Chapter 13

Rei Ayanami lay unconscious in a hospital bed in the medical wing of Lilin Outpost Zion, an IV tube in her left arm and a pulse-oximeter clipped to her left index finger, a hefty piece of machinery beside the bed measuring the steady rhythm of her heartbeat.

It was the day after the battle, and Dr. Akagi had asked both Shinji and Asuka to come to a briefing in the scientific research and development wing, which shared a hallway with the WILLE's medical wing. As populated as outpost Zion was, it's military arm was vastly dwarfed by its civilian population, and the civilian medical centers were located down below within the secluded pit at the center of the base. As a result, WILLE's science wing and medical wing were rather cramped together to make room for other necessities, such as launch bays and Eva cages.

This turned out to be a good thing, for when Shinji and Asuka both arrived at Ritsuko's lab in R&D, the doctor was nowhere to be found. After a bit of wandering, however, they found her in the medical wing, running some blood tests on Ayanami.

"Sorry I missed you two," she said, as Shinji and Asuka both entered through the doorway, both wearing their WILLE uniforms. "Had to check on Rei."

Ritsuko had dark circles under her eyes, and looked like she hadn't slept in days. She wore a white lab coat over her black tank top, now that her fur parka was no longer a necessity. She held a clipboard in one hand, a pen in the other, and an empty mug of coffee sat on the desk by the monitoring equipment. Numerous hospital beds lined the wall, separated by thin white curtains. The first and foremost was occupied by Ayanami, and there was a familiar looking brunette in a neck brace lying in a bed two rows down.

Asuka decided to go stand by Mari's bed until she was needed. It was not that she cared about Mari's health, she thought to herself, but it certainly beat watching the brat fawn over his NERV clone. Asuka was, however, a bit perplexed at why it had been Dr. Akagi who had called this briefing, and not the Colonel. But she didn't voice her concern. Misato was a busy woman, and Ritsuko was technically second in command for all of WILLE, so as far as she was concerned, she spoke with the Captain's authority.

"How is she?" Shinji asked first thing as he hurried to the uncluttered left side of her bed, concern evident in his voice as his eyes locked with Rei's sleeping form. "Will she be alright?"

Shinji had not slept last night, for fear of what danger Rei might have been in. He had tried to follow along as they had whisked her out of the entry plug and off in a hospital gurney, before he wasn't permitted any further. He had been in such a panic after they had collided with the second Eva Series that he hadn't even noticed Lieutenant Commander Nagara cut his connection and seize control of the Wunder to bring it safely to dock with the base. He had no idea how they had even made it back to the ground in one piece.

All he had been aware of was Rei's tormented, agonized scream.

"She's fine," Ritsuko assured him, distractedly. "More than fine, actually. I suspect she's just sleeping due to exhaustion. All her vitals check out perfectly healthy."

Shinji let out a sigh of relief as he gingerly took her unmoving hand in his. He was still not entirely sure what had happened during the final moments of that battle. He could remember flying upwards towards the descending Eva, firing desperately to take it down, before crashing headlong into it, and then nothing. For some reason, though, he recalled a deep, growling hunger in the pit of his stomach that had arisen in the midst of it all that could not be ignored, even on the battlefield.

After that, all he remembered was Asuka's voice calling out to him, and Rei's sudden scream as she was stricken with pain. He had been nearly inconsolable after the lab technicians had hauled him and Rei out of the entry plug, but no one seemed inclined to inform him of what exactly had gone wrong, or how exactly the battle had ended.

But at least now, he knew Rei would be alright. Shinji squeezed her warm hand in his own as he slowly felt his anxiety subside.

As he began to examine her features more closely, however, he had to rub his eyes to make sure he was seeing things clearly. He couldn't be sure if what he was seeing was just some trick of the light, but the more he gazed upon her, the more he became convinced that something was wrong.

"Dr. Akagi…" he breathed softly, not wanting to interrupt the Doctor as she scrawled some notes on her clipboard. "Does her hair look…darker…to you?"

Ritsuko looked down at her patient and had to agree that, indeed, Rei's hair, normally an obscure sky blue tone, was now more of a deep royal blue. Moreover, her skin tone, normally a pure white alabaster, was now a more natural looking cream color. It was not obvious to the passive observer, but as someone who had spent time with the girl, day in and day out on some occasions, the difference was striking.

She clicked the top of her pen to let the inked ball point slip back into the thin metal shaft.

"That may have something to do with her current condition," the Doctor said, tapping the end of her pen against her lips, clearly longing for a smoke break, but unable to do so in the presence of her patients. "Everything about her vitals suggests that she should have been up and about this morning."

Shinji nodded, clearly not understanding. "So…why isn't she?"

"Allow me to clarify…" Ritsuko cleared her throat. "Rei is as healthy as an ox right now."

Shinji blinked. That was not a term he was accustomed to hearing ascribed to young women, but it still technically counted as good news, didn't it?

"Shinji…" Ritsuko breathed, as if she could not fathom his inability to understand the reality that she had dealt with after years and years of treating and fostering the girl growing up. "When have you ever known Rei to be even remotely vivacious? Her medical records from before Third Impact cut off after a certain point, but according to all of our data, Rei has never been this healthy before."

Shinji's eyes widened. While hearing of Rei's improved health should have been a good thing, the implications that Ritsuko was driving towards could not have been anywhere good.

"It's not just her hair that's changed, Shinji," Ritsuko set her clipboard down on the desk by the heart monitor. "Look at her skin. She used to be bordering on albinism, but now her melanin content is actually approaching healthy levels. And look…"

Ritsuko delicately placed two gloved fingertips on Rei's cheek and eyebrow, stretching her left eyelid open.

Shinji blinked in astonishment.

Her eyes still had their reddish hue, but barely! Her eyes seemed to have darkened into a much less harsh, more natural looking burgundy.

"And these are just the surface changes," Ritsuko stewed as she flipped through her notes. "Her heart rate, blood sugar levels, even her white cell count…everything about her physical health has improved substantially since exiting that entry plug."

Shinji was stared at the girl on the bed, aghast.

"What's this all mean?" he asked, fearfully.

Ritsuko sighed, leaning against the wall and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "I could hazard a guess, but I'd like to examine that core that we retrieved from the first Eva Series that we took down before making up my mind."

Shinji blinked, suddenly lost. "Core?"

Ritsuko nodded. "Our experimental weapon managed to place the Eva into a state of paralysis, much like what happened to Unit 01 when it was struck by the Spear of Cassius. It's core is fully intact, and was extracted sometime early this morning for study and, hopefully, for use in powering our existing Eva unit, once it becomes operational."

Shinji heard Asuka scoff at that, but she otherwise said nothing.

"You extracted it's core to power Unit 02?" Shinji asked, dumbly. "Why not just…keep the entire Eva as it is? Let one of us pilot it?"

"That might work if that unit's entry plug wasn't fused into its socket," Ritsuko sighed. "Its plunged so far down into plug depth that we have no means of getting it back out again without tearing the Evas spinal column apart - a task which we have neither the time nor the hardware to do. Besides, we have no idea what this Eva is capable of, or what traps or pitfalls NERV may have placed inside its body for us to stumble upon. No, I'd rather stick with the devil we know than the devil we don't. Though we are of course going to be using it for parts."

Shinji nodded. "Ok, so…what does this thing's core have to do with Ayanami?"

Ritsuko frowned, giving him a quizzical look. "You really don't remember?"

"Remember what!?" Shinji demanded in frustration. "No one will tell me anything about what happened!"

Ritsuko rubbed her eyes. "Shinji…while I doubt this was a conscious effort on your part…you and Rei seem to have awakened yet another ability in the Wunder. This ability, however, is much more troubling than the others, and could pose a significant risk if left unchecked."

"What?" Shinji gripped the rails on Rei's bed tightly. "What ability?"

Ritsuko looked like she could really, really use a cigarette right at that moment.

"Shinji…" she breathed. "The Wunder…opened its mouth. And it…ate…the other Eva."

Shinji's eyes widened. "Wh…what…?"

The Doctor sighed. "Just as you've given the Wunder wings to fly and eyes to pierce the heavens, you have also given the Wunder a mouth with which it may consume the flesh of an Angel, and, more importantly, its S2 device."

Shinji reached behind himself for one of the plastic hospital chairs and fell back into it awkwardly.

"It…ate…the Eva…?" he asked aloud in disbelief.

Ritsuko nodded. "We ran diagnostics on the Wunder's core after the incident. There were no operational anomalies, however we did find it to be about twelve percent denser than it had been originally."

She stood from the wall and leaned over Rei's bed, gripping the bars opposite Shinji to peer at him.

"Twelve percent, Shinji," she repeated. "The Wunder's core is larger than an Angel's or an Evas to be sure, but not by all that much. The addition of an entirely new S2 device into the ship's core should have had a much more prominent effect on it. Which begs the question…where did the remainder of the core material end up? And perhaps, just as important…what happened to the dummy plug that was inside this second Eva Series?"

Shinji's eyes fell on Rei once more, and a whole new kind of fear overtook him.

"You know that the Ayanami Types are the primary platforms for the dummy plugs, Shinji…" Ritsuko confirmed, not phrasing it as a question.

"No…" he breathed in disbelief, not phrasing it as an answer.

Ritsuko closed her eyes. "The Wunder absorbed the Evas core, as well as the Ayanami Type at its helm, and in doing so, I believe it deposited whatever primal essence it was able to extract from the plug into the entry plug of Unit 01, where it reacted and fused with the Ayanami Type presently there, much the way Rei Q had."

"No…" Shinji muttered in disbelief.

"Well, that's the theory," Ritsuko said, dismissively. "It would go a long way towards explaining her physical differences and her improved health. If she now possesses the vital essence of two or more individuals, then it stands to reason that she'd be healthier than before. Until we know otherwise, we are classifying this one as Rei″."

Shinji shot to his feet, sending the plastic chair he was sitting in tumbling backwards.

"No!" he shouted, his voice echoing out into the hallways. "That's enough! Haven't you toyed with her life enough already!?"

Asuka cast an odd glance in his direction, but otherwise said nothing.

Ritsuko seemed unaffected. "WILLE didn't do this to her, Shinji…the two of you did this yourselves."

Shinji's head sunk into his hands and he grimaced in frustration.

"We wouldn't have even been out there if you didn't need us to pilot the Wunder for you…"

Ritsuko's brow furrowed. "Shinji…how long are you going to keep hiding behind that excuse?"

The boy's face was still hidden in his hands. "Her name is just Ayanami. Not Prime, not Double Prime…just Rei Ayanami!"

Tears rolled down his cheeks as his voice broke down into sobs.

"She has every right to happiness that we do!" he declared tearfully. "And she doesn't deserve to be treated like this!"

Ritsuko's face softened.

"Listen," she said gently. "You and Rei did a good thing out there. Thanks to your quick action, almost five hundred thousand souls made it out of yesterday's battle alive and unharmed. Those five hundred thousand people down there beneath your feet represent about three quarters of mankind as we know it! There might be other pockets of refugees out there, but as far as we know, this is it. Make no mistake, Shinji…the two of you just saved humanity. You two are heroes."

Shinji still would not look at her face. And from the sound of his breathing, he was still crying.

Ritsuko let out a forlorn sigh.

In truth, her thoughts were on someone else entirely.

"But heroism, unfortunately, often comes at a price."

The Wunder was equipped with quarters for all crew on board, though some were more spacious than others. The lower ranking crew members had to share bunks in a common sleeping area, those higher ranking staff, such as the pilots, got small, cramped individual bunks, and the senior officers got much more spacious quarters. The Captain's quarters was the nicest of all, but it was still limited by the bounds of practicality of what could be taken aboard a ship.

This was not the case for the Captain's quarters within WILLE's home base, however. The entire top level of Outpost Zion was devoted to senior officers, from meeting areas and war rooms to personal quarters for whenever the senior staff took shore leave. And the Captain's quarters was the most elegant of all. Misato had the entire room designed after a traditional Japanese stateroom, a testament to the culture of a homeland that had been utterly erased by war. Tatami floor mats lay underfoot and rice paper window panes overlooking the skyline, all bordered by lacquered red hardwood.

Various paintings, calligraphy and other Japanese artwork lined the walls, including a number of poems by distinguished warriors from ancient eras. A bedchamber with a single white floor mattress was sectioned off by a sliding wood and rice paper door, while the sitting room contained a single low wooden table, surrounded by four soft, white floor cushions. Other shelves and bookcases lay throughout the room, and all of it in the same red lacquered hardwood. Contrary to her previous life, Misato kept the room spotless and uncluttered, though this may have been due to the fact that she was almost never there.

Today, however, was an exception.

"I can't even trust my own God-damned ship anymore! How am I supposed to trust you!?"

Voices echoed in the back of her mind as Misato let the door hiss shut behind her as she entered her quarters. The sliding mechanical door was the only evidence of technology and the world outside, and even that was covered by a rice paper wall mount, providing the illusion of it blending into the surrounding furnishings. She let out a breath, shuddering as she slipped her jacket and cap off, letting them fall to the floor.

"Everything I did, I did because you were too stubborn to see it! You're slipping, Misato!"

She sat down on one of the floor mats, resting her body across the hardwood table, her chin resting on her arms. Her Captain's effects lay beside her, leaving only her black turtleneck and pants, a far more conservative outfit than what she would have worn back in the glory days. Though the fact that her time with NERV could even be considered 'glory days' by comparison was testament to just how far they all had fallen.

"How long? How long have you been going behind my back, Ritsuko?"

"You know exactly how long! Ever since that boy came aboard, you've been completely irrational! All your fear and your hatred is throwing you off!"

Misato pushed herself towards one of the cabinets by the wall and opened it, sifting through books and stationary, until she found a hidden panel at the back that opened up a secret compartment. Popping it open, she reached into it to withdraw a heavy glass bottle filled with a deep, amber liquor.

"Damn it, I trusted you! How could you do this to me!?"

"Do you think I wanted it to be this way!? Do you think I had any other choice? You're my best friend, Misato! But your actions have put your entire crew at risk! I couldn't watch you turn into one of the very monsters that you were trying to destroy! You'rebetter than this, Misato!"

Crawling her way back to the table, bottle in one hand and white porcelain glass in the other, Misato set her findings on the small table, and with shivering hands, poured the contents of one into the other.

Ritsuko had stepped out of the medical wing and back to her lab, leaving the two pilots alone with their bedridden companions. Rei was still sleeping, though Mari had awoken shortly after the Doctor had left, and was immediately full of her usual pep.

"Pfft, this thing?" she smiled, gesturing to the brace around her neck after Shinji inquired after it. "They just slapped this on me as a precaution. I'll be up and about in no time!"

Shinji sat back in this plastic hospital chair, looking slightly relieved. Asuka was still standing and leaning against the wall behind him, arms crossed, her one eye closed in contemplation.

"I'm so glad!" Shinji sighed sincerely. "When I saw how banged up your pod got, I thought you were a goner!"

"You worry too much, Puppy-Boy!" Mari quipped, pointing at his lip. "You got more banged up from a bunch of thugs in the hallway than I did out there on the battlefield!"

Shinji touched the scar on his lower lip and shuddered at the memory. It still stung a little. He supposed the mark was just something that he would have to get used to. Just like his choker.

"You sure you're alright?" he asked, sympathetically.

"Sure I am!" She crowed, flexing her arm and holding it with the other. "A little joyride like that's not gonna take me down! I'm a tough ol' girl!"

"Not to mention sneaky," Asuka chimed in sardonically.

Shinji gave Asuka a wounded look. But Mari just smiled and shrugged.

"There you go again, Princess," she sighed wistfully. "Just got to ruin the mood."

"Whatever," Asuka opened her good eye. "I'm tired of playing games with you."

She stood up from the wall, taking a few steps towards the bed.

"You break a high security prisoner out of her cell one day, and not a week later, you're back out on the battlefield! Who do you know that's got that kind of pull!?"

Mari put on an innocent smile. "Whatever do you mean, Princess? Perhaps you've forgotten about the shock collar around my neck? It's still on, underneath this neck brace, y'know?"

Asuka's expression darkened. "Oh, I haven't forgotten. In fact, it's about to get me some answers."

She reached into her pocket, and withdrew the DSS trigger that the Captain had given her. In all the confusion that had transpired since then, no one had thought to take it from her.

Shinji reeled at the sight.

"Asuka!" he shouted in alarm, sitting up in his chair, eyes wide from fear and recognition.

"Relax, brat," Asuka placated him in a reprimanding tone. "It's just an electrical shock. It won't kill her."

"No, but it'll hurt," Mari pouted childishly at the other girl. "You wouldn't hurt someone who's been injured now, would you?"

"Cut the crap!" Asuka blared. "I want to know who you're working with! How do you manage to hack into the Wunder's security protocols and let that NERV clone into the core?"

Asuka gestured to Rei's sleeping form to indicate her point.

"How do you second guess WILLE's number one leading scientific mind? How do you second guess the Captain!? And then, how do you manage to finagle your way out of your cell, having given absolutely no information in exchange!? Who exactly are you fucking around here?"

Mari snorted back a laugh at that last part.

"Seriously, Princess?" she smirked derisively. "You think I'm gaming the system somehow? Here I thought the Puppy-Boy was the naive one, but you really have no idea how this all works, do you?"

Asuka pointed the DSS trigger in her hand at Mari, a dangerous look on her face.

"I'm going to give one…last…chance…" she said, menacingly. "Who…are you working for? I want a name."

Mari's expression was serious now. She had been sitting up in her bed, and she leaned forward now to peer back into Asuka's good eye.

"Have you considered…" Mari said, "That the only reason I haven't told you is because I don't need to tell you?"

Asuka's grip on the trigger tightened, but she did not press the switch. Though her teeth were gritted, a heated growl emanating from low in her throat, and her fury written plain and simply on her face, she still did not press the switch.

"Make your threats, Princess," Mari said defiantly. "Lash out as much as you want. It won't get you anything. I've already told you everything you need to know."

Asuka's eye-patch flared an angry blue, and she raised the trigger as if to physically strike the other pilot with it.

"Asuka…" Shinji breathed, helplessly.

Asuka face was red with rage as her thumb hovered over the button.

She wanted to do it. She really wanted to put the other girl in her place. It would be so satisfying. But it would also be far too cruel for her tastes. As aggravating as Mari could be, as much of a duplicitous and manipulative bitch she could be, she was still a fellow pilot of WILLE. Whatever was going on around here was well above her pay grade, and while she knew for a certainty that Mari was meddling in affairs that ought not to be meddled in, she did not honestly believe she had turned against them, despite Asuka's accusations. A troublemaker was one thing, but a traitor she was not.

Asuka grunted in anger as she turned and chucked the trigger against the wall, letting it bounce and clatter to the floor, spinning in a circle until it rested on the linoleum.

"Damn it…" she muttered to herself, looking away in frustration and anger.

Mari blinked in surprise, narrowing her eyes to peer more closely at her fellow pilot.

"You really can't do it, can you?" she breathed, as if she had honestly expected otherwise.

Asuka snorted, still looking away.

"It's not worth it…" she muttered, grumpily.

Mari let an uncertain smile creep to her face. "Heh…there really is a human soul under all that posturing."

"Fuck you, Four-Eyes!" Asuka wrinkled her nose.

"Love you too, Princess," Mari smirked. The usual snark was back.

"Pfft!" Asuka snorted, turning to walk away. "I've had enough of this."

She got precisely two steps before Mari stopped her.

"Wait," she called out, sounding serious again. "Who do you think I'm working with?"

Asuka didn't turn around, but she did stop and shrug her shoulders.

"Hell if I know."

Mari shrugged her shoulders. "Well…who had access all those security protocols? Who already knew everything that I was telling you? Who had the authority to let me out of my cell with little more than a slap on the wrist? Besides the Captain, who else isthere?

Asuka's frown deepened. "I know exactly who you're implying, Four-Eyes. And I don't like it."

Mari shrugged. "Ask her yourself. We staged a lot of it to make it look like it was happening naturally. Only way to convince the Captain, she said. She even asked me to babysit Puppy-Boy here."

She threw a wink at Shinji, whose confused face could only stare back in shock.

"Sorry if you were getting ideas, short stuff," she smiled apologetically. "But you're not really my type."

Shinji's expression went from shocked to hurt.


Asuka scowled. As was the nature of such things, knowing the truth did not make the situation any better. If anything, it made things much, much worse.

"I'm calling this in," she grunted, pulling her radio from her belt and lifting it to her ear. "Captain, this is Shikinami. Come in please."

Mari shrugged her shoulders. "It's not going to make a difference, Princess."

Asuka ignored her. "Captain, this is Shikinami! Do you read?"

A voice finally broke in on the other line. "Captain Shikinami? This is Lieutenant Commander Nagara."

"Nagara?" Asuka blinked in surprise. "Where's the Captain?"

"She's retired to her quarters, ma'am," Nagara responded, sounding helpless.

"Doesn't her radio also pick up in her quarters?" Asuka asked, suspiciously.

"On the ship, it does," Nagara replied. "But not her quarters on the base. That's where she is now."

"The Captain left the ship?" Asuka demanded, dumbfounded.

"I'm afraid so, ma'am," Nagara said. "She left me in charge until she got back."

Asuka threw a glance at Mari, who was only offering a catlike smile back at her, while Shinji hung his head, still reeling from the news.

She snorted. She wouldn't be getting anything else from these two.

"Roger that, Lieutenant Commander," she sighed in resignation. "I'll go find her. Shikinami out."

After an elevator ride to the top floor of the facility, Asuka knocked on the door to the Captain's quarters atop Lilin Outpost Zion.

"Colonel?" she called out.

There was no answer.

"Colonel?" she called again, knocking several more times.

There was the sound of some shuffling behind the door, and some muffled vocalization before Asuka finally heard a voice.

"Mmm…what is it, Captain?"

Asuka paused. There was something off about the Captain's voice.

"Is everything alright in there?" she asked, sounding concerned.

There was another pause.

"Of course," Misato's muffled voice said. "Is there something you need?"

Maybe it was the sound of her voice through the door, or the pauses between each thought, but something about this Misato struck an eerily familiar chord in Asuka's memory.

"Colonel," she called out, hesitantly. "I'm asking this out of honest concern and with all possible respect, but…are you drunk?"

"What?" the Captain replied, her voice an octave higher than it should have been. "No!"

Asuka gritted her teeth. The Captain had quit drinking a long time ago. In her previous life, she had descended into alcoholism shortly after Third Impact, but the call of duty (and the world's dwindling supply of the substance) mandated that she quit cold turkey. It had been a rough transition, and Asuka and the other survivors of NERV had vivid memories of just how difficult it had been. That had been more than ten years ago.

"Colonel, I'm coming in!" Asuka announced, thumbing the door switch.

Misato's fumbled response came a second too late.

"No, don't-!"

She trailed off when the door hissed open and Asuka stood in the doorway, staring in disbelief at the sight she beheld. Misato was slouching over the small wooden table in the center of the room, a bottle of whiskey sitting half empty on the table, more than a bit of it spilled on the hardwood surface. Her jacket and cap, as well as her turtleneck littered the floor, leaving her in a tank top. Her hair had been let down, and her face was red and covered in sweat, her eyes bloodshot and blurry.

Asuka could not believe what she was seeing.

"Colonel…" she breathed in a crestfallen tone.

Misato glared back at her, before turning her face away in shame.

"I should court-martial you for this…"

Asuka hurried into the room, closing the door quickly behind her.

"Colonel, what are you doing!?" she demanded in exasperation. "What are you drinking!? Where did you even get that!?"

Misato glanced at the bottle of whiskey on the table, studying it diligently. Luxury items, such as spirits, had become a rare commodity over the course of humanity's abrupt decline. There were undoubtedly countless reserves still left untouched throughout the world, but recovering refugees and vital supplies had always come before such frivolous things. The result being that, apart from imitation coffee, which had been fabricated along with most other nutrient pastes, the vast majority of luxury items were practically nonexistent within WILLE, although Dr. Akagi's cigarettes seemed to be the exception. Asuka was convinced the Doctor had been growing her own tobacco in a hydroponic facility somewhere.

"Squirreled it away," Misato responded, not really explaining. "Promised myself I would break it open to on the day we won this war. But now seems like as good a time as any."

"Colonel…" Asuka said, mouth hanging open in pity and disbelief. "What's going on?"

Misato took another sip from her ceramic glass, looking at something on the wall past Asuka.

"Why don't you tell me what you came here to report, Asuka."

Asuka hesitated. Her Captain was surely not in the right state of mind to hear what she had to say.

"I…think now isn't such a good time," she said, warily.

Misato slammed her glass on the table with a clunk, the table and bottle rattling from the impact.

"Report, Captain!"

"Ma'am!" Asuka stood up straight, responding almost automatically to her years of training. "I believe Doctor Akagi is Mari's accomplice!"

Misato seemed amused by that, and leaned on her hand, elbow on the table, while she sipped from her glass, staring wistfully out the window.

"Well…" she sighed in a gentle, breathy voice that hinted none of the betrayal she felt inside. "Imagine that…"

Asuka suddenly realized just why her Captain was in such a sorry state.

"You know!?"

Misato threw her an annoyed look.

"I'm not an idiot, Asuka," she snorted in irritation. "I put it together easily enough!"

Asuka knew she was staring, but she doubted Misato was aware of it. Her faith was crumbling by the moment. Was this how the Captain of WILLE responded to betrayal?

"Well…" she muttered, still looking for a silver lining to all this. "What are you going to do about it?"

Misato let out a pained, helpless laugh as she looked up at the ceiling.

"What would you propose I do, Asuka?" she demanded, throwing her arms out wide. "Keep our best scientist and one of our only viable pilots locked in the brig?"

She laughed again, and placed a hand over her forehead, leaning forward on the table.

"Besides," she breathed, her words barely audible, "She was right the whole damn time!"

Asuka leaned forward to hear.

"What do you mean?"

Misato shook her head, her face still hidden behind her hand.

"If I had my way, Asuka, Shinji would be back in his cell right now," Misato sighed in shame. "But not only do we need him in the pilot seat, but Ritsuko saw it right away! It was her idea to put him and Rei in the same entry plug! Hell, if it hadn't been for her, the we would have been torn apart by the Nemesis Series! It was her idea to meld the two Evas, her idea to put you and Mari in the same cockpit, and her idea to deploy the two of you in that last battle! Every twist and turn that caught me unaware since you got back, and she's caught every single damn one of them!"

Misato face was drawn with sweat as she listed off her list of perceived shortcomings with increasing agitation, before grabbing the glass on the table and downing its contents.

"If I had trusted my gut, we'd be at the bottom of the ocean right now!" she coughed and sputtered. "I fought tooth and nail against every idea she's put forward since then, and I've been wrong about every last one of them! These are decisions that would have the difference between life and death, and I've been off on all of them!"

She shook her head in disbelief, out of breath.

"Ritsuko saw the clear path from A to Z without all that baggage weighing her down!" she groaned. "One of the perks of being scientifically impartial, I guess…"

Asuka couldn't believe what she was hearing! Was the Captain actually ceding to Dr. Akagi and Mari's opposition!?

"Colonel!" she blurted, flabbergasted. "Right or wrong, she…she still went behind your back! She and Four-Eyes conspired to commit treason!"

"It's not treason when your Captain's not fit for duty," Misato huffed, bitterly.

Asuka shook her head, every fiber of her being rejecting what she was hearing.

"Colonel…" she breathed. "Your current state aside…you're the most capable person I know! If it wasn't for your decision to employ that experimental weapon, there's no way we would have won that last battle."

"And look how well that turned out," Misato laughed, setting her glass down, sending it sliding across the table. "I'd tell you not to sugarcoat it, Asuka, but I know exactly how capable I am."

She leaned back on her arms, staring at the ceiling.

"The truth is, if I was at my best, I would have jumped through every single one of those hoops with ease," she admitted.

She sat forward again, resting forward on both arms.

"But I wasn't thinking in the here and now," she groaned, laying her chin on her arms. "I've been reliving Third Impact since the day he showed up. I was making crucial decisions for the future of WILLE and humanity based on fourteen years of fear and torment. Ritsuko's capable of looking past all that. I'm not."

Asuka's good eye was a tiny dot at the center of a sea of white.

"Colonel…" she breathed in disbelief. "What are you saying?"

"I already told you, Asuka," Misato thrust her chin out. "I'm not fit for duty."

She sat upright, folding her arms together and stared down at her table and the bottle that sat upon it, watching her past slowly devouring her world until there was nothing left of it but a cold, clammy lump in her throat.

"I'm stepping down from my position as commander of WILLE."

To be continued…

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