, pale hand laid itself over her hand and pulled it away from the hatch.

“There’s nothing for you on the other side of that door, you know.”

The cold LCL lightened and thinned out until it was like air, warming up until being in it was like being submerged in a hot bath; Shinji coughed and gasped as her lungs miraculously filled themselves, the pounding pressure gripping her head loosening. She followed the path of her mysterious rescuer’s hand, up his wrist and along his pale arm and shoulder to his face.

A pale-skinned boy in a white robe, his silvery hair splayed out around him like a halo, floated in the LCL behind her. He had a bright, soft, kind smile on his face that belied his sharp, foxlike features. “Hello, Shinji. It’s good to see you, my friend.”

“F-Friend? Have—” Shinji squinted and struggled to recall the boy’s oddly-familiar face as he led her away from the hatch. “Do we… know each other?”

The boy glanced downward; a faint flash of melancholy darkened his bright red eyes for a moment. “Ah, that’s a little hard to explain. Come with me.”

The two of them sat down at the bottom of the dark and gloomy entry plug. The boy seemed to be glowing, lit by a radiant inner light that bled through his skin.

Shinji expected the boy to start explaining, but he didn’t. For a while, he just sat there.

“Do you like music, Shinji?” he finally asked.

“Um… I guess. I listen to a lot of it.”

“You play the cello, don’t you?”

“Yes.” Shinji huddled up and tucked her knees against her chest. “I’ve been playing since I was five. I only practice every once in a while, but…”

“It’s a beautiful instrument. What a rich, full sound it has. Deep, melancholic… but as warm as the sun, and with the right melody, just as bright.” The boy tucked in his long, scrawny legs and mirrored Shinji’s pose. “It really is the instrument for you.”

Lights began to twinkle in the darkness like stars dotting the night sky as the gloom engulfing the entry plug deepened. There wasn’t anything here that was frightening anymore; Shinji felt whatever tension was left in her mind and body drain out like fat rendering out of cooking meat.

She rested her head on the boy’s shoulder. Somehow, she felt as though she’d known him her entire life.

“Do you like music, too?” she asked him.

“Oh, yes. Nothing else in the world is so enthralling.” The boy craned his neck and gazed up at the false stars dotting the false sky. “It truly is one of the Lilin’s greatest innovations.”

“Do you play an instrument?”

“Piano,” the boy answered, lifting one hand and flexing his slender fingers. “So versatile, capable of playing so many roles. You can do just about anything with a piano.”

“Is that all?”

“Well… I like to sing, too.”

Shinji felt her eyelids grow leaden. It felt as though her head was stuffed with cotton and static. “Can you sing here?” she murmured.

“Oh, I’m out of practice, I’m afraid.” The boy cleared his throat. “But for you…

“My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud;
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

“Struggling in my father's hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands;
Bound and weary, I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast.”

Once he’d finished the song and his soft, clear voice no longer rang through the entry plug, the boy looked almost bashful. “Like I said,” he said, his pale cheeks flushed pink, “I’m out of practice.”

“That was beautiful.”

“You flatter me.”

Shinji looked at the boy’s radiant face through half-closed eyes. “Hey… how did you know my name, anyway?”

He smiled coyly. “Spoilers.”

“Well… What’s your name, then?”

“Ah, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you a little early.” The boy reached out and clasped Shinji’s hand in his. “My name is K—”

He vanished.

The light he had brought within him vanished as well, plunging the entry plug into darkness once more and leaving Shinji once more alone, defenseless against the encroaching cold—

Shinji woke up, although she didn’t realize it until her eyes began to adjust to the darkness to show the faint contours of her and Asuka’s bedroom. Aside from the humming of the box fan in the corner of the room, it was quiet: There was no sound but the faint din of traffic outside bleeding through the window and walls.

Shinji rolled over and saw Asuka curled up on the same mat with her back turned to her, her own sleeping mat on the far side of the bedroom abandoned. “Asuka…?” she gasped.

“Don’t talk to me. Don’t look at me,” Asuka hissed. “You’re still dreaming. Go back to sleep.”

Shinji rolled over, closed her eyes, and tried to go back to sleep.

No matter what she dreamed of, the ghostly boy did not reappear.

Kaworu felt two pairs of hands grab him by the neck and shoulders and pull his head out from the pool of LCL. He coughed, gagged, and choked as the oxygenated fluid he’d been breathing was replaced with thin air, struggling as his captors roughly pulled him up to his feet. His heart pounded, pulse racing and throbbing in his ears, LCL spilling down his chin and chest as he voided the contents of his lungs.

And he’d been so close, too. For once, Shinji had been just barely lucid enough that if he’d told her everything, she might have remembered!

The men who’d yanked him out of his impromptu and unauthorized scrying session were both adults clad in heavy black tactical armor, black masks and helmets hiding their faces, assault rifles slung over their backs and pistols holstered at their hips. If SEELE had aimed to intimidate Kaworu…

Well, guns weren't very intimidating to him. But they sent a very clear and forceful message. Those, and being manhandled like this.

“Kaworu Nagisa,” one of the two armored men spoke, his voice deep and gruff. “The Council wishes to have words with you.”

“Can a boy not wash his hair in the middle of the night in peace?” Kaworu asked, knowing full well it was futile to give such a laughable explanation for his behavior. The first armored man responded by pinning his arms behind his back; the other armored man pressed the cold barrel of his pistol between Kaworu’s shoulderblades.

Again, a futile threat, but it told Kaworu what he could expect to hear from the Council.

Shaken, he took a deep breath in a futile attempt to quell his screaming nerves as the men marched him out of his quarters.

This would not be a pleasant debriefing.

Chapter Text

Shinji buried her nose in her textbook and tried to wrap her mind around linear equations, although Asuka didn’t seem to have any interest in letting her study in peace.

“Hey, Shinji.”

Two complementary angles are such that one is fourteen degrees more than three times the second angle. What is the measure of the larger angle?

“Shinko. Hey.”

Shinji tapped her pencil on a loose sheet of paper. Complementary angles. So those add up to one hundred eighty degrees. X plus Y equals one hundred eighty. Three times X equals Y minus fourteen…

For a moment, she thought she’d seen Y equals seventy-one written on her paper.

An eraser bounced off her forehead.

“What?” she asked, looking up at Asuka.

Asuka leaned back in her chair. “What’s it like out there?”

“Out where?” Shinji turned her attention back to the math problem. The answer she’d seen was gone. She must have just imagined it.

X plus Y equals one hundred eighty, she worked out, so Y equals one hundred eighty minus X. Three times X equals one hundred eighty minus X minus fourteen… am I doing this right?

“The outside world. Is it still the same?” Asuka twiddled a pencil between her fingers. “Have the fashions changed? Is that gum I like back in style?”

“Asuka, you’re grounded, not in prison,” Misato called out to her from the couch as she fanned herself with a magazine.

“I’ve begun to forget the warmth of the sun… the briskness of the breeze…”

“Want me to open a window?” Shinji tried again to concentrate. Wait, no, complementary angles add up to ninety. Three times X equals…

“A gilded cage is still just a cage…”

“For god’s sake, Asuka, I grounded you this morning,” Misato said. “Stop being a drama queen and do your homework.”

Shinji scribbled the equations on her paper. Three times X equals ninety minus X minus fourteen… Three times X plus X equals seventy six… Four times X… divide by four…

Nineteen. And that means Y is…

Someone knocked on the door to the apartment. Startled, she nearly jumped out of her seat. “I’ll get it!” she called out at the exact same time Asuka did. The two of them rushed to the door side-by-side, evenly matched—Asuka even tried to push her out of the way! (Did she have to turn everything into a competition?)

Asuka got her hands on the door first and opened it. “Hello, Katsuragi residence, what can I do for—”

On the other side of the threshold, Rei bowed her head politely. “Soryu. Ikari. Good evening.”

“—you.” Asuka’s face fell. “Hi.”

Shinji waved. “Hi, Ayanami. What’s up?”

Rei fished around in her bag and pulled out a card. “You two are invited to dinner at Commander Ikari’s apartment tomorrow. I will be cooking.”

Try as she might, Shinji had a hard time imagining Rei cooking something, considering that before she’d started making lunch for her, the only thing Shinji had ever seen her eat had been mystery-everything sandwiches. Maybe she’d started teaching herself, but that seemed hard to believe as well.

Shinji took the card. On it, Rei had written the commander’s street address and tomorrow’s date. “Thanks,” she said, vaguely nauseated at the prospect of spending an evening with her father. “That sounds like fun,” she lied.

Asuka pretended to look sad and let out an obviously-fake sigh. “Aw, I’m sorry, Ayanami, but I won’t be able to make it. You see, I’m grounded for threatening to castrate a fellow student and I’m not allowed to leave the apartment except for school…”

Rei blinked. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that—”

Misato inserted herself in between Shinji and Asuka; Shinji felt her surprisingly-sharp elbow dig into her aching ribs. “Asuka would love to attend your little dinner party! Tomorrow, right? When?”

“Tomorrow at 1730 hours.”

“Great! She and Shinko will be right on time!”


“Thank you,” Rei said. “I look forward to seeing you there.”

She turned around and headed off down the hall; Misato closed the door behind her. “Well, isn’t that sweet of her?”

“Hey, what happened to me being grounded?” Asuka protested, looking equal parts furious and mortified. “You said I wasn’t allowed to leave the apartment!”

“Oh, Asuka. You’re still grounded.” Misato planted a cold can of soda (Shinji had to keep reminding her that she couldn’t have alcohol as long as she was taking her painkillers) on top of her head and ground it playfully into her auburn hair. Asuka shivered as condensation rolled off the walls of the can and dripped onto her scalp. “Your punishment is to be nice to Rei.”

“What? You can’t do that! It’s cruel and unusual!” Asuka broke free of Misato’s soda-can noogie and pawed at the cold, damp patch on her scalp. “It’s forbidden by the Geneva Convention!”

Shinji covered her mouth and giggled.

“Don’t you start,” Asuka warned her, jabbing a finger at her.

When Shinji and Asuka got home from school the next day, they found Misato waiting for them at the table and grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Shinji wondered if she’d finally gone stir-crazy and cracked under the monotony of medical leave. Due to her injuries, she hadn’t been able to work for the past week, and while she’d always seemed like the laid-back slacker type, she was passionate about her job.

“Asuka,” Misato asked, “you’re not going to dinner in that, are you?”

“Why not?” Asuka idly answered, smoothing out the hem of her skirt as she settled in and idly flipped through a magazine. “We’re just going over to Shinji’s dad’s house for dinner. It’s not like it’s a fancy gala or anything.”

“But it is,” Misato reminded her, “dinner with your superior officer. Shouldn’t you be a little formal?”

“I mean, it’s not like Wonder Girl and Blunder Girl are gonna be dressed any differently.”


“I meant, it’s not like Rei and Shinji are gonna be dressed any differently. Happy?”

Resting her hands under her chin, Misato smiled slyly. “Well, then… I guess Shinji’s gonna upstage you tonight…”

Asuka scowled and set the magazine down. “What?”

“I am?” Shinji asked.

“Yup. Shinji’s gonna look her best,” Misato chirped, resting an arm across Shinji’s shoulders, “and you just might be surprised how pretty she can be!”

“What?” Shinji asked.

Galvanized into action, Asuka leaped up from her chair and hurried off to pick out a dress, then rushed into the bathroom mere seconds later with her choice of clothes and a bag of toiletries trailing behind her. The bathroom door slammed hard enough that the ceiling lights flickered.

Misato shook her head. “So easy to push her buttons.” She patted Shinji on the back. “C’mon, let’s get started!”

Under Misato’s watchful eye, Shinji rifled through her clothes. The black blouse Rei had bought for her seemed like the best option for a top; it was the nicest shirt she had. As for what to pair it with…

“The black skirt is gonna go well with that,” Misato said, “but you’ll need something around your waist to break up the monotony, like a belt. Got a belt?”

“I didn’t think about that.”

“It’s okay, you’re learning. I think I have one that’ll look great on you. Hold on.”

“I don’t know,” Shinji said as she held up her blouse in front of her. “I—I like these clothes, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable wearing them in front of Father…”

“Oh, come on,” Misato reassured her. “You wore your school clothes when you went with him to the cemetery, didn’t you? It’s not like Commander Ikari hasn’t seen you as a girl before.”

“W-Well, yes, but…” Shinji looked down at all the makeup peeking out of Misato’s handbag. “I’ve never looked… pretty in front of him.”

“Well, first time for everything!” Misato’s cheer was unquenchable. “This is the perfect opportunity to show your father the young woman you’re becoming!”

“Actually,” Shinji said, “maybe I just shouldn’t go. I feel sick when I’m around him.”

“That’s just your anxiety talking. Look, this is a great way for you two to connect; I’m sure you’ll feel a lot more comfortable around each other by the end of the day!”

I’m not sure that’s possible, Shinji wanted to say. She’d lived with her father until she was twelve; she knew full well that his heart and mind was a closed book. A closed book with all of its pages glued together.

Misato rushed to her room to rummage through her things. While she was alone, Shinji hastily slipped out of her uniform and got dressed. Out of curiosity, she went for her old clothes—boy’s clothes, she thought with distaste, wrinkling her nose—and found her belt. She tucked in her blouse and cinched the belt around her waist.

It did bring the outfit together.

Someone knocked on the door. “It’s open!” Shinji called out.

Misato slid the door open and barged back into the bedroom, a wide blue sash streaming triumphantly from her hand. “Found it!”

“That looks like it goes with a kimono,” Shinji pointed out as Misato tied it around her waist. “Maybe it’s too fancy…”

“Nah, it’s fine. Sashes are really coming back in style.” Misato knotted the ends of the sash into a blossoming ribbon.

“I’ve never seen you wear one.”

“They’re sort of a casual-formal thing. Too fancy to go with jeans and a T-shirt, too light and airy for office attire.” Those were the only kinds of outfits Misato wore, so it was no wonder Shinji had never seen her wearing that sash.

Misato stepped back and scratched her chin thoughtfully. “Hmm. You want it tied in the front, or on the side?”

Shinji shrugged. “Dunno.”

Misato loosened the knot, slid the sash over, and re-tightened it. “You get a cool asymmetric look this way. Now, about padding…”

Shinji crossed her arms as though to guard her chest. “I-I’m not comfortable stuffing my bra,” she said for the umpteenth time.

“It’s just like makeup. It enhances things. I did it when I was your age.”

“I’m not gonna pretend to have breasts in front of my father.”

Thankfully, Misato ceded the point. “Y’know, when you put it that way, yeah, that’s fair.”

Next was makeup. While Shinji hadn’t been keen on this makeover at first, this actually got her excited.

Misato held a hand mirror in front of Shinji’s face so she could see the work she was doing and started applying foundation. “Gotta get some concealer to take care of all that gray under your eyes.”

Shinji reflexively reached up and ran a finger along the contour of her eye socket. Her skin really was gray underneath her eyes, almost corpselike.

“Haven’t been sleeping well, huh?” Misato began to rub a tiny bit of concealer into her skin. “That’s all right, you’ll look like Sleeping Beauty in a sec.”

Shinji watched herself through the mirror as her caretaker’s bandaged fingers danced across her face like a paintbrush across a canvas, leaving behind skin that looked almost radiant. “N-not too heavy,” she cautioned her.

“Hmph. Ritsy’s gotten to you, hasn’t she? You should see her when she goes out on the town. Hypocrite.”

“I’d just like it subtle for tonight, that’s all.”

“Gotcha. Nude it is.”

“Um… nude?”

“It’s how much we put on to make men think we’re not wearing any. A little bit goes a long way.” A dusting of blush and bronzer, a little bit of eyeshadow (just a little, Misato explained, so as not to undo the concealer hiding the bags under her eyes), a deft touch of mascara, wetly-shining lip gloss…

“And… done!” Misato beamed, angling the mirror to give Shinji a better look.

“That’s a lot of work for… nude… makeup…” Shinji trailed off, transfixed by her own reflection. She hardly recognized herself. It was as if someone had embedded lights under her skin. She looked radiant.

She looked radiant. She let that thought sink in. Her face was fuller, richer, healthier, happier; there was brightness tracing every curve and contour of her cheeks, her nose, her eyebrows, her chin.

“I’d like to see Asuka beat that.” Misato gave Shinji a hearty pat on the back, then clutched at her hand, wincing.

Shinji was running a comb through her hair when Asuka emerged from her self-imposed exile in the bathroom with all the grandeur of a queen greeting her subjects. Her auburn hair was freshly washed and conditioned and blow-dried, trailing silkily behind her; her A10 nerve connectors sat on her head like a tiara and shone like rubies nestled in her hair. She wore the same airy, pastel yellow dress she’d worn when Shinji had first met her; a floral perfume clung to her neck.

“Well,” Asuka said, placing her hands on her hips. “You were right, Misato. I actually am surprised. Not bad, Shinko.”

The handcuffs, Kaworu thought, were unnecessary, as were the armed guards glowering at him as they flanked the room’s only exit. And there was no reason for him to be stripped down to his bare skin and wait here for an entire day. It was all simply theatrics. SEELE did enjoy its theatrics. It let them remind him who were the masters and who was the servant.

The room was vast enough and dark enough that beyond the spotlight shining down on him, he couldn’t see the walls. He may as well have been set adrift in an infinite sea, silent and dark and lifeless.

Twenty hours by his count spent sitting in this room, clapped in irons, in a room that was just a little too cold while he awaited his masters’ judgment. Just because he was accustomed to solitude didn’t mean it wasn’t torture.

The worst of it was the way his chest itched. He didn’t always need his binder, but it was nice to have it when he did. If only he’d been permitted to bring it with him—for the past few hours, the weight on his chest had felt like a splinter in his mind, like…

Well, an albatross around his neck.

All this for sneaking out on my own after bedtime, he mused, barely mustering a twitch at the corner of his mouth. The joke fell flat even with an audience of one. He knew this wasn’t a simple matter of young adolescent rebellion, and SEELE knew that just as well as he.

This, he feared, was about him hiding Shinji from them. They knew where his true loyalties lay.

He was beginning to grow tired of his masters. He’d never have told them that, of course—he’d never be so ungrateful to the people who fed, clothed, and sheltered him—but his actions spoke for themselves.

At last, six black monoliths materialized in the air, all circling him. Kaworu felt just as many pairs of eyes burn his skin and hunched over a bit in his chair in a vain attempt to hide his shame.

The monolith directly in front of him, labeled SEELE 01, spoke and broke the silence like the prow of a ship casting its rough and frothy wake through a placid sea.

Kᴀᴡᴏʀᴜ Nᴀɢɪsᴀ.

“Hello, Uncle Keel.”

Yᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʙᴇᴇɴ ʟʏɪɴɢ ᴛᴏ ᴜs.

Kaworu tried to gulp as surreptitiously as he could. “Oh, no, never. I haven’t spoken a single untruth to you since the moment I was born.” He couldn’t stop his voice from catching. He had to do better than this.

Yᴏᴜʀs, SEELE 03 spoke, ᴀʀᴇ ʟɪᴇs ᴏꜰ ᴏᴍɪssɪᴏɴ.

“I beg your pardon?”

Yᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʙᴇᴇɴ sʜɪʀᴋɪɴɢ ɪɴ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴅᴜᴛɪᴇs ᴀs ᴀ sᴇᴇʀ, said 04. Wᴇ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʜᴀᴅ ᴛᴏ ᴘʀᴏᴄᴜʀᴇ ᴄʀᴜᴄɪᴀʟ ɪɴꜰᴏʀᴍᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ᴠɪᴀ ᴏᴜʀ ᴀɴᴀʟᴏɢ sᴘʏ ɴᴇᴛᴡᴏʀᴋ.

Kaworu tried to shrug. His shoulders were stiff and achy. “Is there anything wrong with some good, old-fashioned legwork every now and then?”

Wᴇ ʙᴇɢ ᴛᴏ ᴅɪꜰꜰᴇʀ, 04 said.

As ᴀ ʀᴇsᴜʟᴛ ᴏꜰ ʏᴏᴜʀ ʟᴀᴢɪɴᴇss, ᴡᴇ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʟᴏsᴛ ᴏᴜʀ ᴇᴅɢᴇ. Oʙsᴇʀᴠᴇ. 01 projected a photograph onto its matte black surface.

It was a grainy, very slightly blurry photograph of three girls all standing at a train station. The First Child, Rei Ayanami, the Second Child, Asuka Langley Soryu, and…

Kaworu feigned ignorance. “I’m sorry, am I supposed to…”

Tʜᴀᴛ, 02 said, ɪs ᴛʜᴇ Tʜɪʀᴅ Cʜɪʟᴅ, Sʜɪɴᴊɪ Iᴋᴀʀɪ.

“Is it?”

Tᴇʟʟ ᴍᴇ, Nᴀɢɪsᴀ, 05 asked, ʜᴀs ᴛʜᴇ Tʜɪʀᴅ Cʜɪʟᴅ ᴀʟᴡᴀʏs ʙᴇᴇɴ ᴀ ɢɪʀʟ?

Kaworu detected a note of sarcasm in the monolith’s booming voice and decided that the question was rhetorical. He answered it anyway.

“Per… haps,” he said. He felt a bead of sweat drip down the back of his neck.

The monoliths erupted into a cacophony of booming voices.

Tʜɪs ɪs ᴇxᴀᴄᴛʟʏ ᴛʜᴇ ᴛʏᴘᴇ ᴏꜰ ɪɴꜰᴏʀᴍᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ᴏᴜʀ sᴇᴇʀ sʜᴏᴜʟᴅ ʙᴇ ɢᴀᴛʜᴇʀɪɴɢ.

A ᴅʀᴀsᴛɪᴄ ᴅᴇᴘᴀʀᴛᴜʀᴇ ꜰʀᴏᴍ ᴄᴀɴᴏɴ.

Wʜᴏ ᴋɴᴏᴡs ᴡʜᴀᴛ ɪᴍᴘᴀᴄᴛ ᴛʜɪs ᴍᴀʏ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴏɴ ᴏᴜʀ ᴘʟᴀɴs?

Nᴏ ᴇᴠᴇɴᴛ ʀᴇᴍᴏᴛᴇʟʏ ʟɪᴋᴇ ɪᴛ ɪs ᴡʀɪᴛᴛᴇɴ ɪɴ ᴛʜᴇ Lɪʙʀᴀʀʏ ᴏꜰ Aᴅᴀᴍs.

Hᴀᴠᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ᴋɴᴏᴡɪɴɢʟʏ ʜɪᴅᴅᴇɴ ᴛʜɪs ɪɴꜰᴏʀᴍᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ꜰʀᴏᴍ ᴜs, Nᴀɢɪsᴀ?

Kaworu bowed his head in a vain attempt to avoid the piercing gazes and incensed shouts of his masters.

Sɪʟᴇɴᴄᴇ, 01 spoke. The others quieted. Kᴀᴡᴏʀᴜ, ᴡᴇʀᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ᴀᴡᴀʀᴇ ᴏꜰ ᴛʜɪs?

“No, sir.”

Yᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ɴᴏᴛ ᴏʙsᴇʀᴠᴇᴅ Sʜɪɴᴊɪ Iᴋᴀʀɪ ᴀᴛ ᴀʟʟ ᴏᴠᴇʀ ᴛʜᴇ ᴘᴀsᴛ ᴛᴡᴏ ᴍᴏɴᴛʜs?

“No, sir,” he lied. “My attention was elsewhere. It was an oversight on my part for which I humbly and wholeheartedly apologize.” Anything to keep her away from here. They can’t know. They can’t…

Vᴇʀʏ ᴡᴇʟʟ. Aɴsᴡᴇʀ ᴜs ᴏɴᴇ ʟᴀsᴛ ǫᴜᴇsᴛɪᴏɴ.

One last question. Kaworu sighed and took a deep breath. If he could bluff his way through one question, then maybe…

Dᴏ ʏᴏᴜ ᴛʜɪɴᴋ Sʜɪɴᴊɪ Iᴋᴀʀɪ ᴍᴀʏ ʙᴇ ᴀɴ ᴇsᴘᴇʀ?

Kaworu nearly laughed. “Of course not,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to compare her to me. She’s quite human… regardless of what some of those in your ranks might think.”

Aʀᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ᴄᴇʀᴛᴀɪɴ sʜᴇ ʜᴀs ɴᴏᴛ ᴇxʜɪʙɪᴛᴇᴅ ᴀɴʏ ᴜɴɪǫᴜᴇ ᴘᴏᴡᴇʀs ᴏꜰ ᴘᴇʀᴄᴇᴘᴛɪᴏɴ? 04 asked.

“Yes, yes. I’m quite certain.” Kaworu nodded, elated. He was knocking this one out of the park, so to speak. He could still salvage this. He could still keep the seven eyes of SEELE pointed elsewhere. “She hasn’t once been able to see me—”

01 cut him off. Tʜᴇɴ ʏᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴏʙsᴇʀᴠᴇᴅ ʜᴇʀ.

Kaworu hadn’t realized that he’d let that slip until the monolith cut off his train of thought. He fell silent and chewed on his lip.

He didn’t often panic, no matter how he felt on the inside. It took a lot to make him crack. A placid demeanor was his sword and his shield. But this…

This was bad.

Yᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʜɪᴅᴅᴇɴ ʜᴇʀ ꜰʀᴏᴍ ᴜs, said 01.

The other monoliths erupted yet again.

Lɪᴇs ᴏꜰ ᴏᴍɪssɪᴏɴ.

Wᴇ ᴋɴᴇᴡ ɪᴛ.

Aꜰᴛᴇʀ ᴇᴠᴇʀʏᴛʜɪɴɢ ᴡᴇ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴅᴏɴᴇ ꜰᴏʀ ʏᴏᴜ!

Yᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʙᴇᴛʀᴀʏᴇᴅ SEELE.

Hᴏᴡ ᴄᴀɴ ʏᴏᴜ ᴇxᴘᴇᴄᴛ ᴜs ᴛᴏ sᴛᴀɴᴅ ꜰᴏʀ ᴛʜɪs?

“No, it’s—It’s not—” Kaworu could feel sweat and tears alike burning his eyes. He’d been a fool to think he could hide Shinji from these people. And he’d lied to his own caretakers. How could he have been so foolish as to burn this bridge while he still stood on it?

Sɪʟᴇɴᴄᴇ. Once again, the lead monolith shut up its peers. Yᴏᴜʀ ɴᴏɴᴄᴏᴍᴘʟɪᴀɴᴄᴇ sᴀᴅᴅᴇɴs ᴜs ᴀʟʟ, Kᴀᴡᴏʀᴜ.

“I’m sorry, Uncle Keel.”

Wᴇ ᴅɪᴅ ɴᴏᴛ ʀᴀɪsᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ᴛᴏ ʙɪᴛᴇ ᴛʜᴇ ʜᴀɴᴅ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ꜰᴇᴇᴅs ʏᴏᴜ. Yᴏᴜ sʜᴀʟʟ ʙᴇ ᴘᴜɴɪsʜᴇᴅ ꜰᴏʀ ᴛʜɪs.

“Yes, Uncle Keel.”

Wᴇ sʜᴀʟʟ ᴡɪᴛʜʜᴏʟᴅ ꜰʀᴏᴍ ʏᴏᴜ ᴄᴇʀᴛᴀɪɴ ᴘʀɪᴠɪʟᴇɢᴇs ᴜɴᴛɪʟ ʏᴏᴜ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴅᴇᴍᴏɴsᴛʀᴀᴛᴇᴅ ᴛᴏ ᴜs ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴛʀᴜsᴛᴡᴏʀᴛʜɪɴᴇss ᴏɴᴄᴇ ᴍᴏʀᴇ. Dᴏ ʏᴏᴜ ᴜɴᴅᴇʀsᴛᴀɴᴅ?

Kaworu nodded.

Yᴏᴜ ᴡɪʟʟ ɴᴏᴛ ʀᴇᴛᴜʀɴ ᴛᴏ ᴛʜᴇ sᴄʀʏɪɴɢ ᴘᴏᴏʟ ᴜɴᴛɪʟ ᴡᴇ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴜᴘɢʀᴀᴅᴇᴅ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴍᴏɴɪᴛᴏʀɪɴɢ ᴇǫᴜɪᴘᴍᴇɴᴛ. Uɴᴛɪʟ ᴛʜᴇɴ, ʏᴏᴜ ᴡɪʟʟ ʙᴇ ᴘʟᴀᴄᴇᴅ ɪɴ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴀᴜxɪʟɪᴀʀʏ ǫᴜᴀʀᴛᴇʀs.

Auxiliary quarters. There was nothing else in this entire facility more boring than his auxiliary quarters. At least at the scrying pool, he had a bookshelf. A bookshelf with books in it.

Fᴏʀ ɴᴏᴡ, ᴛʜᴏᴜɢʜ, ᴡᴇ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴀɴ ᴜʀɢᴇɴᴛ ɴᴇᴇᴅ ꜰᴏʀ ʏᴏᴜ. A ɴᴇᴡ ʙᴏᴏᴋ ʜᴀs ᴀᴘᴘᴇᴀʀᴇᴅ ɪɴ ᴛʜᴇ Lɪʙʀᴀʀʏ ᴏꜰ Aᴅᴀᴍs. Yᴏᴜ ᴀʀᴇ ᴛᴏ ʀᴇᴀᴅ ɪᴛ ɪɴ ꜰᴜʟʟ ᴀɴᴅ ᴄʀᴏss-ʀᴇꜰᴇʀᴇɴᴄᴇ ɪᴛs ᴅɪᴠᴇʀsɪᴏɴs ᴡɪᴛʜ ᴛʜᴇ ʀᴇsᴛ ᴏꜰ ᴛʜᴇ ᴄᴏʟʟᴇᴄᴛɪᴏɴ. Tʜɪs ᴍᴜsᴛ ʙᴇ ᴄᴏᴍᴘʟᴇᴛᴇᴅ ʙᴇꜰᴏʀᴇ ᴛʜᴇ Tʜɪʀᴛᴇᴇɴᴛʜ Aɴɢᴇʟ ʀᴇᴠᴇᴀʟs ɪᴛsᴇʟꜰ.

“Yes. I understand.” As if in prayer, Kaworu closed his eyes and folded his manacled hands in his lap, the steel bindings around his wrists cold against his bare thighs. “Thy will be done.”

Cᴏᴍᴘʟᴇᴛᴇ ᴛʜɪs ᴛᴀsᴋ ɪɴ ᴀ ᴛɪᴍᴇʟʏ ꜰᴀsʜɪᴏɴ ᴀɴᴅ ᴡᴇ ᴡɪʟʟ ᴄᴏɴsɪᴅᴇʀ ʟɪɢʜᴛᴇɴɪɴɢ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴘᴜɴɪsʜᴍᴇɴᴛ.

One by one, the monoliths dissolved into empty space. When the last of them had vanished, Kaworu let out a resigned, remorseful sigh.

Though he’d always known his home to be a gilded cage, it had always felt more gilded than cage to him—until now.

He lifted his hands and pulled them apart until the woven steel fibers connecting his manacles went taut. What irony for the likes of him to be held in such bondage.

His resolve was firmer now than ever, though he’d never been more powerless. Somehow, he’d keep his masters from adding another eye to their face.

The guards came to his side. One unclasped the cuffs around his left wrist, letting the manacles dangle from his right; the other shoved his robe into his arms. “Put this on. You’re going to the Library.”

Kaworu nodded, threw the robe over his shoulders, and slipped back into it, cinching its sash around his waist to hold it in place.

The floor was cold against the soles of his bare feet as the guards marched him down the winding halls of the complex, past the door to the scrying pool, into an elevator, and down to the Library.

Shinji took a deep breath and rapped her knuckles on the door to Commander Ikari’s apartment.

Asuka rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on, that’s a wimpy knock. No one’s gonna hear that.”

The door opened. Commander Ikari stood on the other side, towering over the two pilots, a grave and stony look on his face (but what else was new?) as he looked down at them through the tinted lenses of his glasses. He was still wearing his NERV uniform, although he’d casually unbuttoned the top button of his coat.

Shinji could feel herself being dissected by her father’s gaze, as though he were analyzing with ruthless and mechanical efficiency every single article of clothing she wore, the way she’d done her hair, every single bit of makeup on her face. Like gamma radiation passing through her body, his gaze left a trail of fire under her skin in its wake.

“H-Hello, Father,” she mumbled, staring down at her shoes.

Commander Ikari turned his back on the two of them. “Shinji. Soryu. Come inside.”

The closest Shinji had ever come to entering her father’s home had been when she’d first arrived in Tokyo-III—or, more specifically, after she’d been discharged from the hospital following her sortie with the Third Angel. She’d only managed to get as far as the threshold before Commander Ikari had rebuffed her and informed her that she would have her own lodgings provided to her by NERV, just as they did for Rei. It had been then that Misato had swooped in and offered to take care of her.

She didn’t know what to expect from the inside of Commander Ikari’s apartment, but what she saw upon stepping over the threshold didn’t surprise her at all.

The foyer was clean, pristine, and nearly completely empty, and from what she could see down the hallway, Shinji had no reason to believe any of the other rooms in the apartment were any different. There was nothing on the walls, no furniture, nothing unique or interesting at all. If somebody had told Shinji that her father had only moved into this place yesterday, she would have believed them. The only sign of life in this place was the strong, savory aroma wafting through the air.

Shinji slipped off her shoes and set them down beside the door; Asuka did the same.

“Your dad’s not big on interior decorating, is he?” Asuka whispered to her.

“I guess not,” Shinji replied.

“Well, at least he cleans up after himself.”

“Rei, the other Children are here,” Commander Ikari announced in the general direction of the kitchen.

Rei stepped out into the hallway. Unlike Shinji and Asuka, she hadn’t gotten dressed up for the occasion; the only change to her outfit was a pink apron draped over the front of her school uniform. “Ikari, Soryu, thank you for coming.”

Asuka groaned inwardly. “Figures. We get all gussied up and Wonder Girl barely does anything. She’s worse at being a girl than you, Shinko.”

“Remember your punishment,” Shinji hissed at Asuka.

“Right, I’ve got to say nice things to Rei. What are you gonna do, shove your hand up my ass and work my mouth like a ventriloquist dummy?”

“Um… no?” Shinji turned her attention to Rei. You look nice, Ayanami,” she told her, almost as if in defiance of Asuka’s snarky remark. “That apron looks cute on you.”

“Thank you, Ikari.”

Commander Ikari withdrew his gloved hand from his coat and rested it on Rei’s shoulder. “Rei, it’s time. Prepare…”

Shinji didn’t hear the rest of what her father said to Rei; it faded away into indistinct and muted burbling as her temples throbbed. She squeezed her eyes shut and pinched at her forehead as though to press the pressure out of her skull, sucking air in through her gritted teeth and hissing it out. It was just like the last time she’d been around him; somehow, something about seeing his hand triggered these pounding migraines.

She recalled the strange dream she’d had in the Twelfth Angel’s depths. That slimy, rotting thing grafted to her father’s palm. It couldn’t be anything more than just a dream, right?

“What’s the matter? Scared?” Asuka taunted her.

As the pounding inside her skull subsided, Shinji shook her head. “N-Nothing. I just get headaches sometimes, that’s all.”

She and Asuka followed Rei and Commander Ikari to the table. Rei held onto a large pot by the handles; Shinji noticed that there were bandages wrapped around her pale fingers. Evidently, Rei had had a few accidents with a knife while preparing dinner. She hoped Rei had remembered to throw out any food that had gotten blood on it—hygiene was vital for cooking, especially cooking for other people. Shinji wasn’t sure what diseases could be transmitted through trace amounts of thoroughly-cooked blood, but it was always better to be safe than sorry.

She could still taste blood in her mouth, faint as it was; she’d rather not have any in her food.

Rei set out three bowls around the table and ladled into each a portion of white rice and brown curry laden with chunks of beef, potatoes, and carrots. Shinji’s stomach squealed and twisted itself into knots; for the first time since lunch, she realized that she was hungry, and that beef curry looked (and smelled) incredible.

As she took her place at the table, Shinji looked around and realized that there were four of them but only three bowls. “Ayanami, what are you going to eat?”

Without a word, Rei headed back to the kitchen counter and brought back her own bowl of vegetarian curry.

Dinner passed in silence, in stark contrast to the (often one-sided) banter that would drift across the table at Misato’s apartment (she’d keep up an entire conversation by herself if she had to). Commander Ikari was laconic to say the least and seemed to have no interest in small talk of any kind. Not that Shinji was any different, usually; she tended to speak only when spoken to, if even then. But her father’s stern silence was almost cloying.

Shinji tried to focus on the food. The curry was mild and slightly sweet beneath its rich and savory flavor, the beef as tender as the carrots and potatoes. She’d had no idea Rei could cook this well. Had she been practicing?

“So, Commander Ikari,” Asuka said breaking the silence, “Shinji needs help coming up with a new name. Do you have any suggestions?”

Shinji nearly choked on her curry. “Asuka!” she hissed, trying to nudge her in the side. “Cut it out!”

Commander Ikari looked up from his meal. The light hit his glasses just right so that Shinji couldn’t tell whether or not he was looking at her. Shinji felt the beginnings of another migraine coming on and quickly averted her gaze.

“It’s just that you came out like two months ago and you don’t even have a top five picked out,” Asuka told her, shrugging. “Sooner or later, you’re gonna have to come up with something.”

“I-It’s fine,” Shinji stammered, tucking in her chin and slouching in an effort to look as small as possible. “Actually, I’ve figured one out. I just don’t want to talk about it here.”

Asuka, unfortunately, seemed to be able to tell that she was lying. “Sure you did. Anyway, Commander, this is something you might have unique insight into, right? Before Shinji was born, did you and her mom have any other names picked out, sir?” She added the sir the way one might plop a cherry on top of a sundae.

“No,” Commander Ikari said before diverting his attention back to dinner.

“You mean you weren’t prepared in case your kid turned out to be a girl?”

Shinji wondered if she should pretend to have to use the bathroom, but she felt so mortified by Asuka’s questioning that she didn’t even have the willpower to do that. She felt like a dead butterfly being pinned to a corkboard.

“No,” Commander Ikari replied. He sounded more than a little irked; Shinji wished Asuka would shut up for her sake at least.

“Well, you turned out to be wrong all along, so I guess that was an oversight on your part.”

Commander Ikari responded with a noncommittal grunt and went back to eating.

Shinji buried her face in her hands. She didn’t know who she wanted to kill more right now—Asuka or herself.

“Asuka, can you please not?” she hissed.

Asuka shrugged. “I’m just trying to help,” she said, fully aware that she wasn’t helping.

Silence settled over the table yet again.

Shinji’s headache just got worse as dinner dragged on; it throbbed like a symphony of jackhammers pounding away at the inside of her skull. By the time it reached its crescendo, she could hardly even taste her food through the haze blanketing her mind. Her lungs felt like they were filled with concrete.

“Father,” she squeaked at long last, “wh-where’s the bathroom?”

Without so much as a word—without even looking up from his meal to acknowledge her presence—Commander Ikari gestured to a room off to the side.

“Thank you,” Shinji mumbled before rushing off.

It wasn’t until she’d closed the door behind her that she felt she could think again.

This dinner was exactly the disaster she’d expected it to be. Worse, even. It was almost as though being around her father made her sick, and—

And he wouldn’t look at her.

He’d barely even glance at her. It was like he was ashamed.

He was ashamed of her.

All the effort she’d put into looking pretty for tonight and all of it for nothing. She disgusted him.

Why should I care, though? she asked herself. Father never cared about me before. Is this really that much of a step down?

Yes. Yes, it was. Commander Gendo Ikari had a withering glare that could kill a man. Shinji knew it well. She wasn’t even getting that from him now.

He really was ashamed of her. Disgusted by her, embarrassed by her. Maybe even revolted.

What did he want to say to her? If he wanted to say anything to her? Enough of this farce. Enough playing pretend with makeup and skirts. Go back to what you were before. Give me back the son I was proud of.

She could hear the unspoken word under her father’s silence—stop. Of course, that was what he wanted, wasn’t it? For her to set aside this stupid charade and bury all these feelings and desires down deeper and deeper until maybe sixty years from now when she was old and gray and wrinkly and balding she could lie down and die pretending that her last thoughts weren’t I wish I’d been a woman, because that was what she was supposed to do, wasn’t it?

It didn’t matter that it made her feel happy. No, not happy, satisfied, if only just a little bit, if it were only just one thing she could cling to amid the inescapable maelstrom of her life. That she was a girl, even if she had to scream it in defiance of her own body, and that she could cling to that—that she would grow up to be a woman (if she grew up at all). That for once in her life, there was something she treasured—and it was hers.

None of that mattered to her father, who would never look at her and see a daughter—only a boy in an ill-fitting disguise.

Was that all anyone else saw, too? Asuka, who told her to stand up for herself and stop being an embarrassment to the fairer sex; Rei, who had taken such a keen interest in her experiences; Misato and Ritsuko, who took such great pains to validate her; Touji and Kensuke, who were ‘one hundred fifty percent’ on her side, no matter what; Hikari, who told her girls help each other out… Were they all just patronizing her?

No, no, it’s fine for you to use the girls’ bathroom, Shinji, you poor, deluded little freak. By all means, go do phys ed with the girls; we don’t mind. Here are your pills, Shinji, they’ll change your body eventually; here’s your school uniform, here’s your new plugsuit, Shinji, oh you look just like one of the girls in it! You look so cute in a skirt, darling little Shinko, we’re so glad you feel so validated; we wouldn’t want to say anything to hurt poor little mentally ill Shinko’s feelings, would we? He—I mean, she—she’s so delicate, and we all know we need him—oh, I’m so sorry, her—to pilot Unit-01. We’re all laughing at you behind your back and you don’t even notice, new girl, because you’re so desperate, you soak up validation like a sponge…

At least the bullies were honest.

Maybe it was the headache still pounding against her skull, maybe it was the nausea still swirling around in her stomach, maybe it was the years of pent-up frustration, maybe it was just hormones. Whatever the cause, it felt like a dam had burst.

She hated her father.

The one thing that made her feel as though her life was worth living and he’d spoiled it without saying anything more than one word.

Taking a ragged, shuddering breath and trying to calm herself down as her tears stung at her eyes, she ran the faucet, waited for the water to turn ice cold, and cupped her hands under the running stream.

She splashed the cold water against her face, the shock of the water hitting her skin pushing away everything, the headache, the heartache, the nausea.

She looked at herself in the mirror and saw blurred gray-black streaks running down her cheeks like tears made of soot.

Great. On top of everything, now her mascara was running.

She washed as much of it off as she could, rinsing her face and toweling it dry until the towel was spattered with streaks of black and pink and flesh-tone and the face she saw in the mirror looked like her father’s son again.

I mustn’t run away, she told herself, and though all she wanted was to lock herself in this bathroom and cry until she’d dehydrated herself, she wiped her eyes dry and returned to dinner.

If anyone noticed that she’d taken off her makeup or that her eyes were red and puffy from crying, no one saw fit to comment on it. While Asuka helped herself to seconds, Shinji picked at what little was left in her bowl, nibbling every once in a while on a few curry-soaked grains of rice just to keep up appearances that she was still hungry.

At long last, after what had felt like hours, everyone was satisfied.

“Thank you for dinner, Commander,” Asuka said as she stood up to leave.

“You’re welcome,” Rei said. There was a faint wry undercurrent to her voice, or maybe Shinji was just imagining it.

Happy that this ordeal was finally coming to an end, Shinji stood up and bowed. “W-We appreciate your hospitality, Father,” she stammered. She was well acquainted with the warm, heady feeling of finally leaving a social engagement that had dragged on too long, but had never felt it so strongly. “And Ayanami, thank you for the food. Y-You’re an amazing cook.”

“Thank you,” Rei said.

Commander Ikari took her bowl. “Rei, go with them. I’ll clean up.”

“Yes. Thank you, Commander.”

Shinji felt a pang of jealousy stab at her heart. The way her father spoke to Rei… it was almost as though she was his daughter.

That was why he didn’t care about Shinji. He had Rei, and she was perfect for him.

Asuka stepped out the front door first; Shinji headed out after her. Just as she’d slipped her shoes back on, though, her father spoke.

“Shinji. One moment.”

Gendo Ikari hardly ever raised his voice. The natural low, restrained timbre of his voice rang out nevertheless.

“Y-Yes, Father?” Shinji hurriedly stood up and smoothed out her skirt as the door Asuka had opened swung shut behind her.

Before he answered, Commander Ikari turned to Rei. “Rei, wait outside with the Second Child.”

Rei bowed. “Yes, sir,” she said, and with her usual silent grace, she left.

Shinji stood alone in the foyer, her father standing across the barren room from her.

“What is it?” she asked, trying not to look so lost. She felt as though she were adrift at sea. And the headache was coming back. And the nausea. She wanted so badly to be anywhere but here.

The silence seemed to last forever. In that span of time, there were a million things running through Shinji’s head—things her father might say to her here, whether it was as bland and banal as thank you for coming or as precious or elusive as I’m proud of you.

She could feel her father staring at her, could feel the radioactive fire under her skin, but behind his glasses and in the dim light of the foyer, she couldn’t make out his eyes or the expression on his face.

What did he think about her? How did he feel about her? Why couldn’t he just tell her?

After an agonizing eternity or two during which her father refused or was unable to speak, Shinji decided to break the silence herself.

“Um, F-Father, y-your hand,” she stammered, “um… I noticed you’re still wearing gloves. Do they still hurt? Your hands, not your gloves.”

The corner of the commander’s mouth twitched. He was taken aback. “No,” he said, “they don’t hurt.”

“Can I… s-see them?” Shinji asked. A chill ran up her spine and she suppressed the urge to shiver. Her stomach kept churning; she could taste bile in the back of her throat. But she had to know if her dream had been just a dream.

Without protest, Commander Ikari removed one glove, then the other, and stuffed them in his pockets. His hands were rough, his knuckles cracked and chapped; the skin on his palms was smooth and shiny, though, just as one would expect from a recently-healed burn. It hurt to look at, hurt like it was stabbing needles into her eyes, but it was nothing out of the ordinary.

Shinji blinked away tears of pain. There must have just been something wrong with her. Too much stress, her imagination running away from her; maybe she was on the verge of a mental breakdown—

It was there, on his hand. As though her tears had torn from it its veil of invisibility; the grotesque cyclopean creature clung to Commander Ikari’s right palm, its twisted and coiled body pulsing like a beating heart, channels of black ichor running under translucent gray flesh. Its single eye, wide and white with a pinprick pupil, fixated on Shinji.

She blinked and it was gone.

Struggling to breathe, Shinji slowly backed away toward the door, her heart pounding. “Th-That’s all,” she croaked. “I’m glad you’re okay, Father.”

“Your concern is appreciated, but unnecessary.” Commander Ikari stuffed his hands into his pockets, alleviating the pressure crushing Shinji’s brain. “My personal health is of little import to you.”

It was like he didn’t even see himself as her father (but then again, what else was new?).

Shinji quelled her racing heartbeat. “Was there anything else you wanted to say to me?” she asked.

Commander Ikari nodded. “Are you serious about changing your name?”

“O-Of course,” Shinji answered, anxiously kneading her hands as a quiet, cold dread trickled through her mind. “I can’t have a boy’s name forever…”

The impassive, flat non-expression Commander Ikari typically wore broke into a scowl. “That name,” he said, “is a gift from your mother. I forbid you to throw it away.”

“But Father—”

He turned his back to her. “Thank you for attending Rei’s dinner. Now go home, Shinji.”

Shinji had never been so stung by the sound of her own name. She balled her fists, her fingernails biting into her palms as all of the anguish that had burdened her mind over the course of this stupid dinner came flooding back. “You forbid me?” she seethed. “How dare you act like a father now of all times!”

“Good night, Shinji.”

One of the many German words Asuka used when she was mad (mostly when she was mad at her) sprang to the forefront of her mind. She didn’t know what it meant, of course, but it sounded angry and she was angry.

“Good night,” she snarled back at him, “fickfehler!”

She hurried out before she could fully realize what she’d said to him.

Shinji made her way back to Misato’s apartment on autopilot, aimlessly trailing behind Asuka all the way home. It was almost as though she’d been unconscious—by the time she’d come to her senses, she was sitting at the table waiting her turn to use the bathroom while Asuka washed up and got ready for bed.

If she’d had her wits about her earlier, she’d have tried to get in first, because she really needed to pee.

Misato was out like a light; Shinji could hear her snoring from within the master bedroom. Pen Pen was rummaging through the fridge trying to sneak a can of beer; Shinji didn’t feel like trying to stop him. To distract herself from the fact that her bladder was about to explode, she tried to focus on things she wished she could have said to her father—mostly what meaner and nastier things she could have said than one of Asuka’s inscrutable foreign insults.

“Bathroom’s all yours, beauty queen.” Asuka announced as she stepped back out, clad in the oversize T-shirt she’d wear to bed, her dress neatly folded under one arm. “Ich bin fix und fertig; that dinner felt like it lasted forever! Commander Ikari sure is a chatterbox, isn’t he?” she asked sarcastically, rolling her eyes as she tossed her clothes into the laundry hamper. “Guess you really are his daughter.”

Shinji barely even heard her. In fact, she nearly pushed her over in her mad dash to the bathroom.

It wasn’t until she’d finished washing up that she realized what Asuka had said.

“I wish I wasn’t,” she muttered, spitting toothpaste into the sink. Whatever act of god had taken away her mother had taken the wrong parent.

Shinji turned off the lights in the apartment and trudged to the bedroom. Weary, she all but collapsed onto her sleeping mat. From seeing things that weren’t there and having the mother of all headaches to getting into a one-sided shouting match with her father (and, she had to remind herself, her commanding officer), the past few hours had been an unrelenting slog of misery.

“So,” Asuka asked, “what was your little chat with the Commander about?” She held back a yawn to no avail. “Daddy giving his little girl a promotion for her outstanding performance?”

“No. It wasn’t important. But I, uh…” Shinji sighed. “I got mad and—”

“You got mad?”

“I kinda called him a, uh… fickfehler?”

Asuka’s eyes bulged. “You what?”

“I-It was a word I’ve heard you call me when you’re angry, so I figured…” Shinji gulped as the full weight of what she’d done began to press down on her. “What does it mean?”

Asuka started laughing. Her shoulders quaked. She buried her head in her arms. She pounded on the floor. She curled up and clutched at her stomach and laughed until tears started streaming down her cheeks.

Shinji sat up. “S-Seriously,” she said, becoming increasingly worried as Asuka continued her hyena impression unabated, “what does it mean? What did I say to him?”

Asuka struggled to catch her breath. “Du… Du nimmst mich auf den Arm! Oh, mein Gott, Shinko, du bist unglaublich… Ich kann nicht glauben, dass du das gesagt hast! Du hast wirklich versaut!” She snorted and started laughing again in between spurts of garbled German which Shinji couldn’t even begin to try and make sense of.

Shinji sat and waited, horrified, until Asuka felt capable of speaking in a language she understood.

“You told him,” Asuka wheezed, “that his birth was an accident!”

Shinji spent the first class period the next morning checking her email, in too much of a stupor to do much of anything else. The teacher’s lecture and the occasional whispers from other students went right over her head; she just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to focus on them.

She struggled to keep her eyes open. She’d barely slept at all last night and it was already taking its toll on her. It took everything she had not to pass out and collapse at her desk right now.

Her eyes burned as she focused on the screen of her laptop. There was a new message in her inbox.



Subject: Afternoon meeting

Pilot Ikari—

You are expected to visit the Vice Commander’s office at NERV HQ at 1530 hours today for a meeting regarding your recent behavior. Do not be late.

—V.C. Kozo Fuyutsuki

Shinji felt the pit left over in her stomach from the breakfast she hadn’t eaten widen in her stomach. She shouldn’t have expected her little outburst from last night wouldn’t have consequences—and she hadn’t, but feeling the noose tighten around her neck still hurt.

Of course, her father had to outsource discipline, too.

The message weighed on her mind for the rest of the day. Her friends noticed how withdrawn she was, but all got the hint not to ask her what was wrong after she’d told them not to half a dozen times. Besides, being sullen and withdrawn wasn’t an unusual state of being for her.

The day passed in a blur, yet crawled by agonizingly slowly. Before she knew it, but long before she felt ready, Shinji found herself on the tram down into the Geofront and into NERV headquarters.

Shinji had never really met with Vice Commander Fuyutsuki before. She thought maybe they’d said ‘hello’ to each other once or twice, but aside from that, he was just as inscrutable and unknowable to her as her father.

Worst-case scenarios swirled around in her head as she headed for the Vice Commander’s office. Anything from a reprimand to expulsion from NERV to a court martial. Could she be court martialed? Did she have a military rank? She couldn’t, could she? There were laws against that.

She took a deep breath, wiped her palms on her skirt, grabbed the door handle, and cracked it open. “Uh… V-Vice Commander?”

“Ikari? Come in.”

Shinji stepped inside. Fuyutsuki’s office, like Commander Ikari’s, was near the top of the pyramid of NERV headquarters, but his office was smaller and less sparsely populated. A bookshelf and a spiny succulent flanked his desk.

Fuyutsuki was either very old, or just looked old. He looked like a stick insect; everything about him was thin, spindly, and gangly. He looked up from a book he’d been reading. “Please, take a seat.”

Shinji sat down in a chair opposite to the vice commander, trying to quell the butterflies fluttering madly in her stomach.

Fuyutsuki set the book aside. “So, Ikari… your father tells me you’ve been learning German. Guten Tag. Wie geht es Ihnen?”

“Um…” Shinji tried to sink deeper into her seat. “J-Jawohl?”

Fuyutsuki furrowed his brow. “Well, keep at it. No one masters a language overnight. And,” he added, “it’s not so unusual to learn curses and insults first. Be careful, though, on whom you practice.”


“Save your apologies for your father.” Fuyutsuki began to rummage under his desk.

Shinji didn’t expect that her father would say anything about that—she’d never once heard him apologize for anything to anyone. The phrase ‘I’m sorry,’ it seemed, simply wasn’t in his vocabulary.

And did it matter? She was sure now how her father felt about her. The kind of meager apology he would be capable of giving her wouldn’t erase that. She wasn’t sure what could.

He tore me apart, Shinji wanted to say. He barely said five whole sentences to me and it broke me more than any of the bullies who’ve tried to hurt me. What do I have to apologize for?

“I didn’t mean to insult him,” she said. “It slipped out. I hope I’m not disciplined too severely for it.”

“Teenagers,” Fuyutsuki scoffed. He produced a mountain of paperwork and laid it on the desk in front of her. “I have a backlog of paperwork to get through before next Monday. You’re going to double-check these for me and make sure I haven’t missed anything.”

Shinji slipped the first document off the pile and looked it over. It was a requisition form for the United Nations Security Council requesting additional funding for Eva maintenance and development. It looked important.

“There’s a lot of stuff here,” she mumbled, looking over the top of the pile at Fuyutsuki.

“You have two hours,” Fuyutsuki said, burying his sharp nose once again in his book. “What you don’t finish today, you’ll come back for tomorrow. Same time, same place.”

“Yes, sir.”

Shinji spent the next two hours in silence reading document after document, setting aside the ones that were incorrectly filled out or missing things. The paperwork ranged from mundane municipal affairs of Tokyo-III to relations between NERV and the JSSDF, the national government, and the UN. By the end of the session, she felt as though she’d barely made a dent in the pile and she could see endless rows of numbers whenever she closed her eyes.

“Well,” she said, standing up, “I-I’ll come back for the rest tomorrow, sir.”

Fuyutsuki looked up from his book and appraised the pile, nodding slowly with approval. “Good. Thank you for your assistance.”

Shinji came back the next day and spent another two hours going through the mound of paperwork, and the next day.

On the third day, when she’d been about to leave, Fuyutsuki stopped her.

“By the way, Ikari,” he asked, setting aside the paperwork and clearing his desk, “do you play chess?”

Shinji blinked, her train of thought running screaming off the tracks. “Um… chess? I know the rules.”

“I prefer shogi,” Fuyutsuki said, pulling out a chessboard and a laquered box filled with black and white pieces from under his desk, “but I get a craving for the original every now and then. Care to play a few games?”

“Is this my punishment, too?” she asked him, suppressing a nervous laugh as she once again took her seat.

“If you dislike chess, then yes. If not, I’ll do my best to make it as unenjoyable as possible.”

“I don’t like chess.”

“Well, then.” Fuyutsuki set up the pieces, then put a strange-looking clock with two faces and two buttons on its top next to the board.

“Y-You keep all that in your office?” Shinji mumbled.

“We’ll play by tournament rules. Each player has thirty minutes on the clock; tap the button at the end of your turn to stop the clock until your next turn. I’ll play black.”

“Okay.” Shinji’s hand hovered over one of the pawns. She took the one closest to the right side of the board, then changed her mind and let go of it, her hand hovering over the pawn closest to the center.

“No,” Fuyutsuki snapped. “When you pilot Unit-01 and decide on a course of action against your enemy, can you undo it?”

“Uh… No?”

“Then move the first pawn.”

“S-Sorry.” Shinji took the pawn she’d touched first and slid it up two squares, then tapped the clock.

Fuyutsuki wasted no time in making his move; within seconds, he’d moved up one of his pawns just out of reach and tapped the clock.

Shinji slid the pawn adjacent to the first one up by one square, then tapped the clock. Fuyutsuki responded by sliding his queen diagonally to the side of the board.

“Checkmate,” he said.

“What? Already?” Shinji studied the board. Sure enough, the king was right in the queen’s path; there were no moves she could make to intercept it or move the king out of danger. “Oh…”

“Let’s try that again,” Fuyutsuki said, resetting the clocks and moving the pieces back.

“I-I’m sure you have other things to do,” Shinji said, tentatively standing up.

“Oh, no, no, sit, please. My afternoon meeting with the city council was canceled and my schedule is clear. I’m very bored.”

Bored enough to babysit/punish the Commander’s fourteen-year-old brat, Shinji figured. She sat down and started a new game.

Fuyutsuki broke the silence several moves into the game by asking her how school was going. Purely out of politeness and nothing more, Shinji answered his questions about homework and tests as tersely as she could.

The orderly rows of the chessboard broke apart into greater and greater chaos with each passing turn. As the board became more complex, Shinji took longer to ponder each move, struggling to ignore Fuyutsuki’s attempts to distract her. The dual clocks at the side of the board ticked impatiently.

Shinji moved one of her knights to take one of his bishops. “Ah, good move,” Fuyutsuki said.

Shinji tapped the clock triumphantly; Fuyutsuki instantly captured her knight with his knight and tapped his side of the clock.

“A good move for me, I mean,” he said.

“It’s hard to concentrate on a move when you’re talking to me,” Shinji admitted.

“Then talk back.” Fuyutsuki shrugged his bony shoulders. “Then it’ll be a fair match.”

“I guess.” Shinji mentally ran a few possible moves in her head. “Would you tell Father about anything I told you in here?”

“Of course not. I’m under no obligation to report to him on what I do with my downtime.”

Shinji made her move. “Sometimes… I wish my mother had lived.”

“Understandable. Your father does, as well.”

“I-I mean, I wish she’d lived instead of him.”

There. Something shocking, something to disrupt the Vice Commander’s train of thought. If he was going to use conversation as a pawn, she’d use it as a queen.

Fuyutsuki pondered his next move. He looked like he was trying too hard to appear neutral. “Is… that so?”

“But I don’t know. I don’t remember anything about her. For all I know, she could have been just as… bad as him.”

Fuyutsuki fortified his defenses around his king and tapped his side of the clock.

“Not that Father is a bad person,” Shinji hastily added as she reassessed the board. “But… I understand that he doesn’t want me in his life. Not as a daughter, anyway…”

The two of them kept talking as they traded turns.

“Rest assured,” Fuyutsuki said, seemingly brushing off what she’d told him about Commander Ikari, “your mother was nothing like your father.”

“You say it like you knew her.”

“I did.” Fuyutsuki slid his queen across the board.

Shinji barely even noticed his move and hastily moved a knight without thinking. “Y-You did?”

A flicker of a wistful smile tugged at the old man’s lips. “Yui Ikari. She studied under me at Kyoto University.”

“You were a professor?”

Fuyutsuki nodded. “Yes. I taught metaphysical biology. Your mother’s passion, though, was bioengineering.” He captured the knight Shinji had foolishly sent out. “Her guiding principle was that through science and technology, we could ascend beyond the physical limitations of our bodies and the circumstances of our birth.”

Shinji was cowed into silence. The way Fuyutsuki spoke about her mother was almost awe-inspiring.

“I, too, was interested in whether the soul could shape the body to suit its whims, or if the soul was merely doomed to be a plaything of its physical form. Hence, metaphysical biology.” He sighed. “Of course, then, Second Impact happened, and for those first few hellish years there was no need for eggheads and philosophers such as myself anymore. I became an ersatz physician and concerned myself solely with matters of the body.”

Remembering that it was still her turn, Shinji hastily moved a rook and tapped the clock. “Sorry.”

It might have been a trick of the light, but for a few seconds, she saw something that wasn’t there again. This time, it wasn’t a grotesque, pulsating creature; rather, it was the ghostly afterimage of an old and wrinkled hand gliding across the board, holding between its thin fingers a translucent copy of the black queen.

“It’s fine, thank you.” Fuyutsuki swept his queen across the board in the same motion as the ghostly premonition and took the rook she’d just moved. “Your mother never stopped dreaming, though. Those lofty questions never left her. I believe if she were here to see what you’re becoming, she would see you as nothing less than the embodiment of her philosophy.”

Shinji tugged at her collar; the room suddenly felt much hotter. “R-Really?” She wasn’t sure what Fuyutsuki meant, not exactly, but she understood enough to know she was being flattered.

Fuyutsuki put her king in check with his queen. “Oh, and by the way, check.” He tapped on his clock.

Shinji slid her queen into the fray and captured Fuyutsuki’s queen. There was a brief flicker of surprise on the old man’s face.

Despite her moment of victory, though, the game went on for a few more turns until Fuyutsuki got his checkmate.

“There we go,” the Vice Commander said, sweeping the board clear and putting the clock away. He seemed far less grumpy than he’d been earlier. “You’ve served your punishment and are now free to go for today. Thank you for keeping me company, Ikari. I’ll see you at the same time tomorrow.”

“Um… okay. You’re welcome, Vice Commander.” Shinji stood up. Her knees ached from how long she’d been sitting. “Thank you for, uh… talking to me.”

“Oh, and before you leave…” Fuyutsuki rummaged under his desk and produced a piece of white paper that had been folded in on itself into a tiny square. “Take this, but don’t show it to anyone, and don’t tell anyone I gave it to you. Open it up when you get home. Understood?”

Shinji gingerly took the paper from him. No, not paper—too thick and glossy. It was a photograph.

As Fuyutsuki had ordered her, she didn’t unfold it until she’d gotten back to Misato’s apartment. The photo was faded, the pigments eaten away around the folded grid marks traced on its surface, but it clearly showed an adult woman about Misato’s age.

The woman wore her chestnut hair short; her steely gray-blue eyes seemed to sparkle like sunlight dancing across a lake. She wore a white labcoat with a faded reddish-orange stain across the front. The small, nervous smile on her face and the way she carried herself connoted a sense of mild surprise and vulnerability, as though the photo had been taken candidly and she’d only just noticed the cameraman before he’d snapped the picture.

Shinji quickly folded the photograph back up and stuffed it into her bag hastily and furtively, as though she’d just glimpsed something sacred.

The woman in the photograph looked just like her.

No wonder her father had been so viscerally uncomfortable around her that evening. It hadn’t been shame or disgust or revulsion—it had been shock.

Shinji felt a warm pang of kinship in her heart, a thin sliver of understanding as she wondered what unspoken words had been ringing through her father’s head that night when he’d stared stonily at the phantom of her mother.

It was enough for her to forget, for a moment, that she was probably going insane.

The Library of Adams looked for all the world like any normal library, Kaworu thought, even though he’d never set foot in any other library before (he’d seen pictures of them). There were shelves stretching from floor to ceiling, forming parallel and perpendicular rows all neatly labeled.

What set this library apart from all other libraries in the world was that every book on the shelves surrounding the lonely desk was exactly the same—on the outside, anyway. Thick leatherbound tomes, thick as bibles, with gold leaf brushing the edges of the pages and lining the identical title stamped into each book’s cover.

In the center of the room, a clearing in the midst of the forest of literature, a small desk with a computer terminal perched atop it stood like a lonely sentinel. This was where Kaworu sat, one hand chained to a wooden post protruding from one corner of the desk’s polished surface, the other sweeping across the book splayed open in front of him, occasionally darting to the computer’s keyboard to take notes. He’d been here for three days now, hardly sleeping, eating only when the guards posted at the door brought him food. Such was his punishment.

At least they let him keep his music. The soft, serene notes of Moonlight Sonata’s first movement giving way to the lively scherzo of the second movement wafted through the air like the aroma of a delicious meal. It helped him concentrate.

As he forced down his rations—tasteless things, hard and chalky, that turned into paste in his mouth—Kaworu turned his attention to the library’s newest addition. The book, like all the others, was written in Adamic, the angelic script. To anyone but him, the words would be not only unintelligible but inconceivable: The pages of the book would simply appear to be blank.

SEELE depended on him to read these books as they materialized (no one knew by what mechanism they were transported to the library—they seemed to simply appear out of thin air), identify the ones whose records of events past and yet to come diverged most heavily, and add them to the ever-growing apocrypha of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

He hummed idly along with the music as he muddled through the book. Another three or four days of this, perhaps, and he would be returned to his scrying work.

This book, like the others, was heavily redacted. Black lines scrolled across the surfaces of its pages, sometimes so plentiful that entire pages could have not even two legible words between them.

It was this more than anything that had caused Kaworu to lose his trust in SEELE. What were they hiding from him? And why, if their goals were his, were they hiding these things from him? If they were capable of censoring these books, he wondered, then why did they need him to read the books on their behalf in the first place? And if they weren’t censoring them… then who was?

As the frantic third movement of the sonata reached a whirling crescendo and sforzando chords stabbed through the air, he made up his mind. He would learn what he could from this book as quickly as he could, and then he would escape.

He’d spent his entire life reading about Shinji Ikari in these books. Enough seeing her through a glass darkly. He was going to meet her face-to-face—before they could.

Chapter Text

Kaworu had given more thought to his home over the past week than he had in his entire life. Every time the guards had marched him from his quarters to the library and back again, he’d kept a keen eye on the hallways, noting any detail that might be useful. He’d even tried to conduct some measurements of how quickly objects fell from his hand to the floor in a vain attempt to tell how far above or below sea level he was (as it turned out, though, those measurements were far beyond his ability to eyeball). And he’d studied the guards, too—how they wore their armor, how they holstered their weapons, where they kept their keycards and other items.

He knew that the clocks were the same in here as they were in Tokyo-III. That meant he was in the same time zone as Shinji. The fact that it was past his bedtime when he’d conducted his secret little scrying sessions and that she’d been asleep at that time hinted as much as well.

That narrowed down a big slice of the world, but Kaworu felt he could narrow it down further. The staff of this facility—the guards, at least, who were the only staff he’d actually seen—were all Japanese. It wasn’t unreasonable, then, to assume that he was in Japan.

Furthermore, the LCL he bathed in was always fresh. Unless it was transported daily across a great distance at a considerable cost (and likely in secret), that meant the facility had to be near the only source of it on the planet.

He had hypothesized, then, that this facility was right under NERV headquarters all along!

Kaworu panted with exertion, his chest heaving, his heart thrumming like a hummingbird’s as he stood over the prone bodies of the guards who’d been keeping watch over him in the Library of Adams. He struggled not to feel remorse for what he’d done as he knelt over them, took their pulses to ensure they were still alive, looted them of their keys and keycards, and finally used the handcuffs that had once bound his wrists to connect their ankles together and immobilize them.

“I’m sorry,” he finally whispered to them after spending precious time wondering what to say. He gently patted one of the two guards on his bruised jaw, then gave the other a kiss on the knotted bruise spreading across his forehead. “There. I hope it doesn’t hurt.”

A klaxon began to sound, its keening wail boring into his head like knives jabbing into his ears; the lights in the library flickered once and shut off, plunging the chamber into complete darkness, before returning with a dull, blood-red glow.

This, he mused, is surely an inauspicious way to begin my great escape.

Wary, he stepped over the guards’ bodies, hesitantly pulled the door open (pausing and holding himself back until he was certain there were no other guards standing outside to greet him), and stepped out into the corridor.

“Security compromise detected in Sector C-2 of the Limbo Area,” a clear, bell-like synthesized voice rang out. “Lockdown automatically placed into effect across Cocytus Two. Security compromise detected in Sector C-2 of the Limbo Area. Lockdown automatically placed into effect across Cocytus Two. Security compromise detected…”

Inauspicious, indeed.

Ryoji Kaji was the human equivalent of shitty bar food. Delicious in the heat of the moment, the be-all, end-all of guilty pleasures when you were too drunk to have standards—but you’d hate yourself in the morning once you sobered up. As a lover, he was the equivalent of greasy fried chicken wings slathered in sauce so hot and tasteless you’d need to coat the inside of your esophagus with hot wax to eat them without vomiting.

And god, Misato loved it.

Her coat sloughed off her shoulders as Kaji’s rough hands slid under her blouse and drifted up her waist, ghosting across the scar marring her side; his grizzled, sandpapery cheek scraped across hers as one hand gripped her by the waist and the other slipped around her back, his surprisingly well-trimmed fingernails pressing into her skin. The musky scent of his cologne was heavy, thick, and overpowering.

“Ryoji,” Misato gasped, her heart in her throat, her head in the clouds, “talk dirty to me…”

Kaji pressed her closer and leaned in, his breath hot against her cheek. “I’ve been looking into the selection process for Unit-03 and Unit-04’s pilot,” he hissed into her ear.

“Oh, you naughty boy,” Misato fired back, her bandaged fingers fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. The burns on her hands still throbbed, but not enough to deter her from this. She was healed up enough at long last to go back to work; she was certainly well enough to indulge herself.

“The Marduk Institute was a sham all along. None of the Children are actually chosen through it. It’s just a shell corporation—nothing but words on paper.” Kaji’s fingers fumbled with the clasp of her bra strap.

“Kaji, do we have time for this?” Misato asked, struggling to keep her voice down as his fingertips lit fireworks under her skin. She felt her bra loosen as the clasp came undone.

“The selection for all future Eva unit pilots is handled directly by NERV, and…”

Her hands slid across his chest. She could feel his sweat dampen the gauze wrapped over her palm. “Yes?”

“The candidate pool is Class 2A.”


Kaji pinned her to the wall and pressed his lips against hers, the plumes of air from his nostrils rolling across her cheek like dragon’s breath, his tongue parting her lips. Misato let out a muffled moan.

His fingers slid off her waist and turned their attention to her hair, burrowing and tangling roughly into her dark violet locks and tugging on her scalp. He pulled away just briefly enough to whisper into her ear, “And there’s something strange about every student in that class… Something each one of them has in common…”

The elevator shuddered to a halt; the door chimed so merrily it was as though it knew what it was interrupting. Kaji hastily broke contact and pulled away, his tongue slithering back into his mouth as he frantically set to work buttoning and tucking in his shirt. Misato caught her breath, straightened her shirt, and pulled her jacket back on, fumbling with the zipper in a desperate attempt to keep herself contained.

The door slid open and Ritsuko stepped into the elevator cab, a steaming cup of coffee clasped in one hand and one of her omnipresent cigarettes dangling from her pursed lips.

Kaji straightened his tie. “Mornin’,” he said.

Ritsuko plucked the cigarette from her mouth and held it between two fingers, exhaled one last puff of smoke out into the hallway, and extinguished it. “Good morning, Major Katsuragi.” She barely nodded in Kaji’s direction. Misato desperately hoped she didn’t notice the tent he was pitching. “Kaji.”

“Good morning, Ritsy,” Misato replied, nervously tucking a stray lock of her dark violet hair behind her ear.

The elevator door slid closed; Ritsuko keyed in the button for Central Dogma and the cab shuddered and began its descent once more. Kaji cleared his throat. Misato zipped her jacket the rest of the way up; it was probably just her nerves talking, but it felt like her bra was this close to slipping out from under her shirt and falling to the floor, even though that shouldn’t be possible.

“Windy out there, isn’t it?” Ritsuko commented as Misato kept trying to tame the hair Kaji had so vigorously and enthusiastically mussed during his debriefing.


“How are the burns?”

“Good.” Misato crossed her arms. “They don’t hurt anymore. Not a lot, anyway.”

“Don’t use your hands too much until they’re completely healed,” Ritsuko advised her, giving Kaji a pointed and suspicious glance. “I had to tell Commander Ikari the same thing, so don’t make me repeat myself.”


After an interminable wait, the elevator shuddered to a halt and the door slid open. Ritsuko stepped out into the hall and strode off down the corner. “I’ll be down in R&D for the day. If anything comes up, you’ll have to settle for the nurse at sickbay.”

Misato sighed in relief, feeling as though she’d just dodged a bullet, and stepped over the threshold.

Kaji’s hands slipped over her hips; she nearly leaped out of her skin.

He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “I don’t know who they’re going to pick for the next pilots yet,” he whispered to her, “but I’ll keep you updated.”

Misato nodded. “Thanks, Kaji.”

“Always a pleasure.” With a wry grin, Kaji let go of her and peeled off in the direction of the broom closet he called an office. “Feel free to stop by anytime, Major. Don’t be a stranger.”

Misato made a beeline for the bathroom and freshened up. Part of her wondered why she’d agreed to let Kaji share the results of his investigations this way, but the other part of her had to admit that it was a good way to hand off top secret information without arousing any potential watchers’ suspicions.

And, as Kaji always said, there were always potential watchers; always more than you would expect.

She ruminated on what he’d told her. The next pilot, the Fourth Child, and probably the pilot after that as well, would be someone from the same class as Shinji, Asuka, and Rei. Out of about sixteen kids or so, the Marduk Institute—no, NERV itself—was already beginning to narrow down the field.

She couldn’t help but think back to the hellish, demonic sight of Unit-01 bursting free of the Twelfth Angel, its earsplitting howl shaking the bloodstained buildings surrounding it. Two more monsters like that were nearing completion; two more children like Shinji would be fed to them in due time.

Who did they have their eye on, Misato wondered, to pilot the next Evangelions? What were their selection criteria? Who among that classroom’s young, bright-eyed students stood out among the rest to serve the newest weapons in NERV’s arsenal?

Among Class 2A’s collection of dead-eyed, slack-jawed dullards, Asuka found Hikari (as befitting the class representative) to be the brightest star. Or rather, second-brightest. But Asuka could tell that this morning, something was bothering Hikari—something serious. All morning, she’d been almost as spaced-out as Shinji. Across the first few class periods, every time the teachers had called on her, she’d shot up bolt-upright at her desk as though she’d fallen asleep with her eyes open and had just been jolted awake.

Hikari was a good friend. She was smart, but not a child prodigy; cute, but in sort of a plain, homely way; kind, but not a pushover; and most importantly, she wasn’t afraid to kick ass when she needed to, which seemed to be a lost art among most of the girls here. She was just like Asuka, but not enough to come across as a threat; therefore, she was the only person in the school, or perhaps even in the whole city, whom Asuka could actually consider a friend.

Asuka watched her run her hands under the bathroom sink and splash water on her face as though it would wake her up in time for the English quiz looming over the horizon, visibly tense and agitated.

“This quiz,” Hikari moaned, “is gonna kill me.”

“Can’t relate,” Asuka quipped as she leaned in front of the mirror and painted a fresh coating of gloss on her lips.

“Well, yeah, you were learning English before you could walk. They should just let you sit out this class.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell them.” Asuka smacked her lips together to even out the gloss. “You’ve been doing okay on the homework, though. You’ll do fine.”

“It’s not that. It’s—Asuka, you know the dress code doesn’t allow makeup.”

Caught in the act (admittedly, though, she’d been pretty brazen about it), Asuka slipped the tube back into her bag. “It’s just a bit of lip gloss. No one’s even gonna notice. I mean, they’ll notice, but not notice notice. Gotta stay at the top of my game.”

Hikari giggled. “As if anyone could catch up to you, Asuka.” She patted her face dry with a towel. It was very rare for her to just relent like that in the face of rulebreaking—something must really be wrong. “Hey, can I ask you something?”


She smiled nervously. “It’s, um… well, I think I have a crush on two people and I don’t know what to do.”

“Really? Two people, huh? Who?” Asuka asked, watching Hikari’s cheeks flush. No wonder she’d been so out of it.

“Well, the first one is…” Hikari glanced down at her shoes, hurried over to the bathroom stalls, and knocked on each one to make sure it was unoccupied. “First,” she said, returning to Asuka’s side but avoiding making eye contact with her, “there’s Touji…”

Asuka crossed her arms. “Gross. Who’s the other one?”

“He’s not gross.”

“And kinda broody, too.”

“I prefer to think of him as ‘stoic.’”

“I prefer to not think of him at all. Tell me about the other one.”

“But really, if you got to know him—”


“The other one, well…” Hikari started kneading her hands together.

Asuka rested her elbows on the edge of the sink and propped up her chin with her hand. “Well?” she asked with a shrewd grin. “Who’s the lucky guy?”

“Oh, um—well, it’s kinda… not a…” Hikari paused. And kept pausing for a long time.

“Well?” Asuka asked, starting to get impatient.

“Have you ever—” Hikari stumbled over her words. “Ever… had a crush on someone who… um…”


She kneaded her hands together like fresh bread dough, gulped, and looked away. “Wasn’t a boy?”

Asuka felt her heart skip a beat. “You mean like an adult?” she asked. “Someone like Mr. Kaji?” She leaned forward. “Is it one of the teachers?” Admittedly, most of the teachers in this school were pretty crusty, but to each her own…

“No, I mean… have you ever had a crush on…”

Somehow, she knew what Hikari was going to say next before she said it.

“Well… have you ever liked… or, um, not liked, but really liked… like more than a friend… not just like a senpai or anything, but…”

She closed her eyes so that she would resist the temptation to roll them right out of her skull. “Just spit it out already.”

“A girl.”

Asuka’s eyes flew open. She felt butterflies hover in her stomach. Almost reflexively, she let out a flippant, glib laugh. “No, of course not! I’m normal.”

To say Hikari’s face fell didn’t do it justice. Hikari’s face collapsed like a demolition site. “Oh. Never mind.”

“You like girls?”

Hikari turned away, sucking air through her clenched teeth as though she’d just skinned her knee. “N-No, just… I meant hypothetically, really, of course I…” Her voice warbled and cracked.

Oh, scheisse, Asuka thought, she’s not gonna cry, is she? “No, tell me!” she insisted in a desperate attempt to pull her foot out of her mouth. She hadn’t meant to say it like that, it had just slipped out! “I mean, who cares about being normal? It’s so overrated! Who in this city isn’t a weirdo anyway?”

“No, it’s not…”

“C’mon. I wanna know…” Before she knew what she was doing, Asuka found her hand clamped around Hikari’s wrist. “I won’t laugh or anything!”

“Well,” Hikari said, swallowing a lump in her throat and sniffling as she slid her hand out of Asuka’s grip and glanced off nervously to the side, “she’s… She’s… an Eva pilot.”

“S-She is?” Asuka felt her cheeks starting to burn and hoped to God she wasn’t blushing as much as she felt like she was. It was awfully flattering, but was Hikari really confessing to her? It wasn’t like she was gay or anything! Not that there was anything wrong with that!

“She’s brave, she’s pretty…”

“Do go on,” Asuka said, struggling to keep her composure. How could I have just preemptively shot her down like that?! she despaired.

“She’s kind… very sweet and very soft-spoken…”

Sweet? Soft? What kind of flattery was this? Asuka’s fluttering heart dropped like a lead weight and started burrowing into her stomach. “Wait, y-you aren’t saying…”

“…It’s Shinko.” Hikari turned away to hide her face and crossed her arms nervously over her chest, her fingers crumpling her sleeves as she clenched at the fabric. “Ever since that last attack I… well…”

Asuka sighed. “Oh Gott sei Dank. For a second I thought you were going to say you had a crush on Ayanami. God forbid.”

Hikari sighed, relieved.

And then Asuka’s brain caught up with her ears. “Wait, did you say—”


“What? You’re in love with Sh—” She couldn’t even finish that sentence, it felt so wrong to say. It felt wrong to think. Just picturing those two holding hands, let alone cuddling or kissing, repulsed her. “Her? Brave? Pretty? Her?! ”

“…Uuuhhh?” Hikari coughed. “I-I mean…”

“Well,” Asuka answered, taking a deep breath to calm herself down as she made a rare attempt to hide her discomfort, “if your choice is between Tall, Dark, and Perverted or Blunder Girl, let’s see… On the one hand, Shinko may be a dope of the highest caliber, but at least she won’t drop her pants and show you her dick. At least, not on purpose.”

Hikari cringed. “Um… what?”

“On the other hand,” Asuka continued, “I… don’t really think she’s into girls. I kissed her once—just to see what it was like, you know, not that I’m—anyway, it was like kissing a dead fish.” Was it hot in here, or was it just her? Why was she talking so quickly? “I think she might be, y’know… straight.”

“Maybe you’re just not her type?”

Asuka rolled her eyes. “Oh, please.” Hikari couldn’t actually like Shinji, could she? It must have just been some wires that had gotten crossed in her head during the last Angel attack, like some kind of hero worship or Stockholm syndrome of sorts.

If I had been at the right place at the right time, she thought, and not Shinji, she’d be confessing her love to me!

After all, it wasn't as if Shinji was cute or anything. She was scrawny and her ears stuck out and on top of that she'd only been a girl for like two and a half months!

“Anyway… I don’t know what to do,” Hikari lamented, sniffling.

“I mean, it’s up to you, but…” Asuka tried to weigh Hikari’s options, but she didn’t want to put into words the idea of Touji of all people spewing his gross adolescent hormones all over the Class Rep. She’d rather imagine Shinji doing the spewing, and she’d rather drink bleach than imagine that! “They’re both bad choices,” she blurted out, putting her hands on her hips. “You can set your standards a lot higher! Come on! There’s plenty of girls in this school!”

Hikari bit her lip as her eyes flitted downward. “But how many of them… like other girls?”

Asuka had to admit, Hikari had gotten her there. “Well… who knows?” she ventured. “Statistically, I’m sure there’s someone.”

“Um… thanks, Asuka, I think,” Hikari said lamely, reaching out to rest a hand on her shoulder and give her a gentle, yet hesitant pat that was very much platonic. “I… appreciate you.”

She left, letting the door swing shut behind her.

Asuka leaned over the sink, let out a strangled, frustrated groan, and started banging her forehead against the bathroom mirror.

“Hey, Kensuke,” Touji asked.

Kensuke stood two urinals down from him, as proper bathroom etiquette among guys dictated. “Yeah?”

“I’ve got something to say to you. But it doesn’t leave this bathroom, okay?” Touji hastily zipped up his pants, washed his hands, and knocked on each stall in the bathroom to see if it was empty. Call him paranoid, but this was something he couldn’t let anyone overhear. This was between friends.

“Geez, dude, what’s up?” Kensuke asked as he caught up with him. “You get in trouble with the police or something?”

“No, it’s… I think I have a crush on two girls.”

“Cool. Y’know, I really thought it was a matter of time before a guy like you found someone!”

“Don’t make this weird. Anyway, which one should I, uh… y’know. Date?”


“I can’t do that. They’re friends. They’d find out.”

“Who’d tell ‘em?”

“They would! They’re girls, Kensuke. In case you haven’t noticed, girls talk.”

“Okay.” Kensuke paused to push his constantly-slipping loaner glasses up the bridge of his nose. “So, who’re the lucky girls?”


“All right. Keep your secrets.”

“I just need some ideas. You know. What to do about this.”

“Maybe hang out with both of ‘em at the same time, not romantically or anything, just as a friend thing, and see which one you click with?”

Touji didn’t want to mention that he did that already, because Kensuke was really smart sometimes and he didn’t want to give him enough info to put two and two together.

“Hey, you know the theater on the south side? The kinda crummy one?” Kensuke asked.

“Kinda crummy?”

“You could go there with the two of them and catch a movie. That’s like the ultimate romantic-but-not-romantic thing. It’s like… Schrodinger’s Date.”

Touji shook his head as he headed out into the hallway with Kensuke hot on his tail. “That theater sucks. All they show are those crappy old sci-fi B-movies.”

“Okay, for one, they aren’t crappy, they’re campy. Two, the movie they’re showing tomorrow night isn’t a sci-fi B-movie at all. It’s a classic.”

“Yeah?” Touji scoffed.

“It’s got Kurt Russel in it. And it’s one of the best horror movies of all time. Horror movies, Touji. So it’ll be perfect for getting the girls to, well, you know—”

Touji, fortunately, stopped dead in his tracks before he could careen right into none other than Hikari, who’d just stepped out of the girls’ bathroom. The two of them both froze, mere centimeters apart from each other, both of them staring into each others’ surprise-widened eyes with bated breath.

For him, Hikari was the girl behind door number one. She was the nicest girl he knew, and on top of that she had a tough streak a mile wide. Girls who were tough and nice were special. You knew that when they were good to you, it was because they chose to be, not because that was how they were to everyone. It made it special. And on top of that, she had that warm smile, those deep blue eyes, those freckles…

“O-Oh, hi,” Hikari finally stammered, letting out a nervous laugh as she stepped to the side to let Touji pass by at the exact same time that he stepped to the side to let her pass by. “Sorry.”

“Uh, no, I’m sorry,” Touji stammered in return, his voice cracking. He hastily stepped to the other side only for Hikari to do the same thing at the same time once again. “I, uh, I didn’t mean to, um… Hi.”

“Don’t mind me. I was just kinda, uh, freshening up for the English quiz.”

“Fuck, that’s today?” Touji blurted out before he could stop himself.

Hikari sighed as though she was relieved to know that no matter how badly she’d do on the quiz (though Touji was sure she’d do fine, considering how smart she was), she wouldn’t do as poorly as he would. “Well, good luck,” she told him as the two of them stopped maneuvering around each other. “C’mon, we’d better get back to class.”

“Wait. Class Rep, would you like to catch a movie with me and… another friend tomorrow night?”

“What movie?”

“Oh, um, it’s a…” Touji scratched the back of his head. “It’s… some sort of horror movie?”

She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Hmm… I don’t know.”

Stupid Kensuke and his dumb genre obsessions.

“It’s got Kurt Russel in it,” Kensuke chimed in.

“Shut up, Ken,” Touji hissed out of the corner of his mouth. He’d been so flustered, he’d forgotten that Kensuke was behind him!

Hikari took a deep breath and gulped, her eyes darting away. “I… guess that sounds fun. Sure.”

Touji resisted the urge to melt into a puddle of goo on the spot.

Instead, he followed Hikari back to class, slid into the desk next to Shinji’s, and checked his watch to see how many minutes there were until the next period started.

He had one minute to—

“So it’s Class Rep, huh?” Kensuke whispered to him. Touji nearly leaped out of his chair.

“Shut it!” he hissed.

A long and painful history lecture stood between him and his next chance. Once the class had ended and Touji had a few minutes free, he waited for Kensuke to leave, then made his move.

“Hey, Shinko?” he whispered, leaning across the gap between their desks.

Shinji rubbed her bleary eyes. Maybe she’d been up all night studying. “No, I don’t know what a ‘gerund’ is, Touji…” she mumbled.

“No, it’s not about the quiz.” Touji craned his neck and looked around the room to make sure no one was around to overhear him. Especially not Kensuke. Or Hikari. Or Asuka. Or anyone else he knew. “Class Rep and I are seeing a movie tomorrow night. Wanna come with?”

“What movie?”

“It’s a thing with Kurt Russell.”


“I dunno, but I think he was a big star in America. Anyway, you in?”

“I dunno, I…” Shinji yawned the rest of her sentence. “I’ll run it past the Vice Commander tonight. Still stuck in his office after school…”

“Alright. Well, text me if you can make it, okay?”

Shinji nodded.

Touji leaned back and sighed. It was all coming together.

Shinji took one of the last of Fuyutsuki’s backlogged documents and started dutifully looking it over, thankful that unless the vice-commander wanted more chess matches out of her, this would be her last day spending hours after school stuck in this stuffy office. If she never saw another government document in her whole life, it would be too soon.

Fourth Child selection criteria are as follows, she read.

Fourth Child? They were bringing in another pilot? But there were only three Eva units—was the other pilot an alternate?

Before her eyes could skim any further down the first page of the thick document, Fuyutsuki snatched it out of her hands. “I’ll look over that one myself,” he snapped urgently as he set the paperwork aside. He cleared his throat. “My mistake,” he added with a much calmer and more amenable tone to his voice. “I thought I’d removed everything that was above your security clearance level. I must have missed that one.”

“We’re getting another pilot?” Shinji asked, stifling a yawn. She hadn’t gotten a single good night’s sleep in the past week. A full school day, two hours double-checking Fuyutsuki’s paperwork (three if he was in the mood for a few games of shogi or chess), dinner, and homework had her running ragged; and then there were the dreams, the same dream every night, the one about a crucified maggot-white giant she could have sworn she’d seen before…

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that with you,” Fuyutsuki responded flatly.

Disappointed but not surprised, Shinji reached for the next document to double-check. But Fuyutsuki slid the rest of the paperwork (what little there was) away from her.

“I think that’s enough, don’t you?” he asked. “I’ll take care of the rest. You’re free to go home, Ikari. Unless,” he added, a faint smile creeping across his thin, severe face, “you’d prefer to keep working?”

Shinji stood up, her legs filled with pins and needles, her knees aching. “No, sir. Thank you.” She bowed.

“Oh, a-and thank you for the pho—”

Fuyutsuki held a finger up to his thin, pale lips. Shinji fell silent.

“I don’t suppose,” he said as he diverted his attention to his paperwork, “you’d like to stop by again tomorrow and play a few matches? I do have some time to spare in the afternoon.”

“I’m sorry, Vice Commander.” Shinji shook her head. “I… wanted to go out with friends after school tomorrow.” Inwardly, she was relieved to have an excuse. Chess had never been her favorite game; it was even less fun against an opponent who so completely outclassed her that over the course of a week she hadn’t eked out even one victory, or even a stalemate.

“School friends?”

She nodded.

“Which ones?”

“Um… Suzuhara and Horaki.”

Fuyutsuki raised his eyebrows. “Well, I hope you and your friends enjoy yourselves tomorrow.” He didn’t actually sound much like he did.

“Thank you, sir.”

“And please do refrain in the future from insulting your commanding officer,” he added. “He may choose another member of the senior staff to pawn you off to for discipline next time, and I cannot promise they will be as amicable as myself. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. I understand,” Shinji replied.

The sun was beginning to set when she left NERV headquarters and stepped out into the Geofront; the mirrors that reflected the light from the surface to the underground chamber bathed the landscape in an amber glow.

She stretched until she felt her knees and elbows crack, pulled out her cell phone, and tapped out a quick text to Touji.

The next day came and went in a blur. Before she knew it, Shinji heard the last bell ring and hurried home so she could change and freshen up before getting back to her friends.

She all but sprinted home ahead of Asuka, quickly shot out a hasty ‘hello’ to Misato and Pen Pen, and made a beeline to the bedroom, sliding the door shut behind her.

Knowing that she’d only have this privacy for so long, she hurriedly got undressed and rifled through her clothes for something new to wear for tonight. She didn’t want to go to a horror movie in a middle school uniform. They’d probably kick her out. If she wore something more casual, more like something Misato would wear, maybe she’d seem old enough…

It just so happened that a lot of the clothes Misato had helped her pick out to build up her new wardrobe over a month ago were things she would have worn.

Shinji ended up picking up a denim skirt and a pastel blue blouse that looked perfect aside from how much of her shoulders it left bare. Fortunately, she had a loose cardigan to drape over it from the thrift store shopping she’d done with Rei. It wasn’t a half bad ensemble, if she said so herself. It all came together surprisingly nicely.

She took to the bathroom next, rifling through the old makeup kit Misato had found for her. She found the concealer and started covering up the pallid gray skin under her eyes the way Misato had shown her last week. This stuff was a miracle.

Before she moved on to the next tool in her kit, she looked herself over. She looked surprisingly good, not perfect, but good. But…

Was today the day? Dare she try stuffing her bra?

Asuka poked her head out over Shinji’s shoulder. “Well, well, well. Isn’t someone a social butterfly tonight,” she drawled.

Startled, Shinji wished she’d remembered to lock or even close the door behind her. “I-I just feel like being pretty tonight, that’s all,” she lied, realizing before the words had even left her mouth how bad of a liar she was.

Asuka leaned over and squinted suspiciously. “No, you’re going out somewhere, aren’t you?”

“Well… yes.”

“And you’re certainly not going out alone. What is it? A date?”

“It’s not a date.” Shinji picked up her eyeliner pencil, leaned closer to the bathroom mirror, and tried to ignore Asuka.

“It’s a boy, isn’t it?”

She nearly gouged her eye out. “I’m not—”

“Or did you find the one other lesbian in the school?”

Shinji took a deep breath. She knew it was better to just not say anything. “I’m going out with friends,” she mumbled instead.

“You’re going out with friends?” Asuka asked. “You? Look, I was expecting some changes since you started transitioning, but this is just too much!”

“Yeah, Touji invited me and Hikari to see a movie…”

Asuka frowned, knitting her eyebrows. “Oh, it’s a threesome?”

“It’s not a threesome.”

“So you’re getting all dolled up for nothing? Suuure.”

“I mean… I have to work twice as hard to look half as…”

Asuka cupped her hand around her ear. “Sorry, didn’t quite catch that…?”

That was it. Shinji finished her eyeliner, shoved her makeup away, and stormed out. A night out with friends wasn’t something she tended to enjoy, but the more annoying Asuka became, the more she found herself looking forward to it.

Besides, it was a movie. Everyone would be spending their time looking at the screen and not talking to each other. It was the ultimate antisocial social activity, she told herself.

“Well,” she called out as she headed for the door, “I’m heading out, Miss Misato…”

Misato looked up from the paperwork she’d spread out across the table (unsurprisingly, she had a lot of work to catch up on). “Huh? Where to?”

Shinji realized she’d never told Misato about her plans. It had completely slipped her mind.

“Uh… Touji invited me to see a movie. He said it was a horror thing.”

“Going out to see a scary movie on a school night?” Misato scratched her chin. “Hmm… As your superior officer, I’m against it.”

Shinji asked herself, gazing up into Misato’s stern eyes, why she’d told Touji she could make it before running it past her first. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have…”

“But as your guardian,” Misato added, a grin spreading across her face, “I’m all for it!” She tousled Shinji’s hair. “Go on that date, kiddo!”

“It’s not a date.” Shinji un-tousled her hair. “B-But th-thank you, Miss Misato.”

“I’m going, too!” Asuka called out from within the bathroom.

“But you weren’t invit—”

“I’ll pay for my own ticket!”

“That’s great, Asuka!” Misato returned to her work, satisfied in her performance as a caretaker. “It’ll really do you girls some good to spend more time together as friends instead of pilots.”

Well, so much for a night out without Asuka.

Shinji headed toward the station to meet her friends and catch the southbound local train. Though she’d gotten a head start on Asuka, the Second Child had more stamina and longer legs and quickly caught up with her.

“So you and Touji are an item now, huh?” she asked, breathless. She’d swapped out her school clothes for her favorite pastel yellow dress, her heels clopping against the sidewalk like horse’s hooves. “Didn’t he punch you in the face once? Come on, you can do a lot better than a man who’ll beat you black and blue when he comes home in a bad mood.” When Shinji didn’t answer her, she added, “Or maybe you’re into that kind of stuff. I don’t judge.”

Shinji took a deep breath.

“He’s so broody. Him and you. If you two could breed, you’d have a brood of brooders, too. So what’s your couples name? If you squish your names together, you just get ‘Shinji’ or ‘Touji’ again…”

“I’m not dating Touji. This isn’t a date. We’re just hanging out.”

“I’ve got it! You two are Shouji. Got a nice ring to it.”

Shinji stopped dead in her tracks. “Why are you like this?” she snapped.

Asuka took a few more steps before realizing Shinji had stopped moving, then came to a stop and looked over her shoulder, an almost innocent quizzical look on her face. “What do you mean?”

“First, you ruined the dinner Ayanami worked so hard on by asking my father all those questions, now you’re trying to ruin this, too?” Shinji clenched her fists. “Why can’t I have this? Why can’t you just let me have nice things without dragging it all through the mud? Are you still jealous that my sync rate is higher?”

Asuka let out a disarming laugh. “Me? Jealous?”

“Well, it’s not like it matters, because you’re still a better pilot than me! There! I said it! And I’ll say it again if that’s what you want me to say! Is that enough? Can you please just let me have fun with my friends now?”

Asuka sighed and rolled her eyes, then started walking again. “Fine. Because you said please, I’ll let you and your boyfriend enjoy your stupid movie. What did he say it was called, again?”

Shinji caught up with her. “I dunno,” she said. “Some Kurt Russell thing.”

It was as though she’d flipped a switch. “Kurt Russell?” Asuka asked, suddenly seeming much more enthusiastic. “Is it Escape from New York? Or Big Trouble in Little China?”

“He just said it was a thing.”

“A thing or the thing?”

“Does it matter?”

Touji and Hikari were already waiting for them at the train station. This was the one of the few times Shinji had seen Hikari out of uniform; the jeans and T-shirt she was sporting were jarring in comparison to what Shinji typically saw her wearing. On the other hand, Touji’s tracksuit was all too familiar, although for some reason he’d slicked his hair back with hair gel… a lot of hair gel. Shinji actually felt a little overdressed, though not as much as Asuka must have felt.

Hikari waved. “Hi, Shinko! Hi, Asuka!”

Touji crossed his arms and scowled. “Okay, who invited Satan?”

“Relax, twerp. I’ll buy my own ticket,” Asuka assured him. “What’s the movie, again?”

“Uh… The Thing?”

Asuka made a fist. “Fuck yeah! You know, maybe I misjudged you. For a meathead, you’ve got great taste in movies.” She reached out as if to muss up his hair, noticed the copious amount of product it was slathered in, and quickly withdrew her hand before she could sully it.

“Thanks, I think,” Touji said, clearly relieved Asuka had decided not to invade his personal space. “It was Kensuke’s suggestion, though. I’ll tell him you think he has great taste in movies.”

“Oh, no you don’t…”

While Asuka and Touji waited for the train and traded barbs, Hikari sidled up to Shinji and lightly tapped her on the shoulder. “It’s, um… nice to hang out with you again,” she said, quickly looking away as soon as Shinji turned her head in her direction. “I’ve missed having you around to help out after school.”

“Yeah. Me, too. Vice Commander’s been keeping me busy, though.” Shinji looked down at her shoes. It felt as though her brain was on pins and needles. “Y-You look nice today. Again.” She hovered her hand over her shoulder. It felt like there was a force field stopping her from putting it down.

“I know. I mean, thanks.” Hikari leaned just a little closer. “So do you. The cardigan’s a nice touch.”

“Thanks. It doesn’t look, uh…” Shinji recalled what Kensuke had said about it. “It doesn’t look like something a cool grandma would wear?”

Hikari let out a sharp peal of laughter and an unladylike snort. “Of course not! It’s chic!”

Shinji plucked at the cardigan’s hem. It had a bit of a ruffled flair to the edges. Chic, huh?

“I mean, a cool grandma would wear it, I guess,” Hikari added. “Really, though. You look, uh… great.”


“I mean, you looked like death warmed over at school.” She pantomimed tracing two weary arcs under her eyes. “What’s your secret?”

“Concealer. Miss Misato gave me some tips on how to cover that kind of stuff up.”

Hikari grinned. Shinji felt funny. “Any chance she’s offering lessons?”

Shinji laughed. “I’ll ask her. Or, uh… I think I have a good handle on it. M-Maybe I could teach you?”

A pink tinge rose to Hikari’s cheeks. “Sure. See if you can fit it into your busy schedule.”

Shinji tried to rest her hand on Hikari’s shoulder, chickened out, and clasped both hands in front of her. “I’m, uh… glad to see you’re off the crutches.”

“Yeah, me too. There’s still some swelling and it still hurts a bit, but at least I can walk on it again.” Hikari gingerly curled her hand around the splint holding her two broken fingers in place. “And this cast should be off in a few more weeks.”

“Good.” Shinji struggled to think of more to say. She didn’t want to stop talking to Hikari, but she didn’t have a clue what else would make a good conversation piece. “So… the weather today…”

Mercifully, the train pulled into the station, giving Shinji precious time to think of something else to say.

Unfortunately, by the time everyone had gotten on and the train had started to move again, she still hadn’t come up with anything. Maybe she could say something about Hikari’s hair. About how nice it looked. And smelled. No, too creepy.

While Shinji deliberated, Asuka pulled Hikari away and struck up a conversation with her about the reading assignment for tomorrow, demonstrating a social fluidity and grace that was practically jealousy-inducing.

The train ride felt as though it would last forever.

The theater on the south side was a dump, and that was putting it charitably. It lay just on the outskirts of Toyko-III’s suburbs, where the shiny technological wonders of the world’s first truly twenty-first-century city gave way to… the rest of the world.

The last time Shinji had found herself here had been the first time she’d ran away from NERV. It had been a ghost town then and it was still a ghost town. Gritty, grimy, just a little bug-infested; it had two screens (and about as many employees) on a good day and mainly played whatever the owners could get their hands on, which wasn’t much. Some cult American sci-fi movie from the 1980s was apparently a major score, because the lobby actually had nearly a dozen people in it, not counting Shinji and her little cluster of friends. A handful of the moviegoers were dressed in a hodgepodge of thick, fur-lined coats and military surplus gear. They looked like cosplayers. Dedicated ones at that, considering it was about twenty-three degrees outside.

Shinji clutched her cardigan tighter around herself as though it could ward off the oppressive gazes of the oddly-dressed strangers. Even downtown Tokyo-III was better than this. At least she was starting to get used to the city—the way it was shaped, the way the buildings loomed over her, the look and feel of its teeming throngs of people. Around here, everything was different. She knew even less what to expect from it and from its inhabitants.

“Oh, god,” Asuka muttered, “what a dump.”

“Has its charms,” Touji said. It was clear that he was trying to convince himself of his own opinion.

“It’s… rustic,” Hikari admitted.

“We’re literally thirty percent of their ticket sales today, aren’t we?” Asuka asked, crossing her arms and casting a disdainful glare across the lobby.

“You can leave if you want,” Touji grumbled as he strode up to the ticket booth. “Yeah, can I get three tickets?”

The poor old guy manning the booth looked like he’d rather be anywhere else. It was a bored, spaced-out look Shinji recognized well from seeing it countless times in the mirror.

The vendor perked up at the site of the kids. A faint glimmer of responsibility flickered on his weathered face. “Aren’t you and your friends a little too young for this movie?” he mumbled.

“Man, I’ve got money, just give us the tickets,” Touji replied, fishing out a fistful of cash from his pockets.

“This movie isn’t for children.”

“C’mon. Just this once.”

Shinji held back at a distance from the booth; it was as though waves of secondhand embarrassment as strong as any AT-field were physically pushing her away. So much for a night out with friends. It didn’t even take Asuka to ruin it after all.

“You know we’ll just sneak in if you don’t sell us the tickets,” Touji argued. “At least this way, you get paid!”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding,” Asuka huffed, rolling up her sleeves. She grabbed Shinji by the arm and tugged her along. “Excuse me! Ticket guy!”

Hikari tried in vain to hold Asuka back, but her hand slid off her shoulder like butter. “Asuka, please, Touji’s making enough of a scene—”

Asuka shoved Touji aside. “Listen, pissnelke,” she snarled at the vendor, “Shinko and I here are Evangelion pilots for NERV. That means we hold equivalent ranks to a first lieutenant.”

“We do?” Shinji asked, surprised.

“You do?” Touji and Hikari asked, just as surprised.

“We’ve lived through horrors beyond your comprehension. I think we can handle Kurt Russell’s beard.”

The vendor wrinkled his nose and his brow, his salt-and-pepper eyebrows knitting together. “You two work for NERV? Can I see some ID?”

Asuka rolled her eyes. “As if you can’t recognize the Second Child on sight by now.” She fished around in her bag and all but threw her ID card onto the counter, then nudged Shinji in the side. “Shinko, show him your ID!” she hissed.

“I can’t!” Shinji whispered back.

“Why not? You didn’t forget it, did you?”

“It’s still got an ‘M’ on it!”

“Just show him! What’s the worst he can do to you, give you a dirty look?”

The last thing Shinji wanted to do here was out herself. She could think of a million bad things that could happen as a result. On top of that, what if the vendor thought that she and the boy whose photo was on the out-of-date ID card were different people altogether and accused her of trying to use a fake ID?

Hikari took her by the hand and gave it a firm squeeze. Shinji felt the splint binding two of her fingers brush against her knuckles.

Steeling herself, Shinji prepared herself for the worst, took out her ID, and put it on the counter next to Asuka’s.

The vendor looked at Asuka’s ID first, looked her in the eye, and then handed the ID back to her. “Sorry, young lady. So, three tickets, then?”

“Just one for me, please.”

The vendor rang her up, money exchanged hands, and Asuka went on her way. “See you at the snack bar, Shinko!”

The vendor looked at Shinji’s card next, then looked her dead in the eyes, then looked at the card again. His mouth curled into a skeptical frown. “Says here your name’s Shinji Ikari.”

Shinji nodded. Since dinner with her father, she’d felt rankled any time someone said that name. It wasn’t much of a problem yet—she still didn’t mind her nickname, and everyone who didn’t use that just called her by her surname anyway—but it made her feel just a bit worse that she’d put so little brainpower toward finding a new name so far.

“Your friend called you ‘Shinko.’”

Her heart fell. This was exactly what she’d been afraid would happen. She wanted to run away and go back to the train station. This had been a stupid idea all along. She didn’t belong out here.

“So she’s got a nickname,” Hikari hotly protested. “So what?”

Shinji bowed her head. She could’ve just worn her old clothes and gone back to being a boy for the evening and none of this would have happened. This whole night was going to be ruined for everyone (except Asuka) just because of who she was. No, just because she was selfish about it.

The vendor slid the card back across the counter toward Shinji. “Sorry for the inconvenience, young boy. How many tickets?”

Shinji tried to keep a neutral expression. On the inside, though, that single word had lodged in her ears and was etching itself into her brain like acid. “N-Never mind,” she stammered, taking back her card. This was stupid. She was stupid.

“Three tickets,” Touji interjected. “She wants three tickets. I’m buying.”

Money slid one way across the counter; tickets slid the other way.

As Touji headed through the lobby with the tickets in hand, Shinji half-walked, half-trudged in his wake. It was just one word. One stupid word. But it was enough to remind her what the world saw her as. The Shinji Ikari who existed in the minds of strangers. Costume, fake, fraud, disguise, deception. A ruse pathetic in its transparency. Who was she fooling? She could barely manage to fool herself sometimes.

Hikari wrapped her arm around her waist and gently pulled her along. “Don’t let them grind you down, Shinko,” she whispered into her ear, patting her on the back. She flashed a defiant smile; Shinji felt a wave of warmth sink through her body.

“Well, that guy was an asshole,” Touji huffed. “Who wants popcorn?”

Hikari shook her head. “I’m fine. I ate before we left.”

“I didn’t,” said Shinji. She didn’t feel hungry now, either, but figured that would change over the next two hours.

“How about we all share a large? I mean, because it’s cheaper than buying two mediums. Not because, um…” Touji seemed oddly twitchy—more talkative than usual, too. “Not for any other reason. You can still have some if you get hungry, Hikari. Uh, Class Rep. I mean, Hikari.”

Hikari giggled. “Are you feeling okay, Touji?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” he said, rushing the words out like they were late for their first day of school. He approached the counter. “Large popcorn, three small cokes,” he told the cashier.

The cashier raised an eyebrow. “For your lady friends, Mr. Casanova?”

Hikari gave Shinji a gentle nudge with her elbow. “See?” she whispered. “Forget about the ticket booth. Here, you’re a lady!”

Shinji had to admit, she liked the sound of that. She’d never really thought about herself as a lady before. ‘Girl’ had been a hard enough hurdle to leap over in itself.

Lady. It was a word that made her feel smarter, elegant, refined. She’d keep thinking about the word until it didn’t sound like a real word anymore.

“No, they’re just friends,” Touji blurted out. He was turning red from his chin to the tips of his ears. “They’re ladies, but they’re just friends. This isn’t a date.”

“Whatever you say,” the cashier said as money changed hands yet again.

If she were being honest, Shinji felt a little guilty to see Touji emptying his pockets for her and for Hikari. If she didn’t know any better, she’d have thought this was a date. The guys always paid for dates, right? But Touji had said it wasn’t a date. And if it was a date, he wouldn’t have invited both her and Hikari. That wasn’t how dates worked. Or was it? It wasn’t like she’d ever been on one before.

The three of them got their food and made their way to the auditorium. Asuka had already picked out her seat and had started munching on the bag of popcorn nestled in her lap. She had the whole row to herself “You made it!” she called out. “Hikari, ditch those losers and sit next to me!”

To everyone’s surprise, Kensuke popped up from a row further down like a groundhog and waved his arms. “Hey, guys! You missed the pre-show!”

“Down in front, jackass!” someone in the audience yelled at him.

The lights were already starting to grow dimmer as Touji and Asuka began to argue about who would sit where. Shinji didn’t particularly care where she sat—or, to be more accurate, she cared, but not enough to make a fuss about it.

“Hikari, sit over here on my right. Touji, you can sit on my left.”

“I’d sooner die!”

“Okay, Hikari, you can sit on the left, Shinji on the right.”

“Touji has to sit between us so we can share popcorn.”

“Okay, fine.”

“Asuka, if we’re all on your right, we’ll all have a shitty view!”

“Well, I’m not moving; I got the best seat in the house!”

Shinji just tuned out the arguing until everyone settled down and someone told her where to sit, which turned out to be next to Touji.

The movie started. As the opening credits rolled and the scenery shifted to a blindingly white mountain range, Shinji found her eyes drifting from the screen to the silhouetted heads of the audience in the rows ahead of her. There were maybe half a dozen other people in the theater. A couple was already making out in the front row. As far as Shinji knew, that was a universal theatergoing experience—there was always one.

At first, Shinji didn’t see what Asuka had been so excited about. Knowing her, she’d expected the kind of movies she liked to be nonstop action from start to finish. The closest thing to action so far had been a guy shooting at a runaway dog.

It was a slow movie. Shinji didn’t mind slow. But after almost a half hour, she began to wonder what about the droning, dour score, panning vistas of snowy scenery, and the growing dread surrounding these grizzled old men in their research lab had gotten Asuka so excited.

She wondered if the film had been shot on location. It probably hadn’t—likely Greenland or something. But through the eyes of the film projector, it might as well have been. Maybe that was what Asuka liked about this movie. Antarctica as the movie depicted it no longer existed. Second Impact had destroyed nearly the entire landmass and dyed the ocean around it blood red. That endless, snowy white expanse shown onscreen made her feel a strange nostalgia for something she had never known—not unlike Fuyutsuki’s photograph, the nostalgia for something she’d long since forgotten.

Then the dog’s head split open.

At that exact moment, Shinji felt a clammy hand clamp down on her knee and nearly shot out of her seat like a bullet from a gun.

Touji hastily took his hand back and stuffed it into his bag. “Sorry,” he hissed, “just reaching for the popcorn.” He didn’t eat any of it, though. Shinji couldn’t blame him.

As the scene played out, Shinji began to feel a little ill and carefully slunk out of the auditorium and into the hallway to catch her breath. It was a slight nausea, more of an ‘I need air’ queasiness than ‘I need to vomit,’ thankfully.

It wasn’t like it was scary. Fighting for her life against the Angels was scary. This was just a movie. Just twenty-four photographs per second on a giant screen. And the monster was just a puppet.

A puppet as twisted and deformed and nightmarish as the thing she’d been having dreams of.

But still just a puppet. Just a puppet.

Setting that all aside as best she could, she took a deep breath and felt the meager contents of her stomach settle.


Shinji glanced over her shoulder and saw Hikari slip out the door behind her.

“You okay?” she asked, taking her by the arm.

“I’m fine. It’s just—I needed some fresh air. That’s all.”

“Oh. Good.” Hikari crossed her arms. “When I saw you get up, I thought maybe you were going to the bathroom and needed some… protection.”

She had a point, even if Shinji was a little embarrassed to admit it. Public bathrooms were fraught with danger, especially here in such an unfamiliar place, no matter how well she thought she was passing. “You… wanted to protect me?”

It sounded silly at first, but then she remembered just how fiery Hikari could be sometimes.

“Well…” Hikari glanced off into the distance, then absentmindedly reached out and tucked a stray lock of Shinji’s hair behind her ear. “I mean, I still owe you one, don’t I?”

“No, uh—You don’t owe me anything.” Shinji felt the blood rush to her cheeks. “Anyway, I-I don’t want you missing the movie because you’re worried about me. Unless you hate it. Then I don’t mind.”

“I’m enjoying it so far.”

“Then I guess we’d better go back.”

Hikari threaded her fingers around Shinji’s, and then quickly, as though acting on pure impulse, she darted in like a hummingbird and gave her a quick peck on the cheek; before Shinji could say or do anything about the lingering electric tingle running across her cheek, Hikari hurried back into the theater.

In a daze, Shinji followed her and returned to her seat.

The next time the movie demonstrated a new and exciting way for someone’s body to morph into a twisted and blood-soaked monstrosity, Shinji leaned forward and looked down the row to see how everyone was holding up. Touji had a hand clamped over his mouth and fear in his eyes, but couldn’t look away. Hikari was likewise riveted, her eyes glued to the screen, and was gripping Asuka’s arm as though her life depended on it—or maybe it was Asuka who was doing the gripping.

And Asuka, the light from the screen flickering on her face, wore the widest and most delighted grin Shinji had ever seen on her. The only other time she smiled like this was when she was in Unit-02’s cockpit.

All through the blood-testing scene, Touji grasped Shinji’s hand and squeezed so hard that her hand felt sore. At more than one point during the movie’s climax, he would cling to her so tightly that she became aware of three things—first, that Touji reeked of body spray; second, that his cheek was surprisingly scruffy even though all he had was peach fuzz; third, that she didn’t mind either of those things as much as she’d thought she would.

It was actually a nice feeling, to have someone holding onto her like that.

Touji waited outside the rapidly-emptying lobby as close to the girls’ restroom as he could reasonably be without people looking at him funny, his arms crossed, his foot tapping. Why had all the girls headed straight from the end credits to the bathroom in a group? Was it some kind of esoteric feminine rule that said girls had to travel in herds? Or were Hikari and Asuka just going along in case Shinji needed a bodyguard?

If there were gender-neutral bathrooms, he could be her bodyguard. But no…

“So,” Kensuke asked him, “how’d the not-a-date go?”

Touji groaned. To say it had gone terribly was an understatement. “Bad. I couldn’t make any sort of move on Hikari with that she-devil chaperoning her.”

“Well, why’d you even invite Asuka?” Kensuke asked, incredulous.

“I didn’t! She just… asserted herself.”

He sighed. “That’s a relief. When I saw her there I thought she was the girl behind door number two.”

“First of all, how dare you.”

“Just ruling out the impossible first. But if she isn’t…” Kensuke scratched at his mop of sandy brown hair, the gears in his head turning. “Then that means… the other girl you’ve got a crush on is…”

Touji felt a vise squeeze his heart. “Don’t go there,” he said brusquely, shoving his hands into his pockets. “It’s not what you think. The other girl I liked couldn’t make it,” he lied, “so I invited Shinko instead.”

Kensuke sighed. “I mean,” he murmured, kicking his feet aimlessly, “there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that if you were.”

Touji shrugged and sighed inwardly as he waited for the girls to return to the lobby. Why did all this bullshit have to be so complicated? Why couldn’t he just be satisfied with being friends with his friends instead of feeling like his lower intestines had been replaced with a writhing mass of snakes made of fire whenever he looked at them?

And dammit, why had the boy he’d punched in the face months ago turned out to be a girl, and why did she have to be so goddamn soft?

The sky was turning black; a light breeze was picking up and cooling the hot, thick air. Shinji pulled her cardigan tighter across her shoulders as a chilly gust of wind blew across the theater’s run-down facade.

“Well, um… that was something,” Touji mumbled, dazed, as he and Shinji headed down the sidewalk. Asuka and Hikari trailed a step behind the two of them, as giddy and euphoric as Misato after her third or fourth beer as they gushed to each other about the movie.

“I’m glad they liked it,” Shinji said.

“It was okay,” Touji said, as if he hadn’t spent the last ten minutes clinging to her as though his life had depended on it. “Kinda boring when people weren’t turning into monsters, though.”

“Philistine!” Asuka spat.

“See, I told you this was a great movie!” Kensuke crowed as he caught up to the group. “I really wanna know what happened to that Norwegian camp in the beginning, though. Wish they’d make a movie about that!”

“Wouldn’t it just be the same movie?” Hikari asked.

“Well… yeah,” Kensuke said. “But I’d still watch it.”

“Anyway, thanks for coming,” Touji told Shinji. “Didn’t think you’d be interested.”

“No, it was fine.” Shinji let her arms hang awkwardly at her sides, feeling as though she should have been doing something with her hands but not sure what. Touji stuffed his hands into his pockets. Shinji realized that she kinda missed having pockets. Surely someone out there had made a skirt with pockets, but if they had, she hadn’t found it yet. “Maybe let’s not watch a horror movie next time, though?”

The group made their way to the train station, loosely clustered as they traversed the sleepy and sparsely-populated city blocks. Asuka and Hikari kept excitedly and loudly half-whispering to each other as they trailed behind the others.

“If you liked this, you’ve gotta see the classics! Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth, The Exorcist…”

“Maybe we could pick out some Japanese horror movies, too, and make it a cultural exchange!”

As Shinji reached the turnstile for the train station and dug into her bag for her transit pass, Touji very slowly lowered his hand onto her shoulder. “So, uh… hey.”

“Uh… hey,” Shinji responded, taken aback.

“Whoa. I’d never pegged Class Rep for a horror fan,” Kensuke remarked as he slid his perennially-loose glasses up the bridge of his nose.

Touji very quickly removed his hand from Shinji’s shoulder. “Well, there’s a lot of weird stuff you… uh, don’t notice about people until you do,” he mumbled. He gave her kind of a weird half-smile bordering on a grimace. “Right?”

“I… guess?”

The northbound train that pulled into the station after a few minutes of waiting was nearly empty save for a handful of people, all practically half-asleep, who swayed lifelessly to the motions of the train like zombies. Shinji took a seat and leaned back, resting the back of her head against the window, and felt the humming of the train along its tracks and the rattling of the windows rock her asleep.

She didn’t dream about the white giant again.

Instead, she saw an Eva, a dark mirror of Unit-01 clad in midnight-blue and black armor, its form silhouetted against the setting sun at its back. It reached out toward her, its armor tearing open along its twisted and lengthening arms as bones and muscles snapped and cracked; its fingers grew into long, spindly talons, bulbous knuckles snapping like firecrackers; its helmeted head split open into four quadrants and blossoming like a bloody flower filled with lithe, whipping tendrils as its exposed, doglike skull rippled and warped, the bone flowing like too-soft clay. A seam split open down its torso from collarbone to crotch, widening to reveal a cavernous, toothy maw dripping with sickly green bile that steamed and sputtered like acid.

Its overgrown talons clamped down on Shinji’s shoulders through the heavy layers of Unit-01’s armor, fingertips worming their way through metal and flesh, flowing into her veins, melding to the bones; the sympathetic pain of knives slicing through muscles and sinew burned through Shinji’s arms as she gritted her teeth and suppressed a scream—

She yelped as she snapped awake to the sight of Asuka staring her in the face, both hands resting firmly on her shoulders.

“It’s our stop, Shinko,” Asuka told her, pulling away once Shinji had awoken. “C’mon. Don’t tell me that movie’s already giving you nightmares.”

“No, you just startled me,” Shinji mumbled through a mouth stuffed with cotton as she followed Asuka off the train.

She yawned. If the contents of her nap were anything to go by, she wouldn’t be sleeping well tonight, either. She wished she’d dream about that boy with silver hair who’d sung to her again. That had been a nice dream.

Where has he been? she found herself wondering, as though he had been real.

“The final Cocytus system has been breached,” the bell-like voice rang out. “Lockdown in progress. The final Cocytus system has been breached…”

Kaworu had been utterly unprepared for just how vast his home was. He’d only ever seen less than half a dozen distinct rooms and the stretches of corridor which led directly from one to the other, but there was so much more. The twisting hallways and rows of doors made him feel small, insignificant.

In his hubris, he had thought himself the center of this little universe. Because SEELE needed him. Because his destiny was their desire.

He’d been too solipsistic, drunk on his own sense of importance. He was the beacon guiding SEELE to its ultimate goal of peace between humanity and the Angels, but even a beacon was, to them, still merely a tool.

Judging by how many layers lay between him and the surface, he was becoming uneasily certain there were many more tools here in this facility—in SEELE’s toolbox.

The red lights illuminating the facility continued to pulse; the security alert warnings blared intermittently whenever the facility’s personnel once again zeroed in on his position. He’d kept one step ahead of the security systems for hours between setting off new alerts and having to run and hide, enough even to eat and sleep (albeit fitfully), but the wailing sirens and droning warnings pulsing through the air were well on their way to wearing him down. The dull, flat red glow bathing every wall, floor, and ceiling, every twisting corridor, every obstacle in his path, hurt his eyes.

But he was close now. He could feel it. He just had to keep ascending. He was closer to seeing the sun, moon, and stars for the first time.

And her.

Kaworu kept going, forcing his way up, through the barriers springing up around him—

And at last he made it up to the top.

“Acheron has been breached. Final safeguard measures initiating in T-minus thirty seconds. Acheron has been breached. Final safeguard measures initiating in T-minus…”

As his pulse sang in his ears and his heart swelled and ached with happiness, Kaworu felt a blast of frigid air slam into his chest with such great force that he almost fell over.

He staggered backward, his bare feet slipping against the icy surface of the cold metal floor as a wind-borne flurry of snow stabbed at his bare skin and slipped through the thin fabric of his robe like thousands of tiny knives.

He stood on the roof of the facility—a vast, flat circular platform surrounded by a ring of towering red pillars—and felt every drop of hope and warmth and elation filling his heart evaporate as he gazed with wide and horrified eyes at the world around him.

Beyond the fence of pillars, the facility was surrounded by a rippling ocean of blood stretching from horizon to horizon; frothy crimson waves crashed against gnarled and knobbly pillars of ice that emerged from the sanguine, lifeless sea.

The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, he mouthed, aghast, the words falling silently from his lips, but of wisdom…

Kaworu fell to his knees, buffeted by the freezing, blustering wind. The sweat on his skin and in his hair began to freeze; he blinked and felt his brimming tears crystallize upon his eyelashes. His heart grew as numb as his skin as he stared out at the endless wasteland of Second Impact and realized with dawning horror that he had been utterly and completely wrong.

Chapter Text

Kaworu didn’t want to wake up. He knew that when he opened his eyes, he would see the stark white walls and all-too-familiar ceiling of his cell. (Of course, it wasn’t a cell. It was his auxiliary quarters, which was a much more benign euphemism for solitary confinement, which was itself just another euphemism for… cell.)

However, as much as he wished to go back to sleep, he had to crack open his eyes eventually. The light in this little white room turned off and on of its own accord. It must have been midday for the light to be so bright.

He gave up and opened his eyes, pulling aside the thin sheets that had become intertwined with his legs and sitting upright so swiftly that it made him dizzy. He reeled and blinked away the dancing spots and speckles from his eyes, took a deep breath—

There was something around his neck. It had a firm, yet gentle grip around his throat, a vise just loose enough to let him breathe unimpeded and just tight enough that he couldn’t ignore it.

He raised his fingers to the side of his neck and gently glided them upward, feeling skin give way to the smooth, plasticky synthetic material of a collar wrapped around his neck. It was slick like oiled rubber, so slick that when he tried to touch it his fingers slid right off it, save for a rectangular patch resting against the hollow of his throat. There were no seams, no clasps or buckles, no obvious way to remove it.

On the bright side, he supposed, there didn’t seem to be any way to connect a leash to it.

He bowed his head and rested his forehead on his hands, his fingers burrowing into his wild mop of silver hair. This was the first day of the end of his life. What a fool he’d been to try and escape. To follow the clues that had led him astray…

The wrong time zones, the subtle bits of misdirection. It was almost as if they had wanted him to mount an escape attempt solely so that he would see the lifeless, blood-red seas of his birthplace and realize that he was powerless before his masters.

The door to his quarters slid open without warning.

“You’ve built quite a Hell in Heaven’s despite,” a voice rang out, “haven’t you, Kaworu Nagisa?”

Startled, Kaworu looked up into the face of Keel Lorenz. He was a squat, toadish man with skin like old parchment paper and thinning hair the color of ice. His mouth was drawn in a taut, thin line, his overgrown white eyebrows furrowing above the opaque visor that covered his eyes. He rarely wore any other face than a scowl; today was no different.

A rare in-person appearance from the man behind SEELE monolith number one.

“Hello, Uncle Keel,” Kaworu said, putting on what he hoped looked like a reasonably-innocent face. Keel, despite his squat build, loomed over him.

Keel pulled up a chair from the corner of the tiny room and sat down at the side of Kaworu’s bed. He folded himself slowly, hesitantly, gingerly, metal joints scraping against bone. Kaworu did not know if it was appropriate to say he had a skeleton or a chassis. Too much metal to be one, too much bone to be the other.

“We are concerned about your behavior, Kaworu,” he said. “I want you to tell me why you have become so insubordinate as of late. Do our goals not align? Have I not provided enough for you?”

Kaworu looked pointedly at the conspicuously-empty bookshelf leaning against the far wall of the room, which was not very far away at all.

“We dressed you,” Keel said, taking in his stubby and gnarled old fingers the hem of Kaworu’s robe, “in the finest silks and furnished your home with the softest bedding and most luxurious sheets. We allowed you to eat whatever food you desired, read whatever books you desired. Was that not enough for you?”

Kaworu flinched at every example of kindness Keel threw in his face. The man had a point, he had to admit. He had been given so much; he had never wanted for anything. But…

“We have treated you like a prince, Kaworu. We have ensured that you would not have a care in the world. You never went to bed hungry or thirsty. You have never broken a bone or so much as twisted an ankle. No one has ever harmed you in any way, physically or mentally. All we ask of you in return is for you to help us.” Keel reached out, placed a weathered and warty fingertip against Kaworu’s collarbone, and slid it down his sternum as though it was a scalpel. Kaworu shivered. “You live a life the likes of which no other child who grew up in the wake of Second Impact has been able to live. A life of perfect comfort and utter serenity.”

Except for the men with guns, Kaworu wanted to say. Not to mention the naked interrogations…

“We made for you not Hell, Kaworu, but Eden.” Keel raised his arms as though to gesture to not only the tiny room, but the entire facility. “This place is not a prison. It does not keep you in; it keeps the rest of the world out. And you should be thankful for that.”

But I’m not the only person you’re keeping in here, Kaworu thought, am I?

The level of the facility in which he’d spent his entire life was Cocytus Two. When he had tried to escape, he had ascended through Cocytus Three, Four, Five, Six, all the way up to Acheron. That meant there were other levels not only above him but at least one level below him. Who dwelt in them? Or what? Were there other children like him in this facility? Or were there things whose fearful symmetry even his immortal hand and eye dare not frame?

“Have I not given you enough?” Keel asked yet again.

“No, sir.” Kaworu bowed his head. “No, you’ve given me plenty, Uncle Keel.”

“Is it that you no longer believe in the cause, then? Are we no longer working toward the same goal? Does the reconciliation between Earth and Heaven no longer seem so appealing?” Keel leaned in closer. His breath was hot and stale against Kaworu’s face. “Are you not still an Angel? Do you not still long to reunite with Adam, of whose flesh you were born? And do you not still wish to draw Lilith’s children into this holiest of unions?”

That was what Kaworu wanted. Peace between man and angel. What he doubted, though, was if that was what Keel and the rest of SEELE wanted.

They spoke too much of control, too much of dominion. They didn’t behave like people who wanted to join all life on Earth into blissful unity. These were men who reveled in the power they held over others.

They were lying to him.

“I still want that,” Kaworu said.

Keel leaned back; his mouth curled into a satisfied smile. “How glad I am to hear that our messiah still looks forward to his destiny.” He lifted his hand and ran it rakishly through Kaworu’s hair the way one would pet a beloved dog, then cupped his hand around Kaworu’s cheek and gave it a gentle pat.

Kaworu felt a current of warmth run through his body and smiled against his will. Though he had his reservations, he couldn’t just couldn’t stay mad at Uncle Keel. He was still the closest thing he had to a father.

The cut worm, he recalled, forgives the plow.

Keel stood up and put the chair away. “The rest of the committee wished to keep you here for much, much longer after what you did. However, the time of Bardiel fast approaches. We must return you to the scrying pool at once.”

Kaworu nodded. “Your clemency is deeply appreciated, Uncle Keel.”

“This does not mean you are not being punished, though. To assuage the rest of the committee’s lack of trust in you, I agreed to have that collar placed around your neck.”

Kaworu scratched at the collar. “If I may be quite honest, it doesn’t go with my robe…”

“That is a DSS choker. If you deviate from our plans again, the explosive charge woven through it will detonate and you will instantly be killed.”

Kaworu stopped scratching at the collar.

“Of course, I trust you,” Keel said, “and have faith that such extremes will not be necessary. It is my fellow committee members who insisted on such measures to ensure your continued loyalty.” He opened the door. “Follow me to the scrying pool, Kaworu. I am sure you must miss your bookshelf terribly.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Kaworu got out of bed and followed Keel into the corridor, leaving the dreadfully mind-numbing monotony of that awful room behind.

When Rei took her pills—one dose with breakfast, one dose with lunch, as Doctor Akagi had instructed her—she thought about Shinji.

For her, the pills she picked out of her weekly organizer every morning were a sign of control. She only knew what a few of them were. The others came to her in orange bottles with thick strokes of black ink drawn over the labels. The last time she’d asked Doctor Akagi what they were for, the doctor had simply snapped at her that they were meant to stop her from melting into a puddle of ooze.

For Shinji, though, the medication she took was a sign of freedom, of self-determination. A tool to guide her on the path she’d chosen. With the help of that medicine, she was fighting against her own body to exist on her own terms as the girl she knew she was meant to be. There was something beautiful in that sentiment—a sentiment that Rei herself did not feel when sorting her pills into her weekly organizer as per the doctor’s stern, cold, and clinical instructions.

All she had were unknown chemicals, ostensibly meant to ensure that she was kept in perfect health. When she reflected on her life (what little she remembered—everything from before about five years or so ago was just a muddled haze of impressions), she couldn’t remember having gotten sick even once, not even a mild cold or seasonal allergies, although trying to eat meat would invariably upset her stomach. She supposed many people would be grateful that such medicine existed that could ensure such a high quality of life, and that she, too, should be grateful. But when she tried to make herself feel that way, it felt hollow.

All this medication did, as far as she knew, was bind her to Doctor Akagi, consigning her to monthly sessions of being poked and prodded and handled like an inert piece of meat, inwardly withering under the doctor’s barely-hidden sneer of revulsion.

Once she’d finished her breakfast, she rinsed out her empty bowl in the sink and left it there, then slipped out of her nightgown and went to pull her school clothes from her drawers.

Her eyes drifted, though, to the neatly-folded set of clothes she’d bought with misappropriated NERV funds a few weeks ago. She hadn’t worn them, let alone touched them, since her dressing-down from Commander Ikari, but today her hand drifted away from her uniform and toward them as though tugged by a magnetic force.

Quickly, furtively, as though she were engaging in a taboo, she slipped on the sports bra, hastily climbed into the pants she’d bought, donned the plainest shirt she had, and threw her blazer on over it. The reflection that greeted her when she had finished dressing, just as she’d seen in the fitting room, was refreshingly boyish.

That wasn’t to say Rei had begun to think of herself as a boy. Not the way Shinji thought of herself as a girl. She didn’t mind dresses and skirts and other clothes meant for girls most of the time. Truth be told, she didn’t know what she was or what she wanted to be, but since the day Shinji had been outed, she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it.

About changing.


Hair. Breasts. Blood. Pain. Changes she didn’t want, she didn’t ask for, she didn’t need. Her body shaping itself against her will, against her wishes, every day taking her farther and farther away until it would be too late for her to correct her course. The more she thought about it, the more unsatisfied she felt.

Unsatisfied with her clothes; unsatisfied with her body; unsatisfied with all the things Doctor Akagi told her were ‘a part of growing up,’ her words tinged with an oddly-placed disdainful hue; unsatisfied with the other her which greeted her through every mirror she looked into; unsatisfied with the constant pressure bearing down on her in every public space that some boy, or even a man twice her age or more, would bore holes through her with his eyes or impose on her in some other way for no other reason than because of the shape her body was taking on.

There was just so much wrong with the way this body inhabited the world, the way it interacted with the world, the way the world interacted with it. The shape it filled, the rules circumscribing it. She had no primary knowledge as to what the dysphoria Shinji felt entailed, but she suspected that it was a gnawing and amorphous wrongness, a splinter in one’s mind that was impossible to interrogate until it was named, and when it was named, it felt like this.

Wearing these clothes, which she’d felt attracted to as though they had bewitched her back in the thrift store, did not fix everything. But, Rei thought, feeling her heart swell and the smooth fabric that flattened her chest push back against it, it fixed one thing.

And that was enough for now.

The classroom, Shinji noticed, was noticeably lonelier without Touji or Hikari, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on why. The desks where they would have sat felt like cold spots.

Kensuke leaned over and tapped on Shinji’s shoulder, diverting her attention from the blank spaces in the classroom. “Hey, Shinko. Rumor has it they’re bringing a new Eva unit from the US,” he whispered, his hand held in front of his mouth as though he were worried about any lip-readers in the room. “Heard anything about that?”

“Besides that it’s coming, no,” Shinji answered. “They won’t even tell us what color it is.”

“So no word on who the pilot is?”

Shinji shook her head. “Don’t even know if they’ve chosen anyone yet.”

“It’ll probably be some American kid. Hey, why is it always kids anyway? You’d think there’d be plenty of adults who can handle this stuff.”

“Dunno.” Shinji thought she recalled Ritsuko once saying something about the brainwave patterns of post-Impact children and neuroplasticity, which seemed like as valid a reason as any to shove girls like her into giant armor-plated nightmare monsters.

It creeped her out to think about what the Evangelions really were. To know that beneath Unit-01’s purple armor was real flesh and blood and muscle and bone, that within its helmet’s eye sockets were real eyes with huge green irises and no visible sclera like an animals’ eyes, that the engineers at NERV had bored into its spine and drilled a hole for the entry plug to neatly slot into right into the beast’s heart…

She preferred not to think about it at all.

“But hey, if they haven’t chosen a pilot yet…” Kensuke leaned in closer. “Um… could you maybe talk to Major Katsuragi and… put in a good word for me?”

“You still want to be a pilot? I thought you were afraid it’d turn you into a girl or something…”

Kensuke’s face reddened. “That was—just a dumb theory. I’m over that. And even if it was true, I-I’d just deal with it… I-I mean,” he said, pulling back across the divide between the two desks and coughing loudly into his hand, “it would be a noble sacrifice I’d be willing to make if it meant being able to fight alongside you.”

Shinji couldn’t help but smile a bit. “Okay, I’ll talk to Miss Misato after school for you. I don’t know if she has any authority over pilot selection, but…”

“Thanks. I knew I could count on you.”

As class began, Shinji found her mind wandering. It was a relief not having to do so much work for Vice Commander Fuyutsuki anymore, but she was still having trouble sleeping. That movie the other day hadn’t exactly helped.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw Rei sitting near the back of the classroom, her head wearily propped up with her cheek resting in her hand, her eyes fixed lazily on the nearest window.

Shinji had been avoiding Rei since their dinner with Commander Ikari. It wasn’t that the dinner had ended up being such a nightmare. It wasn’t that she resented Rei for being the daughter her father wanted (although sometimes she did feel that way about her, and it felt disgusting to admit it). It wasn’t that sometimes she would glance at Rei and suddenly she looked like someone had cut a Rei-shaped hole in the fabric of reality. It was that Shinji had forgotten to make lunch for Rei the next day, had been too embarrassed and ashamed to say anything to her about it, and had been too tired to do it at all over the next week.

As a result, she’d avoided Rei as completely as she could (which, considering how introverted and quiet she was, wasn’t difficult). It was always easier to avoid people you hurt than apologize to them. That was why it was always so easy to run away.

But last night, Shinji had decided that enough was enough. Today would be the day she set things right. The longer she waited, the harder it would get, and if she waited much longer, it would be impossible. And she missed Rei.

All she had to do was walk up to her during lunch, hand her the bento box she’d put together, say ‘I’m sorry…’

She had a whole speech composed. She would start with I’m sorry. That was good. It was simple and to-the-point. Then she would add, I didn’t mean to stop making lunch for you, just so Rei would know there were no hard feelings between the two of them. I’ve just been so busy and so tired. No, maybe not that part. That was an excuse, not an apology. I know you’re a great cook yourself but I want to keep doing this for you, if it’s okay with you. Please don’t hate me. Okay, maybe not that last bit.

That was it. That was what she would say. Everything would go back to normal between them… unless it didn’t. Maybe Rei would never forgive her. Maybe—

No. No more running away.

She felt the extra lunch burning a hole in her bag.

Rei found her mind wandering in class again. This wasn’t unusual. She’d taught herself much more advanced mathematics than what the teacher was muddling through years ago.

What was unusual was that instead of the birds which occasionally fluttered past the window, she had found her eyes drifting toward Shinji. The two of them hadn’t spoken much to each other since dinner at Commander Ikari’s.

Rei regretted that dinner. She had thought it would give Shinji an opportunity to see her father as she saw him, to see the quiet warmth he was capable of giving. She had wanted Shinji to know her father, to know that he was a good man, to know that he was kind and caring in his own stoic way.

Instead, she had watched Shinji wither in her father’s presence like a flower that had gotten too much sun and not enough water. She had watched Commander Ikari’s inscrutable gaze slide off his daughter like water off a Teflon surface. She had watched Shinji excuse herself from the table and leave an empty seat for far longer than it should have taken to go to the bathroom and return with her makeup stripped from her face save for a few stubborn smudges at the corners of her red-rimmed eyes.

Instead, she had seen Commander Ikari through Shinji’s eyes and knew now why she had so little faith in him.

Commander Ikari was a better father to Rei than he was to his own flesh and blood, and he didn’t seem to have any interest in changing that.

Rei pulled her attention away from Shinji, self-conscious of the way she stared, and forced herself to search for a better way to occupy her time.

Through lunch, she picked at her food (no bento box from Shinji today—she was either too busy or, Rei feared, nursing a grudge) and leafed through the physics textbook she’d taken out from the local library. It was university-level material; she found her class’s curriculum to be facile and boring by comparison.

“I’m sorry. Uh, I mean, hello.”

She looked up and noticed Shinji standing over her with a boxed lunch in her hand and a nervous, expectant look on her face. “Ikari. Good afternoon.”

“I brought you lunch,” Shinji said, holding the box out. “Again. Uh, sorry for skipping the past… week. I know I should have told you, but…”

“It’s fine,” Rei said, taking the box from Shinji and setting aside her own lunch. “Thank you.”

“Do you mind if I sit next to you?”

“I wouldn’t, but my invisible friend would,” Rei said. “That was a joke,” she added.

Shinji sat down. “Sorry again about lunch.” She stifled a yawn. “I’ve been so busy helping Vice Commander Fuyutsuki after school that I haven’t had the time…”

“That’s okay. I haven’t been that hungry.” Rei nibbled at the food Shinji had made—better by far than what she’d had—and thumbed to the next page of her book.

“What’s that?” Shinji asked, pointing to the book. “It’s not our science homework, is it?”

“No, this is a university physics textbook. I’ve been studying it on the side.”

Shinji seemed nonplussed by the fact that she’d been studying advanced physics for fun, and during lunch no less. “Oh, good. I was scared for a second.” She tapped on the page. “What are these?”

Rei followed her finger to the diagram Shinji had pointed to. “Ah. These are Maxwell’s equations,” she explained. “Four differential equations that form the theoretical basis for describing classical electromagnetism. Gauss’ law. Gauss’ law for magnetism. Faraday’s law. Ampère’s law.”

Shinji’s brow furrowed. “You understand these?”

“No,” Rei admitted. “These are differential equations; I’ve only just started studying calculus.”

“You do math for fun?”

“Yes. It’s necessary to understand physics.” She would like to understand physics someday. If she understood physics, she’d reasoned, maybe everything else would make more sense, too.

Shinji gave the equations another befuddled look. “It looks like a foreign language…”

Rei nodded. “It is. Calculus is the language of physics. It describes the underpinnings of the universe.”

“I’d never thought about math that way,” Shinji said, nervously carding a hand through her hair and flashing a self-conscious half-smile, as though embarrassed to have not come to such a conclusion herself. “I thought it was just numbers.”

Rei looked up at Shinji. Sometimes Rei’s vision flickered and the world looked flat and unreal, like a soundstage, like miniature models made by camera tricks to look real; people would suddenly all look like paper dolls. It would only last for a second. But Shinji stayed normal now. She didn’t flatten like the others did.

She had such a familiar face, framed by short brown bangs, with clear eyes like the surface of a lake beneath gray stormclouds, and ears that (like Commander Ikari’s) stuck out just a little bit. She was thin, halfway between scrawny and slender, and still carried herself meekly, although there was a purposeful air about her now that Rei hadn’t noticed when the two of them had first met. By now, Rei had known Shinji as a girl for almost two months, almost as long as she’d known her as a boy.

The light emitted by her skin, her eyes, her hair, her clothes could be described with math; the shape of her nose, the arc of her smile. If only, Rei mused, people could be defined not by shapes and colors and genders but by elegant equations that described in totality their natures. Then it wouldn’t matter how she felt about being a girl or being a boy. Numbers, operators, functions, and variables had no gender. If math was the language of existence, if humans needed only to exist through these abstractions, then life would be so much simpler.

“The entire electromagnetic spectrum, including visible light, obeys Maxwell’s equations as though they were laws,” Rei said, gently and reverently closing the book. “In some religions, the first act of God was to say ‘let there be light’ and thus create the universe. If that was so, then the words He spoke at the very beginning of time and space itself would have been these four equations.”

“Okay,” Shinji said.

Rei gently placed the book back in her bag and the two of them ate their lunches in silence.

When she was finished, Rei spoke up. “Ikari… are you occupied after school today?”

“No, the Vice Commander doesn’t need me anymore,” Shinji said. “Why?”

“I’d like to…” She looked away and tried to swallow, but her throat had gone dry. She wondered if she could safely talk to Shinji about this. Would she understand? Would it make sense to her? It hardly made sense to Rei, and it was her body, her thoughts; she should know them better than anyone. “I wish to speak with you about an important matter.”

The corner of Shinji’s mouth twitched downward, but only for an instant—a momentary flicker of discomfort. She replaced it with a smile. “Sure.”

Rei spent the rest of the school day struggling to quell the fluttering sensation in her stomach. She knew there was nothing for her to fear. Shinji would understand. She had to.

Or perhaps she would not. Perhaps, Rei thought, she was only fooling herself, forcing herself to map what little she knew about Shinji onto her own thoughts and feelings. The wrong value for the unknown variable in her function.

Touji figured Kensuke’s overactive imagination had been rubbing off on him, because when a pair of guys in dark suits and sunglasses had shown up at his house just as he’d been getting ready for school and told him to come with them to NERV headquarters down in the Geofront, his first thought had been that Shinji or Asuka had blabbed about some top secret part of the Evangelion project and they were bringing him down to either sign some nondisclosure agreement or make him disappear.

He had to stop watching Kensuke’s stupid movies.

He and Hikari stood in the middle of Commander Ikari’s office at the top of the pyramid, dwarfed by the vast floor and ceiling above and below. Before them, the commander himself sat at his desk, shoulders hunched and fingers tented as though he were contemplating some nefarious scheme, flanked by the skeletal form of NERV’s vice commander.

Touji wasn’t sure which of them to be more intimidated by. With his sharp and weasel-like face, Vice Commander Fuyutsuki looked every part the scheming vizier of the king, the power behind the throne. But then there was Commander Ikari himself, who was no slouch himself; despite his posture, he carried with him a quiet intensity. Touji wondered if he was always like this and wondered if that was why Shinji never talked about her father.

Ikari’s gaze roved across the room, his eyes meeting Touji’s and Hikari’s in turn. “Suzuhara. Horaki. You have been brought here because the Marduk Institute has narrowed down their pool of acceptable pilot candidates for Evangelion Unit-03 to two individuals.”

“Oh, do we know them?” Touji blurted out before he could stop himself.

Ikari and Fuyutsuki shared an exasperated glance. Hikari jabbed Touji in the ribs with her elbow.

“Of course, an Eva unit can only have one pilot. The purpose of this interview,” Fuyutsuki said, “is to assist us in determining which of you will be chosen.”

Touji gulped. His throat felt dry. They weren’t seriously considering him to be a pilot, were they? Or Hikari?

He’d been in the thick of it twice already. He’d even been inside Unit-01 once and had dealt with that whole gross liquid breathing shit. No fucking thanks. But if he said no, then—

Hikari stepped forward, her fists clenched at her sides, and took a deep breath through her nose. “I’ll do it,” she announced, her voice ringing through the vast office.

“What? No!” Touji hissed. He grabbed Hikari by the wrist and pulled her back, then stepped forward and held out his arm in front of her as if to put a wall between her and Commander Ikari. “I’ll do it. Combat is a man’s job, after all.”

Fuyutsuki raised an eyebrow.

“No offense to the girls you’ve got now,” Touji added as Hikari’s glare burned a hole in the back of his head. “Just saying.”

“We’ll take your enthusiasm into consideration,” Fuyutsuki said.

“What happens if we both refuse?” Hikari asked.

“Then we will choose a suboptimal candidate,” Ikari said, his voice a low, cool growl. “Trillions of yen in military hardware will be wasted. Future attacks by stronger Angels will be more difficult to repel. There will be more collateral damage to Tokyo-III and its citizenry. People will be injured or killed.” He thumbed through a manila folder lying on his desk. “I understand you have a younger sister, Suzuhara. Sakura, was it…?”

Touji clenched his fists and quickly shoved them into his pockets to hide them.

“I see she was hospitalized due to injuries sustained during Unit-01’s first sortie. Poor girl. It’s been quite a while since then. I hope she pulls through. And Horaki, I see you have a younger sister as well,” he added.

Hikari nodded.

Touji had a lot of unkind things he wanted to say to these guys, but bit his tongue instead. The last thing he wanted was a bullet in his brain or whatever they’d do to him if he spoke his mind.

“I hope you both now have a clear understanding of the stakes,” Ikari said. “We have some routine questions to ask both of you to determine which of you is best suited to be Unit-03’s pilot.”

“There’s no need for that,” Hikari said. “I’ll do it.”

“No, let me.” Touji insisted. He knew what Hikari was doing here and he wouldn’t let her.

Seemingly ignoring their argument, Commander Ikari took a deep breath through his nostrils and opened up one of the folders on his desk. “These are simple psychological assessment questions. You will answer each of them in turn. You will not interrupt each other. You will not interrupt me. Do you understand?”

Touji lowered his arm and stepped back. “Yeah. Yeah, I understand, sir.”

No wonder Shinji decided to live with Misato instead, he thought. If this guy were any colder, you could solve global warming by dunking him in the ocean.

It felt like it took hours for Commander Ikari to run through his battery of questions. By the end of it, Touji’s throat was dry, his tongue kept sticking to the roof of his mouth, and his feet ached from standing for so long.

At last, Ikari closed the folder he’d been reading from. Fuyutsuki produced two forms and laid them on the desk. “Thank you for your cooperation. Sign these two nondisclosure forms,” Fuyutsuki said, “and you will be free to go. Whichever one of you is chosen to be the Fourth Child will be informed within the next twenty-four hours.”

Touji had never been so grateful to sign something. And walking out of Commander Ikari’s office felt like walking out of a classroom at the end of the year knowing he’d just barely eked out a passing grade on the final exam.

He all but collapsed onto one of the benches lining the hallway outside of the commander’s office, his heart pounding against his ribs so rapidly that he felt as though he’d just run ten kilometers in as many minutes.

Hikari sat next to him on the bench, her hands folded in her lap and fingers searching for fabric to nervously knead, her eyes wide, her face pale, her chest rising and falling with every shallow breath she took.

Her hand found his and squeezed so hard he thought it would leave a bruise.

The apartment complex Rei lived in was in a far less polished part of the city. The hollow, ringing sounds of construction work bled through the walls, sounding with clocklike rhythm and precision. Rei had long since learned how to tune out the sound; to her, it was no more annoying than the ticking of a clock would be.

Her apartment was not exactly ready for her to entertain guests. She was too easily distracted to keep up with cleaning it, though she tried. As Shinji stepped in behind her and set her shoes at the side of the door, Rei hurried forward to nudge a pile of clothes she’d forgotten to put in her laundry hamper under her bed.

“So, um…” Shinji caught up with her, navigating gingerly through the apartment as though the building would collapse if she so much as brushed against anything. Evidently, she remembered what had happened the first time she had come here. “What did you want to talk about, Ayanami?”

“I am… I’ve been thinking and…” Rei shook her head. She couldn’t summon the words she wanted to say. None of them fit together right. “I-I would rather show you. Can you wait a few minutes?”

“Sure,” Shinji said, standing in the center of the foyer with her arms pinned to her sides.

Rei hurried into her bedroom, shut the door behind her, and hurriedly changed into the clothes she’d tried on earlier in the morning.

It was hard to open the door again. Hard to anticipate what Shinji would think of her. Hard to imagine what the look on her face would be when she—

She opened the door without being consciously aware of it (funny how easy it was to do anything when you stopped thinking about it) and found herself greeted by a dumb expression on Shinji’s face that quickly faded into a warm, albeit faint, smile.

“You look good in that,” she offered.

Rei felt herself blush and pulled her blazer tighter around her shoulder. “Thank you. I wanted to speak to you about matters of… gender.”

Matters of gender? Why did she sound so stupid?

“Um…” Shinji nervously kneaded her hands together. “Okay. What do you want to know?”

“We should sit down,” Rei said.

The two of them sat down at the table.

“I’m starting to wonder,” she said as Shinji anxiously twiddled her thumbs, “if I may not be… who I was told I am. By which I mean…”

She was talking in circles. She needed to clear her mind, govern her tongue, line the words up in the correct order and—

“D-Do you want to be a boy, Ayanami?” Shinji asked, leaning closer, her palms flat against the surface of the table. There was a sort of expectant gleam in her eyes, and a smile on her face that was so earnest that it loosened Rei’s tongue.

“I’m… not happy,” Rei answered, “being a girl. I don’t think I’m a boy, but…”

“…You wanna try it out?”

She tried to speak, tried to say something in response to Shinji’s question, but her tongue was thick and heavy, cleaving to her mouth. “I… suppose I’d… like that,” she forced herself to say, her voice little more than a croak. Every muscle, every sinew, every cell in her body felt as though it was contracting. Her foot tapped nervously on the floor.

“We’re about the same size,” Shinji said, “so if you’d like, I could give you my old clothes…”

“Would you?” Rei asked, her breath faltering, her tone betraying far more excitement than she’d thought she was feeling. Every coiled spring under her skin seemed to loosen at once.

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess.” Shinji let out a nervous laugh. “They aren’t doing me any good. Is there anything else you want to do? Maybe you could get your hair cut short…”

Rei rested her cheek against her hand. A haircut. She hadn’t thought about that. What would she look like with short hair?

The two of them talked for a little bit until the time came for Rei to leave—Doctor Akagi wanted to see her later this evening for more tests. Although Shinji couldn’t explain everything and sometimes seemed bemused when Rei explained something she thought was obvious, the more they talked, the more things started to make sense and the better Rei felt, and when she had to tell Shinji to go home, she wished she didn’t have to.

“Thank you for telling me about this, Ayanami,” Shinji said as she collected her shoes. “It’s… nice to know someone else I can talk to. I mean, there’s Touji and Kensuke and Hikari, and Miss Misato and Miss Ritsuko, but they can only be so helpful. They don’t… get it. They try their best, but they don’t really know what it’s like. They can’t. So… I’m really glad,” she concluded, smiling, “to know I’m not alone.”

Rei smiled back.

“Remember when we fought the Fifth Angel?” Shinji asked, tracing a diamond in the air with her fingertips as though to remind Rei which one the Fifth had been. “That night… I was so grateful that we were both alive after that.”

Rei remembered. She remembered how Shinji had forced Unit-00’s entry plug open just as Commander Ikari had done in the aftermath of the battle, her plugsuit’s gloves smoking and charred as she’d poked her head into the entry plug soaked with LCL and reeking of blood and sweat. The relief that had danced on her face as their eyes had met; her weak, trembling, exhilarated, adrenaline-forced smile as she had asked Rei if she could smile, too.

“That night… that was when I let myself wonder, without pushing it away, without locking it down, just allowing myself to ask myself…” Shinji reached out to Rei and wrapped her arms around her. Rei felt the warmth of her skin and the softness and silkiness of her hair against her cheek; she laid her hands on Shinji’s back and felt her shoulders quivering. “I didn’t want to die without asking myself that. I’m so glad I did. And… I think you’ll be, too, Ayanami.”

Why is she crying? Rei wondered. She gave Shinji a gentle pat on the back, hoping it would soothe her. “There, there.”

Shinji let go of her and stepped backward over the threshold, sniffling and wiping at her eyes. “Don’t worry,” she croaked through a fragile smile. Despite the wetness of her eyes, they glittered happily. “Those were, uh… happy tears. I’m happy for you.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“I hadn’t realized how good it feels to cry sometimes,” she added, “until I’d started transitioning.” She sniffled again and swallowed a lump in her throat.

Rei nodded. “I understand.” She didn’t. There was still so much she didn’t understand.

She could tell that Shinji thought she was traveling down the same path as her. A dark and frightening path, but one with a clear endpoint. But Rei’s path, she felt, had no endpoint she could see.

“I’ll bring my old school uniform to you tomorrow. You can try it and see what you think. And you should ask Miss Ritsuko, too, once you’ve given this more thought…”

Rei crossed her arms. She didn’t want to ask Doctor Akagi anything. She didn’t want her to know, to ask questions, to interrogate. “I’ve never felt comfortable speaking to her,” she interjected. The bitterness in her voice was shocking even to herself.

“But… Miss Ritsuko’s always been nice to me,” Shinji said. “She isn’t an expert in transitioning, but she’s been so understanding.”

Has she? Rei wanted to ask. If Doctor Akagi was ‘so understanding,’ then she had never demonstrated it to her.

“I think it’d be a good idea,” Shinji added, “if you start thinking about hormones. She’s our doctor, after all. It’s her job to help us.”

Rei forced herself to nod. “I’ll think about it,” she said.

She would try not to.

After Shinji had left, she changed back into her school clothes and headed for the Geofront.

The elevator ride deep into the dark heart of Central Dogma was plagued by a fraught silence. Rei stood in the corner of the cab, resting one arm against the railing running along the wall, while Doctor Akagi stood next to the controls, nicotine-stained fingernails tapping irritably against the panel.

Rei rubbed her arm, the patch of bandaged skin just under the crook of her elbow aching. She never did well with shots. Doctor Akagi always had to tell her to stop squirming or she’d snap the needle off inside her. On some days, it sounded less like a warning and more like a threat.

The elevator shuddered to a halt and opened into an airlock. Doctor Akagi stepped over the threshold; Rei followed her at a distance. Once the elevator door had closed, Doctor Akagi submitted to a biometric scanner at the far side of the airlock chamber and opened the airlock’s other door.

The chamber beyond the airlock was a dark, vast room with curved walls and a sloped ceiling closing in on an enormous mass of tubes and wires hanging in the center of the room like a chandelier; the mass’s twisting contours formed a mechanical parody of the human brain, complete with a seam down the middle dividing it into two hemispherical lobes.

In the center of the chamber, protruding from the metal brain and meeting with the floor, was a knobbly metal column resembling a human spinal cord terminating in half of a glass tube which connected to the floor. A pane of glass stretched all across the chamber’s perimeter, its face black as the depths of the ocean in the absence of any lighting within the aquarium-like tank beyond the walls; however, even with the tank’s contents hidden from view, Rei could still feel dozens of pairs of eyes staring blankly, glassily, blissfully emptily out at her.

This was not the most unnerving place in Central Dogma, but it was by far the one Rei was most acquainted with and thus the place she loathed the most. Doctor Akagi, at least, shared her loathing, albeit for a different (though unknown to Rei) reason.

Concentric rings on the floor lit up around her with every step she and Doctor Akagi took deeper into the chamber until they reached the center. The oddly-placed lighting cast ghoulish chiaroscuro shadows across Doctor Akagi’s hard, stern face.

“Well,” she said, “here we are. You know what to do.”

Rei nodded, stripped naked, and stepped into the open tube, letting the other half slide upward behind her and cut her off from the outside world. The patterned grate on the floor dug into the soles of her feet.

LCL began to flood the enclosed space, icy cold against her bare feet. The waterline inched higher; Rei flinched and shivered when the cold LCL lapped at her groin and again when it reached her chest. Once the fluid had filled the glass tube from top to bottom and Rei felt her feet leave the floor, she forced herself to take a deep breath, just as she did when she piloted Unit-00. A stream of bubbles poured from her mouth and vanished into the oxygenated liquid that flooded her lungs.

Doctor Akagi stared at her from the other side of the glass with cold indifference before retreating to a computer terminal connected to the mechanical brain suspended overhead.

Rei closed her eyes and tried not to think about the glassy eyes staring at her from the darkness as the machine began to scan her thoughts. It was like syncing with Unit-00, except without the heavy phantom limb sensation, and while the faint consciousness of the Eva had a wetly organic feel, the dummy system was far colder.

Somebody began to hum Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in her ear.

Her eyes snapped open at the sound of the unknown voice. Rei glanced across the room in a wide arc, scanning for any unexpected visitors or intruders—

A boy with silvery-white hair was standing in front of her on the other side of the glass. He had pale skin just like hers and blood-red eyes just like hers and a face that was sharp and smooth like a knife fresh off the whetstone, and he wore a black-and-violet plugsuit that clung to his thin and lanky frame. Two A10 nerve connectors sat nestled in his silver hair like lumps of polished onyx.

“Interesting,” he commented, crossing his arms and nodding as he slowly turned his head to observe the chamber. “Very, very interesting…” He went back to humming as he let his eyes rove about the room.

Rei glanced over at Doctor Akagi, who was absorbed in the terminal’s readouts. She didn’t know how to get her attention. What if she tried to tap on the glass? Would she hear it?

The boy looked up at the shadow-wreathed contours of the mechanical brain looming over the tube like the cap of a mushroom. “In what furnace was thy brain…”

Rei winced as a sharp jolt ran through her brain, pressing forcefully against her sinuses as though she’d just drunk something too cold too quickly—some sort of interference passing through the dummy system’s programming.

As the boy continued his inspection, he took a step through the glass wall of the tube as though it didn’t exist and paused, half his body inside the tube and bathed in luminescent LCL, the other half remaining on the other side of the glass. Rei reached out to grab the boy by the shoulder as he intruded upon her—but her hand simply passed through his body, vanishing up to her wrist in the depths of his torso without the slightest resistance as though he were nothing more than a hologram.

It was enough, though, to make him take notice of her. His eyes met hers and widened, his pale lips parting as his mouth hung agape. “Can you see me, too?” he asked.

Rei opened her mouth, only for the boy to hurriedly hold up his hands. He then put one finger to his lips. “Wait. Don’t say anything.” He glanced pointedly at Doctor Akagi, who continued with her work as though there wasn’t a boy stuck halfway through the glass. “You don’t want her thinking you’ve gone crazy, do you?”

Rei found his reasoning sound and so did not say anything.

“You must be Rei Ayanami. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” The boy held out his hand, then sheepishly retracted it before Rei could reach out for it. “Wait, we can’t shake hands, either.” A self-conscious grin played across his sharp face. “Oops.”

Rei tried her best to stare at him in a way that, hopefully, conveyed the question, Who are you?

To her surprise, the boy understood her. “Who am I? Well…”

As the boy hesitated, Rei felt a cloud of fuzz lightly brush past her mind, leaving a strange tingling sensation in its wake. It was like the pins-and-needles feeling of sleeping on one’s arm, but just in the periphery of her mind, like a flicker of imagined movement in the corner of her eye.

“Tabby,” he said. “You can call me Tabby.”

Tabby? Rei cocked her head quizzically.

“Like the cat,” the boy said, flashing a tight-lipped smile, his scarlet eyes glittering in the light from the LCL.

With how easily Tabby was discerning her questions just from observing her subtle body language, Rei wondered if he was somehow reading her mind.

“Yes,” he said. “Well, yes and no.” He stroked his elfin chin thoughtfully. “It’s more that you’re letting me in, I think. Which is good, because otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to talk,” he added. He continued to examine the machine.

Stop it,” Rei whispered. Wherever this boy had come from, however he’d gotten in here, however he knew what he knew, he didn’t belong.

“You have nothing to fear from me, Ayanami. We’re on the same side.” Tabby smiled and stepped back out of the tube. Even on the other side of the glass, Rei could hear his voice as clear as day. “I’m just like you, actually.”

The pale skin, the crimson eyes… was he really like her?

“Well, yes, but I wasn’t specifically referring to that.” Tabby folded his hands behind his back and continued examining the chamber’s machinery. “You’re human, but you don’t feel human. When you look at yourself, in the mirror or in photographs, you see a collection of parts artlessly arranged in a crude facsimile of humanity. A jumbled collage shaped vaguely like a person, but not one you know. Not one you like.”

Rei felt the way Shinji did.


Almost. That was right. Almost. Shinji had known she was a girl for years. Rei didn’t know what she wanted to be. She didn’t know if she ever would. She would never be satisfied. That was what Shinji couldn’t fully understand, why their meeting earlier today had not assuaged every doubt in Rei’s mind. One day, Shinji would be satisfied. She would complete her transition, she would be beautiful, she would be happy, she would be undoubtedly and unreservedly a woman. But never Rei. Rei could see no endpoint to the path before her, just endless wandering in labyrinthine arcs.

“Don’t give up hope just yet, Ayanami,” Tabby said with a sweet little smile. “There is peace to be found in the endless liminal void, in all its forms. One simply has to have faith they will find it.” He unclasped his hands and held one to his chest. “For me, it ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes. The kinship I feel with this body changes like the phases of the moon. Sometimes I cannot stand the shape it takes; sometimes it suits me just fine; I have learned to exist peacefully with it regardless.”

Rei didn’t feel that way. It was different for her. There was no ebb and flow. Just a nagging droning in the back of her mind that grew in intensity the more she thought about it.

Tabby shrugged. “That is fair. For us, there are as many different ways to live as there are grains of sand in the desert, drops of water in the moon, or stars in the sky. Lilin, sadly, see the world through a much simpler lens than they ought to, but their choice is not yours.”

But other people always chose for her, Rei thought. Chose for her what to wear, how to speak, which subjects to study, how to behave. The world around her circumscribed her by the choices it made for her. Somebody long ago had decided what it meant to speak a certain way, to dress a certain way, and had codified them as rules to be imposed upon her from birth to death. Like the first guest at a dinner party to choose between the napkin on his left or on his right; whatever choice he made, he would choose not only for himself but for everyone to follow him.

“Well,” Tabby said, an amused little smile playing on his face as Rei’s analogy ran through his mind, “Perhaps there is still a napkin out there you can take for yourself.”

Rei felt another jolt of pressure run through her head from the machine, filling her with a sense of urgency and fear that disrupted the calm she’d fallen into. Why, she wondered, couldn’t Doctor Akagi see this boy, let alone hear him (unlike Rei, he was using his mouth)? Even if he were a hologram, other people would be able to see and hear him. Why could she see him and no one else? Was he just a figment of her imagination?

What was happening to her?

“If the doors of perception were cleansed,” Tabby said, as though responding to her, “every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

He vanished, his crimson eyes and Cheshire Cat smile fading away last.

Though the mysterious boy had given her much to think about, Rei put it all aside and spent the next hour synchronizing with the dummy plug without issue, allowing it to read and copy the basic patterns of her thoughts.

At last, when she was finished, the tube began to empty itself. The LCL flowed around the now-open grate on the floor, gurgling hollowly as the waterline dropped; swirling currents circled Rei’s body like the walls of a typhoon.

She coughed and spat out the LCL filling her lungs and sucked down a grateful breath of dry air as the tube slid open. She shivered, the cold air raising goosebumps on her wet skin, and clutched at her arms tightly to try and conserve her body heat. Doctor Akagi handed her a towel, which she hungrily snatched out of her hand and bundled herself up in. LCL trickled off her soaked hair and ran down her face and neck, its sweet, blood-like stench still cloying no matter how used to it she’d gotten.

“We’ve collected enough information for the dummy system,” Doctor Akagi told her. “It should be operational within the next few days.”

Rei tied the towel around her chest and collected her neatly-folded clothes off the floor. Once she reached the upper level of Central Dogma, she’d be able to take a proper shower and get dressed. The liminal space between there and here, wet and sticky and reeking of a slaughterhouse, was always horrendously unpleasant.

“Come on.” Doctor Akagi took off her reading glasses and placed them into her handbag. “It’s late enough as it is.”

As the two of them headed for the door, Rei looked up at Doctor Akagi, into her hard, cold, stoic visage.

She’s our doctor, after all. It’s her job to help us.

“Excuse me,” Rei said, “Doctor Akagi… I would like to ask you something.”

“Yes? What is it?” she asked, her tone making it clear that she wasn’t interested in knowing.

“I have been wondering if I might…”

A loud, dull thump rang through the chamber, disrupting Rei’s train of thought. Another thump rang out seconds later, and another, and another. It was as though someone was knocking on a door.

Perhaps Rei was still on edge from the sudden appearance and disappearance of that strange boy. “What was that?” she hissed, instinctively clawing at Doctor Akagi’s sleeve as a child might reach for their mother’s arm.

“It’s likely nothing,” Doctor Akagi said as she pulled herself away, though Rei noticed her hand slip under her white labcoat to the gleaming black pistol holstered at her hip in defiance of her words.

Slowly, cautiously, the two of them followed the knocking sound to the glass partition separating the chamber from the aquarium tank surrounding it. Doctor Akagi pressed a button on her remote control, activating the lights within the aquarium.

The glass panel ringing the wall became awash with soft orange light, illuminating the two or three dozen limp, motionless bodies suspended in the tank of LCL, their hair gently waving like fronds of seaweed, their doll-like eyes staring off into the middle distance, their mouths all gaping open like fish.

Rei took a hurried step back and gritted her teeth as she looked into her own face replicated over and over again across the drowned legion of empty vessels, the blissful and empty-headed smiles of her spare parts gently and unknowingly mocking her.

One of the clones drifted to the side of the tank and bumped against it with a dull, ringing thump, them drifted away just as aimlessly, its limp limbs slowly twisting in languid arcs as they were buoyed by the drifting currents of the LCL.

“There,” Doctor Akagi said turning off the lights. “It was nothing.”

Before the tank and its contents vanished into the darkness, though, Rei swore she saw the knocking clone wink at her, a wry smile tugging at the corner of its mouth.

Chapter Text

Whatever talented architect had been hired to design NERV headquarters had not been hired, or even consulted, to construct Golgotha Base, NERV’s secondary testing site. The small portion of the headquarters which protruded above the ground was beautiful and elegant in its simplicity. This base, on the other hand, was a clustered clump of skeletal towers of scaffolding. Floodlights mounted across its perimeter threw long, garish shadows through the structure. If Golgotha Base were an animal, it would be a long-dead animal half-buried in the desert and picked at so thoroughly by vultures that hardly any of its flesh was left.

Unit-03 had been airlifted into the site earlier today, suspended on a massive T-shaped support beam with arms spread out and hands splayed, and now stood inert in the center of the testing site. Its armor was as black as the night sky overhead, washed out by the faint cones of light thrown out by the floodlights trained on its surface and suspended in the hazy, humid air.

“I thought Unit-03 and Unit-04 were under construction simultaneously,” Misato commented as she watched the scaffolding close itself around the body of Unit-03. A similar set of scaffolding stood at the bestial machine’s side, its spindly metal tendrils spread like open arms around thin air, waiting patiently to greet the new Evangelion’s twin. “Couldn’t send ‘em both at once?”

Kaji smirked. “Shipping costs must’ve been murder on the budget,” he said with a wry smile as he leaned against the railing and looked down at the scaffolding wrapped around the inert Eva. He looked for all the world like a tourist on the top floor of Toramonon Hills watching people and cars mill about like ants on the streets below.

Misato tried not to laugh. She almost succeeded.

“But no… I’m surprised you haven’t heard the news yet.” The amused little grin on his face quickly faded as his expression turned sour. “Unit-04 is gone.”

“Gone? How does an entire Evangelion just disappear?” Misato stared into the eyeholes of Unit-03’s helmet. As far as she knew, one couldn’t exactly spirit away a forty-meter-tall dream (or nightmare) of mechanical and biological engineering without anyone noticing.

“The same way an entire NERV base disappears.”

“What?” She couldn’t believe her ears. Kaji couldn’t have just said that the entire NERV second branch facility in Nevada had just…

“NERV-02 is gone. Everything in a ninety kilometer radius to boot.” A noticeably dazed and faraway look in his eyes, Kaji took a deep breath and exhaled as though smoking an imaginary cigarette.

Misato’s hand gripped the railing tighter to stop itself from shaking. She couldn’t help, though, but betray how rattled she was by this news. The vision of such a vast expanse vanishing in the blink of an eye dredged up horrible memories she struggled to keep out of her waking thoughts—the blood-red stain leeching across the water; the bitter, burning winds howling across the wasteland with the strength of a hurricane; the four spindly, veined wings like giant dragonfly’s wings made of pure amber light stretching hundreds of kilometers into the sky, their shimmering golden contours vanishing into space…


“Unit-04 was being fitted with an experimental power supply. Something went wrong in its test activation.”

No wonder the Americans had been so hasty about sending Unit-03 away. The other NERV branch in Massachusetts was the only branch left in the West now. And now it made sense to Misato why Unit-03 was having its activation test at the secondary testing site in Matsushiro instead of at the headquarters with the other Evas. Better for this site to be scrubbed from the Earth than the heart and soul of NERV itself.

And they didn’t tell me? Misato thought. What did having her rank even mean around here if she was still being kept this out of the loop? Had she gotten that promotion a few months back only to be kicked upstairs?

Kaji went on. “Researchers from Black Mesa have theorized that the whole area was swallowed up by something called a Dirac sea.”

The air was thick and humid, but that couldn’t stop Misato from shivering. “A Dirac sea…”

“Does it ring a bell?” he asked.

Misato had heard that term before from Ritsuko. The Dirac Sea—Ritsuko had used that name for the netherworld within the Twelfth Angel’s body.

She raised a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes, her breath and heartbeat loud in her ears. The anger and heartbreak and helplessness she’d felt through the last attack bubbled up to the surface, the sights and sounds—Shinji screaming for help as Unit-01 sank into the extradimensional mire, Misato’s palm furiously striking Ritsuko’s cheek, Unit-01 tearing itself free with such a hideous and feral howl, her flesh burning against the entry plug’s searing hot emergency release handle, Shinji’s body hanging limply in her arms like a fresh corpse. Shinji could have died in her arms—

Kaji placed a hand on her shoulder. “You alright there?”

Misato took as deep a breath as she could manage and opened her eyes, gazing at the blurred and indistinct shape of Unit-03 through a curtain of eyelashes and tears. “Yeah,” she said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. The scar winding up her side throbbed and ached as though she’d gotten it yesterday. “Yeah, I’m alright.”

There was a look of genuine concern in Kaji’s eyes. He may have been a louse through and through, but as far as Misato was concerned, he was her louse.

“The Twelfth Angel could do that,” she told him. “Swallow things up in a Dirac sea. I watched Unit-01 destroy it, I thought we’d killed it, but…”

The words caught in her throat. She had to drag them out.

“What if we didn’t finish it off?” she asked, struggling and failing to keep her voice from shaking. “What if it’s back, or there are others like it?” The tremors in her hands began to travel up to her shoulders. “What if the others come back, too?”

Kaji’s hand slid across her back to the opposite shoulder. “Not gonna happen. I like to hold out hope,” he assured her, giving her a firm squeeze and flashing a devil-may-care grin, “that we’re not completely fucked.”

Misato sighed.

“Well, a few more nights out,” he added with a scandalous wink, “and maybe then.”

She snorted, clasped her hand over her mouth, and did her best to muffle the explosive bark of laughter that burst out of her.

Kaji checked his watch. “I should be going. It’s getting late and I’ve got business back at headquarters.”

Misato pulled away from the railing and crossed her arms. Kaji was beginning to show his insufferable side again. “Your ‘business’ wouldn’t happen to be named ‘Ritsuko,’ would it?” she asked.

Kaji craned his neck and lifted his eyes skyward. “What can I say? I’m a man with lots of love to give to the world…”

Misato punched him in the shoulder. It was by no means an affectionate punch, although she tried to use just little enough of her strength to give herself plausible deniability.

“Ow.” Kaji gingerly rubbed his shoulder, wincing. “You’re staying here overnight with the Fourth Child, right?”

Misato nodded. “Yeah, since I’m overseeing the activation test tomorrow. Gotta keep someone the kid knows around here.”

“Yeah. Well… try not to get wiped off the face of the Earth,” Kaji said. “There’s still a few things we haven’t tried…”

As he leaned forward to kiss her, closing his eyes and pursing his lips, Misato turned her head and put a finger to his lips. Kaji opened his eyes. He’d gone cross-eyed.

“Save it for your date,” she told him as she turned around and headed for the elevator platform. She loudly exhaled through her clenched teeth as she punched in the controls to carry her deeper into the facility.

“Wait, wait,” Kaji shouted out, holding out his hand as he rushed for the elevator after her. “I’m going down, too—”

The wire mesh cage surrounding the platform slammed shut with a hollow, ringing rattle as the platform slid down the shaft. The sight of Kaji’s crestfallen face slowly sliding out of view was oddly satisfying.

That Kaji! Why, Misato asked herself, did she always fall for men who breathed hot and cold with the same breath?

Still fuming, she got off the elevator, walked around Unit-03’s gargantuan feet, and headed for the squat, ugly building nestled within the base that held the staff’s quarters. She didn’t envy any of the people who were staying here for the activation test tomorrow, least of all the new unit’s pilot. Maybe that was why she hadn’t been informed about Unit-04’s little accident. It would have been bad for morale if everyone onsite had been expecting to be instantly plunged into an endless expanse of nothingness tomorrow when they turned Unit-03 on.

She reached the door to the Fourth Child’s quarters, paced a bit to work off all her excess frustration, and then buzzed the intercom.

“Who is it?”

“Major Misato Katsuragi.”

“Oh! Hold on a sec.” A pause. “Okay, it’s open.”

Misato swiped her keycard across the reader embedded in the door’s latch, waited for the mechanism to beep and the little light to turn green, and slid the door open.

Hikari Horaki, representative of Class 2-A, stood bashfully in the center of the tiny room, her freckled face as red as a tomato. Her clothes were neatly folded at the foot of the bed; she’d put on the white-and-amber plugsuit that had been provided for her and was, judging from how uncomfortable she looked, far from accustomed to wearing it.

“Really doesn’t leave anything to the imagination, huh, kiddo?” Misato asked, hoping to defuse some of the tension.

“It really doesn’t,” Hikari said, smiling nervously. “When Touji said Eva pilots wore space suits, I expected something a little more, uh… bulky.” She self-consciously patted her stomach. “I’m gonna have to start watching my diet as long as I have to wear this thing…”

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s not like you’ll be going out in public wearing it.” Misato sat down on the side of the bed. There was hardly enough room in here to swing a cat. “And you’re gonna be saving the world, so go ahead and eat whatever you want. Who’s gonna give you shit for it, huh? Little Miss Fights Giant Monsters can afford to eat ice cream straight from the tub every once in a while.”

The girl’s nervous smile turned into something a little more genuine.

“Well, don’t just stand on ceremony,” Misato said, patting on the cot’s hard, thin mattress. “Take a seat. I don’t bite.”

Hikari nodded and sat down next to her.



“Well, you’re not getting the baptism by fire poor Shinko went through, at least,” Misato assured her, giving her a pat on the back. “This is just a test.”

Hikari nodded. Misato had had enough experience with Shinji to know that the way she nodded was less a ‘yes, I understand’ signal and more ‘can we please move on?’ signal.

“So, what’s eating you?”

“I… well… I’ve never felt so afraid of doing well at something before.” Hikari hunched over, resting her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands. “A part of me… wants to fail. Then it’ll be over…”

Misato wished she wasn’t giving this pep talk. It would be nice if she wasn’t telling a fourteen-year-old girl to do her best at connecting her brain to a giant feral cyborg so she could risk life and limb disemboweling eldritch monstrosities. It would really be nice if responsible adults could pilot the Evas instead of children, but as Ritsuko always said, ‘blah blah blah post-Impact brainwaves blah blah neuroplasticity,’ or something to that effect.

If only it could be her in that thing instead of a little girl whose biggest concerns should have been math homework and whether the boy she liked liked her back. Misato wanted to tear those damn Angels apart herself, not use kids as proxies.

What she wanted to tell Hikari was to leave Golgotha Base and get on the train and go back home to her family and never look back.

“Of course it’s scary,” she told her instead. “Anything that’s really worth doing is scary. But you can’t turn away from this. NERV scours the world for the perfect people to pilot these things. It’s something only you can do, Hikari. And it’ll… It’s gonna be easier than you think. Like riding a bike. Once you get your balance, you can just about do anything.”

“I know. I didn’t do too well on those preliminary sync tests yesterday, though…”

“Ah, the standards for failure are pretty low here, honestly,” Misato replied. “You’d be amazed at how much piloting you can do even with a low sync rate. When Shinji started out, she was almost fifty points behind Asuka, and now they’re practically neck and neck!”

Hikari’s smile returned, but only briefly. “I know I have to do it. I just… I can’t let Tou—I can’t let anyone else be Unit-03’s pilot. I just—I’m terrified that something’s gonna happen to me, like what happened to Shinko last time, only I won’t come back—”

Before Misato knew it, she’d put her arms around Hikari and guided her head to her shoulder. It was an instinctual gesture. “There, there. Don’t worry about it.”

“But…” Hikari broke down, her grip tightening around Misato’s waist. Misato felt tears dampen her shoulder. “It’s my little sister. Dad and Kodama are too busy; I’m all she’s got, so if I get seriously hurt or killed—if I get killed, she won’t have…”

“There, there.” Shinji and Asuka were so much easier to deal with. Asuka never showed fear in the first place; Shinji didn’t have the kind of familial obligations and responsibilities that were weighing on Hikari’s conscience right now. NERV should’ve just said, ‘fuck it, mask off’ and started harvesting orphans. What the hell was Misato supposed to say other than ‘there, there?’ Was she supposed to hawk NERV’s great life insurance policy?

“You aren’t going to get killed,” she assured Hikari. “Hey, you trust Asuka, right?”

Hikari sniffled and nodded. “Yeah.”

“And you trust Shinji, too, right?”

“Yeah. Of course.”

“And Rei. You trust Rei?”

“Don’t really know her that well,” Hikari admitted, a giggle escaping her lips, “but yeah.”

“And me. You trust me?” Misato gently pushed Hikari away and planted both hands on her shoulders, looking her in the eyes. “Do you trust me?”

“Yeah,” Hikari answered. “Yeah, I trust all of you.”

“There you go. That’s all you need. There’s gonna be four of you girls out there now, and there’s always only ever one Angel at a time. You’ll all watch each other’s backs. You’ll keep each other safe. You’re going to fight, and you’re going to win, and you’re going to keep winning until the Angels stop coming. Got it?”

Hikari shakily nodded as the beginnings of a confident smile took root on her face. There was an almost Asuka-like gleam in her eyes as the hands folded in her lap curled into fists. “Got it, Major!”

“That’s the spirit!” Misato stood up. “Don’t think about everything that might go wrong tomorrow. Just think about how amazing you’re gonna be.”

“Thanks, Major.” Hikari took a deep breath. “That really helps.”

“Aw, it’s the least I can do.” Misato made for the door. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s gonna be a busy day!”

She left the Fourth Child’s quarters, sighed, and felt all the confidence and bravado drain from her body. These pep talks sucked. Another stupid sales pitch to get another little girl to fight her battles for her. How many more of these speeches could she give before she just couldn’t bring herself to spew that motivational bullshit anymore?

Shit, she was really gonna have egg on her face if whatever had happened with Unit-04 happened here too, wasn’t she? Or rather, what was left of her face. Which, hopefully, wouldn’t be much.

She wondered if anyone stationed here could tell her where they went off-base to get plastered.

The activation test for Unit-03 was being conducted in the early evening at a remote site in Matsushiro. For some reason, Shinji, Rei, and Asuka were expected to come to Central Dogma and observe the test with the rest of the command center’s staff. They still hadn’t been told who the new unit’s pilot was. Why did it have to be a big event? Couldn’t they just park Unit-03 in one of the cages in Central Dogma and send an email about its pilot?

Then again, they’d sent Shinji to the middle of the Pacific Ocean just to meet Asuka, so she supposed she should count herself lucky the three of them weren’t on a flight to Albuquerque right now.

In spite of the faint hints of a cool breeze intermittently whistling down the streets, the air was hot, thick, and sticky. Shinji could feel a thin layer of sweat gluing her shirt to her back and shoulders as she and Asuka waited for the train. In weather like this, she felt less like a girl and more like a sentient pile of ooze barely maintaining a human form, but mercifully, she didn’t feel like a boy. She wondered if even Asuka felt like a girl right now. Maybe feeling like you were melting was the great equalizer between the sexes.

She gingerly rubbed the tender bump on the back of her head. She’d gotten brained with a softball just a few hours ago; she tried to pretend it didn’t hurt.

“All this secrecy over a new pilot,” Asuka sighed, resting her hands on her hips. “Got any theories?”

“Well,” Shinji said, “a few days ago, I put in a good word for Kensuke…”

Asuka’s face scrunched up. She stuck her tongue out and retched. “What the hell is wrong with you? If he’s Unit-03’s pilot, I’ll quit!”

Shinji doubted any force in the universe could compel Asuka to quit being an Eva pilot. “Sure,” she said, her tone coming out far more sardonic than she’d intended.

“I mean it. You can’t let a guy like that into a room full of girls. Even girls like you. Especially girls like you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Haven’t you seen him leering at you? He spends all day undressing you with his eyes, Shinko!”

“No, he doesn’t!”

Asuka rolled her eyes. “Well, I suppose he could just be madly in love with you…”

Shinji crossed her arms. Why was Asuka constantly teasing her about boys? It wasn’t like every boy friend she had was a boyfriend! “He does not ‘undress me with his eyes,’ Asuka.”

Asuka changed the subject. “Oh, look,” she said, looking away. “The straggler’s caught up to us.”

Rei walked onto the platform. Perfectly composed as always, not a bead of sweat on her brow, not a single pale hair on her head out of place. She bowed curtly. “Ikari. Soryu. Good evening.”

As Rei drew nearer, Asuka’s eyes grew so wide that Shinji worried they might pop right out of their sockets like an old cartoon. She jabbed a finger at Rei’s direction, then swung it to point at Shinji. “You, um… pants. Shinji, is she… wearing your clothes?”

It was, in fact, painfully obvious that she was.

Shinji nervously nodded and swallowed a growing lump in her throat, desperately hoping that this wouldn’t become a scene or anything. She’d been happy to give those clothes to Rei—she’d only been holding onto them in the first place so she’d have something to fall back on in case she decided to give up on the whole ‘girl’ thing, and giving them away had felt oddly liberating—but she hadn’t expected her to start wearing them in public. Not so soon, anyway.

Was that why she’d fallen behind? To change clothes after school?

“They weren’t doing her any good,” Rei said matter-of-factly. “I decided to try them out.” She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her black slacks. The way her new clothes hung on her body gave her a remarkably boyish look; the loose, boxy cut of her shirt and pants hid everything.

“H-Having pockets is pretty great, isn’t it, Ayanami?” Shinji squeaked out.

Rei nodded. “Pretty great,” she echoed. “They’re useful.”

“Yeah, I kinda miss ‘em.” In Shinji’s opinion, pockets were one of the only things boys got to have that she missed in any meaningful sense.

“So am I gonna have to start calling you ‘Wonder Boy’ now?” Asuka asked Rei. “Or are you just butch?”

Rei didn’t react at all to Asuka’s scorn. “I don’t know yet. I’m experimenting. Call me what you will.”

Asuka leaned back against a concrete pillar. “Are all the Eva pilots a bunch of queers?” she asked nobody in particular. “Except me?” she hastily added.

“Just you wait; we’re contagious,” Shinji said.

“Wonder what the Fourth Child’s gonna be like.” Asuka blew a stray lock of frizzy hair out of her face. “Bet they’ll be flaming.”

The train pulled into the station. Shinji and the others only rode it for a few stops before getting off at a NERV checkpoint and transferring to the tram that would carry them down into the Geofront.

The tram, wonderfully, was air-conditioned. The flow of cool air across the nape of her neck was one of the most heavenly things Shinji had ever felt.

The lake stretching across the ground below the tramway’s rails sparkled and glittered in the reflected amber light of the setting sun, the faces of the NERV pyramid gleaming proudly. Above the ground, an inverted model of the city clung to the ceiling; as the sun began to set and the shadows up above grew long, Tokyo-III’s skyscrapers had begun to retract for the night and hung from the Geofront’s ceiling like glittering stalactites.

Asuka’s phone began to chime. She fumbled in her bag for it for a few seconds before finally managing to produce it. She checked the number, her face noticeably brightening, and flipped the phone open to hold it to her ear. “Hello? Oh, hey, Hikari! Where’ve you been? Uh-huh. Yeah…”

Hikari had been absent for the past three days—her and Touji, too. Shinji wondered if the two of them had caught some sort of bug at the movie theater, but no one else had gotten sick. It must have been something else.

Without her to keep the class in line, Shinji had quickly realized, some people let certain things slip out when otherwise they might have been compelled to hold their tongues. Little things. A well-timed, well-aimed little fit of laughter, a sly double entendre or single entendre whispered from one desk to another at just a loud enough volume that she could barely overhear it…

She’d never really realized how much she relied on Hikari to keep her safe in school.

Asuka pulled the phone away from her ear and cupped one hand over its speaker. “Shinko, get over here,” she hissed. “She wants to talk to both of us.”

Shinji crossed over to the other side of the tram and leaned over Asuka’s shoulder as Asuka tried to maneuver the phone into a position between their heads so they could both hear.

“Um… hi, C-Class Rep,” she stammered.

Hikari’s voice came out of the speaker small and tinny. “Hi, Shinko! It’s good to hear from you two again…”

“It’s good to hear you too,” Shinji said. “Why haven’t you been in school?”

“Shinko really misses you,” Asuka added, her voice dripping with innuendo.

Shinji felt a warm, tingling sensation in the pit of her stomach that gradually sank further downward. For some reason, she couldn’t stop thinking about that peck on the cheek Hikari had given her at the theater.

“No, I don’t,” she blurted out. “I mean, I do—as a friend. I really miss you.”

“I miss you and Asuka, too,” Hikari answered. “Don’t worry about me, guys. I’m not sick or hurt. There’s just been, uh… a-a family emergency or something.”

Asuka pulled a face. Or something? she mouthed, nonplussed. “Is anyone hurt?”

Hikari laughed. “No, no, it’s not that kind of emergency! So, um… I just wanted to talk to you two about… Well, I-I really shouldn’t—Okay, basically, I’m going to be doing… something… and I’m pretty nervous about it. I wanted to get some advice from you, because piloting the Evas is the bravest thing I can imagine, and I—”

Her voice abruptly cut out, a faint and toneless buzzing droning in the phone’s speaker taking its place.

“Uh, Hikari? Hello?” Asuka gently shook the phone. “Hikari?”

A deep monotone male voice cut in. “For security purposes, this call has been terminated. Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Huh?” Asuka shook the phone harder this time. “Hey! Put her back on! We weren’t done yet!”

It was no use. The line had already gone dead.

With a frustrated growl, Asuka clapped the phone shut. “Those fucking creeps monitoring our phone lines should all just drop dead!”

“They’re just doing what they can to keep us out of harm’s way,” Rei said.

“Oh, yeah, they were really on task after that assassination attempt today,” Asuka scoffed, shooting a pointed glance at Shinji.

In spite of herself, Shinji prodded the bruise again and winced. “It was an accident. Kirishima said he was sorry.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Shinko. I still think there was a second pitcher on the grassy knoll. Anyway, where was our little Secret Service detail when that Lee Harvey Oswald wannabe took his shot?”

Rei was silent. Maybe she was too busy puzzling out who ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’ was to answer.

“In so many words,” Asuka huffed, “all those Section Two goons do is sit around and listen in on our intimate conversations! They probably have hidden cameras in our bedrooms, too—bunch of skeevy old gray-haired pedos…”

“You sure you should be saying all that stuff about them?” Shinji asked. “They can probably hear us right now.”

“Let ‘em listen.” Asuka crossed her arms. “What’re they gonna do to us? We’re pilots. We’re indispensable!”

A flicker of inspiration ran through Shinji’s head as she recalled the grungy old black-and-white horror movie Asuka had settled on watching while channel-surfing last night and realized she had the perfect opportunity to give her a little taste of her own medicine. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…” she drawled.

Asuka gave her a little shove.

“Look!” Shinji pointed out the window of the tram at one of the faraway people milling around the shore of the lake as the tram began to dip below the tops of the trees. “There comes one of them now!”

Asuka shoved her again, a little harder this time, and turned away from her, rolling her eyes. Shinji might have just been imagining it, but it seemed that Asuka had turned her head to better hide the faintest hint of a smile.

The tram slipped further underground, beneath the Geofront’s subterranean nature preserve and into the network of rail lines and tunnels running through Central Dogma. After a moment of darkness, the warm, reflected sunlight that filled the Geofront was abruptly replaced with cold electric lights.

Eventually, the tram slowed to a halt and the doors slid open. Shinji followed Rei and Asuka into the antiseptic mint-green corridors that wound their way through NERV headquarters. The deeper they plunged into the facility, the less anybody talked, until by the time they reached the command center, they had all fallen dead silent.

Shinji had always thought the command center looked like the bridge of a spaceship from an old sci-fi movie. Instead of looking into space, though, the bridge hung over a massive wireframe holographic display the length and breadth of a football field.

Several viewscreens hung in front of the mezzanine, each projecting an image of the test site from a different angle. Technicians milled around the colossus that was Evangelion Unit-03 like ants around a colony that had been kicked apart and hurriedly trickled away. With its glossy black armor shining in the dusky light of the setting sun and long shadows stretching across it, the new Eva unit cut an imposing figure.

With the exception of Misato, who was stationed at the secondary test site, the command center was fully staffed. Lieutenants Aoba, Hyuga, and Ibuki manned their stations; Ritsuko stood at her desk; and Commander Ikari and Vice Commander Fuyutsuki loomed overhead from atop the raised platform in the back of the room.

Shinji looked up, found her eyes meeting her father’s impermeable glasses, and hastily lowered her head. The strange pressure she felt in his presence draped itself over her head and shoulders like a cloak, throbbing in the back of her mind in concert with old and new bruises alike. She didn’t want to look at him. She didn’t want to know what she would see in his place.

“That’s everyone,” Ritsuko noted as the pilots stood at attention. She looked over each of them in turn, her gaze settling on Rei as a cold expression flickered across her face not unlike the look Commander Ikari always seemed to have. Shinji noticed Rei shuffle uncomfortably, just a little bit, before Ritsuko’s attention was drawn back to her terminal. “We’re ready to begin the activation sequence, Major Katsuragi.”

Misato stepped into the frame of one of the video displays, one hand gripping the railing of the catwalk suspending her and the camera above Unit-03. There was a bright and alert gleam in her eyes, although it was clear from the haggardness of her face and unkempt frizziness of her dark hair that she hadn’t slept much last night. A glistening sheen of sweat sparkled on her skin like dew. “We’re all set over here, Doctor Akagi. Let’s get started!”

The background noise of the test site’s machinery grew louder as Unit-03 ran through its startup sequence and the technicians rattled off the usual proclamations.

Rei squared her jaw and focused on the image of the testing site, a forced gleam of steely intent in her red eyes. Shinji knew full well what was bothering her, what she was trying to distract herself from. She must have felt all but naked, withering (though someone as stoic as Rei would never show it) under the scrutiny her change of wardrobe invited.

Shinji sidled next to her and mustered the courage to lift a finger and tap her lightly on the arm in a meager show of solidarity.

“Wait, Major,” Asuka called out, “who’s the new pilot? No one’s told us yet!”

“Hold your horses, Asuka,” Misato said, her attention divided between the camera and the Eva. “We’ll let the activation sequence run its course, then I’ll introduce you.”

Shinji could tell that Asuka was straining with all her might not to make a face.

Red lights blazed to life from deep within the eyeholes of Unit-03’s knightlike helmet as the beast lifted its head and the scaffolding it was enmeshed within began to unfurl. Shinji wondered what kind of a person was in its entry plug right now. What would they do? Would they have effortless control of the Eva from the beginning, like Asuka (according to her, anyway)? Would they take their first few steps and fall flat on their face, like Shinji had done during her first sortie? Or—


It was not a voice Shinji heard. The words were less of a sound and more like a concussive force rumbling in the lower recesses of her brain that somehow coalesced into words. She reeled, her breath suddenly short, the sights and sounds of the command center receding down a lengthening black tunnel around her.



A cool hand clamped around her wrist, jerking her back to the real world.

On the screens looming before the command center, each camera trained on Unit-03 jerked and bucked wildly before panning straight upward to gaze listlessly at the blue sky above. Muted screams of panic drifted through the air, weaving themselves around the sound of a hideous, earsplitting screech; the cameras shook one more time before the images cut to static and the sound crackled and squealed into a blast of white noise.

The viewscreens cut out in sequence, replacing one by one the snow onscreen with black emptiness and the static hiss with merciful silence, each shutoff as final as a gunshot. Shinji felt as though every internal organ in her body was falling into her shoes.

“What’s going on? Report!”

“We can’t re-establish contact with Golgotha Base! Nothing on any channel!”

“Seismic activity registered; there’s been an explosion!”

“No signals from Unit-03!”

Seized with fear, Shinji took a step backward, her hands squeezing into fists. The hurried and panicked proclamations coming from the staff sank into her mind without her even registering the words. “M-Miss Misato!” she cried out. “Misato!”

“Blood pattern detected! It’s blue! Blood type blue; it’s an Angel!”

Rei stared up at the blank screens, eyes wide, mouth agape, as adrift in the sea of chaos as everyone else.

“Pilots—Get to the Evas!” Commander Ikari’s voice rang out over the din. “Now!”

Asuka was the first of the pilots to come to her senses, roughly grabbing both Shinji and Rei by the wrists and yanking the two of them off their feet. “You heard him! C’mon, let’s go!”

Before Asuka could drag her out of the room, Shinji took one last look back at the chaos engulfing the command center as the technicians scrambled to get visuals back online. One of the screens looming overhead flickered and showed a snowy, static-laced shot of a monstrous giant standing with a feral, hunched posture amid a pile of twisted and smoldering metal.


The Thirteenth Angel is an Evangelion.

The words ran through Shinji’s mind over and over again as she, Rei, and Asuka took up their positions on the outskirts of the city to meet the foe. Commander Ikari’s orders were clear. Asuka, the most adept at close-quarters combat, would be the first to engage Unit-03. Rei, with the keenest eye and steadiest hands, would take up a sniping position at a distance. Shinji would fill the space in between the two of them, backing up Asuka as a mid-range combatant.

Crouched in a combat stance, Unit-02 brandished a pistol gripped in one crimson hand and its prog knife in the other. “Counterbalance the knife,” Asuka recited under her breath, holding the knife in a reverse grip against the pistol, “quick slash, retract… counterbalance the knife, quick slash, retract…”

Unit-01 clutched the long shaft of a sonic glaive, its curved spearhead faintly shimmering under the light of the setting sun as the blade vibrated. Despite its name, it reminded Shinji more of a nagitana. Wasn’t a ‘glaive’ supposed to be a throwing weapon of some kind?

Shinji could feel the weapon’s weight in her own hands; heavy enough to drag her own soul down with it. She’d never fought another Eva before. Never thought another—

Unit-03 crested the top of a distant hill and rose above the horizon, the red sun forming a bloody halo behind its head and blotting out all traces of detail from its face save for the glowing pinpricks of its eyes. It shambled mindlessly yet purposefully, its path straight despite its ghoulish, animalistic gait. Its arms hung at its sides, swaying limply with every step it took.

Shinji felt a wave of hatred, hot and prickly like a gust of dry desert air, run through her; her fists clenched around the entry plug’s controls, and in response Unit-01 tightened its grip on the glaive. How many people had died when that thing had torn the secondary testing site apart? Was Misato among the dead? Did her body, pulped under the weight of hundreds of tons of twisted metal, lie in the ruins?

“One shot to the head; destroy the brain stem,” Asuka mused. “Think you can take a shot like that, Wonder Boy?” she called out to Rei.

“This is an Angel, not a zombie,” Ritsuko replied, chiding Asuka for her overactive imagination. “Preliminary scans suggest its biomass is entwined with Unit-03’s. Don’t waste your time with the head. Just like any other Angel, you’ll have to destroy its core.”

Shinji couldn’t hold herself back anymore and charged past Asuka, screaming out as she rushed Unit-03 with the sonic glaive thrust out ahead of her, its high-frequency blade thrumming and glittering.

“Shinji!” Commander Ikari barked. “I did not give you orders to engage!”

Unit-03’s towering black form rushed up to meet Unit-01 as Shinji thrust the glaive’s vibrating blade into its chest. The blade glanced off its armor, throwing off sparks, and slid upward, slicing through the thinner armor blanketing the rogue Eva unit’s shoulder and slicing cleanly through its clavicle. The corpselike bluish flesh underneath the armor steamed and blackened; violet blood spurted from the wound.

Unit-03 reeled backward as a shot rang out and a long furrow dug itself across the side of its helmet, shattering one of the red glass panels that covered its eyes. As though awakened from a dazed sleepwalk, it suddenly became alert and animated and beat a hasty retreat, crouching low to the ground and scuttling hurriedly backward like a crab; its entranced, zombielike gait was gone.

“Shinji, you’ve reached the end of Unit-01’s umbilical cable; pull back!” Lieutenant Hyuga shouted out.

Shinji skidded to a halt and pulled Unit-01 backward. As if sensing weakness in her hesitation, Unit-03 lunged at her with its arms outstretched. She lifted the glaive to defend herself as the Angel collided with Unit-01, the entry plug shuddering from the force of the impact as Unit-01’s knees buckled. Unit-03 wrapped its arms around the glaive’s shaft… and around, and around, and around, bending its limbs with the supple, boneless grace of a snake, its black armor cracking and breaking apart to make way for the slithering arcs of its misshapen flesh. Its other arm curled around Unit-01’s waist and cinched itself tight.

The un-voice boomed in Shinji’s head once again, vibrations rattling her skull coalescing into the imprints of words.


A flicker of an image ran through her head, blotting out the real world. Bright white lights glaring under a white ceiling, a shining steel scalpel sliding up a man’s palm, cutting neatly through shining, burn-scarred flesh. Dark crimson blood welled up around the incision—

Unit-03 lifted one hand above Unit-01’s head, fingers splayed; joints snapped and popped as the flesh on its fingers wetly split open to reveal blood-soaked bones sharpened into long, wickedly-curved talons. The armor covering its palm sloughed off as the flesh beneath it parted and a snapping, flapping tongue, thick and coated with steaming saliva, slithered out and whipped in the air.

Shinji saw the hand split in two—one twin, solid, hung in the air; the other twin, ghostly and translucent, plunged downward and clamped itself over Unit-01’s face, slicing through armor like a knife through warm butter and burrowing into flesh—

The grotesque hand’s solid twin erupted in a shower of gore, bits of blood and flesh and bone splattering against Unit-01’s eye and coating half of the viewscreen wrapped around the interior of the entry plug. The ghostly apparition vanished and Unit-03 stumbled backward and released its grip on Unit-01.

Shinji beat a hasty retreat as well. The splitting of the hand into two halves… like Fuyutsuki’s chess pieces, like the answers to her math problems, like a million other little things flickering in the corner of her eye over the past week—

What was happening to her? Premonitions? Was she seeing the future?

“Patzermädchen! What part of ‘watch my six’ didn’t you get?” Asuka snapped as Unit-02 rushed forward to take advantage of the Angel’s momentary disorientation.

Shinji saw a phantasm of a third arm sprout from Unit-03’s shoulder and lance out toward Unit-02, taking it by the neck. “Asuka! Duck!”

Asuka paid her warning no heed. Unit-03’s real arm stretched out, following exactly the trajectory Shinji had predicted; its open palm slammed into Unit-02’s face, the impact cracking the four green lenses covering its eyes, and clotheslined the crimson Eva, sweeping it off its feet and knocking it flat on its back, ripping it away from its umbilical cable.

Unit-03’s other arm weaved through the air, dancing between the shots Rei squeezed off as it zeroed in on Unit-02; seeing another ghostly appendage split from the arm and trace its future trajectory, Shinji gathered her wits and swung the sonic glaive in a shining arc, neatly severing—


Another vision. The same operating theater. The same steel scalpel tracing a line down from the patient’s navel, blood oozing in its wake.

—staggered away from the hail of bullets and lifted its head as though sniffing the air, as though trying to detect Unit-00’s position through its scent.

Asuka pressed the muzzle of her pistol square in Unit-03’s chest and squeezed the trigger, unloading the entire clip into the Angel’s hijacked body, every staccato gunshot deafening, every muzzle flare blinding. Every bullet ricocheted off a shimmering shield of concentric polygons which clung to Unit-03’s armor like a second skin. Shinji barely had time to see the bullets’ future afterimages (before-images?); if she had been a split second too late—


An ill-fitting body looking back at her, shoulders too broad, chin too rough, chest too hairy. A straight razor sliding across her cheek, leaving striated and exposed flesh as red as fresh beef in its wake as her skin peeled away in a long, curling ribbon

Shaking off the disorienting vision that had cut its way into her mind, Shinji rushed forward and tried to get behind the Angel to catch it off guard…

And saw the pill-shaped white entry plug protruding from its spine just under the nape of its neck and between its shoulderblades. The ejection mechanisms were coated with a thick, stringy layer of pale white fungus dotted with gleaming blue pustules that jiggled and throbbed with every motion Unit-03 made; tendrils of white mycelium spread across the hijacked Eva unit’s armor and flesh.

A wave of debilitating nausea rushed through Shinji’s body, twisting her stomach into knots, as she remembered that there was a pilot in this thing. A living human being, probably scared out of their mind—and able to feel everything the Eva felt. The bullets slamming into its chest, the severed arm, the bullets burrowing into its flesh, the sundering of its shoulder joint—


A knife weighed down a hand that was too big, too rough, too knobbly; blood dripped down its curved blade as it nicked the skin just below her navel and traced a line downward—

—Asuka let out a blood-curdling scream as Unit-03 curled its fingers around Unit-02’s neck and lifted it off the ground, then slammed it down hard enough to rattle the trees lining the hills. Unit-02 thrashed and struggled as its overtaxed battery ran low.

“A little help here, Shinji!” Asuka gurgled. “Kill it already!”

“But its pilot—”

“Who gives a shit about its pilot? Do your damn job!”

Unit-02’s struggles ceased.

Shinji gripped the glaive tighter as Unit-03 whirled around to face her, its helmet splitting open as it opened its mouth and let out a deep and resounding bellow. She raised her weapon to fight, but—

There’s a person in there.

She couldn’t. She couldn’t muster up the hatred, the anger, the courage, to hurt a person


Her hand gingerly, excitedly ghosting across her bare chest—

Another vision flashed before Shinji’s eyes—a ghostly before-image of Unit-03’s arm flopping to life and shooting out, snatching Unit-00 right out of its hiding spot—

“Rei, move!”

Unit-03’s shoulder snapped back into place and its arm lanced out, blood spurting from disturbed wounds, and plunged into the hillside where Rei had taken her position. It missed its mark, though—Unit-00 burst out from its hiding spot within the foliage just in time, bringing its rifle to bear as it slid down the hillside and squeezing off a volley of shots.

Shinji saw the bullets fly before they left the barrel of Unit-00’s sniper rifle and lunged for Unit-03, throwing aside her glaive and putting all her strength into an AT-field to counteract the Angel’s own. The glowing shield of luminous octagons that sprang up in front of Unit-03 rippled and faded just in time for the four bullets to zip through and rip through Unit-03’s chest armor.

Cracked armor sloughed away, revealing a ruby-red jewel embedded just below Unit-03’s sternum. The Eva’s core—and the Angel’s.

Unit-00 hit the ground running and tossed aside the rifle, pulling out a prog knife from its left shoulder pylon. Wounded and imperiled, Unit-03 began to retreat, but Shinji saw the path it was about to take and—


A hand that wasn’t hers, that would never be hers, stared up at her through the glassy eye implanted in its palm, curled gray tendrils throbbing and pulsing with sinister energy and winding like the petals of a pinwheel outward from the eye as they embedded themselves in the hand’s glossy skin—

—as gauntleted hands pinned Unit-03’s arms to its sides, Shinji found herself at a loss. She couldn’t bear the thought of inflicting more pain on the Eva’s pilot. How high was their sync rate right now? How much of the Eva’s pain was lighting up their nervous system? How much did it feel like their own bones were snapping, muscles tearing, skin splitting? If the Eva’s core was destroyed—would it kill the pilot?

Unit-03 threw Unit-01 off itself and struggled to its feet, drawing its own prog knife just in time to parry Unit-00’s.

“Ikari, are you okay?” Rei asked as her prog knife ground against the Angel’s, her voice little more than a strained squeak.

“I-I’m f-fine,” Shinji stammered, choking the words out through a throat suddenly too tight and narrow to breathe through.

“Shinji, your sync rate is dropping,” Ritsuko warned her. “Pull yourself together!”

Shinji barely heard her. A ghostly flash she barely had time to process—


A giant the size and shape of Unit-01 made entirely of blinding white light rising from the ground, an anti-silhouette, a searing, flat glow spliced into the world, two black spots like coals burning where its eyes would be as four spindly wings sprouted from its back—

She heard Rei choke down a pained outcry through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw as Unit-03 grabbed Unit-00 by the arm. Tendrils of fungus leaped off Unit-03’s arm and burrowed eagerly under Unit-00’s armor, worming into the Eva’s flesh.

As the infection crawled up Unit-00’s bicep, a puff of steam circled the seam running through its shoulder and with a percussive flash, flesh and bone split and the fungus-covered arm fell away—


Hands slipping across soft skin—

Unit-03 threw the inert Unit-00 to the ground as though it were a toy it no longer wanted to play with and turned on Shinji again, grabbing Unit-01 by the neck and pinning it to the ground.


Lips as pink as cherry blossom petals parting and curling into a smile—a bright, satisfied smile—

Shinji felt an invisible force clamp around her own neck, tighter and tighter and tighter, as Unit-03 squeezed, its malformed and mutated fingers worming their way into the hollow of her throat, pressing against her carotid.


A hand cupping itself around her chin, a puff of breath tickling her cheek, as something soft and warm and wet met her lips—

Red warning lights flashed and klaxons blared within the entry plug.


A shape of a man bathed in darkness, half-silhouetted, gripping a severed forearm. Blood dripped from the ragged wound that terminated just above where the arm’s elbow would be, its fingers frozen into talonlike claws from rigor mortis. The man’s eyes gleamed with a red eyeshine like those of a predator in the night—

Unit-01 lay on the ground, limp; Shinji felt her grip on the controls slipping. Her heart felt as though it were about to explode.

“Shinji, fight back,” Commander Ikari snarled at her.

“Can’t—” she choked out.

“The pain is all in your head,” Ritsuko said. “Will it away. You can still control Unit-01.”

It wasn’t the pain. It wasn’t the visions projected into her mind.

There’s a person inside that monster.

As her sync rate continued to drop, Shinji felt the sympathetic pain crushing her throat fade. Her grip tightened on the controls and Unit-01 began to stir, grabbing Unit-03 by the wrist and ripping its hand away from its neck. Yet—

“This is not a game,” her father reminded her. “Destroy the Angel.”

“I can’t,” Shinji admitted as she beat a hasty retreat. Unit-03 pursued her with a hungry gleam in its eye. “The pilot’s still inside…”

“In all likelihood, the pilot is already dead,” her father snapped, “or worse.”

“No! I won’t do it!” Shinji shot back. All she could think about was how much it hurt to pilot Unit-01, how terrified she always was of dying when her father threw her out against the Angels, and she projected all of it onto Unit-03’s unlucky pilot. If there was still the slightest chance they were alive, she couldn’t…

“Is this a principled stance, or mere cowardice?”

“I won’t kill another human being! You can’t make me!”

“You’re being childish, Shinji. Do you want to live or not?”

End of life. End of thought. The knowledge that one would never see or hear or smell or taste anything ever again, that they would never see their friends or family again, that they would never smile or laugh or cry ever again, that whatever dreams they had would end here unfulfilled—the terror of impending mortality. Shinji couldn’t bear the thought of inflicting that on another person. Childish? How was that childish?

“There has to be another way!” she insisted as she continued to keep her distance from the Angel. She could see every move Unit-03 made before it made it now, not just brief flashes; the ghostly before-image of its grotesque form that hovered over it became more easily readable—and more easily avoidable—with every passing second. She could spend all day dodging its attacks, but refused to raise so much as a hand against it. “Please tell me there’s a way to save the pilot! Miss Ritsuko, tell me there’s another way!”

Ritsuko did not respond. Nobody responded.

“Enough of this. You are not a hero, Shinji, you are a soldier. Your job is not to save people, it is to do as you are told,” Commander Ikari said, his tongue sharp enough that hearing his words made Shinji feel as though she’d been stabbed in the chest. “Kill the Angel.”

“No,” Shinji spat, barely able to see through the haze of red fog falling over her vision. She felt more hatred toward her father right now than any Angel. As far as she cared, they were both monsters.

“So be it. Transfer control to the dummy plug.”

“The wha—”

The entry plug went dark. The viewscreen turned pitch black and the lights on the controls winked out one by one, plunging her into the Stygian abyss that haunted her night after night.

Shinji shivered and shrank into her seat, a chill running up her spine as suddenly the LCL around her seemed too cold, too thick, too bloody. Memories of the Twelfth Angel rushed into her head, so fresh and visceral it was like no time had passed at all since that day.

She gripped the controls, stricken with a fresh wave of nauseating terror. “Wh—Father! What are you—What’s going on?”

She felt the interior of the plug rattle as Unit-01 began to move of its own accord. The Eva’s body still clung to her own, a sort of full-body phantom limb, and she could feel it grappling with Unit-03 and overwhelming it with unyielding, terrifying precision, feel the adrenaline coursing through its veins, through her veins, feel hunger so strong it twisted her gut into an aching knot.

“Let me out!” she screamed, working the controls so vigorously that her shoulders ached. She kicked at the console, her foot striking the metal and sending sharp pangs up the still-tender bruises running up her leg.

She felt the bones of Unit-03’s neck shatter under her hands and was rewarded with a sickening, visceral rush of excitement, a nauseating thrill eating through her brain like acid, as Unit-01’s feral instincts and violent delights flooded her own mind. She could feel her mouth curling into a sick and sadistic smile against her will; she could feel herself laughing so hard her chest hurt, cackling like a hyena, as Unit-01’s euphoria bled into her mind like drops of ink in a glass of water—

“Please, no!” she screamed through fits of painful laughter, her voice already so hoarse she could barely hear it over the rush of her own pulse. “I’ll do it, I’ll kill them, let me kill them, just—not like this! Not like this! Can you hear me, Father? Please!”

She felt the Angels’ core shatter—Unit-01 had drawn out its death, wanted it to suffer, it relished it the way a cat loved to toy with its prey—and felt the Eva rip something hard and cold away from Unit-03, taking the long, lozenge-shaped object in both its hands and begin to squeeze.

The entry plug.

Terror beat back the rising tide of bloodlust, turning the fire coursing through her veins to ice. Shinji worked the controls with renewed vigor and desperation, frantically pumping her arms, begging whoever would listen to be given even the slightest bit of control over Unit-01, the slow and sadistic buildup of pressure exerted by the Eva’s hands counting down to zero as metal began to warp and buckle. Anything, anything, if she could just wrest away control for one instant! A second, a half-second, anything to, at the very least, assuage her guilt and tell her that she had tried—

This was Father’s doing—to make her a killer, a monster, to make her cold and callous like him, to make her grow up into him—and she wouldn’t let him, she wouldn’t let him, she wouldn’t let him!

I won’t let him.

I can’t let him.

I can’t—

Shinji squeezed her eyes shut, clenching her jaw, her teeth grinding together.

I can’t stop it.

Wisps of tears welling up in her closed eyes leaked into the LCL. Her grip loosened; her hands fell away from the controls. It was hopeless. There wasn’t anything she could do or anyone who would listen to her. Her heart fluttered in her chest, pounding against her ribs, as she felt Unit-01’s grip around the entry plug tighten and its murderous ecstasy reach a hellish crescendo.

And then it was gone.

Then it was all gone.

The murderous delight vanished so suddenly that it felt someone had put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

Shinji found herself frozen in shock, her head miraculously clear, so jarred she could scarcely think.

Just like within the Twelfth Angel, she felt a warm and ghostly presence fill the entry plug. She felt a pair of soft hands lay themselves over hers, entwining their fingers with hers, their smooth palms resting soothingly against the backs of her hands. She felt the phantom hands lift her hands and guide them back to the controls, curling her fingers around the grooves of the joysticks.

The lights on the console began to turn back on.

She realized at last that she hadn’t been breathing and gratefully inhaled as the wraparound viewscreen flashed with a kaleidoscope of colors that stabbed at her eyes. The whirling rainbow patterns writhed and swirled before resolving into tangible objects lit dimly by the last dying rays of the sun.

Unit-03’s body was limp and lifeless beneath Unit-01, a pool of its violet blood stretching across the road. The Eva’s core, once ruby-red, now dull and grayish-black, had been crushed into sharp, irregular shards that sat in a pile in its now-empty chest cavity. Unit-01 was still holding the hijacked Eva’s dented entry plug, ripped from its spine and smeared with blood and crushed fungus, in its hands.

Shinji felt bile force its way up her throat and struggled to choke it back down. Several people in the command center were shouting at her, their voices overlapping into an unintelligible sonic wall. She laid the entry plug—thankfully still in one piece—down amid the carnage, the sense of relief and gratitude flooding through her body as overwhelming as her anguish. She didn’t know if she’d made it, or if she’d been too late… if the pilot was already dead and all her struggles had been for nothing… Nevertheless, she had stopped it. The horror had ceased.

It was impossible for her to describe with words how awful she felt. All she could do for the longest time—for what felt like forever—was cry.

The other day, she’d told Rei how sometimes it felt good to cry, that sometimes it was cathartic, that sometimes it was as refreshing as a cold shower at the end of a long, hot day.

It didn’t feel good right now.

Shinji didn’t remember the emergency medical technicians setting up triage in the shadow of Unit-03’s remains. She didn’t remember being pulled out of the entry plug of Unit-01. She was only vaguely aware of herself and her surroundings as Ritsuko and the EMTs looked her and Rei and Asuka over.

The outside world didn’t start to seep back into her mind until the EMTs forced open Unit-03’s battered entry plug and clambered inside, returning moments later with the rogue Evangelion’s unfortunate pilot. Shinji almost didn’t want to look, afraid to see the results of what Unit-01—of what her father and his monstrous dummy system—had wrought, but when she caught the first glimpse of the pilot, she found herself unable to look away.

They pulled out the limp body of a girl about Shinji’s age clad in an amber-and-white plugsuit. Her sodden and matted dark brown hair was plastered to LCL-soaked skin; her complexion was so sickly and pallid that the freckles dotting her cheeks stood out like ellipses printed on a sheet of paper. Strands of congealed LCL clung to her like traces of the mycelium that had run through Unit-03’s body.

Ritsuko laid a hand on Shinji’s shoulder and muttered a few impotent words of condolences. But Shinji’s thoughts were trickling so slowly through her head that she didn’t realize who the pilot of Unit-03 was until she heard Asuka let out a single sharp, anguished scream that tore through the cooling night air like the cry of a mournful bird.

Chapter Text

No matter how hard she scrubbed, Shinji couldn’t erase the stench of blood clinging to her skin. It was omnipresent and inescapable; the cloying, metallic odor filled her nostrils and stayed there no matter what, so strong and overpowering that it made her stomach churn.

The hot water beating down on her from the showerhead turned lukewarm, then cold, then frigid—frigid enough to cover her in goosebumps, frigid enough that she shivered violently under the unrelenting stream. But she kept scrubbing, harder and harder, so hard she thought she’d wear her skin off, whittling away a bar of soap to a sliver.

It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t—

Shinji felt her knuckles crack as they slammed into the ceramic tiles lining the walls of the shower stall. She couldn’t tell if she was crying, only that she couldn’t see and it hurt to breathe and it hurt to feel her heartbeat.

How could they have done this to her? How could they have done this to Hikari? What had either she or Hikari done to NERV to deserve this?

Her fist hit the wall again and again. Evangelion Unit-01 could have torn through the ceramic tiles and shoved its arm in up to its elbow with ease; it frustrated Shinji, stupidly, that all she could do was leave bruises on her knuckles and not even the slightest hint of a crack on the wall.

Damn her father! Damn NERV! Damn everyone! If she hadn’t been pulled out of Unit-01, she’d have used it to tear the headquarters apart, starting from her father’s damned office and working her way down until nothing was left!

Why hadn’t she done that? Why hadn’t she done anything but gawp like a moron when they’d pulled Hikari’s limp and lifeless and deathly pale body out of the wreckage? At least Asuka had had the presence of mind to scream! She could have ran over to her, fought her way past the EMTs, knelt down and cradled her body in her arms like one of two star-crossed lovers in a romantic manga—anything but just standing there and letting herself be shepherded away without knowing whether Hikari was even alive or dead!

I owe you my life. You’re a hero. How could someone as smart as Hikari be so stupid? Piloting Unit-01 didn’t make Shinji a hero, it just made her a stupid, talentless piece of shit who’d only fallen ass-backwards into the cockpit because of her stupid dad and who wasn’t allowed to leave it! No one should ever owe her anything, least of all a life, because she’d just fuck it up in the end like she fucked up anything else!

How long had Hikari been conscious in the entry plug after the Thirteenth Angel had taken it over? How much of the violence wreaked on Unit-03 had she felt? Had she spent her time in front of the controls screaming and pleading for help while the Eva’s thoughts and feelings penetrated her mind, just like Shinji had done under the dummy system? Had she been begging for Shinji to rescue her the whole time Unit-01 had been torturing her? Had she thought Shinji had been tearing her apart of her own free will?

Tendrils of blood began to drift from Shinji’s scraped and raw knuckles, turned pink by the water, swirling down the drain. Her shoulders were shaking. She could hardly breathe. Some of the water streaming over her lips stung of salt.

Hikari was the only peer she had who’d been both able and willing to take Shinji under her wing when she’d known next to nothing about actually being a girl instead of just endlessly and impotently wishing it were so. That was something no one else she knew could do. There was Misato and Ritsuko, but they were women, not girls, both twice Shinji’s age. There was Touji and Kensuke, who both supported her loudly and relentlessly, but they were boys and they didn’t understand anything. There was Asuka, but she was Asuka, and there was Rei, but she was Rei (and besides, she wasn’t actually a girl anyway).

Why her? What had Hikari, model student, class representative, moral paragon, big sister to all, done to deserve this? Had Commander Ikari chosen her just to torture Shinji? To punish her for the audacity of being a girl? To punish her for defying him?

Shinji didn’t believe in any sort of god. If there were really such a thing, though, then what was tonight but an act of divine punishment brought down by it on her father’s behalf?

When she saw her father next, she’d have worse things to say to him by far than some foreign cuss words she’d picked up from Asuka. She wouldn’t be surprised if she could somehow summon the strength to tear him apart with her bare hands. After all, he’d forced her to feel the hideous joy Unit-01 had felt when it had done the same to Unit-03. She knew she could feel that way again, if she wanted to.

It was a stupid joke. So stupid she couldn’t even laugh at it.

She would never pilot the Eva again. Never, never, never. She would never let them do this to her again. She’d made that promise so many times before and broken it just as many times, but this time—after this— it would stick. They could have their precious dummy plug for all she cared. She was over it.

Eventually, too weak and tired to stand, she curled up on the floor, tucking her knees into her chest and bowing her head, letting the icy water continue its assault. It ran through her hair, drove icicles through her scalp and down her spine, poured sheets of water down her sodden bangs. She stayed in the shower until the skin on her fingertips began to wrinkle. 

Finally numbed in body and mind from the blistering cold, Shinji reached up, fumbled blindly with the shower handle, and cut off the water. The roar of water beating down on her, deafening as the churning froth at the foot of a waterfall, vanished completely, replacing itself with the sucking sound of water gurgling down the drain.

And yet, even after all that, she still reeked of sin. And now the air was bitter and sharp, biting with icy needles every square centimeter of exposed skin—which was all of it. She struggled to pull herself up to her feet—her breath short, teeth chattering, fingers shaking uncontrollably—pushed the shower curtain aside, and grabbed a towel off the rack. 

The towel was short, stiff, and bristly; drying herself off felt like she was scraping off her skin with a brillo pad. It was especially excruciating around her chest, which had been aching nonstop for hours. It was normally a very heartening sort of ache, since it meant she was really going to be a woman someday. Tonight, though, it was just irritating; she wasn’t in the mood to be heartened. Whether she was a boy or a girl, she was still worthless.

She dried off, pulled a thin, light hospital smock over her head, desperately wished she could wear something a little warmer, and stepped out of the bathroom into the sickbay.

Asuka sat on the side of one of the half-dozen cots in the room, irritably tapping her fingers on her knee. She was wearing the same thin powder-blue smock; her hair was dark, damp, and slicked back from her forehead. Rei was lying down on one of the other cots, staring blankly and impassively up at the ceiling with her hands clasped over her stomach. They both turned their heads in Shinji’s direction.

“Geez,” Asuka muttered, “what were you doing in there, trying to drown yourself or jacking off?”

Shinji ignored her and curled up on one of the other cots, pulling its sheet up to her neck. Her still-sodden hair immediately soaked all the way through the pillow.

She shivered. The room was air-conditioned, she looked and felt like a drowned rat, and not a single thing in here was designed to provide any kind of warmth.

“Well, at least you fucking feel something,” Asuka added. “Can’t say the same about Wonder Boy here. But I guess I can’t blame her. She just wasn’t programmed to care about Hikari.” The venom in her voice was unadulterated, with not an ounce of playfulness to temper it.

“I’m not a robot,” Rei said, with the world-weariness of somebody who had had to say that too many times.

“Could’ve fooled me. Has anyone ever made sure your blood’s actually red like ours? If you even have any? Ever taken a Voight-Kampff test?”

Asuka continued to berate Rei, not just in Japanese but in English and German, too. Shinji understood about a third of what she had to say altogether.

Rei didn’t react at all, but stared blankly ahead. This only further angered Asuka, whose tirades became much more profanity-laced. Shinji, at least, knew what English and German curse words sounded like, and with every passing minute she heard more and more of them. Asuka’s face was so red that it made Unit-02’s armor seem drab by comparison.

Shinji’s eyes met Rei’s. Unlike Asuka, whose scowl and body language made it clear she didn’t want to be here, Rei wore a face of placid resignation, although there was a subtle note of tension in her jaw and bottom lip hinting that beneath that impassive mask she was perturbed.

She had to feel something, didn’t she?

When Asuka’s unintelligible rant had reached a fever pitch and it looked as though she was about to run across the sickbay and strangle Rei to death, Shinji mustered the willpower to speak up. “Asuk-ka, l-leave her alone,” she stammered through chattering teeth.

Asuka immediately turned on her. “Siding with the little sociopath again, huh? Doesn’t it bother you that our best friend just got fucking mauled and she can’t even muster a frown? You’d expect her to have a reaction, wouldn’t you?” She pulled herself to her feet and stomped across the sickbay. “I’ve seen her smile around you, Shinji! If she can show it when she’s happy, she can fucking emote about this!”

“I don’t see the point of performative grief,” Rei said. Even with Asuka looming over her cot with fury writ all over every bit of her face, she didn’t try to get up or even so much as move a muscle. She just kept staring up at the ceiling, her gaze pointedly fixed on the featureless white expanse. Shinji tried to think she was showing her sadness in her own way, but Asuka was in no mood to see that.

“Performative? So you think I’m making it all up, huh?” Asuka took a fistful of the collar of Rei’s smock and yanked on it, pulling up Rei’s head with a violent jerk. “Shut the fuck up. Say that to my face!”

Rei curled her hand around Asuka’s wrist. “Which do you want me to do?”

Shinji slipped off her cot, her bare feet slipping against the cold floor. She grabbed onto the edge of the nearest cot to steady herself. “Asuka, s-stop it!”

“Shut up, Shinji!” Asuka spat at her. “You’re fucked up over this, too, aren’t you? Hikari was your friend, too, wasn’t she? Or are you just as dead inside as Raggedy Andy here? Maybe you even enjoyed what you did to her, you freak!”

“I did n—” Shinji tried to protest, only for her throat to tighten around her words and trap them. How could Asuka accuse her of enjoying what she’d done? “You were the one who said, ‘who gives a shit about the pilot,’ weren’t you?!”

“Keep talking like that to me and you won’t need bottom surgery anymore!” Asuka fired back.

“I don’t think you’re making it up,” Rei coolly said to Asuka. “And I’m not emotionless. I’m sorry for what happened to Horaki. I just don’t see the need to express myself like you do.”

“That’s it, you sanctimonious little gynoid!” Asuka curled her other hand into a fist and drew back her arm. “Let’s see if you cry over this, Wundermädchen!”

“Asuka!” Shinji grabbed her by the arm. “I said, stop!”

Asuka glared at her, two trails of tears tracing glistening paths down her cheeks. Her eyes was so furious, her face so livid, her scowl so twisted, that Shinji recoiled as though she’d been struck, her hand slipping limply away from Asuka’s wrist.

“How dare you take her side, Shinji!” Asuka shouted at her, flecks of spit flying from her mouth. She jabbed a finger into Shinji’s chest. “If you had any idea how Hikari felt about you—!”

The door to the sickbay opened up. Asuka immediately dropped Rei and let her fall backward; Shinji took a hasty step back and hit the edge of one of the cots, bruising her thigh.

First Lieutenant Hyuga stepped through the door and waved a gloved hand. He was wearing a white surgical mask over his mouth, muffling his voice. “Hey, uh, kids…”

“Hyuga, you can’t just barge in on a bunch of teens without knocking!” Lieutenant Ibuki hissed, yanking him back out into the hallway by his ear.

Asuka’s face flushed scarlet, her jaw dropping as her indignant scowl gave way to a mortified grimace. She hurriedly wrapped the bedsheet from her cot around herself, even though her smock covered everything anyway. “Damn right! For all you know, we could’ve been exploring our bodies or something! Pervert!”

Hyuga sheepishly sidled back into sickbay with Ibuki in tow, his cheeks crimson under his mask. “Sorry. I just figured you girls could use some good news,” he said, twiddling his thumbs, “and, I guess I got a little excited…”

Asuka planted herself on the cot she’d staked out and crossed her arms. “Good news, huh? Okay, I’ll bite. How long are we gonna be stuck here?” she asked, cutting right to the point.

“Just overnight, hopefully,” Ibuki said. “We just need to make sure none of you have been contaminated by the Angel. Doctor Akagi will be coming by shortly to run some tests, then she’ll run some more tests in the morning. If you’re all clear then, you’ll be free to go.”

At the sound of Ritsuko’s name, Rei noticeably stiffened, her muscles tensing like those of a deer ready to bolt.

“Anyway, so about that good news,” Hyuga added. “We’ve recovered Major Katsuragi from Golgotha Base. They airlifted her here and took her straight down to the OR. She’s pretty badly hurt, but in stable condition.”

Shinji sighed, a warm wave of relief beating back the cold, if only for a moment. If Misato had been killed, she didn’t know what she would do. Once she’d looked past the fact that Misato was a slob and an alcoholic, Shinji had found her to be one of the handful of adults in the world she felt safe around. She had been the first (and was often the only) person who could tell her that things would turn out okay. To hear that she’d survived felt as though somehow, she’d kept that promise.

“What about Hikari?” Asuka asked, leaning forward intently with her hands balled into fists in her lap. She’d asked the question Shinji had been dreading to ask, let alone hear the answer to.

“She’s stable, too, for now,” Hyuga said. “Considering what the Angel was like, though, we’re dealing with a lot of unknown variables. We can’t say if she’ll be totally okay, but physically, at least… well, there’s that, so far.”

Shinji watched the hard, tense scowl on Asuka’s face fracture with relief and felt her own spirits lift as well—but only a little. Nothing could erase the wound she felt inside her—to have struggled so hard and so futilely, to have known firsthand by her father’s hand the pleasure of feral, unrestrained sadism in service of killing one of her only friends. Nevertheless, there was no small joy to be had hearing that at the very least, Hikari was alive.

Asuka sniffled and closed her eyes, cupping her hand over her mouth. “Thank you,” she mumbled, her voice barely more than a squeak.

“Oh, and Shinko—” Ibuki walked over to Shinji’s cot. Even though Shinji was sitting down and she was standing, their eyes were level; she was only a few years younger than Misato, but was very short for her age (she had to have a pillow on her seat to reach her console in the command center), which made her seem much younger than her peers; she actually wasn’t much taller than Shinji.

She laid Shinji’s bookbag down on the floor next to her cot. “You left this in the locker room. I thought you might want to have it here.”


“And… I’m so sorry about what happened tonight,” she said. Her eyes were like a doe’s eyes, dark and soft.  “Between you and me, what Commander Ikari said to you was awful. You didn’t hear it from me, but he was way out of line.”

“Thanks,” Shinji mumbled again, her voice so hoarse that she could barely hear herself. Though it wasn’t much against the ugly stain of guilt and revulsion still blanketing her mind, it was good to know, at least, that not everyone here shared her father’s sentiments.

“And the dummy plug wasn’t ready for deployment during a real combat situation; he shouldn’t have ordered us to activate it. He knew we hadn’t done any human tests on it yet. We’d warned him there might be adverse effects. And—” Ibuki put a hand on her shoulder and winced. “You’re freezing. Are you okay?”

“I-It’s fine,” Shinji insisted. “I-I was j-just in the sh-shower for t-too long…”

Ibuki frowned and reached into the bag at her side, pulling out a cardboard cup of instant miso soup wrapped in plastic. “Hang on a minute,” she said. She hurried to the bathroom and started running the sink’s faucet.

“There’s no hot water left in there; Shinji used it all up!” Asuka called out.

“Hang on, are we allowed to bring food into sickbay?” Hyuga asked.

Ibuki hurried back out. “I’m headed for the mess hall. Hyuga, watch the kids,” she said as she made a direct line for the hallway and strode out of the sickbay.

Bemused, Hyuga remained behind and leaned against the side of the doorway and crossed his arms.

No one said anything for a while.

He cleared his throat. “So, uh, girls… any of you check out the latest Weekly Shonen Jump?

“No,” Asuka said. Shinji shook her head. Rei didn’t answer.

Hyuga didn’t have anything more to say, so he just stood there.

Ibuki hurried back in the room with a cup of instant soup cradled in her hands. Steam rose from the cup. “I’m back!” she exclaimed, triumphant, as she handed the cup and a plastic spoon to Shinji. “Here you go.”

Shinji took the cup from her and clasped it tightly in her shivering hands. The heat bled through the laminated cardboard and sank into her palms. It was as warm as holding somebody’s hand. Her stomach growled in anticipation; she hadn’t realized it had been so long since she’d last eaten. “Thank you, Miss Ibuki,” she said, resting the cup in her lap and taking the spoon.

Her stomach churned and revolted from the first spoonful, but the intoxicating heat that poured down her throat and chest won out and she eagerly wolfed it down.

Asuka crossed her arms. “So… what was that thing you were talking about, Ibuki? ‘Dummy plug?’”

“Oh, that’s just a project we techies have been working on,” Ibuki said. “We had it installed in Unit-01 a few days ago.”

Shinji looked over at Rei. She was lying down with her eyes closed, pretending to be asleep.

“Why does Unit-01’s entry plug need to be dumber?” Asuka asked. “It’s already got Blunder Girl in it.” She was clearly unable to resist an opportunity to roast Shinji no matter how she was feeling.

“The dummy plug is an autopilot system for the Eva series,” Hyuga explained, adjusting his glasses as they dangled perilously on the bridge of his nose. “It’s supposed to kick in if one of you becomes incapacitated. Right now, we only have a prototype, and, well…” His shoulders slumped. “You all saw how that worked out.”

Ibuki cringed. She looked a little green around the gills.

“You’re gonna install autopilots in all the Eva units?” Asuka asked testily, narrowing her eyes.

“As soon as we’ve ironed out the kinks, yeah,” Ibuki said. “We don’t want anything like… tonight to happen again.” Once Shinji had finished the soup, she took the bowl and spoon and shepherded them to the trash. “And after that, we’re hoping we can get the dummy system to the point where human pilots aren’t necessary at all.”

Hyuga crossed his arms and mumbled something cynical.

Ibuki ignored him. “Then you girls can go back to being normal kids!” she concluded, back in high spirits. “Pretty great news, huh?”

Asuka swallowed hard and looked down at her feet. “Yeah,” she muttered. “Great.”

After sticking around just a little longer, Hyuga and Ibuki headed out (“I know being stuck in sickbay overnight sucks,” Hyuga had said, “but just think of it as a sleepover. A sleepover without any food or games or movies. Well, good night.”), and Shinji and the others were left to wait until Ritsuko came in to perform her check-ups.

It was about 2300 hours, according to the clock on the wall, when Ritsuko arrived in the sickbay haggard and tired, her reading glasses slightly askew, her bleached blonde hair damp and limp. A freshly washed, bleached, and starched labcoat hung from her shoulders, incongruous with the rumpled and sweat-stained clothing she had on underneath it. Like Ibuki and Hyuga before, she had a surgical mask and latex gloves on as well.

She took the pulse, temperature, blood pressure, and blood samples of each of the Children in turn, starting with Asuka. Rei squirmed a bit as Ritsuko prodded at her arm to find a vein, which struck Shinji as odd—by all accounts, Rei should have been used to such procedures given how much time she spent with doctors, and unless Ritsuko was on the verge of passing out from exhaustion, she shouldn’t have had trouble finding a vein on one of her regular patients.

(“Well, that settles the robot question,” Asuka fumed upon seeing Ritsuko take Rei’s blood.)

Ritsuko tended to Shinji last, administering the same regimen of tests: The cuff around her arm wrapped just tightly enough to hurt, the thermometer under her tongue, the electronic pulse reader clamped over her fingertip, and at last the syringe slipped into the skin just under the crook of her elbow, deep reddish-brown blood snaking through a tube from the syringe to one of the clear plastic vials Ritsuko kept at her side.

Blood pumped into the vial to the rhythm of her heartbeat. Shinji watched the syringe sit on her arm with detached disinterest. She didn’t mind needles that much, but she could never watch them go in. She could stare at them without any trouble while they sat embedded in her skin and leeched the blood from her veins like a giant mosquito, she could even watch when they were pulled out, but the instant when the needle slipped under her skin with that sharp, electric pinprick was when she had to look away or close her eyes.

“Miss Ritsuko… Miss Misato’s gonna be okay, isn’t she?”

“Hmm? Yes. Of course. You don’t have to worry about Misato, Shinji,” Ritsuko assured her. “That woman’s a cockroach. I’m convinced there isn’t a thing on this planet that can kill her. Not for lack of trying. I don’t know if she’s told you this, but she survived Second Impact.”

“Well, uh… didn’t every adult who’s around today survive that?” Shinji asked.

Ritsuko smiled through her mask, evident from the glint in her eyes. “Yes, but only one person at ground zero did.”

Asuka, having overheard Ritsuko’s response, leaned in. “Wait, what? Misato was at ground zero?”

“She didn’t tell you two?” Ritsuko thought for a moment. “No, it’s not something she’d tell you, I suppose. Not a fun thing to talk about.” She clamped down on the tube to halt the flow of blood, pulled the vial out, and in one fluid motion slipped the syringe free and pressed a wad of cotton against the crook of Shinji’s elbow. “Hold that, please.”

Shinji did as she was told and waited for Ritsuko to procure a roll of gauze.

“She was about your age when it happened. Her father had brought her along on a research expedition. A rescue boat patrolling the area found her a few days later floating around the impact site. They didn’t find anyone else. They never did.”

Shinji couldn’t believe that Misato had been at the epicenter of Second Impact. An extinction-level geologic event, one that had claimed the lives of over three billion people, half during the flooding and half in the wars and social upheaval that followed—and she’d been there at the moment it had happened?

She’d heard it enough in school—Second Impact had occurred when a meteoroid traveling at a significant fraction of lightspeed had slammed into Antarctica and flash-melted the entire continent. In addition to her classes, it was something Kensuke kept talking about because apparently it was the same thing the aliens in an old sci-fi book he liked did, and he was convinced that aliens were responsible for it in real life, too.

A meteor shooting into Antarctica. The way Kensuke told the story, at least, it was like shooting a bullet into a watermelon. And Misato, at fourteen years old, had stood under that bullet and survived?

Ritsuko took a roll of gauze, cut off a length, and wrapped it around Shinji’s arm, pinning the cotton wad to the pinprick the syringe had left behind. “She was a lot like you after that, actually,” she said to Shinji, dropping her voice to a low whisper. “Didn’t come out of her shell until she was in college; from then on, she talked like she was making up for lost time. That’s probably why she has such a soft spot for you.”

“Thank you, Miss Ritsuko.” Shinji nodded. That sounded like Misato, all right. “What about Hikari? Is she gonna be okay, too?”

“That’s harder to say,” Ritsuko admitted. “Physically, Horaki wasn’t horribly injured, although she’s in shock. However, it’s not clear whether she was conscious at any point after the Angel hijacked Unit-03, whether it breached the entry plug and made physical contact with her, or whether it formed any other sort of mental connection with her at any point… so, considering the nature of this Angel, we’ll have to be particularly careful about both physical contamination and psychological contamination, either of which would be… very unfortunate.”

“Mental connection…” Shinji thought back to the way the Thirteenth Angel had ‘spoken’ to her. And the other Angels before it, too—ever since that scream from the Ninth Angel that only she had been able to hear. “What if… the Angel did try to communicate with her?”

“We’d have to quarantine her and conduct an exhaustive psych evaluation for the next few months. There’s no telling how dangerous she might be to both herself and others if the Angel had gained a foothold into her mind. It could be a fate worse than death.”

Shinji gulped, sucked air in through her teeth, and tried very hard not to look especially suspicious, even though she was pretty sure she’d already messed that up. The dread she felt wasn’t unlike the way she felt whenever she had to use the women’s bathroom in an unfamiliar part of the city. The dread of being seen, of being known, and therefore being hated and feared.

A fate worse than death?

“Don’t worry, Shinji,” Ritsuko said, as if sensing her distress. “I’m sure your friend will pull through. Evangelion pilots aren’t chosen for their fragility, after all, physical or mental.” She patted her on the knee and stood up. “If I’m being honest, it’s almost a miracle the dummy system failed when it did,” she added, adjusting her glasses. “A few more seconds and she’d have surely been crushed to death.”

Shinji wondered if Ritsuko thought activating the dummy system had been the right move on Commander Ikari’s part.

“Why was Hikari chosen, anyway?” Asuka asked, her expression sour.

“I’m not privy to the criteria the Marduk Institute uses,” Ritsuko answered as she headed for the door, “but if I had to guess, they might have hoped someone with actual aptitude for leadership whom you three already knew would be beneficial for group cohesion.”

Asuka’s expression grew even sourer, as though she realized she was being insulted. “But you don’t need that if you have your dummy plugs,” she pouted.

Ritsuko flashed her an irritated look. “As you can see from this evening’s test,” she coldly replied, “we’ll have to make do with you for the time being.”

With that cutting remark hanging in the air, she left the sickbay, shutting the door and locking the door and turning down the lights on her way out. The room was bathed in a dim glow, like dusk without the warmth.

Asuka impotently threw a wadded-up paper slipper at the door after Ritsuko. It didn’t even make it halfway. Irked, she mumbled a few half-hearted insults at Rei before throwing her cot’s thin blanket over herself and curling up on the thin mattress, her damp hair clinging to her back.

Shinji picked up her bookbag and trudged to another cot with a drier pillow. She fished her tape player out of the bag, slipped her headphones on, pressed play, and laid down. She’d listened to this track so many times that it didn’t even sound like music anymore, but it still blocked out the rest of the world well enough and let her pretend that Asuka wasn’t muttering an unending litany of curses at Rei from across the gulf separating their cots. She closed her eyes and tried to fall sleep.

It was still too cold.

In her dreams that night, Shinji saw the silver-haired boy again.

He sat down next to her. “Hello there, Shinji. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Shinji, still morose even while asleep, could only muster a sad sigh. She was a bit disoriented, the memory of what she had been doing just a few seconds ago fading quickly from her head as dreams often did. It had not, judging from the ache buried in her chest and from the fact that she was sitting in the entry plug again, been a pleasant dream.

“I’m sorry for my absence. I truly enjoy spending time in here with you. Alas…” The boy slumped his shoulders. “I was grounded.”


“Yes. My uncle, evidently, frowns on me sneaking out at night.”

“Grounded,” Shinji repeated. She couldn’t help but laugh at how absurd it was. “How do you get grounded?”

The boy shrugged, a wry little smile on his sharp face. “The same way you do. I get locked in my room and have my toys taken away.”

Shinji laughed again. “But… it’s not like you’re… you know. Real.”


“You’re just someone I keep hallucinating.”

“I could say the same about you.”

“Me? N-No, of course I’m real.”

The boy cocked his head. “How do you know, Shinji? Perhaps I’m only dreaming about you.”

“No, that’s crazy. I wake up every morning.”

“Do you?” he asked with a maddeningly knowing smile.

“Yes,” Shinji said, beginning to lose her patience. “Yes, I do!”

The boy laughed. It was like hearing a bell ring. “Well, I wake up, too. So I doubt either of us are figments of the other’s deranged mind.”

“You could just be saying that.”

“Then we are at an impasse,” the boy said. “Why don’t we just pretend we’re both real, since it’s the same either way?”

“Okay.” Shinji nodded. “So, if you’re real… what’s your name?”

The mirth faded from the boy’s face. “I, uh…” He looked away. “I wanted to tell you before. But it… might be dangerous. We could both get in trouble if you know it. I have a nickname, though—You can call me Tabby.”

“Tabby? Like the cat?”

Tabby smiled again, a twinkle in his red eyes. “Yes, like the cat!”

“I have a nickname, too,” Shinji said. “My friends call me Shinko.”

“Shin… ko…” Tabby cocked his head to either side with each syllable. “Oh! Oh, I get it! That’s brilliant! What a name, Shinko!”

Shinji felt warm, warmer than she’d ever felt before from just hearing that nickname. “It’s… nice, isn’t it? It’s just a placeholder, though. I don’t want to hear my real name again, but I haven’t picked anything else…”

“Does it hurt?”


“Your name. I was blessed with a name that suits me well enough whether I am male or female, so it never bothered me. But yours… does it hurt?”

“I guess,” Shinji said. In truth, it was more than I guess. It was a yes, definitely, of course. Most people who knew her well enough to call her by her given name knew her well enough to use her nickname, save for her father. Coming from her father’s mouth, the name burned like acid. She wondered sometimes if it would hurt as much to be Shinji if her father were not… the way he was, because when she thought about it, it all came down to him.

“Shinko is a lovely name, then,” Tabby said. “A lovely name for a lovely girl.”

Shinji could feel herself blushing, but tried not to smile. “I’m not lovely.”

“Oh, don’t say that.”

“No, I’m not. I’m horrible. I’m useless. I’m weak. I ask for so much from everyone, I demand so much, to be useful, to be wanted, to be needed, but I never give anything back, I don’t know how to do anything but take until there’s nothing left! People like Hikari give so much and I repay them by—”


Hearing him speak her name was like having a short circuit through her brain. The words that had been traveling from her brain to her mouth crumbled into haze and mist.

Tabby clasped both his hands around Shinji’s hand. He was so warm. Holding onto him was like holding onto a coal from a dying fire. Her fingers curled inward, her fingertips slipping against his palm.

“Don’t poison yourself like that. Saying such awful things…”

“But they’re all true.”

“And what of it? ‘A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.’” Tabby inched closer and let his shoulder brush against Shinji’s. His grip on Shinji’s hand tightened. “You may be useless, but not all people in this world must be useful. You may be weak, but not all people must be strong. You may ask to be wanted, but only because so few people have wanted you before. You must not give into the temptation to see only half of your nature at any one time.”

“Half of myself…”

“Without contraries, there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to your existence,” Tabby said. “You’ll never feel better if you only throw your flaws out onto the mirror.”

“Maybe I don’t want to feel better,” Shinji said. “Maybe I don’t deserve it. Maybe I—”

She remembered the way Hikari would hold her hand. The way she whispered encouraging words in her ear. The way she had let her lips brush against her cheek for the briefest instant.

And how Asuka had said, if you had any idea how Hikari felt about you…

“I hurt her,” she gasped between heart-wrenching sobs, “she’s so badly hurt, she could die or worse and it’s all my fault, I did it to her, I felt myself do it, it felt so good it was disgusting, and I couldn’t stop it, I couldn’t stop it, and it’s all my fault—”

“Shinko. Shinko. Breathe.” Tabby’s arm slid around her waist; with his other hand he began to squeeze her hand slowly, gently, with a steady rhythm. “Slow down. Slow down and breathe. Deep, slow, steady. Focus on my hand. Focus on the pressure. While it grows stronger, breathe in. While it grows weaker, breathe out—”

“Stop trying to help me,” Shinji choked out, trying to pull her hand free. “I’ll hurt you, too—everyone who tries gets hurt—”

“I don’t care,” Tabby insisted, though there was a hurt sense of melancholy lurking behind his placid and earnest smile now. “I just want you to breathe.”

“I’m not worth it!”

“Just try it.”

“I’m the lowest of the low…”

“Just trust me.” 

Shinji ran out of excuses and tried. She tried to suck down a mouthful of air as Tabby’s grip tightened, but coughed and sputtered and forced it all out too soon.

“Keep trying. It’s okay. Keep trying, Shinko. You can do it.”

She kept trying. She closed her eyes and tried to think of nothing else but Tabby’s hand clasped around hers, of the gentle and steady enclosing of his soft, slender fingers. After a few more attempts, she took another deep, shuddering breath, matching her pace to his, but when he began to let go again, she coughed it all back out.

“It’s okay. Almost there. Almost there.”

At last, if only through trial and error, her breath began to match his rhythm, and Shinji began to feel a renewed sense of clarity fill her head. She couldn’t remember ever really breathing like this, so mindfully, so evenly. It truly carried a sense of peace that, compared with how she usually felt, was absolutely transcendent. Even though her throat ached and eyes burned from crying, she didn’t feel so awful anymore. There was an alien sense of calm sweeping through her.

“There, there,” Tabby said, his smile earnest and bright as Shinji opened her eyes. “It works, doesn’t it?”

Shinji nodded. “Yes,” she croaked, smiling in spite of herself.

Tabby sighed and rested his head on Shinji’s shoulder. His unruly mop of perpetually-windswept silver hair tickled her cheek. “It is right it should be so,” he recited, “man was made for joy and woe; and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go.”

Shinji rested her head against Tabby’s in turn, still focusing on the gentle pressure of his hand. Curiously, his hair smelled of blood; more curiously, she didn’t seem to mind as much as she thought she would.

“She liked me,” she murmured. She could still feel a hole in her heart. It gaped wider, pouring out her pain, every time her thoughts turned to Hikari.

Tabby reached up and ran his fingers gently through her hair. “It’s okay. I like you, too.”

“No… she liked me.”

“I like you, too,” Tabby repeated. He wore his mysterious, sphinx-like smile again, as frustrating to see as it was cute.

“Don’t say that. We’ve only met twice. You don’t even know me, and if you did, if you really did—”

Shinji glanced downward and her gaze inadvertently slipped down the front of Tabby’s open robe, tracing the soft contours of his—

Tabby was a girl?

No—he was like her!

He was like her!

“Took you long enough to figure out,” Tabby said, cinching the sash that held his robe in place a little tighter.

Shinji panicked, hastily pulling away. Her shame felt as though somebody had dumped a bucket of ice over her head. “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to look—it was just, I mean—”

Tabby chuckled. “No, no, it’s fine, Shinko. I don’t mind.”

“But…” If Tabby was trans like her, only from the other direction, Shinji reasoned, then wouldn’t he feel about his breasts the way she felt about her unwanted parts? A flaw, a painful and humiliating reminder of what she was, of what a part of her always would be…

“It’s fine. These don’t always bother me,” he said. “It isn’t safe to wear a binder for more than eight hours or so, anyway. So it wouldn’t do me much good to hide them while I’m sleeping, anyway.”

“You’re… happy being a girl, sometimes?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that.”  

He pulled himself closer, until he was nearly on top of her, and curled up at her side. “You know… it’s been so long since I could reach out and touch someone,” he added. “I’m glad you’re here for me, Shinko. That’s something you can do for me.”

“Something I can do for you…” Shinji repeated.

“Yes. You see? You do more than simply take. You’ve given me this night.”

“I don’t think it’s mine to give.”

“But even so, you gave it to me.” 

Shinji tried to shrug, though the boy’s head pinned down her shoulder. “I guess.”

“Truth be told… nicknames are things friends give you, aren’t they?”

“Yes. Or enemies, too, I guess.”

Tabby laughed, but it was a somber laugh. “Then I suppose ‘Tabby’ isn’t really a nickname. I don’t actually have any friends…”

“But you’re so nice.”

“But I live alone. I don’t go to school like you do, or go shopping like you do, or do anything else that you and your friends get to do.”

“I’m sorry.” It really did sound like such a lonely existence. Like Rei’s life taken to its logical conclusion.

“There’s just me and my uncle… and sometimes his friends who shout at me,” Tabby said.

“No parents?”

“No. My father disappeared just before I was born. I never knew my mother, but I assume she died in childbirth.”

“My mom died when I was little, too.”

“I know.”

“It should have been my father.”

“I know that, too.”

“Do you hate your father, too?”

“No. I’m still looking for him, actually,” Tabby said, sighing. “I can’t help but feel that I won’t be complete until I meet him.”

“What if he’s an awful person?” Shinji asked.

“Even so… he’s still family.”

Shinji didn’t understand that. She didn’t understand it at all.

“Your father and my father might be connected,” Tabby mused. “I wonder…”

The two of them huddled at each other’s side. Somehow, Shinji didn’t feel cold anymore. Eventually, she grew tired, even though she was already asleep, and her heavy head sank onto the silver-haired boy’s soft, warm chest. The sound of his pulse throbbed in her ear. He drew his arms around her, stroking her hair with his long pianist’s fingers. He was like a living pillow, so warm, so inviting.

When was the last time I’ve been this close to someone before? she wondered.

There was Misato, who’d hugged her after she’d gotten out of the hospital following the Twelfth Angel’s attack, and a handful of times before that, the first time being when Shinji had confessed to her about wanting to be a girl.

But before that…

It must have been before my mother died.

She curled up and pressed herself closer to Tabby’s side. For as long as she’d remembered, she’d never felt so much of another person’s warmth, another person’s touch. It was almost too much to bear, and yet she craved it like water.

She looked up into his sharp, foxish face and got an eyeful of his nostrils. They were the prettiest nostrils she’d ever seen.

“So… you got grounded for sneaking into my dream before, right?” she asked him.


“Aren’t you worried you’ll get grounded again?”


“Why not?”

“Oh, I made a special arrangement,” Tabby answered nonchalantly, still running his fingers through her hair. “One could say I put a man on the inside.”

Early the next morning, Ritsuko returned with another battery of tests to run Shinji, Rei, and Asuka through, then left them alone for another few hours before returning to announce they were all free to go home.

Asuka refused to speak to either Shinji or Rei, not even to hurl insults at them, and stormed off as soon as she had gotten dressed. Shinji ventured out of sickbay behind her, saw her heading deeper into the medical wing, and resolved to go in the exact opposite direction. She knew exactly where Asuka was going, though, and she felt a pang of guilt to be turning her back on that.

Shinji found herself heading to her father’s office. She didn’t know if he was on duty. She didn’t know if he was busy. She didn’t know if he was even in the office today. Nevertheless, she was drawn to the top of NERV’s pyramid like a moth to a lightbulb.

She knocked on the door. Nothing happened, so she knocked on the door again as forcefully as she could. Nothing still happened, and while she stood there in front of the door, nothing continued to happen.

The door was as blank, as imposing, and as devoid of any human grace as Commander Ikari himself. Shinji wondered if she would be better served speaking to it instead of him. It would probably be more receptive to her.

Just as she’d been thinking of leaving, the door slid open. Her father stood on the other side of the threshold, his gaze cold and piercing, his mouth drawn in a tight scowl.

“Shinji. I do not recall summoning you.”

Shinji felt a wave of utter revulsion and loathing crest within her. She clenched her fists and her jaw. “Father. I want to talk.”

“I don’t recall you setting up an appointment with me, either. I am a very busy man.”

“You don’t look busy,” she spat.

Her father raised an eyebrow, taken aback by the venom in her voice. Then he turned his back on her and walked back to his desk. Just as Shinji had been ready to turn away herself, he spoke.


Shinji entered. The door slid shut behind her, trapping her in her father’s office. The vast ceiling stared down at her; the vast floor stared up at her; she felt pinned like a butterfly in someone’s collection by their cold and esoteric gazes. It was as though a magical spell filled this room.

“Well, make it quick,” Commander Ikari said once he’d taken up his usual position behind his desk, his hands propped up in front of himself as though to guard him. His tone was terse and clipped—more so than usual. “What do you want?”

Shinji tried to speak, failed, struggled to channel the white-hot, trembling fury coursing through her body into her throat, and finally managed to say, “I quit.”

Her father let one hand fall away and raised the other to his lips thoughtfully, curling it into a loose fist. “Do you?”

“I won’t ever pilot Unit-01 again. You can have your goddamn dummy plug.”

She wanted to say so much more to him. How dare you do this to me, she wanted to say. How dare you try to make me a murderer. How dare you violate my mind and shove such disgusting, murderous urges into it. How dare you try to wash my hands with her blood. You knew what she was to me. You chose her to punish me and we both know it. I’ll kill you.

She could do it, too. She could lunge across the room, throw herself across the desk, wrap her fingers around his rough, stubbly throat, and squeeze, the same way Unit-01 had squeezed, and feel his neck snap under her hands. She knew how it felt. She could kill him.

No, she didn’t say any of that. She just spat what she had said through gritted teeth.

Her father stared impassively at her.

“I quit,” she repeated, louder this time, letting her voice ring out across the office. “I don’t want anything to do with NERV anymore, or the Evangelions, or the Angels, or anyone who works here. And especially not you. I don’t want to ever see you again as long as I live.”

Commander Ikari was silent for a while, as though it took time for Shinji’s words to sink in. “Is that so?” he asked, his voice a cold, rumbling growl like that of a predator.


“Are you sure?”

“Yes. After all, you don’t need me anymore.”

“Where will you go?” he asked.

“I’ll go back to living with my old teacher,” Shinji said. Before she’d arrived in Tokyo-III, she’d lived with the old man who’d taught her to play the cello. All she would have to do was call him, and then it would be a few hours on the regional train…

“And if he doesn’t take you in?”

“I…” Shinji faltered. She hadn’t thought of that. But now it seemed so obvious. She could so easily imagine reaching her teacher’s doorstep, the door opening before her, the old man taking one look at her, and the door slamming shut again. She could picture it so vividly that it was like it had already happened.

I won’t be a pilot, Shinji insisted to herself. I won’t. I refuse. I won’t give in. I’m done taking orders from you. I’m done thinking of you as a commanding officer, let alone a father. I’m going to leave, and when I do…

“I’m going to leave,” Shinji insisted.

“Where will you go?” her father asked her.

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

“Who will take you in?”

“I don’t know.”

“How do you plan on continuing your transition?”

Shinji bowed her head. “I don’t know…”

Her father leaned in closer. Although the gulf between himself and Shinji was at least two meters from the edge of his desk to the tip of her shoes, just a few centimeters’ difference made it feel as though he were standing right in front of her. “If you do plan on continuing, how do you plan on protecting yourself from harm?”

She suddenly found it very difficult to breathe. The air felt hot and thick around her as the ghosts of every snide remark, every curled lip, every sneer, every leer, every physical altercation swirled around her mind. Her whole body was shaking. She couldn’t stop it. 

“I don’t know…”

“Do you still wish to quit?”

Shinji mumbled her answer.

“Speak up, Shinji,” her father commanded her.

She swallowed the lump in her throat, a pathetic squeak worming its way out of her mouth.

“No, sir,” she finally said.

“Then you are dismissed,” he said to her, turning to his computer terminal and throwing himself into his work with an air of finality.

Shinji stood there, though, her feet rooted to the floor. She kneaded her shaking hands.

After what felt like an eternity, Commander Ikari looked up from his monitor and stared coldly at her. “Did you have anything else to say to me?” he asked.

Shinji shook her head. “No, sir,” she croaked.

“Then you are dismissed,” he repeated, more forcefully this time.

She nodded and trudged out into the hallway. Once the door had shut behind her and hidden her from her father’s sight and his judgment, she collapsed onto the bench lining the wall and buried her face in her hands.

She wasn’t even brave enough to run away.

“Ikari? What are you doing up here?”

Shinji uncovered her face, lifted her head, and found Fuyutsuki looming over her, a steaming mug gripped in his hand. “Vice Commander Fuyutsuki, I, uh…”

A flash of concern flickered across Fuyutsuki’s thin, wizened face. “Were you hoping to speak to your father about something?” he asked.

“No, I, um… I already tried.” Shinji looked down at her shoes. “I wanted to talk to him about…”

“Last night must be weighing heavily on your mind. If the Commander is unavailable, perhaps we could discuss it.”

“I’m sure you’re busy.”

“No, no, not at all. I can’t get anything done until I’ve had my first cup, anyway,” Fuyutsuki said, hefting his mug, “so I would say we have about ten or fifteen minutes.”

Shinji relented, though she wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, and followed Fuyutsuki to his office. He seemed hell-bent on speaking to her, anyway.

“I suppose,” Fuyutsuki said, taking a seat behind his desk, “you’re upset about what happened to your friend.”

She nodded.

“Try to understand,” he said, “that you were actually very fortunate that Commander Ikari activated the dummy system when he did.” He lifted his mug to his lips, attempted to take a sip, winced, and set it back down. “Unit-01 was all that stood between the Angel and the Geofront. If he hadn’t made that decision, you and your fellow pilots would have died. The people of Tokyo-III would have died. Everybody in the Geofront and in NERV headquarters would have died. The human race would have been defenseless.”

Shinji averted her eyes and gritted her teeth, angered and ashamed. Of course Fuyutsuki would take her father’s side. Of course he would. “He tried to make me murder her. Another person… my friend…!”

“But you didn’t.” Fuyutsuki raised his eyebrows. “That the dummy system was shut out from Unit-01’s controls just before the killing blow could be struck was such a perfect stroke of good fortune that for a second I believed you must have managed to override the system.”

“That doesn’t make it okay.”

“Well… don’t expect an apology from your father.” Fuyutsuki made another attempt to drink his coffee and succeeded. “He can be astoundingly myopic sometimes. Sometimes I don’t think he understands that you and your friends did not live through the hell we endured. The idea that one must sacrifice others to survive is so ingrained in his mind that he simply can’t comprehend that you children, who have no memory of the Impact Wars, haven’t learned it…”

“I don’t expect an apology from him,” Shinji said.

“I would advise you to have some perspective and look on the bright side,” Fuyutsuki told her. “However you managed to wrest control of Unit-01 back from the autopilot, whether it was somehow your doing or a miraculously-timed software error, you managed to save one person’s life last night. There were days back then when I would have given anything to save just one life…”

Shinji groaned, although the subtle, slightly-hangdog look Fuyutsuki gave her did tug on her heartstrings a bit. Did all Fuyutsuki have to say amount to, ‘I had it worse than you, so stop complaining?’

“I see that doesn’t exactly lift your spirits, Ikari.”

What did Fuyutsuki want from her? To describe how horrible it had felt for Unit-01’s bloodthirsty, predatorial instincts to bleed into her own mind, for her own sense of self to ebb away under a crimson tide, to feel something so sickening and wrong slither through her head?

“I’ve had enough,” she said, her voice small. She still couldn’t look the vice commander in the eye. “I want to leave NERV.”

Taken aback, Fuyutsuki bemusedly stroked his chin. “Why on Earth would you want to leave NERV?”

Shinji had so many reasons that she couldn’t decide which one to mention first.

“Do you think life outside of NERV will be easier?”

“It can’t be harder.”

“I see you don’t follow the news,” Fuyutsuki said. “No, of course not,” he added, his voice a low murmur. “What fourteen-year-old does?”

Something about the vice commander’s cryptic remark made Shinji’s gut churn. “...What about the news?” she asked, dreading the answer.

“Oh, I’ll spare you the gory details. Nothing but naked social revanchism dressed up as so-called pragmatism, in so many words.”

Of those so many words, Shinji knew only a few of them of them. “I don’t get it.”

Fuyutsuki sighed. “The government is no longer as keen as it once was to… accommodate your sort of people.” His words were nothing but euphemisms. Just like he said, he was sparing her the gory details; Shinji felt oddly grateful for that, though her imagination seized on the blank spaces behind his words and concocted all kinds of horrors. 

“However, fortunately for you, as an international paramilitary organization, NERV is not beholden to the whims of any one nation,” he added, “and we have tremendous sway within Tokyo-III’s local affairs, so to speak, which gives us quite a bit of leeway regarding such matters. You might not find people outside this city so… welcoming.”

Shinji felt something crumple up her heart like a wad of paper. “Oh.”

“I’d suggest that you stay, although, of course, if you do decide to strike out on your own, neither I nor anybody else can stop you.” Fuyutsuki finished his coffee. “You would be giving up Major Katsuragi’s guardianship, Doctor Akagi’s medical expertise, the protection of Section Two…”

“I get it,” Shinji mumbled. She clenched her jaw and fists. I get it. I hate it, but I get it. She truly was incapable of actually leaving this place. “But I can’t pilot Unit-01 ever again. I won’t. I don’t care about saving the city, or the Geofront, or NERV. I can’t put myself through this again! I’d rather have died than lived through what happened…”

“You would rather have died?”

“Yes! I’d rather die than kill someone!”

Fuyutsuki’s expression darkened. “Ikari, come with me. It is time somebody gives you a sense of perspective.”

Fuyutsuki led her deeper into Central Dogma’s lower levels than she’d ever been before, then deeper still, and deeper still, into the lowest reaches of NERV’s headquarters—Terminal Dogma.

She’d never been this deep below ground. And though she didn’t exactly consider herself claustrophobic, she could feel the weight of the Earth above her pressing down on her shoulders.

The elevator cab descended for what felt like an eternity, delving deeper and deeper into the Earth’s crust. Shinji wondered what she was being led to. Something important, something secret, something that was perhaps dangerous, something that could not be allowed at any cost to fall into the Angels’ hands.

Her mind wandered. If Kensuke were here to theorize, he would be exploding with guesses. Rare gems. Radioactive waste. A secret underground civilization. A hole to the center of the Earth.

The pressure Shinji felt from the world above her head seemed to throb with the same syncopated rhythm as a heartbeat. It was getting hard to breathe. The air was pressing against her lungs like a thousand-kilogram weight. There was a dull, hissing ringing in her ears just in the periphery of her hearing, as though someone had implanted a radio in the back of her head and tuned it to a dead channel.

Fuyutsuki seemed completely unperturbed, to say the least. If he felt the same pressure, he made no sign of it. Shinji felt as though if she were as old and frail as he was, her bones would have crumbled to dust from the pressure already, so he must not have been able to feel it.

The elevator came to a stop and Shinji felt the pressure grow stronger. Now she felt as though she was being flattened, pressed between two walls of force and slowly crushed.

“Come along, Ikari,” Fuyutsuki said, leading her away from the waiting elevator cab. The two of them passed through rows of checkpoints, striding past gleaming sentry turrets that trained their guns on them automatically but held their fire, walking across thresholds two or even three meters thick.

“Speak of this to no one,” he reminded her. “What I am about to show you is far above your security clearance level. Counting your father and myself, less than half a dozen members of NERV have permission to enter this part of Terminal Dogma freely.”

Shinji felt her breath grow shorter and shorter and began to squeeze her hand into a fist and unsqueeze it just as slowly, hoping she could use it to time her breathing like Tabby had shown her. It didn’t work. She couldn’t quite remember the feeling of his hand clasped around hers (like a dream, it had faded away) and couldn’t concentrate—the static inside her mind was too strong.

There was something down here. Something living, something with a heartbeat, something with a mind that could reach out to hers, something that was reaching out to her right now, something enormous… 

A massive metal panel at least five meters thick slowly groaned open, the walls parting ahead of her and Fuyutsuki to reveal a cavern so vast that its furthest walls and ceiling were all shrouded in mist. A placid sea of orange liquid—LCL—sloshed lazily from end to end, ripples bouncing off the rocky shoreline.

“This,” Fuyutsuki said, gesturing to the thing at the far end of the cavern, “is what we are protecting.”

Pinned to an enormous metal cross, its arms stretched out at its sizes and drooping from two massive nails buried in its palm, was a monster the size of an Eva. Its blubbery skin was maggot-white, tinged a sickening orange from the reflected LCL below it; its body was a corpulent, sagging mass; someone or something had torn off its legs, and from the stumps countless human-sized arms and legs protruded like a plant’s roots. A mask adorned with seven eyes covered the giant’s face; a massive red spear shaped like a giant tuning fork was embedded in the giant’s chest, its scarlet, double-helix patterned tines buried in the mounds of sagging, snow-white flesh.

It was the thing she had been seeing in her dreams.

“This is the Second Angel,” Fuyutsuki explained, pointing so matter-of-factly to the giant that it might as well have been a slightly-uncommon species of bird. “If any of the other Angels make contact with it, the entire human race, down to the last man, woman, and child, even those dwelling in the remotest parts of the Earth, will instantly be erased from existence. This is the apocalypse the Evangelion project was made to prevent…”

Fuyutsuki’s words faded away, as did all of the color in the room, as a black mist ate away at Shinji’s vision and the entire chamber seemed to pull itself away from her. She couldn’t breathe. She gagged on the air that wouldn’t go to her lungs. Her eyes watered as she stared ahead, unblinking, unable to tear her gaze away, as the rising tide of static rose through her brain like water crashing through bulkheads in a sinking ship.

In her mind’s eye, she saw a black sphere and a white sphere laying atop the flat and rocky expanse of a vast desert. She saw two giants forged from pure white light, both wielding long and wicked two-pronged spears, spindly wings of amber light sprouting from their backs and rising high into the sky and curling like fingers around the curvature of the Earth. These two giants, unlike the bloated monster before her, wore no masks; their faces were vaguely familiar but hard to discern from the light: One sharp and angular, one softly curved, both twisted in fury as the two giants grappled with each other for dominance of the wasteland.

She saw ice consume one of the spheres and rock bury the other one; she saw a flood of blood-red liquid gush from one of the spheres and flow across the arid ground, forming oceans that slowly faded to blue as life crawled onto the newly-formed shores. She saw oceans teeming with life, strange tentacled things and crustaceans so alien in their shapes that it was impossible to tell back from front gradually adopting more familiar forms as they breached the surface of the seas and populated the land.

Visions of twisted architecture flashed through her head, as alien in their shapes as a foreign language, pillars and columns and towers and castles, wood and stone and metal and glass, skies dyed colors she couldn’t describe. Cities as grotesque as they were beautiful, some glittering, some glistening, all teeming with life.

She saw creatures that looked like Angels: Amphibians with spindly limbs and crustaceans with luminous tendrils for arms, glittering gems shattering and reforming in elegant geometric patterns, enormous fishlike creatures breaching the multicolored surfaces of alien oceans, things with too many eyes unfurling as they plummeted from the skies, eye-searing abstract shapes painted in patterns of white and black writhing over pools of darkness, luminous rods flitting through the air, spiny wings forged from luminous diamond flapping lazily in the upper reaches of the atmosphere…

And a white giant arising from the ground, ghostly and translucent, wings sprouting from its back and unfurling as a wave of red crested across the world, pinpricks of light swirling through the air around it as though being sucked down a drain; pillars of light sprang up from the spreading scarlet sea as as millions of voices screamed out in terror and ecstasy and were suddenly silenced. She saw it happen across a thousand cities, a thousand worlds, a thousand cosmic epochs…

She could not hear herself screaming, but she could feel her voice scraping against her throat. Before everything went black, though, she heard someone calling out her name.

Chapter Text

Even though she was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open, Shinji couldn’t sleep. No matter how much she writhed and thrashed under the covers, she still couldn’t stop herself from being so inconsolably restless.

Part of it was the loneliness. The knowledge that tonight, Misato’s apartment was missing one person. It made the air feel just a little colder. It usually wasn’t hard to hear Misato snoring through the walls, especially if she was soused. As subtle a sound as it was, masked under the fan and the rushing of cars in the street below, Shinji could tell when it was missing.

She should have been grateful that Misato and Hikari had both survived. She was, she told herself. But she couldn’t forget the horrible despair she’d felt—that heartwrenching grief, imagining Misato crushed into a bloody paste underneath tons and tons of wreckage, or Hikari mangled in the crumpled remains of Unit-03’s entry plug.

It almost could have happened. It almost could have happened. It had been so close to happening that it was almost too easy for her mind to slip and for her to forget that it hadn’t. Especially considering that her mind wasn’t really gripping reality with both hands, so to speak.

The rest of what kept her awake was knowing what had been haunting her restless dreams. She spent half the night begging for sleep, yet terrified that it would come. She didn’t want that thing in her mind again.

And what could she do about it? If she talked to anyone else about the mental connection she’d been forming with the Angels… what would they do to her? Lock her up? Quarantine her? Lobotomize her? Vivisect her? And what would happen to her if she didn’t tell anyone? Ritsuko had said it could be a fate worse than death…

She was so lonely and afraid that she felt sick; despite the thick, humid night air, she still was cold enough to shiver.

Frustrated with the state of her troubled mind, she threw off her covers and stormed out of the bedroom. Wherever it was, she had to go somewhere, anywhere that wasn’t here.

She sat down at the table, tapping her fingers aimlessly on the surface as she watched the clock’s face change with agonizing slowness. The harder she stared, the slower the numbers changed over, as though they were spiting her.

Two in the morning. Too early to cook anything. Too late at night for her to go out anywhere—as though walking around in the middle of the night would do anything to make her less anxious. She could try cleaning up the place—god knows Misato’s apartment needed it, and with Misato herself out of the picture, maybe she could actually make some headway—but that might get loud and then she’d wake Asuka and that would be unpleasant to deal with in itself.

Two in the morning and she couldn’t sleep at all, no matter how much her eyes burned, no matter how lightheaded and heavy of limb she felt, no matter how leaden her eyelids felt and how sluggishly her thoughts crawled through her head. It wouldn’t come.

Why was this happening to her? Why couldn’t she just be a normal girl? Or even, at the very least, one who wasn’t constantly freaking out from uncontrollable psychic visions? Dealing with being transgender was enough. Being a pilot, protecting all of humankind, and then all this on top of it…

That talk she’d had with Kaji weeks ago kept running through her mind. About girls like her being seers and shamans in the ancient world. Like Tiresias, the prophet of Apollo.

She didn’t want to be a prophet. She only needed one burden in her life.

“You’re usually asleep at this hour, you know.”

Shinji was already awake, but the sound of that familiar voice jolted her even more awake, like someone had injected an entire can of soda into her veins.

She turned her head in the direction of the voice and found the silver-haired boy leaning causally against the fridge. His entire body was luminous, as though a bright light suffused him down to the hem of his robe, yet he cast no light and no shadow on his surroundings.

Shinji clapped her hand over her mouth to avoid letting out a yelp of surprise. “Tabby?”

“Hello, sweetie.” Tabby strode across the apartment and took a seat next to Shinji. Or, rather, he pantomimed taking a seat. Shinji couldn’t help but notice that his body just passed through anything solid that got in his way. He just clipped through everything like a glitched video game character unless, it seemed, he made a concerted effort to interact with it. “What’s on your mind?”

“Um… oh, I’m, uh, just going through a… How are you here right now?” she hissed, reaching out to grab him and feeling her fingers meet empty air. Her fingertips tingled as though she’d just grabbed a handful of ice.

This was it. She’d finally lost it completely.

Tabby looked on with quiet bemusement as Shinji pawed at his incorporeal shoulder. “It’s a special talent of mine. And please don’t do that. It makes it hard to concentrate.”

Shinji withdrew her hand. “Oh, sorry…”

“I hope I’m not too irritable tonight,” Tabby said, rubbing gingerly at his head and mussing his hair. “Astral projection is so difficult without any technological aid, and doing it through a proxy on top of that is just…”

“And going into my dreams is easier?”

“Oh, yes. I mean, I can’t jump into just anyone’s head; we have to share a special bond…” Smiling, Tabby reached out to take her hand; his hand ended up passing right through hers. A jolt of cold ran through her hand that made everything completely numb from her wrist to the tips of her fingers.

Shinji gasped, yanked her hand back, and tried to massage some feeling back into it. She could feel her skin under her fingertips, but her skin couldn’t feel her fingertips; it was like grabbing someone else’s hand, even though it was clearly attached to her arm.

No. He was supposed to be warm. It was hard to remember the little details of those dreams—things that faded away so quickly with the dawn—but she remembered that. This was wrong.

“Oops,” Tabby said.

This was too much. This was just too much. Shinji felt her breath catch in her throat, a leaden weight flattening her lungs; the faint light of the digital clock across the room turned fuzzy and gray.

“Shinko? Shinko, it’s okay. Breathe like I showed you. I…” Tabby leaned in, trying with great difficulty not to grab her by mistake. “I’ll count, okay? I’ll count up to five and you’ll breathe in, then I’ll count down to zero and you’ll breathe out. Okay?” His incorporeal form flickered and rippled a bit.

Shinji nodded.

“Okay. One… Two… Thr—”

He flickered again and vanished, leaving Shinji once more completely and utterly alone.

Forlorn, Shinji buried her face in her hands and struggled to breathe, choking back sobs so violent she felt as though she were about to vomit. She couldn’t do anything right. Why did everyone ask so much of her when she couldn’t even breathe right?

She found her bookbag and pawed through it until she felt her fingertips brush against the glossy surface of the photograph Fuyutsuki had given her. The photo of her mother. She couldn’t see the smile on her mother’s face in the darkness, but she knew it was there, and there was something comforting in that knowledge.

There’s a monster in the basement.

I don’t like visiting where Mom and Dad work. It’s scary. There are dark hallways draped in exposed wires where the light fades away and the patchwork walls vanish into something darker than the night. Mom tells me not to run off. I wonder why she thinks I would. The wires look like they could wrap around me and drag me off, where no one would ever find me.

The thin man is angry at Mom for bringing me. But he doesn’t argue with her for long. He has a hard look on his face, like Dad. He smiles at me. It looks like part of him doesn’t want to.

Mom holds my hand as we board the elevator. All the way down, she tells me about the future. She says the future will be bright. All I see past the wire cage circling our cab is darkness.

She shows me the monster in the basement. I look down on it from the balcony. It’s big and white and fat, like a maggot. There’s a giant stone mask on its face with too many eyes. They’re stretching and pulling its legs like taffy and molding it into a shape like a person. Both halves of the monster are the size of buildings. There’s a giant ruby in the second one’s chest and a few big plates of purple armor clinging to its skin.

Mom tells me not to be afraid of it. She is going to talk to it. There is nothing to be afraid of. But the way her hand grips mine says something her words don’t. I don’t know what.

She hugs me and kisses me and tells me that everything will be alright. The world will get better. She brushes the hair out of my eyes with a sweep of her hand, laughs, and reminds Dad that I will need a haircut soon. She hugs and kisses him, too.

Mom boards another elevator platform. I try to follow, but Dad puts a hand on my shoulder. He says that where she goes, we can’t follow.

She goes down into the big room with the monster inside it. She’s so far away now that from the balcony, she looks as small as a bug. Men in plastic suits begin hooking wires up to her. Wires like the ones drooping across the walls and ceilings of all those dark hallways. I’m afraid they’ll wrap around her like snakes and drag her away.

My stomach feels like I’d never left the elevator—like a hook got caught in it and it’s trying to pull it up my throat and out of my mouth. I call out to her. I want her to be up here, next to me. People start to talk in languages I don’t know. The air starts to get hot. Everything starts to wobble and shimmer. I call out to Mom again. I tug on Dad’s sleeve; he tells me to stay still and be quiet.

Mom looks up at me through the haze. There’s a flash of light. She disappears.

I call out to her again. I ask where she went. Dad doesn’t seem to hear me. He’s yelling at all of the men in plastic suits running around down below. The thin man puts a hand on my shoulder and tells me everything will be okay.

Dad tells the thin man to take me home. He is going to work through the night here. I don’t want to go home with the thin man, though. I want to go home with Mom. He says I have to go.

The thin man tells me Mom went somewhere no one else can go. He says Dad is going to do everything he can to bring her back. He says she will come back. But maybe not for a long time.

I can’t stop crying.

He tells me Mom will come back. Soon, maybe. But not now. He says she’s gone off somewhere to do something very important. I don’t want her to be somewhere, I want her to be here. But he says it doesn’t matter. She had to go there.

The thin man half-drags me to his car. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave without Mom. He gets angrier the more he has to tell me that she can’t come with me. Dad will bring her back. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow, the thin man says. Just be brave until then.

We ride in the car to the gate. The policeman at the gate stops us and says we have to wait. I can hear fireworks going off outside. They must be very close, because they’re so loud, but when I look up at the sky through the window, I can’t see any lights. There’s a low rumble in the distance, like a thunderclap, but I can’t see any lightning either.

We wait until the invisible fireworks stop. The policeman gets a call on his radio and lets us through.

The thin man brings me home. The trip home feels like it takes forever. He tells me I have to go to bed. He is going to go back to my Dad and help him get Mom back.

My thoughts keep turning to the monster in the basement. The monster took Mom away. And deep, deep down, I know that it won’t ever give her back.

I tell the thin man I’m afraid. He leans over, rests a cold hand on my shoulder, and says to me,


Shinji opened her eyes. She was breathing so heavily that it and the sound of her own pulse ringing in her ears were all she could hear. Cold sweat glued her blouse to her skin; a cold metal wall pressed against her back.

A face slowly coalesced in front of her. A long, thin face, aged and worn, wreathed in harsh shadows, its sharp contours almost skeletal. Its lips parted.

“Shinji, can you hear me?”

It took Shinji a few seconds to recognize the man crouched down in front of her and to process his words.

“V-Vice Commander,” she stammered, catching her breath. Her heart was beating like a hummingbird’s, rattling against her ribcage. Her head felt like a radio turned to the wrong channel. “Wh… wh…”

“Are you okay?” Fuyutsuki asked.

Shinji nodded. Her head felt like it was going to fall off. “I…”

She’d seen it all, projected straight from the creature’s slumbering mind into her own. A thousand pasts and a thousand futures. She’d witnessed the deaths of a thousand worlds at once. The death of her mother. That was what they wanted her to stop? That was the true power of the Angels?

“Breathe,” Fuyutsuki told her, his grip on her shoulder tightening. “It’s alright. You’re safe now.”

Shinji looked past Fuyutsuki. They were still in the gloomy, dark underbelly of Terminal Dogma, but the ocean of LCL and the crucified body of the Second Angel were nowhere to be seen. The pressure in her mind had lessened to a dull, leaden weight and slow, pulsating throb; she could feel the Angel’s thoughts pressing against her own, but only barely.

“Can you stand?”

Shinji shakily nodded and gulped down a lungful of air so desperately that it hurt, like drinking water too greedily. She tried to pull herself up, but her knees buckled and legs crumpled too easily; the most she could do was pull herself to her knees.

“I’m sorry,” Fuyutsuki said. “I hadn’t given any thought to how seeing that would affect you, considering…”

Memories buzzed inside Shinji’s head like flies. The white giant being split into two pieces, her mother wiring herself to the monster and disappearing… she’d seen snatches of them before, just flashes of half-remembered impressions, while trapped within the Twelfth Angel, but seeing the Second Angel in the flesh had caused those memories to flood her mind as vividly as though it had happened yesterday.

“…It killed my mother,” she finished for Fuyutsuki, her hoarse voice barely more than a whisper. A cold twinge stabbed at her heart.

Fuyutsuki was silent for a moment. His mouth hung slightly agape, his eyelids leaden, his eyes weary. He failed to look her in the eyes.

“Well… now you understand.” There was an oddly flat tone to Fuyutsuki’s voice. For a second, Shinji thought, he sounded just like her father. “Terrible thing to see.”

He paused.

“Worse to remember,” he added.

Tokyo-III was a city that knew how to get back on its feet and soldier on after a disaster. Down to its very foundation, it knew how to right itself when the world had turned upside down; ten Angel attacks had made that obvious. It was almost overzealous in how easily and quickly it went on as though nothing had ever happened, everyone acting so normally, as though the entire city hadn’t been built atop the crucified remains of the alien that had killed Shinji’s mother. Shinji couldn’t help but resent the city for humming along so smoothly and refusing to break its stride, forcing her to run alongside it when all she wanted to do was drag her feet.

School went on just as surely as the city kept bustling and the sun kept shining. That morning, Shinji walked onto the grounds just as she did every other day, frustrated that despite everything, nothing had changed.

She reeled backward, staggered, and despite her best efforts, lost her balance and hit the ground, fresh bruises aching from the impact. The cloud-streaked sky spun lazily above her as flickers of lights danced in front of her eyes. She braced one arm against the hot asphalt and propped herself up as she cupped her hand over her jaw, a nauseating wave of dizziness sweeping through her.

“What the hell, Touji?” Kensuke blurted out, rushing to Shinji’s side.

“I’d say ‘no hard feelings,’ like last time,” Touji pouted, gingerly rubbing his knuckles, “but on second thought… fuck you.” He cast a shadow over her, the sun eclipsed by his head, the light making his outburst seem all the more like an act of divine retribution.

Without another word, he turned his back on her and walked away, shoulders hunched, clenched fists shoved petulantly into his pockets.

Kensuke crouched down and helped Shinji pull herself to her feet. “You okay, Shinko?”

Shinji nodded. She felt the world spin around her and her gut churn; the fresh bruise on the back of her head blossomed with pain. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she lied. She almost wanted to make some pithy remark about how she was starting to build up an immunity to being punched in the face.

“Don’t worry.” Kensuke patted her on the shoulder. “Look, we know how this goes. His kid sister’s gonna chew him out about it and within three days, he’ll be asking you to punch him so you’ll be even. You’ll see.”

Shinji wasn’t so sure about that.

She collected herself and headed after Touji. “Wait! Touji, I—”

“What do you want?” he snapped at her. “I can give you another if that wasn’t enough…”

“Hey, Suzuhara! Trouble with the missus?” one of the upperclassmen loitering on the edge of the schoolyard jeered.

“If you need a new girlfriend, Ashido’s single!” one of the others chimed in.

The boy next to him, who was obviously Ashido, punched him in the shoulder. “Go to hell, Murata!”

Shinji bowed her head, trying in vain to keep a low profile.

Touji stiffened, fixed his face into an even darker scowl, and shoved her aside and stomped off, even though she wasn’t anywhere near in his way. “Get the fuck away from me, Ikari,” he snarled, as though offended by the very idea of being her friend, loudly enough that the guys taunting him would be sure to hear it.

“Geez,” Kensuke asked, “who pissed in his breakfast?”

Shinji held her hand to her smarting jaw and winced. Did Touji somehow know what had happened to Hikari? He couldn’t have known—unless either Rei or Asuka had told him. Rei wouldn’t have; would Asuka have overcome her natural aversion to him to clue him in? She couldn’t be that spiteful, right?

Anyway, that was beside the point. The point was that Shinji had deserved that punch; as much as it hurt, the bruise forming on her jaw almost felt cathartic, in a way. Not just as punishment, but as a sign that the world wasn’t returning to normal so quickly as she’d thought at first.

“So, uh, I know this is probably a bad time to bring it up,” Kensuke said, “but… I heard that Unit-03 was destroyed in the last Angel attack. Was it really that hard of a fight?”

Kensuke was right. It was a bad time to bring it up. “Yeah,” Shinji said.

“Aw, damn.” He looked crestfallen. “Did the pilot make it out? Who’d they end up picking, anyway?”

Shinji felt her mouth dry out. “Th-That’s classified,” she rasped. If Kensuke knew what had happened, he’d turn his back on her, too. Then she wouldn’t have anyone here except for Rei.

“That sucks. Well, I hope they’re alright. Speaking of, any idea what’s happened to Class Rep? It’s not like her to be absent so many days in a row…”

“No idea.”

“She must be really sick.”


“Someone should stop by her place and make sure she’s okay. Can’t let her miss too much homework.” Kensuke’s eyes brightened, his mouth curling into a cheery grin. “Hey, why don’t we head over after school and check up on her?”

Shinji shook her head. “I’m sure someone’s already doing that. We don’t need to.” She knew Hikari wouldn’t be there; and besides, the last thing she wanted to do was be in the same place as her family with such a guilty conscience weighing her down.

“C’mon, what’s the harm? Whatever’s wrong, she’d be more than happy to see a friend, right?”

“Just forget about it.”

There was a slightly-suspicious twinge in Kensuke’s expression, but he mercifully decided not to press the issue anymore. “Alright, if you’re so sure. Let’s get to class.”

The two of them headed for the front entrance, only for the three boys from before to intercept them. Ashido, Murata, and what’s-his-face. Shinji didn’t actually know which one was which. She always had trouble connecting names to faces.

“Hey, Shinko, what’s the hurry?” one of the boys asked, his tone syrupy. “Can’t wait to get to class?” The other two snickered.

“I-I mean, we don’t wanna be late or anything—” Kensuke piped up.

The boy shot him an icy glare. “I was talking to Miss Ikari here, twerp.”

Shinji gulped. Normally, it felt good to hear people call her miss and things like that, but it was really obvious that this guy was laying it on way too thick to be sincere. What did he want to do to her?

Kensuke dutifully shut up.

“So,” the boy said, clapping Shinji on the shoulder, “I hear you took down another Angel the other day.”

“Ripped it to shreds, I hear,” one of his cohorts chimed in.

“You must be a real psycho deep down, Shinko,” the third boy said.

Shinji felt what remained of her meager breakfast churn in her stomach as bile rose in her throat. She choked it back down as surreptitiously as she could.

“Honestly, we’re really grateful,” the boy went on. “We could’ve gotten hurt or killed if that thing had made it inside the city.”

You have no idea, Shinji wanted to say, flickers of her apocalyptic vision stabbing at her mind’s eye. Instead, she just slowly nodded in agreement.

Suddenly the boy’s hand was sliding across her back and crawling onto her opposite shoulder. He was pressed too close to her. Shinji could see the pores on his cheek, the little red shaving nicks on his throat and chin, the yellowy beige of his teeth, and her brain shut down.

“So me and Ashido and Murata,” the boy told her, “we figure we owe you one, huh?”

“N-No, uh, you don’t owe me anything…” she stammered.

“And it’s really sad to see Suzuhara dump you like that,” one of the other boys, who was either Murata or Ashido, said.

“Touji and Shinji aren’t—” Kensuke tried to interject.

“Yeah. Damn. Dumping a girl after she saves the city. That’s cold.” The boy’s breath reeked. Did he know what a toothbrush was?

Shinji couldn’t breathe. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. This was the moment when Hikari would have swooped in and broken this up, possibly by braining one of the guys with the heaviest textbook she had on hand… but she couldn’t be here right now. And Asuka still wasn’t speaking to her, so the chances of her intervening were nil.

She cast a glance at the schoolyard out of the corner of her eye. Nothing but other students milling around, sidestepping around her and the boys with their heads bowed as though they were pretending not to notice her.

No Section Two goons. Asuka had been right about them: They really were useless.

“Um… you’d be doing Shinko and me a real favor,” Kensuke piped up again, “if you let us get to class before the bell rings…”

“Nah, we’ve got something really special planned for our heroine,” the boy said, a wicked gleam in his eye as his grip on Shinji’s shoulder tightened. “I hear you’re on the waiting list for some surgery, Shinko…”

He flipped open a straight razor in his free hand. Its steel blade gleamed in the sunlight, reflecting a blinding glare.

She gasped, the sharp intake of breath flash-freezing in her throat and sticking there.

“How ‘bout I get you to the front of the line? Y’know… as a favor?”

Frozen like a deer caught in headlights, Shinji clenched her jaw, her muscles coiling like wound springs under her skin, the air leaden in her lungs as her eyes traced the edge of the razor. She couldn’t feel her heartbeat. What she could feel, though, was a very soft and very quiet whine crawling up her throat.

A pale finger tapped on the boy’s shoulder. “Excuse me.”

Distracted, the boy glanced over her shoulder. Shinji wondered if she should take the opportunity to pull herself free and make a break for it, but his two friends were right in front of her and besides, her muscles felt like jelly. “Eh? Fuck off. Me and Miss Ikari are talking—”

Rei’s blood-red eyes bored dispassionately into his. Shinji could see a flicker of unreality ripple through her like scanlines running up a TV screen. “You’re in the way. Please move.”

Shinji could see the boy’s mouth twitch into a strained hint of an uncomfortable fear-smile. Rei sometimes had that effect on people. “Alright, Shinko,” he said, squeezing her shoulder. “Let’s take this inside…”

“Is that a razor?” Rei asked sharply, her gaze falling to the razor in the boy’s hand. “You should put that away before someone sees it.”

Cowed, the boy let go of Shinji, flipped the straight razor shut and shoved it into his pocket, and stormed off with his friends, leaving her dazed and rooted to the ground.

“Did you see the look on his face?” he cackled to his buddies, as though he hadn’t just run away with his tail between his legs but had in fact planned for things to go this way all along. “He was this close to pissing himself!”

Shinji eventually felt Kensuke nudging her in the side with his elbow. “Hey, Shin. You okay there?”

She coughed and took a breath, resting her hand over her heart to make she it was still beating. Her legs felt like they were filled with jelly.

“We should tell a teacher about that,” Rei said. “What was that student’s name?”

“I dunno,” Kensuke said.

Shinji nearly collapsed, her legs crumpling under her weight from the combined stress and fatigue; she barely managed to throw her arm over Kensuke’s shoulders to keep herself just barely upright.

“Geez, uh…” He gingerly pushed her off of himself, his cheeks tinged pink, and handed her off to Rei. “Um, not in front of people, okay? Hey, Ayanami? Can you take Shinko to the nurse or something?”

Shinji felt her heart sink. So now even Kensuke was pushing her away. Honestly, that felt like she’d reached a new low. “I’m fine,” she insisted, willing a little strength back into her legs so she wouldn’t just collapse into a heap. “I’m okay, I’m just tired. Let’s just get to class before—”

The bell started to chime to announce that first period had begun. Kensuke ran off as though someone had lit a fire under him.

For the rest of the day, as Shinji sat quietly at her desk and struggled to stay awake, she found her eyes drawn over and over again to the only empty seat in the classroom. It was just as strong of a reminder as the bruise on her chin that it was all her fault.

Rei trailed behind Shinji and Asuka after school. Normally, their paths didn’t cross like this; Major Katsuragi’s apartment and Rei’s own living space were in the opposite direction. She’d been keeping an eye on Shinji all day, though, and had seen how unwell she looked. Rei found herself struck with worry that even though Asuka was with her, she might need help walking home.

Shinji and Asuka weren’t speaking to each other. Or rather, Asuka wasn’t speaking to Shinji, and Shinji, knowing this, opted not to speak to her in return. Tensions were still high among the three of them since the incident with the dummy plug.

Rei hadn’t known the Fourth Child as well as Asuka and Shinji had, but the fate that had befallen her sat in her mind just as heavily. She was the basis of the dummy system; her thought patterns formed the system’s cognitive functions. She couldn’t help but feel responsible for what had happened, and not simply in a roundabout way. Unit-01, under the control of the dummy plug, had been so savage in its behavior, leaving Rei to wonder where such savagery had come from. Was she capable of such brutality? Like the Evangelions, whose armor both hid from sight and restrained the beast within, was there something wild and monstrous lurking beneath her own measured and antiseptic facade?

She knew how violent and spontaneous the Evas could be. She still remembered the day Unit-00 had gone berserk with her inside, one month before Shinji had arrived at NERV. She’d always felt an unnerving sense of kinship with Unit-00, in spite of that, which disturbed her even more now. Were people nothing more than very small monsters?

“Uh… A-Asuka?” Shinji called out, stumbling to a stop as Asuka turned the corner. “The apartment’s this way,” she reminded her, gesturing straight ahead.

Asuka didn’t respond. She just kept her back to Shinji and pressed onward.

“Asuka? Where’re you going?”

Asuka stiffened, her fists clenched, her shoulders taut. “As if you don’t know, you cretin!” she spat over her shoulder before heading off in her own direction. Rei, being no cretin, assumed she was heading off to NERV to visit Hikari.

Rei put her hand on Shinji’s shoulder. “Do you need help getting home?” she asked.

Shinji shuddered as though Rei had electrocuted her and pulled away, shaking her head. “No. You should turn back; you’ve gone too far out of your way already.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Rei said. “You must be lonely.”


“Not going home with Soryu. Major Katsuragi won’t be coming home tonight either. Won’t you be lonely?”

“It’s okay. I’m used to it.”

“I could stay with you for a while,” Rei offered. A small, selfish part of her wondered if Shinji had more old clothes she could try on. “I’m sorry about Horaki,” she added reflexively, as though to quash that self-centered thought.

“It’s okay.” It clearly wasn’t. “We all did our best, I guess.”

Rei wasn’t sure if anyone had done their best. She had missed several opportunities to land a clean shot on the Thirteenth Angel—like Shinji, she’d been concerned for the safety of Unit-03’s pilot and couldn’t bring herself to inflict what she’d worried might have been mortal damage. Even Asuka had been rattled. None of them had been prepared to fight an enemy that looked like them—an enemy that was one of them.

“Still…” she said.

“It wasn’t any of us. It was that—that damn dummy system,” Shinji huffed, an unusual iron bite to her voice. “I can’t believe anyone as nice as Miss Ritsuko and Lieutenant Ibuki could create something so disgusting…”

Rei might have voiced her opinion that she could very easily believe that Doctor Akagi could create abominations, but held her tongue. Shinji didn’t know her the way Rei did.

“About the dummy system…” she began.

“How could they make something so horrible?” Shinji wondered aloud. Rei felt a twinge of unease in her gut, as though Shinji was accusing her of being a part of it.

“Was it that bad?” Rei found herself asking in spite of herself.

Shinji bristled, knitting her eyebrows and giving her an incredulous look, though she broke eye contact as soon as Rei tried to return it. “You saw what it did.”

Rei looked away, embarrassed. “Yes, I… I guess I did.”

“Well, it was worse than that. It was like I was possessed. Everything Unit-01 did, everything it felt—it was like I was a part of it. I felt like a prisoner in my own head. I screamed and screamed, but…” Shinji crossed her arms and gripped them as though a cold wind had blown through her. Her voice was level and flat, but unsteady, as though she were reading her thoughts from a book and trying futilely to keep the pain at arm’s length. “It was… I felt… loathsome.”

“I see,” Rei said. If the dummy system was a part of her, she wondered, then was she loathsome, too? Was the pain it had caused Shinji her cross to bear? “I’m sorry.” She didn’t know what else she could say; anything else that floated through her head felt hollow and insincere. ‘I’m sorry’ felt hollow and insincere, too. This was why she tended to keep her feelings to herself, even though it just made other people angry, like Asuka the other night…

“It’s okay. You had nothing to do with it.” Shinji took a deep breath and composed herself. “Anyway, what were you gonna say about the dummy system?”

Rei clammed up. It’s okay. You had nothing to do with it. The unsaid ‘because’ between those sentences came through loud and clear. “Nothing. I think it’s horrible, too.”

“Oh. Thanks. I guess all three of us hate it, then, huh?” Shinji yawned and rubbed at her eyes again.

Rei nodded. “Would you like to visit Horaki? Or Major Katsuragi?” she asked, hoping to change the subject.

Shinji shook her head. “No, I… I’d rather give Asuka some space. I can go see them tomorrow.”

“You might feel better if you did.”

With a self-effacing smirk, Shinji shook her head. “You know, sometimes,” she said, her voice brightening, “you sound so motherly—I mean… parental.”

Rei felt her heart grow lighter, just a little. “Thank you, Ikari.”

Still, though, Shinji seemed frostier toward her, and she wouldn’t look her in the eyes, and she bristled when she tried to touch her. Rei didn’t know what to do or say that would make her feel better.

Asuka hated hospitals. She hated the way they smelled and the noises they were filled with. She hated the sight of human weakness and misery in every room. She was putting herself through a lot to be here with Hikari right now.

Hikari looked pathetic, the way she just lay there in bed without moving, so quiet and placid with her eyes closed, primed to be poked and prodded and cut open and god knows what else, wreathed in gauze and bandages and sprouting tubes and wires that were like vines and weeds in an unattended flowerbed. Fucking painful to watch her lying there helpless, silent, motionless, statuesque. Watching her for any sign of motion—studying her silky brown hair and ashen eyelids and the cute band of freckles spread across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose just in case there was one twitch, one flicker, one spark of alertness and awareness—just made her feel hot and uncomfortable and feverish and disgusting.

It was all Shinji’s fault.

Stupid Shinji, idiot Shinji, blundering piece of shit Shinji! It was her fault, it was always her fault, because she was an idiot who blundered into everything and made it worse! If she hadn’t rushed ahead back there, if she had just stayed behind Asuka like she’d been told, if she’d just let Asuka handle it because she was the best pilot—

She could’ve saved Hikari. She’d have found a way. Asuka kept telling herself that. Sure, Shinji could throw her words back into her face, ‘who gives a shit about the pilot,’ but that was what she’d said, not what she would have done! She could have handled everything perfectly herself. Shinji had just gotten in the way too early and thrown off her groove and ruined everything like she always did. It all came back to her.

Asuka knew how Hikari fawned over Shinji. She didn’t get it—how could she? How could anyone look at that bumbling twig and fall in love?—but she understood it. Just some stupid, naive hero worship since Shinji had been in the right place at the right time to blunder into saving her life. Sometimes even smart girls like Hikari could be stupid and naive, after all.

This time, she could have been the one to swoop in and play the hero. And then Hikari would have had a crush on her. Not that Asuka wanted that (after all, it wasn’t like she was queer or anything), but it would be nice to have her getting flustered over a real girl.

Not that she didn’t think Shinji was really a girl. Asuka was too smart to be transphobic. It was just that, well, Shinji was bad at it, to be frank, and she still had years of catching up to do before, well…

Never mind. The point was that Hikari deserved better. Besides, Shinji didn’t even care about her half as much as Asuka did. After all, who wasn’t in this room right now?

They could have been pilots together. Asuka and Hikari, Evangelion Units 02 and 03, the first two production models, the first two real Evangelions and the first two real Evangelion pilots. Rei and Shinji, Units 00 and 01? Old news, consigned to the dustbin of scientific progress, better fit to be hauling garbage (or hauled away as garbage). Asuka and Hikari would have saved the world together. They’d have been together.

Not together together, of course. The thought of Hikari being all puppy love with her and smiling at her all awkwardly and holding her hand and shit like that, the way she got around Shinji, was just—it just, ugh, it made her feel like her insides were made of snakes that were on fire, that’s how much it disgusted her!

Not that she was homophobic. Asuka was too smart to be homophobic. She just—

She liked boys. Mature boys, smart boys, real men, not the ugly and childish and stupid rabble that kept tripping over themselves to ask her out (she turned them all down, of course, except for Hikari’s sister’s friend’s younger brother, who she’d gone out with as a favor to Hikari, and the chemistry had just not been there). Not girls. She didn’t like Hikari the way Hikari would have (should have) liked her back. She just wanted to be her friend. Her best friend.

Asuka toughed it out. She spent as long as she could in this disgustingly sterile room listening to the hideous sound of beeps and whirs and watching Hikari just lie there, corpselike, because it was right to do that kind of stuff for people you liked, and besides, there was a chance she could wake up and Asuka couldn’t think of a better honor than for her to wake up and find her in the room, waiting patiently and faithfully like a real friend would (and with Shinji, of course, nowhere to be seen).

Poor Hikari. As long as she was down here in Central Dogma, she was alone. Her dad and her sisters wouldn’t be allowed to access these levels of NERV’s headquarters; she’d have to be moved to the hospital in the Geofront or in Tokyo-III for them to see her. And who knew how long that would take…

So Asuka stayed. She tried to pass the time by doing homework and reading. But she kept coming up against kanji she didn’t know (there were a lot of them; she was so far behind the other kids her age, but at least she knew two more languages than any of them) and it was hard to check them against the dictionary on her little flip phone and it just slowed her progress to a crawl. She’d always had Hikari to go to for help. If anybody else in class caught on about her problem, she’d be the laughingstock of the school—so she definitely couldn’t ask anyone else, especially not Touji and Kensuke, who’d never let her live it down, especially not Rei, who was… Rei, and…

She could ask Shinji. It would suck, but she could ask Shinji. Just not right here, and not right now, so there was nothing she could do about it.

Eventually, all the pressure ground against her until she just couldn’t stand it anymore. Asuka collected her things, slung the strap of her bookbag over her shoulder, and stood up over Hikari.

She tapped her on her gauze-swaddled forehead. “Hey, Hikari. Wake up soon, okay?” she whispered. “I’m fucking losing it with you like this. Okay?”

No response. The beeps didn’t even get any faster.

Asuka grabbed her shoulder and gave her a gentle shake. “C’mon. This isn’t you. Get up!” she hissed. She shook her again; Hikari’s head gently and limply lolled back and forth as though she were shaking her head, ‘no.’

She shook her again, harder this time, then harder, then—

Asuka felt disgusting.

Frustrated and fuming, she left the room and stormed out down the hallway. She’d spent enough time in the medical wing for one day. It was making her sick. If she spent much more time here, she’d be stuck here, too.

She was so busy fuming that she almost didn’t notice the man she was about to run into. But how could she not notice the grizzled, rugged good looks of a certain Mister Ryoji Kaji?

Kaji hastily sidestepped her. “Whoa, there, Miss Soryu. What’s the rush?”

Asuka skidded to a halt before she could pass him by. “O-Oh, Mister Kaji! I didn’t notice you there.” She casually brushed her hair over her shoulder.

“Well, it’s a good thing you did.” Kaji gestured with his thumb over his shoulder. “The floor’s slippery up ahead. At your pace, you’d have taken a nasty fall… Hardly a fitting end for the pride and joy of Germany, eh?” He flashed his trademark roguish grin. It was the kind of grin that could wake up a dozen Sleeping Beauties.

Kaji, now, was a real man. That was the kind of boy Asuka wanted. Someone who acted like an adult and treated her like one, too. She loved his lantern jaw and his scruffy chin and his handsome, dark eyes and his roguish, devil-may-care grin.

“That’s very kind of you,” she said, trying her best to bring out her elegance and maturity. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. So, what brings you here?”

“Oh, I’m just here to visit the Fourth Child,” Asuka said.

Kaji nodded. “Good. I actually just got back from checking in on Major Katsuragi myself; she’s conscious now, if you were interested in stopping by.”

“Maybe later,” Asuka said, disguising how thoroughly uninterested she was in spending any more time than necessary here.

Besides, she was pretty sure Misato had deserved it. After all, where did she get off, playing coy about all this? She could have just said upfront, ‘Hey, Asuka, your best friend is going to be a pilot! Aren’t you excited?’ And Asuka would have been excited! Why were so many adults so stupid all the time? Why were they constantly making boneheaded decisions? Asuka was fourteen and she was more mature than half the adults in NERV!

Neither of she nor Kaji said anything next.

“So,” Asuka said, desperate to break the silence, “I’m dealing with my grief in a very mature and responsible way.”

Kaji raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”


There was another awkward pause.

“Were you going to tell me how?” he asked.

“Oh,” Asuka said. “No.”

“Oh. I thought you were going to.”

“No. I’m just, you know, being very mature and adult about it.” She found herself playing with her hair, absentmindedly teasing one of her auburn locks with her finger, and hastily stopped herself and pulled her finger free. It made her look childish.

“I see. Never mind, then.”


“Well,” Kaji said, continuing down the hall, “I’m glad to hear you’re doing well, Miss Soryu. Feel free to stop by my office if you need to talk. Auf Wiedersehen!”

Asuka waved goodbye as he headed away.

“Wait!” she shouted out, as much to herself as to him.

He looked over his shoulder.

“Unless you’re too busy, could we talk now?”

“Certainly.” He beckoned her forward. “Come along. It’s this way.”

Kaji’s office was little more than a cupboard. It was more cramped than a studio apartment in downtown Tokyo-III. Asuka couldn’t help but notice that there were pencils embedded by their points in the ceiling, as though Kaji played darts on the ceiling tiles in his spare time (it must have been someone else putting the pencils there, of course, because Kaji would never do something so childish).

“I’d say to sit down and make yourself at home,” Kaji said, sitting backwards on his chair and draping his arms over the back, “but there’s only one chair in here, so you’ll have to stand, I’m afraid. So… what’s on your mind, Miss Soryu?”

Asuka closed the door behind her. There was barely enough room to swing a cat in here. “It’s actually about Hikari.”

Kaji nodded sagely. “I suppose you’d like to know why she was chosen to be the Fourth Child. Honestly, I can only guess. I was sure they’d pick Suzuhara—”

“No, it’s not about that,” Asuka said, trying not to feel disgusted that Touji would have been NERV’s second choice. “I’m just wondering… why bother getting a new pilot at all when they could have just installed a dummy plug?”

The dummy system. Asuka was pissed about that, too. Just another thing trying to replace her. She’d spent years training to be a pilot. She’d memorized Unit-02’s specs inside and out; she knew it like she knew her own body. Proving herself worthy of being selected—of fighting to defend Earth—was her greatest achievement, ahead of even getting her accelerated degree. They couldn’t just throw her away after all the hard work she’d put into it, just because they had some stupid machine to replace her!

NERV wouldn’t find a new doll to dote on in her stead. She wouldn’t let them.

“Who told you about the dummy plug?” Kaji asked, a hard and suspicious gleam in his eyes, as though he knew that someone had told Asuka something they shouldn’t.

Asuka put her hands on her hips. “I overheard it from Doctor Akagi and Lieutenant Ibuki. They say they’re going to automate the whole Eva program!” she huffed, spitting out the words like a snake would spit its venom.

Kaji smirked. “Don’t listen to them,” he assured her. “That’s scientists for you, always overpromising and underdelivering. The dummy system probably won’t be anything more than a failsafe. And a quasi-effective one at best.”

Asuka sighed in relief. “You sure?”

“I’m sure. The most important part of Unit-02 will always be you.”

She felt the knot in her chest loosen and unravel. “Thank you, Mister Kaji,” she sighed.

“Don’t mention it.” Kaji’s smile grew warmer. “Anything for the great Asuka Langley Soryu. Anything else on your mind?”

“Well…” Asuka kneaded her hands. There was something on her mind, something still twisted up in knots inside her. She could talk to Kaji about it, though, couldn’t he? He was always on her side. “It’s… well… I’m not homophobic, okay?”


“But Hikari, well… she, uh, had a crush on Blunder Girl…”


“She likes Shinji.” Asuka crossed her arms, her insides squirming. She hated having to say that.

“Well, congratulations to Miss Ikari.”

Asuka gagged. “Ugh, no! Not congratulations! I just… I feel sick seeing the two of them like that, or even just imagining it!”

Kaji raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.

“But I’m not homophobic. I don’t care if Hikari’s a lesbian, or bi, or whatever.”

“I see.” Kaji took a sip of coffee that was pitch black and ice cold. “Sounds to me like it’s the Shinji part that upsets you.”

“Well, yeah, that’s obvious. But it’s not like… I mean, she has crushes on other people, and that grosses me out, too! I think about it, I think about what if she felt that way about me, and I feel like something’s squirming and crawling around inside me, and it’s just so disgusting, but I should be better than that!”

“Hmm.” Kaji kept drinking. “You know what it sounds like to me?” he asked, pulling the lip of the mug away from his mouth just long enough to speak before taking another sip.

“What?” Asuka uncrossed her arms and leaned forward expectantly. Of course, Kaji had all the answers!

“It sounds to me like you’re jealous.”

“J-Jealous? I… I can’t… I-I mean, of course I’m jealous! She’s my best friend and if she’s dating other girls, or even just boys, then we can’t hang out as much!”

“True,” Kaji said. “But you also sound a little, uh… lovesick to me.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It sucks, but it’s part of growing up. Sometimes someone you like doesn’t like you back. There’s nothing you can do but accept it and move on.”

Lovesick? The word struck Asuka like a shot to the heart. She felt her back press against the doorway. He wasn’t seriously insinuating that she was… He wasn’t… he couldn’t mean…

She felt her fingernails bite into the meat of her palms. She was trembling with anger. The very idea that he could say something to her like that—that he could make that kind of an insinuation—was disgusting. Hot, shameful tears burned at her eyes. It was a betrayal—Kaji was supposed to care about her! And the ‘part of growing up’ thing—was he just trying to rub it in her face that she was just a child to him?

In that instant, she hated him. She hated his stupid lantern jaw and his stupid scruffy chin and his stupid handsome dark eyes and his stupid roguish devil-may-care grin.

“I’m not a lesbian!” she snarled, flinging the door open behind her and stomping out of his office.

“Miss Ikari?”

Shinji sat in the waiting room in Central Dogma’s medical wing, waiting for her name to be called. Patients could only see one visitor at a time; someone was currently visiting Misato, so she had to wait her turn.

“Miss Ikari?”

She could have visited Hikari, but she couldn’t bear to face her. What if Hikari woke up while she was there? How much did she know about what had happened? Had she been conscious the whole time? What if she’d been aware of what Unit-01 had done to her and though Shinji had done it of her own free will? Could they still be friends? Did Shinji still deserve that after what had happened?

“Miss Ikari,” the receptionist repeated, more firmly this time.

Shinji was jolted out of her reverie. It was partly that she’d been lost in her thoughts and partly that being called ‘Miss’ still felt unusual. “Sorry,” she blurted out, standing up from her seat.

“Major Katsuragi can see you now.”

“Thank you.” Shinji nodded, collected her things, and headed down the hallway as a nurse guided her down to the right room. This wing of Central Dogma was filled with an oppressive, foreboding aura. She didn’t want to be here.

A heartbeat monitor set a gentle tempo that quickened ever so slightly as Misato lifted her head off her pillow. Her dark violet hair fanned out behind her, draped over the thin frame of the hospital bed. Fiberglass casts bound one arm and one leg; a bandanna of gauze was wrapped around her forehead, and more peeked out from underneath her hospital gown, covering bruises, cuts, and burns.

“Hey, kiddo,” she said weakly, her mouth curling into a smile and her leaden eyelids lifting. “Here to break me out, huh? Took you long enough.”

Shinji couldn’t help but smile. It was such a relief to see Misato alive, awake, and… surprisingly less severely-injured than she’d expected, all things considered. “Sorry. I don’t think you’re ready to be released.”

“Damn. Well, good to see you, at least,” Misato sighed, resigned to her fate. Shinji couldn’t blame her, but was a little surprised to find out that apparently, Misato hated being stuck in hospitals as much as she did. “Well, pull up a chair, sit down. Did you pick up a six-pack for me?”

Shinji pulled up a chair next to the bed and sat down. “Um… no?”

Misato looked disappointed. “Okay. Next time, try to sneak in a little thing of frozen yogurt. Any flavor. They’re gonna be feeding me nothing but tapioca and jello for the next week.”

“I’ll try, I guess,” Shinji said. “Miss Misato, you look…”

“Surprisingly alive for someone who fell off a building?” Misato laughed, then winced, pressing her free hand hand gingerly against her side. “There’s that damn good luck of mine.”

Shinji recalled what Ritsuko had said about Misato’s past. “I guess when you live through Second Impact…”

“…You can live through anything?” Misato finished. There was an almost wistful look in her eyes. “It’s nice to think that. Sometimes.”

“Ritsuko, uh… called you a cockroach.”

She wrinkled her nose and made a face. “She what?”

Shinji tried to backtrack. “Um… I-I mean, she, uh… she meant it as a compliment—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Just messing with you. That’s Ritsy for you.” Misato lifted her hand and gestured airily toward her. “What about you? You alright?”

Shinji cautiously took her hand. “Yeah. We… took care of the Angel.”

“Good. You got the bastard. You and Asuka didn’t get hurt? And Rei?”

“No,” Shinji lied. It was more of a half-lie, really. “None of us got hurt.”

Misato’s face turned cloudy. “And how’s Hikari?”

“I…” Shinji swallowed a lump in her throat. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen her.”

“Why not?”

She took a long time to answer. “I’m… afraid she’ll wake up while I’m there. I’m afraid she’ll hate me for what happened.”

Misato scoffed at that. “You’re a good kid, Shinko. No rational person could hate you.”

“Thanks,” Shinji said. It didn’t actually make her feel any better. “Well… things could’ve been a lot worse, I guess,” she added, trying to put out of her mind how slimy she felt whenever her thoughts turned toward what had happened with the dummy system. “We were lucky.”

Lucky. Shinji couldn’t believe she’d said that. True, no one had died, but… this was lucky? It felt disgusting to say such a thing, as though it flew in the face of reality, as though it was an insult to the pain she and everyone else had suffered, as though the way she was hurting right now was ideal.

Her fingers tightened around Misato’s hand of their own accord as she choked down an unbidden sob, tears stinging at her eyes.

“The devil’s own luck…” Misato slid her hand out of Shinji’s grip and lifted it to her face, brushing the back of her palm gently across her cheek. She had a faraway look in her eyes.

“I lost count of how many times I heard that phrase,” she said, “after they pulled me out of Antarctica. ‘She must have the devil’s own luck…’ For a long time, I didn’t hear it again. Then, after the Third Angel… ‘That kid’s got the devil’s own luck.’” There was a bit of a wistful, sad smile on her face, and Shinji remembered what Ritsuko had told her the other day.

Misato’s fingers curled around the cross-shaped pendant that sat atop her chest. “It’s never the kind of luck we want, is it? Guess that’s why it’s the Devil’s, not God’s.” She yawned. “Ah… Amazing how tired you can get just from lying in bed all day.”

Shinji dried her eyes. “I can leave, if you want…”

“Nah, that’s okay. Stay as long as you need.” Misato shook her head and closed her eyes. “Sorry for not telling you and Asuka about Hikari, by the way. I thought it’d be… a nice surprise. I wanted to see the looks on your faces…”

“If you’d told us, it would’ve made things worse,” Shinji told her. She couldn’t imagine how much more painful it would have been to fight against the Angel knowing who it had been holding hostage. To say nothing of the dummy system. “I’m grateful you didn’t.”

Misato’s grip on her pendant loosened, her chest gently rising and falling just as steadily as the beat of her heart. Shinji couldn’t tell if she’d fallen asleep already.

“Thank you for being here,” Shinji mumbled to her, even though she couldn’t tell if Misato could hear her. Maybe it was because she couldn’t tell if Misato could hear her that she felt comfortable saying what she was about to say at all. “I… wanted to run away yesterday morning. I wanted to run away so badly that it hurt.”

I can’t ever pilot Unit-01 again. I can’t bring myself to do it. Not after all this. But Father is right. Where would I go? Who else do I have?

Her eyes burned. She struggled to hold up her leaden eyelids. “But I can’t. There are too many things keeping me here. If you weren’t one of them… it’d be unbearable. Thank you.”

She stifled a yawn, but couldn’t stop herself from letting her eyes close, the world blurring until all of the faded, muted colors in the room bled into the warm, throbbing red-black of light bleeding through her eyelids.

She tried to keep herself awake. She didn’t want to see that thing again, to see its languid, slumbering thoughts within her mind, to feel the pulsing white-noise hum of its ageless intelligence fluttering inside her like a cloud of flies—

She woke up on a beach.

Shinji blinked, looked around, and pulled herself up to her hands and knees, the damp sand gritty and rough against her bare palms. Rivulets of warm water ran down her face and dripped from her sodden, sand-encrusted hair. Her lungs swelled against aching ribs.

A dribble of water ran across her cracked, dry lips; her tongue reflexively darted out to lap it out. She nearly spat it out. It wasn’t salty, like seawater, but coppery—like blood.

The sand was drenched a dull burgundy by the frothy waves pounding against it. The water was red as fresh blood. The push-and-pull hiss of the tide kicked up a hot, metallic spray. Shinji stood up, the edge of the ebbing waves lapping at her feet, her toes curling into the sand. A hot, bitter wind blew ruffled her soaked and matted hair. Her hand pressed against her side, digging into the contours of her aching ribs just under her skin. Radio static filled her head, a thousand indistinct murmurs in a thousand different voices just barely bleeding through the white noise.

She looked down at her hand. There was a bloody hole in the center of her palm, its sides smooth and even, wide enough that she could put a finger through it and ringed by a halo of crusted, dried blood. She couldn’t feel it, but she could see it, and see all the way through it. As she lifted her hand, a ghostly doppelganger of her arm split away from it, rising above her own and tracing the path her own arm took as she slowly swung and twisted her elbow. Ghostly afterimages, each one paler than the last, fanned out in her arm’s wake. She curled her fingers. The fingers of the first ghostly hand folded before the fingers of her real hand, then those of all the afterimages in a dizzying cascade of motion.

She let her hand hang at her side. The first phantom limb anticipated her; her real arm swung neatly into place as preordained. The afterimages folded themselves into her arm in sequence.

Shinji saw something reflected in the ocean’s breaking waves, a gleaming white shape rippling against the ever-shifting tides. It guided her eyes forward and then up, dragging her neck as though there was some magnetic force pulling her along against her will. The static-wreathed voices loudened. Her breath and pulse quickened. She didn’t want to look up. She wanted to close her eyes. But something held her eyelids open and she stared up, unblinking, at the wide-eyed face looming over her, so massive that it filled the horizon, so massive that she couldn’t truly see it at all until she was staring straight at it.

It was an impossibly pale face, skin as white as marshmallows and maggoty in its texture, its alabaster lips slightly parted in a frozen gasp of mild surprise; its eyes were wide in a look of eternal shock, the sclerae perfectly white and the pupils perfectly black and the irises, each one a glittering hoop as large as dinner plates from Shinji’s vantage point, the same blood-red as the ocean. Feathery locks of snow-white hair framed the face and fell over its forehead.

“Rei?” Shinji choked out, her breath catching in her throat. She staggered backward, her feet kicking up clods of wet sand that melted under the constant ebb and flow of the bloody waves, lost her balance, and fell on her back. Her breath was shallow and ragged, her heart pounding and drumming a frantic tempo against her ribs.

A phantom of her hung in the air where she’d once stood and fell into her, its ghostly form sinking into her body. She turned her head, glanced over her shoulder, and saw another ghost scuttling crab-like away from her, a bloodstained and ragged blouse and skirt clinging to her skin. Shinji followed it, repeating its movements exactly, like a puppet pulled along helplessly by its strings. Her fingers burrowed into the wet sand like knives through butter. She pulled herself along until she caught up with the ghostly doppelganger, until the bloody tide no longer lapped at her feet, until the muscles in her legs and arms stung and burned. She caught her breath, panting, her chest aching as the firm, solid sand underneath her pressed uncomfortably against her tender breast.

And yet somehow, the seashore still spread out in front of her, as did Rei’s ghoulish visage. Her hands, each finger curled into clawed talons, hung in the air, one to the east, one to the west, both blotting out the horizon in each direction. In front of her hung nine human-shaped things, suspended in the air far above Shinji—so far away that there were no details she could make out other than that they were all hanging above her with their legs limp and their arms spread out. Veins of amber light trickled across the black sky like frozen, languid lightning.

The water rippled. Something breached the surface, rising slowly amid the waves. A girl Shinji’s age, her back turned to her, the bloody water pouring off her head and cascading down her shoulders and her bare back. Her pale hair was darkened by the water and clung to her head and neck.

The girl slowly turned her head, looking over her shoulder at Shinji with piercing, wide red eyes, and swiveled in place, raising one arm over her chest as though to preserve her modesty. She stood under the cosmic-scale alabaster statue of her own body.

“Rei!” Shinji called out, her voice hoarse. She pulled herself up and took a few hasty, halting steps toward her, splashing in the shallows until she was waist-deep in the bloody ocean.

She froze in place, petrified.

Rei stared at her dispassionately, then began to wade through the water toward her, the waves washing away the ripples in her wake. Froth and spray speckled her face. She followed an arc through the water, splitting into two, then three, then four; seven pale and ghostly images, translucent like Shinji’s own phantoms, spiraled around her, the movements of their ghostly dance as slow and as fluid as the water lapping at their thighs. All of their eyes fixed unmovingly on her.

Shinji’s eyes darted from one phantom to another against her will. Their ghostly bodies flickered, colors bleeding out from their edges like too-thin paint. Their skin grew paler, their bodies thinner, thinner until their bones stood out from their gaunt, emaciated frames. One of the Reis’ head rolled back until her neck split open, revealing the ivory white of her vertebrae embedded in livid flesh. One stumbled as a gash opened up on her thigh and widened until nothing but bare bone held her leg together. As the dancers decayed, they spiraled inward, their crumbling bodies coming closer as they continued their languid dance.

Shinji’s heart beat faster and faster until she could no longer discern one heartbeat from another; her pulse blurred into a single steady wave of pressure engorging her veins. Gray fog began to gather around the corners of her vision as the air filling her lungs grew hot and stale. One of the Reis’ rotting hands reached out for her, a rubbery fingertip brushing against her cheek as the flesh of her fingers sloughed off and the bones splashed into the sea. One by one, each of them fell into the ocean and vanished, whisked away by the current.

She stepped backward, the water sloshing around her waist, her tattered skirt billowing in the shifting tides, and let out a ragged scream with what little breath she had as a bleached skull floated to the surface in front of her and bobbed in the water, pools of blood filling its empty eye sockets and gaping nasal cavity. She fell over, falling into the water up to her chin, the stench of blood clogging her nostrils as she lifted her head and struggled to keep her mouth above the water, her eyes still fixed on the skull.

A pair of hands slid under her armpits, gripped her tightly, and hauled her backward. “Shinko. Shinko, it’s okay. Breathe. I’m here.”

Shinji felt herself being dragged back to the shore, the air cold against her soaked skin and sodden hair, her clothes plastered to her skin. She looked up. Her pulse slowed; her breath came more easily to her, cold air rushing into her lungs.

“I’m here. It’s okay.” Tabby said, a relieved, just-slightly frantic smile brightening his careworn face. He wasn’t wearing a robe anymore; instead, he wore a black and violet plugsuit that clung to his slender body. A black choker circled his neck, nestled just above the collar of the plugsuit. He looked like a pilot. He even had A10 nerve connectors nestled in his silvery hair like gleaming onyx gemstones.

He laid her down on the shore and knelt at her side. “Quite a subconscious you’ve got here,” he gasped, panting with exertion. “It’s okay. You can rest now.” He patted her gently on the cheek with a gloved hand and combed his fingers through her hair. “You can rest now. Go to sleep.”

Shinji lifted her head and sat up. “Tabby…”

The silver-haired boy looked up at the ghoulish statue of Rei hanging over the ocean. His lip curled in a disgusted sneer that didn’t match his friendly face, but only for a second.

“What is that?” Shinji asked, her eyes fixed on the ocean.

“A usurper,” Tabby answered, sounding oddly serious, as he stared at the enormous face looming overhead. He clutched Shinji’s shoulder. “As Jacob stole Esau’s birthright…”

“No, not that.” She pointed at the figure rising from the ocean. “What’s that?”

A cloudy look of befuddlement muddled his expression as his scarlet gaze drifted downward to follow Shinji’s hand.

A figure wreathed in a shimmering white cloak and cowl rose from the ocean, torrents of bloody water spilling over its face. Its cloak rippled and billowed languidly, as though it were underwater; in spite of the ocean it had been submerged in, though, it was bone-dry. Locks of feathery silver hair spilled out from under its hood, framing a stone mask that covered the figure’s face.

The mask was exactly the same as the one affixed to the Second Angel—on its surface where a face would be, an inverted triangle, bisected, with four eyes flanking one side and three on the other.

Tabby’s grip on Shinji’s shoulder tightened as his brows furrowed and his mouth tightened into a grim line. “I don’t know,” he answered, his voice quiet and restrained.