EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Kristian Listrom and Dante Abbey

 Episode 27: Break of Dawn / Scattered Storms in Shattered Teacups

     After several more still, seemingly interminable moments, Shinji decided that the ceiling panels were no longer worth the effort to watch.  They, at least, seemed real enough.  But the events of the recent past had skewed his conception of reality to the point where he decided that further exploration of his possibly new environment would be necessary to convince him of the universe's existence.
     Slowly turning his head to the left, he saw the perspective of the lines in the ceiling converge, then suddenly interrupt at the right-angled corner of the joint between the panels and the wall.
     A change of scenery.  The abrupt shift in his perception brought his slow turn to a halt.  The corner was indicative of a closed space.  A room.  A room which seemed to have similar dimensions to the room he once occupied in that other existence.
     Some distant portion of his fogged brain had been shrieking out this entire time to no avail.  Something, it insisted, was terribly wrong.  Shinji guessed rather uncertainly that his ability to take...whatever was happening in stride was due to some sort of post-traumatic shock.  I should probably find some way to prepare, he considered, vaguely registering that at any moment, the pleasant, neutral numbness of his conciousness would be toppled like a house of cards by the breaking dam of his emotions.  But how?  He shrugged inwardly, figuring any efforts to ready himself would be fruitless anyhow, and would only add up to a waste of effort, something he couldn't exactly will up out of thin air.  With a smile, a very faint one, he joked with himself about the air being LCL.  How he could even think of laughing at a time like this, he had no idea, but nothing was compelling him to stop.
     He proceeded with his examination of the room.  It all seemed to be in order, at least from what he could recall.  But it was all hazy anyhow.  Unreliable memories, he figured, and made sure he kept this new image of his room in his mind to fill the tiny gaps left in the old one.  It took some doing, but he eventually gathered his courage to open his door, step outside, and look around...to see Asuka doing precisely the same thing.  He wondered briefly if his expression of shock looked as ludicrous and surreal to her as hers did to him.
     There was a very, very heavy silence as something important leapt to the front of their minds.
     "Wh...where's Misato?"
     Asuka was grateful for the distraction.  She didn't want to think about her...him...wherever that was.  She shuddered briefly, but not so Shinji would notice.
     "How should I know?"  She couldn't seem to muster the same snap, the same bite as she used to, in a past life.  The feeling was akin to a gunslinger raising a revolver only to feel the weight of the bullets missing from the cylinder.  "I..."  The hammer clicked uselessly against nothing.
     Shinji was caught off-guard for the umpteenth time that...what was it, morning, afternoon, evening?  Did it matter?  Should he be tired?
     Asuka just stood there, her eyes seemingly boring directly into his forehead.  She's afraid to look me in the eye.  That he understood it so quickly surprised him.  That he did understand gave him a feeling of power.  Until he noted the feeling was more than mutual.  He cast his eyes downward.
     "We should...look, maybe?"  The conversation took yet another turn for the absurd.  Nothing made sense.  And it didn't look like it was about to, for two very confused, frightened, and, at the moment, hollow children.

* * *

     Two eyes popped up, very slowly, from behind the desk.
     "Whoa."  Shigeru had been scared.  Lots of times.  He worked at NERV, so this was more or less anticipated.  But this was beyond fear.  This was...total and utter mental breakdown.  The army of laughing clones that had seemingly led him to his death had put a decidedly bad spin on an already unpleasant day.  The JSSDF, an N2 bomb, a ballistic missile strike, nine seriously screwed-up Evas, a giant white...thing...and what felt like the end of the world all bounced around in his head like ball bearings in a tin can, every bounce giving off a loud rattle that shook him like a force of nature.  In his state of confusion, he neglected to notice the two sickly amber puddles almost within arm's reach.  "Where is everyone?  What the hell happened?"
     "An excellent question," came a voice that seemed much too calm from behind him, "I don't think anybody can answer that at this moment in time."
     A trained reflex kicked into his mind, forcing him to his feet, and spinning him around to face the voice of authority.  He noticed three things.  First, he was staring at a metal wall; second, his legs were asleep; and finally, he was falling down.
     As he fell, his head was tilted backwards, and he spotted what looked like a more haggard and less stoic version of the Vice-Commander Fuyutsuki.
     The man stabilizing himself on the command tower muttered something about this being the first time nothing had gone quite exactly to Gendou's plan.  He leaned subconsciously over the railing, as if to vomit, but, realizing for the second time that there was a subordinate officer almost directly below him, choked back the strangely thin contents of his stomach.  His smile afterwards was equally thin.
     Shigeru gathered his mind together slowly, not wanting to drop what little of it seemed intact.  "I guess this means that...um...NERV...we...still exist.  I think."
     Fuyutsuki nodded slowly.  Since that was obviously the case, and since Gendou was no longer there, he decided that it would be best to try and get things running again, if only out of curiosity.  "Are the MAGI still working?"
     Shigeru groaned, and dragged his body over to what had been Ibuki's station, trying not to get too close to the sticky mess near the seat and hoping what he'd heard about the nature of the liquid wasn't true.  He was seized by five very powerful headaches all at once.
     "I think so...the power's on," he offered weakly, "Maybe we should run a diagnostic."
     "That'll do for a start.  We need to try and find out exactly what...has occurred."
     Shigeru noticed the Commander was choosing his words carefully.  "Also, try to find out how many NERV personnel have actually survived, and reestablish contact with the other MAGI systems.  And, try to locate the JSSDF...for some reason, they aren't here.  Whatever has happened, it would be unsafe and unwise to assume it's over."
     Shigeru only nodded at the prospect of such a Herculean task.

* * *

     In an empty room, twelve black monoliths stood as they had countless times before, to discuss a topic they had approached a thousand different ways, with a rage and anxiousness they had never before achieved.
     A hollow tone echoed from one of the monoliths.  "Kihl, we have failed.  This is the only conclusion."
     "I cannot accept this!  What have we miscalculated?"
     "The circumstances were right.  The timing was perfect!  We had all the tools!"
     Inevitably: "Ikari is to blame."
     "His treachery has crippled us!"
     "We most unfortunately underestimated his audacity and temerity."
     "What can be done now?"
     For a long time, no sound found its way through the chamber.  Silently, and without moving, eleven of the shapes were turning towards the final one for guidance and leadership.
     A voice more hateful than the rest combined burst forth.
     "The failure of our scenario leaves open the possibility for recovery of the materials.  If we can attain this, we can still reach our ultimate goal."  The air upon which the sound traveled seethed almost visibly with his wrathful intent.  "We must seek out Ikari.  His plan must have failed as has ours.  When he is found, he must be disciplined as no other has been."
     Fantasies of Ikari's undoing filled the minds of the twelve shapeless occupants of the room.  All were terrible.
     "We will proceed with a new scenario.  Our first action must be to obtain information regarding the failings of the Work.  We must know what was faulty before we replace the cogs and try again."
     Another voice spoke, almost afraid.  "What has become of the Eva series?"
     "There can be no telling as yet.  We must assume that they were lost.  Other materials must be used to replace them.  If required, we can begin again."  The prospect of such arduous tasks as those that lay ahead would have withered the resolve of any normal man.  The twelve were unfazed.

* * *

     Days passed.  About a week, by Shinji's reckoning.  Nothing had really changed.  The phone had never rung, Misato was nowhere to be found, Pen-Pen had not magically reappeared, and he himself was still composed of matter.  As far as he was willing to estimate, Asuka was as well.  He couldn't bring himself to confirm it through contact of any kind.  Even when he caught her eyes sideways, something stabbed at him.  He found himself watching her often enough that he was sure she had caught him doing so as well.
     Conversation, indeed any sort of relations at all, were strained to say the least.  They hadn't had anything that resembled real conversation, and each was more interested in the new self with which they seemed to have been saddled.  The discoveries were fairly amazing.  Shinji found a sense of irony.  Asuka, the ability to be silent around another human being, though whether that last was the product of a profound spiritual change or just the aftershocks of an unbelievable trauma was unclear even to her.
     Gradually, they started spending more time in the same room.  It was really unavoidable, they both reasoned.  One of us cooks, the other...well, she eats.  It all works out nicely.  Shinji spent less and less time bothering to clean up and do chores, as there was almost nothing messing up the apartment save laundry.  He had no idea if anyone else existed.  It seemed to him that, at least for a while, he had consigned himself to an existence consisting solely of himself and Asuka.  That was in the moments before this existence.  He still wondered if this existence was the end result of that...happening.  He had no evidence to the contrary, and wasn't certain that he really wanted to know either way.
     Asuka, for her part, spent less and less time wondering about other people and more and more time wondering about herself.  A simple task, for most, but for her it was something new, almost exuberant in the joy it brought her.  She realized just how badly she had closed herself off.  When she first flung that door open, it was as though she were born again.  Despite all of this, the experience was still troubling, in a way.  Just because she saw most of the mysteries of her self exposed didn't mean she had to like what they told her.
    When it reached a point where neither could hide from it any longer, they both simultaneously suggested that they find out something about the world.
     "I was thinking, Asuka...maybe, since we have all this laundry...and we're almost out of food..." He intently studied the weave of his socks.
     Asuka didn't have to say anything, but she did anyway.  Some parts of us never change.
     "I guess you should.  I mean, I'm hungry, and some fresh food would be great.  And it would be nice to have some clean underwear."  She immediately slapped herself for saying that.  Why?  It was true.  Laundry had to be done.  Still, she railed against the fact that something like that...something so close to her...had been revealed to Shinji.  Yet...the same part that suggested laundry would be a good idea also pointed out that they'd eventually have to talk.  About something.  Anything.  And this was as good a springboard as any.
     Uncharacteristically, Shinji beat her to the punch.  "Asuka...I, uh...I know things are...strange...now, but...I want to talk to you...Maybe after I come back?  I'll know for certain then...what's happened to me.  I hope."  He had moved on to the hem of his trouser leg, the brown thread sinking in and rising again strangely compelling to him.
     Asuka nodded gently.  She tried, very hard, to look at his eyes, but she couldn't.  She settled on his throat...no, she decided.  Rather his chin.  "It's a good idea.  I'll wait for you to get back, then."
     A number that had been rising astronomically this week had been the number of long, pregnant pauses between the two.  This was now just water off a duck's back to Shinji.  In a way, it had become a comfortable norm in this new world.
     What came next wasn't.
     Asuka gulped slightly, though her mouth was totally dry.  "Hurry back.  It's too quiet here."  Ironically, that statement itself was almost silent.
     Shinji acknowledged by rising from his shoes, opening the door, and glancing backwards to where she had been standing moments before.
     Her door shut.

* * *

     Six days, eighteen hours, and at least a few minutes had passed since Shigeru found himself thrust into a position of undue responsibility, and he was finding the job description somewhat to his liking.  He managed to surprise himself with some sort of newfound confidence.  No, not quite.  That was the wrong word.
     He wasn't sure what the word was.  It didn't matter, really, because at the moment he was getting stuff done.  An improvised bridge crew, a long checklist prepared with Commander Fuyutsuki and a liberal quantity of caffeine added up to a highly productive work week.
     For not the first time this morning, Shigeru turned to Fuyutsuki's seat on high and shouted up.  "One more task complete, sir.  Contact with MAGI-06 in Moscow has been completed and maintained.  The link looks strong enough to start the mutual update."
     Fuyutsuki looked visibly relieved.  "Excellent work.  What's next?"
     Shigeru frowned as he looked at the next part of his little shopping list.  "Hmm.  All that's really left is to ensure the safety of our remaining Evangelions, and then we can commence a head-count.  Afterwards, we can start re-crewing our own branch from the others.  For one thing, I'd like a permanent bridge crew."  It seemed a little strange to Shigeru that Fuyutsuki had placed these items so low on the list.  It almost seemed like Fuyutsuki was...avoiding them?  Perhaps he didn't relish the prospect of taking rolls of the dead.  Or maybe he was just very confident that these weren't problem areas and that the priorities needed dealing with.
     That last thought was downright ridiculous to Shigeru.  Confident?  With the command staff decimated and two-thirds of the bridge crew just vanishing?  He sighed and started to make his way over to a communications console.  He anticipated that eventually this headache of his would give up and go away.  For now, it would stay with him.
     Now locked in the Commander's Office, Fuyutsuki leaned back in a chair which he had frequently seen, but never occupied. I hope you've managed to find her, Gendou.  I hope your dreams are fulfilled.  In that way, I envy you.  His task now, while never clearly defined, needed something in the way of constructive guidance.  What should NERV be used for now?  Would there even be a need for the MAGI and NERV's facilities any longer?
     He shook his head, clearing away the rubble in his brain with two short movements.  He knew that the Angels had been a cause for NERV's establishment.  Were there still more?  NERV had also been built for the purpose of maintaining the Evas for Third Impact.  Would they still be needed?  Could they be decommissioned and broken down for study?  Could the pilots be released, their still viable talents thrown to the winds?
     More questions came to him, and he came to the inevitable conclusion that there were no clear answers to any of them.  Frustrated by his comparative weakness to Gendou, he leaned down onto the desk and cradled his head in his hands.
     Gendou had a goal...An objective towards which he strove in every way and with all his strength.  I lack such a goal.  I lack the desire.  An object, placed surreptitiously in the corner of Gendou's 'Delegation Box', a shallow container into which he'd placed everything work-related that was distasteful to him and that was to become delegated to Fuyutsuki, caught his eye.
     What's this?  Fuyutsuki fished his hand into the box and dug out the offending plastic composite memory chip.  It was unmarked except for a date.  He recognized it as being the date of Yui Ikari's death, a date sorrowfully remembered by her husband and former teacher alike.
     You continue to think five steps ahead of me, Gendou.  Even in death, you outsmart me.  Fuyutsuki smiled grimly as he slotted the card into his personal computer. In a perverse way, Gendou, I'm very proud of you.

* * *

     It was pleasant surprise to see that people were still here.  The first few steps out of the building onto the desolate street had brought the bile in Shinji's gut to a near-frenzied churn.  He had been fairly sure he wouldn't be able to cope with whatever he found, but even more sure that he'd be hard pressed to go on at all without some sort of indication, one way or the other.  The moments of abject terror when he stepped onto the empty sidewalk made the instant of jubilation when he saw another walking, breathing, living human being all the more intense.
     Effectively, it had taken him several minutes to gather the courage to carry himself beyond the lobby of the building in which he had lived, and still appeared to be living in.  The automated laundry booth did little to encourage him, though.  It, too, was devoid of life, and the other machines were not in use.
     Animals were still to be seen.  He could still hear the cicadas, and birds occasionally flew overhead, but he hadn't known if anyone else had survived.  Not, at least, until he had entered the local grocery store.  There, quite a few people were going about their lives.  Not, of course, as if nothing had happened, but somewhat tentatively, rather like himself.
     Somehow, the atmosphere was very peculiar in the city.  Something about the way people carried themselves...some were less confident than they had been, others more, but on the whole they were all slightly bothered by something.  He thought it might be rude to simple out-and-out ask them what had happened, so he simply didn't say anything.  The others seemed happy to oblige his stonewalling.  Of course, he admitted, he knew damn well what had happened and didn't really wish to be reminded of it from the mouths of strangers.
     The most peculiar thing of all, however, had been that the entire city had been converted from a colossal hole in the ground into...a city.  The very place in which he was standing was once located on the very edge of that massive crater.  This, too, seemed to bother the populace.  Most people weren't sure whether or not to consider at least a month of time as a complete dream.
     It seemed that the buildings were all back to the state prior to the 16th Angel, the snake of light that had attacked and penetrated...
     Rei!  That's it!  Some light in the recesses of his mind flicked on unbidden.  She was important.  He knew she was.  Why had he not thought of her all week?  Where was she?  Was she all right?  Did the event have the same effect on her as it did on everyone else?  If so...what would she be like?  He couldn't even wrap his mind around her, really.  As though she were simply a construct of his mind now, not a true part of existence.  What of her could he recall?  Of that, what could he trust as memory?  And what was him vainly trying to fill the gaps in his highly suspect perception?
     He could remember something of Third Impact...but it was too vague for him to put together a coherent picture of even the most basic events.  He knew they were there, and he was sure none of them had been good, but it was as if they were puzzle pieces that had been randomly scattered across as floor by an ill-behaved toddler.  Even then, the fragments were too small to make out clearly.
     But, as to Rei...something very, very different had happened to her, he thought, thanking the cashier and reappropriating his NERV card.

* * *

     Waking up on one's left side was not special in any way for the vast majority of the population.  Waking up on that side to find your weight supported by an arm and a leg is a particularly strange feeling when you've been a double amputee.  One particular boy that woke up in this manner, had been waking up every morning for the past week wondering if his regenerated limbs were nothing more than an illusion, some kind of fully visceral hallucination pressed upon him by some evil demon.
     Like the other previous five mornings, the boy carefully examined his appendages in the pale light of the rising sun, running the fingers of his right hand over every line, every imperfection, every raised vein...sometimes even fingering the individual hairs that seemed to grow in regimented rows along his flesh.
     And like the previous mornings, he continued to test their ability to feel in the shower, alternating cold and hot water, and surprised every time to find that the senses, too, had been reinstated to him.
     Moving without the aid of his sister was also a strange feeling.
     Naturally, the question remained: where did they come from?  Not that he wasn't appreciative, of course.  He wouldn't dare question his gift out loud.  And never again would he take his appendages for granted.  But the back of his mind was being chewed completely ragged by this seeming impropriety.  Something happened.  Something very important happened.  I'm not sure what, but I'm guessing the Evas were involved.  And Shinji... Touji flexed the fingers on his right hand, then his left hand, trying to compare the suppleness of his knuckles on either side.  I suppose he was in on it somehow, too.  He kept thinking.  His father had already received summons back to Tokyo-3, leaving himself and his sister to essentially live off of what was left in the small apartment.  He judged it would be but a matter of time before he was called back, too.  I wonder who else is left.  What will school be like?  Is anyone dead?  Is everyone dead?  He still wasn't thinking straight.
     The best thing for a situation like this, as far as young Suzuhara was concerned, was a little basketball.  He wandered over to his closet, removed his ball, and went outside ready to test the functionality of his new -- and old -- limbs.

* * *

     Shinji's eyes were wide open as he stood on the threshold.  In one arm, he lugged about a sack filled with clean, folded, and wrapped laundry.  In the other, a large bag filled with perishables and some cooking supplies.
     He decided sadly, that the laundry and food would be of much, much more use to himself and his surprisingly quiet companion inside the dwelling than outside.  The effort he would need to open that door and cross over into the residence seemed incomprehensible.  As though it were beyond humanity to attempt such a feat.  He would rather have been anywhere but there.  He had the sinking feeling that something important would happen and he wanted to delay whatever consequences it might entail.
     Wait.  Why am I worrying?  He asked himself this question boldly, in a way he had never asked before.  What's the worst that can happen?  We said 'talk' not 'fight'.  She's in at least as bad shape as I am.  Maybe even worse.  I'm used to this silence.  How does she feel?  Why are you worried about getting hurt yourself?  You know very well that you're past that.  It's time to suck it up.  The strength and bluntness of his inner self surprised him.  As did the realization that he was doing something entirely for another's benefit.
     He was going to consider this, too, except his sudden burst of courage and enlightenment physically forced him to open the door, enter, and shut it behind him.
     "I'm home!" he announced cheerfully.
     He was greeted by an eerie silence.  He removed his shoes, and started placing the food in storage, silently panicking that his reserve of bravado would wear off before he got a chance to talk to her.  That would be disastrous.  He knelt down to file away some fresh greens.
     "...hello."
     The voice yanked Shinji by the scruff of his neck and dragged him into a standing position, ignoring the fact that a part of the fridge's frame was directly above his head.
     He grunted in sudden agony and winced until he could no longer see.
     "Um...are you...uh..."  That voice again, this time with a little bit of concern.  It was hard to say, exactly, as he'd never heard that emotion associated with that voice.  He found it somewhat pleasant, but mostly disconcerting.  For now, though, the rapidly-growing goose egg on his skull held most of his attention.
     "I didn't mean to, ah, can I get you something?"  Shinji was surprised again, this time she was offering help.  It was like some wonderful dream.  He waved her off, rising to his feet.
     "Don't bother...it's nothing...it'll go away soon."
     He turned to her, and almost by reflex the eyes avoided each other again.  Shinji was more than a little embarrassed by his smacking his head on the fridge.  The same old story...they just stared, a vague fear hanging cloud-like over their interaction, making it more or less impossible for anyone to take the initiative.
     Shinji eventually got fed up with the status quo.
     "Would you like to...sit down?  We should...uh, I think we need to...talk, maybe?  I can get some tea, and..."  His voice wasn't anywhere near as strong as he imagined it should be.
     Asuka was visibly relieved by the fact that he had decided to shoulder the burden.  She only nodded, and carried herself laboriously over to her customary seat at the table.  After seating herself, she picked a suitable spot on Shinji's lower back, now retreating to the tea cabinet, and kept her focus that way.
     She had spent the entire day running the scenario through her head.  There was a right way to say it, and it was something she'd never said before.  That was odd, considering the nature of the assertion.  There had to be someone she'd spoken to, once...wasn't there?  Her quivering fingers screamed out to her that she needed to calm down.  Shinji's offer of tea was more on-target and welcome than he could possibly imagine.
     Just as she was starting to grasp her situation, Shinji jarred her thoughts with the clacking of porcelain on faux-wood.  "I'm sorry, I'm not sure what you take with it.  It's not Japanese, I decided better safe than sorry, so it's...something European, I don't know what."  The words stumbled over each other clumsily to get out of his mouth and he wondered if he had ever sounded more nervous in his life.
     It made no difference to her, she just needed some liquid.  It would help, that was certain.  She tried again, valiantly, to look him in the eye.  And again, she failed, deflected from her course and ending up looking at the tip of his nose.  Close, but not close enough.  Her fear made no sense to her.  Why was she delaying the inevitable?  Afraid of him?  That's silly.   Who's afraid of wimpy little Shinji?  Except...he was different.  He is different.  He could have...  Her fear now had an object, and it was him.  She decided that there was no time like the present.  She leveled her gaze at a point somewhere near the middle of the back of his head.  As he turned around to bring his own drink to the table, she caught him.  At last.
     "Shinji," she said, the strongest word this apartment had heard all week, "I'm sorry."
     There was a crash as the teacup fell to the floor and Shinji stared dumbly at her.  What the hell?  Where did that come from?  His anxiety began pacing circles in his psyche.  Not what he'd anticipated.  Not at all.  He started stammering.
     "W...well, uh...I...um..." Finally, he spat out the only words that made sense.  "...Sorry for what?"  His normal level of confusion had risen to new heights.
     "Everything."  Asuka, at least, had some sense of destination in this little exchange.  "Everything.  I did nothing right."
     Shinji was still confused.
     Asuka pressed on, daunted but determined.  "I don't know what happened.  I don't think I ever will.  But I do know that something changed for me that day, when I...died..." The absurdity of the statement might have been funny at any other time.  "I mean, when you and I were there, at the...  I mean, I was there, but I felt detached.  Like it wasn't really me.  Like you were killing someone else...and I was just there...  But...I should have known.  What I'd been doing to you.  I never saw what you really were.  Something about you scared me."  She leaned her head against her palm.  Shinji's dumbfounded silence continued, giving her plenty of room to keep on going.  "It was all my fault.  At least, a lot of it.  I never let up on you.  I've never said this before, but I understand what was wrong with me.  I didn't want it that way, but I couldn't stop and didn't know how, and I kept being stupid and mean.  I can see why you'd hate me.  Why you'd want to kill me.  I just want you to know that I'm sorry.  Okay?  I...I said it.  I'm sorry.  And I don't hate you."
     Had he another teacup to drop, Shinji would have done so.  Fortunately, his hands were empty.  He was still stunned.  Asuka, however, seemed oddly immobile.  Like there was something she expected him to say.  No, she knew he was going to say it.  Whatever that time had done to her, she saw something in him, too.  Somehow she counted on him to wake up.
     It took a while, but finally Shinji decided to alert his legs to the fact that they were going to sit down with him and try to approach the situation logically.  His prior bravery and plans lost, he couldn't help repeating the words 'she doesn't hate me' in his mind over and over again.  But his overwhelming confusion continued to keep him from doing, or saying anything in response.
     After a few minutes of silence, he noticed something very strange.  The table under her chin had a strange sheen, as though the light were catching somethi...
     The realization hit him like so many others had this week, like a sledgehammer to the belly.  He suddenly felt nothing but compassion.  The moment she touched him...that wasn't real, but the emotion was briefly the same.  He disgusted himself.  He was letting her sit there, emptying herself onto the table...
     He leaned forward.  He had learned that he could live with pain if he had to.  But that didn't mean he could sit and watch others struggle through it.  And to tell the truth, it pained him to see her like this.
     "Asuka, I don't know what..."
     His voice suddenly died in his throat as what she had just said kicked into motion something profound.  In an instant, a broken recollection of the events surrounding Impact seemed to fall into place in his mind in such a way that he finally saw exactly what it was that had touched her.  The emotions and the snippets of incoherent thought melded together, giving form to a horror the likes of which he could've hardly imagined mere minutes ago.  His unforgivable abuse of her empty shell, his selfish refusal to board Unit-01, even in the face of Misato's pleas and the rest of the doomed NERV personnel...his mind plummeting into madness, and then on the beach, the hatred that had filled his breast, the ferocity that had forced itself upon him, and finally a release, a softening...and the images of the unyielding and stern Asuka at once defenseless and wounded.  What had he been for the space of those hours?
     I'm a monster.
     Whatever self-esteem the young Ikari had left was pulverized under the weight of the memory of his despicable actions.  His heart became heavy, felt sickly and soiled, and its very infernal beating seemed to be a blight on humanity.
     He'd tried to kill Asuka.  And she didn't even hate him for it.
     "I...I don't know what to say...I..."
     He swallowed the hard lump building up in his throat.
     What could he possibly say?  How do you apologize to someone you had attempted to murder, even if it had been, as he suspected, all in his mind?  That she herself had been subjected to it made it all the worse.  And she...didn't hate him.
     All his life, he'd been seeking forgiveness.  Forgiveness for everything about him that bothered anyone.  Was this forgiveness?  To some extent, it was.  As she had said, she didn't hate him, even though she could remember what he'd tried.  This was a supreme level of pardon.  The yoke of guilt he felt hung even lower and heavier around his neck.
     Without waiting for him to ask, without waiting for him to remember what he'd done to her, she had forgiven him.  The one time it really, really, mattered, she'd deprived him of the only release he knew to find for his soul.  But, he'd changed.  They both had.
     He'd been keeping counsel with himself and himself alone for ten years, and it was time that it stopped.  To leave her now, in the state she was already in, would be...horrible.  But if he stayed, he would likely be reminded every day of everything he'd done.
     Yet...there was something else.  Something else he'd admitted to himself many times before, even though he'd never found the courage to confront it outside of his own mind.  He knew that he needed her to survive, needed her presence to continue on.  What had he left?
     "Asuka...  Please...I need you."
     It was her turn to stare dumbly.  There was something in the way his voice cracked, suddenly losing even the quiet resolution she'd heard something of in the last few days.
     They were silent, again.  The situation finally felt less awkward.  At least the air was clearer than it had been.  Asuka hadn't moved, though.  He sensed something else needed to be done, something simple yet...  His previous words gave him an obligation, something akin to newfound strength.
     "I'm sorry..," he finally whispered, hoping at the same time that she would understand and that it would help redeem him.
     Gradually, she rose on very shaky knees.  For an instant, Shinji was struck by the frailty of the scene, like a newborn gazelle trying not to fall on its face in its first few hours of life.  She stood, but her trembling legs offered her little purchase on the linoleum, and he caught her in what amounted, awkwardly, to an embrace.  After a few moments of her burying her face in his shoulder, he let her brace herself against him and walked her back to her room.
     In a very real sense, he realized, she was doing for him precisely what he was doing for her.  He needed something to fill the empty spaces around him just as she did.  And as he looked back at her form on the disheveled bed, he found himself weeping and pawing at the wet spot on his chest, staggering back to his own room, his own bed, and collapsing in a broken heap of his own.  But sometimes, bones need to be broken to be set a second time, to heal properly.
     The SDAT lay ignored on the floor.
     Some part of him gently noted that there was a mess to be cleaned up, but it could wait.

* * *

     "They are?  Both of them?  Excellent.  We'll get in touch with them as soon as things settle down a little more here."  Shigeru set down the handset and sighed.  Intelligence seemed to be more or less intact, with almost all personnel accounted for.  They were still useful, for whatever that was worth.  He turned to the new NERV supreme commander.
     "Sir, I've just received word that pilots Sohryu and Ikari are both still present in the Katsuragi residence."
     "Very well. Notify them tomorrow morning of the recall.  Also, issue the final recall order to the pilot pool.  Get whoever else was here back in the city."  Fuyutsuki felt oddly rejuvenated by the challenge he was facing, trying to piece back together the shattered NERV infrastructure.  Physically, he was a wreck and needed sleep.  Mentally, however, he was just getting his second wind.  "What's the status of the available Evangelions?"
     Shigeru turned back towards his console, covered with printouts from the week of heavy activity in the command centre.  "Units 01 and 02 are both nominal, in cryostasis in the 5th and 7th Cages.  Science division has yet to compile a full report, but they're reporting that the two Evas don't seem significantly different, other than Unit-02's modification.  They don't think it'll affect the Eva in any way, not yet.  How did they get all the way back in here, anyway?"
     Fuyutsuki frowned, but ignored the question.  "Insist that they accelerate the examination of both Evas.  We need to know everything we can about those two.  They can't possibly have survived the ordeal unchanged."
     Shigeru winced at the prospect of trying to coax faster work from NERV's new chief scientist.  "Dr. Masaharu's next report is due in four hours.  Should we wait until then?"
     The older man paused.  "I suppose.  In the end, the loss of four hours wouldn't hurt."  Ah, Gendou.  If only I had your ability to intimidate.  Perhaps I'm just soft.  He gently fingered the memory chip in his pocket.  He would make a point of checking that again in the near future.  "The other Evas under production, what's their status?"
     The long-haired man flipped through some more papers.  "Unit-14 is in the final growth stages and should be ready within the week.  15 and 16 are similarly progressing, though there's some doubt as to the functionality of 15's power system.  That may be a major problem, depending on how it develops.  It should get here from England the first week of next month.  16 is almost ready to begin the final stage of armor plating, and should be en route from Russia by the third."  He took a deep breath.  This was something he almost wished he didn't know.  Three more Evangelions?  Why?  Aren't 01 and 02 enough to handle whatever might come?  And who gave the construction order?  The last question's answer was so obvious he had to force himself not to laugh.  Commander Ikari, of course.  But he's not here anymore, so I guess we can't ask him any questions.
     Shigeru set the papers down and called up to Fuyutsuki again.  "Sir?  If you don't mind my asking...what happened to the ones who went missing?  Do you have any idea?  It feels wrong here...no Hyuuga, no Ibuki, no Katsuragi...who'll take their places?"  He was genuinely worried about this, especially the more he thought about it.  Where exactly had they gone?  If bad became worse, as it tended to do around here, what would they do without Katsuragi calmly directing combat?  As capable as Fuyutsuki was, he didn't seem like the type to replace the Commander...  And the enigmatic First Child...he tried not to think about her.  The images he had of her disturbed him on so many levels...
     His superior became suddenly stone-faced.  "I understand your concern.  I think Dr. Masaharu would be the one to ask, though.  I myself don't want an answer.  It's enough trouble worrying about the people and tools we have at our disposal now."
     That was enough for Shigeru.  He nodded, finding himself agreeing with the man's words.  He turned back to the consoles and continued the painful job of teaching a new set of bridge operators the ins and outs of the command centre.  He hoped they wouldn't have to work under the kind of pressure he did.
     "Our last concern, given the near state of readiness of Unit-14, is the selection of a pilot."
     Shigeru looked up at his Commander.  "Sir, there is no Marduk institute.  I did a complete MAGI search.  It doesn't exist.  Commander Ikari made most of the decisions, according to the records."
     Fuyutsuki looked grim.  "I know.  So will I."

* * *

     The phone rang.
     Not an unusual incident.  The telephone had been conceived with a warning tone to alert anyone to the presence of a possible interlocutor on the other end of the line.
     But, like everything else since about a week and a half ago, it was like it was brand new again.  A novelty.  Something so completely extraordinary and out of place that it stunned the two people who were supposed to pick up any one of the apartment's many receivers.
     Shinji and Asuka stared at each other, shaken out of an early morning conversation by the strident and insistent tone of the machine.  After the second ring, they both mumbled something about taking the call, and moved for it.
     Since the scene in the kitchen two days ago, the atmosphere had changed utterly.  Gone were the uncertain moments of avoidance, when neither could look the other in the face.  It was still uncomfortable, sometimes, but they circumvented this by the mutual convention of discussing trivialities.  It was simpler that way, and it was preferable to the alternative, namely having a serious conversation about the ways in which they had both changed.  Neither Asuka nor Shinji was entirely sure about exactly what had changed in themselves, so a discussion would have been futile in that they wouldn't have known what they were talking about.
     In any case, they could look at each other now.  There was no hatred or fear, no wanting or regret.  All had been forgiven.  A fresh start.  A new beginning.  A new series of days, every one starting with the rays of the sun pouring comprehension into the dwelling.  Walls were coming down.  What they concealed or protected couldn't be seen or heard, but the work itself was obvious.
     They were content, a state of peace and tranquillity that makes one forget misfortunes of the past, if only temporarily.
     The phone's third ring succeeded in breaking through the numbness of the shock it had instilled.
     Shinji picked up the handset.
     "Hello?"
     "Am I speaking to a Mr. Ikari, Shinji?"
     "Yes.  Who is this?"
     "I'm from NERV.  I have been instructed to inform Ms. Sohryu, Asuka Langley and yourself that your Evangelions have been recovered and re-equipped.  The first of the reactivation tests will occur next week, at the usual time.  Thank you for your time."  There was a pause, then a click, as they hung up.
     Shinji stared at the earpiece.
     "Who is it?" Asuka wondered aloud.
     "NERV.  They have the Evas, and..."
     "They want us to pilot them again.  There are more Angels?"
     Shinji shrugged.  "I'm sorry, I don't know.  They didn't say."
     There was a soft noise as Asuka leaned herself back against the wall next to the telephone.  She looked down at her cup of tea, in which the infusion was still swirling around turbulently.  "You know, I never got a straight answer out of you as to why you do it."
     "Do what?"
     "Pilot."
     He considered this.  To tell the truth, despite the effort he'd put into answering this question, he hadn't wrung a clear motive out of himself.  He'd been asked by his father, ordered, really, but that certainly wasn't the reason in itself.  Then he thought he did it for the praise and for the boost it gave his self-esteem.  That wasn't it either, really.  Other possibilities crossed his mind, too, but they were likewise rejected.
     To tell the truth, he didn't really know, and he told her.
     This time, there was no rebuke, no puzzled look or insult.  Instead, the corner of her mouth was pulled upwards, and she raised her head.
     "I don't think I really ever knew either."  Then, with a fluid motion, she pushed off the wall.
     Shinji was left confused and not a little dazed by this sudden shift in Asuka's view of her role as a pilot.  Must be another change wrought by whatever that was, he thought to himself.

* * *

     At roughly the same time the phone rang in the apartment, another phone rang elsewhere, far away from the glittering structures of Tokyo-3.  This time, it was answered almost immediately.
     "Hi, Suzuhara residence."
     Touji and his sister had been alone for most of the week now.  His father, always as obsessed by his work at NERV, had been one of the first recalled to help put the Evas back together.  Touji had never seen much of his father, given that he was always at work, doing late hours and unnecessary checks, and so, he'd taken on that role, or so he hoped, for his sister.
     Mari poked her head around the corner.  "Is it Dad?"
     Touji held up a finger to keep her quiet.
     "Is this Mr. Suzuhara, Touji?"
     "Yes."
     "I'm from NERV.  I have been instructed to inform you that you have been reinstated as an Eva pilot, and will be resuming your duties within the week, pending the completion of the Evangelion's construction.  The official transfer of your personal belongings to your preassigned residence in Tokyo-3 will take place starting tomorrow.  Please have a transportation manifest prepared for the shipping agent."
     Touji felt like he'd just been hit over the head with a large blunt object.
     "What?  They want me to do what?"
     There was a momentary pause.
     "I have been instructed to inform you that..."
     "I heard you the first time...why?"
     "Any inquiries can be directed to the NERV Public Relations Office at 0422-53-5568.  Thank you for your time."
     The click only emphasized the impersonal way in which he had been thrown into an equally impersonal bureaucracy that obviously didn't care whether or not Mari would have anyone looking after her, nor that he had just been blessed with the miraculous regrowth of two limbs.  He crashed into a chair, supporting his head on his left arm, and wondered how long it would be until it was lost again.
     He could only speculate how long they'd been watching him.
     "What is it, Touji?"
     He looked up, and gave Mari a bland look.  "I have to pilot the big robot again, Mari."
     "You have to go away?"  The enthusiastic little girl seemed suddenly crestfallen.
     "I guess.  Don't really have a choice, do I?"
     Damn bastards never gave him a choice.  Not the first time, and not now.  He ground his right hand into a fist, as if he was crushing the very life out of whatever idiot had ordered his return.  Damn.
     Gingerly, he picked up the phone, and prepared himself for a long series of automated voice messages.  After all, he had to keep Mari with him.  Alone, she could get hurt again, and that was the last thing he wanted.  Once again, he'd have to ask for a condition.

* * *

     The activation tests had gone flawlessly, under the direction of Dr. Masaharu, currently the temporary chief scientist at NERV, after all attempts had failed to locate Dr. Akagi.  Dr. Masaharu probably wouldn't last long, she was retiring for good in a month or two anyway, after which another replacement would have to be found.  One interesting discovery made by the science division had been the addition of an S2 organ to the miraculously regenerated Unit-02.  The origins of this modification were probably not worth worrying about.  And, much like the intact status of the Eva, it was chalked up to the rather unique situation that succeeded the Unit's original destruction.  Effectively, it had all been filed under "Better Not to Ask" in the minds of most NERV personnel.
     Another strange surprise was the extremely good synchronization results both pilots had managed to achieve.  Both Shinji and Asuka had managed to break 150% and maintain it, which pleased the command staff to no end.
     When Shinji entered the facility's change rooms after the test, his hair still matted and sticky from LCL, he discovered a black-clad form holding its head in its hands sitting on the bench that ran down the centre of the room.  It looked up and smiled in what was, to Shinji, an altogether too cheerful manner.
     "Hey, Shinji."
     "T...Touji?"  It was like a dream.  Not only had he never expected to see Touji again, but he also noticed the missing appendages had returned.  "Are you real?  And how?"  He started trailing off just as Touji nodded.  "Yeah.  I've become a pilot again."  He gave Shinji a wry smile.  "Unit-14."
     Visions of the horror he'd been forced to assist danced through Shinji's head.  How he'd been helplessly forced to watch as his father had unleashed the world's most powerful weapon on his friend, how the black Eva had been systematically torn apart before his eyes.
     An uncomfortable silence ensued.  Shinji found himself unable to say anything, afraid that what had happened might have destroyed the friendship.  Conversely, not saying anything could cement that impression.
     The truth.
     "Touji...I want you to know...I wasn't in control...I would never do...something like that..."
     Touji only nodded.  "I know.  You're not that type.  But it's great seeing you again.  I'll see you later, I have to go."
     The smile hadn't faded.
     There was, for Shinji, another uncomfortable pause.  Touji levered himself off the bench, and stood, facing Shinji.  "My sister's waiting for me."
     Touji edged around past him, heading for the door.
     "I live just up the street from where you are.  If you want, you can come over."
     "S...Sure.  Good-bye."
     "See ya."
     He left.  Shinji's mind felt locked, like he should be thinking, but couldn't for some reason.  Touji was back.  With his arm and leg intact.  And piloting again, too.  After a long time, it occurred to him that Touji didn't look too happy to be piloting Eva, like he didn't want to.  Just like himself.  He'd have to talk to him, later.
     There was an impatient knock on the door.
     "Hurry up, Shinji!  I'm getting hungry!"
     He realized he was starving too.  How long had he been sitting there, how long had Asuka waited for him?  In any case, it didn't look like she'd lost too much of her edge.
     "I'll...I'll be right out!" he yelled, then quickly got changed.
     "You're worse than me," she teased, as he emerged from the room.
     "I met Touji...he's...back."  His expression became somewhat sickly.  "And he's piloting again."
     Shock registered on Asuka's face.  "But I thought...after the Angel..." She made a slicing motion on her upper arm, absently.
     Shinji shook his head.

* * *

     "There it is.  Unit-14."
     Shigeru gasped, and his jaw hit the floor.  "That's...Unit 14."
     Fuyutsuki nodded slowly, and the elevator continued upwards on its course.  "It's an exact genetic copy of Unit-03, just as Units-15 and 16.  It's pilot..."
     "That Suzuhara boy?"
     "Yes.  He's had some very good test results before, and they don't appear to have changed much.  It's quite surprising, given the fact that he had very little or even no rapport with the soul of either Eva.  He'll make a good addition to the roster."
     "Wasn't he hurt pretty badly last time?  I mean, wouldn't he be kind of averse to doing this all over again?  How did you get him to accept?"
     Fuyutsuki stared ahead.  "He says he'll do it...on condition that we place his sister in the safest possible place whenever an Angel comes.  Also, he wants someone to be watching after her.  I've got a security team working on it."
     He paused, then shook his head sadly.  "It's a crying shame we have to make them do this, but I guess it's all for the good of the future."
     Shigeru frowned.  "What about the dummy plugs, sir?  Couldn't we use them instead?"
     "No.  Dr. Akagi destroyed them all.  We could rebuild them, but a lot of the data has been corrupted by Third Impact, and we don't have any of the original building materials any more anyway.  Besides, I personally feel that a real, live pilot will always be better."
     The elevator pinged and the doors slid open.
     Shigeru was still confused.  "Say...how do we know there will be more Angels?  Wasn't that the end of it all?"
     Fuyutsuki absently stroked the plastic datacard in his breast pocket.  "Oh, I know there will be more.  'We've just come half-way.'"  The odd smile on his face worried the other man.
     By this time, Fuyutsuki had already reached the control room's door.
     "We can begin the test now."
     Shigeru recovered, and forgot any other questions for the time being.  He had a job to do.  That would keep him distracted long enough, to avoid asking any more questions he knew wouldn't be answered properly.  He also realized he wouldn't have dared to ask such questions to Ikari...they wouldn't have been answered at all.  Fuyutsuki definitely had a different style, but he was still being quiet about a lot of things.
     "Oh, and I'll have three people selected as a permanent bridge crew by the end of the week."
     That, at least, was good.  He wouldn't have to put up with people who didn't know what they were doing.
     With that thought on his mind, he stepped into the room where Dr. Masaharu was preparing to put Unit-02 and its pilot through the last of the reactivation trials.

* * *

     "This is the Yamashiro!  We have detected an enormous mass moving at high speed towards the Tokai region!  Requesting permission to attack!"
     The ship bobbed on the waves.  Several sailors, leaning over the rails, could now see the enormous black shadow gliding past to port, contrasting heavily with the reflected light of the rising sun.
     "Permission denied.  Break off immediately."
     "Sir?"
     "NERV has this one, again."

     The first of the new Angels.  We have a mission now.  A goal.  Fuyutsuki sat down in the command chair, and found it to be slightly odd.  His usual perspective over the bridge and command centre had been disrupted, but he also found that he could see all of the stations at a much better angle.  "Call in the pilots.  Go to first stage alert, and prepare the Evas for launch."

     Shinji put the phone back down onto its cradle.  "There's another Angel, Asuka.  We have to go..."
     She yawned.  "I know.  I heard the announcement.  Why do they even bother calling us?"
     Just as the world had become a livable place, where life had become a boon rather than a burden, another monstrosity was showing its face.
     There were no smiles as they left, but also, no fear, no worrying.

     "C'mon, Mari."
     "I'm not going to a shelter?"
     Touji smiled at her.  "No, that's not safe enough for my little sis.  I'm taking you straight to headquarters."
     The little girl could see right through her brother's show of bravado, but knew enough to afford him the dignity of keeping it up in front of his charge, and took his hand.  He squeezed it, and the moisture in his palm confirmed it for her.  She squeezed back.

     Asuka looked around the empty dressing room.  It was strange.  She'd become so accustomed to sharing it with Rei, even though she never quite understood her and had been frankly scared by the way she was, that the room's emptiness bothered her.  Also, Rei's conspicuous absence meant one of two things, neither of which she was quite willing to accept as truth yet.  Either she was late, which was ludicrous in its own right, or dead, which didn't seem possible.  Hadn't she survived a self-destructing Eva already?
     Rei was just freaky.  Asuka suppressed a shudder, and put on her red plug suit.
     She decided she didn't want to think about Rei at all.

     Shigeru tugged at the hems of his jacket, straightening it.  He was still getting used to the new uniform, and wondered if he'd be able to pull off the same sort of situational control Katsuragi had always managed to dredge up.
     He sighed, and gave his briefing.  "Since Major Katsuragi is no longer with us, I'll be coordinating your defence from now on.  The Angel was detected making an approach from the south.  Since then, it has slowed down and is approaching the harbour area.  When it gets here, Units-01 and 02 will launch and engage the Angel at close range, in the harbour."
     "What about Touji?"
     Touji looked resigned to his fate, but the fact he hadn't been mentioned in the briefing seemed to cheer him up a little.
     Shigeru nodded.  "We'll be holding him back as a reserve.  His synchronization isn't that good yet, and he still has to go through some training.  We'll keep him as a surprise."
     Touji breathed out a barely audible sigh of relief.
     "Any questions?"
     Shinji suddenly noticed that Asuka hadn't said anything, and had been contemplating a point fixed in the air before her face.  She appeared to be concentrating her entire self on something.  Just as suddenly, the effort evaporated, and she proclaimed "Nope!  Let's go!" in a jovial voice.  Shinji wondered what she could have been thinking about.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact she had previously lost the ability to pilot.

     The elevator ride to the Cage was a long one, and they had frequently had conversations there before, on the way to tests or to fight Angels.  This time, it was mostly silent.  Asuka stood in her usual place, on the left side, as it was the nearest approach to her Eva.  Touji leaned against the wall, his arms folded over his chest, almost as if he was asleep.
     Shinji drew up his courage and took a step towards Asuka.
     "Asuka?  I've been meaning to ask something...about you."
     This was strange.  Shinji?  Asking questions about her?  All week, she'd been hoping that the atmosphere they'd constructed wouldn't be broken by what she was afraid he'd ask.  Eventually, she'd have to give him an answer, but she was sure it wouldn't be a straight one.  She collected herself, and, maintaining her false enthusiasm, gave him a casual, "Shoot."  Hopefully, he wouldn't ask her...that.
     Shinji quavered slightly.  "Um...about your Eva...I remember, by the end, you couldn't...I mean...how...?"  He trailed off.  Shinji was regretting the question even before he'd finished asking it.
     Asuka, internally, breathed a sigh of relief.  This, she could cope with.
     "I'm sorry."  He sounded like his old meek self.
     "I don't really want to talk about it right now."
     "I'm sorry," he insisted, "...just...forget it."
     The elevator came to a stop, and the doors opened.
     "Good luck, Shinji."
     "You too."
     On that, they separated.  Shinji headed out onto the umbilical bridge that crossed in front of Unit-01's chest.  Sliding into the chair in the exposed entry plug, he glanced over at Unit-02 just on time to catch Asuka looking at him before she was obscured by the hatch closing.
     "External sensors have the Angel now.  It's in the middle of the harbour.  Pattern Blue confirmed."
     "Visibility is bad, recommend the pilots use multiple spectrum enhanced viewing.  Foggy conditions."
     "Right.  Asuka, Shinji: prepare for launch."

     Both pilots experienced the bone-crushing g-forces of the electromagnetically assisted launch system, and suddenly found themselves on the surface, among the buildings of the city.
     "No visual contact.  I have the AT Field on sensors."  Asuka reached over to one of the numerous armament buildings, which produced a palette rifle.  Unit-01 swung up the barrel of its gun, and the lock indicators turned into a steady white circle.  And, as he pulled down on the trigger, Shinji realized he felt no fear.
     The shells tore out into the mist, and the heat of their flight ripped open the fog, making it all too easy to see the Angel.  It was a thin and lanky humanoid shape, it's handless arms swinging gently by its sides with every step.  A long crest adorned its hard, armoured face, and a red core glowed in its chest.  The shells detonated against its body, and, even as Asuka poured her fire into it, it didn't even slow down.
     "No effect, as expected," she muttered.
     By now, the mist had disappeared in a thin corridor between them and the monster.  Suddenly, its eyes glowed, and Asuka was forced to leap out of the way to avoid being hit by the immensly powerful beam of pure energy that lanced into the water.  An enormous cloud of hissing steam burst into the air, superheated by the Angel's attack.
     "Charge!" she shouted.  A muddy wake was left by the two Evas as they ran, churning up dirt and water into a black stew.  Suddenly, the Angel extruded a pair of energy lances from its handless wrists, which shot out across the intervening space between the Angel and Unit-02.
     "Asuka!"  On reflex, Asuka dodged.  But as she did so, a black shadow leapt into the path of the oncoming spears, eclipsing the light.  They burrowed through Unit-01's torso, and as they did so, two lances of burning pain pulsed through Shinji's chest.
     He screamed.  "Go, Asuka!  Do it!"

     From his vantage point in Central Dogma, it didn't look too good.  Aoba decided he should commit Unit-14, now, before the Angel did anything more serious to Unit-01.

     Inside the entry plug, Touji felt mildly claustrophobic, even though he could see out in front of the Eva.  The feeling of fluid moving around in his lungs didn't help either, and he tried hard not to think about it.  "Touji, we're launching you now."
     A hard ball knotted up in his chest.  Fear?  Maybe.  If Shinji and Asuka couldn't handle it, then who?  After all, they were much better and more experienced than him.  To attack meant an almost certain death.
     But at the same time, he ought to do something to help them.  Staying behind and letting them deal with it would be the coward's way, and he decided he was definitely not a coward.
     The Eva shot upwards through the shaft.

     Before Asuka could react, the Angel pulled Unit-01's inert form towards it, smashing some of the chest armour with its particle weapon.  The Angel then pulled its left arm free from the purple Eva's torso, retracting the spear.  Blood shot out of the massive hole, spraying wildly into the air and colouring the mist.  Shinji screamed again, and reached for the ejection handle.
     The armour plate on Unit-01's back popped off, driven by the explosive charges laid around its base, and there was a burst of smoke and flame as the plug was driven skyward.
     The Angel brought its arm swinging down, and it intercepted the plug before it had even cleared the hole in the Eva's spine.  The top end of the plug was torn asunder, and the remainder was cracked down its entire length.  The Eva stalled, and fell over backwards into the shallow water.
     The Angel pulled out the second lance.
     Asuka let out a feral scream of such incredible intensity it could have shattered an Angel's AT Field without the help of her Eva.
     The red colossus flung itself recklessly upwards, arched its spine, and descended like some horrendous beast of the sky, swooping on hapless prey.  It collided with its target at a terrifying speed, and the force of the impact split the air around the combatants as they were thrown to the earth and grappled in mortal combat.  Their struggle threw up gigantic waves in the harbour, capsizing ships and ruining lighter constructions around the edges, but neither paid heed; one fighting for its life, the other for vengeance.
     Unit-14 emerged from the fog, running clumsily.  "Asuka!  What's going on?"
     Touji received no response other than another inarticulate voicing of rage.  A red fist, rendered more so by the life-giving fluid that covered it, flashed up, then smashed down again, crushing the Angel's faceplate a second time.
     Touji hesitated, but Shigeru reminded him of his mission.  "Touji!  The core!  Kill it!"
     "You bastard!"  Asuka had finally found words, screamed them and drove her Eva's fists into the Angel's head repeatedly.  The head slowly lost its shape under the blows, the hideous rage of Unit-02's pilot crushing its structure and sending blood in gruesome arcs and streaks across the thick fog.
     Unit-14 produced its prog knife, which Touji drove down through the Angel's core with all the weight of the titan beneath him.
     "You bastard!  You killed Shinji!"  Tears and sweat mingled together in the LCL of the plug, giving it a salty tang.  The Eva rocked again as Asuka forced it to continue beating what was left of the Angel.
     Touji paused, leaving the knife in the still glowing core.  Shinji?  Dead?  Impossible!
 The Angel's core finally died and went dark, and the mist rolled in again.  Asuka's fury died with it, and she suddenly felt extremely weak.  She'd seen the Angel swatting Shinji's ejecting entry plug, deforming and cracking its surface, before the mass of the Eva toppled down into the water.  Even if he'd survived the initial impact of the Angel's arm, the stress of his Eva being driven down on top of him must surely have been enough to finish him.  She curled up inside Unit-02, letting grief overcome her.
     She knew for certain now what she could not have fathomed before, but that certainty had cost her dearly.
     Touji heaved Unit-14's black bulk upright, taking a second to balance it, and he looked at Asuka's image in the small orange square.  We were right all along.  Saddened, he turned the Eva back towards the city, towards NERV.  I should have come earlier...I could have helped.
     Then, he looked at Unit-01's form, tangled up in itself in a messy heap among the waves.  Behind it, floating on the red tide of blood and sea-water, were the remains of an entry plug.  The upper half of the cylinder, minus what had been taken off by the Angel's attack, appeared to have broken off when it hit the water, separating it from the other half now crushed beneath the Eva.  The hatch was missing, but the command chair appeared intact.
     Touji blinked.  Could it be?
     The big black Eva gently knelt, and Touji pushed the magnification up to its maximum, zooming in on the debris.  And there, still in the command chair, was Shinji's white and blue suited body.  He wasn't even bleeding, except from his nose, and the convulsive gasps of breath he seemed to be taking confirmed that he was still alive.
     "Asuka!  He's still here!"

* * *

     White.  Blurry white.  Blurry white with blurry black lines.  Black lines arranged into a grid.  Black lines whose form is becoming more distinct, more focused.  A white ceiling with panels, separated by black supports.
     Sounds.  A beeping.  It's steady, coming from his left.  A voice, deformed by an electronic announcement system.
     A strong, mildly unpleasant smell.  Disinfectant.  Something else, not quite identifiable.  A mild taste of blood, still lingering slightly in his mouth.  Blood.  That was the smell.  It was clogging his nostrils.  A nosebleed had occurred.
     Memory.  The ejection, the disappearance of the viewscreen and the synchronization cutting out, then the jolt...an enormous, mind-pounding shock.  His head still hurts.  Darkness.
     Touch.  Bumpy cloth.  A firm mattress.  The soft pillow.  Warmth.  Where?  The numbness disappears slowly.  His hand.  Something warm and soft was touching Shinji's right hand.  It departed.
     Suddenly, something else interrupted the regular pattern of ceiling panels.  A face?  Yes, and surrounded by a cloud of flowing red.  Asuka's obviously angered visage opened its mouth and let forth an almost visible stream of derisive verbal vinegar.
     "Shinji!  You idiot!  What the hell were you thinking?  You damn near got yourself killed out there!  Do you have any idea how much you scared us?  What kind of stupid idea made you try that?  Do you think the Angel wouldn't notice the huge white thing trying to escape out the back of the Eva's neck?  They're not as stupid as you are, baka!  And what did you think you were trying to do by jumping in like that?  Trying to protect me?  I was already clear, in case you weren't watching!  I already got out of the way!  Geez!  Why the hell did you do all of that, anyways?  Dummkopf!"
    There was a short period of silence.
     Shinji smiled slightly.  "Yeah...I'm sorry.  It was stupid."
     Asuka looked away for a second.  "They say you had a major concussion, as well as quite a few partial fractures.  It wasn't just stupid, it was almost suicide."  The grating quality of her voice, found after so long, vanished as suddenly as it had presented itself, leaving her without a firm leg to stand on in mid-diatribe.  The rigidity became brittle, and then was replaced by a slight quavering.
     There was another pause.  Asuka realized that she had been in tears for the past several hours and needed to get this meeting over with as soon as possible.  Before she left, she needed to ask him the question.  She'd already found out what she would answer if asked; it had nearly taken his death for her to get there.  But, if she didn't find out now, she might never know.
     "Shinji..."  The pale boy's smile weakened slightly as the gravity of the situation settled onto his chest.  Something was happening, we was certain, and he was powerless to stop it.  He wasn't even sure that he wanted it to.  That didn't mean he had to be any less afraid of facing it.  All thought stopped when Asuka's mouth started moving again so as to form words.
     "Shinji, do you...do you love me?"
     There was a long pause of frozen time, during which Shinji was trying to determine what she intended by this.  Did this mean, that after all the harm and suffering she'd inflicted on him -- although he admitted he was the more guilty party in that respect -- she actually felt something for him after all?  Or was she just playing some kind of game with his mind and feelings?
     He'd always been unsure of what to think about her...she always managed to confuse him.  Either way, he couldn't let himself dodge this without a real answer.  And in the end, wasn't this something he wanted to know as well?  Ever since she had decided -- consciously or otherwise -- to fall down beside him that night before the 7th, he'd felt taunted by something so obviously out of his reach, yet so close to him...
     His answer burst free of a fog of uncertainty though he contained it within his mind for now.  He rolled slightly to the right, and tried to force himself into a sitting position.  This failed when he realized that at least one of his multiple fractures was in his ribcage.
     Asuka watched in abject terror as Shinji growled in momentary agony, slowly leaning back into the bed.  His attempted motion was enough to convince her that he was going to be honest, at least.  She knelt beside the bed, and took his arm as it reached up to her face, somewhat timidly.  Very quietly, he whispered, "I...yes."
     Don't you ever scare me like that again. 1