Ascension of the Lamb
EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 34: Jonah's Ordeal / She said: "Don't Make Others Suffer For Your Personal Hatred" 2

     "Sir!  We just lost the Sixth Child's ego-border!  No reading!  She's...she's gone!"
     "What do you mean, gone?"
     "Look!"
     The scene many recognized.  It had happened to Shinji.  But then, his ego-border, the part of him that defined the very outline of his body and the presence of his soul, was still recognizable by NERV's sophisticated array of instruments.
     Hikari's plug suit, still bright red even in the confines of the dim entry plug, was empty.  Her interface clips floated lazily in the still LCL.
     Hikari had disappeared.  And not just her body.  There was no trace of the ego-border anywhere in the plug.  Or in the Eva.
     Unit-15, already on hands and knees, slumped and fell prostrate on the shore of the Sea of Dirac.

     Asuka blinked, rubbing her watering and blinded eyes.  The Angel had, for a scant few seconds, become brighter than any artificial light source she'd ever seen.  She squeezed out the burning pain, blinked twice more, and readied her Eva in case the Angel was preparing to attack them.
     Ahead, there was only the dark expanse of the Sea of Dirac, into which some structures were still slowly sinking.  But the Angel that had generated the black circle had disappeared.  Unbelieving, she scanned the skies, looking for any indication of her enemy.  Not finding any, she remembered the 12th Angel's ability to move the Sea of Dirac wherever it chose, and checked the streets for excess shadows that might have threatened her.
     The pattern indicators that marked the Angel's position had disappeared from her HUD.  Only those marking the other Evas were still active, and the ones delineating the danger zone around the dark purple Sea.
     Still not finding anything, she became suddenly even more worried.  Shinji, too, hadn't said anything for a while.  Obviously, he could still remember what had happened when he and Unit-01 had both been swallowed by the same physical irregularity.
     Touji muttered something under his breath, watching the uppermost antennae and towers of the remaining skyscrapers disappear into the black void.  Kensuke watched silently, marvelling at the Angel's strange ability.
     "Hikari?" she whispered.
     There was no response.
     "Hikari?"  She activated the visual link to her friend's entry plug, hoping she was just unconscious.
     The tiny orange box expanded from a point, giving her a clear view of...nothing.  She supposed Hikari just wasn't looking up at the moment.
     "Hikari?"
     Fuyutsuki's somber face appeared next to it, floating among the collection of faces that represented the links she had to the other Evas.
     "Sir?" she asked, drawn momentarily away from the holograph that still failed to convince her Hikari was okay.
     "You are to maintain your current positions.  Shut down your Evangelions and eject your entry plugs.  Stand by for further instructions."  He winked out of existence.  Kensuke followed, obeying the orders immediately.  An entry plug emerged from Unit-16's back.
     Not wanting to leave until she was sure Hikari was safe, Asuka expanded the open communications window until it would give her a full view of Unit-15's entry plug.
     An empty red plug suit floated across the camera's line of sight.

     "Holy shit.  Can she scream or what?"  Dr. Robertson looked up momentarily from his computer station to look at the rest of the bridge crew, most of whom were holding their ears.
     "Oh, shut up," muttered Shigeru to his co-worker.
     Fuyutsuki had disappeared from his place atop the command tower, leaving Shigeru in command of what was essentially a very difficult situation.  At the moment, though, he didn't feel in control at all.  Desaint had been watching, as he always did, and right now, the last thing he needed was to have to explain Hikari's situation to the U.N. toady.
     "I don't understand," Desaint protested, "how could she just have disappeared?"
     Shigeru referred him to Dr. Robertson.

* * *

     "Asuka?"  Shinji stood somewhat precariously balanced on the edge of Unit-02's neck, one foot on the armour plate that normally covered the entry plug's insertion point.  His other rested on the entry plug itself, and he was supporting himself on the plug with both hands, so as not to lose his balance.
     He knocked a second time, and was gratified to feel the locking mechanism vibrate under his fingers before the hatch slid upwards.  "Asuka?" he asked again, staring at her immobile figure draped over the steel monticule between her legs.
     It didn't look like she was going to move, so, after a momentary hesitation, he hoisted himself up over the lip of the plug and managed to secure a foothold on the lower half of the command chair.
     Climbing up to her hadn't been that difficult.  After ejecting himself from Unit-01, he'd realized she hadn't come out of her plug yet.  But then, he could understand that, given what had just...happened...to her best friend.  It was fairly easy to scramble up the kneeling Unit-02's shoulder, as the two Evas were crushed together in the narrow street.  Unit-01 was positioned in such a way that Shinji had been able to climb from its shoulder directly onto the heavy armour that protected the other Eva's back.  It was then a simple matter to reach the protruding entry plug.
     He began to call out to her a third time, when she finally moved, her arms coming up to her knees.
     "Are you..."
     Asuka cut him off, her voice somewhere between angered and sobbing, her eyes flashing at him as she reared back upright.  "Of course I'm okay, dammit!  What about Hikari?"
     Shinji was somewhat taken aback by this outburst, but he decided it would be wrong to let down now and leave her alone.  He took a moment to evaluate where he was standing in her entry plug, and half-crawled, half-climbed the rest of the way up to her.
     Her fists tightened again, and she curled up.
     "I'm sorry," he said, kneeling at her feet, "I know what happened...I...just wanted to know if you were..."  Words failed him, and he found it surprisingly easy to reach out to her and enfold the heavy switch of the plug suit at her wrist with his hand.  Slowly, her fist relaxed, the fingers uncoiling and opening.
     Very gradually, the rest of her body followed suit, and she leaned back into the chair.  Shinji watched as she brought her hands up to her face, holding it as she recomposed herself.
     The second she'd begun screaming, he'd known something had to have gone horribly wrong.  She wouldn't answer anyone.  Finally, Touji and Shinji had caught something about their class rep, and had immediately re-established the missing communications link.  Things became painfully clear immediately thereafter.
     "I'm sorry," he repeated, waiting.
     "Shinji?" she said, still holding her hands over her eyes, "Come here, will you?"
     Shinji frowned, uncomprehending.  "I'm...right here."
     "Baka," she muttered, then leaned forwards, wrapping herself around him.  Her voice dropped to a whisper before she continued.  "This happened to you, didn't it?"
     He nodded, putting his own arms around her.
     Asuka had to debate with herself about asking his opinion.  Because she still didn't know how he felt about his own ordeal in Unit-01's entry plug.
     "If it's not too much to ask...could you tell me what it was like?  Do you think she's all right...like that?"

* * *

     Already, the morning was starting to take a toll on Dr. Robertson.  He'd hit another snag putting together the 666 firewall; it was much more complicated than he'd thought.  Then the Angel had shown up.  Finally, Shigeru just had to delegate the task of explaining souls to Desaint to him.
     "Mr. Desaint: do you believe you have a soul? Un esprit?" he said, switching to the Inspector's native language from Japanese.
     "Je ne sais que croire à ce sujet."  The rest of the conversation was to continue in French, obviously Desaint's language of preference.  "I don't know what to think."
     "Start believing, then.  We all do.  At least, most of us."  He glared at Shigeru, who glared back, hoping that they weren't talking about him.  "Our bodies, as complicated and carefully evolved as they are, require the existence of a soul to maintain even the most basic cell structure.  Without it, we are nothing more than a simple hydro-carbon based liquid, into which a large quantities of simple amino acids and organic compounds are dissolved.  Essentially, we are composed of LCL, primordial soup."
     Desaint looked bewildered.  It was hard not to, having just learned that everything he'd learnt about biology, ever, was now bunk.  "LCL?  But...isn't that the liquid the Children use to breathe in the entry plugs?"
     Dr. Robertson shrugged, and continued.  "That's what I said.  Or did you get all of that?"
     "I did."
     "Good for you.  We've dubbed the spirit-generated force that holds us together the 'ego-border'.  It defines our bodies, and keeps us in one piece.  What you are looking at now," he said, gesturing towards the main screen on the far wall, "is what happens when that barrier is fractured, when it comes down."  He decided it would not be good to bring Third Impact into the discussion.  "What has happened to the Sixth Child is that her corporeal form has been returned to the most primitive state of life."
     Desaint looked a little horrified.  "Then she is dead?"
     "Not so," said Dr. Robertson, sorting through the stack of interface boards near him.  "Her soul...simply hasn't reappeared yet.  It's not in the Eva or the entry plug, as far as we can tell.  The MAGI are trying to locate it.  When we find her, we still have a chance at bringing her back."  Again, it wouldn't be good to explain that this had already happened twice before, both times to members of the Ikari family.  Especially not to the Inspector, as his job was to examine irregularities in NERV's operations and report them back to NERV's new primary funder, the United Nations and its member states.
     "How, then?"
     Dr. Robertson had already begun typing, running a large number of queries past the MAGI.  "It's complicated.  If we can find her.  Her soul can survive.  Her body is fine the way it is, as LCL.  It's just a matter of putting them together."
     Desaint didn't look too convinced it was possible, and turned back for another look at the main screen, where Hikari's neural clips had settled on the command chair, on top of her crumpled plug suit.

* * *

     Kensuke leaned back against the chair sitting in the entry plug, putting his hands behind his head.  It hadn't been long since the Angel had disappeared, and he discovered that he was frustrated at not being able to fight it.  The only indicator it had ever come was the massive circular pool of bottomless black at his Eva's feet.

* * *

     I feel...much better.  It doesn't hurt anymore.
     Wow.
     Where am I?

* * *

     Shinji and Asuka had long since left the damp, slippery and cramped confines of the entry plug's command chair, opting instead to sit against the entry plug where it protruded from the armour around the Eva's neck.
     Asuka had managed to pull herself back together, but was still mostly silent as Shinji tried to remember what had happened to him before, after the 14th Angel.  So far, he'd gotten as far as riding the launch shaft with the Angel up into the geofront, Unit-01 lacking an arm.
     After that, in his rage, he wasn't sure what he had done to the Angel.  He knew he hadn't killed it by the time his Eva's battery, as it was then, had run down.  He remembered a strange feeling...like his body had suddenly but slowly disappeared, like he was becoming nothing, fading away.  It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, he thought.  Rather peaceful, really.  Come to think of it, though...it was actually very pleasant.  He might not have left.
     Now, he thought, looking at Asuka, there was every reason to want to live in the real world.  Surely, Hikari would find it easier than he did.  She seemed quite happy with her life the way it was.
     He smiled at the thought, knowing Asuka would find it comforting.  "Yeah...I think she'll be okay..," he said, as she turned to return his gaze.
     "You think so?"  For the first time, he noticed the dry trails that marked her cheeks.  The light was different here.  At first, he might have dismissed them as LCL drying against her skin, but he realized she must have been crying for her friend.  Again, it was that oft-hidden aspect of her he enjoyed the most.
     Reaching up, he rubbed at them gently with the thumb of his plugsuit, trying to erase them.  "What are you..," she protested, catching his wrist, before understanding what it was he was doing.
     After a moment's pause, she dropped her hand into her lap.  "So...what was it like, then?"
     Shinji brought his arm back to his side, and tried his best to explain.

* * *

     Momentarily, Hikari thought her eyes must have been getting used to the bland, textureless white field around her.  Not understanding was starting to frustrate her.  At least now, she thought, she could see.
     When the last of the white fog cleared away, she realized that she was staring out onto a field of buildings...buildings which seemed very much like those of Tokyo-3.  Only...they were the same featureless white as everything else: the sky, the air, the...groun...
     She suddenly realized she wasn't standing on anything that she could see, and screamed in fear.  Only the steady rush of wind past her ears answered.
     Another burst of cloud whipped noisily around her, enveloping her momentarily in a fog.  Yet, like everything else, it was strange.  It was cold, like fog, but it wasn't humid...and the cold seemed...less physical than normal.
     Instead, it was like her entire body suddenly became ice and thawed instantaneously.
     What...was that?  Where am I?
     She decided the only logical thing to do would be to backtrack through her memories to determine exactly how she'd gotten here.  Although she didn't appear to be standing on anything, it wasn't like she was falling anywhere.  It was strange, almost like there was no gravity, and yet, she didn't feel like anything was any different.  Her arms, though relaxed, hung at her sides, and still felt like they were being pulled slightly downwards.
     The mist dissipated again, and, as before, she was staring out onto the field of buildings.  Some of them were tilted at strange angles, but the vast majority of them appeared to be standing straight.  Even if they, like her, were standing on nothing, just some kind of invisible barrier.
     After collecting herself, she returned to sorting out her memories.  First of all, school.
     She could remember her little conversation with Suzuhara.  Vividly, even.  He had been sitting cross-legged on his desk, like he did when there was nothing better to do.  Apparently, he was a little upset that his sister had decided to walk to school alone, without him.  He'd also said that Mari -- that must be the name of his sister, she thought -- had made him his lunch today.
     She'd still had her headache, then.
     There was a gap there, but that was acceptable, seeing as how she'd been unconscious.  Just before her cell phone rang to warn her of the Angel, she'd woken up in the infirmary.  Obviously, someone had carried her there.
     Still, though, she was in enough pain that Asuka actually had to help her get into the plug suit.  She hated that plug suit.
     Coincidentally, she thought, looking down at herself, am I...?
     Modesty forbade her to allow this to pass without further panic.  Immediately after discovering she was completely naked, she covered herself with her hands and sat down hurriedly on the invisible surface, trying to hide as much as possible.  It didn't matter that this was the strangest place she'd ever been in, the rules of discretion still applied.  Besides, anyone could have been watching.
     After recovering from this most recent shock, she went back to her memories, searching around herself warily with her eyes.  From the Eva...her headache had gotten worse, then, all of a sudden, there was an odd sensation of her skin crawling...and she'd shown up here.
     Darn...

* * *

     Dr. Robertson threw down the interface board in frustration.  "It's as we thought.  She could very well be beyond the Sea of Dirac.  Getting her back is going to be a whole lot more difficult than anticipated.  I doubt it will be possible at all.  An act of God, really.  And there's not a whole lot we can do."
     Fuyutsuki reappeared on the bridge, the elevator platform rising out of the floor behind them.  "We will move the priority of the operation back to destroying the Angel, then.  I believe we still have enough data from the last event of this kind and this one."
     Dr. Robertson nodded.  "I concur."
     Shigeru frowned.  "But sir, what about the Sixth Child?"
     "As I believe Dr. Robertson stated, recovering her would be more or less an act of God.  The probability that her soul can be extracted from the Sea with the resources we have available is virtually nil.  We cannot worry about what we have lost at this point, only what we have to lose."
     On that, Fuyutsuki turned, and left.
     Shirgeru stared, perplexed.  This was not the Fuyutsuki he was used to.  He'd always believed his Commander had a soft spot for the pilots and his subordinates.  It seemed almost like he was acting like...Commander Ikari.  It didn't seem right.

* * *

     Somewhere in the sunlit streets of Tokyo-3, a massive shadow cast its darkness over the boy who had just kicked his Eva.  The massive black monster did not move or react, nor did he expect it to.  It just remained kneeling on the pavement, its head bowed, the entry plug sticking out of its neck at a shallow angle.
     "Damn!" he shouted at it.  "God damn you, you stinking piece of shit!"
     He picked up a rectangular metal bar of moderate length, testing it for weight.  He ignored where it had come from, although most likely it had been part of a street sign the Eva had knocked over during its retreat.  Oblivious to the NERV crews watching him, he swung it at the huge foot before him.  It bounced off with a high-pitching ringing sound, the vibration running down through his hands.  Uncaring and angry, he struck it again and again until he couldn't hold it up any more.
     He paused, panting, and dropped the bar, letting it fall clattering against the street.  Finally, Touji dropped to the ground, and lay down on the concrete.  Above him, the sun glared over the top of the Eva's shoulder mount, as if scolding him for wasting his energy.
     "Useless..." he mumbled, to no one in particular.  "Useless..."
     He exhaled the last of his pent-up emotions in one explosive burst as his breathing finally came back under control.  He could still feel his heart racing in his chest from the previous exertion.
     He closed his eyes, refusing the sun's light.  I failed again, didn't I? he asked himself.  This was not the first time, he already knew.  Mari had ended up in hospital because he'd failed to keep closer watch over her.  And now...what good was he at preventing these things from happening to his friends when even the super-powerful Eva at his command could do nothing to prevent it?  He felt horrible.
     Somehow, somewhere inside him, though, he knew he could have done something.  And though he wracked his brains, he couldn't find it.  But he knew he hadn't done it when he should have, and that ate at him, gnawing at his bones.
     Damn it all! he shouted at himself.
     He couldn't protect anyone.

* * *

     Shinji thought rather unhappily that his narrative of the month -- had it really been that long? -- spent in a liquid state was really quite inconclusive, and that his memories were really much too muddled to give an accurate account of what it was like.  Likely, Asuka hadn't been able to make heads or tails of what he'd said.  If she had asked instead about his experience in the 12th Angel, he could have given her a better accounting of that episode.
     He hadn't actually told the girl leaning against him on Unit-02's back about his mother's presence in Unit-01...she would probably think him completely stark raving mad for thinking it was true.  Asuka didn't seem one to believe in stuff like that, the metaphysical.  Sometimes, he found it hard to believe himself, but he knew it to be true.  He'd sensed his mother too often to ignore that fact.
     Asuka finally spoke, after it became apparent that he wasn't going to say any more on the subject.  "You know, Shinji...I think I missed you that month..."
     He frowned a bit.  Had she even loved him that far back?  "You...actually..?" he stuttered.
     "No, dummkopf.  I didn't know yet," she said, as if she'd read his mind, "Can you imagine eating Misato's cooking for that long?"
     He let her have her joke, even though neither of them really found it funny at the time.  Still, anything to break the mood was good.  "Thanks.  I didn't need the reminder."
     "Just kidding," she said, trying her best to smile, "But I think I probably missed you more the first time, though.  Before you one-upped me.  The great, invincible Shinji."  Her voice was still carrying the burden of Hikari's disappearance, but she managed to keep her expression intact.  Years of acting the part had made it second nature.
     Shinji let the thought sink in before replying.  "It's not like I was trying to...I saw...what had happened to you...and...Kaji told me there was still something I could do."
     She gripped his hand a little harder.  It wasn't long till she spoke again.  "I really hope she's okay...wherever she is..."

* * *

     Hikari was getting very tired.  She was cold, naked, exposed in...wherever she was.  She'd been watching the buildings, which had been slowly fading out over the last few hours.  In a few more, she estimated, they would disappear entirely.
     Only the occasional burst of the white mist would roar past her.  She was also getting used to the sound of the wind, and her ears had tuned it out.  Nevertheless, she found the silence to be even more disturbing, and made a conscious effort to listen for it.
     "Suzuhara..," she whispered.
     There was another long burst of silence.
     You love him, don't you?
     Hikari pulled her head up, suddenly looking around her.  Where had that come from?  Nothing around her had changed.  Nothing but blank, white space all around.  Even the buildings seemed paler than before.
     "Who...who are you?"
     The voice...where had it come from?  She waited, hoping it would speak again.  She was somewhat frightened, but it would be good to have someone, anyone, to speak to.
     You love him, don't you? it repeated.  This time, Hikari felt the voice was close, like someone whispering in her ear.  It sounded like it was being carried by the omnipresent wind, and from a long way away, too.
     "I...who are you?  Where are you?"
     I'm right here.  You love him, don't you?
     Him?  Suzuhara?  "I...I like him...I don't know...if..."
     She caught herself.  She didn't know who this person was, where she was speaking from...  She?  Yes, the voice was female.  It sounded almost familiar, like she'd heard it before.  But it was perhaps a little distorted by the wind, or some emotion she couldn't quite pinpoint.  In any case, she decided she wouldn't be able to identify it.
     If he likes you.
     "Yes..." she replied, hoping this voice was that of a friend.  In any case, it was the only possibility to not feel so alone in this strange limbo.  "...I don't know."
     You want him to return your affection, don't you?
     "Well..."  Hikari paused.  She supposed so...after all, wasn't that why she tried so desperately to get his attention?  Everything from the lunches she made for him to the additional punishments he got for being such a terrible miscreant in class were to make him sit up and notice.  "I guess so..."
     Then why do you keep pushing him away?
     "I do not," she protested, suddenly a little outraged.  If Touji did finally realize what she was doing, and asked her out, then of course she would accept.  It had taken her too much time and effort to risk playing hard-to-get.
     "What would you know, anyway?  Have you ever liked anyone?"
     The voice didn't answer immediately.  And when it did, there was something of a halting quality to the words.
     I did.  Once.  And still do.
     Hikari wasn't class 2-A's representative just for handing out appropriate punishments, being the teacher's pet, and her talent for getting people to do things.  She also could tell when people were upset or unhappy, and usually knew how to respond.  The voice sounded a little of both.
     "I'm sorry," she said, looking down at her knees.
     I'm sorry too.  I pushed him away.  I lost him.
     Hikari thought about it for a while.  Perhaps this person...whoever she was, if she was a person, had delayed expressing herself, and another woman had stepped into her place.  "Who to?"
     No one.  I just lost him.  I suppose it's a little different from your case, but not by much.
     "Oh."  Hikari frowned.  "But I don't push Suzuhara away," she said, re-voicing her protest.
     You do, said the voice, insisting. You've already thought about this youself.
     Hikari's frown grew deeper as she listened to the voice on the wind and its whispering.  "Go on, please..," she said, closing her eyes to concentrate better on what the voice had to say, and what advice it had to give her.
     Well, you visited him in the hospital, right?  After the 13th Angel?
     "Yes..."
     And when he started to tease you about your reasons for being there, you pushed him away.
     It was true, though.  Hikari had already thought about it.  She'd disguised her reasons as being on behalf of the class.
     And those cute little bento box thingies you make for him every day Shinji doesn't cook...
     Hikari suddenly looked up, an odd thought occurring to her about the weird voice that was running through her head.  "Wait...how do you know so much about me?  Who are you, anyway?"
     There was no response.
     "Hey!" she shouted, "Don't go!  What were you going to say?"
     Again, there was only the sound of the wind.  Hikari felt cold again, the gusts blowing harshly against her exposed skin.  She wished she had something, anything, even the hated plug suit to cover herself.
     "Don't go..."
     She felt very alone again.

* * *

     Six hours without anything to do does strange things to people.  Kensuke, for example, had been using his glasses and the sun to methodically evaporate any remaining drops of LCL he could find on the command chair of his Eva's entry plug.
     When he got bored of that, he thought of taking a nap, but he decided that it wouldn't be good to sleep through the return of the Angel, in case they needed him.  So he thought about the Evas instead.
     Somewhere near him, emergency crews had surrounded the class rep's Eva, but had not ejected the entry plug.  He didn't really notice.
     He'd decided that the explosive/armour piercing shells he'd been issued for the sniper rifle were hardly worth the effort of lugging the damn thing around.  As far as he was concerned, it seemed to be a pretty worthless weapon.  Thinking back to the last battle, he decided that he hadn't actually damaged the Angel with his last riposte.
     Even the palette rifles didn't do much damage to the Angels.  He already knew they, like his Eva, generated an AT Field, but he wasn't sure he understood what it was or what it did.  In any case, it seemed to prevent all damage from the ballistic weapons they had.  And he hadn't yet seen the positron rifle in action either, it was still being rebuilt.
     But since he hadn't trained with progressive weapons yet, what was the point in having him out in the field, anyway?
     Apparently, it had also taken Rei a few months to synchronize with her Eva for the first time.  But then again, according to the records, she had only participated in one battle, then had waited a few months before rejoining again.
     So maybe he wasn't so badly off after all.
     Kensuke heard a funny rumbling coming from below him, and for a fraction of a second he thought his Eva might have activated without him.
     "Hey!" he yelled, then realized that it wasn't moving at all.  He climbed down out of the open entry plug and peered past the Eva's thick neck.
     It was warm, but unmoving.  This wasn't what surprised him.  Instead, it was the sight beyond it.
     The purple expanse, it seemed, was shrinking.  He could have sworn he'd deactivated his Eva closer to the edge of the wide black circle.  Closer inspection confirmed that the border was retreating towards the centre of the circle rapidly.  Finally, it retracted into a point and disappeared.
     Before him and his Eva, Kensuke saw a flat expanse of concrete.  It looked like the buildings had simply been shaved away, leaving open parking garages and lobby floors.  His eyes widened.

* * *

     Dr. Robertson looked down onto the transparencies.  "Idiots," he muttered, "they couldn't even print the damn things right without smudging them."  Fuyutsuki finally reappeared, and he began to give his briefing.
     "I believe the last time the Angels used this tactic against us was during the fight with the 12th Angel, right?"
     Shigeru nodded.
     "Good.  Back then, Dr. Akagi was working off incomplete information analyzed too quickly to make any proper decisions.  She did get some things right, though.  The interior of the Sea of Dirac cannot be described by our current conception of mathematics.  Effectively, what's on the other side probably cannot even be experienced by anything from this universe.  The data obtained from Unit-01's mission recorder, the only one to have entered and come back from the other side, was useless.  All white noise.  We have no instruments capable of detecting what exists there.
     "Based on external observations, however, we can make a few conclusions.  The results of passive X-ray analysis, more specifically from when the buildings sunk into the Sea, and red shift analysis have yielded some rather surprising results.
     "The Sea of Dirac can be defined as an event horizon.  Is anyone here familiar with the term?"
     Only two of the pilots, Asuka and Kensuke, nodded from the two-way screens where they were being allowed to attend the briefing.  Fuyutsuki bowed his head in affirmation as well.  No one else said anything.
     "Why am I not surprised?" Dr. Robertson grumbled, rolling his eyes in their tired sockets.  "Would any of you care to explain?  Asuka?"
     Asuka looked for a moment at Shinji, who was sharing her Eva's communications gear, and started.  "An event horizon is an astrophysical anomaly.  The point of no return at the gravitational centre of a black hole.  Is that...what's happened...why she's gone?  Hikari?"
     Dr. Robertson made an affirmative grunt.  "Very good.  Like she said, the point of no return.  Conventional astrophysics has dictated that these anomalies generate an enormous gravity.  This isn't true, as were just looking at one now, and none of us are dead."
     Shigeru coughed suddenly.
     Dr. Robertson scowled at the interruption.  "We don't know that for sure.  Where was I?  Right.  In fact, event horizons do not actually generate any gravity at all.  They obey the laws of physics pertaining to the space around them.  When objects are 'sucked' into them, it is in fact the weight of the universe pushing them in.  In this case, it's actually the Earth's gravity that pulls on objects sitting adjacent the Sea.
     "As well, the event horizon is a two-dimensional, one-sided hole in the universe's fabric.  This is why it can just sit on the surface of the earth without starting to absorb it.
     "Previously, it was believed that black holes were created from the immense gravity of a collapsing superstar.  Instead, it's the energy from these collapsing stars that provides the required power to open one.
     "The Angels, on the other hand, are quite adept at generating energy out of nowhere.  This is why this one, and the 12th are capable of opening these.  The reason we weren't getting pushed in is because the Angel was preventing that from happening with its AT Field.  Really, they could have wiped us and the Earth at any time, only for some reason, they don't seem to be wanting to do that.  Their behavior is rather paradoxical in that respect."
     It was Fuyutsuki's turn to cough.  "Enough speculation on Angel behaviorisms, Doctor."
     "Right."
     Asuka spoke again from her little orange window.  "But the Angel's gone.  What about Hikari?"
     Fuyutsuki stepped in before Dr. Robertson said anything.  "The Angel will return.  It has not accomplished everything on its agenda yet.  Stand by your Evas.  Upon the Angel's return, the Evas should be ready for combat.  Is that understood?"
     "What about class re...Ms. Horaki, sir?"  Touji reminded his Commander for Asuka.
     "We will see."
     The communication link was broken off.

* * *

     "It's been twelve hours since she disappeared, Shinji..."
     Shinji shrugged as he sat down again.  Since the informational briefing, a small meal had been delivered to them by a NERV crew, while they continued to wait for the Angel to reappear...and hopefully, Hikari as well.
     "I guess we just have to be patient..," Shinji said, handing her her sandwich.
     "Thanks, baka...but I'm not hungry," she replied, leaning over to kiss him.

* * *

     Touji looked through the plastic bag at the meal's contents, then back up at the NERV technician.  He didn't really relish the thought of eating while the class rep was still trapped...wherever she was, but he was extremely hungry, after all.  He'd never gone more than ten hours without eating, and, as the sun went down, he thought that this might be a record.
     He hoped someone had fed Mari.  At least she was safe.
     He hoped.

* * *

     Hikari had waited a long time in vain for the voice to return.  It was friendly, and seemed to want to help her...until she'd asked it for more information about itself.  Then it had disappeared, leaving her alone again.
     Sighing, she hugged her knees to her chest, watching as the buildings finally faded out of existence.  As they did so, for the first time, she realized she might also be in danger of disappearing forever.
     She still felt cold, but it seemed to get worse as she thought about the possibilities of dying.  She hoped that it wouldn't come to that.  But if it did, she hoped it would be like freezing to death...a sense of calm, and warmth that was supposed to pervade your entire body, before you finally drifted off...
     "No!" she shouted to herself.  "I don't want to die!  Not here!"
     Suddenly, off in the distance, there was a bright flash of blue light.  Could that be the origin of the voice?  She felt a little spark of hope well up inside her.
     Watching the spot where it had appeared seemed to be the best way to catch anything.  She waited...nothing.
     Nothing.  Nothing at all.  She sighed again, and rested her chin between her knees again, hoping she would be able to get out some time soon.  Somewhere inside her, the spark began to die.
     "Class rep?"  The voice was unmistakable.  Hikari lifted her head up again, searching for him.
     "Suzuhara?  Where are you?"
     There was a warm touch on her shoulder.  She blushed, realizing again she was naked.  "I'm here...wherever this is..."
     She looked over her shoulder at him, then back when she saw that he, too, was as naked as she was.  "I'm sorry..." she splurted, blushing even harder, "I shouldn't have...looked."
     She could imagine him making that little smirk of amusement and embarrassment he sometimes made...like when she'd visited him in the hospital.  "I oughta be wearing somethin', huh."
     Touji didn't seem to have any difficulties moving around on the invisible surface.  Then again, she hadn't tried, too afraid to leave herself uncovered, too afraid to find out if there really was even a surface here.  He sat down next to her, artfully concealing himself.
     "How...did you get in here?" she asked, not sure if she wanted to know the answer.
     "I dunno..," he replied, "...I was in the Eva...and then..."
     "And the others?  Asuka?  Shinji?  Kensuke?"
     Touji shook his head.  "I haven't seen them.  It might just be you an' me."
     There was an uncomfortable pause, as Hikari debated with herself what to do next.  Another of the persistently annoying drafts of mist whirled around them, and she felt chilled to the bone.
     Her teeth almost chattering, she turned back towards Touji.  She had a funny urge to sit closer to him, but the more gracious part of her mind struck down the impulse.
     But I'm so damn cold!
     Touji repeated that thought for her.  "You look...cold," he said, concern on his face.
     "I'm..."  Hikari wasn't sure what to think of this.  It was so horribly inappropriate, and yet, she did feel quite frigid.  And the voice had told her mere hours ago that she shouldn't push him away if she really felt that strongly about him.  "I'm cold, yes..," her mouth said before she could stop it.
     Touji moved a little closer, and put an arm around her shoulders.  Her entire body tensed up, and the tight ball she was coiled into shrunk some more.  She knew he was just being kind, but her mind screamed at her, scolded her, berated and admonished her for letting him be so close to her naked body.
     But she did feel warmer, especially as the mist picked up in intensity.
     "Feel better?" he asked, squeezing her a little towards him.
     She smiled, but did not relax.  "Thank you," she mumbled, under her breath.
     "Y'know," he said, afterwards, "you're really pretty.  Don't know why I never noticed it before."
     Hikari refused to answer that, her mind already screaming bloody murder at her.   Instead, when she realized she couldn't shrink into an even smaller ball, she did a quick check to make sure she was well-covered.

* * *

     Touji crumpled up the wrapper of his sandwich.  It wasn't good, really.  The meat was wet, and the bread soggy.  But it held his hunger at bay, at least for now.
     Reaching down into the bag that was hanging off the lip of the entry plug, he pulled out a soft drink, opened it with one hand, and swallowed the contents.
     I hope she's okay, he thought to himself.

* * *

     Elsewhere, he sat shivering with Hikari in a different definition of the universe.
     "Hey...class rep?"
     Hikari looked up at him, taking her head out from between her knees.
     "What, Suzuhara?"
     "I..."
     That was when he did it.  Planted a firm kiss straight on her mouth.  Not just any kiss.  A serious, deep, soul-touching kiss.
     Except that she felt the deepest, most horrible cold rush through her entire body.  Now she really felt like she was freezing.  She wanted desperately to push him away, heave him off with all the strength she could muster, but she was paralyzed.  She couldn't move.  The cold locked all of her joints, rendered her muscles useless.
     Her mind wasn't just screaming at this point, but really howling.  She gathered herself, and in one, concentrated effort, brought her hands up to his chest and pushed.  Hard.
 Touji flew backwards, nearly falling over, then regained his balance, and stood.
     As did she.  She didn't care that she was naked any more.  That part of her mind had gone silent, and she could only think of the outrage that coursed through her body.
     "I thought you liked me," he said, taking a step forwards again.
     Hikari said nothing.  Her hand opened from a fist to an open palm, and she drew it back.  She didn't notice the cold or her nakedness anymore, only a hot, raging fire somewhere in her chest.
     Her hand whistled through the mist, slapping hard against a resonating and very powerful AT Field.  Concentric hexagons of orange streaked outwards through the fog as Hikari felt a bolt of powerful electricity run through her hand up as far as her shoulder.
     Now she was thrown backwards, against the invisible platform, her entire arm burning in pain.  It wasn't until she landed that she began to feel it, and she yelped in agony.
     "You..," she managed between gasps, "...you're the Angel!"
     I hate the Angels, whispered the voice, returning at last.
     The Angel/Touji furrowed its eyebrows, with a strangely hurt face.  "Why do you attempt to hurt me?  Was that not your mind as well?.  I am very, very surprised."  The Angel/Touji's voice had changed, modulating into a very gentle tenor with soft overtones.
     "I hate the Angels," Hikari said, agreeing with the voice, "I hate you!"
     The Angel/Touji took no notice of her opinion.  "I suppose I might as well tell you now.  This isn't anywhere that has really been defined by anyone except God.  There's no escape from here."  It regarded her curiously, regret now mixing itself with the hurt.
     "I hate you," Hikari whispered, gathering herself again.
     The Angel looked down at her.  "I suppose I would be doing you a favour if I killed you right here.  You see...this isn't your body I'm looking at.  It's your soul."  Regret had fully replaced the Angel's pained expression, drawing its eyes away from the site of her collapse.
     "My...what?"  Hikari was dragging her body into a standing position, now, glowering at the Angel through slitted eyes.
     "Your soul.  You don't have a body, right now.  And being an Angel, I don't think there's much hope of you being able to do anything against me.  Look at your 'arm'."
     Hikari did so.  And screamed.  Her arm, from the ball of her palm that had struck the Angel/Touji's AT Field up to her shoulder, was covered in a lightning-like spiderweb of serious burns.
     "Your soul is only human.  Already, this proximity to me is beginning to kill you.  I...am saddened that you interacted with the light of my soul unprotected...and so harshly."
     Further burns were beginning to spread over the rest of her soul.  She doubled over in pain and collapsed, as a deep, crater-like burn suddenly appeared in the flesh just above her knee.
     It looked behind itself, like it could see something there among the mists.  "I must depart now.  I see I need no longer wait.  I am sorry, Ms. Horaki."  The Angel turned and departed.
     As it did so it lost Touji's form and reshaped itself into the form they had first seen: a long, dark grey spindle with long, flowing fins.  Before it, a circular portal began to form, and through it, Hikari could see an evening sky.
     "No!" she shouted.

* * *

     Kensuke had already synchronized with his Eva by the time the Sea of Dirac began re-opening.  The others, alerted by Commander Fuyutsuki to the possible return of the Angel, were still scrambling to get back to their respective entry plugs.
     After him, the first to stand was Unit-02, followed shortly thereafter by Unit-14.  Shinji's purple Eva was the last to activate, as Shinji had been forced to make a return trip from the red Eva's shoulder.
     The Angel burst out of the Sea, again, not even leaving a ripple.  This surprised no one, as it was non-liquid anyway.  Kensuke started firing with the palette rifle before his HUD gave him a solid lock, tracking his fire into the elongated spindle shape.
     "Gotcha, you bastard," he mumbled, as the AT Field seemed to vibrate in the air.
     Below the Angel, the Sea was beginning to shrink again.
     Without thinking, Asuka raced Unit-02 up to the edge of the event horizon and threw all of her colossal Evangelion's mass at the hovering Angel, one hand outstretched to catch and secure the landing, the other holding her glaive out at the side, ready for use.
     Shinji followed her, but was too late to stop an enraged Asuka.  "Asuka!" he shouted, hoping she would break off her attack before she, too, was sucked into the Sea of Dirac below the Angel.
     Already, Unit-02's massive feet impacted with the Angel, digging into its fleshy body and leaving two short, bloody troughs at the landing site.  It gripped one of the fin-like protrusions to steady itself, nearly tearing it loose in the process.  Blood, a dull ochre colour, spurted from the wound and poured through the Sea.

* * *

     Don't you want to live?
     The voice was back, whispering in her ear again.  The Sea wasn't far...it was enormous in front of her.  It looked like it was less than ten feet away...but so far for one as badly injured as she was.
     The crater in the upper right corner of her chest seemed to be getting deeper with every passing second.
     Hurry!  The voice was a little more panicked, now.  Look!  It's closing!
     So it was.  The very edge of the circle was shrinking back towards them.
     Hikari dragged herself forwards again, covering a few feet before the pain collapsed her again.
     You're just a soul, the voice said, a little louder, this means nothing to you!
     Through the hole, Hikari could see Unit-02 slam into the Angel.  It screamed at its attacker, a high-pitched, keening wail, but Unit-02 rammed its glaive through the centre of the Angel's body, tearing off a fin in the process.
     There's not much time!  If she kills it...
     "I know," uttered Hikari, groaning as she neared the opening a second time.  Her fingers touched the surface, which seemed to ripple above her head.  Suddenly, she felt like she was rising from the deep end of a pool, breaking through the surface at high speed, the pressure relaxing on all sides.  And she let the peace carry her.

* * *

     The edge of the Sea suddenly snapped, like an elastic band towards the Angel as Shinji joined Asuka on the Angel's back, his palette rifle abandoned.

     "Shit!" muttered Robertson, as he watched the scene on the screen.  "Is there any sign of the Sixth's return, yet?"
     Yamashita shook his head.
     Only Fuyutsuki didn't seem worried.

     Just as the Sea looked like it was about to close, it was suddenly halted by an invisible barrier.  Enormous quantities of energy were instantly converted into visible light as the combined AT Fields of Unit-01 and 02 held the event horizon open.
     Finally, Unit-01 drew its prog knife from the shoulder mount and stabbed it hard into the Angel's back.  It writhed and bucked like a bull at a rodeo, but Shinji managed to shove the blade in up to the hilt.  Asuka, too, drew back her glaive, and plunged it into the Angel's body.  She must have struck the core, because at that instant, the Angel and the Sea of Dirac were consumed in a massive pillar of fire that climbed up to the heavens and beyond.  As it reached its apex, the burning column bulged, then spread out at the limit of the stratosphere, mushrooming over the city.

     "We've got an ego-border, sir!  The pattern matches!"
     Shigeru let out his breath.  Even the normally vociferous and complaining Desaint relaxed visibly, and sought out a chair.
     Masaharu's forehead crinkled.  "But she's...horribly burned...all over..."
     Fuyutsuki turned to Dr. Robertson.  "Have her brought here.  But do not, under any circumstances, remove her from the entry plug.  I will provide further instructions later."

     Unit-01 landed on what had once been the floor of a lobby in a somewhat affluent block of apartments near the centre of town, its massive feet crushing several hundred thousand dollars of marble into a fine dust.
     "And Hikari?" Shinji asked, watching as Unit-02 stood from its landing.
     Touji's holographic box reappeared in his cockpit, relief evident in his voice.  "She's back.  I think."

* * *

     The sun rose on a glorius day.  Other than the sounds of heavy construction coming from somehere near the city's centre, it was a day like any other in Tokyo-3.
     Shinji woke up at seven, to be followed fifteen minutes later by Asuka.  Only Hikari was missing, but that was expected, seeing as how she was still in the hospital, or somewhere.  Evidently, her stay in the Sea of Dirac had not been kind to her.  Shinji, when he'd gone through, had had all of Unit-01 to protect him from harm.
     Hikari, on the other hand, had not.
     Asuka had only gotten a fleeting glimpse of her before the emergency crews around her Eva ejected the entry plug, but she'd seen Hikari was unconscious, and that there was a lot of blood diffusing into the LCL.  She'd almost forgotten about the blood, seeing as how she had been trying to land Unit-02 safely.
     NERV's staff had reassured them that she would probably pull through, but the apartment still seemed kind of lonely without her.  Granted, Misato had been absent much of the time, always pulling late shifts or out drinking, so Shinji and Asuka were both used to living without a third party.
     But, since Hikari had never really been absent since she moved in, it was harder not to notice that she simply wasn't there.  Especially with Pen-Pen complaining continuously and whimpering at the door to her room.

* * *

     "Whaddaya mean, you can't find her?"
     Kensuke lifted his hands innocently from the computer keyboard.  "I can't!  We've already searched all the hospitals in the district and the geofront twice!"
     Touji leaned over his shoulder, and typed in the class rep's name again.  "You probably misspelled it."
     The search engine came up blank, again, giving only a short list of people with similar names.
     "Huh."
     Shinji and Asuka walked into the classroom.  Touji waved them over.
     "Where d'ya think they would be keeping her?"
     Shinji blinked.  "Who?"
     "The class rep, ya dunce!  Who else?"
     "The hospital, I guess.  Why?"
     There was a funny slapping noise as Touji's hand came up to his forehead.  "We're pilots, right?  Don't we have some kind of duty to find out where she is?  What's with you guys?"

* * *

     Dr. Robertson coughed hard, retching up the LCL in his lungs.  Shigeru laughed, watching him.
     "Oh, shut yer bloody trap.  Or I'll schedule you a dip in the tank too."  Since it had been determined that Hikari's condition had stabilized, all the tension and worry had bled off rapidly.
     Hikari had been losing blood too rapidly to prevent death, so Fuyutsuki had ordered that she remain in the entry plug.  Since LCL had roughly the same fluid characteristics of blood, and carried a high level of dissolved oxygen in solution, it could be used to completely replace the blood in her system.  On top of that, all clotting agents had been filtered out.  By not allowing her wounds to clot shut, she would likely be able to regenerate the damaged parts of her body without much scarring, if any.  Still, though, this was mostly because of the properties of the fluid she was bathed in.  Stem cells would be grafted later, to finish the regeneration and differentiate the new flesh properly.
     Really, LCL was quite a versatile liquid.  Of course, since it was, after all, the very basis of life on earth, this was to be expected, especially in a biological context.  Years of research, much of it performed on Rei, had identified many of its properties.
     Surgery had been performed to excise the burned sections of her body.  While it did seem to open the wounds more, it ensured that there would be no dead tissue to interfere with the healing process.  This had been done in the liquid itself, and the doctors had been forced to submerge themselves as well.  Dr. Robertson himself had just emerged from the pool.
     In the meantime, however, Hikari would have to remain submerged in the liquid for at least a month, maybe more.
     To keep her alive and prevent death by starvation, numerous proteins and nutrients were added to the LCL.  In this way, basic trans-membrane diffusion would be able to feed her cells.
     It was no wonder Kensuke couldn't find her, though.  She'd been transferred to the mega-depth facilities, into equipment once reserved for Rei.  Only they were sophisticated enough to keep her alive during the healing period.  Twenty-four hour a day immersion in LCL was not something most hospitals were equipped for.
     Shigeru couldn't stand the place.  He'd heard this room was something like the fabled Terminal Dogma.  It was certainly too dark, too forboding for his taste.  On top of that, there was always that eerie breathing sound.  Even worse, that sound seemed to be in sync with the movement of the injured girl's chest, as if she was the one taking the titanic breaths.

* * *

     Hikari slowly became aware of the presence of another.  Still, she couldn't seem to locate it, hear it, or see it.  Just a strange feeling that someone else was nearby.
     Contrary to the featureless, frozen white wastes of the Angel's world, this place was dark.  Black.  But it was warm.  Very warm.  And comfortable, too.  Very comfortable.
     It was still lonely, but not so much now that she could feel...whoever this was...near her.
     Gradually, she found herself able to articulate thoughts.  I'm...alive.
     It was redundant, really.  I think therefore I am.  But it was good to know.
     Then, of course, black became the dominant colour in her world.  She hadn't been afraid of it.  Just too tired to fear anything.  She was still too tired to want to move, and it would be days -- if she knew they were passing -- before she realized that she had no control over her body as of yet.
     She didn't want to open her eyes.  She felt rather at peace, this odd feeling of null-g surrounding her.  If she actually was back in her body, she was happy to find that her head didn't hurt any more.
     I must be going insane.
     This thought occurred to her shortly afterwards.  She'd had such a terribly improbable week: stresses upon stresses, the headaches, the nightmares, then the Evas and the Angel...and the strange world where the Angel had taken her.  Perhaps, in two seconds, she would awake, sweating, Asuka sitting in front of her, asking if she was all right.
     The two seconds passed, uneventfully.
     She sighed, perhaps a little disappointed that she hadn't woken up.
     The feeling returned again, like there was somone standing right behind her, watching her.
     She wondered, finally, who the presence was...if it was the same one as the voice she'd heard in the Angel's world, or if it was different.
     Are you there? she thought, wondering if they could hear her.
     Again, time passed, and there was no response.
     Oh, well.  It was a little much to hope for.  Instead, she decided to keep herself company by thinking.  About what?
     Anything.
     Suzuhara would be good.  She wasn't at school, at home, or in her Eva.  She could think about him here.  Still, what he...the Angel...had done in that place still perturbed her to no end.  She decided he wouldn't have done something like that...
     No...she didn't want to think about him yet.  Not until she'd managed to sort out everything in her mind.
     On the other hand, she did feel like she was pushing him away again, in a different sense...and couldn't help feeling a little bad about it.  The voice didn't make its reappearance, even though its help and view on the matter would have been highly regarded.
     Hikari let her mind blank momentarily.  Then it struck her that if it had only been her soul floating around in that void, what had happened to her real body during that time?  Had it died, only to miraculously resurrect when she returned?  Had she disappeared?  What happened when the soul left?
     Was she even back in her body?
     What of the others?  How did they react, if she had died?
     What about Suzuhara?
     Too many questions with too few answers were beginning to plague her, so she let her mind drift again.  There was no way she was going to get any answers to her questions at this point, so she gave up searching.  The outside world would elude her for now.
     Still, she couldn't help thinking about it.  After all...she was supposed to be the class representative, and whatever time she remained here would end up taking a toll on her duties.  On top of that...who would be taking her place?  She also found herself worrying about what the teacher would think of this prolonged absence.  And then, she would be far behind on homework as well.  Not to mention what new material she would miss.
     She cursed silently to herself -- albeit without actually swearing -- and hoped that when, and if, she woke up, it would be back in her own body, among her friends, and in a place she felt comfortable in.

* * *

     Touji waited for the crane to remove him from the test plug, and began to make his way back to the change rooms.  On his way, he nearly ran into a fuming Shigeru, still annoyed at Dr. Robertson for some reason or another.
     "Uh...sir?"
     "What?"
     Touji signaled Shinji and Kensuke to wait for him with one hand.  "You wouldn't happen to know where class...Ms. Horaki is, would you?"
     Shigeru's face twisted a little, unsure whether or not he had clearance to inform the pilots about the status of their comrade.  He decided it would be best not to.
     "Yes...but access is restricted.  Don't worry about it.  She's doing fine."
     Touji didn't seem to have any further questions, so he was left, thinking that it was no wonder Major Katsuragi had been such an alcoholic.  Her job was living hell.  He tried not to think about the enormous stack of papers on his desk.

* * *

     "I...I never understood why I have to pilot it..."
     Somehow, Hikari was sitting...on a somewhat comfortable bench.  The train car was completely empty, save herself and a girl she couldn't identify.  The child's face was cast in shadow, and the sun directly behind her was making it very difficult to identify her.
     The girl's voice...matched that of the one she'd heard before.  It was still distorted, somewhat, and she knew it was familiar, but it lacked whatever would have allowed her to recognize it.
     "You don't like it, then."
     She seemed...nice.
     "I don't think so.  It's painful...and it's caused so many problems, too..."
     The girl's obscured features seemed to smile sympathetically.  "You sound like Shinji.  Do you hate it?" she asked, her invisible eyes focused onto Hikari's.
     "I don't know...but I don't think I really hate it.  I just don't understand.  Why am I so special?  Why do I have to pilot Unit-15?"
     The girl said nothing for quite a while.  "Because you can synchronize with it."
     Hikari frowned.  "But I keep hearing that!  And no one can ever explain to me what that means!  What are they?!"
     A tremor of...some powerful emotion ran through the little girl.  "You fought the Angels.  You felt yours bleed, didn't you?"
     Hikari half-nodded, not sure if she could still remember what had happened during the fight with the shape-shifter.  "I think so...  At least, I felt myself..."
     "That is synchronization.  To feel what the other does.  For it to do what you feel."
     "Who is the other?"
     The girl's eyes, barely visible now in the slightly different light, narrowed considerably, her expression seeming to sour.  "The other..."  There was a long pause.  "The other is the Eva.  Do you hate it?"
     Hikari was about to answer, when she realized the question had already been asked.  "No.  I don't think I do."
     The girl seemed unsatisfied.  "Then do you hate the Angels?"
     "I never understood what they were.  I saw Kensuke's videos...but...they didn't mean anything to me."
     "Nothing?  You couldn't see the destruction they brought?  You couldn't see the pain and suffering of your friends?"
     Hikari felt a little oppressed now.  The sun was stinging her, and the girl sounded perhaps a little less friendly.
     The girl's voice raised another notch.  "You couldn't see how they raped Asuka?  How they tortured Shinji's heart and soul?  Or how they impersonated your Suzuhara and nearly destroyed you?"
     "Yes!" she nearly shouted, "I did!  But I don't understand any of it!"  She collapsed against her knees.
     The girl's voice restored itself to a more comfortable register.  "Are you afraid of them?"
     "I am..," whipered Hikari, not looking up yet.  "A little."
     "Are you?  You went into this last battle without a second thought.  Or the one before.  Or the one before that."
     "That doesn't mean I like it," she whispered, her back beginning to straighten.
     "Of course not.  Do you hate the Angels?  Even if only for everything they've done?  For all the suffering they've caused?"
     Hikari still could not answer.  As far as she knew, she didn't hate them.  Come to think of it, she wasn't sure she really hated anything or anyone.  "I...don't know."
     This was truth.  She didn't know what hatred was, never having experienced...
     "You do hate."
     The girl's voice seemed strange, now.  Hikari was so used to being asked questions by this girl, like being interrogated.  The simple assertion seemed out of place.
     "You hated the Angel when it kissed you.  You wanted nothing more than to kill it, didn't you?"
     Hikari stopped thinking, to listen.  The sun stopped being eclipsed by the girl's head, and rose above the dark hair to glare even more harshly in Hikari's eyes.  She wanted to raise her arm, block out the light, but found she could not.
     "You wanted to make it pay for all the suffering it had just inflicted upon you."
     Hikari remembered, the memory returning easily to her mind.  Flashes of it flickered about her.  "I...did.  I...it hurt."  Her voice began a gradual crescendo, rising in harmony with her emotion.  "It hurt...me.  Like it hurt the others."
     The girl nodded.  "Like it hurt Shinji and Asuka.  Like it hurt...Suzuhara.  Like it hurt me."
     "It hurt...them.  Yes.  It hurt Suzuhara!"
     She looked up, searching for the girl's eyes, again, but they remained hidden.  Still, she felt like she shared something with the youngster, something she knew she would find confirmed in the little girl's eyes.  Her eyes burned, and not solely from the sun, but from the hot, flaming coals that now flashed in her pupils.  The energy was akin to her first scandalized reaction to Shinji and Asuka, but it burned hotter, more fiercely.  It was not outrage or shame she felt, this time.
     It was hatred.  This...was truth.
     Her voice dropped into a whisper.  "I do hate them," she finally uttered.
     The girl seemed to sympathize.
     "Then...pilot the Eva.  Avenge yourself.  Avenge your friends.  Avenge their suffering."
     The train rushed into a tunnel, some kind of klaxon screaming past, distorted.  Slowly, the sounds of the train faded away, leaving Hikari in her waking death once more.

* * *

     Shinji, too, found himself staring at a sunset.  Only he wasn't alone, and could see very well the face of the person with him.  It had been a day and a half since the battle, and Asuka was still quite nervous about Hikari's state.
     Already, Shinji had been trying to keep her thoughts off the topic, and when they were, he tried to be comforting.  Just now, he had done this, and they both enjoyed the silence of the lapse in conversation.  Shinji's reassurances, even though Asuka knew they were only for her sake, had helped to ease her anxiety.  The time passed slowly, and Shinji used it to admire the red bands of cloud against the sky.
     "Shinji?"
     Asuka turned away from the sun and put Pen-Pen down on the ground, where he waddled off happily through the sliding doors, through the living room, and into the kitchen.
     "Yeah?"  Shinji shifted his ubiquitous cup of tea into his other hand.  She'd already declined the offer for one of her own.
     "Thank you."
     Shinji's brow furrowed a bit, in concentration.  "You're welcome...I...what?"
     She shrugged her shoulders.  Vintage Shinji, that was.  "For caring.  That's all."
     There was a short delay as he tried to puzzle it out on his own.  Obviously, he'd done something right, some time ago.  Or had that just been for the tea?
     She flicked his forehead with the tip of one finger, laughing a little.  "Dummkopf."
     "Thank you for what, again?" he asked as she hugged him.
     Pen-Pen walked back out onto the balcony with his typical gait, holding an unopened can of beer in his flippers.
     "You are pretty dense.  Yesterday?  When you..."  Asuka discovered she wasn't sure how to say it, so she simply brought her hand up to his face and pretended to rub away at a tear that wasn't there.
     "Oh."
     Somewhere next to them, the penguin pecked his can open, and sat down against the wall to watch that funny thing these two humans did from time to time.  It seemed to be getting quite common since about two months ago, and was now strangely fascinating to the bird.
     The sun began to go down.

* * *

     "What's wrong, Touji?  You haven't touched your dinner."
     That wasn't technically true.  He had already eaten two servings, but hadn't made any attempt at taking a third.  Which was, under any circumstances, highly suspicious.
     Touji didn't want to ignore his sister's request, but didn't exactly feel like answering the question either.  "Oh...nothing."

* * *

     "Thirty-two percent synchronization ratio!"  Kensuke pumped his fist in the air as he began reading through the NERV pilot's manual for progressive weaponry and use thereof.  Even though the descriptions were fairly bland and uninformative, and the pictures simple line drawings taken straight from the blueprints, Kensuke could see them in living colour.  The advanced progressive knife with the replaceable blade seemed to glint on the page at him, egging him on, encouraging and evoking further dreams of success and glory.